The Tinkering History of Guitar Distortion

Hands up if, like us, you take guitar distortion completely for granted. It’s dumbfounding to realize that, such as electric guitars themselves, distortion hasn’t been around for that long – or even that it was never popular until pretty much recently.

Yet the awesome thing about distortion is how it started: tinkering on broken amps or guitars, looking to control and expand a new sound that already came up uncontrollably on old, low-fi amps. Most discovered the sound accidentally, like Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm, when recording their song “Rocket 88” in 1951. Rhythm guitarist Willie Kizart got to the studio with a busted amplifier. Depending on whom you ask, the amp had been left in a trunk and rain leaked in, or had fallen off the car – what’s certain is that the resulting sound was pretty cool:

Soon enough, some musicians started to try and control distortion and bring into their own sound, by playing smaller amps to their maximum output. This method was known as “clipping” and widely used by Willie Johnson or Chuck Berry.

Yet most cases of distortion continued to happen coincidentally, by accident, with wider discoveries made once musicians tinkered with their amps in order to recreate the sound on stage or at the recording studio.

This is the case of Link Wray and his Ray Men, when they were invited to Cadence Records’ to record their song “Rumble”. Wray was not happy with how un-distorted the crisp, studio sound left the song, so he took a screwdriver to the amp and got to work – resulting in the first instrumental song banned from radio for its odd sound, which the American public thought would provoke juvenile delinquency:

What the song did provoke, though, was the interest of two bands that eventually went down in history for their own sounds: The Kinks and The Who. Both bands are known for having tinkered with instruments to create new sounds, but they’re also a huge part in instrument manufacturers taking notice of the need to control distortion.

First came trying to introduce distorted tones into amps, with Leo Fender and Jim Marshall (with a little help from his friend Eric Clapton), paving the way. But in 1960, Grady Martin went a step further. While recording for Marty Robbins’ “Don’t Worry”, Martin busted a key fuse on his bass, resulting in this distorted sound:

Martins actually took the time to figure out what went wrong – and then replicate it to play the song on stage. The result was probably the first fuzzbox ever made, which inspired The Vultures to try their own hand with the sound. Manufacturers started building their own, but not many musicians caught onto it.

Then, in 1965 The Rolling Stones’ released Satisfaction, using the Gibson Maestro Fuzz-Tone, which sold out its entire stock in less than a year after the song came out. In 1966, Jimmi Hendrix decided to combine the fuzzbox with Wah Wah pedals and Univibes – and the rest is history. And that’s only less than 50 years ago to reach the awesome, well-known sound of this Electric Loog Guitar distorting away: