Audio Week: Classic Distortion Pedal Rundown

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From rock, to blues, to metal, the electric guitar has many faces. While there are many factors that go into guitar tone, the creative use of distortion to mold the sound of your instrument is undeniably one of the boldest tonal statements you can make as a guitarist.

While the focus of this article is on classic distortion pedals, it’s important to note that the practice of distorting, or overdriving the sound of the electric guitar, predates the advent of the distortion pedal. Described by some as a “happy accident,” blues guitarists first began to experiment with distortion by turning the volume of their vacuum tube amplifiers up all the way, causing the tubes to overdrive, thereby creating the familiar growling guitar sound that we all know. Soon, guitarists and engineers started trying to achieve a distorted guitar tone in other ways, such as intentionally damaging the speaker cones of their amps, as well as building external devices to overdrive the guitar signal before it even reached the amplifier.

Although there were custom-built prototype distortion devices developed prior, the Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone, from Gibson, was the first distortion device to become widely available, in 1962. To Gibson’s surprise, the pedal was initially a commercial flop, that is, until it was famously used by Keith Richards in 1965, for his iconic guitar riff on " (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." After that, the Fuzz-Tone quickly became a staple of the garage and psychedelic rock sounds of the time.

The Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone was the beginning, but certainly not the end. In 1966, Arbiter Electronics Ltd. introduced the Fuzz Face, which was of course made famous and hugely popular by Jimi Hendrix. Sporting a space-aged circular design, the earliest units used germanium transistors, which were sensitive to temperature, so the sound produced would change as the transistors heated up. Silicon transistors were used in later editions, which provided for more stable operation, but have a different, harsher sound. Several reissued versions of the Fuzz Face are available even today and are manufactured by Dunlop.

In 1971, Electro-Harmonix dropped the Big Muff Pi, which brought an unprecedented amount of singing, violin-like sustain to the electric guitar. Although Electro-Harmonix has released many variations of the Big Muff over the years, most versions use four transistor stages. The first stage is a clean boost, which feeds into the next two clipping stages, creating the distortion. The final stage recovers volume loss due to the pedal’s passive tone stack. Notable users of the Big Muff include David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, in the 1970s and ’80s, as well the Smashing Pumpkins in the ’90s.

Electro-Harmonix OP Amp Big Muff Pi Distortion/Sustainer Pedal

In 1973, MXR debuted the MXR Distortion + pedal. Known for its versatility, this pedal was used by a diverse group of players, including Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Randy Rhoads in his work with Ozzy Osbourne, and Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü. Still available today through Dunlop, the MXR Distortion + features a simple op-amp circuit that can produce everything from massive ’80s hard rock gain, to bluesy tube-sounding overdrive.

The Pro Co RAT was introduced in 1978, and was a big hit due to its massive amount of gain and sensitive filter control. Offering a wide variety of tones, this pedal found its way onto the pedalboards of a diverse group of players, from jazz fusion artist John Scofield, to Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, to Thom Yorke of Radiohead. Still available today in a number of variations, the RAT has stayed relevant over the years, in part because of its popularity as a pedal for modifying.

Pro Co Sound RAT 2 - Compact Guitar Distortion Pedal

Contrary to what its name might suggest, the Ibanez Tube Screamer creates a relatively subtle amount of warm, creamy overdrive when pushed into the preamp stage of a tube amp. That’s probably why many guitarists, such as jam band virtuoso Trey Anastasio of Phish, have been known to daisy-chain two Tube Screamers together in succession for a more intense overdrive effect. Undoubtedly one of most popular, and most imitated guitar pedals of all time, Ibanez brought the original Tube Screamer TS808 to market in 1979, and it was replaced by the Tube Screamer TS9 in 1982. The TS9 was slightly brighter and a bit less smooth sounding than the 808. First popularized by Texas blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughn, the original Tube Screamer models, along with numerous variants, are still in production today.

Ibanez TS808 - Original Tube Screamer

Arguably the most popular distortion pedal of all time, the Boss DS-1 Distortion was introduced in 1979 and was the first distortion effect made by Boss. Known for its tube-like saturation and dynamics, the DS-1 was an integral part of Kurt Cobain’s huge guitar sound, as well as the main distortion pedal used by revered shredder Joe Satriani.

BOSS DS-1 Distortion Pedal

I hope you enjoyed this rundown of classic distortion pedals. For a basic guide to distortion and other types of effects pedals, click here. Did I miss anything? Let me know in the Comments section below!

Interested in expanding your knowledge, fine-tuning your workflow, or figuring out what gear to get? Visit B&H’s Audio Week page to read tutorials, comparisons, and buying guides about audio for video, podcasting, live sound, music recording, and more.

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