Across most musical genres we are used to hearing distorted guitar sounds, but do all guitar amps have distortion included?
When shopping for a guitar amp, there are a number of things that we have to know. Since I’ve been a guitar player for a long time and have been in your shoes before, here’s everything you need to know about guitar amps and distortion.
The answer to the question do all guitar amps have distortion is no; not all guitar amps have distortion. In fact, there are different categories you could place guitar amps in depending on how they generate their distortion. This makes a huge different in sound, these categories are:
- Single-channel amps
- Multiple channel amps
- Digital modeling amps
It took me a lot of time of playing in many different situations to have first-hand real experiences with each of these categories. After all that time, I have a thing or two to say about each; read on as we are going to go deep into the subject and make the best recommendations.
Overdrive vs distortion
First things first, I always find it handy to clarify the difference between these terms before diving in.
They are commonly mistaken by most players, but let me clarify them for you before we start, this is information you’ll need.
You may think your amp has distortion but it may just be overdrive.
Overdrive Is the natural effect of overloading the signal.
Overdrive happens in guitar amplification as well as in any other kind of amplification, even in audio equipment. Since it is a natural effect it doesn’t need any extra gear to happen. Overdriven sounds are lighter than distorted ones, closer to The Rolling Stones than to Metallica.
To distort a sound you need to add valves, transistors or digital modeling to the signal because it is not a natural effect, but a created one. It is fuller, with more gain and closer to Metallica than The Rolling Stones.
Distortion tends to be much more dramatic than overdrive.
The video below explains this in lots more detail if you are interested:
Guitar amp types explained
This is the first step of the journey and is a very important one. Knowing the differences between the guitar amp types will allow you to make a more informed decision. The more data you have when you are ready for the purchase, the closer you’ll be to picking the right amp for you.
Let’s go through the four more common guitar amp types.
These guitar amps are the closest you’ll get to what guitar amplifiers used to be back in the day when they were invented.
For starters, these amplifiers can also be referred to as non-master amps and have a single channel with a preamp and a power amp stage.
- This is the first thing your guitar signal hits when it enters the amp. Here you’ll find equalizers and tone modifiers.
- Power amp This is the second stage and is what actually amplifier the preamplified signal and sends it straight to the speaker(s).
In these amplifiers, you’ll have a varying number of controls but basics should be something like:
Volume + Bass + Middle + Treble.
The volume pot will control the amount of power coming out of the amp and the tone modifiers (AKA equalizers) shape the tone coming out of the preamp section. These amps are the simplest layout and, surprisingly enough, are among the most expensive and sought-after in the world.
You can’t obtain distortion from these amps, just overdrive and you have to crank them really loud to do it. What happens is that the power amp section overloads and generates beautiful, harmonic, natural overdrive. On the positive side, it is very responsive, on the negative side gain is limited and you need lots of volume. Think of the times of Hendrix, Clapton in Cream, Robbie Krieger and such.
By the mid-1970s, guitar players demanded gain at a volume they could handle in stage without killing anyone. Major brands echoed on this demand and added a gain stage to the preamp so you can get your amplifier to overdrive at very low volumes. Again a basic set of controls in this kind of amplifiers works like this:
Volume + Gain + Bass + Middle + Treble.
With this layout what you get is the Volume knob to control the power amp (the actual volume of the amp) and the gain knob to control the amount of gain (overdrive).
Multiple channel amps
When the eighties came along all guitar players wanted more gain, more volume, bigger hair, fluorescent guitars and more spandex. This is the moment in which big guitar amplifier brands invented two-channel amps with added distortion. Everything was made more extreme and the gain of the amplifiers multiplied exponentially.
By the time the 90s hit with bands like Nirvana, guitar players demanded more flexibility out of the amp and then major brands decided to create a clean and a distorted channel for amps.
This way, guitar players could get the pristine cleans for the quiet verses and the big distorted sound for the choruses (Smells like teen spirit, Drain you and countless others). Switching between clean and dirty could be done from a remote control on the floor. With time, amplifiers like the Marshall JVM410, feature state of the art technology and offer four channels to switch from.
These are great amps for players wanting a more versatile sound spectrum. On the other hand, for tone purists, the more additions between your guitar and the speakers, the more of the original tone of your instrument you lose.
Digital modeling amps
This is the 21st Century, right? Well, both of the examples above are for traditional circuits while these guitar amplifiers have a digital preamp section with a traditional power amp and speaker(s). You’ll recognize them because they will very likely have some sort of a turning wheel to select a different amp type or an LCD screen to show parameters.
