The most mellow distortion ever - perhaps it shouldn't be allowed?

The most mellow distortion ever - perhaps it shouldn't be allowed?

The recent feature on achieving mellow distortion has hit a raw nerve. Better read it quick before it gets pulled.

Audio Masterclass

Some people don't want you to know this - how to achieve mellow distortion from your guitar instead of teeth-pulling cacophony. Apparently it's a "pretty beginner tip", just "pointing out the obvious". Apparently "it's just common sense" and is "really stretching for articles". Clearly that is code for, "You've just given away a secret that should only be known to the 'inner circle' of producers."

Whoops, sorry. Oh, and I'm not going to pull the article. Sorry again.

On the other hand, some of the comments add to the debate. Johnzed of London, for example, suggests using Roland's hexaphonic pickup. I'm not familiar with this model, but certainly if you had a pickup with six separate windings, then it would be possible to send the signals from individual strings to six amplifiers. Wow indeed, I'd love to play through a system like that!

Ed Dunlap of Maine too has an interesting point to make about using fragments of chords rather than the whole 'proper' chord from the chord book. Many guitarists, myself included, are guilty of playing the usual chords far too often, when the guitar is much more versatile in the hands of a truly creative player.

I would like to add an additional point about tuning and distortion. Sorry if I am giving away another secret, or 'being too obvious' as some would put it...

The guitar is a difficult instrument to tune. Violins and cellos are easy. Tuning the piano takes time but is straightforward for someone who knows the method. But the guitar is always difficult because it's a compromise.

Tuning the six open strings precisely is easy, but the frets of even a good-quality guitar can never be in exactly the right positions, and tuning is also affected by the gauge of the string and how it bends over the fret when stopped.

So a good player will almost instinctively adapt the tuning of his or her guitar to achieve the best compromise for the chords being played. And even if it were possible to tune a guitar precisely, it would still be an equal-tempered instrument where all the intervals are slightly 'off'.

Now put distortion into the equation. A single note will distort smoothly; a well tuned-fifth will also distort smoothly because of the simple relationship between the frequencies of the notes. A well-tuned third has a more complex relationship between the frequencies, but the distortion should still be smooth.

But if the notes are even slightly out of tune, then the relationship between the frequencies is far more complex than a simple 3:2 or 5:4 - more like 3.174:2 or something like that.

Now, the distortion is intense as even more complex intermodulation products are allowed to build up.

If you really want mellow distortion, then the tuning of the guitar will be a significant issue. Tuning the guitar accurately won't be enough. Even getting the best compromise tuning for the chords you are playing may not be enough.

It may well be that to get a really smooth sound all the way through a song, you have to bend certain strings ever so slightly as you play to adjust the pitch of individual notes so that the distortion is exactly the way you want it.

Of course, a really good player will do this instinctively, but we lesser players often have to think about it.

Getting the right shade of distortion is an intrinsic part of guitar playing, and of recording production. Putting the guitar in exactly the right state of tune is an important component of making the distortion sound exactly the way you want it.

Publication date: Monday June 26, 2006
Author: David Mellor



COME ON THE FREE COURSE TOUR! - Learn how Audio Masterclass can help you
become a better producer and engineer in your own home recording studio!

The Audio Masterclass 12-stage free video tour



Earlier discussion on this topic...

pink, rockville, usa

hey, Jack, pass me a brewskie and take this doob, allright? it's all good, we guitar slingers are all family, and we are use them pudgyy little fingers and crack another beer!!


but i think we make love to the universe while we poke them guitars, lol...

be well, comrade...may the Leo Fender God always shine bvrightly on ya, may ya never misplace your pick, and may your strings stay ever un-dead and vibrant and in tune!

damn, i REALLY need that beer!!


Wednesday September 27, 2006

Jack, Peterborugh, Canada

Yea, it's kind of like we are united as one. Much like a legion with the same cause, to make music. As you say, my fellow comrad Pink. On earth to make love to our instruments with our tiny, but fat fingers.


Sorry bout that. I just finished a new song and I'm on my third beer. I best put down the mouse before I hurt myself.

Cheers all

Tuesday September 26, 2006

pink, rockville, usa

LOL....we are legion!!!
Tuesday September 26, 2006

Jack, Peterborugh, Canada

Dam, but there are a lot of us guitar players around (LOL). Kinda puts perspective on things eh?

Tuesday September 26, 2006

Nuno, Lisboa, Portugal

I usually play with distortion, but I avoid using too much of it. I prefer to add some harmonic complexity to my playing over a heavy and rich tone.

