Most guitar players don't use distortion pedals.
If you look at pro guitar rigs you might see an overdrive on occasion, but the distortion pedal, as most amateurs understand it, is usually nowhere to be found.
Because professional guitarists almost always get their distortion from their amplifiers, what might be called the "dirty channel" and a subsequent high gain setting. This works for them because they typically have high-end guitar amps with tube-driven onboard distortion.
This almost always sounds better than what you can get out of a pedal.
It's also the more correct way to produce distortion, because true high gain occurs when you have volume pushed past the clipping point at the preamp level, and then a volume control on the power amp that caps overall output.
If you're trying to settle on a distortion source, we'll walk through deciding between relying on an amplifier or a distortion pedal.
Read more: Our distortion pedal roundup on Medium
Take the Quiz
What kind of amp do you have?
Take some time to analyze the amplifier you have on hand. If you're thinking about purchasing a distortion pedal, you might be able to save yourself the money by relying on the amp that you've already bought.
Here are a few things to look at:
- Number of channels
- Switching mechanism
- Type of gain control
- Quality/style of gain
How many channels?
Does your amplifier have more than one channel? If it does, it's likely that at least one of those additional channels are designed specifically for high gain settings. The following is a pretty common setup:
- First channel: Clean/low gain
- Second channel: Dirty/high gain
Sometimes a third channel will be provided simply for having the flexibility of a third gain setting, perhaps to create a less intense form of distortion. If your amp provides multiple channels, see what the dirty channel sounds like and if the distortion satisfies.
How do you switch between channels?
Amplifiers that have more than one channel will also have a mechanism for switching between them. It might be a physical switch a MIDI-controlled footswitch, or a simple knob.
If you have a footswitch
If the amp includes a footswitch (or you can buy one) to change the channel, you'll be able to engage a distorted tone from your pedalboard, just like you would a distortion pedal.
This makes the amplifier option even more enticing.
If you don't have a footswitch
However, if you can't procure a footswitch (for whatever reason), you'll then have to switch channels by hand, which I would not recommend.
That's a major downvote for using your amplifier.
Amplifiers with a single channel or no footswitch, should be used for a base clean tone, then supplemented by a distortion pedal.
Type of gain control?
What type of gain control do you have on your amplifier?
You at least need two controls for dialing in distortion on your amp:
- Gain (usually at the preamp level)
- Volume (usually at the power amp level)
As I've already mentioned, most gain controls will be set at the preamp level while volume or "output" is set at the power amp level. These knobs will look the same on the front panel, but they're set up to allow setting your gain or distortion level to be set before the power amp determines your final volume.
In other words, your guitar's signal goes to the preamp first, then gets pushed out through your power amp to a speaker.
You might see different verbiage used knobs. For example, in the following image you have the preamp gain control listed as "volume" and the power amp volume control listed as "master."
In this case, the "volume" being placed at the preamp level is technically a gain control.
Either way, the result should be the same. You should have a way to control distortion levels and volume level overall.
Amps with multiple channels might also break it down with gain/volume controls for each individual channel, like we see in the Mesa Dual Rectifier:
How good does it sound?
The next question you have to answer is a simple one: How good does the distortion from your amplifier sound?
Moreover, does it suit the style of distortion you want to play? Because an amp might have distortion and it might even meet a decent quality standard. But we need to add the context of style, because a bluesy distortion sound is not going to be the same as metal distortion.
- Blues: Low gain/overdrive
- Metal: High gain/distortion
While a lot of amplifiers can do both, there are also many that lean to one side or the other.
For example, the Fender Deville has a powerful tube distortion, but it's more bluesy and warm. It's not heavy or saturated enough to pass for metal or modern rock. In that situation you have a great amplifier with onboard distortion, but the distortion isn't well-suited for every style.
Some amplifiers with distortion can handle both vintage and modern styles, like the following:
Make sure that your amp - or the amp you buy - produces a distorted tone that fits into the style(s) of music you want to play most.
Advantages of the Pedal Route
For this section, I'll assume you don't have a decent amplifier that you trust with your distortion. Maybe you like the clean tone, but the gain? Not so much.
Here, we'll look at some of the implications and advantages of going with a distortion pedal.
Using a distortion pedal is not necessarily bad or wrong.
There are some positives worth noting:
- Much cheaper than an amplifier
- More flexibility (distortion pedals come with their own controls)
- Easier to move around and transport
- Works in conjunction with your amplifier
- Distortion pedals have gotten better in recent years
The market has produced some excellent distortion pedals within the last couple of decades. We recommend two in particular:
- Amptweaker Tight Metal JR
- Empress Effects Heavy
We've used and tested both these distortion pedals and they are absolutely fantastic
Using a distortion pedal becomes a more plausible route if you don't want to (or can't) spend the money on a decent amplifier. Because cheaper amps can usually handle a clean tone, but few of them compete effectively when it comes to high gain and distortion.
If you're in a situation where you already have an amplifier that's decent, but not to where you trust it with your distortion, going with a distortion pedal is likely the better option.
Advantages of the Amplifier Route
Those with higher end amplifiers - particularly tube amps - are unlikely to need a distortion pedal, and should do everything they can to use the amp they have for as much of their tone as possible.
Here are some of the advantages of using your amp for distortion:
- Usually a better quality gain
- Better integration with clean tone
- Easier to transition between clean/dirty
- Amp-based distortion usually meets a much higher tone quality standard
If you have a high-end amplifier with a distorted channel that already sounds great, I wouldn't recommend wasting money on a distortion pedal. All of this really comes down to the quality and functionality of the amp you have on hand.
If that amp can do the job, let it.
Don't get a pedal to do something that amplifiers are uniquely designed to do.
For those who haven't purchased an amp, this is something that you should consider up front. You might have to spend more for a nicer amp, but in the end it'll be worth it because you'll have something that can produce a great clean tone and a great distorted tone.
If you have questions about whether you should use a pedal or amplifier for your distortion, feel free to leave me a note in the comments section below. We've built a decent-sized community on Guitar Chalk, so others are likely to chime in there as well and we can improve this article together.
I'll see you there.