I'm kind of a guitar effects noob so sorry if this is an extremely stupid question. How do you obtain a clean and distorted tone using pedals and amp? An example of the kind of sound I'm looking for is can be found in a lot of songs but my primary goal would be the tone that Josh Homme and Troy Van Leeuwen get use in the song 'My God is the Sun ~ Queens of the Stone Age'. I don't know how to achieve this sound, I play the song on my Peavey Bandit 112 but don't know how to dial in the tone nor do I know what type's of pedals I would use. Every time I play it on my Peavey I have no clarity between the notes, it all sounds muddy and trash. I've looked into it with little avail, I have theorised that if I use a Overdrive Pedal paired with a Distortion pedal I could achieve a similar sound (clear distortion) but I don't want to go out and spend money on pedals if I'm not sure.

I'm basically looking for what type of pedals can help achieve that clean, screaming distorted type tone for picking. I want to be able to hear the difference between notes when their played in succession, my current sound is just so cloudy and masks the clarity of single notes when I'm playing different strings in succession. Eg. Eruption - van Halen, My God is the Sun-QOTSA, Before the Beginning-John Frusciante, Foo Fighters. What types of pedals would you recommend? Overdrive, Distortion, EQ, Compressors, etc.

Sorry if this is really confusing my mind is totally fried right now.

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    Could you add a couple more examples? I tried a general answer but from the one song you mentioned I wasn't totally sure what you were driving at? Commented Mar 29, 2015 at 12:47
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    At the risk of being a bit of a gear snob: my first amp was a little peavey solid state like the bandit. When I finally saved up for a fender all tube combo the difference was amazing. Not to say you have to go get a new amp, just that you can go crazy with chasing tones while your fundamental gear is holding you back. Commented Mar 29, 2015 at 14:07
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    @topomorto ha, 'driving at', i see what you did there Commented Mar 29, 2015 at 16:21
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    "i dont want to go out and spend money on pedals if im not sure" This is why you should go in to the shop to try them out first. ; )
    – Radiodef
    Commented Mar 29, 2015 at 23:06
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    @JohnHenderson a lot of people trade pedals second-hand by post via forums for this reason. Also some of the latest mult-fx (e.g. zoom ms50g) have a whole bunch of pedal and amp sims in them that sound pretty good and should give you a bunch of options your peavey doesn't. Commented Mar 31, 2015 at 1:12

12 Answers 12


The sounds in the songs you've listed are actually pretty different to my ears, but I'll try to generalize and go through some examples.

Here is the raw line for reference. This is a modified strat with an EMG-SA in the neck position. This is important because EMG is an active pickup so the signal level is higher. This means it will distort sooner. So keep in mind the settings for every guitar will be different. ; )

Don't lean too hard on the drive

This has got to be my #1 advice. Start with the drive knob all the way down and work your way up slowly until it just starts the crackle.

The fewer notes you are playing at once, the more you can push the drive. It's better to pick a particular style (e.g. rhythm or lead) and adjust for that rather than try to find a setting that works for everything.

Also, don't ignore the tone

Start at halfway and see what you need. Perfect tone adjustments take practice. I will say usually the sweet spot is between 12 and 3 o'clock but it depends on the guitar. For example, humbuckers typically need more high end.

You could try, for example, pushing the tone up to find the point where the low-end body starts to disappear, then adjust back down a little. You don't want to lose the low-end completely, just demphasize it a little.

Here is an Ibanez Tube Screamer model (no amp, just the pedal). (This pedal isn't driven by a tube but is so-called because it was originally intended to sound like a tube. It's since taken on a life of its own.) The Queens of the Stone Age example sounds a lot like this pedal or something like it.

tube screamer

Here's the same sound amplified through a Vox AC-30 model. The AC-30 could probably be considered a clean amp but it's a little on the dirty side.

I'm pretty careful about boosting the high end here because the pedal is already pretty washed out.

ac 30 clean

Sometimes you don't need a pedal

Many amps have drive that sounds great. Pedals typically have a more colored sound.

Here's the same AC-30 model without the pedal, and instead just driving the amp. Again, not pushing it too hard.

Also note the tone adjustments: I've reduced the low end and pushed the mid/highs for a slight increase in clarity.

ac 30 drive

Here's a more typical-sounding distortion. This is your sort of Boss DS-1 archetype and everything like it.

Note the position of the drive here for my particular setup: almost all the way down.

(The amp is a model of a Marshall which I chose for being cleaner than the AC-30.)

typical distortion

For good measure, here's a real pedal, a Boss OD-3.

