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

A post by David Mellor
Monday June 26, 2006
The recent feature on achieving mellow distortion has hit a raw nerve. Better read it quick before it gets pulled.
The most mellow distortion ever - perhaps it shouldn't be allowed?

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 Audio Masterclass 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.

A post by David Mellor
Monday June 26, 2006 ARCHIVE
David Mellor has been creating music and recording in professional and home studios for more than 30 years. This website is all about learning how to improve and have more fun with music and recording. If you enjoy creating music and recording it, then you're definitely in the right place :-)
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