Tone Tips: Clean Tones Can Create Bigger Rock Guitar Sounds

One of the pure pleasures of playing rock guitar lies in the simple aural beauty of that searing wash of distortion that flows through you when you hit a big, crunchy power chord or bend a solo note into singing sustain. You can almost hear the harmonic overtones pulsing and blooming and tickling your cochlear nerve as we speak, right?

The thing is, placing that delectable distortion within the context of a band can often be more difficult than we imagine. Plenty of good guitarists who've been digging their juicy dirt at home find it tricky to get their heavy overdrive tones to sit right in a full-band mix when they first get out to play live or in the studio.

Once all those instruments start working together—drums pounding and cymbals crashing, bass thumping, another guitar or keyboards blaring away, and a vocalist howling to be heard above it all—your carefully crafted guitar tone that was sounded massive before while in a room on its own can often sound mushy, soft, washed out, and pretty much... gone.

There's an easy way to make it work, though, and to sound exponentially bigger in an instant, but the solution requires you to take on board some counter-intuitive thinking. Put simply: Clean it up.

Don't Let Gain Over-Compress Your Signal

While a hugely distorted, high-gain guitar tone can sound huge in the room, its sonic properties can get lost when fighting with other instruments in the same frequency range within a crowded mix. On many occasions, amps that are dialed-in for uber-distortion also compress a lot when you hit your guitar hard, making them sink a little further into the background on the pick attack.

Many players with channel-switching amps set up to go between clean and lead channels have noticed this phenomenon while recording: They have an amp mic'd up and dialed-in for a good, crisp, clean rhythm tone and a lead tone that sounds ginormous in the room, but are astounded to see that the signal-level LEDs on the desk or DAW actually peak lower with the lead channel engaged than they do when they're playing clean, even though their ears tell them it should be the other way around.

Test out those same two amp settings with a full band going, however—while standing at a slight distance from the performance area—and your ears will likely register the same reality as that meter: That clean sound cuts and projects better than the overly gain-y lead sound.

To give that lead or crunch-rhythm tone more girth and improve its ability to punch through the mix, try dialing down the preamp gain knob at that channel's first stage (which might be labeled Gain, Drive, Overdrive, Lead, or just Volume). Then, if necessary, raise the master volume a little to compensate for any decreased volume induced by that lower gain setting. If you've got a ton of bass in your EQ stage, try lowering that a little too, which will not only make the guitar fight with the bass and kick drum less, but will enable your own amp to punch out the mid-range—where the guitar really lives—with a little more authority, relative to your overall volume.

These minor tweaks will almost universally result in a guitar tone that cuts through the mix better and, as a result, sounds bigger. The end product usually gives you more dynamics, too, which means the guitar and amp respond well to your heavier or lighter pick attack, making your playing more expressive, all of which will come through in your performance.

Which isn't to say that your lead and crunch tones have to be entirely clean and devoid of distortion to achieve this. Obviously, you still might want to goose up the gain of solos a little so they sing and sustain, but the added tightness and extra solidity in the low-end and mid-range in particular will really help you to be heard better.

Listen Back to Classic Crunch and Wail

We can turn to several classic recordings for easy examples of how well this "clean it up" technique works, 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 tone" as having been utterly dripping with distortion, but listen anew to a few and you'll hear that, in many instances, the guitars really aren't that dirty.

I know Alice Cooper's "School's Out" and Ted Nugent's "Cat Scratch Fever" sounded massive when I was a kid, but a quick refresher confirms that the guitars are far from high-gain, with amps really just set a hair beyond the edge of breakup. Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song"—forget about it. Like the rest of Jimmy Page's guitar parts throughout the era, those riffs sounded behemoth, but they're really not overly distorted or excessively saturated at all when you listen closely.

Led Zeppelin - "Immigrant Song"

For other examples, dig up AC/DC's "Back in Black," Soundgarden's "Fell On Black Days," Free's "All Right Now" (that riff has long been a banner for archetypal huge tone), or even Metallica's "Enter Sandman." Certainly there's plenty of gain in Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield's guitars in the latter, but the lows and lower-mids are always tight and punchy, and the upper-mids and highs remain free from fizz or overly diffuse saturation.

Obviously, any extreme metal or shred players will need some serious hair in their preamp gain to achieve "that sound," but even here the key is to work your tone to keep the guitar part from becoming too fizzy, nebulous, or washed out. Get it to pop out with some punch and solidity, whether live or in the studio, and you'll get heard, and sound great in the process.

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