Perfecting Your Prog Metal Clean Tone
It could be argued that progressive rock has existed in some form or another for almost fifty years now. You could certainly make that claim for an album like Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention's Freak Out. That album took rock norms and twisted them upside down even as they were being formed. And The Beatles' experiments with instruments beyond the obvious guitar/bass/drums/piano combination led do some pretty out-there musical extrapolations too.
And then of course there are bands like Yes, who took progressive rock and turned it into Progressive Rock, a genre unto itself. Progressive metal is a little different. You're less likely to find exotic instrumentation in progressive metal - not that it doesn't happen from time to time, but prog metal seems to be quite heavily guitar-driven rather than composition-driven, and as a consequence much of the sonic color comes down to the creativity of the guitarist or guitarists. This is especially true of the current crop of super-shredding prog metal guitarists working in home studios without the luxury of a dedicated virtuoso keyboard player at their beck and call. Often this takes the form of clean tones liberally soaked in effects, either as a feature part or taking the place of keyboards in the background. So let's take look at some ways to get a bit of extra 'zing' from your progressive metal clean tones. These are things that I've found work for me. Maybe they'll help you too.
Compress, Compress, Compress
A nice vintage-vibed clean tone might require plenty of dynamic range, but in a prog metal song you could very well be pitting your guitar up against a quadruple-tracked barrage of punchy, hyper-distorted guitars and a hard-hit, complex drum part. So in order to get your clean tone to 'speak,' it helps to compress it, sometimes quite heavily. If you have one, place a compressor early in your signal chain so that it's boosting the overall strength of your guitar signal, but not all of the effects you're using too. A very short attack time will help to give some extra 'oomph' to your entire signal, or you can back off the attack time to emphasize the beginning of a note. This latter method is great for parts that are particularly rhythmic, such as palm-muted arpeggios laced with delay.
Buck The Trends
While many of us are used to flipping to single coil pickups (or coil-split hum buckers) for our cleans, a lot of great prog metal has been enhanced by the fuller, smoother tone of clean humbuckers. There are no hard and fast rules here regarding which pickup to use; just go with whatever works for the material. But a heavily compressed clean bridge humbucker playing a strummed part can be a great counterpoint to heavily distorted chugs.
Then again, if you have a single coil or the ability to split a humbucker with a push-pull pot like on the Les Paul Standard (like the Koa Cherry Sunburst pictured), it can add a beautiful, shimmering 'zing' quality to chords, particularly if you include a few open strings or unison notes.
Ah but the pickup choice and the level of compression aren't the real secrets to prog metal clean tone. These are important elements but their true role is to prime the guitar tone for the cool stuff that's to follow… such as…
Delay, elay, lay
Regular delay might be fine - nay, perfect - as-is for many musical situations, but many prog metal players like to take their delay sound and mess with it in all sorts of interesting ways. There are several analog delay pedals out there which include the ability to add modulation to your delay. Often this takes the form of a 'not quite chorus, not quite phaser' wobble. If you have access to a pedal like this, try a heavily compressed bridge humbucker hitting your modulated delay, set to only one repeat, a quarter note behind the original picked note. This will give your music a sense of gentle movement, a sort of floating vibe. Or, if you're using a single coil sound, track down a digital delay with the ability to pitch-shift the delay repeats. This way you'll get the clear, ringing original note as well as an almost harp-like or bell-like aura. If your delay unit lets you reduce the treble of the repeat signal, all the better! Most pitch-shift-capable digital delays let you cascade each pitch-shifted repeat into the next, so your repeat might start in the next highest octave, then jump up by another whole octave, and so on and so on until you get an angry knock at your door from an annoyed dog.
And of course, the Eddie Van Halen "Cathedral"-style trick of setting a delay to play notes in between the notes that you're picking can provide a great texture in progressive metal, especially if you have a pitch-shifted delay filling in notes that aren't even in the actual chord. Try shifting the repeats up by a fifth, for instance, then playing a pattern which lets the repeats fill in the areas between the actual picked notes.
There isn't much room for traditional spring reverb in prog metal. It just doesn't often fit with the overall vibe. Instead, try a non-linear reverb - in other words, a reverb which has some kind of unusual quality to the way the reverb builds or decays. This might be in the form of a 'gated' reverb which cuts out after a predetermined time, adding 'holes of silence' to what was previously an echoey guitar part. Or it might be a reverb that fades up gradually from the initial strum until it overwhelms the dry guitar sound and fades away. Or it could be a reverb setting which provides strong 'late reflections,' causing a pulse or surge-like effect that makes itself heard after the reverb has seemingly began to fade.
Don't Hesitate, Modulate
Looking for ways to add modulation to your clean tone without necessarily doing it in a vintage-sounding way? Instead of chorus, try digital pitch-shifting with a dry signal matched at equal volume by an only very slightly detuned effected signal. This takes away the wavering effect of chorus, and has a slightly robotic, unearthly texture. Or track down a triggered flanger which launches into a sweep up or down every time you pick a note, instead of staying to a fixed 'up-down-up-down' motion. If you're using a tremolo, set up a reverb with a long pre-delay time after the tremolo so that the reverb fills in the gaps.
Naturally there are plenty of other directions you can take your prog metal clean tone. And there's no reason you can't go totally vintage instead of hi-tech hi-fi! What are some of your clean tone tricks?