The Different Types of Distortion Pedals for Guitar

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Distortion Pedal Overview

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Of all the different types of guitar effects available, the most popular is still distortion. While many modern amplifiers offer built-in distortion, many guitarists favor using additional distortion pedals (aka stompboxes) to provide more tonal flexibility and signal boost.

How a Distortion Pedal Works

The distortion pedal takes the raw incoming signal from the guitar, and intentionally boosts it to the point where the top and bottom of the sound wave "clips", causing the sound to distort (try cranking the volume on a cheap portable radio for a dramatic example of this clipping). Although this degrades the signal, which you'd imagine would provide an inferior sound, in practice, when handled carefully this distorted signal can sound pleasing.

A Brief History of Distortion

Distorted guitar sounds began making their way into recorded music in the early 1950s, although these sounds were not being created by effects pedals. In most cases, these distorted guitar sounds were created as a result of tubes coming dislodged from amplifiers or from ripped speaker cones. In scenarios where the performers liked the resulting guitar sound, they would often attempt to recreate these hardware problems in order to preserve their newly-found tone.

By the mid 1960s, the first effects pedals aimed at creating distortion began to circulate. These early distortion units are now referred to as "fuzz" pedals. As time progressed, the type of distortion guitarists preferred evolved - from The Kinks early use of distortion (via a slashed speaker cone) - to the fuzz-based distortion used by Jimi Hendrix (the "Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face") - to the thick chunk of Metallica's Kirk Hammett (ADA MP-1 with an Ibanez Tube Screamer).

The following pages briefly explore the three basic types of distortion effects on the market today.

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Fuzz Distortion

Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face
The Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face (now the Dunlop Fuzz Face) was a pedal favored by Jimi Hendrix.
Fuzz distortion was the first distortion effect to appear on the market in the mid 1960s. Using a fuzz effect provides a bass-heavy, somewhat mushy tone to a guitar signal in an attempt to thicken up the sound. Some accuse fuzz boxes of sounding "too artificial", as its effect on a guitar signal can often be overbearing.
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Overdrive Distortion

Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer
The Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer, probably the quintessential overdrive pedal, used by everyone from Stevie Ray Vaughan to Kirk Hammett. Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer

The intent of an overdrive effect is to replicate the sound of a slightly overdriven tube amp. The overdrive pedal was an integral part of Stevie Ray Vaughan's signature sound (the "Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer"). An overdrive effect preserves some of the undistorted guitar sound, and mixes in a little "grit". Many guitarists use the overdrive pedal in live situations for additional volume boost in their guitar solos.

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Boss DS-2 distortion pedal
The popular Boss DS-2 distortion unit attempts to provide both blues-rock and metal guitar sounds in one device.
The "distortion pedal" tends to provide a much more aggressive brand of distortion than an overdrive pedals - they are generally designed to dramatically alter the signal of your guitar, and output a heavily modified sound. Although the specifics vary dramatically by model, distortion pedals are often used to dial in thick, chunky metal guitar sounds.