Distortion is Killing Your Tone!

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I would say that almost every other day I get an email asking about the best amp settings. It’s really hard to say what is going to work for every individual because so many factors come into play such as the kind of guitar, amp, and effects you are using.

I will say this though. If you are using a lot of gain or distortion, then I can tell you that the amount you use will directly impact the size of your guitar tone.

If you think you’re going to get a real fat blues guitar sound by using a lot of gain, then you are completely wrong. The number one thing you should look at when trying to figure out your tone is how much distortion you are using.

When you are trying to get a nice distorted blues sound, start by creating a great clean sound first and then work from there. When using distortion, your sound becomes compressed which means the dynamic range is smaller which in turn will lead to a thinner sounding tone.

I was recording some BB King Style leads for a client today and ran into this tone problem which is why I’m writing about it right now. I recorded a few takes of lead guiar and sent them over to the client. They wrote back saying that they loved the licks, but they would like a little more clean sounding blues guitar tone. So I went to work getting a sound that would make them happy and get me paid as well!

The first thing I did was remove the attenuator. Now I’m not saying this attenuator is bad, but for this tone, I didn’t really need it. It is a wonderful piece of equipment and I highly recommend it.

Once the attenuator was out of the equation, then I started going about cleaning up the amp sound to please this client.

The initial settings were as follows.

Amp 5
Weber on 7
Treble on 8
Bass on 3
Reverb on 3.5
Guitar on 6
AEA Ribbon Mic about 16″ back on axis with the right speaker.

After receiving their email I decided that the Weber should go, and to get a clean sound I would need to turn the amp down to about 3. Since I was turning the amp down, I needed to compensate by adding a little more bass and for some more bite, I cranked the treble up.

I also moved the AEA R84 mic closer to the amp to about 12″ back to give it a little more full sound due to the proximity effect of this mic.

Here were the final settings.

Amp 3
Treble on 10
Bass on 4.5
Reverb on 2
Guitar on 4
AEA Ribbon Mic about 12″ back on axis with the right speaker.

This final approach created a tone to me that is very reminiscent of old Blues Records and I love it. This was my first time using the AEA R84 Ribbon mic and it simply kills the 57 for this application.

So what is my point? Well it is essential to look at how much gain you are actually using when trying to get your blues tones. Sometimes one of the easiest things to try is simply turning down the amount of gain you are using. I can guarantee you that your notes and the overall power of your sound will improve.

The only caveat – playing with a lot of gain often hides mistakes and sloppiness, so be prepared to hear the truth! 😉 If that’s the case, then I can help you out with some blues guitar lessons to help you improve your technique. Check out out my courses here.

Which tone do you like better?

12 thoughts on “Distortion is Killing Your Tone!”

  1. I actually really like both tones. The second fits what you were wanting to get from BB King tone and it sounds great. The first tone reminds me of Warren Haynes–clean w/ some fur around it! Nice work!

  2. Hi John – I liked them both too – though you didn’t tell us if after the clean up the client gave you the job !!
    As they say you pays the money you makes the choice ! I tried the attenuator route as I use a Boogie F30 for gigs ( no trouble with clean tone there ) – but preferred using a little Epiphone 5 watt hot rodded and hand wired here in the UK to get the breakup sound at just the right levels for home recording

    • Oh I guess I forgot that. Yes I got paid! I’ve been working with them for about 6 months now. So far I’ve recorded 4 songs with them. His name is Eddie Towns who toured with Solomon Burke and had a hit song in the 80’s.

  3. I like them both, too. But I agree with you, they each have a place. Thanks for what you share, I think I’m gonna have to grab those Clapton lessons! You give tone info of those, too, right?

  4. Hey John,

    Great post. I completely agree with you as far as distortion being a tone killer. Be it on an amp or a pedal, but distortion pedals are far worse for tone in my opinion. I’ve found that the you should focus more on creating the distortion and gain with your playing and technique with things such as palm muting, scrape picking, etc.

    I’ve also found that as far as amp settings go, gain is the last place you want to turn for distortion, much like you said. I usually find a real nice, bluesy distortion with a low gain (between 2-4, tops) and a medium treble or highs (between 4-6). The mid range is really dependent on the sound your after, use those to shape your tone. A lot of guitarists are quick to jump on the gain and distortion band wagon in search for an aggressive or distorted tone but few realize the key lies in their hands and less so in their gear.

    Having said that, however, your pickups will play a role in this as well. If your going for fat blues, my personal favorite, and a wide spread favorite among musicians, are single coils. There’s a reason the classic Strats had em for decades.

    • Deven,

      Very well said!!!

      Jeff Beck is the perfect example to prove your point!!! I took me a couple of years to figure out…..its not what he is using when he plays, but…..how he plays!! Yea….im a little slow, but I generally figure it out….Lmbo 😀

  5. I like both tones but prefer the second one, I think the second one with a little less reverb than the first one sounds great. I have a 57 Fender Twin Custom Shop Reissue and it sounds great, but with just a very slight touch of reverb ( tube T REX), it is killer for those blues tones. I fully understand why Eric Clapton loves those apms. John you always have great tone, thanks for being a perfectionist. Play on.

  6. Well, kind of a silly question to ask what tone is better just in general, because it matters (duh) what you want to sound like. If you want vintage blues, then obviously the second tone is better, but I don’t see why the first tone is perfect for a different setting. Its all context. Just as John points out in his youtube Duane Allman video, their are no set rules in music, and sometimes that distortion gives you more of a vocal or horn like quality.

    • In fact, rereading the article, John mentions that what the article means is distortion is killing your “classic blues” tone, because he does say how in other setting he loves the attenuator etc.

  7. I like the first tone much better, but they both sound good. Hard to say out of context with what the licks were accompanied to.

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