Through the 1980s and 1990s the electric guitar player’s love for their distortion knew no bounds.
Whether hair bands, speed metal, post-grunge, nu-metal or even the bizarre pop-rock mixes of the 2000s (The Three Doors Downs and Nickelbacks of the world), heavy gain and distorted guitars have been almost a given.
They’ve been the norm.
Gear I Used in this Post
- Boss DS-1 Distortion
- Line 6 Spider IV 150-Watt Modeling Amp
- PRS CE 24 Electric Guitar
- Boss MD-2 Mega Distortion
- Ibanez TS9DX Tube Screamer
- Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler
Pedal cabling or couplers?
For cabling between pedals, I recommend using the Planet Waves right-angle patch cables, which are low capacitance, shielded (practically noiseless) and come cheap in packs of three.
Shielded, low-capaciatance Planet Waves patch cables help cut down on noise and pedal hiss.
Gold pedal couplers will have the same effect and significantly reduce noise between pedals.
The generations of guitar players that grew up during those decades have depended on distortion and high gain as a staple of their playing style.
Sure, you’ve had the occasional outlier.
The kids who wanted to study classical guitar or who really got into jazz were always there, as not all rushed into the world of rock and metal. But most leaned towards an interest in rock music or established their musical knowledge in heavy blues theory.
In other words, they almost always used some form of distortion.
Modern Distortion Pedal Settings: Why Distortion is Different Now
The ’80s and ’90s were a simpler time.
It was a time of Kurt Cobain, Metallica and a litany of successful rock bands that made their name heavily distorted hits. You actually heard songs like “Lakini’s Juice” performed on Saturday Night Live. But things are different now.
I’m not saying that world is completely gone, but it has changed significantly.
Distortion and its usefulness is more limited today, meaning that guitar players need to have a wider range of tones and a more adept skill set when it comes to using their clean signal and “gain-less” effects.
That means the best use of a distortion pedal isn’t to simply use it all the time.
It also means that best distortion pedal settings are a little more versatile and dynamic. So if you understand how to make your distortion pedal fit into today’s musical climate, you’ll be a far more valuable musician.
Distortion and its usefulness is more limited today
Because the shredder and power chord guy don’t get the gig.
Those guys are not unique or hard to come by. You need something more, and it starts with understanding how to properly utilize your distorted tone.
#1: Using Gain to Counteract Song Intensity
Keep in mind, there is no “rulebook” when it comes to this stuff.
Instead, you get broadly reliable tactics.
One of those tactics is to use your gain (whether it be from your pedal or amp) to counteract the intensity of the rest of the song.
In short, you want your gain to be the inverse of the rest of the music.
So if you have a song with heavy drums, vocals and piano, you might consider avoiding a heavily distorted guitar.
Because the song doesn’t need it. It would sound redundant and muddy.
Exceptions to the Rule
As is the case with most rules, there are exceptions.
Some musical genres (metal and many of its sub-genres) just want everything to be loud. If that’s where you camp, then your gain is likely always all the way up.
In other cases you’ll have particular segments of songs that stay loud.
So be aware that this is a broad and general rule, not static advice.
Some Settings and Examples
Let’s look at some examples with the Boss DS-1 distortion.
Though it’s not a particularly aggressive distortion to begin with, it does have a good tone and a straightforward control scheme that we can use to dial in a more subtle overdrive.
Start with the following configuration:
We cut the distortion knob (DIST) all the way back to to roughly nine o’clock. The tone knob is a little higher, and the level stays at the halfway point.
So on a scale of one to 10:
- DIST: 3
- TONE: 4
- LEVEL: 5
Three, four and five are easy to remember. Though I’d advise matching up your distortion’s level knob with that of the master volume on your amp.
This setting means you’ll have some edge and overdrive to your tone, but not so much that you can’t still take a clean approach to your playing. It’s also an ideal setting to avoid over-saturating the music or being too noisy.
#2: Lean Towards the Low End
Regardless of how much gain you use, a distorted tone should have a thicker quality to it.
It should sound heavy, with more low end as opposed to high.
So even if you aren’t using a lot of gain, you should still be looking for a fuller tone to house the distorted signal.
