Gain can usually be summed up in the guitar pedal world as Drive, Distortion and Fuzz. There are a lot of great articles out there that go into depth on how to use or select the right “gain” for your board. Well, here is another way to look at what those little boxes are doing and how you might begin to place them in your signal chain.
Here is an analogy that offers a great way to think about gain. Musical instruments make resonance come alive, and the purest, most natural instrument has to the be the human voice. There are many things we do to manipulate, disguise or sweeten our vocal patterns when we communicate...
When singers really need to hit a note, someone usually tells them to “use their diaphragm.” “Push" or “Drive" starts in the diaphragm and gives presence to a voice, providing a thickness or fullness when tapped. When a singer uses his diaphragm, the essence of the singer's voice is coming from his center. I think about overdrive pedals this way, like a singer using his diaphragm to sculpt his voice. An overdrive, truly, is pushing your guitar’s voice through the amp. An overdrive has toughness. Some might say they are thick our chewy; there is substance that can’t be missed. Overdrive is your signal being pushed. When you think about overdrive this way it is easy to find the right voicing for your rig. Do you need a fatter low end? Do you want to bleed your treble through? Or maybe just a solid and transparent drive would work. Whatever the pedal, think about how it is going to fill or fatten your tone.
Hairband signers know this effect well, AC/DC invented it! ;) That’s right, distortion happens in the singers throat. Once the singer has determined how far to dig into their gut and push from their diaphragm, the sound hits their throat and they have the opportunity to dirty the signal up. Distortion isn’t so much about the signal’s volume or the sound it is moving. It's about the amount of compression or clipping that is actually taking place. Don’t believe me? Go listen to Brian Johnson (AC/DC). He is a genius at using what I like to call vocal distortion. By controlling the pushed signal from the diaphragm, our throats have the ability to compress or distort our voice at louder or even quieter volumes. Which distortion box is right for you? How much saturations do you want to gain? Does your articulation need to be intact or do you just want a wall or saturation to say what you need to?
This is a fun one. I really don’t think there is a way for the human voice to naturally fuzz-out, but put a Kazoo in your mouth and we have a third type of gain. OBLITERATION!!! That’s right. We have pushed our sound, compressed our sound, and now we are down right destroying it. The great thing about a Kazoo (and the great thing about a fuzz pedal) is that the less voice you put into it, the cleaner the audible sound. However, hum as loud as you can into it and you might not be able to tell if that sound is a human or a dying Sasquatch in the woods. Turn your volume knob down, play lighter, start turning your tone knob and a fuzz pedal will do some amazing things. From Jack White and the the Black Keys to Neil Young and Hendrix, the Fuzz pedal has proven to be one of the most versatile gain devices out there.
The human voice is a most intricate and profound thing, and I love how we can use it to paint a picture on guitar tone. I hope this has given you a different perspective on “gain” and how to approach looking for that next tone sculpting device. Have more questions on Gain or anything else having to do with your gear? Give us a ring at 844.447.6483. Or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.