When getting amazing guitar tone already feels like an endless battle, how can we hope to win the war?

Easy… By knowing what to listen for, and how to fix it.

Once you’ve dialled in your amp or digital modeler using our guide, there’s still the matter of polishing and refining it into that final, “professional guitar sound.” Give your tone clarity and punch as we show you how to EQ distorted guitars.

We’re going to take you through a real-world example, step-by-step, and teach you what to listen for, what tools are available to you (including our Guitar EQ Checklist), and how to use them. Check out what we’re going to be working towards:



Disclaimer!

If you want to get the most out of this guide, use the best listening environment you can. We’re going to be making some rather precise and subtle changes to these guitars that may not be noticeable on smaller or cheaper systems. If you’re listening on a phone or laptop, try switching to over-ear headphones or larger speakers in order to best hear what’s happening.

In the real world, the problems you encounter with EQ can be much more subtle than the ones in this article, and it all comes down to training your ears through practice. That being said, with each step of the process I’ve included an “exaggerated” audio clip, where I boost the frequencies I hear that I want to deal with, to help you train your ears to hear them yourself.

What’s The Point? My Tone Rocks!

While your raw amp tone might sound awesome to you, a trained ear could find many problem areas in a raw tone that can be detrimental to your music. Cleaning up unwanted or unmusical frequencies allows your guitar to have improved clarity, punch, and aggression. It’s about removing what’s unnecessary, trimming the fat, leaving only the good stuff!

Why bother? If it sounds good, it is good, right?

Well… no, not quite. Just because our ears say things are fine, doesn’t mean they are. Remember when you were just a kid and you thought that solid state amp sounded AWESOME with your Boss Metal Zone in front, with the knobs cranked all the way up? Let’s be honest, that sounded awful… but at the time, you thought it sounded great.

Your ears are not finite, they can learn and adapt. We train them to hear all kinds of things as musicians, and they get better and better the more we train them. They learn what to listen for, they learn how to identify what they hear, and they get better and better at what they do. Yes, your ears might tell you your tone is perfect, but a professional mixing engineer could still find a myriad of issues with it, and that’s just because their ears have been properly trained!

The morale of the story? You can’t always trust your ears.

Oh, and one last thing… An awesome guitar sound is not just about how the guitar sounds. It’s about how the guitar fits in with the other instruments in a mix! Remember what we learned in our last article: context is key!

Cleaning up your guitar tone makes the other instruments sound better too! If you only take  one thing away from this article, let it bet this:

When there’s too much of a certain frequency, it gets messy.

It’s hard to hear what’s going on in that area, you can’t hear any definition and clarity, it ruins the mix! Cleaning up frequencies the guitars don’t need allows other instruments to fit into those pockets. If you want that massive band sound, then every instrument needs its own space.

How Do We Do It?

Let’s take a listen to the raw amp tone:



For many of you, this tone might sound perfectly fine, it might even sound killer to your ears! That’s okay, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a great starting point, and a solid raw tone, but we’re here to teach you how you can make this even better.

For those who don’t know, when you play a note on the guitar, you’re actually generating many more quieter notes above it at the same time, we call these “harmonics” or “overtones”. The more you distort a signal, the more overtones are created and the louder they can get, thus the sound of distorted guitars.

How are we supposed to find just a few bad frequencies in that mess?! A few ways…

1) Start by listening for frequencies that immediately stand out to you, these will be notes or frequencies that seem to be louder than others.
2) A good rule of thumb is to look for frequencies that seem to stick around, lingering in your tone no matter what note is being played.
3) If nothing sticks out at first, listen to a longer or different style of riff. Sometimes you’ll find frequencies that only stick out on certain notes or techniques (I’m looking at you, palm mutes), but not others.
4) If you’re having trouble getting started, load up an EQ plugin and jog a little boost around the frequency spectrum to refresh your ears and get a feel for what’s happening in each part of the spectrum.

These nasty little devils we’re looking for are called “resonant frequencies,” and they are the first type of issue we’ll be dealing with. These resonances are usually very narrow areas of the frequency spectrum that like to stick out above the rest, and can reduce clarity and depth in your signal. In the low end they can create mud, and in the high end they can cause fizz.

The best way to treat resonant frequencies are by cutting them with a narrow band (referred to as a “Q”), like the one below:

"Q" EQ

This ensures that you’re only affecting the frequency you want to deal with, and not removing anything in the tone that you might want to keep! Only use as wide of a Q as absolutely necessary.

