Tommaso Zillio

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distortion complex chords

The conundrum of the modern guitarist: how do you balance a love for complex chords and a love for crushing distortion?

Many people think that these two things are enemies, and they can’t be in the same room together like Italian people and Hawaiian ‘pizza’.

This is actually not true (*), it’s simply that most people don’t know how to make complex chords work with distortion.

Yes, it goes without saying that if you simply dial your distortion gain knob at 10 and strum a Cmaj9#11 then it’s not going to sound great…

… indeed in that case you have the fantastic choice of:

  • making your chord sound harsh, or

  • making your chord sound muddy

(Aren’t you happy to have a choice?)

… buuuut if you are careful with how you arrange the chord, you can minimize both the harshness and the muddiness, and instead sound powerful and focused.

So how do these chords need to be arranged? What needs to change?

Simple: watch out the video below, and I’ll show you the easy trick that pro guitarists use to play sophisticated chords with as much distortion as their heart desires.

(*) The chord + distortion being enemies thingy is not true. The Italians + Hawaiian ‘pizza’ in the same room instead is totally true and usually leads to these 20-year-long vendettas we Italians are famous for.

Finally, if you don’t know a lot about chords, then it’s possible you haven’t even run into this problem yet.

If that’s the case and you want to expand your knowledge of chords, check out my Complete Chord Mastery guitar course and start improving your knowledge of harmony on the guitar immediately.

Once you improve your knowledge, there are plenty of issues and problems like the one we discussed today to run into. Fun! :-)

Video Transcription

Hello internet so nice to see you! Is it possible to play super complex chords on your guitar when you have distortion on and still make them sound soul crushing metal, but at the same time retain all the clarity and complexity of the chord? Turns out Yes, it is possible.

And this is important because what the what will be the point for us to learn all these complex harmony and all those interesting chord progression with complex chords if then we cannot play them on our guitar what will be the point of even studying harmony on guitar if the only thing we could play will be simple power chords?

Well, there wouldn’t be a point in it because if you can ever played Why should you study it? But here’s the point. There is a way it is super simple. And once you know it, it’s just easy. Okay, so I’m going to explain to you exactly how to do it. I’m going to take a fairly complex chord progression. Okay, not super complex.

Okay, not super dissonant either. But it contains chords that if you just naively play them on guitar with distortion, they sound horrible. And I’m going to do that so you can hear also how horrible they sound progression is a Baroque chord progression I’ve already explained in another one on my video, you’ll find the link on the top right, it sounds this way, I’m playing it with three voices right now with clean guitar sounds this way.

Think these right now, not the most metal thing ever. Okay, now the chord in this progression are interesting. And again, I’m not gonna explain the whole theory behind it. But the chords are in order a C major chord, an F major seven with a base of a so in first inversion, and a B diminished.

This is a diminished chord play with distortion, it will sound very unclear, then I have an E minor seven with a base of G which would be as an 11 A minor. Then I have a D minor seven with a base of F and A G and then C and again that’s in three voices meaning and playing three notes. For every chord, I could play the full complete chords by adding a little bit of by adding the missing note essentially okay. It’s a bit harder to play.

So I’m going slower, okay just to make it clear what the fire this point, just do the naive thing and just slam on some distortion used my bridge pickup to give it a bit more bite, okay. And they just play this whole thing with distortion. Well, it’s gonna sound absolutely horrible.

I mean, maybe you like it, but for me, this is absolutely horrible. Okay, there is no clarity, there’s a lot of fees. It really doesn’t. And it’s not soul crushing. It’s not powerful. It doesn’t really work for me. Okay, so just playing all those notes, okay, into distortion pedal.

Doesn’t really sound good to me. But there is a solution. So here’s the thing. And it’s important that you guys understand how we are thinking so that you can replicate this with any other chord progression. So we need to understand what happens when you play notes inside a distortion pedal into a distortion pedal, okay.

