When diving into the world of electric guitars, you might wonder if all guitar amps have distortion. To answer that directly: not all guitar amps have distortion or at least the kind that is musical and pleasing to listen to.
In this article, we’ll break down the various types of amps and those that commonly feature built-in distortion, along with a brief overview of tube distortion and the different kinds of distortion available.
Let’s get started…
Table of Contents
Why Amps Distort
Understanding why guitar amps distort will help you better understand how different distortion types are produced. The distortion you get from a guitar amp is generally the result of overdriving the amp’s circuitry, intentionally or unintentionally.
One reason amps distort is due to the natural characteristics of tube amps. Tube amps, also known as valve amps, experience distortion when the incoming input signal overloads the clean operating levels of the circuit. This creates a desirable, warm, and squishy overdrive that many guitarists enjoy.
Another factor causing distortion is the use of solid-state amps. These amps are built with transistors instead of vacuum tubes. A solid-state amplifier tends to have higher headroom than tube amps, making them less likely to produce a distorted sound at higher levels.
However, when solid-state amps overload the transistors, the distortion produced is typically less warm or desirable than tube-amp distortion.* Achieving distortion with solid-state amps often involves maximizing the input volume or combining it with external effects pedals.
Furthermore, modern digital modeling amps can emulate the distortion characteristics of tube amps, providing various types of distortion. In fact, many digital modeling amps come with built-in distortion effects that can be easily accessed and manipulated via onboard controls or software.
In summary, guitar amps distort due to the inherent properties of their components, such as valves or transistors, being pushed beyond their clean operating levels. This results in varying degrees and types of distortion, depending on the amp design and the intended use by the guitarist.
Familiarizing oneself with these aspects can lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of the role of distortion in guitar tone.
*The solid-state vs. tube amp debate is hotly contested. There are solid-state amps that do a fantastic job of producing desirable guitar distortion. Skip to the solid-state section of this post to check out a video.
Types of Guitar Amps
Several guitar amps are available, each with their distinct characteristics and capabilities. While not all guitar amps are built to have distortion, many offer this effect in various forms.
Let’s dive into the types of guitar amps, their features, and the kinds of distortion they may provide.
Tube amps, also known as valve amps, are the original form of guitar amplifiers. They use vacuum tubes to shape and amplify the guitar signal. These amps are known for their warm, responsive, and rich tones.
Tube amps infuse distortion naturally when the tubes are pushed to their limits, providing a characteristic overdriven sound that many players find appealing. Some tube amps have built-in distortion circuits to create a controlled and consistent effect.
Solid-state amps utilize transistors for amplification, making them generally more reliable, lighter, and less expensive than tube amps. They offer a cleaner sound, and when distortion is included, it typically comes as an integrated distortion circuit.
The distortion in solid-state amps might have a different character than in tube amps. It usually has more headroom for clean sounds. Some players prefer solid-state distortion’s precise and detailed nature, while others might find it cold or sterile.
Digital amps, or modeling amps, use digital signal processing (DSP) and impulse responses to recreate the sounds and characteristics of various amplifiers, including tube and solid-state amps.
These amps offer many tones and built-in effects, often including various distortion types. With a digital amp, you can easily switch between different amp models and their associated distortion characteristics, making them versatile and convenient for players exploring various tones and styles.
Hybrid amps combine elements of tube and solid-state amplifiers, seeking to blend the benefits of both types. For their reliability and consistency, these amps might use tubes in the preamp stage for their warm, dynamic tones and solid-state transistors in the power amp stage.
Depending on the design, hybrid amps might offer built-in distortion sourced from the tubes, solid-state circuitry, or both. The resulting distortion character can range from smooth and organic to aggressive and defined.
In this section, we’ll discuss various types of distortion, including natural distortion, soft clipping, overdrive, fuzz, and high gain.
Natural distortion occurs when an amplifier’s tubes are pushed to their limits, causing the sound to clip or break up. This type of distortion is warm and organic, often adding harmonic richness to your sound. Try increasing the volume or gain on your tube amp to achieve natural distortion.
Soft clipping is a type of distortion that occurs when an audio signal is pushed close to, but not beyond, its threshold. The result is a smooth, rounded sound with minimal harshness. This type of distortion is commonly associated with overdrive effects, often referred to as that “edge of breakup” sound.
Overdrive is a specific type of soft clipping that emulates the sound of an overdriven tube amp. This effect is typically achieved using a dedicated overdrive pedal or built-in amp functionality.
By adjusting the amount of overdrive, you can achieve a wide range of distortion tones, from a subtle, warm breakup to a more aggressive, crunchy sound. Some examples of overdrive include the Ibanez Tube Screamer, Boss Blues Driver, and the Pigtronix Gamma Drive.
Fuzz distortion involves hard clipping the audio signal, producing a more aggressive and synthetic sound. This type of distortion can be achieved using a fuzz pedal or a combination of settings on your guitar and amplifier.
