If you turn on rock radio today, there is one sound, one effect that is everywhere, and that is distortion. Distortion is so popular, and so heavily used that it is almost taken for granted. Every amp seems to have some kind of knob to increase the gain or the drive. Every genre seems to have a certain sound associated with distortion. There are a wide variety of effects pedals used to create different types of distorted tones. It can be the subtle fuzz tones used in blues, to the heavy overdrive used in metal. Even each era, such as 60s fuzz, or 80s metal, or grunge has a certain distorted tone that seems to be unique to it. Distortion is the sound that has defined rock throughout history.
With distortion being almost an afterthought today, it's hard to believe that there was a time without it. The history of distortion is somewhat clouded, with there being no single innovator or an exact time or place as to when it came about. As with many discoveries, the origins of distortion began by accident.
The electric guitar came about in the 1920s, when the legendary musician and innovator Les Paul began experimenting with hooking a microphone directly to hollow-bodied acoustic. It wasn't until 1932 when the Electro Sting Instrument Corporation, with a design by Adolph Rickenbacher and George Beauchamp, and the craftsmanship of Harry Watson, that the very first electric guitar was created.
As one could imagine, the technology was far from perfect. The guitars were still hollow bodies, and the technology used to transfer the sound from the guitar into the amplifier was rudimentary at best. It made the sound difficult to control, especially at high levels. This caused much uncontrolled feedback. When the valve amplifiers (better known as tube amps) were pushed to their limit's sound-wise, the wave forms would be clipped. Simply put, the sound waves were altered, creating the classic overdrive sound.
The first solid body guitar, the Fender Telecaster, designed by Leo Fender in 1946, made the sound much easier to control, and was meant to be played at a higher output level. The problem was, the styles of music popular into the 1940s were very traditional. Styles such as jazz, blues, and gospel had a well-defined sound, and the thought of intentionally distorting that sound was never even considered. What distortion needed was something new, a different kind of sound, one that had no established history, and could be played and experiment with by musicians who wanted to do something new and innovative.
In the early 1950s, a new style began appealing to America's youth. Though it borrowed from the styles of it's musical ancestors, it had no history of it's own, and provided fertile ground for musicians and innovators to help define the sound. The style, as Alan Freed would later famously name it, was rock and roll.
Despite this fertile ground, distortion was still not actively sought out and implemented. Most of the use of early use was discovered by accident by musicians who liked the sound and decided to continue using it.
One of the earliest uses of distortion was on the song Rocket 88, performed by The Kings of Rhythm and written by Ike Turner. Although written as a rhythm and blues song, it became one of the earliest rock and roll songs, if not the first, and was later a minor hit for a more familiar band, Bill Haley and the Comets. In any case, the distorted tone came about when rhythm guitarist Willie Kizart arrived at the studio with a damaged amplifier. Producer Sam Phillips later claimed that the amp had fallen off the top of Kizart's car, while Turner claimed that the amp had been left in the trunk and rain leaked in, causing the damage. In either case the band and Phillips loved the sound, and created what is regarded (though often disputed) as the first recording of distortion.
Around 1956, guitarist Johnny Burnette of the Johnny Burnette Trio had one of the tubes from his tube amp fall out during the show while covering Tiny Bradshaw's Train Kept A-Rollin' (a song that later became a hit for Aerosmith). The audience loved it, and a local critic gave the sound a rave review. This led Burnette to keep the sound once he recorded the song in the studio.
Even as musicians like Willie Johnson and Chuck Berry (whose sound came about from the aforementioned clipping method by playing smaller amps to their maximum output) were using the earliest known forms of overdrive, it was not readily accepted, nor was there any device or foot pedal to reproduce the sound. The sound was there; it just hadn't gained enough attention yet to appeal to the masses.
Once again, distortion needed something big to happen to take the next step forward. This next big step occurred thanks in part to a screwdriver, a Broadway musical, and a good chunk of controversy.
Link Wray was a Korean War veteran who had lost a lung due to tuberculosis. Although doctors told him he would never be able to sing, Wray did, although very seldom. Most of his songs were instrumentals.
In 1958, he and his band, Link Wray and his Ray Men, were the house band for an American Bandstand like show in Washington DC. It was at a live show in 1958 in Fredericksburg, Va that the band attempted to come up with sound alike for The Diamonds hit The Stroll. The band came up with a 12 bar power blues song which the audience loved, and subsequently demand several encores of it. The song was later titled Oddball.
Cadence Records' producer Archie Bleyer heard the song and invited the band to enter the studio to record it. But Wray was not happy with the sound, and wanted to recreate the distorted tones he had on stage, so he took a screwdriver to the amplifier, poked several holes, and created sound that was much grittier and much more to his liking.
