Tone Tips: Clean Sounds Can Make A Bigger Rock Guitar


One of the sheer pleasures of playing rock guitar is the simple aural beauty of that searing wash of distortion that runs through you when you strike a big, crisp power chord or bend a lead note into vocal sustain. You can almost hear the harmonics pulsing and blooming and tickling your cochlear nerve as we speak, right?

The point is, putting this delicious distortion in the context of a band can often be more difficult than you might imagine. Many good guitarists who’ve dug out their juicy dirt at home struggle to make sure their heavy overdrive tones fit right into a full mix when they first go out and play live or in the studio.

Once all of those instruments have started to work together – thumping drums and crashing cymbals, thumping bass, another guitar or screaming keyboards, and a screaming singer to be heard above all – your carefully crafted guitar sound. that sounded massive before in a room on its own can often feel mushy, soft, washed out, and pretty much … gone.

There is, however, an easy way to make it work and look exponentially bigger in an instant, but the solution requires you to factor in some counterintuitive thinking. Simply put: Clean that up.

Don’t let Gain over compress your signal

While a high gain, extremely distorted guitar sound can seem overwhelming in the room, its sonic properties can get lost when you fight with other instruments in the same frequency range in a crowded mix. On many occasions, amps set for extreme distortion also compress a lot when you hit your guitar hard, causing them to sink a little deeper into the background when attacking the pick.

Many players with channel-switched amps set up to switch clean channels to main channels have noticed this phenomenon when recording: ginormous in the room, but are amazed to see that the signal level LEDs on the desk or DAW peak inferior with the main channel engaged only when they are playing unencrypted, even though their ears tell them it should be the other way around.

Test those same two amp settings with a full band, however, while standing a slight distance from the performance area, and your ears will likely register the same reality as this meter: that clear sound cuts and projects better than the excessive gain -y sound of lead.

To give that lead or crunch sound more power and improve its ability to punch through the mix, try lowering the preamp gain knob on the first stage of that channel (which may be labeled Gain, Drive, Overdrive, Lead, or just Volume. ). Then, if necessary, increase the master volume a little to compensate for any decrease in volume induced by this lower gain setting. If you have a ton of bass in your EQ stage, try lowering it a bit too, which will not only make the guitar fight less with the bass and kick drum, but will allow your own amp to break through. the mids — where the guitar really lives — with a little more authority, relative to your overall volume.

These minor adjustments will almost universally result in a guitar sound that goes through the mix better and, therefore, sounds bigger. The end product also generally gives you more dynamics, meaning that the guitar and amp respond well to your heavier or lighter pick attack, making your playing more expressive, which will be reflected in your performance.

Which doesn’t mean your lead and crunch tones have to be entirely clean and distortion-free to achieve this. Obviously you might want to crank up the gain on the solos a bit more to make them sing and sustain, but the extra tightness and solidity in the bass and mids in particular will really help you get your voice heard better.

Listen to Classic Crunch and Wail

We can turn to several classic recordings for easy examples of the effectiveness of this “cleaning” technique and how great players have used it for decades. If we haven’t listened closely in a while, we’ll often remember many of the great examples of “huge rock guitar sound” as having been completely dripping with distortion, but listen to a few again and you’ll hear it. , in many cases the guitars are really not that dirty.

I know Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” and Ted Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever” sounded huge as a kid, but a quick reminder confirms that guitars are far from high gain, with amps that put really a hair beyond the breaking edge. Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”, forget it. Like the rest of Jimmy Page’s guitar parts throughout the era, these riffs sounded monster, but they’re really not too distorted or overly saturated when you listen closely.

Led Zeppelin – “Song of the Immigrants”

For other examples, dig up AC / DC’s “Back in Black”, Soundgarden’s “Fell On Black Days”, Free’s “All Right Now” (this riff has long been a banner for the archetype. huge ton), or even “Enter Sandman” from Metallica. Granted, there’s a lot of gain in Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield’s guitars in the latter, but the lows and lower mids are still tight and punchy, and the upper mids and highs remain free of fizz or overly diffuse saturation. .

Obviously, any extreme metal or shred player will need some serious hair in their preamp gain to get “that sound,” but even here the key is to work your sound to keep the guitar part from getting too much. sparkling, nebulous or washed out. Make it stand out with oomph and solidity, whether live or in the studio, and you to be heard, and sounds great in the process.


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