by Scott Zimmerman

This article will walk you through the process of getting the distortion tone that you’re looking for. To see our article on how to get a great lead tone, see our article here.

There are so many distortion effect options available that it can be quite an overwhelming task when trying to decide on which one is right for you. However, if we take a look at the basic principles of sound distortion, it will be much easier to figure out which type of distortion is the best fit for the music you are making. Let’s start by understanding what causes a distorted sound and the three basic categories of distorted sound. Then we will discuss when and where to use these sounds and how to get them.

How Do You Get A Good Distortion Tone?: A good distortion tone is achieved by applying the correct amount of distortion and E.Q. to your guitar tone in order to serve your musical needs. 

Two Type of Soundwaves: Natural and Distorted

If you look at a sound wave on an oscilloscope, it will appear symmetrical with smooth lines and a natural rounded peak. On the other hand, a distorted sound wave will be asymmetrical with jagged lines, and a square top. The more the lines are asymmetrical and jagged, the more the sound is distorted.

For musical purposes, there are three methods for generating a distorted signal: 1) by overdriving a tube, e.g. a tube amplifier, 2) through solid-state circuitry, e.g. solid-state amplifier distortion or an analog distortion pedal, 3) by digital means, e.g. effects processor or modeling amplifier.

Three Basic Categories of Distortion: Overdrive, Distortion, Fuzz

As the distorted guitar sound became more popular, guitarists sought after ways to control the amount of distortion. (Initially, the early distorted sounds were created by damaged speakers or intentionally damaged speakers, e.g. You Really Got Me by The Kinks. However, this method, although effective at creating a distorted sound, could not adjust the amount of distortion and created a distortion only amplifier.) Fast forward to today, now we have the ability to control the amount of distortion, and these levels of distortion, from minimal to extreme, have been given labels to describe them, e.g. overdrive, distortion, and fuzz.

Typically, most amplifiers have two channels: one is a clean channel, and one is a channel where distortion can be introduced into the original signal. (It is not common for amplifiers to have the option for extreme distortion called Fuzz- this is normally obtained through an effects pedal.) The gain or overdrive control will increase or decrease the amount of distortion in the signal. This is fine for practicing, or if you will be using only one sound per song, e.g. the blues. But, in rock music, using different amounts of distortion in the course of one song is common, e.g. rhythm guitar parts and solo parts; this is where effects pedals and multi-effects processors become very useful.

For each level of distortion, a dedicated pedal can be used. An overdrive pedal a.k.a Tube Screamer, will provide minimal distortion, which is useful for rhythm guitar parts; a distortion pedal will increase the amount of distortion, and therefore increase the sustain of the notes, which is good for solos. For even more extreme distortion sound, the fuzz type distortion is useful. By using effects pedals or multi-effects processors, the amount of distortion can be easily controlled by a footswitch, which allows for quickly moving between different amounts of distortion, depending on what is needed for each particular moment of a song.

How To Get A Good Distortion Tone: Practical Application

Note: For this discussion, we will be using the method that is most useful for playing many different types of rock music. 

Step 1: Find A Good Clean Tone

It is important to have an amplifier that can produce a clean tone; one that is pleasing to your ear. This will be the sound that you will use for any songs that need a clean tone, and it will be used as the base tone to create the distorted signal. (By adding a little distortion to your clean tone you can simulate a tube amp’s clean sound, e.g. Tube Screamer overdrive, or Blues Driver overdrive pedals- to mention a few.)

Step 2: Find Your Overdrive Tone – Light Distortion

This is your go to tone for rhythm guitar and lead fills, and will be your “workhorse” tone. If you are using a modeling amplifier, experiment with some of the classic overdrive models and add it to your clean sound. If you are using a traditional amplifier, you will need an overdrive pedal or overdrive sound from your multi-effects processor.

If you need to purchase one, demo the different offerings out there at a music shop, or borrow one from a friend to try. You may even want to have two types of overdrive pedals/models to choose from, e.g. very minimal overdrive which will make a clean sound a bit dirty, and a more aggressive overdrive sound for thickening your rhythm playing.

