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How To Get The Most From Your Distortion Pedals

There are hundreds of boost/gain/overdrive/distortion/fuzz pedals available that make every kind of sound imaginable and the list keeps growing! Once you’ve put in the time deciding which ones are right for you, how can you maximize their potential in your particular pedalboard set up? Here are a few tips that will help you configure your rig to get the widest variety of useable tones from your distortion pedals.

Combine Pedals That Have Different Voices

When you’re evaluating your precious pedalboard real estate, combining pedals that sound different from each other will cover the most sonic territory. For example, the Electro-Harmonix Soul Food has a slight mid bump, especially as you increase the gain, and the Pro Co Rat 2 has a slight mid dip. Switching between them would give you two distinct sounds, especially if you set the Soul Food for medium gain and the Rat 2 for high gain.

Twist The Knobs

Distortion pedals sound and react differently at different settings. I like the Fulltone OCD with the knobs straight-up. However, it gets super-thick as you turn up the gain, filling the frequency spectrum, and conversely leaves more space the lower the gain is set. The High Peak function, which boosts upper-mids, is more apparent with higher gain settings. The Boss BD-2 is a low-to-medium gain drive that takes on a richer, fuller character at higher volume settings. This also drives the front-end of the amp harder, making it take on a different character as well. Pedals like the Radial Tonebone Classic or the Mesa/Boogie Flux-Five have lots of EQ and gain options, making them not only versatile on their own but in conjunction with other distortion pedals. For example, if you have a favorite distortion pedal, choosing another one with a lot of variables to pair with it could give you the best complement.

Play With The Order

When two distortion pedals are cascaded, the first in line influences the second by pushing the input and the second pedal becomes the dominant “voice.” Pedals such as the Visual Sound VS-XO already have this feature built-in. It’s two distinct overdrives in one pedal that allow you to change the order via separate ins and outs. I tend to place the lower gain pedal first so I can have three sounds: pedal one is “grit,” pedal two is “heavy,” and the combination is “over the top.”

More Pedals, More Sounds

Of course, but doing some quick math will illustrate my point. Two distortion pedals will yield three sounds but three pedals will give you seven possible combinations. If you choose wisely and tweak them out, having that many options can be very useful. If you have a channel-switching amp, the number grows again exponentially. This is where adding something a little more extreme such as the Wampler Velvet Fuzz or Bogner Uberschall would truly expand the range of your pedalboard.

I equate the various distortion pedal tones with spices in cooking or colors in painting; a pinch of this, a splash of that, and something bland or flat becomes spicy or colorful. With all of the tonal possibilities available, re-creating your favorite sounds or creating something totally unique is within your grasp.

Don Carr

About Don Carr

With a three-decade career as a professional guitarist in Nashville, Tennessee, Sweetwater's Don Carr has a long list of album credits in multiple genres of music. His resume includes hundreds of radio and television appearances, as well as thousands of live performances in America and abroad as lead guitarist for the legendary Oak Ridge Boys. Don provides Sweetwater with professional insight through product demos, reviews, how-to’s, and group instruction. He is also the first-call session guitarist for Sweetwater Studios.
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