The difference between this amplifier and the ones previously mentioned is deeper than it seems because it has to do with guitar signal processing. When your guitar signal goes into the amp, it translates it to zeros and ones to process it digitally. Then, it translates it into analog again to send it to the speaker(s).
The benefit of this kind of amplifier is that you have everything you need built-in. Also, the tone-shaping capabilities are superior in this model than in analog ones. These amps usually feature built-in multi-effects units, looping features and more. On the other hand, they don’t sound like analog amps unless you invest a huge amount of money and buy a Kemper, AXE FX Fractal or Headrush.
Some further considerations
I want to clear absolutely all doubts you might have so you make the most out of the money invested, so let’s go through some further considerations.
Combo or head and cabinet?
This is another major question when it comes to buying our guitar amplifier, in order to answer this question there are a few things you should bear in mind:
Where are you planning to use it? If you are planning to do big-stage shows, then usually head and cabinet are more suitable. On the other hand, if you want it for practicing or playing small gigs with friends in small stages you should stick to combos.
Do you have your own mobility? Moving with a head and cabinet around is always more complicated than doing it with a combo. You can just jump on a bus with your guitar in your back, your amp between your legs and look cool going to rehearsal; there’s no way you can do it with head + cab.
Closed-back or open back?
Whether your amp is closed or open back, it will have an important impact on tone.
First of all, you have to know that sound is mostly air and the more air you move, the bigger the sound you’ll generate.
Open-back combos and cabinets are great for small places since the air flows from the back of the speaker as well as from the front. This fills the room with sound.
On the other hand, closed-back combos and cabinets make the sound more focused and retain more bass qualities. For beginners and small stages, open-back combos are the most recommended choice.
Should I buy an amp with distortion or a pedal?
The final thing to bear in mind is if you should buy an amp with a built-in distortion sound or use pedals. Both options have pros and cons, letÂ´s take a look at them:
Pedals are great tone-shifters and a one-way ticket.
On the positive side, you can bring your sound everywhere because you carry it in the shape of a stompbox.
On the other hand, if you decide to go for pedals you have to bear in mind that you’ll always need an extra cable, something to power the pedal with and more room to bring it.
If you choose to go for distortion pedals, the best thing is to buy a single-channel amp and handle distortion from the floor.
The amps with a built-in distortion are a good option if you want to travel light.
If you can find an amp with distortion you really like then there is no reason not to use it.
The distortion from an amp’s preamp sounds different than with a pedal, which makes it attractive for many players. On the other hand, if you want to have your sound everywhere you go, you have to carry your amp.
What I recommend
I have tried out both options and I, therefore, have a recommendation. A few years ago I bought a modern digital amp which had loads of built-in effects. Not just distortion but everything from a flanger to delay.
This was great because it meant I didn’t have to carry around lots of pedals but it did mean I become too reliant on that amp. On top of that the clean sounds weren’t actually that great, so I was stuck using the effects all the time. It was difficult to add other pedals into the mix.
It also meant I had to take my amp everywhere, I couldn’t borrow one at a gig or practice studio and add pedals, I needed the whole amp because the effects were built-in
I would therefore, recommend getting an amp that has really nice clean tone. Spend the extra money on this rather than a fancy modern amp with lots of effects.
You can then add distortion or other effects using pedals, giving you much more freedom and flexibility over time.
I’m actually not going to recommend an amp here because it is really a matter of personal choice and there are so many factors to consider!
Go to your nearest music store and test a few out and see which one has the nicest clean tones that you feel you can build a sound upon using pedals.
Anything by Marshall or Fender is going to be a great place to start.
Recommended Distortion Pedal
One thing I do feel comfortable recommending is a distortion pedal.
My favorite pedal in my collection is currently my ProCo RAT distortion. Probably most famously used by Kurt Cobain.
The pedal has such a great rich distortion and amazing tone. And it’s very simple to use, 3 simple dials but you can shape the tone a lot to get many different sounds.
To the question do all guitar amps have distortion the answer is a big no. On top of that, there are many more things to bear in mind when you are going to get your amp because that distortion can come from a number of sources and it will sound different.
Also, the amp with or without distortion can come in different sizes and shapes that affect the sound, transportation and your overall experience with it.
Now that you clear out all your doubts, you have an idea of what you are looking for in an amp. Go to the store and state clearly what works best for what you want and buy the best amp for the money invested.