Name: Anthony Baltussen
Comment: I love playing guitar with a lot of gain, but it’s messing with cool chords like D7 or Asus4. I don’t really wanna give up my tone, but I also don’t want to end with only basic riffs and power-chords. Any tips on how I can keep my sound, but also add that special flavour to it?
Thank you for contacting me. Very interesting question and topic! Gain can be amazing in excess but I get what you mean about it messing your chords.
The reason for this is that by cranking the gain knob, the added distortion cuts the waveforms of the note more aggressively. As the gain goes up the more tonally complex chords just get puréed or sound muddy as they are not granted enough room for clarity of all notes.
This is a common issue though, when a guitarist has thoroughly learned the nuances of an acoustic guitar, they’ll swap to electric and start to layer their sound with the fat, aggressive sounding distortion we know and love. And probably notice fairly quickly that the more layered open chords sound completely different, incomplete, or just plain awful. There are many methods to cleaning up chords without compromising an expressive and dynamic distortion or fuzz effect, such as:
How to play chords with distortion or fuzz
I am a sucker for EQ, can’t get enough of it. I have 3 different stages of EQ settings in my setup which goes from Amp EQ, graphic EQ and Bass lift depending on what the song requires.
When it comes to cleaning up guitar chords, even the smallest and simplest adjustments can make a huge difference. Cutting the low end and boosting the mids can make a huge difference to note clarity without having to touch the gain on your amp.
A common feature of tube amps, specially the fender amps is their rich full bodied tube sound and lots of beefy low end, but a lot of bass frequencies in the guitar signal can make the guitar sound muddy and mask some of the more important ranges. By cutting the bass and allowing the high and low mids some more sonic space to stretch out, the chords will become a lot clearer.
Ease off on the saturation
This should be self explanatory and I know you don’t want to compromise gain but there is a clear factor to be addressed if your chords are sounding muffled. Does your Big Muff really need the Saturation all the way to the right? Does the DS1 have its gain so high that the amp will whistle when you take your hands off the strings?
Dialing this down to just over half way will make a big difference without making much of a compromise to the sound you’re looking for. Or if you wish to keep that grungy responsive feedback inducing level of saturation, the next point is another factor to consider.
Volume knobs on the guitar body, especially those on a Stratocaster are conveniently located to change the volume of the guitar signal on the fly. As an alternative, a Volume pedal can do the same trick and be adjusted with your foot leaving both hands free.
How this can clean up your chords is by adjusting the signal volume before the distortion; which will reduce input gain for the section where you’re playing chords, and back up for when the song requires a crunchy heavy riff.
This works fantastically if you happen to be using a single channel tube amp with High gain. The Rolled down signal volume will ease off on the gain, and rolled up will have those blistering thrills you desire.
And finally… Playing with implied chords & Double stops
By minimizing the amount of notes you are playing either by use of Double stops or an implied chord, there are less notes to create a huge clash of sound and can really be the best compromise in high gain situations. From a composition perspective, you need to ask yourself if all the notes you’re playing are necessary. Can this chord be played without a 5th or 3rd?
One thing Jimi Hendrix, John Entwistle, Victor Wooten, Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Page and Kurt Cobain all have in common is the use of double stops.
Well, maybe not Nelson Mandela actually.
But the rest used it in excess for sure.
A Double stop is when two harmony notes are played at the same time. The terms Triple stop and multiple stop are used for when the number of simultaneous played notes amount to three or more. This term applies only to string instruments, and originally applied to instruments such as violin, cello and double bass where two notes played at the same time were less common. These days it can be used to apply to guitar or Bass playing such as the given examples above.
To add body to the instrument part, two or more harmony notes can be played instead of just a single note. Examples of such in bass playing would be the song ‘Suggestion’ by Fugazi, ‘Diane’ by Hüsker Dü and almost everything by Lou Barlow in Dinosaur Jnr. In guitar playing they are far more common, specially to compensate for a chord in high gain situations.
They can be found used all over by Jimi Hendrix on songs like ‘Castles made of sand’, ‘Somewhere’ and ‘Hear my Train a Comin’, or for another classic example; Keith Richards on ‘Honky Tonk Woman’, which is almost entirely double stops.
Chord Partials/Implied chords
Chord partials, in a nutshell, are the musical application or tonal function of double stops and triple stops. But this is a term that exceeds string instruments. As the name suggests, a Chord partial (or implied chord) is only part of a chord and not always a complete chord that really exists for the purpose of variation in the piece.
For example the E7 chord in the main riff of ‘Outside Woman Blues’ by Cream is played as a triple stop, removing the chord’s 5th degree.
The Perfect 5th as a chord tone plays no part in defining whether a chord is major or minor since it is present in both, whereas the 3rd degree is the deciding note on whether the chord is a major chord or a minor chord.
