As musicians, we currently live in a golden era of technology. We have access to a wide range of tools and resources that make our creative process more manageable. One example of this is the abundance of effect pedals available to us. While having so many options can be exciting, it can also be overwhelming. Take distortion pedals as an example. There must be thousands to choose from, and it really comes down to the kind of music you play.
Garnering a broader understanding of distortion will help you determine how to use the effect and what kind of distortion pedal will work best for you.
What is a distortion pedal?
A distorted sound occurs when the natural sound is altered as the sound wavelengths are compressed and altered. The origins of guitar distortion date back to the 1950s and 1960s, when guitar players aimed to create new sounds by pushing their amplifiers to the limit. Back then, all guitar amps were tube amps, which tend to go into overdrive and distort when you turn the volume up. This resulted in the tubes compressing and saturating the waveform, producing a unique distorted sound that became highly sought after.
One of the earliest instances of distortion in popular music was in the 1954 track “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. The distorted guitar sound was created accidentally when the amp was damaged during recording, and this raw, powerful sound quickly became an integral part of early rock and roll.
Introducing the distortion pedal
As amplifiers improved, players started experimenting with different ways of producing distortion. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, distortion pedals became widely available, enabling guitar players to achieve the same heavy, saturated sound without damaging their amplifiers. Usually made of hard steel, these pedals could take a beating and allowed players to turn the effect on and off with a simple stomp of the foot, marking a major innovation.
How to use a distortion pedal
Physically using a distortion pedal couldn’t be easier. Simply plug one cable into your pedal from your guitar and one cable from the pedal into your amp. Stomp on the pedal, and your sound will start to distort.
When it comes to actually using distortion in a song, it is up to you to make the creative decision on when to stomp on the pedal. Unless you are a heavy metal guitarist, I wouldn’t recommend using distortion throughout an entire song. But using it for breakdowns, solos, and even the chorus riff of a song can add a lot of power to your playing.
What’s the difference between distortion, overdrive, and fuzz?
There are a few different types of distortion used in certain genres; they create unique sonic textures. The 3 most common types of distortion effects you will see are distortion, overdrive, and fuzz.
Think of distortion pedals as the heavy hitters of the guitar effects world. They’re designed to give you that crunchy, saturated, and in-your-face sound that’s perfect for rock and metal styles. When you step on a distortion pedal, you’re essentially telling your guitar to let loose and unleash its full power. The clipped and amplified signal that results is the sound of pure, unbridled rock n’ roll energy.
Overdrive pedals, on the other hand, are more like the smooth operators of the effects world. They’re designed to emulate the sound of a slightly overdriven tube amplifier, adding warmth, richness, and complexity to your tone. The result is a more natural and organic distortion that still packs a punch but in a subtler and more musical way. Overdrive pedals are the secret weapon for blues and classic rock players who want to add some extra sizzle to their sound.
And then there’s the fuzz pedal, the wild child of the guitar effects family. Fuzz pedals produce a seriously intense form of distortion that’s characterized by a gritty, heavy, and often unstable sound. This effect is perfect for players who want to push the boundaries of conventional guitar playing and explore the more experimental and psychedelic side of the instrument. Fuzz was originally made popular by Jimi Hendrix but has made the rounds throughout the past decades and has been used by countless artists. With a fuzz pedal, you can take your guitar tone to new and exciting places, creating sounds that are at once strange and familiar.
Whether you’re a metalhead, a bluesman, or an experimental artist, there’s a distortion, overdrive, or fuzz pedal out there that’s perfect for your style.
This is a hard one; there really are a lot of distortion pedals to choose from, but if I had to pin a few down, here’s what I would choose.
Distortion pedal: Boss DS-1
We couldn’t talk about distortion without mentioning the Boss DS-1. Another late 70’s innovation.
It’s known for its simple operation, with controls for tone, level, and distortion, making it easy for guitarists to get a wide range of sounds. Many famous guitarists have used the DS-1, including Kurt Cobain, Steve Vai, and Robert Smith.
The DS-1 has a distinctive sound that can be described as crunchy and hard-edged, making it a popular choice for rock and metal players. Its compact design and affordability also make it a popular choice for beginner guitarists. Despite its age, the DS-1 remains one of Boss’s most popular pedals and is still widely used today.
Overdrive Pedal: Tube Screamer
First released in the late ’70s, The Ibanez Tube Screamer is a guitar overdrive pedal known for its distinctive warm and crunchy sound. It’s used to boost the guitar’s signal and has the characteristic “mid-hump”, creating a smooth and saturated tone that cuts through the mix. In addition, the pedal features controls for tone, level, and drive, allowing the user to shape their sound. Originally made famous by artists like Stevie Ray Vaughn, Gary Moore, and John Mayer, it is considered a classic stompbox that is still widely used today.
Fuzz Pedal: Electro Harmonix Little Big Muff
The Electro Harmonix Little Big Muff is a staple fuzz pedal. This was one of the first pedals I ever used, and I still have it on my pedalboard today! These classic pedals are sturdy enough to outlive most musicians, so if you want to experiment a bit, I highly recommend grabbing a Big Muff and letting the fuzz take over your guitar’s sound. The Big Muff has been around for decades and has been used by Pink Floyd, The Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, Jack White, and more!
Over the years, distortion pedals have continued to evolve, with new designs and technologies allowing guitar players to shape and customize their sound in ever more complex and creative ways. Today, distortion is an essential tool in the arsenal of guitar players across various genres, from rock and metal to blues and alternative. Whether it’s used to create a raw and powerful tone or to add subtle nuance and complexity to a performance, distortion remains one of the most versatile and powerful effects in the world of guitar.
If you want to learn more about the different types of effects and how to use them check out my full guide to effects.