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As you can see and hear, distortion comes in many colors, with various shades and hues within those colors. For a more in-depth look, check out my book All About Effects (street $14.99, halleonard.com).
Experimenting with different ways of dirtying up your sound is one of the most exciting and fun things about playing electric guitar. Using the various types of stompboxes and approaches described here, you can elicit a wealth of harmonics and overtones—from sweet, singing sustain to chopped-off dissonant clang—from your guitars. Your mission— should you choose to accept it—is to make music with these marvelous tones.
10 Tips For Great Gritty Tone
There are even more ways to get crazy, beautiful, off-the-wall tones than there are distortion, overdrive, and fuzz pedals on the market. After all, every knob tweak and playing technique alters the sound of these pedals immensely—to say nothing of the rest of the rig they’re plugged into. That said, these 10 approaches never fail to yield great results.
1. Increase your impedance. Using a speaker cabinet with a greater impedance than that of your amp (for example, a 4 Ω head with an 8 Ω cabinet) can yield the same effects as an attenuator.
2. Don’t forget that less can be more. Distortion acts as compression, so the more gain you use the more it will flatten the dynamics of your playing. It will also wash out your sound and sink you into the mix. You might think you sound awesome, but all the audience will hear is a muffled roar.
3. Don’t obsess too much over germanium. While germanium fuzzes have come a long way in terms of consistently sounding good, they don’t all sound exactly the same—even the same models from the same company. If you have a chance to try a couple, do so. If you don’t hold an audition, but simply buy one and it sounds good, be glad. Don’t obsess that there might be a better one out there.
4. Pair a germanium fuzz with an overdrive. If you want the sound of a germanium boost at unity gain, try running it in front of an overdrive pedal with the overdrive’s Drive control set low and its output set below your clean amp volume.
5. Cascading overdrives adds up to distortion. You might find that cascading overdrives—running more than one in a row—provides a more desirable sound than a distortion pedal. By sending the slightly overdriven signal of one pedal into a second pedal set for a moderate amount of grit, you can achieve more distortion while maintaining an openness that is sometimes lost with a single highly distorted pedal.
6. Make sure your distortion pedal has level-boost capabilities. You won’t want to use too much, but a little is essential to keep a high-gain sound from disappearing in the mix.
7. Simple is best for the blues. For an authentic old-blues sound, a small combo and—at most—a clean boost are sufficient. If you want a more modern blues tone, overdrive or certain fuzz boxes will keep essential blues dynamics more intact than a distortion pedal.
8. Order matters. Some fuzz units need to be first in your pedalboard’s chain in order to work properly with guitar volumes and wah-wahs. Further, every distortion effect will have a different character if it’s placed, say, before a wah than it will if it comes somewhere else in the chain.
9. Don’t forget your Tone knob. Rolling it off is often the most effective way to tame fuzz fizz and make it more adaptable to different songs and feels.
10. Summon a sitar. Selecting your bridge pickup and rolling down your Volume while using an octave fuzz pedal can create a cool sitar sound—who would’ve thought?