When you eventually make the transition to electric guitar, you will be amazed at the amount of “stuff” that is available out there to plug your computer or iPhone into, attach to your amp (or your guitar), stomp on, switch on, record into or just plain make noise with! The selection is endless and can seem totally overwhelming to a novice. Over the next few instalments, let’s go through a few basic effects, what they do, what they sound like and how to use them and this may lift that cloud of confusion that surrounds you and start you on the path to tonal nirvana! This week we’ll look at the most popular of guitar effects – distortion.


Unless you play Classical, Flamenco or Jazz you probably don’t want it – but practically everyone else ¬†does! Most guitarists need it and almost no one gets it right first time. Let’s have a look at this “top of the list” effects and understand what all the fuss is about.

Often referred to as Distortion, Overdrive, Gain or Fuzz are all subtly different in their sound but all the same in their tonal approach (if that makes sense!) In other words – they’re the same – just different…ultimately they all make your guitar tone sound buzzy and unclear. Sounds horrible but it’s what every rock guitarist wants to hear! Distortion is created by essentially taking a clean sound wave and squaring off the ends. This is referred to as “clipping” and the result is a fuzzy sound of the original input signal. It looks like this

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Source: Wikipedia

The original source of the sound is lost in legend now but one of the accepted theories is that when the early electric guitars were played they were essentially using the equivalent of a transistor radio for amplification. They ran on vacuum tubes (like the old radios) and one day a valve was loose in its socket and produced a clipped (distorted) tone instead of a plain (clean) tone. The player loved the new sound and the added sustain it gave him and the “Holy Grail” of guitar tones was launched! Myth or not – it’s a great story.

You can get distortion from your amp or from an external device usually referred to as a pedal or a stomp box because they are operated by your feet. Practically every guitar amp will allow you to get a distorted tone – most of them are bad but the really good tones will come from an amp that runs on vacuum tubes and these are referred to as “valve” amps. By running the channel volume up and the master down you will clip or overdrive the channel and the sound will come out distorted – perfect!

A similar effect can be obtained with a distortion pedal. These artificial effects simulate this clipped valve sound to give you the distorted sound without the expensive amp. There are some really good distortion pedals that deliver a great distortion, some even have a valve inside to really get you close to the action. One of the most popular with guitarists all over the world is the Ibanez Tube Screamer used and loved by both famous and non-famous players because of the realistic sounds it can give you. I have heard it referred to as the closest thing to a real tube amp you can get.

Some other really great distortion pedals are the Boss DS-1, Boss OD-3, Boss BD-2 Blues Driver, that are basic, simple and great for the beginner. The Digitech SC-2, Digitech Bad Monkey, Vox Ice 9 and the Mesa Boogie Flux Drive all deliver excellent, controllable and useable distortion in a simple and user friendly interface. Some have the internal valve for originality, some don’t but don’t let that put you off, give them a try and see which one speaks to you! There are literally hundreds of distortion pedals on the market so do some research and then take your time because it’s a decision that may shape your future playing style.

Last piece of advice to the budding guitarist on the hunt for a distortion pedal – wherever you buy it…..take your own guitar with you and try to play it with an amp the same or very similar to your own. Effects will sound vastly different from amp to amp and from guitar to guitar so take your own to be sure and if you don’t like it – don’t buy it find the sound that suits you and the style of music you play. Good hunting!