High End Resonances – Fizz and Clarity

High end resonances tend to occur between 2kHz and 8kHz. Here’s the first frequency that stood out to my ears, I’ve boosted it to help you hear it better:



Before we cut out this fizz and move on with our lives, take a minute to compare that audio clip with the previous clip of the unaltered amp tone.

Can you still hear that frequency when it’s not boosted? There’s similar clips throughout this article for each frequency area we will be treating, be sure to reference the original as you proceed to help train your ears to pick these things out!

You can hear how high end resonances like this one tend to stick out, especially on the bigger open chords. Here it is after we swept through, found the frequency, and cut it using a very narrow Q:



Don’t forget… you should only ever cut as much as you need to.

Resonant frequencies ARE NOT “bad” frequencies that need to be completely annihilated from this earth. Sometimes these resonances are in very important areas for that instrument, and cutting them entirely would ruin the sound. We only EQ as much as necessary to ensure that we don’t do more harm than good to the signal, and hollow it out – creating more problems along the way.

In this specific case, I actually found it beneficial to just cut it entirely. It wasn’t adding anything musical to this guitar tone, and it was loud enough that it needed to be dropped a significant amount before it even sounded balanced. Sometimes you need to be conservative, other times you need to be heavy handed. Whatever EQ move fixes the issue, that’s the right move.

Here’s another one I found, boosted and then removed:


This one also needed a bigger cut for the same reasons as the last one. It wasn’t adding anything musical, and it was sticking out if I didn’t make a significant cut. Again, I used a tight Q so I’m not impacting any frequencies other than this one.

One last nasty one in the high register:


This time I used a very conservative dip, as it didn’t need much to remove. It also had a nice bite associated with it that I wanted to keep in the tone, so I found a good middle ground.

The last thing I’m going to do is just a general cut in that area same area we’ve been working in, using a broad Q. This is only going to be a couple db at most, just to round out the overall tone. I’m using a wider Q because I want a more musical, softer tone shaping tool rather than a precise surgical removal. Here’s what that sounds like:




Now we’ve cleaned up the high end, so let’s do a comparison of all the changes we’ve made so far:



That’s already a huge improvement in high end clarity! Far less harsh sounding, while still maintaining definition, articulation, aggression, and bite. The area we’ve opened up is where a vocal’s clarity, the snare attack, the kick attack, and the bass grit would be, allowing all of these instruments to come through unobstructed.

Low End Resonances – Mud and Punch

Low end resonances tend to occur in the 150Hz – 300Hz range. I’m hearing some mud in the low mids, and while the guitars sound really punchy and warm, there’s a bit too much of it, and it’s compromising our clarity. Take a listen for yourself:



The tricky part about the low end is that these frequencies can hide from our ears… until the chugs start happening. Palm mutes are notorious for bringing out these muddy low end resonances, so be sure to listen to a palm muted section before thinking everything’s alright!

Use caution down here!!!

The low end of the guitars is a crucial range. This is where all of the warmth, beef, and punch of the guitars live, and it’s WAY too easy to overdo things down here. You can easily turn punchy guitars into a thin, lifeless mess. Remember our rule about only cutting as much as you need to? It’s moments like these that demonstrate how important that rule is!

When I’m dealing with such a crucial area, I like to use a different kind of EQ tool…

Dynamic EQ – The Batman of EQ!

Dynamic EQ is a style of EQ that only cuts or boosts when it’s necessary. It’s like the Batman of EQ, hiding in the shadows until it’s needed. For example, if you have too much 250Hz during palm mutes, but the rest of the riff has just the right amount, you can set a dynamic EQ to only cut 250Hz during the palm mutes.

Here’s a comparison of a standard EQ vs. a dynamic EQ at work:

Standard:
Static EQ Cut

Dynamic:
Dynamic EQ Cut

It’s like using a compressor or multiband compressor, but it’s far more precise and transparent sounding. It doesn’t colour the original tone either. Pretty awesome, right?

(PRO TIP: Because it works similarly to a compressor, you can check out our 7 Steps for Dialing A Compressor if you need help nailing those settings!)

I used the FREE plugin TDR Nova for this. Here’s how that sounds:

I went with a wider Q this time around, because the resonance wasn’t on one specific frequency, but a broader area. There’s one more frequency here with the same issue, but this one was high enough and easy enough to fix that I didn’t feel the need for dynamic EQ, here is the before/after:





Wait… Did We Mess Up?

