In this article we're going to outline a step-by-step process that will show you, in pictures, how to use a distortion pedal with your electric guitar. This instructional article is intended for beginners, or those who are considering a buying a distortion pedal but want to understand how it works before taking the plunge.
To follow this guide, you'll need the following:
- A distortion pedal
- An electric guitar
- An amplifier
- Two instrument cables
- A pedal power supply, 9V battery, or appropriate power supply for your distortion pedal
We'll cover every detail of how to get started using your distortion pedal, including the following:
- How to connect
- How to power
- How to engage
- How to tweak
These are the four primary tasks involved with using a distortion pedal, so we'll cover all of them in plenty of detail. Let's get started with task number one, which is connecting your distortion pedal.
Watch the Article (simple summary)
Step 1: Connect instrument cables
The first thing you'll need is two instrument cables. You'll connect one to the output on your guitar, then run the other end to the input on your distortion pedal. From there, you'll run a second cable from the output of your pedal to the input of your amplifier.
Step 2: Connect to a power source
Your distortion pedal cannot power itself, nor will it draw power from the instrument cables. Instead, you'll need to connect one of either an external power supply (usually with a 9V power cable) or a 9V battery. For more information on powering your guitar pedals, check the link below.
Read more: Guitar pedal power supplies
Step 3: Set your amp channel & volume
If you amplifier has a dirty and clean channel, make sure it's set on the clean channel so that the amp isn't already distorting your signal. Once you have a clean sound dialed in, set volume levels so that it's not too loud. You'll want your distortion pedal just slightly louder than your clean signal.
Read more: Guitar, amp, and pedal volume
Step 4: Neutralize pedal settings
Once you've got your amp settings normalized, set all the knobs on your distortion pedal to 12 o'clock, that way you'll have a control - or a starting point - to start fine-tuning your distorted sound. It'll also help make sure the levels aren't too high so that you won't have a shockingly loud burst of distortion once you turn the pedal on.
Step 5: Step on the pedal to turn it on
Step on the pedal's bypass switch (usually a button or pad) to turn on the distortion effect. You should now hear the distorted sound coming out of your amplifier when you play your guitar. Make sure the volume knob on your guitar is turned all the way up.
Step 6: Fine tune pedal settings
Now that you've got a distorted tone coming through your amp, it's time to fine-tune your distortion pedal settings. Set level first to be just a little bit louder than your clean tone. This is the overall volume or "output" of your pedal. From there, set gain or "distortion" to provide the amount of breakup or "saturation" you want. Some distortion pedals will have other controls like tone, noise gates, or other dials. Adjust those to your liking.
And, you're done!
From start to finish, that's how you use a distortion pedal. We've covered all the basics of physical connection, setting up, engaging, and tweaking settings, now all you need to do is play something awesome and get to know the distortion sound. If you have additional questions about distortion pedals that we didn't cover in this piece, feel free to drop a note in the comments section below and we'll be happy to respond there.