Creating a unique, personalized sound is what sets musicians apart, especially those who are talented players of electrical instruments.
There are a few ways to make your amp distortion sound heavier, including adjusting the preamp gain, increasing the volume on your guitar, and stacking pedals to add layers to your sound. Using a variety of pedals together — including overdrive pedals, distortion pedals, and fuzz pedals — will increase distortion even more.
Read on to learn more about heavy distortion and different ways to create this unique style and tone with electric guitars.
Altering Your Sound with Distortion
If you play an electric instrument, whether keyboard or guitar, you likely use an amplifier to increase the volume and intensity of your music and create a sound that is distinct to your style of playing.
Whether you use a tube amplifier or a solid-state amplifier, distortion alters the sound of your electric instrument, most commonly the electric guitar, by increasing what is referred to as the “gain” (source).
This increase produces a tone that musicians deem “fuzzy” or one that produces a heavy growling or gritty tone.
This descriptively gritty sound is one that is popular in plenty of musical genres, but most notably in categories like blues and heavy rock music, including hard rock and punk.
Distortion not only intensifies the sound and tone, but it also changes it. When you push the signal in an amplifier past its maximum by overloading it, the result causes the signal to distort or clip.
Unlike overdrive, which utilizes the original tone you create and pushes it harder, heavy distortion is going to give you a different sound altogether. Essentially, overdrive is the action that creates the distortion you hear (source).
When an amplifier is overdriven, it cannot sustain the output voltage, and the sound is cut off or clipped at the “peaks,” or high points, and “troughs,” the lowest points in a sound cycle.
When we refer to that fuzzy sound sought after by electric guitarists, we get a style of distortion that is more aggressive, heavier, and can create a tone that might cause novice listeners to assume their amp has met the end of its lifecycle. Despite this, most amps can last decades or more (source).
All of these distorted sounds result in the quality and tone of music millions have grown to love, whether blues, hard rock, or even distorted bass in newer genres like hip hop and alternative.
There are multiple ways to create this effect, though all overdrive actions will result in some level of distortion. This happens via your amplifier alone or a combination of both your amp along with one or more pedals.
Using Guitar Volume and Preamp Settings to Create Distortion
You can create distortion by merely increasing the volume of your guitar and setting the input gain high enough on your amplifier.
This combination of volume and preamp gain will create distortion as explained above, the gain exceeding the voltage capacity, causing the sound waves to clip.
While it seems a bit confusing initially, the preamp is not quite the same as the power amp, though they are part of the same piece of equipment.
In a sense, the preamp comes before the power of your amp sound or output. It’s essentially part one, the first connection your guitar has with your amp.
When you play, the preamp is going to increase the output of your electric guitar up to what is called “line level,” or a more audible volume, while also compressing the sound before being projected with more intensity through the speakers (source).
The preamp gain and increased volume combination will result in a distorted sound that is notably saturated and a bit “fuzzier.”
Whether or not that is particularly heavy distortion is for you to decide. It will vary depending on how heavy you are looking to get, as well as the brand and type of amp you are using.
Creating distortion in this way is definitely not as heavy as you could achieve with the use of pedals, however, which we’ll discuss next.
Using Pedals to Create Heavy Distortion
Many musicians use pedals to create a heavier level of distorted sound, especially with the use of solid-state amplifiers.
There are three types that you’ll want to take a look at to create heavy distortion: overdrive pedals, aptly named distortion pedals, or fuzz pedals.
Using a combination of overdrive, distortion, and fuzz pedals will alter the sound and increase the options you have for creating the right tone, and that is referred to as gain stacking.
Gain stacking means you are using more than one pedal to generate distortion and achieve the gain level you want.
It’s a matter of experimentation to find the pedal, or a combination of pedals, that best suits you and the sound you are trying to achieve.
Overdrive pedals are used with solid-state amplifiers and are designed to reproduce sounds created by tube amplifiers, sounds that are tougher to get with SS amplifiers alone.
Overdrive pedals are similar to boost pedals. The latter is used in connection with the preamp section of your amplifier.
Most musicians agree that these pedals are going to give you a lighter level of distortion. Used alone, they do not create very intense, heavy distortion.
On the other hand, most pedals, including overdrive pedals, have settings that allow you to produce a more intense overdrive and, thus, heavier distortion. The higher the setting, the more intense the sound.
If you set the input gain very high on an overdrive pedal and increase the preamp gain, combined with a high level of guitar volume, you will achieve both pedal and amp distortion.
Distortion pedals can be viewed as mid-tier distortion creators — stronger than overdrive pedals or boost pedals, but not quite as cacophonous as fuzz pedals.
A distortion pedal will add quite a bit of grit — a sustained power and persevering sound that can be altered to your liking.
With distortion pedals, it matters less how hard you play and more that the pedals do their job, sustaining a unique distorted sound that is altogether different had you not used them at all.
A distortion pedal is specifically made to distort sound, regardless of your guitar volume, making it a bit different from the overdrive pedal or preamp distortion that is dependent on high volume.
But again, the louder the volume on your guitar, the heavier the resulting distortion.
The goal with distortion pedals is to create distortion more from the pedal and less from the amplifier. With that in mind, you’ll want to set your preamp gain lower and let the pedal do its work.
With that said, you can also use a distortion pedal in the same way that you’d use an overdrive pedal — in combination with an overdriven amplifier to create a deeper, more saturated tone.
If you use the pedal without overdriving your amplifier, you can also create a distorted effect.
You can even take it a step further and stack those pedals together. Multiple distortion and overdrive pedals used at the same time creates a dependence from one to the other with the overdrive pedal, in a sense, “boosting” the distortion pedal, creating a higher level of dissonance in sound.
All of these are effects that require experimentation and depend on personal taste.
While some may find discordance in the sound emanated from heavy distortion, others consider it the root of what makes heavy metal the art form that it is.
If you’re looking for a sound that is so heavily distorted some may cringe, fuzz pedals are the way to go.
Fuzz pedals clip sound incredibly hard, saturating the tone so intensely that it creates that “fuzzy” tone we mentioned at the outset — the one that sounds like a broken amp.
Unlike overdrive pedals, these pedals are so specific in their ability to create heavy distortion that they are known to be used by some pretty prolific heavy metal artists, including Jack White and the band Smashing Pumpkins.
There are a few to choose from if you are going this route; the Big Muff fuzz pedal is one option, as is the Fuzz Face.
These are considered to be a couple of the best models available and will give you that unmatched distorted, gritty effect that is about as heavy as it gets.
Gain Stacking Pedals to Create More Distortion
As we mentioned earlier, if you are using more than one distortion pedal at a time, you are stacking them. How you go about the details of stacking your pedals is going to affect the sound you create ultimately.
You’ll often read about a “clean” amp; all this means is that you are not creating distortion with your amplifier, but rather the pedals alone. This allows you more flexibility in creating a particular sound, whether lightly distorted or increasingly heavy.
If you are trying to achieve multiple different sounds, most experts on the topic recommend stacking different pedals that achieve different characteristics in tone, tones that differ from your amplifier.
Start with one pedal and stack it with another to create a different tone or characteristic.
You’ll hear two distinct sounds that can then be overdriven to a maximum, stacked and heavy. Keep stacking, and you’ll influence the tone in a variety of ways, the final pedal having the most impact.
Just remember that experimentation is key, and it is part of what makes the process of finding the right level of heavy distortion a lot more fun.
The multiple layers and types of distortion are wide — about as wide as personal preferences in music and sound.
With guitar volume, settings on your amplifier, and the combination of pedals available to play with, you can create some pretty gritty distortion effects.