Why Your Guitar Overdrive and Distortion Doesn’t Sound Right

Bob Leggitt | Friday 4 July 2014
Mesa V-Twin overdrive unit

Overdrive and distortion effects for electric guitars (including those built into amps) are one of those things that manufacturers and marketing departments can really talk up. But the reality of what you get when you use them is often a very different story. The picture is a familiar one… You hear a sound on a recording or at a live gig. You want that sound. You buy the gear you believe will create that sound. It doesn’t work. You get the distortion, but it sounds different, and you don’t get the vibe, the vitality or the excitement.


So first of all, why is it so common for guitarists to have such difficulty getting the overdrive and distortion sounds they want? One reason is that there are many different types of overdrive and distortion, and pinpointing which type is being used is not always straightforward in the first place.

But more centrally, the problem stems from the fact that most great overdrive and distortion sounds are not primarily founded on the fundamental feature of distortion and overdrive: clipping. Clipping is merely a contributor towards the sound, but because it’s the easiest contributor to identify, guitarists tend to think it explains the whole thing.

It very rarely does, and therefore, if relied upon to reproduce a great guitar sound, clipping alone so often fails. It doesn't matter if you're using a valve/tube or solid state arrangement either. Valves do clip in a harmonically rich way, but that doesn't in itself create an iconic tone.


One of the most common ‘hidden’ ingredients in great overdrive sounds is compression. Most great overdrive sounds owe at least as much to the speaker’s struggle to handle the volume, and that struggle results in a lot of squeezing in the levels. The sound is compressed, and that effect can be approximated by chaining a compressor with your overdrive. Set the amount of overdrive as subtly as you want, then forget about the drive and ‘make’ the sound with the compressor. If it’s milder overdrive sounds you’re after, this will often be a great help at lower volume.


Speaker type and quality comes next. I used a Laney AOR30 valve/tube combo amp for a couple of years in the 1980s. It had a pre-gain section and was very highly recommended as a route to fantastic distortion sounds. It was nice, and very advanced for its time, but I never felt it set the world on fire. Then our band moved rehearsal rooms, and found ourselves sharing with another band, whose guitarist used to leave a Marshall 4x12 speaker there. The temptation to try the 4x12 with the Laney eventually won through.

I knew it wouldn’t sound the same, but the improvement was staggering. It was a completely different sound, which didn’t appear to be coming from the same amp. A speaker can easily make or break a distortion or overdrive sound and is at least as important, if not more so, than the distortion effect itself.


Then there’s the guitar, and in particular, its pickups. Pickups not only drastically affect distortion and overdrive potential with the strength of their initial signal – their tone also has a huge bearing on the smoothness and musicality of the clipping. If you find your overdrive too fuzzy or gravelly, feeding in a signal with more midrange will help to smooth things out.

Pickups that excel with overdrive and distortion are often not the ones that sound the best clean. In my experience, the prettier a pickup sounds without overdrive, the uglier it’s likely to sound with. A substantial midrange kick in a pickup sometimes makes things sound quite ill-defined with clean amp settings, but it comes into its own when you distort.


There’s no substitute for high volume. As a guitarist you’re so often confronted with people who want you to moderate your level. But it may be their own best interests they have at heart, rather than yours. If you do have to deal with restrictions and calls for lower volume, it’s always worth remembering that professionals are likely to be a lot less inhibited. One of the reasons they can get such great sounds is that even in practice situations they’re most often free to do what they like. You can’t properly experiment with getting the best, high volume overdrive or distortion sounds if you’re constantly trying to pacify neighbours or other parties.

As well as the hard-to-replicate effects of a speaker being driven to its limit, high volume also often enforces power amp overdrive. If the pre-amp is creating its own distortion, which is then being fed into a power amp which is also breaking up, you're really getting two types of clipping, one on top of the other. This can, to an extent, be approximated at lower volume by using a mild overdrive after the main distortion in your signal path. But again, you won't really duplicate the sparkling power of a loud setup to perfection, because physical volume has a different sound pressure level and interacts with its surroundings differently.


With bigger distortion sounds on professional recordings, studio techniques so often play a part in the result. Double-tracking or multi-tracking guitar parts makes things sound bigger and more powerful. The result might sound like one guitar, but it could be a stereo combination of two, four, or more.

Putting a very short delay between the left and right feeds of a stereo output is another old studio trick for making a guitar sound bigger. Great producers keep getting work at the top end of the industry because they know the tricks, and they make a huge difference. If you don't have the luxury of working with those producers and the best studio recording and processing equipment, recreating the sounds you hear on record is always going to be difficult, however much you pay for an amp or stomp box. But at least you now know some of the reasons why.


Finally, of course, the way you set up, string and play your guitar is critical in how your overdrive/distortion pans out. Thicker strings will deliver a fuller tone that suits milder overdrive sounds. Stevie Ray Vaughan epitomised this with his very heavy strings, hot pickups, and consequent, gutsy raunch. But analyse his tone and there often isn’t really much distortion at all. His playing sounded powerfully overdriven, but the real key elements were compression, derived from a beefy signal, high volume and a speaker under pressure, and the expressive features of Vaughan’s own, viciously attacking technique.


In the end, just because you can hear clipping in a guitar sound, it doesn’t mean that’s the main ingredient. Suppliers of overdrive and distortion effects, amps, preamps and the like, will inevitably want you to believe that your entire needs can be met by one simple purchase. But if it were that easy, those fantastic sounds you hear from professionals would not stand out. Everyone would be producing them, and rather than coming across as spectacular, they’d seem very ordinary.

Being a professional can be as much about knowing sonic secrets as playing well or coming up with creative ideas. It should never be underestimated how closely guarded those secrets may be. Sure – pro’s will endorse gear. They get paid to do so. But chances are they’ll never tell you the full recipe for their sound. It’s part of their livelihood, and giving away any recipe in a situation like that is not a good idea. But that doesn’t mean you can’t discover those secrets for yourself.