Here’s what I came up with:
In this instance we’re using a BOSS MD-2 Mega Distortion that actually has a control labeled “bottom.” Think seven out of 10 for that knob, or something close for your pedal’s bottom equivalent (usually bass, low, etc.).
Other controls are labeled as follows:
- Level: 5
- Bottom: 8
- Dist: 6-7
- Gain Boost: 6-7
If you’re using a distortion from your amp instead, the bass knob becomes your focus.
Note: If you use a pedal for distortion, make sure that your pedal’s setting isn’t fighting an opposing tone on your amplifier. For example, you might have your amp set to a fairly high tone, while you try to use your pedal to compensate with something on the low end. Ideally, your amp has the first say in tonal direction, so adjust your amplifier first, then work on your pedal to compliment. You want the two to agree.
Let’s try another example with the Ibanez TS9DX Tube Screamer:
Here we’ve used a similar tactic by boosting the low end (the TS9 mode is fairly low) and matching up the levels with our clean tone:
- Drive: 10
- Mode: TS9
- Level: 5
- Tone: 8
Below is a quick checklist you can refer to for making sure that your pedal and amp settings (if you’re using a distortion pedal) are consistent:
You should be able to answer yes to all of these questions:
- Does the volume level of my pedal match that of my amp?
- Does the gain preserve the integrity of (i.e. not overpower) my amp’s tone?
- Is my amp’s tone adequate without the distortion pedal?
- Do the distortion pedal settings compliment and enhance the tone of my amp?
To capture a consistent, low-end tone, here are the settings I’ve used for my amplifier to go along with these effects:
#3: Adding Definition to your Delay
To summarize the technique, we’re going to use our distortion pedal settings to add some more substance to the sound we’re getting from our delay.
He add just enough distortion to his delay to give it that extra boost. It’s heavier, thicker and more responsive than what you would hear through a perfectly clean channel.
Start with the following:
- Clean amp signal with a good dose of bass in the tone.
- Distorted pedal (or amplifier) with a modest amount of gain dialed in.
- Rhythmic delay that is placed before the distortion in your effects chain.
I used the same amp settings as above.
I continued to use the Boss DS-1 distortion, since it’s produces a subtle overdrive.
For a delay I used the Line 6 DL4 in “Rhythmic” mode with the following presets:
The gain gives a little more volume to your delay and makes the notes more distinct. You’re also going to get a chunkier quality to the tone, where the picking sounds and scrapes will have a lot more presence and definition than they would with zero gain.
Depending on the source of your distortion (what type of amp or pedal you use) you’ll want to experiment with settings until you find a good balance of tone.
In general, here’s what you want to look for:
- Gain shouldn’t be too saturating.
- Sustain should be limited.
- Sound should be “almost” clean, but with a noticeable amount of distortion.
If your distortion is too heavy, you’ll just end up with a messy sound. That mess can come from too much saturation or sustain, which is why we want to keep those low.
You might have to spend some trial-and-error time, but once you do find something that works, I’d recommend writing down your settings or making a note on your pedal.
#4: Multiple Distortion Levels
It’s good to have a variety when it comes to the volume and gain levels of your distortion.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have an established tone or a consistent sound, but having two or three different distortion levels can help you be more accommodating to a wider range of music and can even help you handle guitar tracks better within individual songs.
For instance, you might need a softer, more subtle distortion during a verse and then a heavier distortion for the chorus.
It’s a simple example, but a good place to start.
So how does this work?
You have a few different options.
1. Two Different Distortion Pedals
First, you can approach this by keeping two distortion pedals on your pedalboard. Personally, I’m not at all opposed to owning two of the exact some distortions with their own distinct settings:
The scheme might look like this:
So you’ve got two of the exact same pedal, with one on a low-gain setting and the other on a high gain setting.
And of course there’s nothing saying that you can’t use two different distortion pedals and still make this work. For example, I use a Boss DS-1 and a Boss MD-2, since I just happen to have both of them. They’re close enough in tone that I can work with them together.
The MD-2 handles higher gain sounds while the DS-1 handles the more subtle stuff.
Here’s a shot of the settings I like to use when I have both pedals on my board:
2. Amplifier Channels
This is the route that most guitar players take, either because they only own one distortion pedal or because they use the distortion in their amps.
