Whatever genre you’re into – rock, metal, metalcore, blues, jazz, or even pop music – distorted guitars are a bigger or lesser part of it. There is hardly any artist in modern music today that has completely avoided distortion. Even mainstream pop stars have guitarists in their backing bands with the live arrangements of their songs often featuring distorted or overdriven guitars. But how did this game-changing effect come to be? Well, it was actually through a series of accidents that eventually led to the complete revolution of modern music. So let’s find out more about the history of distortion pedals.
What is distortion?
Although we take it for granted these days, especially because we can find some pretty cheap but great distortion pedals, achieving the effect was not exactly the easiest task back in the day. But let us first explain what distortion actually is.
Distortion and overdrive are usually achieved by the significant increase in gain of different amplified electric instruments. As a result, we get that well-known “growling” sound through guitar amplifiers. Of course, this is pretty much oversimplified as there is actual science behind how overdrive, distortion, and fuzz are created, but that’s a whole different discussion that deserves an article on its own.
There have been many ways of achieving this effect, from the early tube amps, over the invention of transistors, all the way to the creation of digital effect processing.
The earliest examples of guitar distortion take us back somewhere around the very end of the 1940s. With guitar players always being the leading force of experimentation in modern music, they noticed that their tube amps would get their sound all messed up with the volume turned to those “dangerous” levels. Although the engineers back in the day considered this to be an unwanted side effect, the guitarists tried achieving this tone in any way possible.
And one of the ways was to damage the amplifier. Yes, they realized rough handling of their amps made them sound better. Is there anything more rock ‘n’ roll than that? Some found less destructive methods to be effective as well, like experimenting with humbuckers or swapping pickups with those designated for lap steel guitars.
One of the earliest known examples of distortion would be the piece from 1947 by Bob Willis called “Bob Wills Boogie” where Robert Junior Barnard played guitar. Although not as nearly as distorted as one would expect now, the tone was pretty revolutionary for the times.
Talking about damaged amplifiers, Willie Kizart who played with Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm went into the studio to record a song called “Rocket 88” with a faulty tube amp back in 1951. The story goes that he damaged the amp in transport, thus ultimately giving it the unique buzzing sound.
It seems that Willie Kizart was unable to find a new amp or at least somebody to repair the faulty one, which was probably not really easy to do back in the early 1950s. However, this happy accident resulted in a tone that everyone wanted to replicate. So what did these freshly inspired guitar players decide to do? They started damaging their own amps to achieve distortion. Luckily, you don’t have to damage your equipment today as you can just buy a $50 fuzz to get this type of tone.
Fast forward to 1961, another professional guitar player named Grady Martin got his preamp broken before the recording of Martin Robins’ track “Don’t Worry.” The guitar sounded a bit awkward, although it somehow fit the song perfectly.
Then Grady Martin recorded his own instrumental piece, appropriately titled “The Fuzz”, on this exact same faulty preamp. His tone sounded quite powerful for the times, making him somewhat of a guitar hero of the early ’60s. He is often referred to as the first guitar player to use fuzz effect in a song.
About a year later, Gibson released the first ever commercially produced fuzz pedal through their subsidiary company Maestro. But we’ll get to that in a second as it took some time for it to get noticed by the masses.
Just around that time, there were a few other examples of the fuzz effect used in a song. Although this was not a commercially produced fuzz, The Ventures used the effect on their 1962 song “The 2000 Pound Bee.” The person responsible for this fuzz was Orville “Red” Rhodes who the band members asked to build this effect unit. Which he did, ultimately making their song popular among the guitar lovers.
Now back to those reckless guitar players ruining their gear, Dave Davies of The Kinks decided to slash and poke the speaker cone on his Elpico amp, nicknamed “Little Green.” We can hear the results on their legendary song “You Really Got Me”, which is the sound that pretty much changed the game for everyone. The heaviness was amplified by the band’s use of simple power chords.
Funnily enough, despite the fact that many players were looking for that fuzz tone, the first commercially produced fuzz pedal didn’t make an initial success when it was released in 1962. Called the FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone, it was produced by Gibson’s daughter company Maestro and it offered volume and attack controls and the simple on/off switch.
In 1965, The Rolling Stones were about to record the second version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The initial idea was to have a horn section play the main riff. Keith Richards performed these parts with the Maestro FZ-1 pedal as sort of a “sketch”, thinking that the recording will be replaced with an actual horn section later on. Luckily, he was persuaded by the band’s manager and the studio engineer to leave it as it is.
