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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.