In this series on building and capturing your ideal guitar tone, we are building a methodical, ground-up approach to dialing in tone without losing our sanity.
In Part 1, we covered:
Strategies for deciding which gear to get
Understanding, characterizing and tweaking the tone coming directly out of your guitar
Understanding, characterizing and tweaking your amp tone
Today, we are going to move into additional tone shaping territory that is a crucial part of the overall tone ladder: overdrive and distortion effects.
We will cover, what they do, when to use them, how to understand their impact on your tone and how to dial them in.
To start, let’s talk about the concept of “gain” and where all this madness began.
The Distortion Origin Story
That would be a cool band name, right?
Think about the basic premise of an electric guitar and the amplification electronics that go along with it.
We are taking something that’s very quiet (an unplugged electric guitar) and trying to make it loud enough to thrill a small crowd at a gig.
That’s how this whole thing began: take something and just make it louder – don’t change it.
In the super early days of rock, as shows started to get louder and louder, guitarists started pushing tube amps (the only kind of amp that existed back then) further and further.
They found something magical! Their tone began taking on all of this pleasant compression and harmonic content - and they loved it!
What they were hearing was tube circuitry being pushed beyond the point where it could accurately represent a signal passed through it.
At that point, the signal begain to “clip”. In other words, the circuitry began changing the shape of the signal passed through it and, in doing so, introduced all of this interesting harmonic content (i.e., distortion).
As a demonstration, here is what happens to a humble sine wave when it's hard clipped. Hard clipping just means that any part of the signal that's above a certain threshold just gets lopped off. Visually, it looks like this:
It's hard to predict what kind of audible effect such clipping would have and, while this is a very sterile example, the audio clips are still instructive.
Listen to the pure 440Hz tone first. It sounds like a single note.
Now listen to the clipped version. Can you hear additional notes? Weird, right? This is the definition of harmonics. Distortion and clipping create harmonics, which in the case of a pure sine wave, creates additional notes.
While amp manufacturers worked to catch up to this trend, guitar players began inserting pedals into their signal chain to bring on these fuzz and distortion effects at more reasonable volumes.
The concept of “distortion” in a pedal is essentially the same as in an amp: you have some circuitry and as you start to overload that circuitry, the circuitry starts to distort the signal passed through it. Different circuits will distort the signal in different ways (e.g., fuzz vs. distortion).
OK, so we want distortion, yes?
And we know we can get it from an amp or from any number of pedals. Or, how about from the amp AND from pedals? What do we do?
Let’s talk about what overdrive/distortion/fuzz pedals can do for us that amps may not be able to (and vice versa).
We’ll classify pedals into several categories:
Overdrive pedals are considered to “light to medium” distortion devices that are generally used for one of two reasons:
Boost the signal level into the front of the amp to overdrive the AMP circuit and impart pre-amp distortion to the tone
“Color” or “shape” the tone in some way without imparting too much unruly distortion
Overdrive pedals can also impart some crunch and distortion from their own circuitry. Having some light clipping from pedal circuitry going into a preamp can impart a slightly “smoother” characteristic to the distortion from the preamp stage.
Overdrive pedals will very commonly have 3 controls:
Gain: this is control of the distortion or clipping circuit. Turning the gain up will create more distortion from the pedal circuitry.
Tone: This control can mean different things on different pedals but you can think of it is as the “color” control for pedal. In some pedals, it acts as a sort of slant EQ or a tone a knob on a guitar. Turning it up can push certain frequencies higher and others lower. The best approach here is to start with it at the twelve o’clock position and then turn it all the way and all the way down to see exactly what it’s doing.
Level: This is a “clean” boost. In other words, it is the control for a circuit that can amplify the signal without distorting it. Think of it as a volume knob on a stereo. For example, if you don’t like the distortion from the pedal, you can turn the gain all the way down and turn the level up to force a louder clean signal into the amp circuit and distort at the amp rather than in the preamp.
There are a lot of overlaps between an overdrive pedal and a distortion pedal. Generically, a distortion pedal can provide higher levels of distortion and can get you into high gain territory even without using any of the amp’s distortion.
The controls are typically similar.
There may be additional EQ sections that provide further “shaping” in a way similar to the knobs on your amp allow.
Ah fuzz. Fuzz is kind of like the hip grandfather of distortion effects.
It was one of the first distortion effects and is still beloved in many genres today.
Fuzz mangles the signal from the guitar even more than distortion. The level of clipping is severe and leads to a sound that is very different than what we started with.
It’s also (in my opinion) one of the most aptly named effects in guitar history. Nay. World history.
It just does sound “fuzzy”, doesn’t it?
Here’s a modern classic example of one of my favorite 90s albums – which is riddled with fuzz.
Fuzz breaks down further into the type of transistors used.
Germanium and Silicon are the big words here. The former being a smoother, thicker, more classic sound while the former tends to be more brittle and aggressive.
There are some pedals that give you options for both circuits. Although I don’t often feel a fuzz urge myself, I do own this Pharaoh pedal and it gets some pretty awesome sounds going into a clean amp.
OK. Back to it. When and why would we use each of these pedals?
That's the subject for the next installment of this series.
Until then, think about the pedals you have. Plug them in between your guitar and your clean amp one at a time and try to "characterize" them. How are they coloring or affecting your tone even with the gain turned down?
Cheers and happy tone chasing!
Vadim is a mixing engineer and producer based in the Greater Philadelphia area. His passion for recording and mixing was sparked through playing guitar and writing prog rock as a teenager. Today he operates Calm Frog Recording where he helps artists get their songs to sound as good as they possibly can. He loves sharing his passion for recording and producing music with others.
You can check out Vadim's work at www.calmfrogrecording.com