Distortion is such a widely used effect that practically every single pedal manufacturer produces at least three different kinds. Useful for every genre from country to metal, no guitarist’s rig could ever be considered complete without one. While there are literally thousands of different stomp boxes to choose from, they all fall roughly into only a few different types, the most common of which are overdrives, fuzzes and pure distortions.
Overdrive pedals are most commonly based on the Ibanez Tube Screamer (TS-808), which is held in high regard by a staggering amount of musicians over the world, and can cost a fair bit of cash for a second-hand original. These overdrive pedals are designed primarily to replicate the light clipped distortion effects of a tube amp being pushed past its linear threshold (or to help to actually push a tube pre amp into this state at more manageable volumes). These pedals are usually placed quite early on in the pedals chain, and are usually found just after a compressor. This is because the boosting functionality of this kind of stomp box is particularly useful for driving other pedals and making them sound richer and much fuller.
While the Maestro Fuzz Tone of ’62 – claiming to offer ‘guttural, mellow, raucous, tender, raw sound effects for the guitar… with the touch of your toe’ was actually the first produced fuzz-style distortion, it is usually the Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face which followed on from Gibson’s model which is commonly used as the inspiration for fuzz pedals. The fuzz face was made famous by Jimi Hendrix, and practically every player in the ‘60s and early ‘70s had to have one of these distinctly UFO-shaped pedals on their boards. Fuzz is a pretty simple effect with regard to components and wiring, and many players might be surprised by the distinct lack of guts inside one of the old Dallas Arbiter pedals, but used in the right context this kind of distortion can add a lot to your playing. This kind of effect would traditionally be placed after an overdrive effect in a chain, as it will respond differently to line-level and boosted guitar signals.
With pure distortion stomp boxes, it is a little harder to pin down one specific effect as a major inspiration; however Roland’s original DS-1 and the Pro Co RAT – both introduced in ’78 – are two examples of a classic, trusted distortion circuit which many boutique companies have since modded, copied and cloned. These distortions differ from classic fuzz-style pedals in that they are a little more complex with regard to how they process the tones. Pedals like the DS-1 have a characteristic scooped mid sound, with a high pass and low pass EQ which is controllable from the onboard tone switch. For this reason, the DS-1 is often regarded as a rather thin distortion effect, as much of the body of a sound is contained in the mids. The RAT utilizes the same circuit concept as the DS-1, however differences in the components used in the construction mean that the resulting tone is completely different. The thing with distortion pedals is that it always comes down to personal taste, and so it is important to find the right pedal for you personally. Distortions, like fuzzes, benefit most from being placed after overdrive effects, as they can sound a lot more powerful and present when the signal going in is already boosted by an overdrive pedal.