“I wish they’d had electric guitars in cotton fields back in the good old days. A whole lot of things would’ve been straightened out.” -Jimi Hendrix




Nikola Tesla’s laboratory in Colorado Springs circa 1900. Public Domain photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Nikola Tesla, great scientist, inventor of alternating current (AC), bringer of man-made lightning, pioneer of radio, and all around electrical visionary, once described his thoughts upon witnessing static electricity jumping in a curtain of sparks from his cat’s fur to his hand:

“I cannot exaggerate the effect of this marvelous sight on my childish imagination. Day after day I asked myself what is electricity and found no answer. Eighty years have gone by since and I still ask the same question, unable to answer it. – Nikola Tesla


In the early 1960’s, guitarists would stumble onto something that would transform the way we played forever. Through a series of happy accidents, defects and limitations in sound amplification, guitarists discovered – or more accurately, chose to embrace, something that had been there all along, crackling in the glow of a vacuum tube like an ember hoping for a breeze.

We gave this effect many names: distortion, overdrive, gain, crunch, fuzz.. Each term meaning something technically different, but all referring to the same amazing property of electronic sound. We celebrate it the way we do too many scientific discoveries and artistic achievements – by taking it for granted.

The phenomenon of distortion had been with us ever since scientists like Tesla, Faraday, Morse and Edison began tinkering with the first crude electrical devices; it’s just that for so long we considered it to be nothing but noise, or errors in amplification, transmission or reproduction. It was a thing to be overcome, avoided, defeated, eradicated. It ruined and interfered with the natural sound of the human voice, or the purity of our recorded or amplified instruments like violins, pianos and guitars.

Engineers eventually won the battle against distortion, or at least found ways to minimize it, until the need for louder and louder amplification systems pushed us over the top again and again. Guitarists, as usual, kept turning the volume up and up, seeking the elusive “eleven” and pushing the amount of light and heat that could be contained in a glass vacuum tube until the signal repeatedly broke down and scattered in the air like an angry swarm of bees.

Michael Schenker with UFO

Then, somewhere, somebody, decided they actually kind of liked that defective, buzzy, gritty, fuzzy, crunchy, broken, sound. It wasn’t supposed to be there of course: a real guitar shouldn’t sound like that. Some might say it was Ike Turner’s guitarist Willie Kizar who first embraced it in 1961 while recording “Rocket 88”. Maybe it was his producer simply tolerating it because he had no choice. You might imagine him wiping sweat from his brow in a hot studio somewhere saying “that amp just ain’t right, but time is money. That’s a take.” Others might say distortion was born with Chuck Berry pushing his amp to the limit while recording the red hot “Maybelline”.


“On the wires I can feel you coming, with a rush and a strumming: it’s electric phase, ain’t no teenage craze.” – UFO


It hardly matters who was first to embrace it. We soon began to recognize distortion as a feature, not a bug: we started to see it as a desired effect rather than noise. By the time the members of the Kinks and The Who were slicing speaker cones with razor blades to get it, or Link Wray began using a pencil to poke holes in his speakers to record songs like”Rumble”, it was clear there was a new sound in town.

Then one hot July night, in 1964, we turned on our radios and were electrocuted by the scorching hot guitars of Dave Davies on the Kinks “You Really Got Me.” It must have had people scratching their ears. There probably should have been a disclaimer by the DJ:

“THERE IS NOTHING WRONG YOUR RADIO….”

It hasn’t been the same since.

Before long, the Gibson and Marshall companies, among others, would be building distortion into their circuits and trying to patent various methods for achieving this sound on purpose. An early Gibson patent shows that they were seeking “tone modification” in order to produce sounds that “mimicked the sounds of instruments other than the original”. (The patent specifically mentions, trumpets, trombones and tubas. That said, you would be forgiven in those days if you suspected that the opening riff of the Rolling Stones “Satisfaction” was recorded on Mars.)

We have come along way for sure. Today there are countless ways to modify a guitar’s tone electronically. In addition to distortion effects we have: chorus, wha, flangers, phasers, compressers, equalizers, delay’s, reverbs, harmonizers and synthesizers. We also have circuits that are designed to mimic specific, classic brands of amps, speakers, or combinations of amps and speakers; and some even mimic the sound of famous guitarist’s entire rig.


Photo by M.J. Murphy


“Electricity is really just organized lightning.” – George Carlin


Playing With Fire

Before electric guitars and synthesizers, we built instruments by carving them out of wood and shaping empty spaces where we could push air around and make it resonate. For all of history, music was born of a vibrating string, or a reed, or a drumhead, or a rushing column of air through wood or metal tube. We changed music forever when we tased it with electricity. Now we can squish it, twist it, bend it, warp it, duplicate it, bang it around in virtual echo chambers and send it bouncing through miles of silicon circuits, to satellites and back, and on into infinite space.

Where once we played music with wood, metal and air. Suddenly we were playing music with fire; and since the advent of modern overdrive, you could say it sure sounds like it.

Listen to something like Eddie Van Halen playing “Eruption”, Jimi Hendrix playing the “Star Spangled Banner” or any other overdriven guitar solo and think about what it sounds like. Forget for a moment that you are listening to a guitar and notice how it sounds like something else entirely, like pure electric energy, like a Tesla coil buzzing, cracking and snapping, or thunder and lightning, or radio static or a live high tension wire arching out of control…

Before overdrive and distortion, an electric guitar pretty much sounded like a guitar, maybe louder, maybe brighter or warmer, but it was still a guitar sound. After distortion we were in new territory. The overdriven guitar was really something new. In a musician’s hands, there is always a measure of control of this new sound, but in the best solos it often seems that, at any moment, the ultimate force of nature just might win the war and turn the guitarist into a smoking pile of carbon dust on the stage.


