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Got a new stompbox that you just feel like curbing? Guitar feeling stringy? Is your new cab painted yellow with the word taxi on it? Fret no more Because Your Gear, and You is here to help. Puns aside article #1 covers one of the most confusing topics for new players, and some veterans alike: Distortion! So you've decided to take up guitar? Or perhaps you've already been playing for a number of years? Either way if you are looking at this guide look no further for this is the place to be! In todays article we will cover the basics of what is commonly known as distortion the act of introducing foreign waveforms into a guitars signal causing that oh-so pleasant sound we have come to know and perhaps even love. There are different type of distortion each with it's own unique elements, some include:
  • Boost
  • Clipping
  • Fuzz
  • Overdrive
  • Tube-Overdrive
  • Gain
  • Distortion I have tried to organize these from the least to most complicated in terms of signal modification, no worries though I'm not going to go into the science, this is a Get started guide, I may write something later if I really feel like it. Now that, that is out of the way. a. Boost Boost as the name implies is simply the act of boosting the input signal of a guitar, this can be done in a number of different ways including but not limited to: Active pickups, turning the guitars volume up, preamps, and separate boost-pedals. Boosting is not a form of distortion rather it is a precursor, without a high enough input signal distortion would never (as far as this article goes) occur naturally. b. Clipping Clipping occurs when an amplifier is unable to amplify a signal any more this creates a waveform that cannot be reproduced by the amplifier, since this signal cannot be reproduced it is clipped (imagine a large truck going under a bridge that is too low for it, the top of the truck is clipped off) and a clipped signal causes... You guessed it, distortion! c. Fuzz Fuzz is most likely the simplest of all distortions, a fuzzboxes (as they are colloquially called) artificially causes clipping in the input signal which causes a distorted and somewhat synthetic sound. Fuzz is typically heard in a lot of 60's music from genres including rock, and blues. Fuzz is also an effect that was relied upon heavily by a certain Hendrix, J. (perhaps you've heard of him?). Fuzz is also quite heavily used in modern rock and metal by a number of stoner rock bands including: Kyuss, Fatso Jettson, and Monster Magnet. Famous Fuzz Tones Created By: Dallas Arbiter FuzzFace (Dunlop), Seymour Duncan TweakFuzz, Octavia, and the Maestro FZ-1A. d.Overdrive Overdrive, the most popular type of distortion found in rock music, it gave birth to an era, and it's echo may well be heard on forever. Poetry aside overdrive is the staple of an incredible list of musicians, it can be obtained naturally (through amplifiers themselves), or through artificial means (stompboxes, and digital reproductions). Overdrive is simply yet another form of clipping it is caused by running amplifiers at super-high volumes adding a certain bite to the sound. Overdrive was originally created by driving (pumping a high input signal into) a tube amp and causing the amp to clip in an overly aggressive fashion. A common misconception of overdrive is that the amp is actually being damaged because it's being overloaded however this is not the case as amplifiers are able to handle the load (clipping anyone?). Overdrive can be heard in almost any form of music imaginable but it is predominant in: rock, blues, country, and sometimes metal. Listen to music by S.R.V (who used two *TS9s in succession to create one of the worlds best tones), The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and nearly every other rock band you can think of!
  • The TS9 (Tube Screamer) is considered by most people to be the best possible external overdrive unit ever created, do a quick search on any guitar site and you will find wealths of information about this famous little green box. Famous Overdrive Tones Prduced By: Ibanez TS-9 Tubescreamer, Fender Amplifiers, Orange Amplifiers, VOX Amplifiers, BOSS OD-3 e. Tube-Overdrive Tube-overdrive is considered to be a special type of overdrive in todays world as more and more tube amps are (slowly) being replaced by inexpensive, low maintenance solid state amplifiers. Tube overdrive is fundamentally the same as regular overdrive with the exception that tube-overdrive equates good tone with high volumes (easily remedied with an attenuator) since the power-amp is being overdriven rather than the preamp (think of that little 10w Solid state amp you got for Christmas). Most people swear by tube tone because the clipping aside from sounding warmer, producing natural harmonics (a separate issue entirely), and introducing a form of *compression into the equation (another entirely seperate issue!).
  • Compression, to put is simply compression is the act of compressing the input signal so that clipping occurs later (at higher input levels); basically loud sounds seem normal while quiet sounds seem louder. f. Gain Gain, is another way to boost the input signal, however instead of modifying the amount of signal reaching the (for all intensive purposes) the input jack on the amplifier, it modifies the signal level that reaches the actual amplification stage. (I suggest reading up more on gain, for the purpose of this article I really limited my discussion on it.) g. Distortion Finally, the holy grail, the big kahuna, the main course, the rueben sandwich, the.. Rambling aside distortion is what you are reading this article for. Distortion is really a misconception, since it only exists as a concept (sorry, had you going there for a while though huh?) classic examples of distortion in reality are just extreme version of overdrive (see why I waited on this one?). Distortion is classically seen as a very thick, heavy, and manly sound emphasizing bass, and treble frequencies... While cutting out the unimportant midrange (*one scoop or two?) this leads to that heavy metal sound that makes babies grow beards, and vikings pillage space-villages! For examples of distortion listen to bands like: Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth.
