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.