How Was Guitar Distortion Invented?

Written by david samson
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How Was Guitar Distortion Invented?
Distorted guitar sounds go back to the beginnings of rock 'n' roll. (Creatas/Creatas/Getty Images)

The loud, raw, distorted sound of an electric guitar immediately conjures the feelings of youthful energy, abandon and rebellion emblematic of rock 'n' roll. From the warm and dirty buzz of early electric blues to the heady, fuzzed-out psychedelic edge of hard rock and the dissonant, feedback-drenched tones of the grunge era, musicians have been utilising distorted guitar tones almost since the advent of amplified music. The use of guitar distortion, like many great inventions, began as a happy accident.

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The Damage

Compared to amplifiers today, the earliest electric guitar amplifiers were fragile, temperamental, low-fidelity cabinets. Minor damage or an increase in gain (power supply) often resulted in a fuzzy, distorted guitar tone. One of the first recorded songs to utilise guitar distortion was Ike Turner's 1951 hit "Rocket 88," on which guitarist Willie Kizart played through an amplifier that had been damaged during transport. Throughout the '50s, pioneering rock and blues guitarists produced "dirty" distorted tones by deliberately damaging their amplifiers' vacuum tubes, increasing the gain and poking holes in the speaker cones. Guitarist Dave Davies of the Kinks used a razor blade to slash his speakers on the 1964 hit "You Really Got Me," and guitar distortion gained widespread popularity.

Marshall Amps

In the early 1960s, English drummer and shop owner David Marshall began producing some of the first guitar amplifiers specifically designed for rock 'n' roll. Answering requests from loyal customers -- including Dave Davies, Pete Townshend, and Richie Blackmore -- for louder, more powerful amplifiers with more crunch, the Marshall stack debuted in 1966. The Marshall stack was the first amplifier built for distortion. Its independent drive, gain and tone controls allowed for a brighter, crisper and dynamic distortion with rich overtones. Amplifier companies like Fender and Vox soon followed suit, and distortion became a common feature on most guitar amplifiers.

Distortion Pedals

In 1961, the American rock band The Ventures asked session musician and electronics tinkerer Red Rhodes to design a device to emulate the sound of a faulty tube amplifier. Rhodes built a foot-operated fuzz box that exploited overdriven transistors to produce guitar distortion. The Ventures used this distortion pedal in their 1962 song "2000 Pound Bee." Later that year, the Gibson guitar company produced the Maestro Fuzz-Tone, the first mass-produced distortion pedal. Companies like Boss, Danelectro and Octavia have produced a wide variety of distortion pedals with tones ranging from warm and juicy to harsh noise.

Digital Distortion

The development of digital recording technology in the late 1980s and early '90s opened up new sonic possibilities. By converting an analogue guitar signal to a computerised digital format, a sound engineer could sculpt the sound wave to any desired form. Early digital distortion pedals lacked the warmth and resonance of analogue pedals, but the harsh tones were well suited to industrial groups like Skinny Puppy and Nine Inch Nails. As technology improved, digital distortion effects were better able to emulate their analogue counterparts, until there was no discernible difference between the two. The modern musician has an infinite variety of distortion tones, sounds and styles from which to choose.

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