Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, November 19, 2010

Overdrive, Distortion, or Fuzz?

Every once in a while, after discussing something on a blog or on Facebook, it suddenly hits me that not everyone knows fut the whack I'm talking about. Just as an engineer might forget that a lot of people have no idea what an angstrom is, or a programmer might overlook the fact that many if not most of us don't really know the difference between REXX, C++, Java, or Var'aq, I quite often fail to take into account the fact that not everyone is a musician. Take my recent interest in guitar effect pedals, for example. Since last summer I've been blathering on and on, first about overdrive pedals, and more recently about fuzz types. So what exactly are they, anyway?

Overdrive, distortion, and fuzz pedals all work on the same basic principle, that of an overloaded amp circuit. The distinction between them can also be kind of fuzzy (he he). However, to an experienced guitarist, each is a very different animal. I'll explain, but first, here's a little history.

The electric guitar has been around since the 1920s, but it wasn't until the 1950s that it really became widespread. During that same decade there was also an important development: The solid-body guitar. In addition to being smaller and more convenient to handle, the solid-body guitar wasn't as prone to feedback as the early hollow-body types, with the result that it could be played louder. That was when an interesting discovery was made. Guitarists soon learned that if they turned their amps up high enough, i.e. if they drove them, the sound would start to distort. That would add warmth, resonance, and sustain to their tone. To understand the reason for this, picture the audio signal going through an amp as a wave inside a pipe. If the wave gets to be too large, its peaks are blocked, or clipped, by the pipe, distorting its shape and making it behave more like a square wave. This process is called overdrive, and it is what causes the distorted tone. There was a lot of controversy for a while as to whether such a sound was desirable, let alone acceptable, but blues and rock-and-roll guitarists in the '50s soon fell in love with it.

(Trivia point: A lot of famous recorded guitar performances of the mid to late '50s and even later [Eric Clapton's 'Layla', for one!] were performed using the Fender Champ, a small, cheap, and dirt simple amp designed for beginners but popular among pros because it had a punchy sound and was so easy to overdrive.)

When the '50s gave way to the '60s, and amps became bigger and more powerful, guitarists were suddenly faced with an ironic problem. In those days, amps had only a single volume knob. (Modern ones have pre- and master volumes.) That meant that you generally had to crank your amp up high to get overdrive. In other words, to get the right sound, guitarists either had to stick with a small amp (like the Champ mentioned above) or play at ear-blasting (and neighbor-infuriating) levels. That posed some interesting dilemmas. Some guitarists tried experimenting with alternatives such as slashing the speaker cones in their amps with razors to create distortion. However, by far the most significant breakthroughs of all came about thanks to broken or chopped equipment.

Fuzz - Back in 1961, a well-known session guitarist recording a bass part for Marty Robbins' "Don't Worry" found to his surprise that his bass came out with a weird, fuzzy tone. The cause was a faulty circuit in the mixer board, but that sound attracted some attention. The Ventures in particular fell so much in love with it that in 1962 they hired an electronics expert to reproduce it. That led to the birth of the fuzzbox, or fuzz pedal. A fuzz pedal uses transistors (germanium for those who want tone, silicon for those who want edge) to force the audio signal through a very narrow "pipe", chopping off the wave peaks right around the middle to produce something close to a square wave. The result is a very buzzy, edgy sound. The first mass-produced fuzzbox was the 1965 Gibson Maestro Fuzz-Tone (which Keith Richards used in "I Can't Get No Satisfaction", perhaps the most famous use of a fuzzbox ever) followed by the Sola Tone Bender (later made by Vox), Arbiter Fuzz Face (later made by Dunlop), and Electro-Harmonics Big Muff Pi, among others. The latter two are still considered industry standards. Fuzz boxes lost popularity in the 1970s when distortion boxes came into use, but they saw a resurgence in the late 1980s mainly thanks to alternative and grunge artists who used them to produce an extremely intense sound.

