Distortion makes everything sound better. Well, maybe not jazz — unless you count fusion. And maybe not classical — unless you could neoclassical (and why wouldn't you?). But it definitely makes rock music sound better. There's something primal and exciting about plugging into a distortion box for the first time, or an amp's distortion channel, or even the first time a current-day beginner calls up a raging tube double stack simulation on an iPhone app and jams out through headphones. Distortion really helps us to get our point across as guitarists and as people, whether it's an abrasive and aggressive rhythm tone, a vocal solo sound, the warm crunch of a Led Zeppelin-eqsue riff, or any point in between.
But like a cuddly dog that can suddenly snap and chomp on your femur when you least expect it, distortion can sometimes do you more harm than good, often when you think everything’s call cool. Let's look at a typical scenario:
You start with a crunchy tube amp channel. It sounds pretty good for power chording. You add an overdrive pedal set for a slight boost and a little bit of tone-shaping for when you play a solo. That sounds pretty good too. Before long you find yourself digging the sound of the amp/pedal combination so much that this becomes your default rhythm tone. It adds a sort of 'mastered' vibe to your sound, and the compression and saturation of the overdrive pedal prompts you to take more musical chances because it covers up the occasional not-hit-quite-hard-enough note. And you crank up the reverb control too, because it helps to fill in the gaps sonically when you're playing unaccompanied at home. It also helps the guitar to blend in when you're jamming along with some tunes over your stereo, hi fi, boom box or whatever it is you jam to.
Now, I do think there's a time and place for that over-saturated, over-reverbed sound: whatever makes you want to play guitar is a good thing as far as I'm concerned, and I usually use a little more gain and reverb when I’m playing on my lonesome. But the irony is, as soon as you take this great tone and apply it to a band or recording situation, it doesn't sound so great any more. It's mushy and indistinct, and the very reverb that helped your guitar to blend in so well with those CDs or mp3s now seems to do nothing but bury your guitar in the mix, especially if you’re double-tracking. So you turn up the volume knob or fader to get a bit more volume, but that just makes you louder. Argh! Distortion, why do you want to hurt us? We love you!
And that's the problem. Like too much creme brulee or the fourth hour of a Futurama marathon, too much distortion can be too much of a good thing. For recording and live performance purposes you'll generally get a much more defined, punchy and ultimately heavy guitar sound by dialing back the gain by a hair. There are plenty of great recorded examples of this. Tool's Adam Jones is a fantastic role model as a guitarist who keeps the gain relatively restrained, especially on the brilliant Undertow album. You can hear and feel every note, and there’s plenty of space for the drums and bass to roam in too. Queens Of The Stone Age/Them Crooked Vultures guitarist/vocalist Josh Homme is another player who understands this less-is-more approach. On the stadium rock side, George Lynch often stresses the importance of reigning the gain in the pursuit of a punchier tone.
And of course the biggest and best example of this strategy is AC/DC. Malcolm Young's classic rhythm tone is punchy and clear, and close inspection reveals that it's much cleaner than it initially appears. If you’ve ever tried to play an AC/DC song with full-on mega doom distortion, you’d see that it just doesn’t fit.
I’ve prepared a little musical example that I recorded to illustrate the difference in punchiness between two gain levels. You'll hear two 16-bar cycles of a hard-panned double-tracked guitar part played through a heavily distorted setting on my Gibson Les Paul Traditional. Then the exact same performance is played back through exactly the same amp model, except with the gain control rolled back to 4. This makes it more articulate, punchier, more defined and definitely heavier, even though there's less gain used and we tend to equate distortion with heaviness.
Here’s the clip.
To be perfectly honest, I kinda like some aspects of the over-distorted version too, especially as a texture rather than as a featured part, but I know which one I'd rather use to show off the tone of my guitar and the little details within the riff. The more distorted part has a lot of background noise and the notes tend to smear a bit, especially during the busy little tags at the end of each two-bar sequence, and the space between the stop-start chugs loses its impact. A noise gate would take care of that background noise but at the expense of attack. The lower-gain version just flows better. It also seems louder and less claustrophobic. The waveform of that half of the track even looks better.
What about you? How do you achieve your gain, and do you use different methods depending on whether you’re recording, practicing or gigging?