Distortion, in context to the electric guitar, is a specific type of tone. It’s a tone often described as a “gritty,” growling ballsy type of tone. Its usually achieved by high gain settings on an amp. The opposite to distortion is, referred to as a “clean” or low gain tone.

Effect pedals designed for the purpose allow the player to dial in the type of distortion desired. For most players, the level of distortion is key to their overall tone. A distorted guitar sound is a crucial component for many genres like rock, blues, metal, acid, and punk, to mention a few.

What’s the Difference Between Overdrive, Distortion, and Fuzz?

Technically, all three of these effects fall under the distortion category. What we traditionally know as “overdrive,” “distortion,” and “fuzz” are just names given to different distortion types depending on the type of clipping.

“I’ve always wanted to smash a guitar over someone’s head. You just can’t do that with a piano.” Elton John

Distortion is a broad term, and the types of distortion that commonly describe it are as follows.

Classic Distortion

Distortion pedal

Considered to be the “traditional distortion,” it is achieved through hard clipping. Although the process is almost the same as with overdrives, this harder clipping produces a harsher or “scorched” kind of tone. 

This type of clipping produces more harmonic content. Not to get too geeky about it, we could say that more boosted “overtones” with each sound you make with your distortion turned on. 

This makes classic distortion an excellent choice for lead sections or power chords. Playing anything more than two or three notes at the same time might sound a bit “muddy.”

Overdrive

Overdrive pedal

What we traditionally know as “overdrive” is the distortion effect created through soft clipping. The tone of an overdrive pedal is usually softer and more subtle compared to classic distortion. 

Contrary to what some guitar players might think, it’s not a distortion with a gain setting set low. It’s intended to replicate the tone of old-school tube amps that are pushed to their limits. 

Overdrive pedals are usually common among blues guitarists, although they find their way into any style or a song where you need a softer yet distorted tone. 

Fuzz

Fuzz pedal

Finally, fuzz is produced through extreme clipping. Fuzz pedals boost your signal more and then cut it abruptly, resulting in a “square”-shaped wave. In a way, it sounds like a broken amplifier, and it features a lot of harmonic content. Some fuzz pedals also add a bottom octave to the original note that you’re playing.

Fuzz pedals are a bit tricky. It helps play single-note solos and riffs, especially in psychedelic and stoner rock genres. You can also play power chords or fourth intervals with it, but anything else could sound messy. 

Let’s get fuzzy; first, start with the clean signal. We can represent it graphically as one continuous sine curve. So it goes up and down like a constant rollercoaster. It has its peak-to-peak amplitude and its wavelength. 

If you amplify the signal, the amplitude gets bigger. However, every device that you play through has its limitations. When the limits are reached, the smooth sine curve is cut or “clipped.” As a result, you get distortion. 

The effect can also be heard on malfunctioning or overloaded hi-fi devices. But the effect is used by musicians and music producers. It’s most popular among guitar players. 

We mentioned that every device has its limitations. The “room” that these devices provide, or the maximum possible signal strength without clipping, is referred to as “headroom.” 

Ok, So What Is “Boost” Then?

Boost pedal

What about those “boost” or “clean boost” pedals? Well, they’re designed to boost your original signal’s amplitude without doing any clipping to it. 

There are two ways how you can implement them. 

They can serve as a simple volume boost without changing the color of your tone. Your guitar will get louder in the overall mix, which can be helpful for lead sections. 

Additionally, you can also use them to boost your signal before going into a tube amp. This way, your amplifier creates all the distortion “organically” by using its limitations.

What Distortion Devices Do to Guitar Signal

So how do distortion pedals, and other guitar-oriented devices, work in practice? Back in the old days, tube amps were the only devices among guitar players that could quickly achieve distortion. This was due to having very little headroom. As a result, you could notice more distortion at higher-volume settings and implement different dynamics of playing. 

The idea behind guitar distortion pedals (or any other formats, like rack-mounted units) boosts the signal and then deliberately clips it. For this purpose, we have operational amplifiers, transistors, and diodes. 

Operational amplifiers, also known as “op-amps,” are devices that amplify the guitar’s clean signal. The signal that goes into the pedal is boosted (its peak-to-peak amplitude is increased). However, the limitations of a distortion pedal are set using transistors or diodes. These are different devices, but they both create types of clipping that enhance your tone from a practical perspective. 

Additionally, distortion can be achieved through preamp tubes, like 12AX7 or ECC83 tubes. Some pedals implement them for creating distortion. 

Soft, Hard, and Extreme Clipping

From a guitar player’s perspective, clipping can be differentiated into three types: soft, hard, and extreme. This refers to the shape of the curve as it’s being cut. Soft clipping means that the continuous sine curve of the clean signal is cut more gradually as it hits the limitations of a device. 

Hard clipping, on the other hand, cuts off the sine curve more aggressively. There’s a sudden cut and a sudden “release” when the signal goes back in the limitations of a pedal’s or amp’s headroom.

Lastly, we have extreme clipping, which ultimately morphs the original signal. The sine curve turns into a square, which impacts the sonic output of a device. The signal is pushed harder after entering a device and is cut off or clipped aggressively. 

Types of clipping will determine the three basic distortion types. Of course, other factors can further change the kind of distortion and fine-tune it. For instance, there’s also symmetrical and asymmetrical clipping, as well as different transistor types. 

In Conclusion

Finding the right kind of distortion is a vital component of an electric guitar player’s tone. Invest some time in finding “your tone”: have fun.