Amp Distortion vs Pedal Distortion – What Suits You Better?

Author: Justin Thomas | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

Distortion is an important part of many guitarists’ sound, and choosing the right method is a personal journey. There are two main ways to achieve distortion: amplifiers and pedals.

Amp distortion offers a warm, dynamic tone. It's like adding personality to your sound. For example, amps like the Orange AD30H and Marshall JCM800 provide unique styles of distortion.

Pedal distortion, on the other hand, is known for its flexibility. You can adjust the settings for the perfect sound or even use multiple pedals for a totally new effect. Famous pedals like the Ibanez Tube Screamer and the Boss SD-1 are known for their distinct sound.

In this discussion, we'll compare the two methods, considering factors like tonal differences, versatility, convenience, and integration. We'll also see what choices legendary guitarists have made in their distortion journey. Let's explore the world of distortion together!

Cranking Up the Amp

We create amp distortion when we push our amplifier tubes to the max. It gives us a warm, dynamic tone that's incredibly responsive to our playing. Amp distortion's tonal quality is organic and rich. Guitar amp distortion adds heaps of character to your sound. Unlike using pedals, the distortion feels more connected to your guitar's personality.

My love for amplifiers began later in my journey as a guitarist. Inspired by skilled musicians like Vernon Reid, George Lynch, and Joe Satriani, I was drawn to sounds driven by effects.

However, it wasn't until my 30s, when I met a bluesman and played his diverse guitars through his Vox AC15 and Fender '65 Twin Reverb amps, that I realized the unique subtlety amps can offer compared to effects-focused setups.

The Orange AD30H or the Vox AC30S1, for instance, gives a very vintage, British-style distortion. The Marshall JCM800 provides an iconic hard rock crunch. Meanwhile, the Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier can produce a wide range of tones, from sparkling clean to extremely heavy distortion.

I have found that tube distortion has limitations. One major downside is that achieving it often means cranking up your volume, which isn't always practical. Each amp gives a different distortion, and I found it hard to commit as a teenager. So, if you're looking for a wider variety of tones, it can be limiting.

Put Your Foot Down with Pedal Distortion

Even as I've grown older, I still have a teenager's love for a stompbox, which probably explains why my Boss Katana mk2 is patiently waiting in the corner of my study for me to finish writing.

These days, I tend to pick up my PRS SE Paul's more often than my treasured 24-fret, Floyd Rose II bridged, shredding beast of a guitar, my Hamer Centaura. This modeling amp is filled with Boss effects that mimic some of the iconic Boss stompboxes found on the pedalboards of the world's top guitarists.

Pedal distortions have always given me a range of sound options. Whether I desired a slight crunch or an intense heavy metal tone, I've always been able to find it. The ability to tweak knobs to perfect your sound, or to combine pedals for an entirely new sound is incredibly exciting.

Plus, there's nothing quite like the joy of having the spotlight when the vocalist takes a break, giving us guitarists the space to stomp and truly let loose!

The Ibanez Tube Screamer, for instance, is known for its warm overdrive. This keeps your guitar's tone intact while adding a pleasant, tube-like crunch. The Boss DS-1 delivers a harder edge, ideal for rock and metal styles.

Then there's the Fulltone OCD that's famous for its rich and dynamic range. It provides that tube-amp-like distortion we all love. The ProCo RAT can deliver anything from mild overdrive to intense fuzz, making it super versatile. And let's not forget the Friedman BE-OD, a pedal that brings the tone of a British stack right to your pedalboard.

Pedal distortion provides a wide range of tonal options that are much more budget, and back, friendly than lugging around numerous amps (for us poor souls without roadies!) from gig to gig.

Amp vs Pedal Distortion: Find Your Balance

Let's discuss the tonal differences. Amp distortion, like that from the amplifiers that Jimmy Page or Eric Clapton used, delivers a warm, organic sound. It's part of the amp's character. Pedal distortion is more like an add-on. For instance, John Frusciante (Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Steve Vai often use distortion pedals to create their unique tones.

Here's another angle: flexibility and versatility. Pedal distortion takes the cake here. The world of pedals is vast, offering a ton of options to sculpt your sound.