And let’s think about playing only two notes. That’s key. Okay, you want to play only two notes into a distortion pedal? Well, music theory teaches us that there are three kinds of intervals, okay, and I’m going to call those two notes. The scores of the notes that are technically called diads, but I’m gonna call them intervals right now because it’s just easier in this situation.

So there are three kinds of intervals perfectly consonant imperfectly consonant and dissonant, perfectly consonant our octaves fits perfectly and perfect for it’s, those intervals tend to sound very good with distortion in the power chords are perfect fifths all the time, because they sound good, but we can also play octaves and fourths.

Those intervals sound great with distortion because they really pack a punch, okay, and they don’t get unclear distortion keeps the quality of those intervals so for instance, a perfect fifth is this power cord and a perfect fourth would be this which is an inverted power chord. Okay, Octave sounds even better. Even if a bit empty, okay?

Then we have imperfectly consonant intervals our major and minor third and major and minor six. In this case distortion tend to break up a little bit more, okay, but we still retain enough clarity. So for instance, our major six would sound like these. Okay, minor six, we sound like these teeth breaks up a bit, but if acceptable, Major Third we sound like these. And the minor third, minor third tend to breaks up even more.

Some people love those. Some people don’t like those up to you, but it’s just an intermediate thing. And then we have the dissonant interval, which are seconds sevens and any kind of augmented or diminished interval, those interval tend to play havoc with distortion, which doesn’t mean it’s not musical isn’t the clarity, it goes a bit out of the window, because for instance, you have minor seconds with sound this way.

I mean, maybe you like the sound, maybe you’re a death metal fan, and you like this kind of sound. And I’m not saying anything about that, if you like it, you like it, it’s right, if you like it, but the clarity, especially when you pile up more notes, it’s gonna go down, it’s gonna be harder to hear all those notes, because they conflict with each other. And distortion just amplifies the conflict.

So I’m not here to tell you to not use these dissonant intervals, or imperfectly consonant intervals and use only perfectly consonant intervals. I’m here to tell you, it’s the clarity is greater when you use perfectly consonant interval intermediate when use imperfectly consonant. And there’s less clarity when you use dissonance. And that’s again, a general guideline. Okay? Just so you know where to go.

There are exceptions wherever you want this general guidelines. So what do we do now we take the chord progression we had before, and we write down the notes of every chord. So for instance, in C major, I have C, G, and E, in the F major seven with a bass of a, my notes are a at the bass, then F, C, and E on top. If A or B diminished, I have B, D, F, and then writing all the notes of all the chords, then I’m trying to do a voice leading of those chords, meaning I’m trying to connect the common notes between the chords and to move all the other notes, the least possible amount, why preserving the bassline so the bassline stays where it is.

But I can rearrange and or double the notes on top but to make every line be as smooth as possible. And to move at as little as possible, then I’m going to do that I’m going to try to identify if between the notes that we have, there are perfectly consonant intervals, okay. And in this case, for instance, the two lines in the center create always a perfect consonant interval, because in the first chord, the first the central two lines are C and G.

So perfect for two if we think G the bass. In the second chord, I have F and C, so that’s a perfect fifth the in the next chord, I have F and B, that’s a diminished fifth, it’s not optimal, it will sound a little bit more dissonant, but that’s just what the chord is. The next chord E and B, I’ll have a perfect fifth and a perfect fourth, Perfect Fifth, a perfect fourth on the last one, I will have a major third but again, not a big problem there.

So I have two lines that are mostly made of perfectly consonant intervals, the two lines that are left that will give me a different interval. In the first chord, the two lines have the notes A C and E, that’s a major third imperfectly consonant, that’s good enough. In the next chord, I’ll have an a and an E, or that’s a perfect fifth sounds great. The next I’ll ever be in a D minor third. Okay, the next F, G and D, perfect fifths.

Okay, so here comes the trick. If I divide the notes of those chords, between two different distorted guitar, each one of them can have an acceptable interval or interval the sounds clear enough when I played the into a distortion pedal, and so we retain clarity, and the two guitars together, play all the notes.