Overdrive - In 1964, when guitarist Dave Davies recorded the famous riff of The Kinks' breakthrough hit, "You Really Got Me", he plugged his guitar into a small, stripped-down, chopped-up amp, which he cranked to the point of damage, and then ran it through a larger amp to produce a gritty, aggressive tone. Purists were outraged, but a lot of people took notice, and thus was the overdrive pre-amp born. Unlike a fuzz pedal, an overdrive pedal is designed to perform like a miniature amp in its own right, so it produces a more natural tone. Initially intended only to boost the signal so as to drive the amp, overdrive pedals soon came to be used for the distortion they produced on their own. Most are of low to medium gain as opposed to the high gain of fuzz pedals (i.e. they don't pull as much signal out of the guitar), so the level of distortion is less. Although many do use transistors, most overdrive boxes use diodes to produce "soft clipping", i.e. only the tips of the waves are chopped off within the "pipe". The result is a warmer, gentler form of distortion. I'm not sure what the first overdrive pedal was (The earliest type that I know of is the Colorsound Overdriver of 1972, used by Jeff Beck), but the Boss OD-1 Overdrive (no longer available) and the Ibanez TS808/TS9 Tube Screamer (still a staple among blues and rock guitarists, especially in reissue), both of which came out in the late '70s, are considered to have set the standard. Ever since then, overdrive boxes have been considered a fundamental component of blues/rock guitar.

Distortion - In the late '70s, some guitarists began to be dissatisfied with the sounds generated by the pedals of the time. They felt that overdrive didn't produce as much distortion as they wanted, but they also didn't like the buzzy, unnatural tone of fuzz. That led to the development of a high-gain variation of the overdrive pedal designed to generate hard clipping and thus heavy distortion. This was what is now known as the distortion pedal. The standard was initially set by a box called the Rat, which first appeared around 1977 and is still very popular. Other important classic distortion pedals include the original Boss DS-1 (made famous by Joe Satriani and Kurt Cobain) and the MXR Distortion Plus (made famous by Randy Rhoads and Joe Garcia, among many others). Now even higher-gain types like the Boss Metal Zone and Maxon DS-830 have become significant among heavy metal and shred guitarists.

Overdrive/fuzz/distortion pedals saw a rapid drop in popularity during the '80s, mainly because new developments in amp design such as pre- and master volume and effect loops made them seem superfluous. They were also widely replaced by multi-effectors. However, from the early '90s more and more guitarists came to prefer using a clean setting on their amps and relying on pedals to create their tone. That led to a new wave of interest in quality pedal effects that is still going today.

Fuzz/overdrive/distortion pedals that I've owned include (in chronological order):

  • Boss OD-2 Turbo Overdrive - (Overdrive) I had one of these in my college days, my first overdrive pedal, and got another one soon after coming to Japan. It's basically a modification of the iconic OD-1 that includes a "turbo" switch which, when activated, boosts the gain. This was my main workhorse overdrive for my home recording for a number of years and one of few pedals I've used live. The only problem is that it's hard to get the right amount of drive with it; the normal mode is weaker than the OD-1, and the "turbo" is almost more like a distortion pedal. I mainly used it for rhythm guitar. Now I sometimes use it to boost a distortion pedal.
  • Boss DF-2 Super Feedbacker & Distortion - (Distortion) I grabbed this in 1991 to give me heavier distortion for a more "rocking" sound. It also has the added "feedbacker" feature which will continue to sustain a note (or overtones of it) as long as the pedal is depressed. I used this pedal quite a bit but was never really happy with its sound.
  • Ibanez "Sound Tank" TS5 Tube Screamer - (Overdrive) Ibanez says that this pedal has the same circuitry as the famous TS9 but in "more affordable" casing and "less labor-intensive construction" (i.e. reduced quality) to lower the price. After hearing so much about the Tube Screamer in 1991, I looked all over for one and finally snapped this one up in Tokyo. It was my main lead guitar pedal for a while, and I have used it live. Ibanez claims it sounds just like the TS9, but reviewers consistently disagree. Still, it was good enough for my modest needs at the time...until its switch went bad. Now it resides in a drawer.

