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Guitar Distortion: A Brief and Fuzzy History

A distorted guitar sound is one of the most iconic sounds in music history, especially modern music history. From Chuck Berry’s opening lick on Johnny B. Goode (immortalized in Back to the Future) to Jimmy Page‘s electrifying riff-e-rama on Black Dog, to Angus Young’s thunderous Back in Black, to Trey Azagthoth’s crushing Maze of Torment, all the way to Joe Duplantier’s monstrous Silvera, distortion is almost synonymous with Rock n’ Roll and Heavy Metal. In fact, when many people think of the electric guitar, the sound that comes in their head is distortion, rather than the clean tone. It’s not a stretch or an overreaching statement to say that distortion helped make what music is today. If you are wondering (or have ever wondered) what exactly distortion and where did it come from, let’s take a closer look.

What is distortion on a guitar?

Distortion can really describe a number of different processes, but all of them achieve the same outcome. The outcome is the manipulation of an instrument’s waveform to change the sound. Any type of amplification device has a limit to the length of sound waves it can put out. When pushed past that limit, the device compresses the edge of the sound waves. That really messes with the sound. In a lot of different types of recordings, distortion should be avoided. For example, if narrators of documentaries crank up their voice-overs, their voice will be distorted and become unpleasant to listen to. However, that exact process, when done on an electric guitar sounds incredibly cool.

Who first used distortion on a guitar?

Guitarists started figuring the magic of distortion out in the 1940s. Back then, the amplifiers connected to their electric guitars were Vacuum Tube amplifiers. These vacuum tubes could only handle a limited amount of electricity going through them. Some curious guitarists discovered that if you increased the volume on your amplifier, the power flowing through it will push it into overdrive. Consequently, the vacuum tubes will compress the sound wave, in order to avoid breaking. The result was shifting a cool guitar sound into something with a lot of grit and growl. This kind of distortion is aptly referred to as overdrive. It quickly became a rage among the guitarists during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

It’s tough to pinpoint a person who was the absolute first person to do it. However, one of the first pioneers of using guitar distortion was Junior Barnard.

Barnard was the lead guitarist of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. He was an aggressive player who was always trying to push his sound into something grittier and earth-ier to reflect his country-bluesy playing style.

For a perfect example of his playing style, check out the track Barnard Blues:

Guitarists all over the world heard Barnard’s distortion-heavy sound and latched on to it, experimenting with distortion on their own. One of these guitarists was Goree Carter who filled his famous track Rock Awhile with intense fuzz and distortion:

Another artist to embrace distortion was the legendary Howlin’ Wolf. The fuzz-heavy lick on 1951’s How Many More Years is a great example.

Earlier in 1951, Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats had released Rocket 88, a track which some people qualify as the first ever Rock n’ Roll recording. That song featured a wicked distorted guitar riff by guitarist Willie Kizart. Though legend has it that his distortion came by accident, than design. There are conflicting stories as to how but everyone agrees on one basic fact. Kizart’s amp was damaged while touring on the road. To try to fix it, Kizart stuffed balls of newspaper into it, hoping to hold the speaker cone in. The result of that was unintentional distortion. However, producer Sam Philips loved the sound and leaned into it.

This started a trend that would continue through the 1950s. Guitarists would sabotage their amps to create their own distortion. One of these people was Link Wray who stabbed the end of his speaker cone with a pencil to give it a heavy, gritty sound.

The impact of that can be heard in the legendary track Rumble. The track was so intense for its time that it got banned from airplay because people thought that it would incite gang fights.

What happened to guitar distortion next?

It’s safe to say that if you were a speaker cone in the 50s and the 60s, it wasn’t for you. Guitarists everywhere were desecrating and massacring their speaker cones to achieve that wonderful distorted sound. In 1964, Dave Davies, guitarist of The Kinks, took a razor to his speaker cone and ambushed it brutally. The result of that was the crunchy guitar sound of You Really Got Me :

By this time, musicians had realised what distortion was capable of and people started looking for new ways to do it without destroying their amps. That’s where the fuzz box came in.

What is a fuzz box?

In 1961, Marty Robbins bassist Grady Martin played through a mixing board with a faulty connection. The result was a sludgy, heavy bass solo, that unexpectedly cut through a warm country song.

Recording engineer Glenn Snoddy took this sound and reverse-engineered it. By figuring out where the circuit was faulty, he was able to create a small box that could recreate that heavy, sludgy sound. That box was the fuzz box. In addition to letting musicians create that sound without destroying their amplifiers, it also allowed guitarists to turn distortion on and off, at a stomp of the foot. In the early days, the reception to the fuzz box was lukewarm and sales were low. But then a guitarist by the name of Keith Richards decided to use the fuzz box and wrote one of the greatest riffs of all time, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.

This riff single-handedly vaulted the fuzz box into common usage and soon enough, imitators started coming along, creating their own take on this magical equipment. One of the most famous engineers to do so was Ivor Arbiter, who created the Arbiter Fuzz Face. The Fuzz Face was picked up by an up and coming guitarist named Jimi Hendrix and things would never be the same again.

How did Jimi Hendrix use the Fuzz Face?

Jimi Hendrix grabbed a Fuzz Face and used it on his band’s debut album Are You Experienced. The manic psychedelic distortion of the album opener, Purple Haze ensured that the guitar world would never turn back again.

Thanks to his guitar technician Roger Mayer, Hendrix would continue to innovate with guitar distortion. He played around with amplifiers and fuzz boxes to push guitar distortion’s boundaries like none before him. (Read more about the greatness of Jimi Hendrix.)

A lot of guitarists followed in the footsteps of Hendrix and continued experimenting with guitar distortion. Throughout the 70s and 80s, it almost became an arms race among guitarists to push their sound into the grittiest and loudest territories. Guitar distortion became crucial to the growing genres of Hard Rock, Heavy Metal and Punk. Today, even outside those genres, it’s not uncommon to see guitarists like John Frusciante and The Edge layer all kinds of post processing and distortion to create that perfect sound.

Guitar distortion is the lifeblood of Rock n’ Roll. It basically birthed the genre and then allowed it to explode in popularity and change music forever. Essentially, it all happened because of a few lucky accidents and as a result, today we can enjoy incredible songs like this:

Bonus- Here’s a hilarious video showing how some famous metal songs sound without distortion:

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