Given the chord is a Dominant 7 chord; it also must contain the flat 7th degree as it is significant in defining the chord. This allows the distinct characteristics of the E7 chord to ring out and be recognisable even when played through a dirty, overdriven British tube amp.
Note how the Verse Chords are played in ‘White Room’ by Cream
Side Note: Sometimes in Reggae guitar the term ‘Chord Partial’ can be used in cases where all the notes of a complete triad are used, but the piece calls for only three upper register fretted notes to be played, instead of open chords. In this regard, the chord is complete but the voicing is partial with regards to how open chords are usually played on guitar.
Implied chords in application
When it comes to playing in high gain, spacing out the notes farther apart can help them sound a lot clearer and less like they’ve been puréed together. (This also applies for lower register chords or double stops on a Bass)
It can often be said that less is more, especially when it comes to music and art, and in this case it’s very true.
With specific regards to Chord partials or implied chords in high gain guitar playing, nine times out of ten when the context of the played notes is clear and precise, the ear can fill in the blanks in context of the particular key or progression.
Say for example; instead of playing a whole Maj 6 chord of Root, 3rd, 5th and 6th, you only play the Root, 5th and 6th. In this context the Major 3rd isn’t exactly important because the Major 6th is creating the Major chord flavour.
In Jazz and Soul guitar playing, chord tones are added and dropped at will by the player, sometimes dropping the root to create ‘Headless’ or ‘Rootless’ chords. These chords can sound airy and ambiguous but usually only occur when there is an accompanying instrument taking care of the root like the Pianist’s left hand playing a chord in root position or if the bass player is playing the root note.
It’s really just the context and awareness of the harmony and note roles that really becomes key when you start dropping chord tones. Every note in a chord has a role and has a purpose, understanding all of this will really awaken new potential in your playing.
In the above example we have 14 examples of Chord partials. As a mixture of both double stops and triple stops, the idea as mentioned earlier is you play only the fretted notes simultaneously. They can be used in riffs or during improvisation or to add variation. For example, playing the Cmaj triad by fretting the D,G and B strings on fret 5 instead of the open Cmaj shape.
The breakdown of each of these shapes from the top are as follows:
- Dominant 7– Built on Root, 3rd & Flat 7th. The 3rd and flat 7th can be played on their own as a double stop to really emphasise the tritone interval created by the two tones. Usually if the accompanist (Piano, Bass or a second guitar) is playing the chord in its entirety the emphasis of that dark, jarring double stop can work super well.
- Dominant 7– Built on Root, Flat 7th & Maj 10th. The Maj 10th is a Maj 3rd played an octave higher, the above suggestion also fits.
- Min Maj 6 – Built on Root, Maj 6th & Min 10th
- Dominant 7– Built on Root, Flat 7th & Maj 10th
- Maj Triad–Inversion built on 5th, Root & Major 3rd
- Maj 6 Double stop – Root & Maj 6th
- Min (i) or Maj 6th – This can either be used as an inverted Minor Triad with the 3rd at the bottom, the 5th & Root, or it can be a Maj 6 with the Root, 3rd & Maj 6th. Realistically speaking though, a lot of these shapes will double up in many situations. As a complete unit, their very idea is incomplete which makes their tonal functionality a little ambiguous and undefined.
- Maj Double stop – Root & Maj 10th
- Min Triad – 5th, Root & Min 3rd
- Min 7 Flat 5 – Root, flat 5 & flat 7
- Dominant 7 – First inversion of the Dominant 7 chord (I shamelessly abuse this chord and milk it for all it’s worth in my music.) Built 3rd, flat 7th & Root
- Min Maj7 – Root, Major 7th & Minor 3rd
- Min 7 – These last two chords I tend to use higher up in the guitar’s register but they can be played anywhere really, this Minor 7 is built Root, flat 7th and Minor 3rd. Another bonus variation on this chord can be played by fretting the E, D and G strings on the same fret, also giving you a Root, flat 7th and Minor 3rd in a lower register.
- Maj 6 – Built the same as the earlier Maj 6 shape; Root, 3rd and Maj 6th. Again, I usually save this for higher registers; mostly because it’s a very easy shape to bend.
Also, The use of Double stops and implied chords are an incredibly useful tool in any style of guitar playing. If you have a basic grasp of scales and how chords are built and are coming across pieces with unfamiliar chords, working out a version that utilises the implied chord method is definitely not a bad starting point.
I don’t consider myself a guitarist by any stretch, but I do often find it quite rewarding to open the real book on a classic jazz blues piece and play the chords using the above shapes. This also can significantly improve your fretboard knowledge which is something that as a guitarist you can never have too much of.
These are just some suggestions that may help combat any issues you’re having Anthony, and some neat composition tools for anyone else reading. I hope this answers your question and best of luck with your playing.
Thank you for reading and as always, if there is anything you want me to talk about or if like Anthony you have a music related question please get in touch with me in the comments section or on the contacts page.