A Beginners Guide to Distortion Pedals

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We’re seeing a surprising amount of 1st time pedal buyers swing by the Pro Tone website with questions regarding what pedals to buy, how to choose them and so on. So I thought I would write a few posts on the topic.
These posts will be aimed at our less experienced brothers and sisters, so show support to the kids with productive feedback.

First up is distortion- lets take a look at how to choose what is probably the most important pedal in your toolbox.

Choosing the right distortion pedal is crucial. Your ‘voice’ depends on you selecting the right tool (or tools) to express yourself. Selecting the wrong distortion pedal can have serious impact on your guitar playing, and can even result in playing less due to your unhappiness with your tone.

The first, and most obvious, step in selecting the right distortion pedal is to determine what musical genre you’re going to primarily use it for. Will you be playing vintage thrash metal, or modern country? These days most effects pedals are fine tuned to be genre specific. This is not always the case, but enough so to help a user reading this beginners guide. Once you’ve determined the genre of music, you’ll need to match it with the distortion pedal most often associated with that genre. Lets take a look at a list of classic distortion pedal sub categories:

Fuzz– Fuzz pedals are primarily thought of as the domain of classic rockers like Hendrix, but modern day artists like the White Stripes are getting some amazing results.

Ike Turner and the Kinks achieved their landmark tones by using abused speaker cabinets. Ike dropped his on the street walking in to Sun Records to record Rocket 88, the Kinks cut their speakers with knives or so the legends have it. No matter how they got it, their tone changed the world. Some call it distortion, some call it fuzz, however, seeing the progression from these damaged speakers to the fuzz boxes built to emulate those tones, I think its safest to call what Turner and Davies created/stumbled upon was fuzz.

Overdrive– Overdrive pedals are generally thought of in a blues rock setting. Stevie Ray Vaughn was a big believer in overdrive pedals.

When most guitarists talk about overdrive, they are referring to the smooth ‘distortion’ produced by their tube amps when driven to the point of breaking up. Overdrive pedals are designed to either replicate this tone (with limited success) or drive a tube amp into overdrive, creating those screaming tubes beyond what they normally would be able to do without wall shaking volume.

Distortion– Based on our above definition of overdrive, distortion is where overdrive leaves off. In the rock guitar world think Van Halen and beyond for a clear example of a classic distorted guitar tone. Distortion pedals often emulate high gain amps that create thick walls of sound small amps are not capable of creating. Distortion pedals are crucial to modern guitar tone.

Now that you’ve matched your musical genre to the distortion pedal most associated with the genre the real fun begins- testing them. Before you begin testing you’ll want to read reviews, listen to audio clips and watch video clips posted all over the internet to find some good candidates.


You’re going to want to test the pedals using equipment as close to your own as possible. If you can, I would recommend taking your guitar to the shop and test drive the pedals with YOUR guitar. Because there are so many different variables including body and neck wood, pick-up, string gauge and many more, using your instrument as opposed to something off the shelf is the best way to go.

Don’t forget you’re going to need another cable- 1 to go from your guitar to your distortion pedal, and another to go from distortion to your amp. 2 cables of 5 feet in length will be perfect for most settings. Longer cable runs are a mess and bring possible tone loss. Shorter cable runs might make mobility tough… and lets face it, its hard to jump from a drum riser (or bed) if you’re tethered by a 3 foot cable.

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