  • Zoom 5000 Zoom Driver - (Overdrive/distortion) I picked this up on a passing whim in 1992, and it turned out to be fortuitous. It's now a rare collector's item. Produced before Zoom became synonymous with cheap (sucky) multieffectors, the 5000 is a multi-mode overdrive/distortion box with a wide range of possibilities. It was also designed to be used either with an amp or direct-lined, which was VERY useful for me at the time. I used it heavily from 1992 until 2002 and still occasionally get it out. I have also used it live. Even so, I've recently come to discover that I've only scratched the surface of what this baby can do.
  • Boss BD-2 Blues Driver - (Overdrive) This is a boost/overdrive pedal made with blues in mind. In 2003 I was invited to join a blues/rock band as a keyboardist, saxophonist, and rhythm guitarist. The only pedal I had at the time that would really work in that genre was the TS5, and its switch had become too unreliable. I bought this one instead. I wound up being fired as a regular member of the band after managing to attend only two of their weekly rehearsals in three months. I haven't used this pedal much since, but I do dig it out once in a while for a bluesy solo. (The first solo in my song "Sudden Blast from the Past" is played on my Telecaster using the Blues Driver.)

  • Marshall Guv'nor Plus - (Overdrive/distortion) In 2002 I started using guitar processors beginning with a discontinued Yamaha model I found in a bargain bin. This was replaced by my Line 6 PODxt in 2004. At any rate, my pedals wound up more or less mothballed for years. Then in 2008 I ordered a Marshall Reflector reverb pedal (mainly for its reverse gate reverb, though it sounds great in any case). I figured, since I was at it, I might as well get the Guv'nor Plus, too. After all my experimenting with the POD, there were certain sounds I wanted that I just wasn't getting, and the Guv'nor Plus seemed like a way to do it. It's designed to sound like the JCM2000 amps and has similar tone controls, including a built-in sub-bass circuit. It also looks really cool. Anyway, it offers a wide range of sounds, from a fat, bluesy overdrive to a really beefy distortion. I have used it for playing leads, but mainly I get it out when I want either juicy power chords or alternative-rock-style noise.
  • Boss MT-2 Metal Zone - (Distortion) This was a purely impulse buy, snapped up in 2008 just a couple of months after the Marshall Guv'nor Plus (above). It's still a very popular box among heavy metal and alternative guitarists, and I was interested in checking it out. It offers a wide range of tone control, but it's built to produce a rippingly intense, metallic scream. Incidentally, I found that it's fun to layer it with the Guv'nor Plus by recording unison tracks with each. (You can hear me doing this in the power chords in my song "Intelligent Evolution" and at the very end of "Glowing Zone".)
  • Vox Satchurator - (Distortion) In 2010 I found myself getting interested in pedals again...mainly because I'd stumbled on the Facebook page for a little New York shop called Pedal Geek. I'd never really had much exposure to boutique pedals before, and my curiosity was piqued. I'd found some pretty good lead sounds using the POD by itself or with the Blues Driver or Guv'nor Plus, but I was still interested in finding an overdrive pedal that would give me a nice, singing tone. I researched, put together a list, and went shopping. My regular music shop had an Xotic BB Preamp pedal, which was near the top of my list, and I almost got it. However, they also had a Satchurator. The Satchurator was actually on my "maybe" list (as opposed to "grab if possible"), but I got it partly because it's very hot and hard to find in the US...and partly because it cost only half as much as the BB. It's actually a very good pedal, designed and built by Vox with Joe Satriani's direct cooperation. It's a distortion box rather than simple overdrive, modeled after both the original Boss DS-1 Distortion (a favorite of Satriani's...before Boss cheapened it) and the Rat. It has a sound that is more ringing than ragged, perfect for soloing, and I'm liking it so far. (It is featured in my tune "Starship Impala" together with...)