  • Please do not scoop your mids, you liked this article so much that mids will never go below 4... Please? Famous Distortion Sounds Come From: BOSS MT2 Metalzone, Mesa Amplifiers, Peavy Amplifiers, and ElectroHarmonix Big Muffs.
  • 82 comments sorted by best / new / date

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      Leedostar
      when i was a guitar greenhorn i picked up a Roland CUBE15 very cheaply off a mate. i never touched the EQ then one day a neighbour dropped in and being the metal head that he is scooped the mids and what i got was the killer sound i had heard in the music i was trying to reproduce. since have upgraded to a 50W Marshall and have never really found the sweet spot on it
      RedFez64
      Examples of which band used which type would be good, old and new. Great article either way
      IMABBALLPLAYER
      Nice article. It's always nice to understand what causes overdrive, and other sounds coming from your guitar and your amp.
      Thrall
      Yeah, on my tube amp I have the highs at about 9 of 12, lows at about 10 of 12, and my mids are at FULL BLAST!!! lol But this was an excellent article that every electric player should read, even if they already know it. The grammar was annoying though.
      E V H 5150
      I was planning on learning this eventually. Nice brief explanation on things, I was thinking of doing something like this, explaining all the different effects, but you seem to actually know HOW they work, not just WHAT they do. About the mids... on my Marshall MG I scooped the mids, because they made it sound like crap. It's an MG, what more should I say? I have a Fender Blues Jr. now, and I use the mids a lot more... not an EQ expert, but I like what I sound. I keep mine at about 4 or 5. I take it you're gonna do another on modulation and delay effects too?
      bortbort
      Nice article I used to scoop my Mids out all the time I set my eq bass full, treb full, mid zero. I started to play with a new band, the bass player is a sound guy he came over and adjusted the eq on amp and processor, It sounded great. It didnt have the punch it did before but there was an amazing clarity. I asked what he did, he said all I did was roll your highs back and add some mids. I thought mids????? But hey, I cant argue with the sound coming out of the amp!
      mysteryhawk
      Good article, but the grammatical errors and typos make it a little difficult to understand at times.
      HavokStrife
      Reading through that, and knowing a bit about tone prior to this, I knew the "Distortion" section was gunna end up the way it did. This is a really, really good article. Definately need-to-know stuff for just about any electric player. I don't know of any famous sounds that come from the Metalzone though. Or, maybe just the generic garage band tone.
      Kayfan
      pos69sum wrote: the big muff is a fuzz pedal
      But it's heard mostly in heavy metal music, compared to say an arbiter ...Just thought I'd justify my classification
      Td_Nights
      joshjebl wrote: no mids??? have we all forgotten nirvana. they changed everything
      Not really, please elaborate.
      Nutman69
      nice article. it's always interesting to me to learn about pedals and how they work.
      Mark-O1987666
      For all intensive purposes
      should read "For all intents and purposes" Enjoyable read mind
      bassetrox
      the first paragraph amused me, content was ok, though not exactly groundbreaking. I dont agree with calling the BMP distortion. And where was the mention of marshall along with Orange/Vox/Fender? :s As someone has already said, the type of clipping is worth mentioning too. I'd have included a graph or two, but then, I'm a geek... :|p
      bassetrox
      plus 1
      Huggy (-. wrote: Kayfan wrote: But it's heard mostly in heavy metal music, compared to say an arbiter No its not. Its mostly heard in everything but heavy metal. Metal bands mostly depend on distortion for their amps.
      XKR
      OK, I'm not trying to be a dick, but this article was terrible. You sound like a 16 year old kid that just copied and pasted these "definitions" into a wordpad, complete with even more stereotypical puns and references. Honestly, to anyone that is not experienced with music, your "definitions" lack any depth and fail to separate or differentiate between the different types of distortions.
      joshjebl
      ok to clarify the nirvana comment i am refering to the reaction that music lovers had to nirvana. they were the death of hair bands and shredding leads. no more stadium bands after nirvana (except metalica and guns and roses) i am not refering to his skill only his sound and popularity. most modern rock you hear echos what they did in chords and effects. i'm not a nirvana fan i am just stating what i think has happenned to modern rock
      KenG
      The amplifier itself may be protected but it is possible to hurt an amplifier's speakers with overdrive or excessive distortion if the speaker's power ratings aren't significantly higher than the amp's ouput! Square waves (heavy fuzz or clipped waveforms)can heat a voice coil more than cleaner signals as the signal spends more time in the maximum negative or positive regions. Also, overdriving can cause transients (short duration peaks) that are much higher in power than the amps normal output. Either of these can damage a speaker. I once had to pay to recone two Jensens from a 60's Black Faced Fender Twin Reverb when my cheap fuzz pedal ruined them (I was even playing the amp above 5 (no master volume). Of course nowadays amplifiers often have speakers rated much higher in power than the amplifier they are connected to to avoid this.
      rojomeansred
      joshjebl wrote: no mids??? have we all forgotten nirvana. they changed everything
      We should all just forget about Nirvana. Kurt is not the guitar god he's made up to be. Anywhoo, great article, very informative.