So I could have one guitar play the two central line and the other guitar played the baseline and the top line. And of course, I can change the octaves however I want there is nobody says I have to keep this vertical order of the lines. So I can rearrange however I want, and it will work. Now, with a little bit of experimentation, you also find that sometimes it’s better to rearrange things in a slightly different way.

So let me show you how I’m rearranging these to make it even clearer. Okay. So let me write the chord progression. And let me just write five lines this time. The idea is that one line will be carried by the bass guitar, and I have four lines of which two carried by one distorted guitar in order to carry by another district guitar.

So here’s a little look like so the lowest line is the baseline is the original baseline and the base takes care of that. And the guitar doesn’t care About this baseline, none of the guitar follows that line, then we’ll have those other two lines, the lower two lines of the guitar, those are all perfect fourths, and Perfect Fifth, except for the diminished fifth on the B diminished chord because that’s unavoidable. Everything else is perfect interval.

So it will work great with distortion. Top two lines will be another guitar, another distorted guitar, and those are all thirds, except for the last interval that is a perfect fourth, they have major thirds, then a minor third than a minor third, then a major third. And finally, a perfect fourth thirds are imperfectly consonant so it breaks up a little bit, but it’s still acceptable.

At minimum, I have a bass guitar playing the lowest note and to district electric guitar playing those two groups of notes, it will sound even better if I then double track those guitar. So I have two guitar playing those lines and other two guitars playing those other two lines, add a little bit of a drum track. And that’s what you get.

Now that sound powerful and clear. Okay, I’m not using any other trickery here, I’m just playing whole notes. So you can hear all those notes, you can hear all the conflict between those notes, when there is a conflict, you can hear all the problems distortion, create, and this is way, way clearer than the previous example.

Okay, so the secret if you want to play complex chords, when you want to use distortion is to separate the lines of the chords. And so first create the lines that take you to the chord create the voice leading, okay, that take you to the chord and then separate those lines so that you have mostly either perfectly consonant intervals or imperfectly consonant intervals and you avoid the dissonances.

And just to make sure that you see them, let me show you one. If I take the F major seven with a bass of A, I have the F note and the E note in those chord. And the F and the E, depending on our arrange them could be either a major seventh of distance or a minor nine, which is a minor second essentially of distance.

Okay? I mean, formally speaking, is still a dissonance, okay? And actually, the minor nine probably sound worse than the minors second, depending on who you ask. Okay, but the point is, they are really, they really conflict with each other. So if you put these F and E not together, played by the same distorted guitar, you’re gonna have a lot of break up into distortion, which again, if you like it, it’s great.

But if you want clarity is not that great. So I’m making sure that the F is played by one guitar, and the E is played by another guitar. And indeed, if you see, that’s exactly what I did in my arrangement. Okay. So here’s the trick, it’s really not that hard. The first time you do it, though, it could be a bit slow, because you may not be used in writing chords and recognizing the intervals and arranging all this stuff. So that is sounds good.

The solution for that will be to take my course complete chord mastery, but I talk a lot about voice leading and how to arrange those chords so that they’re easy to play on your guitar. And yes, I do talk about how to play complex chord with distortion and make them sound good. Complete chord mastery.

It’s not a book. It’s a complete video course. That takes you from the basics up. We do everything you need to know about harmony and chords on your guitar. All the theory is done straight on the fretboard. There is no theory for the sake of theory here. Everything is immediately practical. And everything is developed through exercises so you know how to apply these immediately on your guitar.

If you have just a minute click on the link on the top right to check out complete chord mastery. If you liked this video, smash that like button and don’t forget to subscribe and click on notification otherwise YouTube will not let you know when I put up a new video. And if you have any comments, feedback, suggestions, write them down in the comment. I enjoy reading from you and they make videos on your suggestions. This is Tommaso Zillio for, and until next time, enjoy.

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