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How to use a distortion pedal

In this article, we'll dive into the world of distortion pedals, exploring their features, applications, and giving tips for dialing in your ideal tone.

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Distortion pedals are the rebels of pedalboards. They can transform a clean tone into a highly saturated, raw, and aggressive full-on sonic assault.

However, distortion pedals are much more than just tools for creating obliterating high-gain tones. They are versatile devices that add character, depth, and texture to your sound.

You can use them to add a hint of grit to spice up a blues solo, to get a light crunch for classic rock, or simply crank them up for an aggressive metal roar.

Their unparalleled ability to redefine guitar tones has made them a mainstay on pedalboards for decades.

In this article, we'll dive into the world of distortion pedals, exploring their features, applications, and giving tips for dialing in your ideal tone.

    What does a distortion pedal do?

    Distortion pedals are gain effects that add dirt and grit to your guitar signal. Depending on the pedal you’re using and how it’s dialed in, you can get anything from a gritty crunch all the way to a heavily saturated high-gain tone.

    Cranking a distortion pedal to its limits will produce an extremely saturated sound that is highly compressed. In fact, the “buzzsaw” guitar tone early Swedish death metal is known for was often created with a distortion pedal that had all its controls cranked all the way up.

    When playing through a high-gain amp, distortion pedals are often used to shape the tone and tighten it up rather than for significantly boosting the gain.

    When used with a clean amp, distortion pedals can work like an additional high-gain channel. For example, the Abasi Pathos distortion pedal is often described as a lead channel in pedal form. With the stomp of a footswitch, your clean sound is transformed to a gritty, saturated tone. This way you can expand the tonal palette of a single-channel clean amp, making it suitable for a wider range of genres and playing styles.

    Additionally, the tone control on a distortion pedal lets you shape the frequency response of your distorted signal. By adjusting the knob, you can brighten up your sound so your leads cut through the mix more effectively, or darken it for a warmer and fuller rhythm tone.

    What’s the difference between distortion and overdrive?

    Although the terms distortion and overdrive are sometimes used interchangeably, distortion pedals create a very different effect compared to overdrive pedals. Distortion is much more intense and overpowering, and completely overhauls the guitar signal by saturating it.

    Overdrive pedals simulate the warm, natural breakup that occurs when a tube amp is pushed to its limits. Overdrive is a softer and more dynamic form of saturation that is responsive to your playing dynamics.

    Distortion on the other hand creates a more aggressive form of saturation by clipping your signal rather than just boosting it to push your amp harder. The end result is a thicker, harder-edged, and more compressed form of clipping that sustains longer and is less dependent on your playing dynamics.

    Distortion pedals work by boosting the gain of the input signal to a point where it exceeds the limits of the pedal's circuitry, resulting in the signal "clipping". It's this clipping that introduces new harmonic content to your tone and makes it, well, “distorted”.

    Controlling a distortion pedal

    Like its overdrive sibling, a distortion pedal will typically have controls for gain (or drive), tone, and level. However, many distortion pedals also offer additional EQ settings or even multi-band EQs to further color your tone, while others may only feature one knob like the Fortin Grind.

    • Gain / drive: the gain / drive knob controls the amount of saturation or "clipping" applied to your signal. Turning this up gives you a more aggressive, saturated tone.

    • Tone: the tone knob adjusts the treble and bass frequencies in your signal. Use it to either cut through the mix or add some warm low-end punch.

    • Level: the level knob controls the output volume of the pedal. This doesn’t affect the amount of distortion the pedal is producing, but rather how loud the distorted signal is.

    Distortion pedals in your signal chain

    Most commonly, distortion pedals are placed early in the signal chain after tuners and dynamic effects like compressors, and before modulation and time-based effects like chorus, phaser, flanger, delay, and reverb. This ensures that the pedal processes a relatively clean and unaltered signal.

    When a distortion pedal receives a clean or minimally altered signal, it can most effectively apply its gain structure, harmonic content, and other characteristics that create its voice.

    If you were to place a reverb pedal before a distortion pedal, this would cause the distortion to amplify and saturate the reverberated sounds, creating a significantly different tone than with the reverb placed after the distortion.

