What is it with guitar players and too much distortion?


Not a new user...
Apr 27, 2012
Raleigh, NC
While distortion is certainly a key ingredient to many great tones, it is sadly abused. I'm sure I'm guilty of using too much distortion from time to time as well (we all know how much fun it can be) but I like to think that when it comes to actually performing music in public I have some situational awareness and dial in something appropriate.

Friday night I saw three different tribute bands:

  • Led Zeppelin - the guitar player had a Les Paul and a Boogie Mark series (not sure which one). When I saw the Boogie I thought "uh-oh" - I figured he'd be like a lot of players and crank the distortion. Surprisingly, he had pretty darn good tone. Nice clean tone as well. When he used the middle position on the LP it really sounded pretty damn good. So far, so good.
  • AC/DC - "Angus" had a pretty good tone using a Marshall half-stack - perhaps a bit more gain that he should have but nothing that detracted from the vibe. "Malcolm" had way too much distortion. Despite using a Malcolm Sig Gretsch he used enough distortion to mask the tone of the guitar completely and provided little contrast to Angus on the SG. 'Twas a shame, it would have been cool to hear a nice crisp Gretsch.
  • Iron Maiden - these guys used WTF amounts of distortion. Iron Maiden definitely used some distortion but it's much more of the cranked Marshall + overdrive variety than a butt load of preamp gain with scooped mids.
    Both guys had full stacks. One had a Boogie Rectifier with one of those Boss GT pedals running into the front end and the other dude had some full stack buzzing bees sounding rig. At least they each used a bunch of delay too. The result was a sea of mud. There is no way you're going to get a tight crisp Maidenesque sound by diming the gain and using a bunch of delay. The only thing providing any sort of definition was the bass player.

Saturday I saw two different cover bands:

  • Band 1 - a popular local band with players that have been around a long time - the main guitar player had some custom made PRS/McInturf/Briggs looking guitar into a Blackstar head. His clean tone was terrible. It's hard to imagine getting a much worse clean tone. But it was better than his dirty tone. He had way too much distortion. Couple that with the smiley face EQ and you have a tone that buries itself. This guy also fell into the trap of having a clean tone that was much louder than his dirty tone - you can't trust your perception of the loudness when you dial in levels - a dirty tone will always sound much louder than it actually is. I think a lot of guitar players don't really think this through. So the singer played some guitar too. His tone made you really appreciate the other guy. He ran a Les Paul with a Sovtek head of some sort. It was one of the worst sounds I've heard someone make with an electric guitar. Imagine tons and tons of distortion combined with no mids and no bass. While I'm ranting, the bass player's tone was crap too. He actually had decent chops but he too had that scooped EQ on his bass rig so all you heard was clank/whoooom clank/whoooom over and over with no note definition.
  • Band 2 - another somewhat popular local band with players that ought to know better. The lead guitar player was ok with his gain but he fell into the clean tone is louder than the lead tone trap. The singer is another story. He used to have a small Boogie combo which sounded fine - he's not a great player but he made it work. Now he's using some Crate modeling amp. He only used one setting - it was probably labeled Brutalz or something. There was so much distortion that nothing he played was identifiable. Perhaps someone playing metal would have made this work but they play roots and pop rock and he's pretty much of a strummer on the guitar. Awesome.
What's even weirder is when the actual bands themselves use a hell of a lot more gain than the music they recorded 30 years ago. I'm thinking specifically Rush and Thin Lizzy. Recent Rush live shows I've watched on TV, Lifeson's tone is too much gain burying all the intricacies that make him such a great player. I also saw a Thin Lizzy show on Palladia, and they insisted on having three guitarists with so much gain on each guitar that it just sounded like "chchchchchchchchchccchhhhhh".

The worst guitar tone I've ever heard was this guy who was in a band with my father in law. The guy was running a red knob Fender M80 half stack and a pointy shred guitar. He managed to simultaneously be too quiet to be heard and also have so much treble dialed in that it would make your ears bleed. It doesn't make sense, and I never would have thought it was possible, but I witnessed it firsthand!
Yup, have experienced this as well. Another issue is that a lot of people use chorus and delay to hide a really bad clean sound but make it only worse.

Any of these bands, if they gig often, should know that what (maybe) sounds good at home will sound completely different in a band context, such as scooped mids etc. Also, even with Rectifiers that rely on preamp gain, the gain can actually be turned down when playing louder than bedroom volume - and the bass can be turned up again. I find that to get a decent sound at bedroom volume, I have to use higher settings (except bass) than when using the amp with the band.