Step 3: Find Your Lead Tone – Heavy Distortion

Your lead tone will be used for playing solos and any heavy rhythm parts, e.g. power chords. For this tone, you will want a maximum amount of distortion, and therefore, a dedicated distortion pedal or preset on your effects processor. The amount of available distortion in a distortion pedal will go beyond what is available in an overdrive unit. This will not only create the extra sustain needed for soloing, but will provide the means to boost the volume. (Most distortion pedals allow you to control volume level, amount of distortion, and tone).

This is important because the volume of the guitar will need to be greater than the other instruments during the solo if it is to be heard clearly. For more information on creating a killer lead tone, you can check out my article here. In addition to a distortion pedal, you may want to add a fuzz distortion to your rig.( If you are on a budget, get the distortion pedal first and then add the fuzz box.) For a sound reference, listen to Hendrix’s sound- this is the classic fuzz distortion sound.

Fuzz distortion is very distorted and produces unusual harmonic overtones that create a very dense sound. This extra level of distortion can be useful for creating a vintage distortion sound when you are covering classic tunes; or, it can offer you a second soloing tone for variety.

Step 4: Unity Gain

This is an important step in making sure that all of your tones are relatively the same volume. One way to do this is to A/B your clean or input sound with the output of each effect. You want to avoid any extremes of volume or drop out of volume, so that, when you punch in an effect while playing, you are not coming in too loud or too soft.

This takes a bit of playing with to get the right unity gain that will work during a performance. Furthermore, you may want more volume on your guitar solos, in that case, set the output volume of the overdrive and distortion a little “hotter” than unity gain. 

Step 5: E.Q. or Equalization

In addition to adding distortion to your guitar tone, specific frequencies can be reduced or increased to shape the sound. This is called equalization. Determining what E.Q. settings to use is based on two factors: one is subjective and one is objective. Subjectively, E.Q. will allow you to produce the type of distorted tone that fits the style of music you are playing, e.g. a classic tone will be rich in the low-mid and mid-range frequencies; whereas, a typical Heavy Metal tone will consist of reduced or “scooped” mid-range frequencies. Objectively, E.Q. can be used to help the guitar stand out in the band.

For example, when playing lead guitar, your guitar will be using mostly mid-range frequencies; whereas, the bass and rhythm guitar will be producing low and low-midrange frequencies. By boosting your mid-range and reducing your low-mid range guitar frequencies, your guitar tone will be “carving” out, so to speak, its own frequency space, and therefore, will stand out better in the overall mix. Overdrive and distortion pedals either have a tone knob or a two or three-band E.Q. You will have more E.Q. control with a two or three-band E.Q. However, many good pedals only have a tone knob- let your ear be your guide in this area.

Sample Rig

Let’s create a basic rig that will “cover the bases”, so to speak, for most rock styles. Let’s assume that you already have an amplifier that will work well for gigging. Keep in mind that the pedals I suggest for this rig are only suggestions; you can swap out my selection for any like kind effect that you prefer.

For starters, let’s use an Ibanez Tube Screamer for the overdrive pedal and a Boss DS-1 Distortion pedal. If the budget allows, add a delay pedal as well: I suggest the Boss DD-3 Digital Delay. See our article here for some ideas on how to use delay to add to your lead tone. The overdrive pedal and the distortion will cost about $150- $200 together. The delay pedal will be an additional $150. So, for under $300, you can have a very professional set-up that will get the job done.

Alternative Rigs

Multi-effects processor or Modeling Amp

The principles are the same when you use a multi-effects processor instead of pedals. Practically speaking, you will want three to four presets that can all be accessed with one click. (That means they need to all be in one bank- it is not practical to have two clicks to access an effect when you are performing.) Here is a recommended order of sounds: 1) clean, 2) Overdrive, 3) Lead Tone (dry – no delay), 4) Lead Tone (wet – delay). This simple set-up will allow you to have the tones you need to perform and play well. (You don’t want to be “tone chasing” during a gig; that work should be done in preparation for the gig.)


Getting a good distortion tone is accomplished by deciding how much distortion you need for any given musical situation. You can control the distortion continuum during live performance by dividing the different amounts of distortion into different effects pedals. Using E.Q. will allow your guitar tone to find a place in the mix that will allow it to come forward and stand out. This is the essence of finding a good distortion tone.

About the author 

Scott Zimmerman

Scott Zimmerman is a professional music instructor with over twenty years of guitar performance and teaching experience. Scott holds a Masters Degree in Music Education from Peabody Conservatory.