    That said, there's plenty of room for experimentation. Sometimes guitarists flip the script by placing modulation or time-based effects before distortion to create unique sonic textures. For example, running a phaser before a distortion pedal can result in a more pronounced sweeping effect that's blended into the distorted tone.

    How to dial in a distortion pedal

    When dialing in a distortion pedal, a good starting point is to first turn the gain / drive knob down to its lowest setting.

    Then, adjust the level knob so that there is no noticeable change in volume when you turn the pedal on and off.

    Start with the tone control at a neutral setting, most commonly at the 12 o'clock position.

    From there, gradually increase the level knob. Even with low gain settings, boosting the level can add fullness and coloration to your tone by pushing your amplifier harder, thus creating natural saturation from the amp itself.

    Once you find a level setting that gives you a sound that you are satisfied with, start dialing in the gain / drive knob. This will introduce the actual distortion from the pedal itself. The higher the gain, the more intense and saturated the distortion will be. Lower gain settings will give you a milder, crunchy tone.

    As you adjust the gain upwards, you may need to reduce the level to maintain a consistent volume when the pedal is turned on and off.

    Lastly, sweep through the tone control to see how it affects your distorted sound. You might want a brighter tone that cuts through or something darker with more low end.

    Remember, every pedal - and indeed every guitar and amp setup - is unique. There's no one-size-fits-all approach to this. The key to finding your ideal sound is experimentation and trusting your own ears.

    Using a distortion pedal with a high-gain amp

    You might wonder why one would use a distortion pedal with a high-gain amp that already delivers a thick, saturated sound. Surprisingly, this combination can unlock a world of tonal possibilities.

    Distortion pedals introduce a new flavor to your tone. When paired with a high-gain amp, you get to blend the coloration of the pedal with your amp's distortion. Experimenting with different gain settings on your amp and distortion pedal can open up lots of tonal options.

    A distortion pedal can also work as a booster for solos or lead sections, giving you extra volume and saturation to help cut through the mix.

    Additionally, a distortion pedal can tighten up your low end. If the lower frequencies in your tone are muddy or loose, you can use the tone knob on your pedal to tighten up the low end.

    As with everything related to tone shaping, experimentation is key.

    You can explore the dynamic interplay between a distortion pedal and a high-gain amp using the Fortin NTS, Fortin CALI, and Fortin Nameless Suites, which all feature the iconic Fortin Grind distortion pedal.

    Using a distortion pedal with an overdrive pedal

    Another way to expand your tonal options is by pairing a distortion pedal with an overdrive. Both serve a similar function (adding gain to your tone), but they do so in distinct ways that can complement each other when used together.

    Generally, placing the overdrive pedal before the distortion pedal will give you a more dynamic, responsive tone. This allows you to use the overdrive to boost your signal, pushing the distortion pedal into more saturated territory when you want it.

    Placing the distortion pedal before the overdrive will result in a smoother, more compressed tone. The overdrive will act as a sort of "limiter," dialing down the more extreme aspects of the distortion and adding its own tonal coloration.

    When stacking pedals, a crucial aspect to consider is gain staging (how much gain you're adding at each step of your signal chain). Overloading too much gain can lead to a muddy sound. You might use the overdrive for a slight gain boost and tonal shaping while using the distortion pedal for higher gain settings.

    Don’t be afraid to experiment with different combinations of pedals, settings, and pedal orders.

    Next steps

    Now that you have a basic understanding of distortion pedals, you're well-equipped to dive into the world of distorted tones. 

    Give the distortion pedals found in Neural DSP guitar plugins a spin! All of our plugins have a fully featured 14-day free trial, so try them out risk free.

    When dialing in your tones, remember, your ears are your ultimate guide. If a particular distortion tone feels “right” and aligns with your creative vision, you're definitely on the right track.

    To expand your knowledge on gain effects, read our article on how to use overdrive pedals.

    If you’re interested in high-gain amps, check out our article on some of the best metal amps ever built.

    For information on guitar effects, read through the list of over 70 high-quality guitar effects that are featured in our diverse catalog of guitar plugins.

    If you're new to plugins, our getting started guides are there to assist you every step of the way.

    Guides for getting started with plugins

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