I enjoy a heavy, distorted tone. Not necessarily metal, but 'saturated', as best as I can describe in a word. However, there is always a play between the level of distortion and how well you can hear what is being played in the first place... one cannot just turn all the gain and volume knobs up to 11 without eventually getting static-y, washed out noise.

What general advice do you have for maximizing distortion without losing too much clarity? Thanks for the tips!
Use the least amount you can get away with, play as cleanly as possible
Good amp, good pickups and not setting the gain too high.
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A few things. As mentioned, good pickups can really help, and preferably they shouldn't be super high output, but there are a few exceptional high output pickups with tons of clarity (BKP Warpig, for one). Though go too low output (PAF) and you lose too much saturation at the front end, though you could use a boost to get it back. I also think PAFs have too much treble for high gain tones, but YMMV.

Second, as already mentioned, don't set the gain higher than you need, which is an easy one. Again, a few amps can pull off insane gain without losing clarity (SLO, VH4, CCV, etc.).

A big one is pre distortion frequency shaping. Really you want as little bass going into the amp as you can get away with before your amp sounds too thin. Too much bass and you'll get nasty blocking distortion and a flubby mess that ruins any clarity you had. To help compensate for the bass cut up front, you'll have to turn up the bass knob on your amp, or use an active EQ in the loop. The Mesa Mark series operates on this principle. The traditional tone stack is located after the first gain stage, so it shapes the frequencies before distortion, and you (usually) turn up the mid control, turn down the bass control and set the treble/gain to taste. And then turn on the GEQ, scoop out the excess mids, bump up the bass to get some thump back and again, mess with treble until you find something you like.
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More Treble and Midrange, less bass and gain.

One of the reasons people like tubescreamers before high gain amps is they roll off the bass. It also lets you get away with less preamp gain, giving you a tighter overall sound.
what matt said

also using a boost up front can help because it lets you lower the gain on the amp (which IME can get mushy if you set it too high, especially at low volumes... i'm sure there's some technical explanation for why)- you still have the same chunk and pinches jump out, just it's clearer.
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If you’re trying to get album tones try recording the same part twice using a click track. Use one track for each stereo channel. Using two different amps can enhance the effect, or different overdrives and the same amp. You can even throw a third track into the center. Some people even record single strings as tracks and combine them into a massive sounding chord.

If you’re in a hurry you can fake it with careful use of stereo delay and reverb, or there are automatic double tracking plugins to do it. If you want it live just use two amps and two cabs—this is why you’ll see Lemmy standing between two different Marshall stacks.
all of these things help, but these are techniques aside from gear.

one thing - high end high gain amps are teh way they are for a reason. lots of wattage, huge transformers, EQs and presence settings made for creating a clear signal. amps like deizels are made to pump massive gain, and be fairly silent (no buzzing), and have clarity. this is designed into the amp. no small wattage amp without a design like this is going to achieve the same tones because it physically doesnt have the right parts to do it. its like a rice rocket and a ferarri. sure, you can tune a lancer up and get it crazy fast, but last time i checked, there are more ferraris etc doing the lemans.....there is a reason for this.

to try to get the best higher gain toanz out of a lower end amp, i would recommend a preamp tube swap. most stock tunes suck, or in the event of my tweaker 40, were a fizzy mess.

dont use too much gain, and dont scoop the mids. dont use too much bass.

have the right pups. vintage pups may not suit. PAFs? sure. rickenbacker pups? nah.

perhaps seek assistance from tools like EQ and tubescreamer pedals.

play through at least a 2x12. i dont likw 4x12s, but a good 2x12 with the right speakers will add a lot of thump, without the need to add bass in from the EQ. it can also add precense and help "push more air"

and i am a big fan of a little reverb, or a slight echoish delay. not so much to actually much up stuff, but very subtle. just enough to add depth. i really like that in my tone. i also feel like it thickens the tone a bit.
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Money, basically.

I've found that what you're paying for with upper high end amps is mostly clarity.
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Split the guitar into two amps.

Amp one a British type. Ac30 or JMP. Crank the shit out of it until it gets crunchy.

Amp two an American high gain. Get that high gain saturation.

Blend the two together. Crunch, tone, clarity, compression and sustain.
thats what the guitarist from STP does. blends in a stereo setup with a crunchy AC 30 and something else. that is quite a costly rig.....

i agree with the money thing. there are ways to sound good on the cheap and most people do what tehy can, some pull it off, but an SLO is an SLO and a 6505 is a 6505. both good, but they will never be equal.

in short, one of the cheapest ways to get a high gain setup is good technique, a tubescreamer, and a peavy amp. 6505, 5150, etc. those deisgns are timeless. peavy has some winners there. nobody can deny that tehy can put out good high gain tone at any level.
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dynamics sound much better than straight high gain. keep your gain low to the point where you still have breakup control with your pick.

if you experiment with your treble you'll probably find that that is what is most affected by cranked gain. by lowering it, you can then find the point on your gain control that crosses the point of diminishing returns where you don't really get any more breakup, just high end hiss (or static or whatever).

lazy version - don't put your amp into cymbal territory and you'll have a better overall experience with its breakup characteristics than just maxing out gain. bring treble up to taste afterward.
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Last edited by crabstampede at Oct 29, 2013,