I have a Roland/Boss GT3, which I use to get various distortion sounds. I like the sound for the most part, but I find that distorted sounds seem very ... "muddy" I guess would be the best way to describe it. Major chords, 7ths, etc, sound fine, or at least much better. Is there some common setting that can help clean up the sound at bit? What would be the most likely causes of this behaviour?

  • Tuning can also play a role, especially if you're trying to tune by ear. If you tune all the fourths to perfect, all the error accumulates in the G-B interval, which can give you a nice G chord because the third is very mild; but the Em sounds like hell. Sep 28, 2012 at 4:21
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    The "power chord" as you know is a chord where the 3rd has been removed, whether it is a major 3rd or minor 3rd. The power chord was invented because major 3rds or minor 3rds sound muddy with distortion. So the answer is, "if you want to use a lot of distortion, don't play major or minor chords. Play power chords." Otherwise, with distortion, you need to arpeggiate the notes in the chord cleanly and don't let the notes overlap each other.
    – user1044
    Oct 8, 2012 at 18:50
  • This is a really interesting question, unfortunately it seems most of the answers have missed, or only touched on, the main point about minor chords. I wonder if it might be word starting a new questions that is phrased more specifically, like "Why do minor chords sound muddy with distortion"? @WheatWilliams: that's some good information there. If you turned that into an answer, you might resolve the problem I mentioned.
    – naught101
    Oct 16, 2012 at 13:50
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    Why distortion interferes with major and minor thirds: Every note you play has a fundamental pitch and harmonics, or partials. Distortion plays havoc with changing the relative volume of the harmonics above the fundamental pitch. This creates dissonance. Intervals of major or minor thirds in chords, when run through distortion, creates even more dissonance. If you only play power chords, you only have the root pitch and the fifth, and when you run that through distortion, the extra emphasized harmonics and overtones line up in a consonant fashion, meaning less "mud".
    – user1044
    Oct 16, 2012 at 19:59

8 Answers 8


Quite possibly one of the best ways to remove muddiness from your overdriven tone (regardless of what chords you play) is through the use of a compressor. If you don't know what one of those is, check out this question. If you think you know what one is, you probably don't, and you should check out this question =D. I kid. In all seriousness though--JFET based and digital overdrive pedals will do this. If using a compressor in front of (or behind, some players like that too) the overdrive--and using it correctly--doesn't work, then consider reducing the amount of distortion on your overdrive or changing some parameters on how you equalize the tone pre and post drive.

Before I describe that a little more in depth, let me give you a little background on the way a TS808 clone (which is nearly every mass market overdrive since the TS hit the market) works. Inside your nifty little stompbox you likely have little electrical components called JFETs. These little guys are the next best thing for overdriving circuits in a natural way behind tube amps. Some people would even say that JFET's do it better, and there are several boutique and mass market JFET based overdrives on the market that sound phenomenal--tube like even. However, one thing that these JFET's won't do that a tube amp will is compress at higher gain settings--you need some other heavy duty components in the mix to acquire that property. So, lots of folks build what's known as clipping circuits into their overdrive designs. These circuits come in two applicable flavors: symmetrical and asymmetrical clipping, and they both lend unique dynamics to the overdrive. Asymmetrical clipping generates both even and odd order harmonics, and skews more towards even order the harder you clip. This results in a natural, smoother compressed sound with little to no intermodulation distortion--and sounds much like the push/pull dynamics of a tube based amplifier. Symmetrical clipping tends to emphasize the odd order harmonics and sounds harsher due to intermodulation distortion. The original TS808 used (and newer reissues still use I believe) symmetrical clipping.

Now, with all that history, if your GT-3 enables you to configure any of these parameters on your overdrive patch, you should play with them. If you want cleaner sounding overdriven tone then consider an asymmetrical overdrive or tossing a compressor in your chain (software or hardware). Also, if you have your amplifier gained out any whatsoever, you should remix the amplifier distortion and the stompbox distortion. It took me a month or two to find the proper overdrive mix on my rig such that my Orange didn't sound like a muffled, nasty, pissed off bass cabinet. Also know that all TS808 clones and most digital drives hike the middle frequencies. They do this for two reasons. First, bass frequencies sound blatty distorted--so most overdrives will cut those before they gain the signal. Second, high frequencies sound glassy and harsh when overdriven, and will sometimes get lost in the mix--so those are cut a little bit too pre-gain. All this results in a muddy mess.

