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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