Bleyer hated the recording, but his stepdaughter loved it. In fact, she even asked her stepfather to change the name to Rumble as homage to West Side Story, because the song reminded her of the Musical. The word rumble was slang at the time for a gang fight. Bleyer obliged, and released the song under the new title.
However, the American public did not see the rather innocent reference and felt it meant to deliberately provoke juvenile delinquency. Furthermore, the song was much heavier and contained a much more sinister sound than the public was used to hearing. As a result the song was banned on many radio stations throughout America and Great Britain. To this day, it is still the only instrumental to have been banned from American airwaves. Despite this, it became a Top 20 hit in both countries, and caught the attention of several musicians, most notably overseas.
Two bands began poking holes in their amplifiers to recreate the sounds they wanted. The first was the Kinks, whose smash hit You Really Got Me (#1 in Great Britain, and Top 10 in the US) used a similar type of sound as well as power chords, much like Wray's style.
The second band to emulate this sound was a band that would become known for intentionally destroying instruments, The Who. The Who used distorted tones and aggressive power chords as their signature sound, and went on to become rock legends.
These were just 2 of the bands that used this sound, surely there were others as well. Now distortion had fans both overseas and in the United States. The question was no longer about how to create it, but how to control it. Was there a way to recreate the sound for any guitar and amplifier? Better yet, was there a way for the sound to not only be created, but controlled and altered at the will of the musician? Once more, the question would come to the great innovators of the day, and they were able to answer.
From Concept To Electronic
First it was the amplifiers that began to start seeing the introduction of distorted tones. While Leo Fender and Jim Marshall were noted for their amps having a nice clean tone at a higher output than the earlier amps. Both also created amps that would overdrive slightly without ruining the sound. Marshall took things a step further, as many musicians who loved Marshall's work demanded sound that was heavier, and louder.
Marshall was looking to lower production costs. His early amps had already been able to produce what is now known as the classic Marshall tone, which is still popular in music today, particularly metal. Initially, Marshall had copied the Fender Bassman in order to build his first model. But a botched distribution deal with Rose-Morris in 1965 had priced his amps right out of the market in some regions, so he began sourcing materials exclusively in the UK. A new tube was used in his amps, and the sound became richer and more aggressive. A young blues man by the name of Eric Clapton had just been brought into John Mayall's Breakers. Eric was a friend of Marshall and often practiced in his shop. Marshall created the famous Bluesbreaker. Though not as heavily distorted as some of the other bands at the time, the sound gave new life to the classic blues sound. The more important note is the foundation laid between him and Clapton, which led the heaviest most distorted sound of it's day when Marshall designed the amps Clapton used in Cream.
Meanwhile, Jon Entwhistle and Pete Townsend, both of The Who, were battling with each other for who could be louder. Townsend turned to Marshall, who in turn created the first 100-watt amp, and took rock to a new level of loud.
But even before Marshall, and back in the United States, a Nashville musician named Grady Martin was on to something. In 1960, while recording with Marty Robins, one of the amps began producing a distorted tone, due to a fault in the amplifier's electronics. In an unprecedented move, Robbins found the error, and rather than fix it, created an electronic circuit that replicated it and created the first fuzzbox.
Familiar with Marty Robin's sound, The Ventures began using some of the earliest known recordings using the fuzzbox in 1962. The fuzzbox had been custom built for the band by a friend of theirs. Along with the small role that The Ventures played, the rise of The Kinks and The Who brought attention to many other musicians to the new distorted sound. The while distortion itself made itself known to the public with You Really Got Me, the fuzzbox was still looking for it's signature song to latch on to.
The song came in 1965, in the form of a few very famous notes that would launch one of the greatest bands of all time, launch a career that would make a singer and a guitarist a household name, spawn plenty of controversy, and drive up sales of Gibson's fuzzbox when it hit the air. That song, was the Rolling Stones very first hit, Satisfaction. Guitarist Keith Richards wanted a horn section, and used the fuzzbox only to somewhat emulate what the horns would be doing. However, every other Stone, their manager, and the sound engineer voted to keep it in, and a classic was born. The Gibson Maestro Fuzz-Tone, which was used on the track, became so popular, that Gibson had sold out it's entire stock in less than a year.
Finally, in 1966, a young guitarist by James Marshall Hendrix (better known as Jimi) began using more than just a fuzzbox by combining it with other innovative effects such as the Wah Wah Pedal and Univibe (better known as phaser). With his innovative sound, effect pedals entered the world of rock and roll, leading to new sounds manufactured by companies all around the world, and distortion was now a part of rock and roll to stay.
For now and into the future, distortion will always be on the airwaves. New bands will be tweaking it, and adjusting it to their style. From it's accidental beginnings, to it's complete takeover of the airwaves, distortion will continue to give rock, metal, blues, or whatever style it's used in the distinctive sound that defines it.