A Brief History of Guitar Distortion: From Early Experiments to Happy Accidents to Classic Effects Pedals

The sound of rock and roll is the sound of a distorted guitar, but the history of that sound predates the genre by a few years. It started out with blues and Western swing guitarists, searching “for a dirtier sound,” writes Noisey in a brief history, “a sound that reflected the grittiness of their music.” That sound was pioneered by a guitarist named Junior Barnard, who played with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys and designed his own humbucking pickups to produce a fatter, louder tone and push his small amp into overdrive. As the Polyphonic video above notes, Barnard was an aggressive player who needed aggressive tones, and so, as guitarists have always done, he invented the means himself.

Other forerunners achieved distorted tones by cranking early amps like the 18-watt Fender Super, first introduced in 1947, all the way up, until the vacuum tubes clipped the signal to keep from breaking. Goree Carter, sometimes credited with recording the first rock and roll song, “Rock A While,” pushed the overdriven sound in a heavier direction than Barnard, playing dirty Chuck Berry-like licks in 1949 before Chuck Berry’s first hit. Distortion, a sound audio engineers struggled mightily to avoid in live sound and recording, gave blues-based guitarists exactly what they needed for the loud, lewd postwar sounds of rock.

The distorted tones of the 40s came from a deliberate desire for grit. Later, even dirtier, guitar tones were the result of happy accidents. Another contender for the first rock and roll recording—Ike Turner & His Kings of Rhythm’s 1951 “Rocket 88”—contains some very distorted rhythms from guitarist Willie Kizart, who, legend has it, dropped his tweed Fender amp before the session. Sam Phillips “leaned into” the sound, notes Polyphonic, immediately hearing its serendipitous potential.

Seven years later, the evil overdrive of Link Wray’s instrumental “Rumble”—so sinister it was once banned from radio—came from an intentional equipment failure. Wray repeatedly stabbed the speaker cone of his amp with a pencil.

Do-it-yourself distortion continued into the sixties. Following Wray’s lead, the Kinks’ Dave Davies slashed his amp’s speaker with a razor blade for the fuzzed-out attack of “You Really Got Me” in 1965. But a few years earlier, “fuzz” had already been codified in an effects pedal: Gibson’s 1962 Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone, partly inspired by another accident, a faulty mixing board connection that distorted Grady Martin’s bass solo in the Marty Robbins’ 1961 country tune “Don’t Worry” (below, at 1:25). The Fuzz-Tone most famously drove Keith Richards’ riff in “Satisfaction,” but it didn’t sell well. Other, more popular fuzz boxes followed, like the Arbiter Fuzz Face, Jimi Hendrix’s choice for his distorted tones.

Hendrix brilliantly innovated new guitar effects, and the powerful Marshall amps he played through also drove the distorted sounds of Clapton, Townshend, Page, Blackmore, etc., who competed for grittier and heavier tones and in the process more or less invented metal guitar. In the seventies and eighties, distorted tones took on some standardized forms, thanks to transistors and classic effects pedals like the Ibanez Tube Screamer, ProCo Rat, and Boss DS-1. Distinctions between overdrive, distortion, and fuzz effects can get technical, but in the early days of rock and roll, distorted guitar tones came from whatever worked, and it’s that wild early sound of gear pushed to its limits and beyond that every modern distortion effect attempts to replicate.

Related Content:

Hear the Only Instrumental Ever Banned from the Radio: Link Wray’s Seductive, Raunchy Song, “Rumble” (1958)

Two Guitar Effects That Revolutionized Rock: The Invention of the Wah-Wah & Fuzz Pedals

How a Recording Studio Mishap Created the Famous Drum Sound That Defined 80s Music & Beyond

Hear the Only Instrumental Ever Banned from the Radio: Link Wray’s Seductive, Raunchy Song, “Rumble” (1958)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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