If you are reading this then you know what a distorted guitar sounds like. It’s the lifeblood of Rock & Roll. But have you ever wondered about the history of this sound?
The story begins in the 1940s with vacuum tube amplifiers that were designed to do anything but distort. Loud and clean was the name of the game. Interestingly however, by cranking the power on your amp you could force the signal through the tubes beyond their handling capacity causing waveform clipping - thus “overdriving” the tubes. This type of distortion was fittingly called Overdrive and it quickly became a huge game changer.
While we can’t give anyone full credit for distortion, Junior Barnard was undeniably a pioneer. He was an aggressive player and one of the first to purposely use distorted guitar tones by overdriving his amps. Other guitarists became inspired by his aggressive, distorted sound (not to mention the “ahead-of-his-time” guitar techniques) and started putting their own spin on it.
The song Rocket 88 by The Kings of Rhythm is believed by some to be the first actual Rock’n’Roll recording. The iconic distortion is rumoured to have occurred because of a torn speaker cone. Willie Kizart stuffed his damaged amp with newspapers creating a buzzing distorted sound that helped change a standard R&B boogie into something different.. and new. This led to a trend of guitarists in the 1950’s purposely damaging their amps in order to achieve the desired distorted sound.
Over time musicians began to demand ways to achieve the sought after distortion sound without having to destroy their gear. This ushered in the Era of Guitar Pedals. The first widely available distortion pedal - the Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone - was introduced in 1962. The FZ-1 gained popularity after Keith Richards used it to perform his epic riff on the Rolling Stones hit song Satisfaction.
Many new fuzz pedals were soon introduced to the market including arguably the most iconic one in history - the Arbiter Fuzz Face. This is the pedal made famous by the legendary Jimi Hendrix. As we all know, Hendrix was constantly exploring new distortion sounds and this inspired countless other innovators in distortion. The rest, as they say, is history.
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