Lastly there's of course the issue of using the wrong stuff. If I were in a Maiden cover band, I would not chose a Rectifier. Sure, Channel 3 on my Roadster coupled with a TS can get somewhat in the ballpark, but if you play in front of people with a tribute band, it would be so much easier just to approximate the stuff Maiden is using. Like you wrote, a boosted Marshall-type sound would be fine. So why even bother trying to make a Recto sound like a Marshall?

But using lots of distortion makes it easier to play (and to hide mistakes or sloppy playing). Maybe that's a reason why it is so overused.
No kidding! You should see my wife's pedalboard. Big muff, Fulltone bass drive, Boss Blues Driver. Variety! Though the Fulltone sounds absolutely massive.
Well what do you think they hear when they play? I think over gaining is the most commen mistake guitar players make.
What is this 'too much distortion'? Can you put that in English terms?

No kidding! You should see my wife's pedalboard. Big muff, Fulltone bass drive, Boss Blues Driver. Variety! Though the Fulltone sounds absolutely massive.

Must not comment....must not comment...please never mention that first pedal in this context again, I'm cramping up over here!
I use a pretty hefty a amount of gain, but I try to dial it back at higher volumes. I've found the louder the amp goes, the less gain I need. Anybody that wants to stop by and show me the 'best' (or even 'appropriate') settings is more than welcome! I've spent the last year trying to understand the nuances of each knob on the amp, but I appear to be a slow learner

My little self test is to play a chord somewhere around the middle of the neck, using all strings and not just a major bar chord. If I can't hear each individual note clearly, then I've got too much distortion.

Gain helps sustain, but you need to balance it with tone and clarity.
What I have noticed is what I hear when im playing doesnt sound quite the same on my recordings. If I was 3 feet tall that might not be the case. That has caused me to really watch my overdrive levels, I just dont want to be "that" guy.

One other trick that I learned some time ago is when I switch from odrive to clean and then back to odrive, I roll my volume down to make the transitions smooth. It works for me.

I saw that thin lizzy show and I noticed the triple threat distortion as well. One thing I liked about thin lizzy was incredible guitar tones. What do you think they heard when they were doing that show?????
If I was 3 feet tall that might not be the case.

"In ancient times...
Hundreds of years before the dawn of history
Lived a strange race of people... the Druids

No one knows who they were or what they were doing
But their legacy remains
Hewn into the living rock... Of Stonehenge!"
It's very simple: Where T = Threshold of crappyness, D = distortion, and P = poop, if D>T then P.

I still really enjoy playing, and I've heard myself, so I must have a very large value of T - I can use infinite distortion!
My little self test is to play a chord somewhere around the middle of the neck, using all strings and not just a major bar chord. If I can't hear each individual note clearly, then I've got too much distortion.

Gain helps sustain, but you need to balance it with tone and clarity.

I am sometimes guilty of using of using too much OD, usually from the amp versus pedals.

The problem with your above theory is that with 5708's and 5909's, you can always hear every note, no matter how much gain you have!! ;)
The more I dial in this amp, the lower the gain settings on my pedals go. The amp pretty much stays where I have the volume set, but the master is creeping up. That means the dirt pedals are becoming less dirt and more coloration+boost. Oh, and compared to most, my midrange is cranked. Other than the older players, the bands around here are toting WAY more amp than they need or can use anyway. A full stack in a bar??!! Come on! Then there are the modelers and their bag-o-bees patches. :violin:
I used to do it myself in the early days. Tons of OD, very muddy. Sounded great through a tiny amp at low levels in a bedroom. Sounds like something that fell out a dog's back end when playing live. Took me a while to figure out I didn't need much OD / Dist at all. Plenty mids, cleaner than you think tone and perhaps a touch of compression worked a treat. Of course that approach highlighted some issues with my playing that the boat load of OD covered up.

Another issue is that people try to copy the tones of their heroe's but those tones have all been nicely produced and not necessarily what came out of the amp in it's raw form. Sometimes a great guitar tone on record sounds pretty lousy on it's own in it's raw form and vice versa.

I find multi effects are worse for this. You need to set up different patches for home and live and it's all too easy to dial in more than you need of any given effect.
The whole reason for my do you think you hear thread was a direct result of a band I did sound for a while back. I was told they were a good band and they had a fair amount of people there to see them. I thought I was in for a treat. The first chord from the guitar player was not good. I had talked to him about his rig prior to the show and he talked about how his LP studio was the ultimate guitar.He had a marshall full stack and a bunch of pedals. There was no reason for the crap he was producing.

I kept asking myself, does he think that sounds good? Does the audience think it sounds good?

I dont want members here to think im a snob, I just want to understand