At this point, comparing the original signal to our most recent clip, it probably feels like something is wrong.

It’s quite common to feel that we’ve lost something when comparing our EQ moves to the original signal, but we need to remember context is key. The bass will also make the guitars sound much bigger and beefier in the final mix, so we haven’t lost that! We’ve just cleaned up the mud and tightened things up.

When questioning your EQ moves, it’s always good practice to turn down the volume of your track all the way. Take a minute to let your ears reset. Then, raise the volume back up. This helps you gain perspective on the entire signal, rather than focusing on that one specific 2.3db cut at 1.3kHz that you can’t seem to decide on.

Midrange Resonances – Depth and Width

There’s one last frequency here that’s bugging me, it’s very nasally and honky sounding, and it lies in the midrange. Midrange resonances are typically centered between 300Hz – 2kHz. These kind of frequencies areas tend to make the guitars sound very narrow and 2D. We want depth and width! Let’s do a comparison of that:




Hear how that just opens up the tone? Not only does it sound cleaner and deeper, but we also end up getting a wider sounding stereo image too! We have a more natural and pleasing sound as a result.

One last general tone shaping move I’m going to add is a slight dip with a broad Q in the midrange area to increase the depth and openness of the sound, here’s a before and after of that:




Guess what? That’s all the resonances we need to clean up for this one! We’re almost completely done our EQ treatment, but first let’s hear a before/after of what we’ve done so far:




Huge improvement! The guitar are punchier, clearer, more controlled, and really well balanced. There’s just one last thing we need to do…

Final Touches – Filtering

One more step to go!

The final cherry on top is done with a EQ type called “filters.” Filters progressively roll off all frequencies above or below a certain point. It comes in two style, a “high pass filter” (HPF) and a “low pass filter” (LPF). This is what they looks like:

Low and High Pass Filter

Filters can also be adjusted for various slopes. These affect how severe and quick the roll off happens. Some examples look like this:

EQ Filter Slope

We’re going to use filters to focus the sound, and remove the unwanted or unnecessary frequencies. This gets rid of the low sub-bass and extreme high fizz that aren’t useful to distorted guitars. For the low end, it’s usually 20Hz – 200Hz that we’ll set our filter, and for the high end it can be anywhere between 15kHz to 6.5kHz.

Let’s listen to what we’re trying to get rid of first, I’ve boosted the extreme lows and high that we’ll be removing:



In order to set HPF, we need to bring in our bass guitar to hear where in the frequency range the bass takes over, and therefore where the guitars should end. This also allows us to hear how too much low end in our guitars make for a muddy bass!

As you’re setting your HPF, you want to listen for the point where the bass sounds tight, and the guitars and bass mesh together to sound like one unit. Once you nail this frequency, you can really see how the low end resonances we got rid of weren’t necessary at all for a fat low end!

Here’s what it sounds like before and after the filter:


Now the low end is much tighter, and the bass has room to breath and provide the punch our mix needs. There’s a cohesiveness in the relationship between the guitars and bass that’s going to provide a thick wall of sound in our mix without adding mud.

Lastly we need to filter out the high end, and we’re going to do this in context as well with our cymbals and snare drum:




Listen to how the filter not only removes all the unmusical high end fizz, but it also removes the “cloudiness” covering the entire high end. The cymbals and snare don’t sound so harsh, and the attack and high end in the snare is clearer, with more cut.

This was a pretty significant filter in the high end, and you might think your guitars are too dark at this point, but trust me when I say that guitars do not need nearly as much high end as you might think. In context these are going to sound much brighter and defined when each instrument has it’s own place in the frequency spectrum.

We’re All Done!

We’re 100% done! That’s it! Let’s listen to all our hard work with a before and after, both with the guitars isolated and in the context of the mix:

Guitars Only:



In The Mix:





EQing distorted guitars is never an easy task, but by taking these few simple steps and applying it to your own mixes, you’ve got a fantastic strategy to nailing that perfectly polished, professional album tone.

Want more in-depth guides like this for free?  If you, then show this article to a friend, post it on a forum, share it in a group on Facebook, or share it on your own wall. If articles like this one end up being read a lot, it means we can justify focusing on creating more in-depth guides.

Don’t forget! If you found this guide useful, be sure to download our Guitar EQ Checklist to help you out with your own tones!

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This article was written by Connor Gilkinson, our editor located in Canada.

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