Here's neat piece of information that I learned from Paul Cochrane of the Tim/Timmy fame. If you can control your bass frequencies pre distortion, and your highs post distortion, you pretty much have all the control you will ever need to get very nice overdriven tones. You can roll back the bass to reduce the blattyness to your preference--sometimes called "tighter" bass response, and then increase the highs to cover the mid bump and get a nice fat creamy awesome overdriven tone. Or jack the highs even more to cut through the mix during a solo. Very few newer boutique and mass market overdrives take advantage of this mostly because they are going for the TS808 vibe--which is dirt cheap and easy as pie to build.

Anyway, hope this helps. My overdrive tone quest has taken me years to arrive at a sound I'm happy with, but I'm still not even close to being done :D.

References & Trivia:

  1. GeoFex FX Terminology Descriptions
  2. TS808 @Wiki
  3. Analogman's TS808 History Page
  4. The Tubescreamer's Secret
  • Fascinating. I'd upvote twice if I could. Can you do all this to the sound and still preserve dynamic range? Mar 15, 2011 at 2:30
  • You're going to loose a little bit any way you slice it with JFET overdrives, especially if you use a compressor--whose very trademark is controlling your dynamic range. However, I know of a couple of extremely tube like JFET based distortions that work beautifully with my tube amp and react very similarly. There's a ton on the market, and a couple of really magical ones (YMMV). You have to be careful with this though, because it's not easy to blend two completely dynamic components. Think of it as placing two tube amps in series and hooking the final output to a cabinet--interesting indeed.
    – Jduv
    Mar 15, 2011 at 2:38
  • Fixed the bit about symmetrical clipping. I totally didn't explain it right.
    – Jduv
    Mar 15, 2011 at 2:51
  • You talk a whole answer about the Tubescreamer without mentioning the JRC4558 chip! Unusual... Great answer though! This is exactly the reason why I don't use multieffects (as well as the sound..). It is so much easier to tweak when you have all components right in front of you!
    – user399
    Mar 15, 2011 at 6:48
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    Clipping is a form of natural compression :D. You're technically right--it's not compression along the lines of what a pedal or rack unit will give you but the concept is very similar.
    – Jduv
    Jun 1, 2011 at 20:07

In my experience, this is a problem inherent in heavy distortion. I'd suggest one of two things:

  • You can decrease the amount of distortion, letting the notes you play come through a little more cleanly.

  • You can play fewer notes at a time. Most chords only need three or four notes to be clear, and generally higher notes will punch through distortion more clearly. Rather than play six or seven notes of a chord, try playing only three or even two. If you're playing with a band, that opens up your options even more. For, say, a C minor, play Eb and G, letting the bass player play the C root.

If these don't work:

  • I would try using EQ, possibly notching out frequencies until the chords become clearer. Guitar mostly lies from 80hz to 1khz, with overtones up to 5khz. (At a guess, I'd concentrate on the 1 - 5khz range first.)

  • Might your presets be adding reverb/echo? If so, that can make sounds muddier, particularly long reverbs; try dialing that back a bit.

  • That's the workaround I've been using, but I was hoping there was a technical solution. I don't remember the muddiness when using a real overdriven amp.
    – Anonymous
    Mar 15, 2011 at 0:28
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    @Nerdfest - I would try using EQ next, possibly notching out frequencies until the chords become clearer. Also, are your presets adding reverb/echo? If so, that can make sounds muddier; try dialing that back. Mar 15, 2011 at 0:32
  • Toss that in as an answer ... sounds promising.
    – Anonymous
    Mar 15, 2011 at 1:08
  • Done, but @jduv's answer sounds even more promising than mine. Mar 15, 2011 at 2:26
  • +1 for the reverb/echo question. Those will seriously muddy things up depending on where you put them. Everything else is great advice too.
    – Jduv
    Mar 15, 2011 at 2:42

I have been through maybe 25 or 30 different distortion boxes in my life trying to find the one that has the 'perfect' sound for me, and to be fair, it doesn't exist :-)

In saying that, I have managed to find ways to make the sound work. On something like the GT3 I find you can reduce muddiness a lot by scooping out more mid and low than you might expect before you get to the distortion stage and then roll off a little bit of the highs on the output if it sounds too harsh.

Backing off on the drive for the distortion stage also works well to keep dynamic range as well as giving a warmer, less muddy sound.

On my Line 6 (which is in the same market place as the GT3) most of the muddiness, if I want it, comes from the amp simulator - if running into a real amp make sure simulation is disabled.

As already mentioned, choosing your chords correctly will have a big effect. If you are playing rhythm guitar you really won't need as much distortion, and you can allow a more middle-y sound. For lead you will usually want more clarity, but that can be through more or less distortion.