You can even mix and match to find your perfect tone, just like Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine, Bruce Springsteen) does! With amp distortion, it's a bit more straightforward, which can be limiting but also easier to manage.

When we talk about convenience, pedals have a clear advantage. They're portable and easy to carry around. With an amp, especially if you're dealing with a bulky tube amp like Brian May's AC30 (well, 3 of them actually), it's more of a hassle.

Now, integration is a big factor too. Santana and Jeff Beck have long experimented with their setups to get their iconic tones. A pedal can fit easily into an existing setup, but it might not blend as well with your guitar’s natural sound. Amp distortion can feel more integrated, but swapping amps to change your tone isn't as simple.

Remember Vernon Reid's (Living Colour) massive pedalboard? Such a setup allows you to vary your tone from moment to moment, a more challenging task when relying on amp distortion alone.

Distortion: Marrying Tone, Cost, and Experimentation

Your playing style and musical preferences are paramount. If you're into the classic rock tones like Jimmy Page or Eric Clapton, amp distortion, like that from a Vox AC30 or a Marshall JCM800, might be your go-to.

But if you're into the wide tonal landscapes of Tom Morello or Steve Vai, pedal distortion with devices like the Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer or Fulltone OCD would be a great bet.

Next up, your tonal goals and desired distortion characteristics. If you're chasing raw distortion like Jimmy Page, an amp like the Orange AD30H could be perfect. But if you want flexibility and a wide tonal range, like John Frusciante, a distortion pedal would offer more versatility.

Cost is another big factor. Pedals like the Boss DS-1 or ProCo RAT are more affordable than high-end tube amps. But keep in mind, you might end up buying multiple pedals, which can add up! Or end up like me, consumed by racks!

Never underestimate the role of experimentation and trials. Grab your favorite axe and head to a music store with an array of amps and pedals to try out. Bring along some coffee and pastries for yourself and the staff. It's a sympathetic gesture that will earn you some extra time to experiment with the gear.

Signature Sounds: Distortion Choices of Legendary Guitarists

First up, Santana. He's known for his melodic solos and smooth distortion. A lot of his tone comes from experimenting with different amps. His choice of amp distortion gives his playing a warm, organic quality. It feels connected to his guitar's sound and responds beautifully to his playing dynamics.

Santana is renowned for modifying amps to get the perfect tone and keeping his tech on his toes by varying his setup from night to night!

On the other side of the spectrum, we've got Steve Vai. His tone is a smorgasbord of different effects, thanks to his love for pedals and powerful studio rack units.

He uses devices like the Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer, Boss DS-1, BOSS SD-1, and many others to create a wide range of tones. I could list almost every toy in the best-stocked guitar shop here.

His choices of pedal distortion allow him to be incredibly versatile, changing his sound from song to song, or even within the same song!

What can we take away from these legendary musicians? Well, your choice between amp distortion and pedal distortion should reflect your musical vision.

Do you crave the natural warmth of amp distortion like Santana? Or do you seek the flexibility and vast tonal landscape offered by pedals like Steve Vai? These are some questions that can guide your decision-making process.

Navigating the Distortion Landscape: Your Next Steps

Well, that's a lot of information to digest, right? Whether you're swaying towards the natural warmth of amp distortion or the diverse possibilities offered by pedals, the final choice lies in your hands (and ears). Here are some action steps to help you decide:

  • Audit Your Current Gear: If you've got an amp lying around, try fiddling with its settings. You might stumble upon an exceptional tone you never knew existed.
  • Test Run: Before making a purchase, try out different amps and pedals. Nothing beats the experience of hearing and feeling the sound firsthand. Don't forget the coffee and pastries.
  • Get Feedback: There are loads of experienced guitarists out there willing to share their knowledge. Be it online communities or a local guitar shop, don't shy away from asking for advice.
  • Look Ahead: Consider your long-term goals and how they align with your gear choices. Remember, your tone will grow with you, so keep an open mind.

There is no "one size fits all" with distortion. It's a matter of preference. So, plug it in, turn it up, and let your unique sound resonate!

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About Justin Thomas

Justin is a guitarist and qualified sound engineer. Growing up on the London rock scene in the '80s / '90s and progressing through DJing Progressive House in '90s London clubs, he now enjoys the quiet life playing with his cover band in Bangkok, Thailand.

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