Some Gain, Less Pain?
By Lila Karash, Teacher & Local Singer Songwriter
When I was younger, I used to like to use heavy metal distortion with a washy reverb or delay. One day, another guitar player told me: "That's what beginners do to hide their mistakes." That made me a little self-conscious about the tone I was using. With a full, rich type of distortion, my hands did not have to work as hard. The guitar strings would actually feel lighter and my playing smoother. Eventually, I tried practicing with either less distortion or a clean tone.
When you set your amp to a clean channel with no effects, you will notice a different feel than you will with distortion. You will find that you have to work harder to squeeze out a good tone. Since you will have less sustain and fewer overtones, any mistakes or sloppiness will really pop out. Playing without distortion will force you to be more aware of your technique and accuracy.
That said, I would not advocate ditching the distortion and effects entirely when practicing guitar. It's good to alternate between playing both with and without them. When you use distortion and effects, you will probably notice that you play differently, and possibly more expressively. For instance, the increased sustain might inspire you to use more vibrato and really let the note ring out. Effects like delay and echo might provoke you to get creative and come up with ideas that you would not think of when playing strictly clean. There are even techniques like squawking, pinch harmonics, and tapping that are extremely difficult to achieve without distortion. And of course, you probably want to emulate the guitar tones of your favorite guitar players while you learn to play their songs.
In addition to the vast array of guitar effects that are available, there are also different amp choices, such as tube versus solid state, that can affect how you play. When shopping for new gear, go with what makes you feel inspired, but don't forget to kill the effects and play clean once in a while to improve your technique.