Premier Guitar features affiliate links to help support our content. We may earn a commission on any affiliated purchases.

The Endless Quest for Distortion

A brief history of the different avenues guitarists go down in their quest for distortion.

“Warning: At the first sign of distortion, turn down the volume”

Ah yes, the statement that launched a revolution. You know, the warning that came with all the classic tube amps from the fifties and sixties...Toto, I don’t think we’re in hi-fi world anymore. Distortion is now a fundamental part of nearly every guitarist’s sound. Even with clean tones you might be surprised how much harmonic distortion is happening that creates that wonderful, sparkly chime. Tubes inherently distort and it’s those harmonics that wake up and give us more “tone”, whether it results in a richer, fuller sound or an onslaught of raging overdrive. Though I’m talking about tubes, there are many ways to get to that nirvana of singing leads, crunchy riffs and swirling jangle. I find it interesting that we’ve had the tools to create killer distorted guitar tones since the fifties, yet it wasn’t until a bit later that a few brave souls really began pushing the limits of amplifiers and defining the sounds that we still use today. When guitar amplifiers were first created the idea of “distortion” was considered a bad thing. Early on it was discovered that jamming a hole in a speaker with a screwdriver (or headstock?) was a great way to stir up some grit. Humbucking pickups helped drive (yes, pun intended) the front end of the amp to get more gain. And of course we all have to pay homage to the early fuzz boxes that drove amps into distortion by adding copious amounts of clipping to the signal. Let’s take a look at some of the wonderful ways to create distortion.

Power tube distortion, or “turn it up!”
One of the easiest ways to get gain is to crank it up to 10. In the case of tube amps we find that power tube distortion sounds big. As the amp gets louder, the sound gets richer, bolder and it comes alive. There’s more touch sensitivity, sustain is increased and everything in life gets a little bit better. It’s exciting and makes you want to play, and although it’s “distorting” there is a clarity that comes from it that puts it in a league of its own. There are a lot of factors contributing to that sound, not the least of it is the fact that everything is working harder. The more volume you have, the more you push the speakers. And if the speakers are on the verge of blowing up from being overloaded, that contributes heavily to the sound. Then there’s the fact that the transformer may be distorting and on and on. Suffice it to say we’ve heard this sound for a long time and in 2009 it’s still a favorite.

One louder…Turn it up to 11
What happens when you’ve got everything cranked to ten and you need that little push over the cliff? Ask Nigel Tufnel and he’ll tell you to turn it up to 11! Unless you have his modified Marshall (or a JCM 900?) chances are you’ll have to do it another way. The simplest way to achieve extra gain is with a pedal. Jimmy Page did it, Eric Clapton did it, Hendrix did it. From Germanium boosts to Silicon diodes to treble boosters and fuzzes, there are 10 million of these on the market that do everything from gently pushing the front end to decimating it. The market is so rich (I keep making these puns!) in the way of these pedals that you can, and may very well spend a lifetime searching for and enjoying the benefits of the perfect boost for you.

This is probably not a topic for the purist or vintage nut (depending on what you call vintage). Back in the early seventies, there wasn’t much of a pickup replacement market yet and everything that was made was a one-off from individuals or small repair shops…hardly the mass manufacturer to boutique market we now enjoy. When DiMarzio unleashed the Super Distortion Humbucker in 1972 it was immediately embraced by players who wanted to kick their amps into overdrive, or better yet, Super Distortion. With a ceramic magnet and a DC resistance of 13.68K it jumped way beyond the normal humbucker spec of the day and propelled guitarists into the next wave of distortion. Yes, I’m a huge early Kiss fan, so the example of Ace Frehley’s tone on Kiss Alive! pretty much sums it up. Players to this day still love that pickup and you can regularly see Paul Gilbert sporting a Super Distortion Humbucker in his Ibanezes. Since those days we’ve seen the advent of everything from high output passive designs to ultra high-tech active pickups. The good news is this is something that is here to stay and aside from the distortion characteristics imparted by adding more output there are just as many options to sculpt your tone.

Master Volume…aka preamp distortion
My first amp actually had a “distortion” knob on it. It was from a company called “Rock” and was a solid-state 1x10 combo that put out about 10 watts. The cabinet was made out of some sort of stained hardwood and it had a wicker-like grill on it. I’ve never seen one again but it had volume, treble, bass, reverb, and DISTORTION! It wasn’t until a few years later when I went looking for another amp that I found out about preamp and master volumes. In the seventies master volume amps became popular when people wanted the benefits of distortion without all of the volume. In 1975 Marshall introduced the first in their master volume amps and it became wildly successful. There are so many examples of master volume amps that I could go on for days. In fact, it hasn’t been but more recently that non-master amps have come back into play, and we can thank the many boutique builders out there that are keeping the fire alive for those who enjoy the pure power tube distortion characteristics.

Of course we now have so many ways to achieve distortion it’s totally commonplace. There are tube modeling stop boxes, power-scaling designs built directly into amps (check out the Mojave Ampworks line with power dampening!), attenuators and more pedals, pickups and pre-amp designs to keep us busy for the rest of the new millennium. Distortion is your friend. Love the distortion. Feel the distortion!

While Annie Clark was named the 26th greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone in 2023, she couldn’t care less about impressing an athletic stamp on either her sound or her image.

Photo by Alex Da Corte

On her eighth studio release, the electroacoustic art-rock guitarist and producer animates an extension of the strange and singular voice she’s been honing since her debut in 2007.

“Did you grow up Unitarian?” Annie Clark asks me. We’re sitting in a control room at Electric Lady Studios in New York’s West Village, and I’ve just explained my personal belief system to her, to see if Clark, aka St. Vincent, might relate and return the favor. After all, does she not possess a kind of sainthood worth inquiring about?

Read MoreShow less

This time on Before Your Very Ears, hosts Sean Watkins and Peter Harper give love a chance. Helping them learn the ways of love is Nick Thune, comedian and musician, who spearheads the songwriting session—but not before sharing some of the best bird-related jokes you’ll ever hear.

Read MoreShow less
Photo by Jim Rakete

Watch Deep Purple's official music video for "Lazy Sod" from their upcoming album =1.

Read MoreShow less
​Luther Perkins' 1953 Esquire & a '59 Burst!
Johnny Cash Guitarist Luther Perkins' 1953 Esquire & John Carter Cash's 1959 Gibson Les Paul Burst!

This 1953 Fender Esquire belonged to Luther Perkins, who was a member of Cash’s first recording bands and played on all of the Man in Black’s foundational recordings for Sun Records—likely with this guitar. Perkins played this instrument during the period when Cash classics from “I Walk the Line” to “Folsom Prison Blues” were cut. John Carter Cash bought this 1959 Gibson Les Paul at Gruhn’s in Nashville. It has a neck that is atypically slim for its vintage and appears as part of the psychedelic guitar interplay on the Songwriter song “Drive On.”

Read MoreShow less