Again, the important thing is starting low and finding that "sweet spot" for what you are doing with your particular setup.

od 3

Few other general notes:

  • Compression is less important to getting a distorted sound right. It will get you a very smooth distortion and whether you want that is more of a stylistic decision. Also, the same things I stated above still apply to a compressed sound.
  • One very important thing to keep in mind is that these sounds from recordings are treated in ways that can't be recreated with a pedal. Guitars on a recording will get their harmonic structure cleaned up with fine-tooth paragraphic EQ notches. A live rig will always sound dirtier than a recording, which is fine.

it all sounds muddy and trash

If you have a cheap guitar, cheap pickups could also be a contributing factor.

i have theorised that if I use a Overdrive Pedal paired with a Distortion pedal i could achieve a similar sound (clear distortion)

The Boss OS-2 is like this. It is a good example of what this might sound like and it's a nice pedal itself--very clear. I don't have access to one anymore but there are clips on the Boss website.

I live in a small town and the only guitar shop around has a Wah Pedal and a Looper Pedal, so I can't go out and test them. The nearest city is about 4 hours drive away.

This is tough. One of the best things you can possibly do before buying this type of equipment is try it out first. The reason is that you should spend a sufficient enough time playing around with it that you've gotten to know it a little bit. Every shop I've ever been to has been fine with this.

My advice would be:

  • Read reviews and especially see if you can find audio clips. YouTube also has lots of demonstrations.
  • If you find a band with a sound you like, try to find out exactly what equipment they use. It is hit or miss (depends on the band) but usually you can find this kind of information online.

Every amp, pedal, etc. does something a little different and it's hard to judge what it might be from product descriptions.

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    Cannot overstress enough the importance of not riding the gain too hard, even for metal distortion. Great answer!
    – Kyle
    Commented Jun 15, 2016 at 11:15

The dirt and grime that comes from distortion is a result of notes with frequency relationships beyond those that are very simple ratios (e.g. 2:1=an octave, and 3:2=a fifth) going through the distortion process together. This results in sum and difference frequencies being produced that seem only distantly related to the notes being played, resulting in an aural mess.

If we consider just you, your guitar, and your pedals, we can reduce 'mess' by

  • Playing simple chord shapes, such as power chords. lean away from intervals like sevenths and sometimes even thirds (especially minor thirds).

  • Muting well - don't let strings ring on after you've played, and keep strings you're not playing muted using a combination of left and right hand muting.

  • using distortion techniques that don't cause so much mess. One way is to split-band your chain such that the high part of the frequency range gets distorted more than the lower frequencies. Another way is to use a modern multi-band distortion, such as the soundblox range.

When it comes to a whole song/arrangement, you can keep things 'distorted but clean' by separating lines between the instruments, e.g.

  • Two guitars playing solo lines each through distortion will sound much less messy than one guitar playing the same notes, as you don't get the sum and difference frequencies of the two notes being added to the mix
  • You can have one guitar playing power chord shapes through distortion, and another instrument playing more complex shapes through a cleaner signal path.

also, when you're going through distortion, keeping your instrument tuning and intonation correct will result in a much tidier distorted sound.

Edit : you've added "I want to be able to hear the difference between notes when they're played in succession". With the exception of some really crazy fuzzes, I can't think of a standard gain effect that should give you problems in that area when playing a monophonic line as long as you have really good clean muting technique. You have to make sure that at each point the note that you're playing is the only note that is making it into your signal chain.


In addition to the points given by topo morto: the effect that gives you pretty much “overdrive without the distortion” is a compressor. In fact, a major reason for using overdrive and distortion is that it compresses the signal (yielding longer sustain), as well as changing the sound by adding harmonics and intermodulation.

If you simply run a high-output bridge humbucker through a hard compressor in an otherwise clean setup, and play only high notes, the result can be surprisingly like a distorted solo sound – but without the “dirt”, i.e. you can still play chords or leave strings ringing without getting intermodulation artifacts. (In lower registers the dirt will be notably missing, though!)

You may want to try something in between: first process the signal with a good bit of compression, but then still add some amount of tube overdrive from the amp. This way, intermodulation won't be too problematic, but you get lots of sustain and no awkward “clipped attack with dull decay” effect, and there'll still be some growl.

That said – before you try any of this, better make sure you are able to get good tone definition even when the sound is completely distorted, by working on your muting technique.


