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Microphone Month 4

“Clean” Guitar Distortion

Q: “How can I get a Stevie Ray Vaughan-style “Clean Distortion” from my amp? What kind of pedal or preamp will give me this sound?”

Many long-time guitar players might be surprised by this question. However, there are plenty of players out there shopping for guitar gear who have never lived in a world without programmable rack effects and digital amps.

The main source of lead guitar tone for many Blues and Rock players, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, is OUTPUT TUBE DISTORTION. Output tube distortion simply means that a tube amp is being turned up loud enough (or played hard enough) to distort the power amp section of the amplifier. This creates a distorted signal that is perceived as a harmonically rich, sustaining tone.

So what kind of amp does it take to achieve this sound? Obviously a tube amp, but not all tube amps are alike. Three of Stevie Ray’s favorite amps were from Fender: the 50-watt Vibroverb (now available as the ’64 Vibroverb Custom), the Super Reverb (available as the Vintage Series ’65 Super Reverb) and the 1959 Bassman (now available as the Vintage Series ’59 Bassman LTD). Stevie primarily used Vibroverbs and Super Reverbs throughout his career.

But almost any tube amp, new or old, will produce output tube distortion to one degree or another. So your 15-watt practice amp should do the trick at home or miked up in a studio.

While a distortion pedal will add sustain and harmonics, it also tends to make most instruments you plug into it sound somewhat the same. To a certain extent it doesn’t matter whether you are playing a low priced “beginner” style guitar or an expensive custom-built axe: there’s a kind of faceless quality to the tone. This also holds true for amps with built-in distortion. The more preamp gain you apply, the more you run the risk of masking your guitar’s tone.

Stevie Ray fans might be asking, “Didn’t Stevie use a Tube Screamer pedal?” And yes, he did, but it only served to boost his signal. If you try this pedal with a solid-state amp – or even a high-powered tube amp set very low – you’ll find you can’t duplicate Stevie’s tone. It’s the output distortion of the amp tone that is doing most of the work!

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