I’ve written several articles at Gibson.com explaining the advantages of playing at moderate stage volume. There are plenty of basic benefits to that strategy, including allowing all the players on stage to hear, creating a tight sonic mesh that best represents the band and not drowning out the singer. But there are also advantages to playing loud and proud — especially if guitar is the main instrumental voice on stage.
Playing guitar at a bold volume level doesn’t mean you’ve got to sacrifice other aspects of performance. Joe Bonamassa is a perfect example of an artist who balances loud guitars with other musical virtues. His concerts are unquestionably song-driven affairs, yet he keeps the focus on his instrument with a mile-wide tone and singing sustain that’s derived by cranking up his amps’ master volume settings. He simply lays back on the guitar when he’s singing, letting sustain and lightly crunchy overdrive do some of the work to keep the sound full at those points, and slams into his heavy gauge strings when he’s playing solos or propelling his songs with beefy rhythm licks. An important part of his magic is controlling dynamics – primarily by picking and secondarily via a combination of his guitars’ volume pots and the application or deduction of various pedals in his signal chain.
Playing at volume does require a level of basic technical proficiency. Developing good control of dynamics via attacking the strings with a pick or fingers is essential. So is articulation and accuracy, since every dinged note, accidental scrape of the strings or bum chord will leap out of a loud amp.
But the virtues of high volume make any extra effort rewarding. First of all, playing loud is a gas, a rush. It’s thrilling to create a larger than life sound on stage and in the studio. And beyond the raw, drunken power of it, there is a rich potential for inspiration when the guitar speaks in a sufficiently loud singing tone, with plenty of sustain and reaction to picking/attack. It’s easy to bask in a good, loud sound. Instead of devoting brain capacity to worrying about your guitar’s voice, you can simply let it speak with confidence and carry your playing to new places. It’s liberating to push the envelope knowing your guitar’s tone will be epic regardless of what emerges. Playing well at high volume can be like a magic carpet ride. The horizon seems limitless.
Great tone is easier to achieve at high volume with tube amps. Sure, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck used small amps for some of their greatest recordings, but those little boxes were pumped to the max. Tube amps love working hard. When the tubes are really cooking all kinds of great things happen. Richer harmonic colors emerge, the speakers break up warmly, a level of natural compression happens. Those things make all guitars sound terrific, but, to my ears, humbucker-propelled six-strings take to high volume especially well.
Once you’ve decided to turn up and go for it, the amp’s balance of master volume, bass, treble and midrange, gain, volume and reverb determine the direction all that lovely tone travels — whether you investigate the gothic architecture of Tony Iommi or get transported by the sinuous twined harmonies of Duane Allman and Dicky Betts.
Sustain is also easier to achieve at high volume. The interaction between the amp and pickups and strings can allow notes to be held to Santana-like lengths. The key here is riding the gain to the point where your notes ride the edge of feedback, or goosing the signal a bit with an overdrive pedal. Proximity is also an issue. As you approach your loud amp your guitar is going to feed back. Find a spot on stage between the amp and your usual position where merely turning toward the amp or moving back a bit will get you the kind of sustain and feedback you desire and mark that spot with a piece of duct tape. Return to that spot whenever you want to achieve a feedback or sustain effect.
Among the other effects associated with playing at barking volume are pinch harmonics, overtones, volume pot swells and wailing, crying, sizzling, sustained bends. Tapping and hammering are also easier at high volume. The absolute genius of these effects was the late Roy Buchanan. For a primer check out any of his albums. There’s an especially emotional version of Buchanan playing Neil Young’s “Down By The River” on the Sweet Dreams/The Anthology set that covers a lot of this ground in one solo. And Buchanan’s recordings, like those of Hendrix, are a gateway to an entirely different universe of six-string expression.