A brief history of guitar distortion

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2019/02/04/a-brief-history-of-guitar-dist.html

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We’ve got a Fuzzbox. And we’re gonna use it.

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Narrator: They did not.

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At risk of distorting this thread; as a non-American, a lot of what goes on under the bonnet/hood of that nation’s history is unknown to me. I was “… well, not that shocked…” to see the barefaced racism inherent in the creation, growth and maintenance of the suburbs; not that my country has anything to boast about on the race relations front.

The relevant bit kicks off around 2 minutes in to this piece on suburban horror.

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Like Steve Hillage, just thinking about Peter Frampton’s music makes me smile.

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True, but based on media from the era, it seems like at least we knew those things were bad. We had sense enough to be ashamed of our worst side.

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Something is off there. AFAIK active pickups did not exist at that time so you could not have a guitar sending too hot of a signal for an amplifier. If this is the case as opposed to the more common origin story (below) then it would have been a possible mismatch of pre-amp vs amplification settings on the amplifier itself. However that would have most likely blown a tube so again not too likely.

Anyway the most common origin story of distortion is that it originates with a tear in an amplifier speaker cone rather than any sort of electrical overdrive of the signal.

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Distortion: the more square your signal, the less square you sound.

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Some of the first guitarists to plug it in, turn it on, and crank it up were the blues guys, especially in Chicago. And that “crunchy” edge of distortion tone is still a must-have for a lot of blues performers.

I always thought Eric Clapton’s cover of “Hideaway” had a great guitar tone:

but that is mild stuff compared to Hound Dog Taylor’s fuzzed out guitar (I think that’s overdrive - not an effect):

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The same story is attached to the Kinks’ recording of You Really Got Me. The development of effects boxes must have really saved on amp repair bills.

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The development of fuzz pedals in the Sixties was a thing. A Tucson guitarist made a movie about it, which is viewable on YouTube.

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I beg to differ. I had an opportunity to check out a seriously old ~1950 Fender amp once, because the owner said that it was distorting at medium volume levels. What I found was rather interesting. The input stage had the guitar pickup connected directly to the tube grid, with zero bias. This meant that even a half a volt of signal (common with a newer guitar, but not available from the early pickups) would send the input tube into conduction for part of each cycle, which would make a lot of distortion.
The later amplifiers have a slight negative bias on the inputs to keep the tube operating in its linear range with a larger signal level.
Also, ‘blowing a tube’ is highly unlikely. They’re glass and steel.

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a “history” of guitar effects this is not. it is maybe the earliest example of intentional distortion allowed on a recording. whether george beauchamp has a unintentional recording is unknown. and we all expect, any history must include the master…Jimi. Robert Fripp continues to innovate as well. peace

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Not exactly. Lots of those little amps (5f1, 5f3, etc…) were easy to overdrive. Additionally, it’s very easy to make hot passive pick-ups. Consider one of the first, the Charlie Christian. Those things ran hot, as did some of (not all) the early esquire pickups. Things weren’t standardized back then, so others were low output. Really it’s just about wire gauge, how much you put on, and magnet strength/size.

One of the battles that was being fought back then was building amplifiers that could stay clean - “have enough headroom” - for how loud bands were starting to get. (The fender blackface/reverb amps of the 60s were originally aimed towards the clean country crowd. Fender might be linked to rock now, but was aiming towards country/western swing/jazz during many of the early years).

Additionally, you can go back a fair bit farther than this song and hear early distortion on players like Junior Barnard who played with Bob Wills. He was using earlier octo-amps that broke up in a particularly pleasing way.

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Here’s my bottom line in all the discussion of music, the horrors of our attitudes both then and now…I sure wish I had a big ol’ Rocket 88 And I’d probably be satisified with the tube AM radio because a Rocket 88 could and did sing it’s own sweet song when you stretched that V8 out close to it’s 88 name and near 88 MPH. Perhaps incorrect of me to mention some of the side effect beauty of the era but by the time my young dumb ass could afford a used 88 I’ll admit much of my fun was generated in the lizard brain of a hormone carbonated kid and I’d love to have another shot at an 88 moving on down the road.

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Like Link Wray punching holes in a speaker with a pencil to get the distortion on ‘Rumble.’ You can’t have this discussion without Link, especially when mentioning MC5 and the Stooges. Check out the new PBS doc “Rumble, the Indians that Rocked the World” for interviews with Wayne Kramer and Iggy Pop about this. Kramer describes arguing with a recording engineer that wanted “clean” when he wanted Link’s sound.

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When an audio signal grows too loud, the waveform becomes too big for the amplifier to accommodate, and like a tall man in a Prius, the signal runs out of “headroom.”

Unrelated, but why do people use the Prius as an example of a small car? They’re pretty honkin’ huge compared to a true compact or actual small car.

I attempted to formulate a joke, but am just too damn tired to follow through. So I’ll just madlib it:

This is nonsense. Distortion was invented by [that recent radio-friendly “punk” band you hate] in [the year they had that incessant hit song you hate] !

And hilarity ensues.

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To me, the best guitar tones come from those circuits, the 50’s Fender circuits and the Marshall ones that were modeled after them.
Fender Bassmans, Deluxe Reverb, Super Reverb, Marshall JTM 45 (based on the Bassman) and 1986 Plexi. Particularly with a Les Paul plugged into them.
Lots of custom amp manufacturers make recreations of these early hand wired amps chasing those tones. And cabinets. One guy - Greg Germino - even went so far as to create a 3D scan and rendering of a late 60’s Marshall cab to make one.

Gibson into Marshall, then Gibson into Fender. The latter the best live touring band on earth.

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