When the song came out, the sales of the FZ-1 skyrocketed, automatically starting the era of stompbox based distortions.
Another company that just can’t be avoided in this topic is Marshall Amplification. In 1966, they slowly began boosting the treble end on their tube amplifiers, thus allowing guitar players to achieve that sweet and raw “organic” distortion.
The 1960s gave us a guitar hero that will be remembered in history as one of the best players of all time – Jimi Hendrix. While everyone is familiar with his use of Fender Stratocasters, Hendrix had another weapon in his arsenal – the Arbiter Fuzz Face. This circular pedal was originally conceived as sort of a base of a microphone stand. However, no one really remembered it as a microphone stand but as a mind-bending fuzz machine. The initial pedals were produced with germanium transistors, but the company switched to silicon-based ones which made an impact on its tone. The pedal is still being produced to this day as Dunlop aquired the rights to the Fuzz Face in the early 1990s.
The birth of heavy metal
The next ones to step up the game were Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, and the Riff Lord Mr. Tony Iommi. Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath led the creation of what was to be named heavy metal. After Sabbath released their debut self-titled album, which is often considered to be the first fully heavy metal record, the bar was set up high for everyone else who was seeking those heavier and darker tones. Iommi and Blackmore became known for their use of Dallar Arbiter Rangemaster treble boost, although Iommi modded it to serve as a full-range booster.
Some of the most brutal of Iommi’s distorted sounds were achieved on “Master of Reality” from 1971 where he used the Rangemaster through a Laney amp, most likely Laney Klipp. Whatever it was, barely anyone has been able to achieve sound this heavy and thick, even decades after the album’s release.
The 1970s saw a significant rise in distortion and overdrive pedals, with the legendary company Boss jumping in on the compact distortion/overdrive pedal game. But aside from Boss’ OD-1 and DS-1 pedals, we’ve seen MXR and their Distortion Plus, Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi, and the game-changing Ibanez Tube Screamer TS808 that was developed form the Maxon OD808. All of these pedals are being produced to this day with many different copies still trying to replicate these same exact tones.
As for the Tube Screamer, combining it with some of the Marshall tube amps like the JCM800 became the standard in the 1980s, creating some roaring tones that were a foundation for heavy metal in the decade.
Talking about the ’80s, during this time the company called Pro Co Sound further developed their popular distortion pedal RAT which offered some crushing tones and simple controls.
As metal developed further, going into some extreme and unexpected territories, the race for heaviness continued. Boss stepped up the game with HM-2 and DS-2. The HM-2 was produced between 1983 and 1991 and was later resurrected as a new product called MT-2 Metal Zone. While many guitar enthusiasts still joke about the extremely sharp and overly (or unbearably) distorted sound, the MT-2 remains as one of the company’s best selling products of all time.
But even the amp manufacturers began including the overdrive and distortion channels on their amps, allowing easy switching via foot controllers. Some of the best examples of amp-based distortions are Peavey 5150 and the Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier, the latter one being used on Metallica’s “Master of Puppets”.
With technological advancement, we’ve reached the point where it’s pretty easy to create digital effects and digital replicas of the old analog effects. Whether it’s a plugin for your DAW or a pedalboard or a rack-based unit, it got to the point where it’s easy to copy some of the sounds of those classic tube amps. Now, there’s still an ongoing discussion whether these new digital modeling amps are able to truly replicate these tones and even the famous guitar players have shared their opinion in recent years. Some argue that Kemper, AxeFX, Helix, and other modelers are up there, easily reproducing vintage or modern tube amps. Others argue that digital will never be able to replicate the true distortion and dynamic response of tube amps. Whatever your thoughts are on the matter, the near future will definitely exciting as various different manufacturers are competing on the digital modeling market.
But this boring history lesson is here to do more than just inform us about these distortion pedals and other products. The biggest thing to get out of this article is to be respectful of what you have now. Even if you own the cheapest pedal on the market at the moment, you can always find ways to get better tone with it. After all, back in the ’50s, ’60s, and even the ’70s, it was extremely difficult for guitar players to achieve distortion, and as it is mentioned above, many of them even tried damaging their expensive amplifiers. Luckily, you don’t have to do this today.
Another thing that we can notice from looking at current products is that the same old stuff from the ’70s and the ’80s is still being produced, like Boss DS-1, Tube Screamer, or Pro Co RAT. And even the other newer products are often “inspired” by the tone of these old pedals, implying that these two decades are pretty much the “golden age” of guitar distortion.