In the early days of amplification, the goal was to simply make something (a guitar or voice) louder while maintaining the original sound quality. However, when guitarists raised their volumes on those tube amps, they discovered a new sound that was warm and fuzzy, saturated and hairy. This sound is distortion.
In this article, we will discuss distortion’s different uses, what to look for, and our top picks for distortion pedals for guitarists. For more information on guitar pedals check out our articles Best Reverb Pedals For Guitarists and Best Essential Guitar Pedals for Beginners.
Table of contents
- Distortion 101 – Guitarists’ Dirty Little Secret
- Top Picks: Overdrive Pedals for Guitarists
- Overdrive – Like Warm Apple Pie
- Distortion – The Shredders
- Fuzz – Fuzzy Wazzy was wants some hair on his guitar tune!!
- Final Thoughts
Distortion 101 – Guitarists’ Dirty Little Secret
What is distortion?
Distortion is the term we use to describe a harmonically complex, saturated, and compressed audio signal that creates a rich, or sometimes harsh tone. As mentioned in the introduction, guitarists discovered this tone when they cranked up the volume on a tube amplifier, causing clipping. Clipping occurs when an amplifier tube reaches its maximum capability or goes beyond its output voltage. An early example of a distorted amp is heard in this Junior Barnard recording from 1945!
- Quick physics lesson – We swear it won’t be boring
- There are four types of waveforms in music: sine, sawtooth, square, and triangular. To understand distortion, we will only need to understand sine and square waves.
- In short, sine waves offer a pure tone, and square waves contain louder harmonics, hence a richer tone. Rather than a poor attempt via text to explain the difference between these two waveforms, check out this video from Audio Masterclass. The first tone is a square wave, the second is a sine wave. Be warned, the demonstration gets into some high frequencies, so keep your speakers quiet and be prepared for your dog or roommate or significant other to yell at you.
- What does this have to do with the guitar? The clipping that causes distortion essentially changes what is close to a sine wave (a clean guitar) into a square wave (death metal). This emphasis of the natural harmonic overtones is a key element in the timbre of distortion/overdrive. (Side note: natural harmonics exist in all sounds or vibrations. For a great explanation of the harmonic series, and if you have four minutes, check out Leonard Bernstein.)
Different types of distortion
In a musical context, distortion is found in three different forms:
While overdrive and distortion are very closely related, fuzz has some unique characteristics.
- Overdrive – crunchy like Corn Flakes
When low to medium level of “soft clipping” is introduced to a guitar signal, it is usually referred to as overdrive. This tone is commonly found in the blues, rock, or country genres. Overdrive is less compressed and usually more transparent than full-on distortion. Check out the legendary overdrive tone of Stevie Ray Vaughn in “Cold Shot.”
- Distortion – Satan’s Underbelly
When you turn the gain knob to eleven or “hard clipping” is introduced by other means, distortion comes roaring out of your amplifier. This form of distortion flattens the waveforms suddenly, creating raised amplitude in upper harmonics and producing a harsh tone. Heavy distortion is commonly found in hard rock and metal music. Listen to the guitar part in the chorus of “Dragula.”
- Fuzz – Where’s the Synthesizer?
Fuzzy wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy until the 1960’s. Like distortion, fuzz hard clips an audio signal to an extreme degree. Once the signal is nearly a square wave, a fuzz pedal adds complex overtones by way of a frequency multiplier. Check out this early example of a fuzz solo. Dig it: “Don’t Worry.”
How is it used for guitar?
If you are looking to add thickness or depth to a clean guitar signal, you need to reach for one of the distortion effects! Here are some examples of how distortion is used artistically:
- Sustain – Increase your Longevity
- Pick up an electric guitar, but don’t plug it in. Now bend a note. How long does it take for the sound to die? Adding a distortion pedal to your pedal chain will sustain those notes long beyond their natural tone. Check out the guitar on Gary Clark Jr.’s “Bright Lights.”
- Punch – Hit’em in the Face
- Distortion effects help guitarists sit better in a band’s mix, live or in the studio. AC/DC’s Malcom Young used overdrive to punch through the mix with his rhythm playing. Check out one of the most famous rhythm guitar riffs of all time: “Back in Black”
- Tone Shaping – Feel Richer
- Distortion effects raise the volume of upper harmonics in an audio signal, and your choice in pedal gives a variety of tonal options. From subtle overdrive to heavy distortion, make your guitar tone rich and to your taste.
- Volume – Turn It Up to 11
- It’s 10:00pm. You’re about to play a solo to a screaming audience. Well, you better kick on the distortion to roar above the crowd.
What to look for in a distortion pedal
In our previous article, beginners’ guide to choosing pedals, we hit upon what to look for in a guitar pedals.
The genre of music you play greatly influences which kinds of distortion pedals to consider. Here are our recommendations:
- Blues, country, rock, R&B, pop
- Heavy distortion
- metal, hard rock, alt. rock
- hard rock, alt. rock, indie rock, classic rock
Side note, if you’re looking to emulate a synthesizers you should look more into fuzz pedals.