Also, I don't use either power or full chords most of the time. Let the bass play the root notes and I just play some inverted chords on top, adding an extra 7th or 9th. It sounds much more interesting.
Tuesday September 26, 2006

jimi, rockville, usa


i agree completely...while modeling amps are an interesting idea, (i LOVE my cyber twin once i turned off all the BS) the problem with them is they SOUND like a RECORDING of an amp...not like the amp itself.

and they feel fuckin' horrible!

i've gotten some good results with an old PS Systems Power Tool with various tube amps...but nothing like sound waves hitting a microphone for depth, and ....ahem..."presence"..LOL.

i am NOT a big fan of modeling; it's great for a quick mix here and there, and ya can get some good results with it, still SOUNDS like a RECORDING of an amp to me.

sorry for the rant.

Saturday July 08, 2006

Lz, aurel Maryland, USA

You're very welcome jp.

Thank you.

The Les Paul/Tele thing always sounds great. I've known that for awhile now. Your acoustic guit tip sounds interesting. I have to try trhat.

What I don't get is almost every young guitarist that I meet swears by their POD xt. The thing is, they sound so two dimensional. The missing link is the air that they are not moving. A LOT of a heavy guit tone comes the speakers. Before setting mics on a cabinet you have to get the master/preamp volume just right, and then you have to get the speakers excursing. Can't see the speakers? Get a mini mag light and look through the grill cloth. There is much more to a good heavy guit tone than simply plugging into a POD.
Saturday July 08, 2006


thanks for the props, LZ!

i'd like to add that your accoustic guitar trick can work outrageously well in reverse sometimes a huge swampy wet reverbed crunch guitar supporting a cheesy piezo ovation...

strange things work, it's ALL good...

oh, and a touch of compression after the fact when building string choirs can really bring the track to life...

and then there's the lespaul and tele trick(s)...

peace to all!

Friday July 07, 2006

Lz, Laurel Maryland, USA

Double the part using a bright sounding acoustic guitar. This track(s) can be left underneath the louder electric tracks to add sort of a "Snap" to your sound. Mute the acoustic track and you will hear it's effect. Using chords in the open position works very well. In terms of amplitude the acoustic guit should be much lower in volume, almost to the point that it is not heard. When you mute it out you should hear the difference that this makes. Doubling the root note of the chords with a piano can also be a useful trick.

As for tuning, I've been doing jimi from rockvilles trick for years! Do it, it works!
Friday July 07, 2006

Lz, Laurel Maryland, USA

Very good article David. There are some great tips in this thread. Here is my reciepe for a distorted tone. I use a Marshall JCM 2000 TSL into a 4-12 cab loaded with celestion golds. While most people love to crank the preamp gain to the roof, I have found that backing it off and pushing the master volume higher clarifies the distorted tone. An old Neve or simular designed prreamp (1272 or 1073) adds complexity to the distortion. I add more gain here. A Distressor or an 1176 placed behind the preamp but only allow the signal to pass through it's circuitry using no compression. In short you are building the gain in stages.

I also like using more than one guitar and amplifier. No secret here but, I like to use guitars that are in different tunings, say dropped D and Standard. One guitar with single coils the other with buckers. Different mics for each amp/guitar combo. Take a clean DI so that it may be reamped later or sent to a modeling device.
Friday July 07, 2006

Johnzed, London, UK

(from previous) ...and easy way to experiment with distorting various ranges of the guitar. Of course, neither Guitar Rig nor Quadrafuzz can actually process individual strings so the best way to do this is as David suggested, to split the chord or part and play separately. I believe this is called 'divisio' when using the technique with orchestral instruments so in a way, the technique is time tested. For myself, I often split a guitar part into 2 or at most 3 sections for separate recording. As well as avoiding the intermodulation distortion common with full chords it also gives a different feel to the part which I find pleasant.
Wednesday July 05, 2006

Johnzed, London, UK

When I referred to the Roland system I specifically mentioned the VG-8. The guitar synth system itself is, as you might think, for triggering sounds from the guitar. The VG-8, on the other hand, does have what Roland call 'hexophonic distortion', which does distort each string individually. The GK bit is merely the hex pickup and it would not be possible without some hacking at the cable or connector to access the pickups individually. Also, they are piezo pickups so would probably not sound great without a good dose of convolution to give them the life of a normal pickup.