  • Xotic BB Plus Preamp - (Overdrive) Wouldn't you know it! Only a few weeks after I'd bought the Satchurator, I found a used BB Plus at my favorite second-hand music shop! The BB Plus is a double pedal, including both a regular BB Preamp and a second, souped-up one. The two channels can be used separately or together. The pedal has a variety of tone-control options and allows you to select the level of compression/filter both for tone balance and sustain. The BB Plus is clearly designed for soloing, though it can give an excellent rhythm sound, too. I tried it out, and it came home with me. Now I'm seriously liking it. (You can hear it in the second solo in "Starship Impala", played on the SG, and in "Sudden Blast from the Past", played on the Strat HSS.)
  • Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi - (Fuzz) Another side effect of my discovering Pedal Geek was a sudden interest in fuzz, something I'd never paid much attention to before. A number of my favorite guitarists use or have used it, after all. I'd played around with the emulated Big Muff Pi included in the POD and had produced some cool sounds (such as can be heard in "Sudden Blast from the Past"), but Pedal Geek convinced me that I needed the real thing. Once again I made a list of models I liked, tracked down sources, and fussed over which one to get. Then, just a few days ago, on the advice of friends, I finally made a visit to a local "recycle" (i.e. second-hand) shop, and voila! There was a used Big Muff Pi for less than half the cost of the pedals I was considering! I snapped it up. I have yet to record with it, but I'm really looking forward to it. Electro-Harmonix calls it a "distortion/sustainer" rather than "fuzz", but it is definitely an archetype fuzzbox. A lot of famous artists have used the Big Muff since the first ones were cobbled out of spare parts in the late '60s. I'm only too happy to join them!

And that, my friends, is that. I hope I've cleared things up a bit. Maybe I'll explain other types of effect pedals some other time.


  • Everything you always wanted to know but were afraid to ask (or didn't know enough to ask).

    By Blogger San, at 7:44 AM  

  • San
    Or were sorry you asked? ;-)

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 10:14 AM  

  • In defence of my sucky Zoom multi-effects box: Try plugging your guitar into the input and a pair of headphones into the output. Fantatic for practicing and it can go anywhere! I take it onto the grounds of Canterbury Cathedral at lunchtime (given time and decent weather)...

    By Blogger Rock Chef, at 8:57 PM  

  • Rock Chef
    Yes, that is a very good point. I actually have a Zoom multi-effector that I bought on someone's advice (read "passionate insistence that stomp boxes were passe") a little over a decade ago and wasn't really impressed with, but you're right. It is a handy little practice setup in a box.

    To be fair, I don't know much about the more recent Zoom multi-effectors. I know that they were a lot better in the early '90s than in the late '90s. I first came to know about them when a friend got one in 1993 or so, and it was really cool. The one I bought a few years after that, however, just seemed too cheap and plastic in terms of both construction and sound. I've kept it, though, because it does have potential uses.

    Word Verification - Crustone - a model of fuzzbox rejected by Vox because it just sounded too flaky.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 9:42 PM  

  • Oh yes, I certainly wouldn't go stamping on my Zoom!

    Otherwise I am happy with the effects that are built into my VOX guitar amp - although I do miss having a chorus for bass. But hey, Christmas is coming!

    By Blogger Rock Chef, at 11:02 PM  

  • Ah...VOX! :)
    (I didn't know they made a model with built-in effects...unless you're just referring to overdrive and reverb.)

    Maybe someday I'll do a write-up on amps...though my experience with most has been through digital emulation only... *'-'*

    I do like the VOX sound a lot, though. I also like Matchless' take on it.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 12:33 AM  

  • That was a great summary and I learned a few things about the differences between terms. Thanks!

    Word verification: donest - I am the donest Don I know!

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 6:44 AM  

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