It’s a word that gets thrown around in the guitar world quite often, yet there is a lot of misunderstanding around the word.
Not knowing exactly what gain is can lead to trouble when it comes to dialing in amp tones.
In this article we’re going to explain what gain is on a guitar amp, how it compares to distortion and volume, as well as compare high-gain vs. low-gain amplifiers.
The Short Answer
Gain controls the input level of your guitar, specifically in the preamp section of your amplifier. Gain is how much your guitar signal gains from amplification. The higher the gain, the greater the amplitude of your guitar signal is increased.
Gain can be measured in ratios. One that you are likely familiar with is “Unity Gain”, which is a 1:1 ratio where the input level matches the output level.
The Long Answer
Is Gain the Same as Distortion?
Gain is most frequently confused, and talked about interchangeably, with distortion. However, they aren’t the same.
Gain is the cause of distortion.
It turns out you can add gain without creating distortion. This is the most important aspect in understanding the fact that gain and distortion are not the same thing.
This is really confusing, because Gain is often labeled as Drive or Distortion on amps. So why are they labeled the same, if they aren’t the same?
Increasing the gain in your amplifier increases the amplitude of your guitar signal. Your guitar tone stays clean and gets louder as the amplitude increases… until you reach the Clean Headroom Limit.
Once the Clean Headroom Limit is reached, adding gain creates distortion instead of volume. This is the result of the top and bottom parts of your guitar signal getting cut off and compressed by the amp.
With this in mind, you can create distortion from your amp by increasing the gain past the clean headroom limit. You will hear this as you turn the gain control up. Eventually you will hear less of an increase in volume, a loss of clean tone, and more distortion.
If you love distortion I recommend you take a look at the article I wrote on the best distortion pedals on the market, there is an option for everyone.
What is the Difference Between Gain and Volume on a Guitar Amp?
Much like distortion, Gain causes Volume, but they are not the same thing.
Similar to what I explained in the previous section of this article, increasing the Gain on your amp will increase the volume until you hit the Clean Headroom Limit.
This is because Gain occurs in the preamp section of your amplifier. The preamp is where gain and EQ are determined in your amp. This differs from the poweramp section, where Volume is truly determined and created.
If you want to increase your volume, but not change the tonal characteristic of your amp, it is best to do this using the Master Volume control on your amp. This controls the volume found in the poweramp section.
To learn more about how amplifiers work, including more on preamplifier and power amplifier sections, read this article.
High-Gain vs. Low Gain Amplifiers
What about the terms “High-Gain” and “Low Gain” amps? What do these mean?
High-Gain amps create distorted, heavy tones at lower volumes. Low Gain amps aim for clean, sometimes higher headroom amps.
These terms often add to the confusion when it comes to understanding what Gain is in relation to Distortion and Volume.
Let’s clarify them.
High-Gain amplifiers are designed with preamplifiers that exceed the clean headroom limit quickly. This means that they create heavily distorted sounds at lower volumes, and adjusting the gain control just controls distortion, as opposed to changing the volume.
These amps often have multiple channels – one clean and one dirty. This makes them a great option for heavy metal players that want versatility.
High-Gain amps can come in many shapes and sizes, including high-wattage (louder) amps and low-watt (quieter) amps.
They almost always have a Master Volume control so that you can adjust the volume without changing the gain structure.
Recommended High-Gain Amps
Low-Gain amplifiers work in the opposite way. These amps are designed to have preamps where the clean headroom limit is always higher (or at least at the extreme settings) of Gain. You can find examples of these on my post i wrote about the best cheap guitar amps.
This means that you can turn the gain up really high on these amps and your sound will result in an increase in volume, as opposed to a significant increase in distortion.
These amps are often higher wattage and sometimes don’t have a Master Volume control.
Some amps that you might associate as “high gain” sounds are actually low gain amps that are turned up to extreme settings. Marshall is a great example of this, as is Fender, because both amps can have great clean tones at loud volumes.
They also need to cranked seriously loud to get their iconic distorted tones.
Recommended Low-Gain Amps
How Do You Use Guitar Amp Gain?
Now that we understand what Gain is (and isn’t), we can better understand how to use Gain on our amplifier.
Let’s take a look at some possible amp tones you might want to have, and how you can achieve them with different Gain settings.
Clean Tones that are Loud
This kind of sound is what amp builders were going after in the early sixties, which resulted in companies like Fender creating the Bassman and the Twin Reverb. These amps had enough headroom that you could play loud enough to easily overpower drums, while staying nice and clean.
To achieve a high-headroom, loud, clean tone, you’ll want to dial in a low Gain setting. I recommend listening for the loudest point where your amp remains clean even when you play hard.
This can be achieved by rolling the Gain down. If your amp has a separate Master Volume control, you will want to turn this control up.
Choosing the right low-gain, high-wattage amplifier will help in achieving this tone.
Heavy, Tube Driven Distortion
If you’re looking for heavily distorted sounds, you’ll want a High-Gain amp that can deliver loads of gain at any volume.
With these amps you can set the Gain to where your dynamics match the tone you’re looking for, then use the Master Volume in the poweramp to dial in your volume level.
If you’re using a non-master volume amp (possibly a low-wattage amp) you can get tube saturated tones by cranking the single Volume knob past unity gain and beyond. In these amps, the only way to control the gain is with the Volume control.
Edge of Breakup
The edge of breakup sound lies in a certain sweet spot where the tone is neither clean nor dirty. This is the ideal tone for many, so how can you achieve it with Gain?
In this case, you want to set the Gain to a point where picking lightly creates clean notes, while digging into the strings creates a small amount of compression or distortion. This creates what is called “touch sensitivity”.
Getting this tone on a non-master volume amp may require you to crank up a bit, but I promise it is worth it! Turn your Gain control past noon for starters and experiment with your amp from there.
Gain, Volume, and Distortion. Different but Connected
It’s really easy to confuse Gain with Distortion or Volume, because Gain effects both of these parameters on your amplifier.
Hopefully, after reading this article, you will be able know what Gain is on a guitar amplifier and how it can be used to dial in your tone. It can also be helpful in picking out the right amplifier for the kind of sound that you want.
Just remember, increasing Gain can increase the volume until you reach the clean headroom limit. Once this point is reached, increasing the Gain increases distortion. The only way to increase volume substantially beyond that point is with a Master Volume control.
Once you understand that, you can better understand the differences between high-gain vs low gain amps and even apply this knowledge to distortion pedals.
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Davis Wilton Bader is a professional guitarist/writer based out of St. Louis, MO. He plays in the bands Lumet and The Outskirts.