No matter the genre and playing style, distortion is one of the essential effects among guitarists. From the 1950s, when the guitar took its essential role in modern music, “dirt” has become an almost mandatory element. Distortion has helped define some genres, like hard rock and heavy metal. As a guitarist, you most likely already know that there are various types of distortion.
So what’s the actual difference between classic distortion, overdrive, and so-called “fuzz”?
Let’s Start With the Main Question: What Is Distortion?
Before we get into all the details explaining the differences, let’s first answer the fundamental question – what is distortion? And, believe it or not, back from the 1930s to the 1950s, it was usually looked down upon as an unwanted side-effect. Nonetheless, musicians and audiences loved it. Eventually, it developed and evolved into a plethora of different distortion types.
Let’s first start with the clean signal. We can represent it graphically as one continuous sine curve. So it goes up and down like a rollercoaster. It has its peak-to-peak amplitude and wavelength.
“I’ve always wanted to smash a guitar over someone’s head. You just can’t do that with a piano.” Elton John
If you amplify the signal, the amplitude gets bigger but with limitations, however. When the limits peak, the smooth sine curve is cut or “clipped.” the result is distortion. The distortion is evident on malfunctioning or overloaded hi-fi devices. Musicians and music producers commonly use distortion.
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.”
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 capable of producing distortion, mainly because of the lack of headroom. As a result, you will notice more distortion at higher-volume settings, which might inspire you to play with different dynamics.
The idea behind guitar distortion pedals (or any other formats, like rack-mounted units) is to boost the signal and then deliberately clip it. For this purpose, some electronic wizardry is used, commonly called 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 by the transistors or diodes.
These are different devices, but they both create types of clipping that enhance your tone from a practical perspective.
Soft, Hard, and Extreme Clipping
From a guitar player’s perspective, clipping is categorized into three types: soft, hard, and extreme. Clipping 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 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 it enters 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.
The differences between amplifying the signal
The amplitude gets bigger but with limitations, however. When the limits peak, the smooth sine curve is cut or “clipped.” the result is distortion. The distortion is evident on malfunctioning or overloaded hi-fi devices.
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.
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 when 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.
What guitar players know as “traditional distortion” 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 there are more boosted “overtones” with each sound you make with your distortion turned on. Classic distortion is 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.”
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.
So What Is “Boost” Then?
What about those “boost” or “clean boost” pedals? Well, they’re designed to boost your original signal’s amplitude without any clipping.
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.
Understanding the differences between distortion, overdrive, and fuzz can be daunting. Hopefully, this article has helped clear any confusion.