Effects Basics: The Volume Control
The most overlooked effects of all time are the ones that come first in the chain. I’m talking about the tonal variations/special effects you can achieve with the volume (and tone) controls. These two sleeping giants affect the pickups directly, before they get to your sweet pedalboard, yet most guitarists barely touch them. This article will explain exactly what these knobs do (duh!) and how you can use them to fool your audience into thinking that they are listening to a cello, steel guitar, or keyboard. Once you get to know these knobs well, it may even affect future guitar purchases!
Volume seems simple enough…
…and it is! Of course it changes the overall volume of your guitar. It does this with a potentiometer, which is a specialized resistor that, as it is turned, sends the signal from your pickups to ground (nowhere). The main effect this has on a clean guitar signal is that it gets quieter, of course, but that’s not all it does. Into an amp with distortion, or even an overdrive like the 805 Overdrive, it can actually vary the amount of overdrive on the guitar signal. As less signal hits the amp or pedal, they have less to overdrive, and the result is a cleaner sound.* Here’s an example of starting with the volume knob down about halfway, and then turning it up. This way, I can leave the overdrive pedal on all of the time, and vary the sound right from the guitar. You can also do this on a guitar with 2 volume knobs, by leaving one about halfway down. You get a more abrupt change between clean and crunch that way, but it still works. I use YJM Hi-Speed Volume Potentiometers in all of my guitars for this.
*This effect will only work if you do not have a compressor pedal on at the time, as one of the compressor’s jobs is to boost low-level signals. Check out the Seymour Duncan Vise Grip if you would like to add a compressor to your arsenal.
Another cool effect is one that has been around awhile. As a kid, I first heard it on the middle section of Deep Purple’s ‘Fools’, but it may have been around as long as the electric guitar. The idea is to alter the attack envelope of the picked string. This sounds more scientific than it is: When a string is picked, you hear the initial attack of the pick hitting the strings, and then the sustain of the notes. But what if you get rid of the ‘attack’ portion of the note? You are left with just the sustain. This can fool people into not knowing exactly what they are listening to, and simulate sounds such as cello, violin, and whale sounds. Here, you turn the volume down, pick a note, and then turn the volume up. Once the note is ringing, turn the volume back down, effectively creating a ‘fade out.’ A little bit of delay helps.
Welcome to the (String) Machine
Now, if we use the idea from above, but add a ton of reverb, something cool happens: instant string pad machine! String machines were keyboards in the 70’s that were based on home organ technology, so they could simulate an orchestral string section by a rock keyboardist. It didn’t sound anything like today’s orchestral sampling technology, but it filled up space nicely. You can do a similar thing with your volume knob. Set your reverb to 90-100% wet (little or no direct signal), and start fading in chords with the volume knob.
That Other Knob
The tone knob was covered extensively in this article, although there are a few more things to consider here. Capable of transforming your solidbody into a hollowbody, or steel guitar, there are endless possibilities between 0-10 on your tone knob. Spend a week or two without any pedals, just straight into an amp. Record a piece that forces you to replicate many sounds with just the controls from the guitar. Guitarists such as Roy Buchanan found many sounds within the tone control of a Tele, and Eric Clapton defined a sound chased by tone hounds today with his Les Paul, SG and ES-335.
Choose Your Instrument Wisely
I am a big fan of ergonomics when choosing an instrument, so I need to have the volume (and tone) knobs within easy reach. I grew up playing a Strat, so that body style is what I gravitate to, as it provides easy access to the controls with my pinky. If volume and tone knob manipulation is an important part of your style, you will need to consider that when choosing an instrument that fits how you play. While many people are great with a Tele or Les Paul, it was always a big reach for me to get to the controls. It doesn’t matter what you choose, just make sure the instrument adapts to you instead of the other way around – there are many out there to choose from. Aesthetics aside, it should make every aspect of your playing effortless.
Do you use your volume and tone knobs at all? Do you have any special or unconventional effects that you use?