There are a variety of reasons you might want to move away from using a distortion pedal. Personally, I would recommend this because amp-based distortion is almost always better and easier to work with. Your amplifier should be the purveyor of both your clean and distorted tone.
In other words, it should be the starting point for those two sounds, able to handle the heavy lifting without any external assistance.
Most of the time, amplifiers are good at this.
Thus, it makes sense for us to remove the third-party distortion and just let the amp do its work.
That's my rationale.
If you have other reasons for ditching your distortion pedal, share it in the comments section below.
Read more: Best guitar pedals overall
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Embrace the Role of your Amplifier
As I've already mentioned, your amplifier is the primary source of both types of guitar tone:
- Dirty (high gain/distorted)
Distortion is simply a sound produced by increasing gain and then capping its output. To do this properly, you need the combination of a preamp and power amp that you get from in a guitar's amplifier.
Read more: Best guitar amps
In fact, distortion pedals are - in a sense - just tiny amplifiers that we use to send a distorted signal into our preamps. This is not the ideal way to create distortion.
Most guitar players accept the idea that clean tone starts with your amplifier. This happens first at the preamp level where your tone is given gain and EQ'd, usually with three bands.
At the Preamp Level
From there, your signal is pushed to the power amp level where it can be given more volume (output) before it is pushed out to the speaker. The power amp also usually handles presence and reverb controls.
At the Power Amp Level
- Output (overall volume)
Together, these two elements create what most call your clean or base tone.
Most amplifiers have a second preamp channel, with a higher gain setting that's called the "dirty" or distorted channel. This is essentially a built-in distortion pedal that uses your amplifier's circuits to push gain up against a volume threshold. As gain goes up and volume stays static, distortion levels increase.
All of this activity should happen inside your preamp and power amp, especially if you're running some kind of tube amp.
If your amplifier uses tubes to power the preamp and power amp, then it should have as much say as possible in both your clean and distorted tone. Your distortion should be coming from these tubes and not somewhere else.
Digital Distortion Pedals
For example, say you're running a tube amp, but you add a digital distortion pedal and use it to play a distorted sound over your amp's clean signal. You've suddenly replaced an expensive tube circuit with a cheap digital processor, that is covering up your clean tone.
We'd say skip the pedal and let the amp do its job.
Replace your amp, if necessary
"But Bobby, my amp is a piece of junk. I need a pedal to make it sound better."
If that's the situation you're in, my honest recommendation would be to replace/upgrade your amplifier. You can get decent tube amps for around $500, though I wouldn't mind spending up to $1000 if you can get something that'll handle your distortion.
Instead of adding a distortion pedal, put that money towards a decent amplifier.
The amp you get should have the following features:
- Tube power at the preamp and power amp levels
- At least two footswitchable preamp channels
- One channel designated for distortion and high gain
Get a channel switcher
Once you have this amp, I'd recommend getting a channel switcher, if the amp doesn't already have one (many amps include a channel switcher in their purchase, though I'd recommend checking the fine print). Usually they look something like this:
These pedals let you switch between channels on your amplifier, allowing you to move to your clean or dirty signal whenever you want. This effectively becomes your distortion pedal, but is controlling your amp directly.
Play clean when you can
Another tip for getting away from your distortion pedal is to simply play clean as often as possible.
You'll find that distortion pedals cover up your tone and are easy to overuse. Spend some time playing without them, instead using just a bit of breakup from you amplifier's gain channel.
We'd recommend spending most of your practice time playing clean, then using distortion only for situations where it sounds good and doesn't oversaturate your clean signal.
Use your effects loop
If your amplifier has an effects loop, use it for modulation and ambient effects.
Distortion pedals should stay outside of the effects loop, but having other pedals in the loop will help preserve your tone and improve the quality of the effects.
Run modulation and ambient effects
With that in mind, make it a point to use more modulation (chorus, phaser, tremolo) and more ambient effects (delay, echo, reverb) to help layer your clean signal.
This helps you play clean more often, as they're better effects to rely on than your distortion pedal. As often as you can, try to work them into your playing so you can come up with more ways to play through a clean channel.
They'll help you get unhooked from your distortion pedal.
Is it always bad to use distortion pedals?
No, certainly not.
We just shouldn't use them at the expense of our amplifier, because in almost every case, the amp is the better tone creator. It cost more and is built specifically to handle high gain, which is all distortion really is.
I would at least recommend trying to get by with your amp's distortion before you go looking for a third-party distortion pedal.
This goes double if you've gone through the trouble and expense of getting a decent tube amp.
Your Questions and Comments.
Have thoughts about ditching your distortion pedal?
Maybe you think I'm wrong (maybe I am) about all this?
If so, leave me a note in the comments section below and we'll chat.