An Overview of the Origins of Distortion
Electric guitar players have been innovating and pushing the instrument forward since its inception. Over the decades, several major advancements have led to the modern idea of what a guitar can be. Of these innovations, one stands out as being the most impactful. What I am referring to is the guitar effect known as distortion. This effect has become so intertwined with the instrument that it has also come to define it. Just take any person off the street and when they think of the electric guitar, they think of it distorted. Even though all of us players are well aware of all the clean and lower gain tones that exist, they are not what set the world on fire. Distorted guitars are exciting to people, it’s just that simple.
With how important distortion is to the guitar, you may wonder how these two came to be joined at the hip. While there is obviously a lush history that could be unpacked here, I am going to be giving you a general overview of how things got started.
Distortion is Bad
In the 1940s recording was a relatively new concept. In fact, it was kind of like the wild west of learning to record music. However, as the years went on and more songs were getting recorded, some standard practices were formed. By the late '40s, nearly every professional studio was using magnetic tape and making commercial recordings. This led to a rise in getting the cleanest, most clear recording possible. In light of this, distortion was not looked at in a positive light at all. And to this day this is still very true in regard to recording with mics. Distorting, or clipping, a mic level can lead to some rather unpleasant muddiness. So, you can imagine that in the studio, no engineer was going after a distorted sound on anything.
So, when was the first-time distortion was used on guitar? Well, this is actually a very hard question to answer with 100% certainty, actually, it’s impossible. There are basically two different manners in which this effect came into the guitar world, intentionally and on accident.
The accidents are specific instances of old recordings that unintentionally gave distortion a stage. Most agree one of the earliest examples of these accidents is on a track called “Rocket 88”. The story goes that the guitar player on the song, Willie Kizart, had a problem with his amp the day they were recording. It is said that in trying to fix the amp, they did some things that led to it distorting when they recorded. Some will argue that it is not the same kind of distortion that most associate with the term, but nevertheless, it’s there.
A later but similar accident can be found on Marty Robin’s 1961 track, “Don’t Worry”. This one occurred because of a preamp going bad on the console. Upon playback, the engineers were quite surprised by what they heard on the bass guitar they had just recorded. So much so in fact, they had to have a conversation on whether or not it should be left in. Luckily enough, the fuzzy bass tone happened to be a perfect fit for the part of the song they were tracking, and it stayed on the final mix.
Early Gain Seekers
Along with accidents where those who were intentionally trying to get a more aggressive/loud sounding guitar tone. Of course, these individuals did not know they were looking for distortion, but regardless that is the sound they wanted. One of these individuals was Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar player Willie Johnson. Willie was looking to get a different, dirtier sounding guitar tone, which he was able to find by cranking his small tube amp to 10. The recording you can hear this on is Howlin Wolf’s 1951 track, “How Many More Years”. On the track it sounds like the speaker is being hit really hard, a perfect complement to the banging drums and gritty vocals. Turning up a tube amp like this may sound like a simple thing to modern guitar players. But back in the ’40s and ’50s, this was not commonplace at all. Actually, most people were too scared of what might happen if you did dime the volume. Amps were not meant to break up back then, so why would you ever want to push and potentially damage the speaker? Well, thanks to guitarists like Willie Johnson, we all know why.
There are plenty of other examples of guys pushing small amps or cutting speakers to get the nastiest sounds they could from a clean amp. Yet, “How Many More Years” (1951) is one of the very earliest recorded examples of this. If you haven’t, go give the original recording a listen, it really foreshadows what was to come.
The First Pedals
Once we jump to the early 1960s there have been several popular recordings that have distorted guitars on them for one reason or another. Young rock and blues players were seeking out that sound more and more.
The first commercially available “distortion” pedal ever made was Gibson’s Maestro Fuzz-Tone. Initially, they tried telling guitar players that it would make your guitar sound like a horn of some kind. Well, turns out that pretty much nobody wanted that, so they sold very few of these pedals. The real turning point for this pedal and all distortion, in general, was a few years after the Maestro Fuzz was released. Luckily for Gibson, a little known guitar player by the name of Keith Richards got his hands on one. Remarkably, Richards actually did use it as intended. When they were in the studio recording “Satisfaction”, the now infamous guitar line was supposed to be a horn part. He thought since there wasn’t a horn player with them at the time, he would just use the Maestro. And as you can imagine, once people heard this sound on the radio 24/7, distortion and fuzz gained mainstream notice.
After the Maestro Fuzz and “Satisfaction”, things kind of just took off. Units like Fuzz Faces, Tone Benders and Big Muffs were soon to come and other lesser-known ones were being made too. Additionally, you may have noticed that all of these mentioned are Fuzz pedals. Well, truthfully, as far as pedals go, fuzzes were the first to the party. However, fuzz is still very much distorted so don’t get too construed here.
That was a general overview of how distortion came to be a guitarist's best friend. It is wild how many different paths there were to getting this effect to be where it is. Still, there are plenty of details and stories that I have omitted from the above text to keep things concise. Furthermore, there is a very vast and colorful history of other overdrive and fuzz units that follow the initial few mentioned. But, with this article, you should have a strong idea of how things got started.
Thanks for reading.