“What is a soul? It’s like electricity – we don’t really know what it is, but it’s a force that can light a room.”-Ray Charles


From an artist’s perspective, electricity has become the new clay we shape with our hands, the new rock we carve with our chisel and the new paint we spread with our brushes. We have put lightning in a box to do the work of sending music across the universe. This power is like a gift from above, brought by God’s angels, or by Ra, Apollo or Zeus. It could have been brought down from the heavens by Prometheus or Pegasus. However it arrived, it’s strange power remains a mystery, even to scientists, inventors and physicists like Tesla (and presumably his cat.)

Before long, we would all be shocked into new worlds by other cats like the Beatles, Yes, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, UFO, Cream, Rush, Genesis, Pink Floyd, U2, on and on it goes. Insert your favorite band here…

We have a river of ever evolving words that attempt to describe these sounds and we classify them as distortion, clipping, overdrive, fuzz, gain… These can sound dirty, crunchy, hard, soft, creamy, molten, thick, thin, fat, punchy… Some of us crave these sounds like we crave food. Guitarists will twiddle knobs, and link stomp box upon stomp box in the endless search for just the right weight, tone, taste, texture, acidity, bitterness or sweetness to the sound.

But for electric guitarists in the sixties, distortion soon became more than just a transformation of tone, although that transformation was radical. The real magic behind distortion was the appearance of something that was notoriously lacking in acoustic and early electric guitars and amps – sustain.


The Big Muff was a popular distortion stompbox used by Jimi Hendrix and David Gilmour among many others… (public domain image)


Sustain

For generations, guitarists (and piano players too) envied their fellow musicians who played violins, violas, cellos, saxophones, clarinets, organs, trumpets. These instruments enabled the player to sustain a note for what seemed an eternity compared to what the lowly guitar could eek out. The amplifier brought volume and distance, but distortion circuits delivered holy grail that was sustain. With powerful effect units like the Big Muff, guitarists could now hold a note for as long as their bowed counterparts. Wind instruments were limited by the lung capacity of the player, but a skillful string player could sustain a note for as long as he or she could move the bow back and forth across the string. Guitarists were hot on their trail, and Jimmy Page could put away his bow.


Jimmy Page famously bowing his Gibson Les Paul on “Dazed and Confused.”


Distortion, especially when artfully combined with feedback, enabled the electric guitarist to shoot notes across wide arcs of musical time and space. A guitarist could now say more with less. Like a painter moving from finger painting to using a finely crafted brush, a guitarist could suddenly stretch music in long, smooth, unbroken lines. At slower tempos, playing legato on an acoustic guitar was a challenge because the notes would fade out so quickly. With the added sustain that overdrive enabled, legato lines could be executed more easily and guitarists could string whole notes together with ease, and even tie them across many measures at a time.

In the sixties, the king of overdrive, Jimi Hendrix plugged in and began blending feedback and distortion into sonic lasers that burned across the planet’s airwaves. Then it was Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Steve Howe, Alex Lifeson, Robin Trower, David Gilmour, Michael Shenker, Eddie Van Halen, Andy Summers, Robert Fripp and The Edge, catching those ricocheting notes and holding them still longer only to hurl them father still into the cosmos where they are still ringing today.


“I’m still trying to re-create a Ray Charles concert that I heard when I was fifteen years old, and all my nerve endings were fried and transformed, and electricity shot through me.” – Boz Scaggs


Distortion gave the space-age guitar the gravity assist it needed to transform the guitar into something else altogether. We call it the electric guitar but sonically it is a completely different instrument. It is to the acoustic guitar as a rocket is to a bicycle, if the rocket could change its sound, shape, color and texture at will all along it’s path.

It’s a bit poetic that a phenomenon like distortion came to be one of the defining characteristics of the newer forms of music like rock, jazz and and heavy metal. Where traditional classical, folk and country could be said to be smooth, clean and focused; blues, rock and jazz were, in a sense, a distortion of all that. Electric guitars meant that these were rougher, more jagged and blurrier forms. But because of its ability to sustain notes and to create such smooth legato lines, this new sound was eventually embraced by all genres and distorted guitar solos are found everywhere today in smooth jazz, neo-classical, pop, reggae, funk, new age and ambient music, you name it – it’s there.

Guitarists can gloat a little bit when it comes to the magical influence of our chosen instrument. We continually pushed the envelope in the quest for tone and sustain. We wanted to improve and transform what a guitar could do and say. We brought the guitar to center stage of popular music where it burns proudly with hot, electric flame. Today, we can hook it up to synthesizers and realistically reproduce the sounds of countless other instruments. It seems to be limitless in expressive and sonic possibility. But for all our technology, the guitar remains a guitar at heart, at least in regard to the techniques we employ in performing music. Techniques like flat- picking, finger-picking, arpeggiating, bending, tapping, sliding, strumming, and exploring the theory of music remain at the heart of what it means to play a guitar; it’s just that now we are literally playing with fire.

And we may want to thank Tesla’s cat for all this. Because without it to spark his fascination with electricity we might still be playing acoustic guitars (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And, like Tesla, we may not yet know what electricity is exactly, but we can be thankful for the charge it has put into our music.


“Excuse me while I kiss the sky.” Jimi Hendrix


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