If you look at our Combo Amps Roundup post, you’ll notice that most amps have more than one channel. That’s meant to give the guitar player the option of several different sounds within their amplifier.
Via a footswitch or the amp’s interface, the guitarist can change between different settings that have been preset on each individual channel.
This works best when you’re not using a distortion pedal, since the signal from a pedal can’t be drastically changed by the amplifier, aside from its volume.
Ideally, if you’re using amp channels to change distortion sounds, the source of your distortion should be the amp itself. That way you can dedicate two channels to two different kinds of distortion, just like in the pedal example above: One for a subtle, low-gain option and the other for a high-gain variation.
3. Volume Pedal or Your Guitar’s Volume Knob
One of the simplest (though less versatile) ways to adjust your distortion’s tone is to use the volume knob on your guitar or a volume pedal placed at the end of your effects chain.
In my opinion, these options are the least desirable for the following reasons:
- Cutting volume alters and comprises every aspect of your tone, not just your distortion.
- Volume pedals and knobs are difficult to adjust on the fly.
- You don’t get the tone control that you get with two pedals or amp channels. Only the volume can change.
That’s not to say that this isn’t a viable option, because it is an incredibly simple and easy way to adjust your tone.
My advice would be to use it as a supplementary instead of primary method.
To test it out, kick on your distortion with the volume knob (or pedal) at full. Now, cut the volume down by roughly three-quarters. Your distortion should sound much more subtle as three-quarters of its gain will be gone.
#5: On for the Chorus - Off for the Verse
Once again, we have a principle that should be looked at as a general rule of thumb, with many creative exceptions.
But if your habit is to use distortion all the time, it might be a good idea to cut it down this way:
- Use it during high-intensity choruses.
- Avoid it during quieter verses.
Today’s music is structured this way most of the time, where choruses are swollen, intense and emotional, while verses are quieter and more reflective. This is particularly true in the world of rock and pop.
Your guitar should follow suit.
Distortion excels when it comes to raising the intensity of a song. The only problem is when guitar players use it all the time, it loses that intense appeal and just becomes annoying noise.
So using distortion is like drinking alcohol. Moderation is key.
A good way to start moderating is to get in the habit of turning it off during verses and instead opting for a delay or phaser effect.
Marcos Curiel of P.O.D. uses this technique quite a bit.
#6: General Best Practices
We’ve been digging into some long-winded topics, but to wrap things up I’ll leave you with a quick-hit list of best distortion pedal settings and practices that you can use to clean up your sound and get more from your gain.
Sometimes the changes you need to make are really easy and won’t cause you as much of a headache as you might think.
Or maybe you just want a few quick ways to improve.
Here’s what I would suggest:
- Place your distortion pedal at the end of your effects chain, but before your wah or volume pedal.
- Avoid dialing in high-pitched tone on a distortion pedal. Use your amp’s EQ instead.
- Examine genre-friendly standards when choosing gain levels.
- Avoid coupling distortion with too many other effects.
- Use lower levels of gain for effects coupling.
And lastly, I’d add that you should experiment and work with your own gear until you get a sound that you’re happy with. Because I can give you conventions, but ultimately your own gear and the combination thereof, is going to have a lot to say about your sound.
So take conventional wisdom with a grain of salt and be willing to get creative and proactive about your settings.
Our use of distortion is changing.
It’s not as simple as it used to be. And guitar players who miss that are going to end up sounding muddy, noisy and out of touch.
As always, there are exceptions based on genre and interest. But it pays to know how to use your distorted tone and how to adapt it to what’s going on in the music of our day. Plus, it’s always better to be a more versatile guitarist, regardless of what year it is.
So take the time to learn your distortion.
You’ll be a more valuable musician and a more gig-worthy player.
Could you use more gear help?
Producing “great tone” is a worthy pursuit, but not always an obvious one.
We all own a unique collection of gear that seems to sound different all the time. That’s normal, but still something we need to learn to deal with.
We need to learn our gear.
If you want to access some resources that will help dealing with a specific tonal pursuit, piece of gear or other questions related to your rig, I’d recommend giving Guitar Tricks 14-day free trial a test run - there’s no obligations and you’ve got nothing to lose - except two free weeks of one of the most comprehensive and thorough guitar education websites in existence.
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Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of Trisha Weir