I think I've been relying on using too much gain - how to break out of this rut?

A few weeks ago I got a new guitar, an ESP E-II M-II. It has Bare Knuckle Aftermath pickups, which are quite high output.

When I plugged into my GT-1000 all my patches had way too much gain, like serious amounts of fizz. My last guitar had single coils so it was obvious this was the reason and it was an easy enough fix. However, it got me thinking about gain levels.

I was then listening to the Racer X albums Second Heat, Live Extreme Volume I and II, and Street Lethal and you can tell that both Paul Gilbert and Bruce Bouillet aren’t using a ton of gain on these. I don’t know how they’re getting all the sustain - sheer volume or some compression too?

When I play with reduced levels of gain all the inconsistencies in my playing are magnified! Every little mis-fingered note juts out, every weak hammer-on sounds bad.

I was watching some jazz guys on Soundslice. Even when they were playing unplugged, on semi-acoustic guitars, you could hear every single note very clearly. It made me jealous how they were shredding with a clean sound.

I’m looking for some advice, how do I dial up a tone that is ballsy and has sustain, but will help help me to improve my articulation? Should I aim to use a compresison or some kind of a booster? I have a GT-1000, so my options are pretty much unlimited.

Hi Aliendough

A basic Hiding metal tone - you those honky wah like tones (motley crue shout at the devil e.t.c.) - usually boost some bass and mids - cleans up the tone and makes the guitar super easy to play - even with the worst playing ever :slight_smile: - like this:
(I took the product identity off - coz u know this is not a advert!)

To get a super tight articulate tone - I would take the mid’s back to normal and the bass down - that would make it require super accurate playing to sound good.

I’ve done really two things to try to combat this, myself.

  1. practice legato unplugged. This, more than anything, has helped my playing come together - technically, purists would question if this is even truly “legato” since what this really forces you to do is develop a defined attack for your hit-ons and pull-offs, rather than truly slur them, but gain is a form of compression, and if you can develop clear, even, clean hit-on/pull-off technique with NO compression at all from either the amp or effects, well, you’ll get even legato through just about any amp sound you can dial up. I wouldn’t say mine is perfect in this respect (and maybe that means another bout of unplugged practice should be in my future) but it definitely helped smooth it out a lot, and has helped me able to play legato at lower levels of gain than most people I think most people would be comfortable playing at.
  1. Relatedly, finding extremely unforgiving tones to practice with, can arguably help even more. I haven’t owned anything with a piezo in probably a decade now, in part because this was about all I ever really did with it, but I found practicing (both legato and picking) with a piezo tone into a clean amp was a pretty good way to really exaggerate unevenness. Also, for legato specifically, finding sort of a sweet spot with a really touch-sensitive light breakup sound, such that when you articulate a note firmly you get some slight breakup, but a weak articulation is under the “breakup” threshold sounds exaggeratedly indistinct and soft, can also sort of amplify the “cost” of not executing a hit-on/pull off line evenly.

Just practicing unplugged is by far the easiest way to do this, but it’s definitely worth experimenting trying to find a tone that makes it REALLY clear when you under-articulate (or, over-articulate) a note, as well.

Project MARS

Tony MacAlpine – this one was done at the same studio, same era (Prairie Sun Studios). I remember something like, they all just ended up using the amp at the studio or something. I also remember it not being your basic 100W Marshall with a mod or drive pedal, like everyone else was using at the time. I mean, try playing MARS “Nations On Fire” and Racer X “Street Lethal” (title track) back to back.

I’m not in the studio at the moment, but listening on the laptop speakers, those mids just don’t sound like a Marshall to me. If I check it later on the big speakers, I might take that back. It doesn’t exactly strike me as a Mesa Mark II or anything, either. There’s something else going on with it. And we’re talking a couple of years before that ADA MP-1 rack distortion explosion thing that happened, so it’s almost certainly amp distortion (with/without pedal boost). I always dug the tone, though.

But really, if it’s a high-gain amp that was available in '85/'86 that’s not a Marshall or Mesa, I bet they’re going for a steal on the used market right now – probably less than your Boss multi-effect. Just a thought…

Just wanted to chime in to say: there is no such thing as too much gain :rofl:

Warning: opinionated answer ahead! May not apply to all players

I also think tone and technique are not two separate entities. I.e. certain things work well with certain tones and not others. So it may just be that the more “forgiving” tone was actually a good tone for what you were playing. And the less forgiving one was just not compatible, for example, with long legato lines.

