You know that fuzzy sound guitars can make? Yeah, that’s called distortion. It was all a mistake, and a pretty important one. For years, distorted guitar tones have been popular and there is now a lot of variety to choose from. So, a big thank you to that sound engineer who didn't repair the faulty connection within that sound board 50-some years ago – which is how the first distortion was produced.
Do you know what else? That fuzzy sound first appeared on a bass guitar track, not the six-string, in a song called “Don’t Worry” by country singer Marty Robbins. It’s not a song you’d think would include such a tone, because it's country music from the 60s, but it had to start somewhere and this just happens to be where. Listen to the fuzz kick in at the 1:39 mark.
Guitar distortion happens when the input of the guitar far exceeds the capacity of the amplifier. If you’ve ever turned your music up too loud in your ear-bud headphones or heard someone’s voice on the microphone break, it’s pretty much the same thing. And ever since this sound became tasteful, instrument and amplifier settings have been designed for musicians to be able to produce it.
The demand for fuzz really took over when the Rolling Stones released the song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” in 1965. If you know the song, think of the opening riff. Also, leave it to those guys to set the trend and make something cool and popular.
Another classic tune to first incorporate fuzz – and more of a personal favourite – was “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks, which hit radio stations in 1964. Listen here.
These days, distortion tones vary significantly and guitar pedal manufacturers have a large variety of different-sounding effects for players to use. On top of that, you can use more than one effect at once if you want – which can get ridiculous, because the pickup on your instrument essentially becomes useless. Why play through six pedals at once when the pickup on your $2,000 guitar sounds amazing? That’s another story.
The existence of rock music rests pretty heavily on distortion tones, among other important things of course. You know, like musicianship and songwriting ability… But still! The buzzy, violent tones electric guitars create are important to the sounds of, as Reverend Lovejoy once put it, “Rock and/or Roll.”
Next time, I’ll dive into the riveting world of trumpets… Maybe.