When Do I Use Distortion?

Distortion is sugar. It tastes good. When I was 13 my first amp was, accidentally, a 10-watt Epiphone bass amp. A bass amp. The kale salad of making things louder. Yuck.

But the first time I plugged in to a proper guitar amp … wow. My little cousin had a pink Hello Kitty Squier Strat that came with a tiny Squier guitar amp. I was bored and plugged it in. Like Marty McFly at Doc Brown’s workshop, I struck those rusted strings and was (figuratively) blown back 10 feet by the power of distortion. Delicious distortion.

I spent the next hour going through all the rock licks I knew. Suddenly, they made sense. The double-stops in “Johnny B. Goode,” the power chords in “The House Is Rockin’,” the bends in “Simple Man,” they all just worked. Up to that point it had been Saltine crackers and unfrosted Mini-Wheats. I was finally taking my first bite of a well-deserved Pop-Tart.

Unfortunately, it became an addiction.

It got to the point where there was no satisfying single-digit number on the gain knob. My chocolate milk was more chocolate than milk. I couldn’t play without knowing each note I hit would have endless sustain and 200-percent compression without any possibility of touch or dynamics. It was a sad era of my life and I’m punished for it each time I watch a video of me failing at making halfway appropriate noises with my instrument for an embarrassing number of years.

Somewhere along the way, a much smarter guitarist hipped me to the concept of “taste” and I started to ween myself off the juice. It came with withdrawals. All the things I thought I could play turned to plinky garbage. My tone wilted, my groove atrophied. The world was desaturated. Everything tasted bad. But I had a metronome that I borrowed from a friend’s older brother after he stopped playing trombone, and that metronome became my cellmate. I spent hours, days, months with it getting myself clean. And though that metronome has since passed on, I carry its spirit with me in my pocket in the form of an app on my phone. A very frequently visited app on my phone.

Look, distortion isn’t a bad thing, but there is an epidemic sweeping the nation that you’re not going to hear about on the 6 o’clock news, and it’s a mass dependence on hard-clipped soundwaves.

If you’re suffering from what I went through, you aren’t alone. You aren’t a victim, you’re a survivor. Let’s go over some safe recipes where distortion is a very worthwhile ingredient, and along the way we’ll discover some situations where overdrive is overkill.

Power Chords
Power chords make playing guitar cool. You crank the amp, hit two notes together, and it’s the summer of ’69 all over again. This isn’t an accident, there’s actual science behind why. The musical distance between the two notes in a power chord is called a fifth and is very harmonically simple. When you add distortion to a note, it makes the note more harmonically complex. So by adding a harmonically simple note choice to a harmonically complex tone, you get a perfect blend of guitar goodness (Ex. 1).

On the flip side, musically complex chord strumming doesn’t always lend itself to distortion. Jazz and acoustic players can play gorgeous upper-chord extensions and each note is crystal clear and unsullied by the sonic mud that you’d get if your tried the same thing on a Schecter through a Splawn.

If you want to “Billie Joe Armstrong” your way through a show and play nothing but power chords, distortion is your friend.

Backwards Power Chords
If you press the strings down on the same fret of the top two strings at the same time and pick them together, you’re playing a “fourth.” It’s like a power chord but backwards (C–G is a fifth, and G–C is a fourth). And since it’s composed of the same notes as a power chord, it follows the same logic of simple notes + complex tone = good. That explains why the “Chuck Berry” licks I was playing in my cousin’s basement sounded so good (Ex. 2). It’s a lot of fourths and a lot of overdrive paired together in holy matrimony.

Singled-Out High Notes
Distortion doesn’t only affect how notes interact, it also plays a huge role in how your single notes hold up over time. Yes, you should strive to be able to play your Pantera solo through a Fender Twin on 3 and not hear any dead notes, but just because notes aren’t dead doesn’t mean they’re alive. When you play high notes on the guitar, the pick attack is often exaggerated and your guitar gives off the perception of less sustain. The sustain is there, you just can’t notice it when you’re being bombarded by giant pluck bombs every time pick meets string.

This is where distortion can lend a helping hand.

Distortion is the sound we hear when an audio wave gets clipped, meaning the amp or pedal circuit literally can’t handle the amount of level being fed into it and it gives up, cutting the tops and bottoms off the waveform to squeeze the signal through to the other side. When those giant sonic peaks get cut off, the pick attack and note sustain get balanced out, and that makes our playing sound much more even—especially high on the neck where things can get extra plinky.

This is also why a lot of traditional country pickers use compressor pedals. It’s the same clipping-the-transients and evening-out-the-notes reinforcement without (in their case) the unwanted side effect of a distorted tone (Ex. 3).

Get Low
When our amp and pedal circuits are shoving all that sound through to the other side and distortion is happening, there is something called “release” that occurs when the circuits are no longer being overloaded. The way-too-loud signal gets clamped down, then when the level dies off to a point where the circuit can handle it more normally, the compression is in its release phase. Even though the sound from our guitar is getting quieter, the circuit’s compression is holding the sound back less and less. The net result is the same overall volume level, but a strange pumping sensation accompanying it.

The concept might read as complicated, but it’s really easy to play around with this effect by palm muting low strings (Ex. 4).

By palm muting the strings, we cause the sound to die off quickly. The signal that goes through the amp or pedal is a big bassy spike, then a rapidly dwindling note sound. Each time we do that, we cause clipping with the spike, and we cause release with the quiet-but-not-silence immediately following it, giving us the beautiful chug-chug-chug sound that drives so many of our favorite songs.

This requires distortion. Without it, the pick attacks aren’t clipped, the release isn’t noticeable, and you’re left with a meager plink-plink-plink. Chances are you’d rather have chug-chug-chug.

Pinch Harmonics
You know that squeal sound that your favorite guitarists whip out every now and then? One of the ways to get that sound is by using a pinch harmonic. Functionally, it’s the same as playing a 12th-fret harmonic. You pick, then touch a spot on the string where there’s a node—a spot where the string vibrates less. The only difference is you’re doing both at almost the same time with your pick and the thumb you’re using to hold your pick (Ex. 5).

The reason you need distortion is because of the “more harmonically complex tone” that you get with distortion. I alluded to this in Ex. 1, but it’s worth fleshing out a little more. Each note you play has a series of harmonics that get exponentially quieter the higher they are. When you use distortion and the signal is clipped, it evens out the levels of these harmonics, so while the 7th-fret harmonic on an acoustic guitar is almost inaudible, it screams on a distorted electric guitar. This gives you more room to pull off successful pinch harmonics.

Pick the note and pinch the pick so your thumb flesh touches the string an instant after you pick. Depending on the note you’re playing, the harmonics will be in different spots along the string, so search around and find the ones you like.

If you think you might be addicted to distortion, hope isn’t lost. You can still grind your axes and unleash the devil’s fury on your wincing power tubes, but hopefully you have a better understanding of what situations make the most of shooting glucose into your music’s veins … and that not every song calls for it.

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