Origins of Overdrive
Penicillin. Teflon. Corn flakes. Coca Cola. Distortion.
Some of our favorite things were discovered completely by accident.
The origins of overdrive aren’t documented as well as either of those things, but several accidents and simple technological limitations gave rise to the ubiquitous dirty tones we all know, love, and employ today. Dirt has become an essential part of modern music—it is arguably the most popular sonic effect in the world.
But it wasn’t by design.
The first instrument amplifiers of the '30s were somewhat lo-fi—they had simple tone circuitry and were very low-wattage. When players tried to coax more volume out of these amps, it caused the amps to distort mildly. This result wasn’t a desired one until many years later.
Though jazz players like Charlie Christian started experimenting with distortion in the late '30s and '40s, as did country players like Junior Barnard and blues legends such as T-Bone Walker, distortion didn’t really “arrive” until the '50s. As the legend goes, the distorted tone in Ike Turner’s 1951 song “Rocket 88” happened because guitarist Willie Kizart’s amplifier had been damaged during transport, resulting in one of the first recorded examples of distortion in rock 'n' roll.
By the mid-'50s, the tones produced by damaged amps, torn speakers, and weak, low-watt amps had become seriously sought after and guitarists began altering their instruments to produce these tones on purpose. Link Wray famously poked holes in his speaker cones and tweaked his amps’ vacuum tubes to produce his signature sound captured on 1958’s “Rumble.”
In the '60s, the Kinks and the Who continued this tradition, slashing speaker cones with razor blades and pincturing them with screwdrivers. As distortion became the sound of the day, amp makers began to take notice and started to design with that goal in mind. In the meantime, other mad scientists were engineering standalone units to produce these fuzzy tones. Maestro's 1962 Fuzz Tone is widely regarded to be the first transistorized guitar effect pedal to hit the market and has been immortalized in the intro to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
Some would say it all went downhill from there, except it went every which way. Circuit designers brought us distortion, they brought us fuzz, they brought us overdrive. Some of the most famous and legendary effects pedals in the admittedly short history of electric guitar are dirt pedals, most notably:
Electro Harmonix Big Muff Pi
A legend then, a legend now—the Big Muff is one of the original fuzz pedals and has stood the test of time thanks to its thick, sustainy fuzz. Here’s a quote from EHX founder/president/inventor/designer Mike Matthews:
"Back in 1969 I (Electro-Harmonix) was already selling the Muff Fuzz, which was a mild overdrive circuit in an LPB-1 box. I wanted to come out with a three knob distortion unit in a bigger box. I asked my buddy, Bell Labs designer, Bob Myer, to design a unit, one that would have a lot of sustain. When I got the prototype from Bob, I loved the long sustain. This was done by cascading the circuit into additional sections, each one clipped by twin diodes. However, when you clip, the tone can be a bit raspy. So, I spent a couple of days changing capacitors to roll off distortion in the highs, and eventually found that the best long sustaining tone that was a sweet violin like sound was done by having three capacitors in different parts of the circuit rolling off the rasp. We plunged into production and I brought the very first units up to Henry, the boss at Manny's Music Store on 48th Street, NYC. About a week later, I stopped by Manny's to buy some cables, and Henry yelled out to me, 'Hey Mike, I sold one of those new Big Muffs to Jimi Hendrix.' "
photo via kitrae.com
Ibanez TS-9/TS-808 Tube Screamer
Literally named after the concept of pushing a tube amp as far as it can go, the Ibanez Tube Screamer is THE overdrive pedal. When Ibanez was working on the Tube Screamer, Boss was already producing compact effects pedals like the OD-1. Boss had the wherewithal to get a patent on the asymmetrical clipping used in the OD-1, which left Ibanez to use symmetrical clipping in the Tube Screamer—a move that didn’t just work, it created the famous smooth overdrive that has been sought after since the 808’s introduction in 1979.
photo via analogman.com
For effects companies, producing an overdrive pedal is essential and typically the first circuit that is produced. We sell hundreds of different overdrives alone, to say nothing of fuzz and distortion and to say nothing of all the pedals that are out there that we don’t carry. There are an unlimited number of overdrive tones out there to satisfy an unlimited number of dirt-loving musicians—three cheers to the happy accidents along the way that brought us THE DIRT.
How many dirt boxes do you own? More importantly which one(s) can you NOT live without?!
Thanks for reading!