Why work so hard? :slight_smile:

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check this out: practice on an acoustic guitar

Because, dammit, we CAN. :rofl:

Also because clean legato with lower gain can sound awesome.

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Thanks everyone - Just getting back to this thread now.

@shabtronic that kind of reminds me of Holdsworth’s tone, very midrange heavy, but still clean sounding, if you know what I mean…

@Drew I’m not too bad at legato with gain, clean legato isn’t so good though lol. I’m playing on a cleaner tone this evening and practicing some legato licks to try and get things up to speed. It can be a little frustrating at first, but very satisfying when you nail a lick with a clean tone and get it sounding articulate and clear.

@tommo When I listened to a clip of your playing I think you were playing a computer amp sim and it was modelling a Fender amp with an overdrive pedal in front of it, it was pretty low gain sounding, but still super clean and articulate. What I’m getting at is that I would like to achieve a similar level of clarity an accuracy with a low gain sound.


A compressor will make this a lot easier. Compression is one of the dominant reasons that both alternate picking and legato feel easier with high gain, but you can get the compression without the distortion fairly easily with the right compressor. In fact, for this application, the electronic difference between compression and distortion is pretty subtle, even if the sonic difference is fairly large.

Compressors have a fairly steep learning curve, though. They often get a bad rap from guitarists for avoidable reasons. If you’re interested in a deeper discussion on the topic, I’m happy to engage.

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Maybe so, but I think my point was more that having an even articulation for your legato technique is something that is worth having anyway, so there’s no harm in making that a very intentional part of your practice regime.

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Sorry. I meant this more as a suggestion to the OP rather than a disagreement with your post. I should have made that clearer.

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It’s cool, no worries! :+1:

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To this end, using a compressor into a squeaky clean amp is a really good way to reproduce the tone/feeling of an unplugged electric with the added benefit of more volume. (Just to reinforce that my point was meant to complement yours, not to oppose.)

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Satriani lesson – 14:20

“A modeling amp is just gonna kill everything…it takes 50 percent of what I do and homogenizes it.”

– Joe Satriani

This is my experience even more than the gain thing. And that’s not to take away from modeling, either – it’s such a powerful tool that designers can work it in to make things sound “good” or whatever. But, in my experience, by virtue of doing this, the modeling removes some of the expressive power of the tone, too. Some of this may have as much to do with the algorithms (or the inner function/build of the algorithms) as the process – a “sound good” algorithm may be more sellable than a “expressive but honest-sounding” algorithm. So I don’t deny the potential of the medium.

I can plug my boutique Strat with sweet sounding but low-output DiMarzios into my Line 6 M5 then into my tweed Fender or just straight into my Line 6 Spider III (?) or whatever (“yard sale special” practice amp), and with a few twists of the knob, I’m seriously in Metallica or Pantera-land. And it takes a lot to even spot the “single coil-ness” of the tone anymore. This shouldn’t happen like that. I think the algorithm is SO tweaked to “MAKE OUTPUT SOUND LIKE ___” that shades of ANYTHING else just get steamrollered.

Again, is that a “bug” or a “feature?” Depends, I guess…

Thank you for the kind words :slight_smile: I think I know the video you mean - I’ll post it below and break down the interplay of techniques and tone used, I think it illustrates my points well :slight_smile:

As you can see / hear this is a fairly harsh crunchy tone with pretty low sustain. It works well for this piece because I’m using a picking technique entirely based on USX (upstroke escape), and because I am picking almost everything.

Since the picking motion here is “simple” i.e. always along the same linear trajectory (USX), I can dig in quite a lot without fear of making (major) mistakes. I’m pretty sure all the downstrokes are resting on the higher string as well. I think the aggressive pick attack compensates for the low-ish sustain of the tone.

If I tried to play some Satriani-esque legato lines with this tone I suspect it would be absolutely painful to do / listen to. Notes would die too soon and I’d just end up doing a death grip with my left hand in a vain attempt to get more volume with hammer-ons and pull-offs. It’s basically not the right tool for the job.

And good luck making the 3rd-4th finger hammer-on loud enough without some compression :wink:

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Yes, sorry, I should have posted the video in question - I was really tired when I wrote that message!!

You mentioned aggressive pick attack - your picking doesn’t sound aggressive to me in that clip. It sounds smooth and even, even though you’re using low gain. That’s the sound I like!

I bet if you added in a little compression you could play legato no problems.

EDIT: Check how clean and articulate this guy’s technique is - I’m envious of how well he can play with a clean tone:

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