It’s inevitable that musicians will tear apart their instruments and tools in ways that will anger traditionalists. Studio engineers have taken knives to speaker cones, guitarists have driven their amplifiers well beyond their intended capacity, and yet the results of such seemingly insane activities have become cornerstones of guitar tone for generations of rockers to come. You’re going to be hard pressed to find a guitarist who doesn’t use overdrive or distortion in some capacity, even though distortion was considered an undesirable condition for years. What lies at the heart of these tonal exploits is the usage of noise as an attractive and desirable element of music, and that drive is as old as the electric guitar itself.
Consider these classic cases. On Link Wray’s classic instrumental “Rumble” he pushed his Premier amp beyond its intended capabilities to reach a warm distorted sound. A few years later, on The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” lead guitarist Dave Davies took a razorblade to his speaker cones to achieve a gritty, brittle overdrive. Those experiments helped facilitate the development and demand for early fuzz circuits. And it was only a short time before amp makers such as Marshall were designing their gear with controls capable of intentional distortion. Now that distortion is commonplace in the electric guitar’s vocabulary, a number of pedal builders have taken up the torch in developing tools that will destroy guitar signal in new and exciting ways.
Where You’ve Heard It
You can’t talk about all-out sonic destruction without talking about Nine Inch Nails. Trent Reznor’s guitar- and synth-driven brand of industrial rock utilizes noise as if it were its own instrument. On their second major album release, Broken—which Reznor once referred to as a “blast of sonic destruction”—you can hear the grinding guitar tones on the song “Wish.”
The Melvins are another frequent user of extreme distortion. Their drop-tuned guitars and driving bass lines are both typically saturated to an ultra high gain tone that makes up their sludgy sound. Guitarist Buzz Osborne achieves his tone by slamming high gain amps including classic Marshall and Sunn amps with distortion stompboxes such as the Pro Co Rat.
Noise pioneers Sonic Youth even explored the use of real destruction to capture broken sounds—recording the sound of Thurston Moore’s amp as it perished from a choked cooling amp in the studio to create “Scooter and Jinx” from Goo.
How to Use It
A minimal level of experience with distortion pedals is all you need to get rolling with some of the more recent entries into the world of all-out sonic assault. Typically the controls on these sonic beasts are going to be similar to an average distortion stompbox—they just have a greater capacity for gain, and a few bells and whistles to make them wail. The basic idea behind distortion is that you’re turning up the signal so high that you cross the circuit’s clean threshold. The resulting decapitated waveforms can have a noisier, harmonically richer content than their source.
A spongy, grainy tone likely calls for a fuzz pedal such as the EHX Big Muff. A punchy, mid-rangy tone may call for a classic tube modeler like the Ibanez Tube Screamer. For a snappy, razor sharp tone, digital distortion may be just the ticket. Most of the uber-destructive pedals we tested, like most distortion pedals, have a lot in common with one these three tonal buckets. Because the results are so wide-ranging, most of this section will focus on the seven effects we tested as a jump-off point for your experimentation.
Gain - As with every distortion stompbox, the higher the gain, the greater the clipping within the circuit. Like the gas control on your stove, a higher setting means more heat and sizzle. In this section we take the gain way beyond 11.
Tone - Most distortion pedals have some sort of equalization control that allows you to tweak the frequency response of your tone. Results may vary from throaty distortion to sparkling fuzz.
Pedals We Tested
WMD Geiger Counter - WMD has developed one of the most destructive distortion circuits in their Geiger Counter. A combination of digital and analog signal processing married to an astounding 124 wavetables gives the unit nearly limitless power to shape your tone. Controls include Gain, Tone, Bit Rate, Sample Depth, and many others. The atypical features and layout may seem confusing at first blush, but they’re simply different flavors of distortion. These distortion tones have an unapologetically digital sound to them owing to the micro-processor within, but these can be the ticket to some of the most demented distortion of all.
Bit Rate and Sample Depth dictate how fast this processor analyzes your signal. Low Bit Rate and Sample Depth settings will simulate the sound of old video game consoles like the Atari 2600 and Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). And depending on the range of the Bit Rate and Sample Depth controls you’ll be able to achieve tones that range from Big Muff-style gated fuzz to all-out vintage arcade noise.
Gain at Max, Tone at 3 o'clock, Sample Rate at Min, Bit Depth at Max
The 124 wavetables, selectable with a dedicated knob, allow you to further shape the sound using a range of preset sonic flavors that enhance different frequency spectrums. The Geiger Counter’s versatility in the realm of digital distortion is truly unprecedented. Tasting the flavors of the Geiger Counter is often akin touching your tongue to a 9-volt battery.
Dwarfcraft The Great Destroyer - Dwarfcraft’s The Great Destroyer shares a name with a Nine Inch Nails song, and it also aptly describes the primary usage of the unit. With controls like Volume, Tone, Gain, and Starve it can operate within the scope of your average fuzz pedal. And yet, like other Dwarfcraft stompboxes, it goes beyond the typical characteristics of similar pedals and into the range of all-out sonic assault that typifies a Nine Inch Nails track.
