Understanding Distortion

Rock guitar needs to be dirty and we make our guitar sound dirty with Gain, Boost, Crunch, Distortion, Overdrive and Fuzz.

What is it? Clean vs overdrive?

A CLEAN sound is exactly what is the word means, - nothing to make the sound messy. But rarely is a perfectly clean sound very pleasing even the most 'perfect' clean sound - say a mid 60's Deluxe amp has a kind of grit that makes it 'feel' good. If you want to play rock or blues you will want to add some dirt.

What guitar? What pickup?

The guitar you use, and specifically, the pickups you use will play a big part in the amount and type of gain you get. Single coil pickups are generally 'thinner' and humbuckers are fatter. Single coil pickups can be noisy but Humbuckers 'buck the hum' and can be better with a lot of gain... but single coils cut through and have a great bite. It's just preference but be aware that it makes a pretty big difference.

Built Into Amp or a Pedal?

A nice valve amp will deliver sweet dirt but not usually a heavily distorted tone.

Pedals are convenient, easy to swap around and commonly used (often with valve amps!).

If you are a beginner and new to all this stuff, I would recommend getting a Boss Katana amp which has many kinds of dirt built-in and so you will develop a taste for what you like, what you don't and what you want more of! Also has the advantage of having (almost) every other effect built in too - and I have loads of free katana presets on the site :) 

If not a Katana - see if you can get your hands ona multi-effects device that has everything you need to explore and start your life long tone quest!

Different overdrive types

In this lesson, we explore 4 pedals and three types of gain, Overdrive, Distortion and Fuzz.

Tube Screamer Mini
The tube screamer is an all-time classic dirt box and this mini one sounds amazing and is super great value! This is Overdrive!
Buy a Tube Screamer Mini Here

Boss DS-1
The first and another classic Distortion box.
Buy a DS-2 here (probably better for beginner and cheaper!)

Nobels ODR-1
Best bang for buck pedal ever? I know loads of pro players with the very best gear that still use one of these bad boys!
Buy and ODR-1 Here - but note they've gone up in price since I last checked and are not more than the previous 2 pedals here, but they're still great!

Dan Drive Austin Pride
Seems I have no budget Fuzz pedals - so this is my favourite of all time. Incredible sound, extremely versatile, looks super cool - mega on every level. Matching price tag.
Contact Dan about making you a Fuzz pedal here!

The Knobs

Most of the time you will find 3 knobs on a dirt box - some will have more Toone controls, like a Tops and Middle, but there three are the most common. Fuzz boxes can have a lot more.

Gain / Distortion / Cruch
This will set how much dirt you get from the unit.

This will either take or remove the high sounds, or high mids which drastically changes the whole sound. This will have other names sometimes, like Spectrum or EQ.

Because the gain might make the pedal louder you might need to adjust the overall level... or you might want it to get lots louder for your solo.

Very Brief History

If you want a detailed story then check out this awesome video by Joshua of JHS Pedals on The History Of Distortion, but the super quick bullet point version...

  • In the early 50's people started experimenting more with sounds, turning up amps louder than they were designed to go, they were OVERDRIVE-ing the amps.
  • In 1960 a song by country crooner Marty Robbins and his track Don't Worry. There was something wrong with the mixing desk and the lead guitar came out sounding funny but it was a big hit and everyone wanted the sound, so his friend made an effect box to replicate the sound - the Gibson Maestro FUZZ.
  • 1965, Keith Richards used it for Satisfaction but that started the whole Fuzz effect obsession for guitarists!
  • Vox Tone bender born and it was the sound of Jeff Beck, The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin.
  • 1969 - Fuzz Face (Jimi Hendrix sound) and the Big Muff distortion pedal was born - the birth of the term distortion!
  • 1970's amps get bigger, people want more distortion
  • 1977 - 3 amazing new stompboxes that use HARD CLIPPING were born, the MXR Distortion +, The RAT pedal and the BOSS DS-1 Distortion.
  • 1980's amps like the ubiquitous Marshal JCM800 had the DISTORTION built-in.
  • By the 90's there was a crazy amount of new distortion types and digital emulations of distortion - and it's now forever growing.


Lesson 12: Power Chords!