I had this problem for a long time, after tweaking with it a bit I've finally got the perfect tone with no muddiness on my chords. You won't even need a compressor or EQ. I'm playing through a Boss Blues Driver and Fender Twin Reverb. Make sure you are using your bridge pick up, as the neck pick up won't be favorable for overdriven chords. Now, turn your volume on your guitar down from 10 to about 7-8. You will immediately notice a cleaner sound and that minor third won't get blurred out nearly as bad. Now, for the overdrive itself. For lead work, my gain is at about 2 o'clock/12. I turn it left to about 11 o'clock and I have completed the perfect overdriven sound for any chords(major,minor,7ths,sus,etc.) I can't speak for everyone, but with my particularly set up, this change produces no unwanted noise while still keeping the power and fullness that I look to achieve when using my overdrive.


The kind of distortion that is relevant here is called intermodulation distortion.

The problem with intermodulation distortion is not primary the thirds. A minor chord consists of exactly the same intervals as a major chord and still gets more muddy when distorted. A third sounds only muddy with distortion, if the tuning is not just. The problem is that the minor chord is primarily u-tonal.

What distortion does is adding frequencies that are sums and differences between different harmonics of the notes played. All of these extra frequencies are harmonics of the highest note which contains all notes of the chord played in its harmonics.

For intervals there are two factors at work:

  • Dissonance of the interval: The more dissonant the interval is, the deeper this tone will be and the more dissonant the sound will become. This factor alone induces only a mild dissonance for thirds and sixths.
  • The deviation from the just interval: This problem occurs in the generally used equal temperament tuning. Intervals deviate from perfect integer ratios. This induces a split in the harmonics created thorugh distortion and creates muddyness. The further the interval is from the perfect ratio, the worse it becomes. Fourths, fifths and the major second are nearly perfect, thirds, the tritone and sixths suffer from it and for the major seventh it's especially bad.

When we form a chord, the note which shares all of the chord's notes in its harmonics is not just dependent on the dissonance of the chord. It depends one where that chord is found on the overtone scale. The notes of the major chord have the frequency ratio 4:5:6, so the highest common note would be 1. The minor chord is just the inverse - 1/4:1/5:1/6 on the undertone scale, which does not have a common fundamental frequency. So what counts is the first occurance of the chord in the overtone series. It's 10:12:15, so the note created by distortion is way lower and not even an octave to any notes in the chord. This means rather consonant o-tonal chords are fine with distortion, while u-tonal (and mixed tonal) chords are generally much more muddy.

They just work better with less distortion. In contrast to o-tonal chords, however, the notes of an u-tonal chord share a harmonic. Thus a kind of harmonic distortion that boosts shared harmonics would work very well with u-tonal chords (don't know if something like that exists).

So what you could do to reduce muddyness in distortion:

  • Consider this knowledge of which chords sound good with distortion already when composing a song, so you can use proper chords for passages with higher or lower levels of distortion.
  • Use less distortion or use distortion settings that produce noise and/or harmonic distortion rather than intermodulation distortion, when necessary (others can tell you better than me how to achieve that).
  • The octave matters. The same chord has different levels on dissonance depending on in which octaves the different notes are play. A classic major chord would be 4:5:6. If you played the major third one octave higher, you get 4:6:10 = 2:3:5, so we've just reduced the dissonance significantly. Playing the minor seventh and the major second one or even two octaves higher has a similar effect.
  • Use just intonation. Well, learning to play a fretless guitar might be too challenging. But you might be able to compensate for the deviations of the equal temperament system through bending in some situations.

What could you do harmonically about the minor chord (1/6:1/5:1/4 = 10:12:15) in particular?

  • Leave the root (10) for the bass and just play the major third (12:15 = 5:4) on top of it. If you want it still brighter and more consonant, you can play the top note one octave higher (5:4 becomes 5:2).
  • Leave apart the fifth (15). The remaining minor third (10:12 = 5:6) still has the minor feeling. If you play the root of the minor third an octave higher, you get 10:6 = 5:3, a major sixth, which sounds even more consonant. Letting the bass play the fifth at the bottom is an interesting option.
  • Only play the fifth with the guitar (10:15 = 2:3). Let the bass do the minor third, but make sure it's an octave lower (bigger major third = more consonant - 1/6:1/5:1/4 changes to 1/5:1/3:1/2).
  • Use arpeggio to make different types notes sound at different times.
  • Not as a substitute, but in addition you could bend the third up very slightly by about one 7th of a semitone. This makes the minor third/sixth sligthly larger and the major third/sixth slightly smaller. You'll hear best when you've arrived at just intonation, if you only play two notes and use intermodulation distortion.