At higher gain settings the GD barfs out squealing self-oscillation. Using its Starve control you can achieve such noisy, sputtering, gated fuzz that your audience will be convinced that your rig is meeting its end before their ears.
Tone at 9 o'clock, Gain at 1 o'clock, Starve at 10 o'clock
The sonic possibilities are wide and you’ll be surprised at how truly versatile this unit can be. Top it off with a huge output boost and the Great Destroyer is a titan among destructive stompboxes.
Death By Audio Total Sonic Annihilation, Apocalypse, and Robot - With a company name like Death By Audio, how could you not have a unit or two in this category of devastators? In fact, I’ll mention three of them: Total Sonic Annihilation (TSA), Apocalypse, and Robot. First, TSA has a single control knob making it a fairly straightforward unit to operate, however its capabilities are beyond the limits of your average distortion pedal because it is made to work with other pedals. The pedal’s send/return loop is used to take the signal from other pedal and utterly demolish it. Delay, reverb, even other distortion pedals can be placed in the loop and the resulting ultra-saturation will breathe new life into them. The single control knob sets the amount of internal gain. Oh, and there’s also a skillet of hot bacon grease somewhere inside this unit because even when you back off your guitar’s volume control your tone is still going to sound like sizzling meat. DBA’s advice with the TSA is “Stomp on the switch and destroy the world!”
Intermodulating fuzz tones are utilized heavily in DBA’s sonic weapons which makes for a lot of buzzing, high frequency content and the bubbling, out-of-control sustain that sounds like notes are folding over upon themselves. In an attempt to wrangle in such a beastly concept, DBA sometimes includes some sort of tone control that allows you to adjust the frequency response to your liking. Their next stompbox in our list and their most recent, the Apocalypse, has a control called the Sweepable Frequency Equalizer to color your tone. The Apocalypse is a five-channel sonic fuzz beast with some simple controls and a brilliantly versatile array of ear-splittingly delicious fuzz circuits. It’s that simplistic versatility that makes it one of my favorite fuzz pedals to come out in recent years. With its five-position control knob you can select between scooped fuzz, harmonic fuzz, JFET fuzz, octave fuzz, and all-out splatter barf fuzz.
Drive at 11 o'clock, Waveform Shifter channel, Sweepable frequency equalizer at 3 o'clock
The next pedal from DBA is the Robot. In some ways a synth/pitch pedal, the Robot uses a lo-fi 8-bit micro-processor to make your guitar sound like a cold, synthetic…robot! The Robot starts with four modes: normal (hardly!), Octave Up, Octave Down, and Arpeggiator. Essentially, these are all bit-destructive pitch shifting modes. The pitch-shifted signal has an unapologetically vintage digital sound and can be shifted using a large control knob.
Normal setting (8-bit conversion), Control knob at 3 o'clock (pitch drop)
In Arpeggiator mode, the control knob adjusts the speed of the random arpeggiator. This makes your guitar sound like an unfortunate robot with frayed circuits, taking its last robotic breath. For its faltering mechanical tone, I’ve placed it here with DBA’s other sonic destroyers.
Synthmonger Pulsemonger MKI - Sonically similar to the DBA Robot, but much more tonally versatile—the Pulsemonger is Synthmonger’s entry in the destruct sweeps. The Pulsemonger’s unpainted plain-text box, CV inputs, and controls like Pulse Width, give it an experts-only, industrial feel. Its fairly simple to grasp, however. The pedal uses low-frequency oscillators (LFOs) to hack up your guitar’s incoming signal and spit it back out with blistering ferocity. There are two output controls governing the level of the fundamental frequency (tuned to the note you’re playing)—exactly like your average octave pedal.
Make no mistake, though, this is no average octave pedal. An LFO shape control allows you to give the overall tone crispy definition on one hand, or the smear of molten metal on the other. LFO modulation has many different uses including tremolo, vibrato, and filter sweeps. Pulse width controls for the fundamental and sub-octave signals provide further tonal flexibility. There are numerous possibilities with the Pulsemonger but what it really excels at is fiery, gated synth fuzz.
Volume at noon, LFO Speed at 9 o'clock, LFO Depth at max, Pulse Width A at 8 o'clock, Pulse Width B at 10 o'clock
Z.Vex Machine - Part of what has garnered Z.Vex pedals a lot of space on the pedalboards of guitarists is their creative and sometimes totally off-the-wall circuits. The Machine definitely falls in both of those categories. A typical distortion pedal achieves its tone by pushing a circuit beyond its limit, consequently hacking off the top and bottom of the waveform. The Machine is the exact opposite—it distorts the signal during its quieter moments. On its own, the result is what you might expect—the dry signal somewhat preserved with an ungodly, noisy distortion sustaining throughout. This may sound absolutely disgusting—and in some ways it is—but, on the other hand, you retain a lot of dynamic expressiveness while your overall tone has the impression of total raunch. Input level, output level and a Limit control round out the control set.
Though the Machine sounds wild on its own, it also sounds great when chained with other distortion pedals. With your choice of distortion clipping the signal peaks and the Machine adding distortion everywhere in-between, the resulting tone has a truly combined coloration of two different drive tones, rather than an over-compressed sludge.
In at Noon, Limit at 3 o'clock, out at 1 o'clock