If you look for guitar pedals, you will see that probably the most common type of pedal is distortion. Almost every pedalboard has a distortion pedal of some type. Listen to pretty much any guitar album, and some form of distortion has been used.
So, why is a distortion pedal necessary? What is the point in distorting your guitar playing and why has it become such a mainstream thing to do?
Without getting too far into the science of audio, and considering the fact that there is a little bit of debate on why a distortion pedal sounds so good, we’ve done our best to answer this age-old question.
What Even is Distortion?
Distortion is a phenomenon in music that is so common, few of us ever stop to think what it even is, or how it is created. What is the science behind that distorted tone we love so much?
Distortion occurs whenever a sound becomes too loud for the output device to handle. You may notice for example that sound from your laptop becomes fuzzy and distorted when turned up as high as it can go. But the same volume level and the same song through larger speakers will be just fine. This is because the level exceeded the maximum output level for the laptop speakers.
I will use my stickman drawing below to demonstrate what happens to the soundwave in this situation. In the image below, person A on the left has played a ‘clean’ chord on his guitar which is plugged into a guitar amp.
You can see there is still space between the amplitude of the soundwave and the maximum output amplitude for the amp, this is known as ‘headroom’.
But as person A cranks up the volume, this increases the amplitude of the soundwave making it exceed the maximum output volume for the amp.
This causes the tops and bottoms of the soundwave to be ‘clipped’. Turning a nice smooth wave into a square shaped wave. This is what causes a distorted sound.
Why Does a Distortion Pedal Sound Good?
From a scientific viewpoint, distortion sounds good because it adds harmonics and character to the sound that wasn’t there. The sound is thickened, but the distortion’s harmonics aren’t too harsh on the ear, as they might be if you distorted another instrument such as the piano.
A good-quality pedal with well built circuitry can make all the difference. The sound becomes “compressed” meaning that the volume of the different strums and notes sound closer together, and that notes can ring out for longer before the volume falls. It can be a powerful tool for both chords and soloing.
Another reason is, quite simply, the fact that our ears have got used to the sound. A lot of genres of music are so intrinsically linked with distorted sounds that we are no longer used to hearing the “dry” sound of an electric guitar. Rock music, Alternative, Heavy Metal and even some Pop music takes advantage of the distortion sound, meaning we’re almost hard-wired to expect it.
Why do you need one as a guitarist? Any electric guitarist will find that there is a world of new tones opened up to them by purchasing even an inexpensive distortion pedal. It adds another dimension and a lot of the darker tones you may wish to use in your music.
Though most are in agreement that distortion is a powerful tool, there’s a lot to learn about types of distortion and how it can potentially add something to your guitar playing. We explore in more detail below.
Why Distortion is The Norm
We should explain that distortion pedals don’t really work with acoustic guitars. When we call them “the norm” we are talking about electric guitar. The electric sound really lends itself to the grittier tones that distortion creates.
Weirdly, distortion really doesn’t work well on many instruments. The electric guitar is one of the few that can sound good with a touch of distortion. Acoustic guitars and pianos sound terrible. Bass guitars and harmonicas can also sound pretty good if the distortion is used correctly.
It is fair to say that a lot of the popular genres of music we know and love, and the most famous guitarists, can be traced back to the 50s and 60s. The Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, The Who… Whether you love or loathe them, they are vital to the world of music, and the birth of guitar music reaching fever pitch.
This coincided with the growth of the distortion effect, which has its roots in the fact that amplifiers started to distort when cranked to high volumes.
There were some key uses of the distortion effect at the time:
- In 1961, the Marty Robbins track “Don’t Worry” was a hit in spite of using a preamp that was broken to record the guitar, hence giving a fuzz/distortion effect.
- Big Muff pedals were released in the 60s. They were used in recordings through the 60s.
- Dick Dale, influential guitarist, worked with guitar giants Fender to create new amps such as the world’s first 100W amplifier, designed for fuzz.
- Legend has it that The Kinks used a razor to deliberately break the speakers in Dave Davies amp to create the distorted sound of “You Really Got Me”.
