Guitar Distortion Basics
The defining sound of electric guitar is distortion. Amplifiers have typically provided that distortion. Here’s a simplified explanation of how they work. Guitar amps typically have a pre=amplifier channel (often labelled as “Gain”) that boosts the guitar input enough that it can be fed into the amplifier channel (Often labelled as “Volume”). By turning the the pre-amp up you can send more volume into the amplifier channel than it can handle, the result is distortion. By varying the amount of signal from the pre-amp, you can get a little or a lot of distortion.
There are other factors that influence the sound of your distortion too, pickup selection and guitar volume are two of the big ones. If you’re playing with distortion and you turn your guitar down you might notice that the sound of the distortion changes. That’s because you aren’t feeding as much signal into the preamp, so it in turn isn’t feeding as much into the amplifier channel. As a rule you want to get as much volume into the preamp channel as possible for a good distortion sound.
There are some exceptions to this rule. If you’re using a distortion pedal or a digital amp, you might actually be hearing a digital simulation of a distortion sound. The sound is created by an audio processor not a pre-amp driving an amplifier. You might notice that the sound of the distortion doesn’t change as you change the guitar volume. Of course there are plusses and minuses to this, plusses are that you’ve got more control over the volume from the guitar with less change in the sound when using a digital amp. You might also notice that you seem to play more “cleanly” on the digital amp. That’s because variations in your pick attack don’t affect the sound of the distortion as much. That can be a disadvantage too, you won’t be able to play with as much nuance. A lot of guitarists are really put off by digital distortion. Your average listener probably won’t notice too much difference, but you never seem to play as well if you don’t like how you sound.
If you’re a beginner player then a digital modeling amp like the Fender Mustang or Peavey Vypyr can be a cost effective way to get good enough distortion, along with other effects. The Mustang has the ability to create presets via computer and load them to the amp, or store them on the computer. It’s nice to be able to bring one amp to a gig and not have to carry along a bunch of pedals and extra gear. Of course the distortion doesn’t sound as good, but if you’re an experience player you know that. Angus Young of AC/DC gets a great guitar sound by plugging directly into a Marshall amp with no other outboard effects. So, there is that.
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