The order of effects is much debated, with distortion tending to be one of the first processors in an effects chain. However, some effects work well before distortion. Two common choices are a noise gate (you want the noise gone before it’s hyperamplified by the distortion) and compression (for a smoother distortion sound with more sustain). But there are also some less obvious options, such as…
This is particularly appropriate with amp simulators and recording software, where the guitar signal is stereo. You won’t really hear a chorus effect—that requires putting it after distortion. But when set for a slow rate and an equal dry/processed mix, chorusing provides a unique sense of animation and motion, as well as wider stereo imaging. Increasing feedback makes the effect more pronounced, while changing the dry/chorused balance for more dry signal gives a subtler effect.
Most players think of auto-wah as an effect you use without distortion, and this needs to precede compression or distortion anyway for maximum response to your picking dynamics. However, setting a slow attack and decay so that the auto-wah tracks your playing loosely creates an effect that slices through the distortion (sort of like “hard sync” with an analog synthesizer). This resembles a popular ’60s/’70s sound of working a wah pedal inserted before a heavily distorted amp.
Although thought of as a vocal processor, a de-esser can pull down the highs with harder picking—like an “intelligent” pullback of the tone control— to give a smoother, creamier sound.
This can provide the same benefits as a de-esser. Adjust the highest band so it covers the guitar’s higher frequencies and overtones, then set its threshold so that higher-level signals trigger compression. To obtain the greatest benefits, you’ll want a high ratio and low threshold to really knock down the highs.
Using EQ to condition your guitar prior to distortion can have a huge impact on the sound.
• Reducing highs provides the “pull back the tone control” effect that gives a smoother sound. This is particularly important with amp sims, where feeding in too many highs can create harshness (Fig. 1).
• Trimming lows helps tighten leads by reducing intermodulation distortion between high and low frequencies. It also keeps out thumps and other low-frequency sounds that don’t contribute anything melodic, and can step on the notes you do want to hear.
• Boosting the midrange around 1.2kHz makes the distortion more touch-sensitive to notes in the range typically used for leads. You can get away with lots of boost, so you don’t have to hit the strings too hard to trigger lots of distortion.
• Cutting the midrange around 2kHz-3kHz reduces harmonics. With amp sims, these harmonics often contribute a harsh quality. If your EQ includes a lowpass filter, rolling off the highs starting at around 2kHz can give a smoother overall distortion sound.
Craig Anderton has played on or produced more than 20 major label releases, mastered hundreds of tracks, and written dozens of books. Check out some of his latest music at youtube.com/thecraiganderton.