How to Use a Distortion Pedal

Crunch and overdrive effects brought waves of punk and rock while the invention of distortion pedals gave birth to heavier styles of music, metal predominantly. Distortion is one of the most tone-defining guitar effect pedals and is a heavy player's best friend.

However, it's easy to fall into the trap of 'overusing' it, ruining your tone with too much gain, and so we've decided to share our thoughts on how to use a distortion pedal.

What is a distortion pedal?

Distortion directly affects your guitar's signal, bringing in harmonic overtones and clipping. Depending on what model is used, distortion can be sharp, muddy, rough, or even 'accurate' to some degree. Regardless of the pedal, though, the distortion effect is always 'caused' in the same way.

Now, the 'distortion' effect is tightly related to 'gain' we see in many amps, mainly due to the fact that both contraptions add some of it to your tone.

While amps are typically bigger than a standard pedal, the latter are actually capable of introducing higher quantities of gain to the signal; this means that amps can chop up your sound a bit, but it is ultimately distortion pedals that shape it up in its most definite version.

How to use a distortion pedal

At the end of the day, it all comes down to feel and personal preferences. Of course, practicing, experience, and trial & error are crucial to finding the sweet spot, but that would be yours and yours alone. That's why the first step to using a distortion pedal is developing the right set of ears.

Step 1 – Learn to spot the differences in your tone

The easiest way to get a massive tone is to tweak the gain control knob all the way up. Of course, this will result in a lot of muddiness in your tone, and oftentimes the essence of your tone will become a gain-riddled mess of incoherent loudness.

That's the reason why you should take time with your distortion and try your best in noticing the changes it brings to the table as you tweak the knobs. The simplest distortions, such as Boss's DS-1 only feature 'tone' and distortion' knobs while some of the most exotic models, such as Fender's MTG act like small amps in their own right, being equipped with full-fledged equalizers and compressors in addition to gain and distortion.

Step 2 – Utilize distortion in accord to your guitar's own sound signature

Every guitar sounds different because every guitar has its own sound signature. The 'tonewoods' that comprise their construction define it, and being able to 'read' it will help you utilize your distortion pedal effectively.

'Warm' and 'bright' are the two most typical ways to describe how the combination of tonewoods in any guitar affect its sonic signature. Warmer guitars generally fare better with lower frequencies and heavier sounds while bright sounds are 'cleaner' and in some regard 'thinner'.

Obviously, many guitars are equipped with both warm and bright tonewoods, but it's usually the body and neck woods that are the most dominant ones. Bright-sounding guitars require more gain to properly pick up the gain input while warm-sounding guitars require very little.

Step 3 – Understanding your tone's reactivity to other pedals in the chain

Distortion pedal will be among the strongest effects in your chain. Even so, unless it is used as a standalone effect, it will react differently with every other pedal. Understanding the relationship between distortion, reverb, delay, chorus, EQ, compressors, and any other pedal you may be using will help you reap the most benefits and properly shape your tone.

For example, delay and reverb pedals almost duplicate your guitar's signal; the stronger your distortion is, the stronger these effects will be as well. On the opposite end of the spectrum, compressors and equalizers are meant to cut off unwanted frequencies, which means that they will invariably weaken your distortion to some extent.

Just like understanding how your distortion pedal's knobs affect its loudness and power, you may want to take some time to repeat the process while the entire pedal chain is connected.

Step 4 – Adapting your pedal's knobs to your amp

Most veterans use loud, clean amps in order to avoid mismatched gain inputs. However, even the cleanest amps still have a bit of gain in them, which means that you'll have to rethink your go-to setup every time you use a different amp.

Obviously, ramping up the gain in your amp while using a strong distortion pedal is not advisable. Your volume will exceed the limits of your amp, but in turn your tone will suffer considerably.

One of the best things you could do to always be prepared is to mark your favorite knob positions and get familiar with the amp while the pedal is off. Learn more about its wattage and the color of its gain before and after you turn the pedal back on if you want to get the most out of it.
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