      Abdul Al-Salaam
      Did SRV use the TS9 or did he use the TS808? I thought he used the latter, but perhaps I remember things incorrectly... zeroyon, you make a young technical person very happy. I don't know many players my age who read schematics or the like. I guess what I'm trying to say ios I'm a bit impressed.
      Huggy (-.-)
      Kayfan wrote: But it's heard mostly in heavy metal music, compared to say an arbiter
      No its not. Its mostly heard in everything but heavy metal. Metal bands mostly depend on distortion for their amps.
      81gazelle
      my first crack at a tube amp is the one i got my 11yr.old for xmas.It's a vox 15w valvetronix.With only a preamp tube,it really kicks!! I struggle w/ my Fender Princeton Chorus to stay alive in song.The best feature is the dist.that keeps even at low levels.Pre all the way up,master down low. Do the bigger amps do the same? I'd like to try out an AC30.thoughts,tips,welcome
      ZootCst
      Don't feel bad, even the GC C-lvl cert. doesn't even have that cool bit about the diodes. Well written and fun to read, thanks. I hope you won't mind if I pass this to some of my students.
      listless
      As a side note, I believe the expression is "for all intents and purposes" not "for all intensive purposes". The latter implies a thoroughness you evidently don't intend.
      Zero457
      Kayfan wrote: damn... where were you when I was writing this?
      Sorry, didn't mean to go into electronics on you. Now back to our regularly scheduled discussion.
      qotsa1998
      On some amps, like my crappy one, mids do make a distorted guitar sound aweful. And for your list of famous Distortion pedals, id add the Boss DS-1. Not only is it a good coice for starters, but some famous guitar players like John Frusciante(i think), Steve Vai(modded i think), and Kurt Cobain used em. And when you give examples of famous OD and distortion tones from amps, how could you forget Marshall amps? Marshall and co. made some of the best-sounding amps for distortion and od tones pretty much ever. Marshall had a big part in the defining sound of the sixties, seventies, and even into the 80's, with EVH's Plexi setup. Everyone and there cousin uses Marshall tubes, if they can afford it.
      EnyoAdonai
      I plug my guitar into my sterio amp which is 180w RMS and has a 5 band equalizer which has a range of -10 through to 10. If I wanted to cancel out all mid tones (for example) would I treat -10 as zero or the true zero as zero?
      Kayfan
      zeroyon wrote: Seems like most pedal designs make the distinction between Overdrive and Distortion based on what type of diode clipping it uses. Most "overdrive" designs have soft clipping diodes in the feedback loops for the transistors or opamps. Most "distortion" designs have hard clipping diodes that pull the signal right to ground. This isn't the rule, just speaking from what I've seen in schematics.
      damn... where were you when I was writing this?
      Zero457
      Seems like most pedal designs make the distinction between Overdrive and Distortion based on what type of diode clipping it uses. Most "overdrive" designs have soft clipping diodes in the feedback loops for the transistors or opamps. Most "distortion" designs have hard clipping diodes that pull the signal right to ground. This isn't the rule, just speaking from what I've seen in schematics.
      KKarasu
      Well for a brief explanation i guess its cool. It actually gave me the curiosity to seartch for more info about it.
      led_zep_00
      When I think Rolling Stones guitar sounds I'd say its more fuzz than overdrive. And I think maybe Marshall ought to be added to your famous overdrives section?
      shwilly
      Creative-Noise wrote: I might not have this 100% but i think i'm right... An attenuator soaks up an adjustable amount of the power your amp puts out... after your amps done amplifying but before the signal hits the speakers. You use it so you can run your amp really hard (for tonal purposes) without breaking your ear drums and pissing off everyone within 100 meters.
      Kay, that sounds pretty neat because most high end tube amps only sound good after you crank the volume up to, say, 3 or 4 or something, which is too loud for me. But anyway, thanks for explaining man, I think I might get one with my new amp. I just found this thing called the THD Hot Plate which seems really popular, probably because it's not an amp mod but a neat little box
      Creative-Noise
      I might not have this 100% but i think i'm right... An attenuator soaks up an adjustable amount of the power your amp puts out... after your amps done amplifying but before the signal hits the speakers. You use it so you can run your amp really hard (for tonal purposes) without breaking your ear drums and pissing off everyone within 100 meters.
      axe_man
      1339 wrote: My Marshall's distortion pisses me off. I'm buying a nice Line 6 as soon as i have enough money, and then selling this goddamn Marshall stack.
      line 6 amps for the win!!
      1339
      led_zep_00 wrote When I think Rolling Stones guitar sounds I'd say its more fuzz than overdrive. And I think maybe Marshall ought to be added to your famous overdrives section?
      My Marshall's distortion pisses me off. I'm buying a nice Line 6 as soon as i have enough money, and then selling this goddamn Marshall stack.