Distortion in Metal: From Accidental Discovery to Signature Sound

The story of metal music is incomplete without understanding the role of distortion. From its accidental discovery to its intentional use in crafting iconic metal tracks, this is the journey of distortion.

Distortion in Metal: From Accidental Discovery to Signature Sound
Photo by YEH CHE WEI on Unsplash

The Crunch Before the Roar

Believe it or not, this iconic sound didn’t start with leather-clad rockers. Oh no, it began in the soulful alleys of blues and the lively venues of Western swing. These early guitarists, with their slicked-back hair and polished shoes, were on a quest. They weren’t looking for the lost chord, but rather a sound—a gritty, raw sound that echoed the rough edges of their tunes. And thus, in their pursuit of something grungier, they laid the foundation for what would become the roaring anthem of metal music.

How a Few Watts Changed Music Forever

Did you know it all began with a few happy accidents and some rebellious musicians? Let’s rewind a bit. Picture this: It’s 1931, and the guitar amplifier has just made its grand debut. Fast forward to 1947, and Leo Fender drops the Super Amp, pushing a whopping 18 watts. Guitarists, being the curious creatures they are, cranked up the volume, and voila! The amp went into overdrive, giving birth to that fuzzy distortion we all adore.

Now, while many argue about who truly brought distortion to the limelight, Johnny Burnette’s Rock ‘n Roll Trio in 1956 is a name that often pops up. But let’s not forget Junior Barnard, the genius who designed his humbucking pickups to produce a louder tone, pushing his amp into sweet, sweet overdrive. And then there’s Goree Carter, who in 1949, took distortion to a whole new level with his Chuck Berry-inspired licks.

But the 1940s weren’t just about deliberate distortion. Some of the dirtiest guitar tones came from, well, accidents. Take Ike Turner & His Kings of Rhythm’s 1951 hit “Rocket 88”, where the distorted rhythms were all thanks to guitarist Willie Kizart’s clumsy moment with his amp. And who could forget Link Wray’s “Rumble” from 1958? That menacing overdrive? All thanks to a pencil stabbing a speaker cone.

These guitar gods, with their quest for the grittiest and heaviest tones, laid the foundation for metal guitar as we know it.

The 1960s saw distortion take center stage. Dave Davies of The Kinks, in a moment of sheer genius (or madness), slashed his amp’s speaker with a razor blade for the iconic sound in “You Really Got Me”. And then there’s the legendary Jimi Hendrix, who not only introduced new guitar effects but also played through powerful Marshall amps, setting the stage for the likes of Clapton, Townshend, and Page. These guitar gods, with their quest for the grittiest and heaviest tones, laid the foundation for metal guitar as we know it.

What Makes That Gritty Sound?

At its core, distortion and overdrive are all about tweaking the audio signal of electric musical instruments. The result? That “fuzzy”, “growling”, or “gritty” tone that’s music to our ears. While the electric guitar is the poster child for distortion, this effect isn’t picky; it can be applied to other electric instruments too.

Now, for the tech-savvy among us, distortion is all about modifying a signal’s waveform. In the musical realm, we’re talking about nonlinear distortion, which brings in new frequencies. These can be harmonic overtones or the more chaotic “inharmonic” tones resulting from intermodulation distortion. Ever heard of “soft clipping”? It’s a gentle way to flatten a signal’s peaks, introducing harmonics. On the flip side, “hard clipping” is the wild child, doing the job abruptly and giving us that “harsh” sound.

The old-school method to achieve this distorted bliss? Overdriving the valves in an amplifier, especially those swanky class-A triodes. This creates a soft, asymmetric clipping, producing a mix of even and odd harmonics. The result? That “warm” overdrive sound that’s become synonymous with classic rock and metal.

But the world of distortion isn’t limited to just amplifiers. We’ve got a whole arsenal of tools, from effects pedals and rack mounts to pre-amplifiers and digital modelling devices. And let’s not forget the software that lets us recreate that iconic sound with just a few clicks.

The Grit Behind the Metal

Metal music and distortion go together like headbangers and long hair. While metal’s roots can be traced back to the guitar styles of 1960s-era blues rock, psychedelic rock, and folk harmonic traditions, it’s the amplified distortion that gives the metal its unmistakable bite.

By the time the late 1960s rolled around, bands like Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath were cranking up their amps and embracing heavy distortion, setting the stage for the birth of the heavy metal sound. This distorted symphony became the genre’s defining characteristic, and let’s be honest, it’s what makes us want to throw up the horns and headbang.

Distortion isn’t just about making things loud and fuzzy; it’s about capturing the raw emotion and intensity of metal music. It’s the tool that allows metal musicians to project their feelings in their most unfiltered form. This gritty sound has been the holy grail for musicians, giving metal its aggressive edge and setting it apart from its rock cousins.

n 1966, the British company Marshall Amplification released the Marshall 1963, an amp that could produce that coveted distorted “crunch”. This “heavy crunch” was further enhanced by “palm muting” the strings, creating a tighter sound that emphasized the low end. This technique became the backbone of many a metal song, with rhythm guitarists laying down power chords and riffs, while lead guitarists shredded solos and melodic lines, all with that signature distorted tone.

It’s the heart and soul of the metal sound, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Speaking of gear, metal guitarists have a love affair with high-gain vacuum tube amplifiers. Brands like Marshall, Carvin, Peavey, and Mesa Boogie have become household names in the metal community. And it’s not just about the amps; it’s about the sheer volume. Some metal guitarists use setups with 18 or more speaker cabinets, each housing four 10″ speakers. This isn’t just about being loud; it’s about immersing the listener in the sound, giving them a jolt of youthful energy.

And then there’s “shredding”, a virtuoso lead guitar style that’s become synonymous with metal. Shredding involves a range of fast playing techniques, from sweep-picked arpeggios to finger-tapping, all enhanced by the power of distortion. Shred guitarists often use solid-body electric guitars and a plethora of electronic effects to craft their unique tone.

In conclusion, distortion in metal isn’t just about cranking up the volume. It’s a blend of technique, intent, and the right equipment. It’s the heart and soul of the metal sound, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.