BIG R's Tone Tips - Distortion Dillemas


Distortion is cool. WAAAY cool! It is what has made the electric guitar sing like no other instrument. But, when I usually hear someone play live, their guitar sounds really thin and weak.

Here are some tips to give your guitar some more OOMPH:

1. Turning the bass and midrange up.

  • This quick adjustment, either on the amp or on your pedal, will add instant bottom end and punch. Most distortion or overdrive pedals use a square wave which chops the bottom and top-end of the signal. All my distortion pedals have the bass cranked (this especially helps with single coil pickups) and the amp mids are turned up as well. I have actually modded a 1966 Pro Reverb with more midrange due to the fact that the amp has no Middle control.

    2. Turning the distortion level/drive down some. (i.e. Taking the "mud" out)

  • I know, some of you will smack me around a bit for this comment, but come on! Turning this down a bit will take some of the shrillness and high-end fizz out of your sound. I'll admit, it was hard for me at first years ago, but it really made a difference in my live sound! My tone now kicks ASS because of this adjustment! It also allows your chords to ring through a bit more. Yes, it even works for grunge and heavy metal! I also improved my playing. I couldn't hide behind my "Wall of Distortion" anymore!

  • To reinforce this point, I recently played a couple of shows with another guitarist who was having serious distortion problems. You couldn't hear his guitar well even when he cranked it up. Too much distortion. He was real frustrated that you could not hear his guitar even though it LOUD. It did not cut through the mix at all. BOOST THE MIDS.

    3. Buying a smaller amp.

  • Face it. Your Marshall half-stack ain't gonna sound right in Ma and Pa's corner bar because Pa will bring out the shotgun if you crank it up! The most dynamic overdrive comes from the amp being cranked up and having the tubes pushed beyond their operating ranges so they clip. Go to your local music store and find a smaller version of what you are using now.

    For example, if you are using a Twin Reverb, try using a Deluxe Reverb. Basically the same tone in a smaller package. The Deluxe on 8 is about the same volume as a Twin on 3. It could also help save your back. I would much rather carry around a spare mic to push my volume through the P.A. than schlepp that 85-pound Twin Reverb around (yeah, right . . . I still schlepp that Twin around . . . ) This will also help you get true distortion that sounds like heaven, without the volume. I know this is an expensive option, but it really works.

    4. Using an attenuator "heatsink/hotplate".

  • I own a THD Hotplate. Let me tell you, if you haven't tried one, you are really in for a surprise. Extremely flexible, it allows you to crank your amp up all the way, without all of the volume. I used a Marshall Power Brake in the past, but found it a bit cumbersome, and not as worthy of the tone I like. There is a bit of dynamic loss using a heatsink. But, when the entire band is cranked up, does it really matter? Make sure you know your amp's OHM output BEFORE buying. A LOT of old Fenders have a 2 or 4-OHM load. You could eventually blow an output transformer if you use the wrong one. Some of the odd-ohm ranges need to be special ordered from THD. Another good choice is the Ultimate Attenuator which has selectable ohm-ranges.

    Back to Amplifier Tone Tips and Techniques

    Guitars | Amps | Effects | Home