Fuzz distortion is characteristic of many classic and garage rock sounds; notable examples include Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” and The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.”
High-gain distortion is characterized by a powerful, saturated sound, often associated with heavy metal and hard rock music. It provides lots of sustain and harmonics, making it ideal for rhythm and lead guitar playing.
You may require an amplifier with a high-gain channel or a dedicated distortion pedal capable of producing high-gain levels to achieve high-gain distortion.
Tube distortion is a key characteristic of many guitar amplifiers that use vacuum tubes, or valves, as a primary component in their design. It is highly sought after among guitarists for its unique and pleasing tonal quality. Let’s dive into the different tube types and their characteristics.
There are several types of vacuum tubes commonly used in guitar amplifiers, each contributing to the overall sound and distortion characteristics of the amp:
- Preamp tubes: The most common preamp tubes are the 12AX7, 12AY7, 12AT7, 5751, and 12AU7. These tiny tubes shape the initial guitar signal, boosting its level and adding subtle harmonic richness.
- Power amp tubes: These larger tubes, such as the EL34, EL84, 6L6, and 6V6, amplify the signal further and drive it into the output transformer and speaker. Power amp tubes are responsible for much of the tube distortion’s tonal character when pushed into overdrive.
- Rectifier tubes: Found in some vintage and boutique amplifiers, rectifier tubes (e.g., 5Y3 or GZ34) convert the incoming AC power to the DC power needed by the rest of the circuitry. They can influence the amp’s response and distortion characteristics, although to a lesser extent than preamp and power amp tubes.
There are various reasons why tube distortion is highly sought-after among guitarists:
- Smooth clipping: When a tube amp is pushed into overdrive, it produces a smooth, gradual distortion known as clipping, which results in a pleasant, warm sound compared to the harsher distortion of transistor-based amps (ProAudioLand).
- Even-order harmonics: Tube amplifiers tend to generate even-order harmonics when overdriven, giving the distortion a more musical quality. This contrasts transistor-based amps, often producing odd-order harmonics that sound harsh or dissonant.
- Dynamic response: Tube amps are known for their touch-sensitive dynamics, allowing you to control the amount of distortion with your playing technique easily. They usually clean up nicely when you play softly or roll back the guitar’s volume control and then increase the distortion when you play harder or turn up the volume.
Tube distortion remains a widely appreciated and desirable sound among guitarists for its tonal qualities and dynamic responsiveness.
Amps with Built-In Distortion
Various guitar amps come with built-in distortion features, allowing you to create different sounds with your guitar. These amps are an excellent option for those looking to incorporate overdrive, fuzz, or other distortion effects into their playing.
Some popular models of guitar amps with built-in distortion include:
- Single-channel amps – Provide a more straightforward operation with one set of controls for clean and distorted sounds
- Multiple channel amps – Offer separate channels for clean and distorted tones, allowing more control over the individual sound settings
- Digital modeling amps – Use digital technology to replicate classic amp sounds and include a wide range of built-in distortion effects
External Solutions for Distortion
In addition to built-in distortion options in some guitar amps, there are external solutions that you can use to achieve the desired distortion effect. These solutions are designed to give you more flexibility and control over your sound and allow you to experiment with a range of tones.
Distortion pedals are popular for guitarists who want to modify their sound and achieve the perfect distorted tone. These compact devices can easily be connected to your guitar and amp, allowing you to experiment with different distortion types.
There is a wide variety of distortion pedals on the market, each offering different tonal properties and levels of distortion. Some popular options include the Ibanez Tube Screamer, the Boss DS-1, and the ProCo RAT.
However, not all amplifiers take pedals well. If a tube amp doesn’t have a lot of clean headroom, the amplifier will interfere with the pedal distortion. Some great pedal platform amps are the Roland JC series and Fender amps.
Take the time to explore different models and find one that suits your preferences.
Another option for achieving distortion is to use a multi-effects unit. These devices combine a range of effects, including distortion, into a single unit, giving you even more control over your sound.
Multi-effects units often come with several presets, as well as the ability to create your own custom patches. This allows you to experiment with different types and combinations of effects to create your unique sound. Some popular multi-effects units include the Line 6 Helix and the Boss GT-1000.
Whether you opt for a dedicated distortion pedal or a multi-effects unit, these external solutions can provide you with the versatility and control you need to achieve your desired distortion effect. Experiment with different devices and settings to find the perfect solution for your unique sound and playing style.
In conclusion, not all guitar amps have distortion, but many offer it in various forms. The type of distortion produced depends on the amp’s design and the intended use by the guitarist.
Tube amps are known for their warm, responsive, and rich tones, while solid-state amps tend to have a cleaner sound. Digital amps can emulate the distortion characteristics of tube amps, providing various types of distortion.
Understanding the different types of amps and distortion varieties can lead to a greater appreciation of the role of distortion in your guitar’s tone.