Two contrary ways to do this is:

  • Don't use much distortion, if any, and just use medium gain with overdrive
  • Use a metal pedal that doesn't require too much gain: simple square wave distortion can be quite clean

But you will need to provide the effect with a clean input, so no barre chords or open chords. Just stick to thirds and fifths, which sound 'clean'

  • what do you mean by square wave distortion? Commented Mar 29, 2015 at 12:43
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    American metal type pedals are often based around a simple pair of opposed diodes, which basically gives you a square wave output with very sharp edges. Tailor that with a low pass filter to take off the harshest harmonics and you can get a really smooth clean distortion.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Commented Mar 29, 2015 at 12:49
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    I ask because normally if you are clipping your signal to the point at which it looks like a squarewave, aren't you by definition distorting it a lot, i.e. using (the equivalent of) a lot of gain? Commented Mar 29, 2015 at 12:51
  • Aha I see what you mean. Yes, you can get quite smooth almost violin-like tones with those kind of pedals, at least if you play solo or fairly simple stuff I'm not sure how that's related to 'not requiring too much gain' though...? They are certainly distorting the signal a lot. Commented Mar 29, 2015 at 12:53
  • @topomorto The character of a square wave is only odd-integer harmonics so I would assume "square wave distortion" would be this character. (A majority of transistor-based pedals fall under this character.) Assuming this is what Dr Mayhem means, then a wave need not be completely square to still be square-like, just have a flat peak.
    – Radiodef
    Commented Mar 29, 2015 at 22:59

This isn't a stupid question at all and I think you should be able to get this sound with the amp you have.

My first suggestion is try using less distortion. The intro to My God Is The Sun sounds barely distorted at all to me. I had a Peavy bandit 112 (the transtube series one) so I would suggest using the lead channel set to vintage mode. Set the low, mid and high knobs to 12 oclock (as a starting point), set the pre gain very low and the post gain as high as you like. Increase the pre gain until you get just the right level of drive and adjust the post gain to keep the overall volume at a level you like. Next, try turning each tone knob to sculpt the tone.

The tone in that song sounds, to me, like a lightly over driven, twangy tone. I'd use the bridge pickup on your guitar and turn the amp's low knob down and the treble knob up but use your ears to find what sounds best to you.

As someone already mentioned, you may not be muting the strings when playing riffs across multiple strings. If this is the case, using less distortion will help the notes ring clearer while you practice and master this technique.

In my opinion, the peavy bandit is not a bad amplifier at all and has all the gain in the world so I wouldn't think you'd need any overdrive/distortion pedals. The amp's voicing switches on the clean and lead channels let me get all kinds of tones. I don't remember which is which between 'modern' and 'high gain' but I remember one sounded very mid-heavy which I used for lead stuff like Van Halen and the other sounded very scooped and compressed which did a nice Pantera tone.

Again, this is not a stupid question to ask. Your ears will continue to improve as you play guitar, listen to music and try new gear, so you will gradually get a better idea of how to get various sounds with different pedals/guitars/amps. Most of us don't have the luxury of trying a wide range of gear, however youtube is a great source of pedal demos so you can get an idea of how pedals will sound before you buy them (bearing in mind that the person demoing may have wildly different guitar/amp to you).

I've made the mistake in the past of buying gear just because a band I like use it then later realising that I needed to improve my technique and learn how to use my amp rather than buying more pedals. Obviously, if a band uses wah wah or delay you aren't going to get that sound without a pedal which makes that sound. But in terms of overdrive/gain/distortion your current amp should cover a lot of ground.

Also, be aware of studio wizardry. there are two guitars on the track you mention playing in unison at first then doing harmony lines later. Two guitars playing harmony will always sound clearer than one guitar playing all the notes because of intermodulation. Try to learn to listen for things like this. It'll stop you chasing tones which are very difficult to achieve in a single guitar setup.

All this being said, queens of the stone age are (in)famous for their use of pedals (although they don't use them for every song). One of Josh Homme's core sounds is fuzz and a parametric filter (like the Stone Deaf Parametric Distortion Filter!). He uses this to filter out highs and lows for a very smooth midrange sound. Think Do It Again, Song for the Deaf, the lead tone (not the rhythm guitar) in Go With The Flow, etc. That very smooth but heavy, thick sound. He uses a parametric filter (over £150) but you can get close to the sound with much cheaper gear! I use a graphic eq (danelectro fish and chips - £30) after a fuzz pedal and cut the highs and lows. You could get the same effect by putting an eq in the effects loop of your amp or after a distortion pedal in front of the amp.

Good luck. If in doubt, experiment with the gear you already have, try gear and watch youtube videos of gear demos. Try to get an idea of what you already have can do and find the tones which are missing and what gear will give you those tones.


