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Anatomy of Guitar Tone: Volume After Distortion

This week I want to talk about gain staging.

In particular, the placement of a volume pedal in between some overdrive and distortion pedals.

Sometimes I’ve noticed when I need to do live recording or performances on stage that getting high gain sounds can be a bit of a tricky thing. Especially when you’re dealing with vocalists. Sometimes, you might start an intro really strong, then as a verse comes in, you’ll have to back off your volume, but not necessarily your intensity or tone.

This is the tricky part, because if you have your volume pedal first, or if you’re using your volume knob on your guitar, then you’re obviously going to affect the distortion that’s coming from the pedal. It’ll clean up as you roll your volume knob back.

This isn’t appropriate for some heavier gigs.

I happened to sit in with a wonderful New York City guitarist named Greg Mayo one night, and he had a pedal board with a volume pedal in the middle of it, and it perplexed me, so after I did my song, I started to ask him questions about it.

He was basically telling me that he had some overdrive and distortion pedals before and after his volume pedal. This allowed him to get a full up sound, adjust the overall volume, or have some overdrives after it that he can use the volume pedal to mess with it to simulate some amp distortion and cleaning up on the volume knob.

I thought this was a really great idea, so I wanted to explore this a little bit today and try it out.


[song, adjusting guitar pedal volume]

For this example, I was using the Empress Heavy pedal. This is a really great high gain distortion pedal with a really amazing gate on it, actually. But this is what I was placing before the Ernie Ball volume pedal. Just a standard Ernie Ball junior volume pedal.

You can use a number of different distortions for this. I just like this particular one because it’s really full sounding and modern sounding, and it’s not a particularly noisy pedal, which is really rare to find.

But try anything. You could even try putting a Klon before and after your volume pedal and just messing around with the various gain staging.


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Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall is a producer, songwriter, session musician and instructor based in NYC. More at

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