On another point, it is possible using NI's guitar rig to 'crossover' (new noun?) a standard guitar and run each frequency range through it's own amp model. The number of ranges is limited only by the CPU of the host computer. Jim Aitkin of EQ Mag et al designed the quadrafuzz pedal which has now been turned into a plug-in is provided with Cubase/Nuendo and is a quick (to be continued)
Wednesday July 05, 2006

pilgrim, USA

a provocative subject and discussion, thanks. my 2 cents (that's yankee for, umm, bits, I think); it seems to be mostly in the hands. You mention the word 'intuitively' along with 'experienced player' a couple of times. With all of the variables involved and the overall subjectivity of 'smooth distortion' I think it's nearly impossible to form any one recipe. One good starter; a redhot tube amp and a solid piece of wood. Add some soul and shake it like you mean it!
Monday July 03, 2006

pink, rockville, usa

roland GR series pickups alone aren't too useful for spreading the signal of the six strings...they are best used for driving synths.

if you want individual pan over the strings, try to find an old Kramer Ripley guitar...which had a stereo output and panning for each of the 6 strings.

however, you can BUY roland GK 2 replacement pickups, then wire it so that each string has it's own output...

but that's a lotta work, and 6 jacks on a guitar, COULD do it if you wanted i guess!!
Tuesday June 27, 2006

Jack Leyton, Paterborough Ontario, Canada

Using a crossover with guitar. Hey Tim. I had a buddy of mine (Brian Macload) who played with a number of bands, but best known for his work with Head pins and Chilliwack In the studio he would use a Marshall cabinet which he would mic through a 3 way PA system which used a crossover of course. He would then mic each individual cabinet (Low, Mid and High) and mix the 3 strips on the board to get his tone. He managed to get a wonderful sweet mid range crunch that wailed. He was an amazing guitarist and drummer, which most people did not know. He died over a decade ago of cancer but will be remembered by myself, his friends, and his fans as a great person with exsessive humor, but mostly talant.

Jack Leyton
Tuesday June 27, 2006


continued....are the easiest intervals to "tune" by ear, generally...when the "beating" slows to a thick beautiful sine wave, you're there) now add thea string, fretted at the 5th fret...again, play with the other intervals and it's easy to tell when the pitches are good.

finally, wrap the thumb to the third fret of the bass course, and tune to the rest of the guitar.

you now have a temper- tuned guitar that is tuned to itself much like a piano, and MOST chords should sound more "in tune"...

the chord should look like this, basically:







tempered tuning on a guitar by ear...with a little practice, anyone can do this.

ramble on.
Tuesday June 27, 2006

jimi, rockville, usa

i must agree on the Cyber Twin comments...tho personally i DON'T use either the compressor or that lame ass cheesy sounding noise gate. i cna hear them on, and would rather have the minimal noise...i remember my old plexis, these things are cake.

anyways, tempered tuning a guitar is reasonaly easy; i have a technique i developed way back in the dawn of the 70's that is still use today....seems to work to make all the primary chords sound reasonably in tune, and barred chords a no- brainer.

should i hip you guys??


it's all about a G chord...or specifically a g DIAD (two notes, or in this case, pitches simultaneously).

basically, tune your g string. tune your treble course e string so that it's third fret is a pure octave of the open g.

now throw the 5th, the D at the third fret of the B string have a rudimentary root-five-octave "power chord".

now add the open d string, and tune it to the previously tuned strings...(octaves and fifths (too be continued)
Tuesday June 27, 2006

Tim, DeLeon, Texas, USA

I've always wanted to feed my guitar through a 2 or three way cross over and distort the different component freq. differently from each other. Anyone out there ever try this? I know alot of famous guitar players (Stevie Ray Vaughan, Billy Gibbons etc) have used multiple amps (at the same time)to get the tone they want...more or less the same idea...
Tuesday June 27, 2006

Gary Quick, Plymouth, England

The message here is simple ... fretted guitars are never completely in tune for all scales. Indeed the current western scale is a compromise in itself of all true scales and modes and their proper frequency separations. However in our current acceptance of this comprised scale we use, (fretted) guitars cannot be tuned exactly. If you go by the electronic tuner you will meritoriously find that most chords and scales work and are in tune, however this is not so for all scales. Unfortunately my knowledge of this subject is somewhat limited so I cannot reveal all, though I can advise that music in the keys of D and G in particular are best tuned relatively rather than by use of a tuner. The root note is still best found using a tuner. Hope this helps.
Monday June 26, 2006

Mark Hughes, Melbourne, Australia

Well, I wasn't going to comment last time, even though I thought it wasn't a great article as such, but now the tip seems to be "make sure you tune your guitar for recordings"?