Top Picks: Distortion Pedals for Guitarists
Having access to one or more distortion, overdrive, and/or fuzz pedals in your chain is essential for crafting a great guitar tone. With hundreds of choices available to the buyer, making the right investment is overwhelming. There are plenty of great options out there, but we carefully selected these pedals to suit different playing needs and interests.
- Overdrive – Like Warm Apple Pie
- Distortion – The Shredders
- Fuzz – Fuzzy Wuzzy wants some hair on his guitar tone!
Overdrive – Like Warm Apple Pie
You can purchase hundreds of high quality overdrive pedals on Amazon.com. Here are a couple of our favorites:
Nickname: Transparent Man
The Wampler Euphoria is one of our favorite transparent overdrives on the market, having the ability to go from squeaky clean to super cruncktown. The three-way switch allows you to switch between smooth, open, and crunch (light fuzz) modes.
With the Wampler Euphoria on your pedalboard, you will have complete control over your dynamics, which is not always the case with distortion/overdrive effects. This pedal responds just like a tube amp: turn up your guitar’s volume knob or pick harder into your string to add tasteful overdrive. Brian Wampler used the famous Dumble amps as his reference tone when designing this pedal.
Price: $199.97 new
- Excellent responsiveness to your pick attack and guitar volume control
- High-grade film capacitors and resistors for killer tone and response
- Versatile three-way gain switch for a wide range of sounds
Nickname: The Screamer
The Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer is a reissue of its famous counterpart (TS808) at a ridiculously affordable price. Originally introduced in early 1970s by Maxon, this pedal it’s been a staple to rock and blues player ever since! The TS9 Tube Screamer is probably the most copied distortion pedal ever made.
Compared to other transparent overdrive pedals, the TS9 signature mid-boost function allows you to keep the pedal engaged through your whole gig, even if you don’t need much gain in the signal. When you turn down the gain knob, this pedal provides a warm boost, allowing your guitar to keep up with the other instruments on stage.
Join the legion of guitarists who own this pedal and you won’t be disappointed!
Price: $99.99 new
- Classic stompbox distortion and overdrive effect
- Boosts the mid-level frequencies of your signal to cut through the mix
- Made in the same factory and with the same parts as the original TS808
Distortion – The Shredders
You wanna melt faces off? Well, you’re in luck. Here are our top picks of pedals to shred with:
Nickname: The Devil’s Koolaid
If you’re looking for a nasty, super dirty distortion, look no further! The Boss MT-2 is the perfect pedal for all of your hard rock and heavy medal needs. Giving you unbelievable sustain, the MT-2’s renowned dual-gain circuitry gives you monstrous distortion as soon as you kick in on.
Additionally, the 3-band EQ allows you to tailor your distortion tone to help achieve the sounds inside your brain.
Price: $99.99 new
- Dual-gain circuitry creates amazing-sounding distortion
- Crazy-long sustain and heavy mids and lows
- 3-band EQ with plenty of tone-shaping options
- Designed with hard rock and metal guitarists in mind
Nickname: The Nasty Rat
The original RAT was created in basement of ProCo’s Kalamazoo, Michigan location in the late 70’s. By the early 80’s, it became a favorite among rock legends. Used by artists ranging in style from Andy Summers to Kurt Cobain, the RAT definitely holds its place in rock history!
The ProCo RAT 2 let’s you get distortion, sustain, fuzz, and overdrive tones out of one pedal! The RAT’s got your tonal palette covered: warm-fuzzy, crunchy-hairy, and nasty-screaming. Also, the glow-in-the-dark controls for distortion amount, filter cutoff, and volume level help your eyes on dark stages!
Price: $69.99 new
- Great at arena rock rhythm tones and super-sustained leads
- Takes your tone from sparkly clean to warm overdrive
- Use as a boost for solos and get the extra kick you desire
Fuzz – Fuzzy Wuzzy wants some hair on his guitar tone
FUZZ Lightyear at your service! Here are our top picks:
Nickname: H.R. MuffnStuff
One of the holy grails for fuzz pedals is the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi. This baby has been defining rock guitar tone for over 30 years! With it’s smooth, string section-like sustain, the Big Muff Pi can be found on famous records from Hendrix to Santana.
Having a fuzz pedal like the Big Muff Pi opens up your playing to a world of all new sonic possibilities. So tell your neighbors to fuzz off and make some noise!
Price: $80.40 new
- Volume control
- Sustain control
- Tone control
Nickname: The Double Dragon
We are a big fan of Wampler pedals and this one definitely delivers! The Wampler Velvet Fuzz pedal covers a wide variety of tones, from smooth compressed fuzz to over-the-top screaming fuzz.
The Velvet Fuzz combines two pedals into one, and the big/tight switch toggles between the options. When engaged, the “tight” setting produces fuzz-like distortion while the “big” setting offers that classic compressed fuzz sound.
Also, try dialing back the volume knob on your guitar to give a nice full-bodied rhythm tone.
- Two independent clipping circuits: pure fuzz or a fuzz-like distortion
- True-bypass circuitry
- High-grade film capacitors and resistors for superior sound and response
It’s almost a guarantee: your favorite guitar tones across all genres were created with overdrive, whether on an amp or in a pedal. You will become a successful player in any style when you understand distortion, overdrive, and fuzz. Having the right pedals will get you there!