- In 1966, Marshall amps made amplifiers that could cope with a louder sound and allow for distortion.
- Pink Floyd released Interstellar Overdrive, which was a song made out of recorded tapes of distortion tones almost exclusively.
From these beginnings you can trace the use of distortion for a wide variety of different musicians. From Led Zeppelin to Deep Purple to Jimi Hendrix. Distortion was here to stay, and is still widely used today.
Why Do You Need a Pedal?
As you might have gathered, distortion isn’t only achievable via a pedal. You can get an amp to distort in a variety of different ways, and even achieve distortion in the studio or post-production. The trouble with this is a lack of control.
Distortion pedals allow you to choose when in a song you are using the distortion, allowing for “clean” sections and gritty, distorted sections. For example, many musicians use their distortion pedal as soon as the chorus kicks in to try and provide a more exciting and fresh tone.
As well as the control over when the distortion kicks in, pedals can give control over the distortion sound itself. Most distortion pedals include the option to alter the tone of the distortion, sometimes they include an EQ, and they will almost always have the option to control the amount of distortion, or how “wet” the sound is.
As guitar equipment goes, distortion pedals can also be relatively inexpensive, so there is no real reason not to buy a distortion pedal if you want to allow yourself to experiment with a lot more sounds.
Overdrive vs Distortion
A lot of people get confused between the two, as they do similar things and have a similar fuzzy, dark sound quality. However, overdrive and distortion pedals are two totally different things.
Overdriven sounds are modeled on the sort of sound quality you get if you overload an amplifier and crank the volume to higher than it can handle, an analog fuzz sound that feels a little “LoFi”.
An overdrive pedal doesn’t really add its own sound characteristics. It simply takes the sound you already have and cranks it, giving it a fuzzy, saturated sound. The harder you play, the more the overdrive can be heard doing its thing. Though some of the tones created could be similar, overdrive is doing something quite different to distortion.
A distortion pedal takes the original sound and turns it into something totally new by…well, distorting it. Distortion saturates the signal and changes it altogether. Plus, you will achieve the same level of distortion whether you are playing hard or soft.
Deciding Which Distortion Pedal to Buy
If you’ve made the choice to buy a distortion pedal, the next question is which pedal is the ideal option for you.
Genre definitely plays a part here. You can choose a distortion pedal that has a really heavy impact and gives dark, gritty tones if you are looking to play Heavy Metal music. If you are just looking to add a little bit of fuzz to a pop or rock song then this might be overkill.
Many distortion pedals are marketed based on genre. It is pretty clear from the names and the manufacturer descriptions what the pedal is designed for.
However, if you are unsure, you can always look at YouTube videos for an example of the audio that can be produced. Just keep in mind that other pedals, the guitar and amplifier being used in these examples all play a key role in the sound.
Below are a couple of my personal favorites.
My favorite distortion pedal I own is one I have had on my board for about 15 years and it is the ProCo Rat distortion pedal.
This pedals was used famously by Kurt Cobain and James Hetfield. This pedal is gritty and heavy and just sounds so nice. If you want a really heavy distortion with lovely tone that doesn’t make all your notes blur together then this is well worth checking out.
They have released this really nice looking white anniversary version which I may have to buy myself.
One of the most consistently popular and most reliable pedals is the Boss DS-1 Distortion would be that pedal. It was first made in 1978 and has since become a staple in a variety of different genres and styles. The pedal is easy to use with a stompbox design. It has simple controls over tone and gain and a number of notable advocates.
Guitarists and bassists who use/have used the DS-1 include:
- Kim Deal
- Robert Smith
- Steve Vai
- John Frusciante
There’s no denying that this pedal is one of the most popular there is, and not just as a distortion pedal. It is one of the most popular pedals full stop.
Summary – Why Do You Need a Distortion Pedal?
As we’ve concluded in this guide, a distortion pedal is almost essential for electric guitarists, to allow you to access the full range of tones you will probably be used to hearing in the music you love.
If you play acoustic guitar, you can give it a swerve, but generally speaking, distortion pedals are a very important tool in the arsenal of either live or studio musicians, and could be the first item on your pedalboard.