Monday June 26, 2006

abe, chicago, SA

why anyone would dis this article is beyond me. yeah it's simple- some of the best things in life are! that doesnt mean it lacks merit or isnt worth talking about.

shit- all I know is that its better than listening to all of you bastards haggle over hard drives and plug ins all day.

this is some of the most useful info i've seen on this sight in a long time. who cares if it's a so called"beginner's" tip. it is much more crucial than the old mac vs. pc crap that seems to swamp most of this sight.
Monday June 26, 2006


"Do any guitars have movable frets?"


... fretless guitars.
Monday June 26, 2006

Aki "thicker than a really thick thing" Atrill, Alderholt, UK

Hey David! Talking of having six seperate outputs (1 for each string) I'm sure if you messed around inside a Line6 Variax (like the one I own) you could be able to wire each of the 6 bridge mounted peizo pickups (yes, thats right... one for each string) to have a driect out for each string... thus giving the ability to plug into 6 seperate amps!

What a quality Idea!

'cept your electric bill might go up and you'd need to own 6 amps, hmm. No room to stand huh?

Still bear merit huh.
Monday June 26, 2006

Chris, Bayamon, Puerto Rico

I agree with W.Deadmonton's comment.

Yet I love the nerve to answer back

with the ever so slight sarcasm!
Monday June 26, 2006

Jack Leyton, Paterborough Ontario, Canada

Jack here again. I ran out of space on my Cyber Twin preset entry. Last week I played an outdoor concert with my Cyber Twin, Marshall Cab, and Ibanez JEM rig. The venue had about 15,000 people. During soundcheck, everything went as normal until I plugged in and gave the soundman a few licks. He actually yelled out to me and said "Jack, you have got to come out here and here your guitar, it's f--king amazing". Not something you typically here from a pro soundcrew who could not be more tired of hearing guitar players woodly woodly during soundchecks. The bass player was not ready for his soundcheck and the soundman actually yelled out for me to do some more playing while we waited. I have also played venues where huge backline companies have purchased the Cyber Twin after hearing me and asked for my specific presets. I am thrilled with my tone, finely after 30 years of playing. Still more to do, but I am happy with my distorted Ryth and lead tones.

Monday June 26, 2006

Warden, Deadmonton, Canada

David, you do not need to defend yourself. I love tuning into RP every Monday and feel the advice you give is worthwhile to all levels of people involved in the music industry. Why is it offensive to share thoughts on distortion when so many amateurs record it terribly? To all those who posted negative and non-constructive opinions on David's "Mellow Distortion" segment, shame on you. If you disagree than add some helpful insight- Build on them. Oh, and please feel free to send me all of your platinum records. I would love to listen to them. I could find many arguments to post telling you how crappy you did in your production.
Monday June 26, 2006

Jack Leyton, Paterborough Ontario, Canada

If you want to get a great distorted Ryth guitar tone, then purchase a Fender Cyber Twin and program the folling patch. Use a Strat type guitar, throw away the Fender pickups and replace them with Seymore Duncan Staggered 1's. If anyone wants more presets for Lead and clean tones then just let me know. I use the Cyber Twin with an Ibanez JEM 77B RMR guitar through a Stereo Vintage 30 Marshall Cabinet. I also have a custom Fender Strat and Shecter.

Title: Distorted Ryth for single coil


Tone Stack Type: British

Tone Stack Loc: Post Distortion

Drive Circuitry: HMB Tube 2

Rev Type: Small Room

Rev Input: 6.4

Rev Tone: 9.0

Rev Time: 9.3

Rev Diffusion: 6.0

Timbre: Full Body

Line/Spkr: Phase Reverse Polarity

Comp: LOW

Noise Gate Depth: 9.5

Noise Gate Thresh: High

Expression Pedal: Volume

Cont Controller: Gain

Rev/FX Bypass: Rev Input Only

Gain: 8

Volume: 6.8

Treble: 4.5

Middle: 7.5

Bass: 9.5

Presence: 3.5

Reverb: 3.5
Monday June 26, 2006


There is currently a few guitars with more than 12 frets per octave. it's just tempered. I got to play one at a demonstration and it sounds great but drop 2s and things that dont' really exist in a common scale like minor/maj7th are still hard to tune.

This article was slightly less fluff than the last, thank you for adding some actual content.
Monday June 26, 2006

wildruby, Oxford, UK

That's one reason why lutes (and viols) have moveble frets -- you can adjust to the

tuning most suitable for the key you'll be playing in,

and still have the advantages of a fretted instrument.

Do any guitars have movable frets?
Monday June 26, 2006