Are Channel Switching Amps Really Necessary?

Many years ago when I first started gigging, I used an old Laney single channel amp with a Coron brand fuzz box to add a touch of distortion to the sound as & when required, and I had all the sounds I needed, or so it seemed. Later I graduated to a Peavey amp which had two channels – one for the clean sound & another for the overdriven/distortion side of things. All you had to do was footswitch between them & there was no need for the fuzz box any more.

This was fine until I was playing in a band where I needed three distinct sounds, a clean sound for general strummy accompaniment, a chunky power chord sound for the rhythm guitar parts on the Black Sabbath & UFO tunes in the set list, and a high-gain lead guitar sound for that long note in Parisienne Walkways. So… a three channel amp was the thing to have. Round about this time, Mesa Boogie had brought out their first 3 channel amp & I remember coveting it more than anything else in the world. Sadly my pub band budget didn’t run to this kind of rock star kit so I had to make do with my trusty Peavey, and it’s seemingly inadequate choice of one clean and one overdriven tone.

 The tri-channel Boogie wouldn’t have done me any good anyway, as it turned out I needed not three, but FOUR channels. I’d joined a band that did a couple of Dire Straits covers & I needed a boosted clean sound for those Mark Knopfler solos as well as the three sounds I already “knew” I needed.

Eventually I got somewhere close to the ideal amp when I got a Marshall 30th Anniversary combo which had three channels & various different modes that each channel could be configured in. Unless I needed all four sounds in the same song, I was able to set up all the tones I needed and switch between them with ease. Until…

One night I forgot to take the amps footswitch with me to the gig. Disaster! Actually not, as it turns out. I’d read an interview with Neville Marten in Guitarist magazine that month & he’d  said that all he did was set up a fairly dirty sound on his amp, then back the guitar volume control off to clean it up. I was left with no choice for that gig but to try this approach. I used the “crunch” channel on the Marshall and rode the volume pot on my strat, and had the easiest gig I’d had in ages. No more tap-dancing routines mid-song to go from clean to semi-dirty to all out gain. Every time I cranked the volume on the guitar it gave me just the right amount of sustain and volume to cut through the mix. When I backed off to my rhythm guitar sound, be it clean & strummy or semi-crunch power chords, it was always just the right level to underpin the song without being too “in-your-face”. 

That night was a revelation & I’ve never looked back. I now use a valve based pre-amp fed straight into the desk either in the studio or on stage, and I can use this in exactly the same way. I never have to worry about being near enough to my footswitch because the solo is imminent. Whatever sound I need is literally at my fingertips. It also makes it much more satisfying to play when you know you can “morph” one sound into another. I now feel like the guitar is much more responsive to my note by note solos as I can dial in just a little bit more or less gain for each lick & it’s now something I do without even thinking. I really would miss this if I had to go back to three (or four) preset sounds, instead of having infinite control as I do now.

To illustrate my point I’ve recorded a short piece using a single setting on my preamp, varying the sound from clean picked notes, to strummy open chords to chunky power chords to balls-out high gain lead simply using the guitar volume control & pickup selector. Click here to check it out.

Until next time, Have fun!


John Robson Guitar Tuition & Musicianship Coaching


1 Comment

  1. Channels are essential for me 😀

    When I gig in a singer-songwriter’s live band I need to have a lot of control over the volume of each sound.

    There’s a track where I need an overdriven sound for a verse, a distorted thin sound for chorus chords and then a clean arpeggio that needs a significantly volume boost. I need my volume to be lower as I get more distorted or I overwhelm it; riding the volume for each sound isn’t an option for me haha.

    I also use a volume pedal in my effects loop for swells and fade outs [with sustained notes]. If I wanted to swell with distortion by riding the volume control I’d be changing the level of gain but I want the consistent tone at all volumes for this!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s