What Is Gain On A Guitar Amp?

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Not quite sure what the gain knob does on a guitar amp? Guitarists use the amplifier to improve the sound output of the guitar. This way, you produce an excellent sound with little input on your guitar. And the gain controls the input level of your guitar in the preamp. Understanding what gain is on a guitar amp will help you maximize the potential of your amplifier.

The amplifier and your guitar

The guitar amp is connected to an electric guitar to strengthen signals so that the sound produced is improved. The guitar amp consists of the power amplifier and preamplifier.

Without a preamplifier, amplified sound can come off as noisy. The preamplifier boosts weak signals into a strong output that is noise tolerant.

The power amplifier further processes the output subsequently. It determines the output power and volume of sound produced in the speaker.

What is Gain on a guitar amp?

Not every guitarist understands what gain is on the amplifier.

Gain is how much amplification improves the signals from your guitar. It controls the input of your guitar signal in the preamplifier to produce a clean sound.

Gain is measured in ratios of input level to output level. For example, the ratio where input level equals output is called Unity Gain. Similarly, the greater gain, the greater the increase of the amplitude of a guitar signal.

While gain is often used interchangeably with distortion and volume, you must also know the differences.

How to control gain on your guitar amp

There is a Gain control on the amplifier. And this is located in the preamp. It is usually a tuning knob adjustable to different points. There are different gain levels and a level that determines clean or unclear sounds is the Clean Headroom Limit.

The Clean Headroom limit is the highest point you can increase gain without producing a distorted sound. Therefore, gain produces distortion beyond this limit.

This limit is usually at point 4 or 5.

Distortion and Volume

Distortion is the amount of disorderliness in the sound output. The distorted output sounds noisy and rough with sustained undertones. Although it is often used to mean gain, distortion works contrarily. Therefore, distortion is not the same as gain.

Volume is how loud the sound output from the guitar is. While gain may control volume, the volume does not impact the clear sound that gain produces.

Gain vs. Distortion vs. Volume

Here are easy-to-remember differences between gain, distortion, and volume.

1. Gain controls Distortion. When you increase gain beyond the clean headroom limit, signals from the top and bottom parts of the guitar get cut off from the amplifier. As a result, you produce distortion.

2. You can reduce or increase distortion by controlling gain above the clean headroom limit.

3. Gain causes volume. Since the gain improves sound output, an increase in gain will enhance the volume. Nevertheless, an excessive increase in gain will cause distortion.

4. The Master Volume knob can control the volume in the power amp. Thus, you can make the clear guitar sound louder with the Master Volume control.

Low Gain Amps and High Gain Amps

When choosing an amplifier, you must identify the kind of sound you want to produce. And this determines the relationship between gain, distortion, and volume produced.

Low Gain amps are the best to choose if you aim for clean, light output. These amps consist of preamps with a clean headroom limit at the extreme setting of Gain. As a result, increasing gain will lead to an increase in volume, not distortion.

These amps are higher voltage and don’t have a Master Volume control.

On the other hand, high gain amps have lower clean headroom limit settings. Since the preamp is designed to exceed the clean headroom limit quickly, the output gets distorted faster. Therefore, increasing gain will cause an increase in distortion.

Heavy rock guitarists use this kind of amplifier.

What is Gain on a Guitar Amp? Now you know

Whether you want to produce clean sound or distorted sounds, your choice of amplifier matters a lot. Your choice matters because the gain settings differ in low gain and high gain amps.

Here’s a summary of what gain is on the guitar amp:

  • Gain improves the input from the guitar.
  • Gain controls distortion and volume.
  • The Master Volume key controls the volume on the amp.
  • Exceeding the clean headroom limit will produce distortion.

Learn more about guitar amps to help you choose what amps to get for your guitar.

Jim Henneberry

Jim Henneberry

I love playing my guitar, and my kids got hooked along with me.
This is a family thing now - why don't you join the family fun? :)