Who knew dirt was so difficult?!
One of the toughest customer queries we face here at PGS is helping people find the perfect pedal for dirt. Everyone has a unique rig, unique abilities, unique ears, etc. There are so many options in the land of dirt (boost, overdrive, distortion, fuzz) to say nothing of the sheer quantity of pedals available. It’s not just trying to help someone find a needle in a haystack, it’s trying to help them find one specific needle out of the hundred of them hiding in the haystack!
Overdrive. Distortion. Fuzz. To get to the bottom of what each of those tones are, we’ve got to start with actual sound waves. When pedals or amps are pushing out audio signals and the level reaches the point where the output level cannot be increased without changing the input signal—clipping occurs. A clean audio signal viewed by a scope will be a line of smoothly rounded waves. When clipping occurs, the peaks and valleys of that signal are no longer smooth and rounded but instead flatten out at angles. This creates: distortion! Voila! Pedals and amps are therefore designed to manipulate that waveform at varying levels—boosts and overdrive pedals push the waveform peaks and valleys just a bit, while distortions and fuzz pedals crush the signal curves.
Amp saturation is typically thought of as the holy grail of dirty tones—a good tube amp being pushed into saturation is unbeatable. In the days of yore, this meant cranking up your Twin or AC30 to levels that were only appropriate for the stage of Madison Square Garden! Impractical! And dangerous to your hearing! Thankfully, the amp market has seen resurgence in small, low-wattage tube amps which let you crank the amp and push the tubes to get that magical tube saturation at lower volumes. Running one of these smaller “lunchbox amps” along with additional signal-crushing pedals can yield wonderful results.
A boost pedal can be just the thing you need to push your amp just over the edge into breaking up. Boost pedals are designed to increase the output of your instrument without adding any other color or changing your instruments tone and are fabulous tools for reaching the sweet spot of your amp’s own saturation. Some companies add boost functionality into other pedals—the Mojo Hand Rook Royale is a pedal that pairs an overdrive and a modified Echoplex preamp boost, allowing for ultimate tonal flexibility for you and your tube amp. Xotic makes a very size-conscious boost pedal, the EP Booster, that effortless fits on any pedalboard and that has more juice than you or your amp could ever need to find that sweet spot.
Many players use overdrive pedals AS boost pedals; Zakk Wylde famously used a Boss Super Overdrive in front of his Marshalls as a lead boost. Overdrive pedals go one step further than boosts, though, as they’re capable of producing added overdrive from within the pedal—which usually layers nicely with an already-overdriven amp OR colors a clean amp. Overdrives typically allow you to clean up the signal by rolling back your guitar’s volume knob and can be extremely flexible tools in your arsenal. Almost everyone has at one point owned a version of the classic Ibanez Tubescreamer—a pedal so famous that nearly every pedal maker has done a clone of the circuit. It’s symmetrical, soft clipping is arguably a benchmark for overdrive pedals.
Where overdrive pedals clip the signal just enough, distortion pedals clip the signal like mad. The sound wave is crushed into hard edges and angles, creating a gnarly wall of sound. On the whole (but not as a rule, necessarily), distortion pedals are often used with cleaner amps; because they’re so over the top, distortion pedals don’t typically add much to an already dirty amp, so players frequently use them in their signal chain for either/or dirt (either totally clean or totally dirty). The Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret MKIII was designed to be left on at all times in front of a clean amp to turn it into a loud, distorted Marshall-style amp.
Fuzz is on the bleeding, not cutting, edge of distortion/clipping and radically alters the sound wave. Fuzz is typically divided up into two main “types” of fuzz—one based on circuits using germanium transistors and the other based on circuits using silicon transistors. The Fuzz Face (originally by Dallas Arbiter) and Big Muff (Electro Harmonix) are two distinct examples of these different fuzz circuits. Silicon fuzzes are known for being better suited for playing single note lines that are fat, have a ton of sustain, and extra gain over germanium fuzzes. However, this is not to say that there are only two types of fuzz in this world—PGS alone carries over 140 different fuzz pedals that land all over the map in terms of tone, gain, and distortion. A few fuzz-favoring pedal companies are even making pedals with multiple fuzz circuits inside them—the Blackout Effectors Twosome Dual Fuzz is a dual pedal featuring the circuits of two of Blackout’s most popular fuzzes.
The world of saturation and gain is a giant one—there’s a nearly endless supply of tones available to you. I always advise customers to make the best educated guess they can on what pedal is going to be The One, but to not get discouraged if it isn’t—you usually have to try a few before you get to one that you like. When possible, get a few pedals at once to compare to one another—just like with wine or coffee tasting, it’s amazing how much easier it is to identify “flavors” and “tones” when you’re hearing them directly next to one another. And even though we at PGS can’t always find the right needle on the first try, we’re always here to help you look for it—give us a call any time to talk shop!
What’s your favorite dirt pedal/amp combo and how’d you lock in on it?! Inquiring minds want to know… Thanks as always for reading! See you next time… -PGS Fitz