When theological scholars interpret ancient tomes of mysticism opinions and revelations abound, all different, and most exerted most vehemently. That same scenario plays out when asking designers, technicians, and guitar players to define fuzz, distortion, overdrive, tone, and any combination thereof. None will agree with any and some will storm away from the debate in a huff, or a minute and a huff.
The reason is twofold. First, we need some very loose operational definitions that take functional variables and NOT philosophies into consideration and, second, the final, ultimate realization that there can never be an ultimate, a superior, holy-grail effects pedal under any of the loose, liberal, and near cancer-curing definitions we create here. So, try we must.
First, there is something that everyone needs to get over and accept because there are no options, logical or otherwise. Tubes are NOT superior to transistors, transistors are NOT superior to tubes, semiconductors (ICs) are NOT superior to tubes and/or transistors, tubes and transistors are NOT superior to ICs, germanium transistors are NOT superior to silicon transistors and vice versa, and , MOST IMPORTANT, analog is NOT superior to digital and vice versa. All of these have their unique sonic characteristics and design issues and to choose one over the other or any hybrid combination thereof is purely a matter of achieving a desired result or of personal preference - no more and no less.
Now, for some very loose definitions of the subjects at hand. I hope you agree with these, but if you don’t, there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it.
Fuzz may be the only true distortion type effect in that the original prototypes from the late 1950s and early 1960s were just that: an effect. You essentially had a clean guitar signal and then a “fuzzy” of fuzzified signal; on/off between the two via a footswitch on the component.
The earliest fuzz boxes were very simply designed using a handful of parts, usually just two transistors, a couple resistors and capacitors, a potentiometer (sometimes two), a couple of ¼-inch phone jacks, a bypass switch, a 9V battery, and a cool looking box to house it all in and support the creator’s logo.
The design strategy, and here’s the “loose” operational definition of fuzz, was to distort the signal (create the effect), but keep that distorted signal at a level that would not overdrive the input of the amplifier. Obviously, the sonic quality of the fuzz effect was/is determined by just three factors. The types of transistors and biasing scheme used, the type of pickups used on the instrument (single or double coil), and the position of the tone and volume controls on the guitar, which effectively change the output impedance of the instrument, in turn matching or mismatching the input of the fuzz device. Once again, this is a very loose definition.
If one wants to get literal, or if one is a strict audiophile, then one would agree that any deviation from the exact timbre of an acoustic or electric instrument would be considered distortion. Technically one might be correct in subscribing to this religion, however what exactly is the pure timbre of an acoustic guitar? Whether you agree or not, the acoustic guitar can be driven into distortion by harder than normal strumming. The degree to which this occurs and the ease in which the player can achieve depends on numerous factors, i.e., the type of wood used for the top of the guitar, its thickness, grain orientation, finishing materials, etc.
Woodwind instruments are easily driven into distortion by over blowing. And, of course, any instrument can be fit with a pickup that feeds into a distortion box. So, it may appear that distortion is the result of some excess. So maybe we can further refine our “loose” definitions of fuzz and distortion. Let’s assume that in a fuzz device we are clipping the signal, but keeping it at safe level that will not overdrive the input of the power amp. Therefore, we might want describe a distortion device as one that amplifies the input to the point that it clips and distorts at a high level and uses an output control such as a potentiometer to keep a highly clipped and distorted signal at reasonable level.
Defining overdrive is a three-edged sword. First, the overdrive device/pedal does not necessarily distort the incoming guitar signal. In some designs it merely boosts the signal to levels that overdrive the guitar amp input and in turn causes distortion in the amplifiers preamp stage, power amp stage, or both, all depending on the design of each stage between the guitar and the loudspeaker.
Second, the overdrive unit design can be such that a clipped (sharp or rounded) signal comes out of it at a high enough level that can drive the guitar amp into further distortion/clipping. And the quality of the sound, once again, depends on every stop along the signal chain between the instrument and speaker.
Third, the overdrive unit may also have some basic or sophisticated filtering circuits to accent or attenuate certain dominant or unwanted overtones. These controls allow users to better tailor their instrument’s sonic quirks their tastes and amplification system.
Here’s the objective quality that no one seems to agree on and if you think about, it’s the quality, or aspect of these components that leaves the field wide open for ever more creativity. It’s that parameter – tone – that sets the condition that no one will ever create and there never will be the “ULTIMATE FUZZ/DISTORTION/OVERDRIVE” pedal. Note, there is no TONE pedal available either.
When it comes to electric guitars and related equipment, tone is a word/description that is over used, abused, and refused to be reckoned with. In the ‘dark ages’ of electric guitars, guitar amplifiers, TVs, and table radios, a “tone” control was the dial everyone turned fully clockwise to make the audio sound clearer.
The classic passive tone control consists of a potentiometer imposing resistance between the output signal and a capacitor connected to ground. In the fully counter clockwise position, the control became a low-pass filter, shunting a good deal of the higher-frequency content to ground. Do this on a guitar and the sound quality becomes muddy, downright dull. Turn down the tone control while the guitar is running through a fuzz or distortion box and you get Clapton’s woman tone ala the solo in Sunshine of Your Love.
Now, on that thought, take a 1964 Gibson SG Standard, put its pickup selector in the up (neck pickup) position, turn the volume controls on the guitar up full (clockwise) and the tone controls full down (counter clockwise). Plug the guitar into a 100W Marshall head (volume and tone controls all set at 12 o’clock) connected to two 4x10 cabinets loaded with Celestions.
Next, have 10 competent guitarists come up one after the other and have them play the same guitar solo without changing any of the guitar and amp settings. You won’t need to have an audiophile ear to tell that the notes are same for each player, but the aural effect each player creates is distinctively unique. In other words, each player has his or her unique tone.
So, the definitions here should be the guitar has a certain timbre depending on the type of guitar, amplifier, effects connected, and all other equipment and electrical parameters. Tone should then refer to unique and personal sonic qualities the individual player coaxes from the instrument and equipment via playing techniques and emotion. Yes, there is an emotional component in music.
By the way, if anyone is going to be in the NYC area on October 21 and 21, you may want to check out the free Stomp Box Exhibit at CMJ. Hosted at The Living Room’s Googies Lounge and Ludlow Guitar in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the exhibit is scheduled for October 21 and 22.
Next installment, let’s look at some of those loud and noisy devices out there.