Each of those approaches creates a quite different overall effect.

  • Very good suggestions! I can confirm that all the options for de-mudding a minor chords are effective. Mar 4, 2021 at 22:26

Okay, here's a solution for this that I just discovered.

I've been playing with various methods of gain stacking. I found a good (actually, pretty awesome) sound with the Zoom G5. I simply pushed the signal a bit from the compressor to the "Extreme Distortion" they have in the unit. (It's pretty amazing. I wish I could find something like this in a real pedal.)

Then I push it into the "Exciter" effect. (I'm pretty sure this thing just boosts the top and bottom frequencies in some way, but I'd love to hear if anyone here knows of a unit that this compares to.

Now, this still left my sound a tad muddy in the mids. But the distortion was TIGHT. Not a lot of weird fuzziness (I don't like that in my tone.) And the artificial harmonics are off the hook.

I just didn't like the sound when I was playing rhythm. I could boost the lows, but it never had that punch-in-the-gut feel I was looking for.

But I just grabbed a Boss DA-2 - adaptive distortion - yesterday. I had a sneaking suspicion that this would be a solution to that "indistinct" notes issue that most distortion creates.

To be honest, I'm amazed at the sound on this thing. All notes are clear and ring out distinctly, allowing you to play full maj/min and 7th chords and get ALL the notes. It's phenomenal.

Now, since I want a much "heavier" sound, I played with gain stacking on this bad boy. THIS is tricky, since the Boss wants to carve up the sound and throttle the distortion on each note.

What I wound up doing was punching in a Tube screamer on it, and bumped up the levels (not the drive) in the Zoom G5 chain. I'm playing through a clean amp (strictly power) into a Line 6 4x12 cabinet.

I've got an HD500, a Zoom G5, and a Digitech IPB10 (the iPad one.) They're all looped, so I can basically just mix n match. Every so often I have to throw a gate in the mix to quiet things down.

What I eventually came up with is a really kickass rhythm sound that just feels incredible. The leads jump out because the Boss does an excellent job of balancing the note frequencies and volume levels.

The only thing I can't get are crazy pinched harmonics quite like the setup I had on the Zoom originally.

I can honestly say that if I could get that last bit of flavor in my sound, I'd be 95% to my personal tone "holy grail." (C'mon, no one gets 100% :)


A possible culprit here is the volume balance among the strings, and the voicing you are using. Adjust the pickup's pole pieces to even out the volume balance.

  • Try playing different voicing/inversion of the minor chord at a different positions. For instance, if the original chord is has the shape of an open Em, try playing it as an open Am shape elsewhere on the neck, or the open Dm shape.

  • Play fewer notes of the chord. Distortion doesn't work well with strummed full bar chords. You can use the bar chord fingering, but pick out just three different notes from it.

  • Try more widely separated voicings. For instance the notes of a minor chord can be reorganized into stacked sixths. The bass note of a chord can be dropped an octave to separate it more from the upper voices. Etc.

  • Learn how to play the arpeggio of the minor chord in all positions. When you have it internalized, you will be able to pick out three notes from that arpeggio in any position and literally improvise voicings around the chord on the fly.

  • Try not playing all the notes of the chord at the same time. Even though the chord is sustained, the notes can come in at different times. For instance the minor chord can begin with root-fifth-octave power chord, and then the minor third above the octave can come in one beat later (or whatever).

  • Listen to what is done in metal: metal players don't just strum chords; they play various patterns. One common one is pedal point: thumping on the root note (often an open string) while syncopating the upper voices into it. This is not just cool sounding, but it helps overcome the problem that distortion makes everything muddy.


My theory is that the minor and major third are dissonant in 12-TET.. Especially the minor third at around -15.6 cents flat.. The major third is around +13 cents sharp in 12-TET compared to a just intonated major 3.

Distortion adds a lot of harmonics so you get multiple layered minor or major (depending on the chord). I think our ears are more sensitive to hearing a flat tritone than a sharp tritone so the major chords with overdrive sound slightly "better" than the minor chord with overdrive..

  • That's not the reason why major chords sound better than minor chords. Both chords consist of exactly the same intervals! The reason is that the major chord has a consonant common fundamental, while the minor chord does not (see also my answer).
    – Fid Rewe
    Mar 4, 2021 at 20:57

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