Clarity in a clean tone, that also doesn't sound 'weedy' and 'thin' can be difficult, however there are a couple of things you can (or should do) to get there, and none involves using a pedal.

First of all know that distortion and overdrive are two different things.

The classic way to achieve such tones are by playing through low wattage valve (or tube) amp, turned up high. This drives the speaker into distortion, causing that lovely breakup - it's speaker distortion rather than overdriving the input using the 'Gain' knob. A lot of times adding grit at the 'Gain' or 'Input' dial is not what will get you through.

Though, another factor is having an amplifer with a lot of headroom. I currently play through an Orange Dark Terror, and for some quieter, cleaner things it doesn't do an amazing job because the amplifier is designed to add gain early - keeping the input low and the volume high does not give me the best clean sound, and I have to compromise, or add other pedals.

In contrast, I once played through a Fender Blues Deville in a studio and got exactly the tone I needed. Classic amps with a lot of headroom - Fender Princetons, Vox AC30, Fender Bassman.

Playing dynamic also can produce certain tones, but for the music you're referencing, guitar volumes will likely be at '10', and be paid with a heavy plectrum.


Re The track "My God is the Sun ~ Queens of the Stone Age" you mention: This is what I'm hearing ..

  • Sounds like humbucker pickup guitar (eg Les Paul, or many other typew) as opposed to single coil pickup (eg Fender Strat)

  • Two guitars playing together, often one string each. This means the distortion is only acting on that one string per guitar amp, so you get a different & cleaner interaction. If you were to play the same thing on one guitar, you'd be playing a 2-note chord and the amp would distort differently. Could that explain some of the 'mush' you're referring to ?

  • Not much distortion. As others have said, it's sometimes surprising how little you need to get the right sound.

  • Thick strings ? maybe it's worth researching this but the individual notes sound quite 'chunky' to me. That could be the kind of guitar and the tone settings etc but also could be the strings.

Re the kind of effect: It's really just simple distortion played with apick, by the soud of it. The distortion effect is probably like the one in your amp.

Don't forget that when you hear a sound (anything - drums, bass, guitar, keys etc) in a song, it's against the backdrop of the rest of the song which influences how you hear that instrument. A kind of aural context. So when you try to reproduce say just the guitar, you don't have that context so it will sound a bit different on its own even if you've nailed it.

To get good clean distortion ("clean distortion" = a contradiction, but I think I know what you mean):

  • Make sure your guitar is in tune. If not, when you play a chord, unwanted harmonics confuse things and you get a horrible mushy undecipherable sound.

  • Don't use VERY old strings (muted by muck, tarnished etc)- they can wear unevenly and you end up with the same effect as above. 'used' strings can work well as a certain amount of muck helps the tone a bit, especially on a single coil guitar.

  • Pick the notes cleanly & decisively. Seems obvious but fluffed pickig or uneven strikes mean the notes won't interact when distorting the amp.

  • know when to mute the notes. Distortion usually adds extra sustain so often you have to stop the note too rather than just let it ring through to the next note.


My suggestion would be a combination of:

  • noise suppressor pedal, and
  • preamp overdrive pedal

I'm a huge Malmsteen fan, so what I use (with either my signature YJM stratocaster or my Squier stratocaster) is:

  1. BOSS NS-2 Noise Suppressor
  2. Yngwie J. Malmsteen YJM308 Preamp Overdrive by DOD (extra link)

Here is a short video(5 MB) where Yngwie explains the usage of them.

The noise suppressor, what it does, is eliminating unwanted noise and hum without altering an instrument's natural tone. It's the perfect pedal to quiet down any pedalboard or effects setup.

For the preamp overdrive pedal I quote from the 3rd link (in the parentheses) :
"whether you're looking for Yngwie Malmsteen's signature tone by running it in front of a gain channel or trying to attain a bluesy, biting tone by using it with the clean channel, this pedal comes through perfectly...
First off, you have to know a little about Yngwie's setup if you're looking for his tone. He uses this over a gain channel, which produces massive amounts of distortion, but somehow the clarity is amazing, perfect if you want every note to be heard in your sweep arpeggios. (And I assume you do.)"

The combination of the two is a key element to Yngwie's violin-like tone:
no noise and hum, while adding pure, smooth overdrive.



Well all I can do is give you my perspective based upon your question. We all want to sound either 'like' our guitar heroes or at least reach the 'standard' and sound as 'good' as our idols. Nothing wrong with that at all it means you know where you intend to aim, good call.

