This week, TPS kicked it old school with some new school gear. Some of the earliest episodes on TPS tackled the fundamentals of overdrive typologies but it’s been a while since our duo revisited the topic. With a lineup of eight pedals on the floor, Dan & Mick delved into the world of distortion, explored its origins in stompbox form, discussed its context alongside overdrive and fuzz, and ran through some top pics of new gear.
Distortion, Fuzz, and Overdrive? Differences and Distinctives
As Dan & Mick described, one of the best ways to start thinking about how and why distortion differs from these next of kin is to visualize wave forms. An overdrive wave form will generally be a smooth rolling wave sine wave with equally rising and falling arcs, at times with clipped edges. As Dan commented, “sometimes it would hit the rails and be nice and smooth. But the DS-1 was very different, the edges aren’t smooth at all, they’re very harsh.”
However, the difference between overdrive, fuzz, and distortion is more than the way the signal clips. As Mick noted, there are so many more variables in the mix (e.g., EQ and level) and the simple fact that distortion just has more gain on tap. Its gain also generally comes with its own character. As Dan described, “traditionally, it’s a bit harsher and there’s a lot more harmonics in that because of all that gain.”
So where’d it all begin with distortion? Well, just ask Boss.
The Dawn of Distortion: Forty Years of Boss DS-1
As is the case with most areas in effects history, Boss had a role to play in distortion’s inception. Following on the heels of a decade of fuzz in the 1960s, and the launch of the Boss OD-1 in 1977, Boss designed and released a blistering orange stompbox that offered up a new variation of gain. The Boss DS-1 came out in 1978.
The Boss DS-1 has a characteristic fizzy-crunch with a notable dive in the mid-range EQ. As Dan commented, “a lot of pedals that have come out since that original one have more of a flat EQ with just a lot more gain, this concept of mid-pushing in the amplifier wasn’t really a thing back then.”
The interesting thing was, however, to see how Dan’s vintage DS-1 stacked up against a recent re-release forty years on. With four decades in between them, the two sounded incredibly close. Following the side-by-side shootout, Mick burst out, “wow, wasn’t expecting that at all…and actually, there’s something about the modern one I prefer!” The newbie retained the fizz and mid-scooped sound of the original yet had a bit more edge and presence to the gain structure.
While the Boss DS-1 defined the domain of distortions back then and continues to make its presence known, it’s certainly not alone in the world of gain pedals it helped create.
New Pedal Picks for Distortion Junkies: ThorpyFX, Suhr, and Keeley
The TPS board of the week hardly had a bad sound on it. But a few stood out as my own top picks for distortion pedals that are an ideal blend of tradition and innovation. Let’s look at a triad of stompboxes from ThorpyFX, Suhr, and Keeley Electronics.
As Mick introduced, “For me, the ThorpyFX Warthog is an unsung hero because it sits in that place that we’re talking about: it’s not really fuzz, it’s not really overdrive, it’s just distortion.” The Warthog has a bit of welcome grit and grim around the edges that certainly betrays its bit of fuzz DNA within its heritage of distortion. Mick continued, “for me, this is more that kind of breaking amp sound that’s very different from the others…it’s got more in common with a really good transistor overdrive. I just love the dirtiness of it.”
The Suhr Riot (and now Riot Reloaded) was another top pick. Incredibly versatile, smooth, and rich, the Riot has a three-way voicing switch and sensitive knobs for tone, distortion, and level that make for everything from a sneaking silent assault to flat out warfare. For Dan, the Suhr was a win on several fronts: “It’s got that compression in there but still has top end and sizzle, that natural, warm, but hi-gain thing is still there.” As Mick reflected, the sound was somewhat reminiscent of pushed Marshall, almost Van Halen-esque.
Last, but never least, the Keeley DS-9 entered the equation and comparison on TPS. As it’s name suggests, the pedal takes the original Boss sound as it’s departure point and pairs it up with another classic circuit inspired by the Maxon Sonic Distortion pedal. The two sides are switchable and include key features like bass control, which ensures the crunchiness and bite don’t come at the cost of the bottom end.
So that’s a quick tour through the episode with some key gear. If you’re in the market for pedals from Suhr, Keeley, Boss, or ThorphyFX, head over to Riff City and explore all things overdrive, distortion, and fuzz.
TPS Rig Rundown
Guitars: Fender Custom Shop 1963 Telecaster; Fender American Vintage ’62 Stratocaster; Gibson Custom 1958 Les Paul Standard; Gibson Memphis 1958 ES-335.
Pedals: D’Addario Pedal Tuner, 1980 Boss DS-1, Boss DS-1 (Reissue), ZVEX Distortron, Bogner Burnley, ThorpyFX Warthog, MI Audio Super Crunchbox, Suhr Riot, Keeley DS-9, TC Electronic Flashback 2, Neunaber Immerse.