From Tube to Transistor
For many Rock & Roll guitarist, Distortion effect pedals are indispensable. Yet, the wide variety of distortion pedals available today makes it tricky to decide which to use and in what order. To make that process easier, let’s examine the history of distortion effects in Rock & Roll music.
Tube Distortion: Surprising Beginnings
The very first guitar amps utilized vacuum tubes to increase signal strength. Tube amplifiers designs inherently distorted the guitar signal, especially at high volumes. Two different circuits within a tube amp cause distortion, the pre-amp gain and the power amp gain.. Using a combination of pre-amp and power amp gain, country guitarist Junior Barnard created a deep and husky distortion tone that became a model for many blues guitarists in the 1940s.
By the 1950s, Rock & Roll guitarists began to explore a wider range of distortion tones, examples include:
Guitar Slim’s “The Things That I Used to Do”(1953)
Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” (1955)
The trademark distortion caused by the inherent instability and fragility of tube amplifiers had a indelible impact on the original Rock & Roll sound. “Rocket 88” widely considered one of the first “Rock” songs was played on a broken tube amp with damaged speaker cone. This was later copied by other musicians who tried to duplicate it by doing “surgery” on their own tube amps.
The Arrival of Fuzz and Integrated Circuits (IC)
The name “Fuzz” comes from the use of damaged pre-amps on the song “Don’t Worry” of Grady Martin in Marty Robbins. Impressed by the distorted tone,Martin used the same damaged tube pre-amp to record his song, “The Fuzz”. Consequently, “The Fuzz” effect was born.
Integrated Circuits (ICs) were another important technology for audio electronics. IC composed Invented and refined by GE at their Bell Laboratories 1947, ICs were meant to replace the vacuum tube. ICs were first used in guitar pedals in 1962 with the “Fuzz Box”. The Fuzz Box was designed by session guitarist Red Rhodes for a band called “The Ventures” who were looking for a similar tone as Grady Martin’s recordings. The Venture’s 1962 song “The 2000 Pound Bee” features this effect. That same year, Gibson released the first publicly available fuzz pedal, the Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone, which also utilized a IC based distortion circuit. recording “(I can’t Get No)Satisfaction” by Keith Richards in 1952 made it famous overnight.
Other artist who popularized IC distortion pedals are Jimi Hendrix who used the Fuzz Face and Big Muff Pi Pedals, and Carlos Santana who used the , the use the VOX Tone Bender. The fact that IC stompbox pedals could operate on battery power alone also contributed to their widespread adoption.
The Change of Op-Amplifier IC
The introduction of another electronics component, the Op-Amp, continued to improve the distortion tone of IC based pedals. The uA741 Op-Amp, created in 1968, was used in DOD Overdrive 250 in 1976 and MXR Distortion + in 1978. These pedals used the Op-Amp to create a distortion tone based on a phenomenon known as “Hard Clipping” where the tops and bottoms of the signal’s waveshape are flattened. Distortion effects which used the uA741 were more sensitive, and thus distorted at lower signal strengths. This created the signature “Low Gain” sound favored by Randy Rhoads (A frequent collaborator with with Ozzy Osbourne).
In 1978, BOSS created DS-1, which used a different Op-Amp called the TA7136AP. The DS-1 was used by Kurt Cobain, Joe Satriani, Glenn Frey and Steve Vai (Who used a Keeley variant). Subsequent versions of the DS-1 used different Op-Amps, and were often criticized for a flatter sound. The 1994 version used the BA728N Op-Amp due to the discontinuation of TA7136. The 2000 version was a major step down in tone, again switching Op-Amps, this time to the M5223AL op-amp. The underwhelming performance of this model inspired many mod and spiritual successors such as the Tri-Gain, Keeley and Analogman, MI Audio Crunch Box,Suhr Riot and JHS Charlie.
The 2006 version again saw a change in Op-Amp this time to the NJM2904, which made made the pedal more affordable. Between 1978 and 1979, Ibanez created TS-808. What made the TS-808 stand out versus the , DS-1 and Distortion+ is its use of an asymmetric Softclippingand high noise Op-Amp, the JRC4558. This design create a similar tone to vacuum tubes, but without the limitations of tube based circuits. Due to this unique Tube-like quality, many artists use this pedal and just as many manufacturers have cloned it’s design.
Today, we’ve grown to respect these three distortion effect pedals, all created around 1978,the Distortion+, the DS-1 and the TS-808, as well as their forefathers, the Fuzz Face, Big Muff from 1960s. Now we can map their influential designs to the circuits used on today’s modern pedals.
The spirit of their analog designs lives on!