If someone on the street was asked to define the sound of rock n’ roll, they would probably indicate the use of the electric guitar and distortion. Some subgenres of rock, specifically metal and grunge, rely heavily on the timbre (tone quality) of a distorted electric guitar. The sound of these songs would just not be “right” without it.
How did distortion effects become synonymous with rock? What are the differences between distortion vs. overdrive vs. fuzz? Today we discuss this essential rock sound in detail and give a few examples of some products that can help you create the correct distorted sound for every occasion.
History of the Various Types of Distortion
Distortion effects have been part of rock—and electric guitar playing—from the very beginning of the genre. At first, these results were not intentional, but the consequence of old and damaged equipment. Also, early amps were of a relatively low quality, which meant that they produced distortion if played at their limits.
As the decades went on, some performers enjoyed the sound of distortion so much that they intentionally damaged their equipment to make the desired sound. For example, Rock guitarist Link Wray infamously used a pencil to punch holes in his amp’s speaker. A more modern example is the Kink’s guitarist Dave Davies using a razor to slash his speakers.
Today, you don’t need to buy old fashioned, faulty, or broken amps and speakers to create distortion effects. There is also no need to deliberately break or damage your own equipment—unless you are a traditionalist. Instead, since the 1960s companies have imitated distortion effects through the use of different types of pedals.
Overdrive produces the subtlest distortion effect of the three. It is meant to reproduce the sound of an overdriven tube amplifier. The overdrive pedal uses op-amps to boosts your signal and diodes cuts off your signal to create the effect. Different diode material produces a slightly different sound. So, if you want a wide-open sound choose a LED diode, but if you want a biting sound then a silicon diode is for you.
Examples of songs and artists known for their use of overdrive distortion are AC/DC, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” and Eric Johnson.
Ibanez TS-808 and TS9 Tube Screamer: Considered by many to be the epitome of an overdrive pedal. Ibanez released their Tube Screamer in the late 1970s and it has been a staple in the industry since. There are many different models of this pedal, with the TS-808 and TS9 the most popular.
Other popular makers of overdrive pedals include Boss, Blackstone Appliances, Barber Electronics LTD, Crowther Audio Hot Cake, and Fulltone OCD.
Overdrive distortion works for any musician that wants a slight edge to their sound. But, in general it is more associated with classic rock, blues, and country musicians.
Distortion is a slightly more intense version of overdrive. However, the two effects are not one in the same. Distortion changes your tone at every level of intensity and dynamics, while overdrive effects only are heard with a loud dynamic. Because distortion pedals mess with all aspects of your sound, most people will use them with a clean amp, instead of an altered one.
While most artists use some form of a distortion pedal, a few are known for the effect. These artists include Slash, Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), and Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead).
Distortion pedals are so ubiquitous—every large brand has their own—that it is hard to pick just one stand-out. Of all the brands available, Boss rises above the reset. Their DS-1 is universally admired. Boss also tried to appeal to all genres with their models DS-2, MT-2 Metal Zone, and MD-2 Mega Distortion.
Distortion pedals create a “classic” distortion effect, and so can be used by guitarists of any persuasion. However, the gritty nature of the distortion pedal makes it a great fit with heavy rock, metal, or grunge music.
The most intense of all of the distortion effects, fuzz is also one of the oldest. Have you ever heard a guitarist play with such a distorted sound that you thought the amp was broken? If yes, then you have heard the fuzz effect. The distinctive twang of this distortion comes from the two-three transistors that boost your guitar’s signal before capping it off.
As with the other distortion effects, many different artists use fuzz. The most famous of these was of course Jimmy Hendrix. But, you can also hear the sound in songs by Jack White (White Strips) and David Gilmour (Pink Floyd).
Fuzz Face: The oldest of all fuzz pedals, many different manufacturers make a fuzz face. The first of this model of pedal was made by Arbiter/England. Modern companies like Z.Vex, Mayer, and Fulltone also make their own fuzz face pedal.
There are many different types of fuzz that you can produce with pedals. So many, that you could spend days and weeks discovering them all. This makes fuzz the most versatile of the distortion effects. It will work well in any rock genre.
One of the most difficult aspects of distortion effects is trying to keep the three different types—distortion vs. overdrive vs. fuzz—apart. Part of the problem with this is that all three fall under the umbrella heading, distortion. Distortion being a term for both a type of distortion and the groups of distortion effects can be a little tricky. However, here is a quick guide that will help you remember the difference between distortion vs. overdrive vs. fuzz.
Overdrive: The gentlest of the distortion effects. Overdrive only creates distortion at the highest dynamic levels. When you play softly, no overdrive effects can be heard.
Distortion: The medium level of distortion possible. Distortion is probably the most recognizable sound in rock and is occasionally described as “dirtying” or adding “grit” to an electric guitar’s timbre.
Fuzz: The most amount of distortion possible. Fuzz is also the oldest effect used by guitarists. It completely distorts your signal and can make your amp sound like it is broken.
The type of distortion you use for a specific song depends on the type of sound you are trying to create and the genre in which you are playing. As mentioned above, each subgenre of rock has its own typical distortion sound. Therefore, play around with each type of distortion. There are all kinds of pedals out there to play with. Try a friend’s or buy your own and learn about the wonderful world of distortion effects.