Chasing Grainy

Chasing Gainy – Fuzz, Overdrive and Distortion

When you first get into effects, the chances are that you’ll get your hands on an overdrive. Very few people start their pedal journey with a flanging ring mod, so you’ll most likely find yourself staring with total joy at your gleaming new (or second hand) distortion pedal, immediately dreaming of the next 45 units you’re definitely going to get after that.

Like tattoos, very few players will say ‘I’m off to buy my overdrive’ – they’re more likely to declare ‘going to get my first pedal today’. With that in mind, I’m going to take you on a whistle-stop tour of the history of gain, so you can understand what you’re hearing, and why it’s here.

Fuzz: Genesis

Fuzzes are, in terms of their behaviour, the most extreme of the three drive types. Capable of mangling your signal to the point of inhumanity, fuzz can mean raspy vintage tones like the Magnetic Effects Buzzer, splattering octaves like the Fredric Unpleasant Companion, or total barbarity like the Greenhouse Sludgehammer. The majority of fuzzes derive from builders trying to rectify the shortcomings of classic designs like the EHX Big Muff, Shin-Ei FY-2, Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face and, in the modern day, the ZVex Fuzz Factory, with a view to making them more amiable or madder depending on who’s involved.

It’s widely touted that Rocket 88 was the first ‘fuzz’ sound back in 1951, though the first commercially available fuzz – the Gibson-built Maestro FZ-1 – didn’t appear until 1962. Link Wray poked his speaker with a pen in 1958 to get the tones on Rumble, and Ray Davies famously slashed his speakers with a knife to get You Really Got Me, but the stage was set, and fuzz was the future. As the first overdrive wouldn’t show up for another 15 years, the attachment of the guitar community to fuzz is not particularly surprising.

Classic tones:
Rolling Stones – Satisfaction
Isaac Hayes – Walk On By
Warhorse – Doom’s Bride
Jimi Hendrix Experience – Machine Gun (Live)

Overdrive: The Everyday Hero

In the old days, overdrive was a case of running your amp very loud and backing off your guitar’s volume to get your clean sounds. More recordings than are countable featured this technique, with some artists falling foul of such an approach (Dick Dale’s amps used to catch fire quite a bit). The main reason Marshall are what they are, the sound of a big amp being pushed to its limit does yield an incredible sound, but as PA’s being more sophisticated and musicians became more deaf, the ability to encase such an effect in a pedal became a necessity, and for some, a lifelong calling.

The first commercially available overdrive was the legendary Boss OD-1, which was introduced in 1977. Designed to push the front end (or input) of your amp so it would saturate at lower volumes, it heralded a new, more manageable era in tone-shaping that saw volumes lower and gains soar. This was followed by the Maxon-built Ibanez Tubescreamer TS808, then by classics like the Marshall Drivemaster, Fulltone OCD and so on, which themselves have been adapted and cloned.

In sharp contrast to the metallic edges of fuzz, overdrive is smoother, easier to clean up with your volume control, and more adaptable. You can find overdrive in every style of music, and you’ll rarely find a situation where you don’t need one. Modern classics like the much-argued-over and diabolically expensive Klon Centaur have been recreated in the likes of the Fredric Zombie Klone, which can push a clean amp into medium drive territory, or a dirty amp into heavy drive territory. Less ‘metally’ and organic than its hairy cousin, distortion, overdrive is absolutely essential, with many recreating the sound of specific amps or amp types (see the Alexander Jubilee).

Classic Tones:
Stevie Ray Vaughan – Texas Flood
Kansas – Carry On My Wayward Son
Guns ‘n Roses – Welcome To The Jungle
Manic Street Preachers – Enola/Alone

Distortion: Chug Chug Squeee

As with all things, mankind gets carried away, and soon, overdrive was not enough. Very soon in fact, as the Boss DS-1 is introduced in 1978. Noticeably more aggressive than the OD-1, it goes on to become one of the best known, most widely-used pedals in history, and while often modded, it’s rarely cloned.

People start doing crazy things, pushing amps already at saturation even further with pedals on a regular basis. Jim Marshall takes a Fender Bassman that he’s got in for repair and makes it a bit mental, and the JTM-45 arrives, changing the perception of gain, and blowing the gain field wide open. This heralded the era of big riffs, bigger solos and, following the virtuosic cross-pollination of prog, hard rock and tapping, shred was born.

The classic distortions are often ridiculed despite their importance. In the ‘90s, everyone had an MT-2 – fewer had the HM-2, but it’s the underdog that gets cloned! The Marshall Shredmaster, MXR Distortion+ and even totally unreasonable stuff like the Dean Markley Overlord start cropping up everywhere, and pedalboards start to really increase in size.

Players begin cascading pedals together, and it starts getting out of hand. The Boss HM-2 gets the what-can-we-do-with-this treatment and starts turning up in units like the KMA Wurm, and the big lad that shakes it all up is the ascendance of the ProCo RAT. Manifesting in ‘78, the RAT went into mass production in ‘79, with more gain than was necessary and a tougher enclosure than most vehicles at the time. Though this mad lord lives on in the present day, it’s been a life’s work for some to make it as good as it can be, like the Magnetic Effects Lonely Robot. The RAT blurred the lines between all three drive types, and unwittingly became the very first fuzzstortion, a name that is as onomatopoeic as any has ever been.

If you’re playing metal, you’re likely using distortion. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it’s very likely, and some companies even make amps where the whole point is the distortion channel as a result. It’s the absolute business for chugging, pinches, long sustain and aggression, and although it can sound inorganic when compared to overdrive and almost machine-like compared to fuzz, in today’s ultra-produced heavy climate it’s perfect for the job!

Classic Tones:
Metallica – Through The Never
Periphery – Icarus Lives
The Secret – Death Alive
Pantera – Domination

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief skirt round the edges of a mammoth topic. Stay tuned for more in-depth coverage of this essential wisdom in the coming weeks!

Words: John Tron Davidson