In this series I try and address different aspects of the practical side of playing electric guitar in church music. This week we’ll talk about clean tones and why they are important, overlooked, and way more helpful than you’d think.
Without a doubt, the most popular posts in this column have been articles dealing with amp overdrive, overdrive pedals, and using them in worship. I want to turn that thinking on it’s head today and make a case for clean tone. No Tubescreamers. No OCD’s. No Distortion. Clean and simple guitar tone. Here’s why:
WHAT REALLY DRIVES THE SONG
If you listen to a song. I mean a really all out rocking song. What is really driving the song? If you listen, I think you’ll find that even in songs that feature a lot of dirt and overdrive in the guitar tone that it’s either a small part of the whole or it’s a filler and the real energy is coming from the drums or the bass. You might begin to notice that what your brain is registering as “distortion” is really a crashing cymbal or a driving bass line.
LET THE OTHER EFFECTS STAND OUT
Sometimes, you’ll get more out your effects and your tone if you let it run clean. You can push more out of your reverb. You can let your compression pick up some of the slack. You might find that your compressor is giving you the light drive tone you’ve been looking for (and not getting) with your overdrive. Plus, with a compressor in the right setting you can pull a John Lennon and bang really hard and fast on your strings for a vintage sounding drive. The idea is that if you always have your gain pedals going, you maybe missing out on other sounds and tones that you didn’t know you could get.
It doesn’t have to be a fully clean tone. One of my favorite pedals ever is the Xotic RC Booster. It’s an incredibly clean and transparent pedal that gives you a “clean” or volume boost without going into overdrive. But it also has gain knob. My go to setting was to have the gain knob around 1 or 2 o’clock so that if I played lightly it was nice and clean, but if I dug in a little bit then I had a nice “dirty clean” tone. Which worked a lot better in a worship setting (and even a non worship setting) than a lot of straight overdrive pedals would have.
IT’S OK TO GET LOST
I can hear it now: “But if I play clean, i’ll get lost in the mix.” My response to that is this: If you get lost in the mix just by turning your overdrive off, then there is something wrong with your tone or your amp’s EQ settings. But besides that, it’s not always bad to get lost in the mix. Not every song needs the guitar player to be front and center (this is also true of you church piano player 😉 ). Sometimes I can tell that there just isn’t much room for me in the song, so I’ll purposely try to get lost in the mix, which is another argument for a cleaner tone. Sometimes what I need to do from a practical standpoint requires that I get lost in the mix.
Here’s two examples from the same Sunday Morning. A few weeks back one song just didn’t need the electric guitar, there wasn’t a lot of room for me. So I purposely backed off on effects and drive, and played very lightly just to fill in the sound a little. It was the right thing to do for that song. The next song needed the guitar but I still needed to get lost in the mix. The song started off with the electric guitar in a much more prominent role: overdrive, delay and reverb. It wasn’t a driving rhythm but I was adding the atmosphere. But as the song built up and the rest of the band began to come in, I dropped the overdrive and delay to make room. But that was also so I could play harder. As the song climbed to it’s “big finish” I was strumming really hard to match the drum beat. If I had left the other effects on (especially the overdrive) it would have been too much. Getting lost in the mix with a clean tone gave me the space to play more and make a bigger impact.
MAKE IT COUNT
One of the bigger mistakes musicians make is leaving themselves no where to go. Keeping a clean tone gives you room to switch the overdrive on when it’ll count the most: solos, bridges, instrumental parts, ends, etc. Give yourself somewhere to go and make it count when you get there, clean tones will help you do that.