What I want to elabberate upon here is the fact that we make the mistake of thinking that the sound is ALL in our GEAR, yes but a SMALLER percentage than we think.

FIRST of all it is IN THE PLAYING, guitar tone vastly improves when you accent the picking in the right places, and it has to be accented with POWER AND PRECISION, and no matter whether you are talking METALLICA, FOO FIGHTERS, VAN HALEN, IRON MAIDEN, NIRVANA, SLAYER, LED ZEPPELIN...whoever, even though all these guys are all different in their styles, approaches and genres etc the ALL express their playing by ROCKING HARD (And I'm sure you will do too)

MOST top professional players keep their guitar rigs as simple as possible especially when playing LIVE so their main CORE SOUND is always maintained.

GEAR AND SETUPS, I'm not accurate on this but this should help you get somewhere :

FIRST OF ALL - Set your BASS, MID, TREBLE to 12.00 (Then only use SMALL adjustments to either boost or cut if needed.)

QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE, FOO FIGHTERS - If you have a high gain distortion already built into your amp (which you SHOULD have in a Peavey Bandit 112 !) Use LESS distortion than you think because it is usually when we use too much distortion when our sound LACKS clarity (We've ALL done this, I did years ago). I would say 'dial up your distortion control to about a THIRD full.

VAN HELEN - A different sound and approach to the above. Set your distortion to about HALF WAY, practice your playing techniques that you'll need for ERUPTION, if you need more distortion then only increase with SMALL amounts, a touch at a time then listen to how your guitar rig is responding.

A POINT TO REALISE - Achieving a great guitar tone can take time which comes with consistant playing, gigging and recording as that is how the TOP PLAYERS achieve it, but hopefully the above should get you started. Good luck and keep playing.


This is the kind of sound I try to achieve, I have settled on an old Peavey with a post and pre control on it. I use the post at the level of volume I want with fair bit of presence and a bit of treble, then dial up the pre to get cleanish sound that dirties up a bit when I bite the strings a bit harder.

You can add a lot of colour and expression to your playing without it becoming a power chord kind of sound, and pick out pretty clean individual notes. Good for delta blues kind of thing and my sound on stage, where we play 30 covers from almost any kind of music. Gives me the chance to play most anything from disco clean to grungey by only dropping or raising the pre a bit.

Don't be afriad of the volume control on your guitar. Few guitarists use it, but it is very good at rolling of a bit of bite from the sound if used lightly. I don't touch any other dials all night. I use a super overdrive as a boost only for solos (rare!). Important to remember that all guitars will sound different on the same amp, but most amps can be tweaked to achieve that sound. Guitar I use is an old Les Paul junior. Single p90 at the bridge. Growls or sings at will. All you need!



i recommend overdrive over distortion, on a guitar with single coils like a strat its easy enough to roll back the volume a little on the pot to achieve a cleaner tone or even a nice mix between clean and overdriven. it allows for a lot of flexibility without the use of effects pedals.

I find that the volume pots on a guitar like a les paul are super sensitive and acts more like a switch, it can prove difficult to get the "sweet spot" when using these volume pots and its difficult not to be too loud or quite, especially live... although like anything in the music world, practice makes perfect.


i also find that with a basic setup (marshall combo + strat / similar) - my favourite results are when the treble and bass are around 3/4+ the way up and the mid tones are taken down to between 1/4 and 1/2 the way up. this helps remove the muddy sound you were talking about but still gives off a good punch in the low and high ends.

my style of electric guitar playing can range from jazz-blues to classic/psychadelic rock (Hendrix / pink floyd) and sometimes reaching heavy rock such as QOTSA so my settings probably wont be right for you. you just got to experiment with these things - there is no right or wrong answer, just what sounds good to you.


i'm not doing as much electric guitar playing these days but i used to love the OD3 pedal that was mentioned above for a solo boost.

to recap:

mid level overdrive/crunch on the amp for rhythm, roll back pot for cleaner tone. hit the OD3 for a solo / melody playing.

also the ibanez tube screamer yealds some great results


Use a heavier pick and attack the strings harder. I'm not a genius but I feel the heavier the pick, the less it bends off the string giving more of a cut between hits. I believe also the harder the pick the heavier the string attack giving more of a driven sound.

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    Actually not a bad suggestion, but please explain it in a bit more detail, and particularly why it helps with the sound the question asked about. We're not particularly fond of posts that don't even contain a complete sentence (full stop etc.) Commented Jul 26, 2015 at 20:47

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