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Distortion imitates the warm, hard, growling sound of an amp cranked up full, even at low amp volumes . Adds sustain. Pushes the amp towards feedback. When played at full volume, a guitar with a distortion box plugged before the amp sounds even more powerful. The word distortion sounds like it would be a bad thing, but in this capacity, it's a good thing.

A distortion box usually has two or three knobs : volume, distortion, and sometimes some kind of tone knob.


My editor, Sandy, didn't get this. She added: "Michael: I'm kind of lost now. You were talking about effects boxes and distortion pedals, but how can a pedal have a knob? I thought we were talking about distortion as an effect that you could create using an effects box, but now it sounds as if it's an actual physical thing that has knobs. Can you clear that up for me?"

My very smart tech editor (and good friend) Michael Woody, added: "The pedal on an effects box, other than wah wah and volume, is strictly the On/Off switch. The knobs attenuate the various effects associated with the pedal and are adjusted by hand. I've seen Jay and Doug (Bomb) do this during live shows mid-song, and it can be both compelling and befuddling to behold. The pedal on old wah wah and all volume pedals is the only attenuator , and the On/Off switch is typically at one end of the pedal arch."

Distortion and fuzz boxes (and, to a lesser degree, most effects boxes) add a bit of volume to the signal, so it is useful to have the volume knob on an effect, to roll this back if you want to. Otherwise, every time you hit the switch on an effect, it will make you WAY louder than the rest of the band . This is not good. Except maybe you would want to leave one of your distortion or fuzz boxes (many guitarists use more than one) set a little louder than the unaffected sound, to give you an edge to make a solo stand out.

Or you could just leave them all louder than everything else. Set at 11.

All rules demand to be broken.

Good examples of a distortion box at work: Linkin Park: "One Step Closer." Pennywise: "Unknown Road."

A distortion pedal is sometimes also called a fuzz box, though technically this is a particular kind of distortion. A true fuzz box has a little bit more of a tight, less overdriven, more 60s sound.

Michael Woody also added, " It might be worth mentioning here that the fuzz box is responsible for certain renowned 60s bass tones ( Jack Bruce from Cream, for example), not just guitar sounds."

Fuzzbox examples: Portishead: Portishead, "Elysium." Hooverphonic: "Jacky Cane."

Figure 4.3. Digital delay.


Figure 4.4. Another digital delay.


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Delay is also referred to as an echo. It adds an actual physical repeat to the sound. The amount of repeat is measured in milliseconds (a.k.a. msthousandths of a second). You can make the delay anything from about 100 milliseconds (100 ms also called a slapback echo imitating the tape echoes that they used on the vocals of old rock-a- billy records. Or East Bay Ray's lead guitar in Dead Kennedys) to about eight seconds. At anything above a second, you probably wouldn't play it in rhythm in a song, unless you played sparsely and the band played to you, because all the notes would get covered up. (Keep in mind this rule is made to be broken.) You can also play single-note parts and play to yourself, in a sort of round setting ( round as in how some songs, like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," are made to be harmonized simply by having second and third singers come in late with the same melody). Brian May did this really well in Queen on "Brighton Rock."


Advice from an Expert

I asked East Bay Ray about this and he said:

"I used a Maestro Echoplex for all the Dead Kennedys albums, and I still use them in the studio to record. It has a tape cartridge with a recording head that moves to adjust the delay time. The unit you describe is another way of doing it; the Watkins Copy Cat and the Roland Space Echo are examples. I've only been using digital live for the past few years . I mostly use a delay of somewhere under 300 ms with feedback, Holiday, Moon, etc., and did the rock-a-billy slapback, maybe 100 ms, on only a few songs. Moon is also an example of harmonizing with the previous notes played."

A good standard setting for a delay is something in between, like 20 to 400 milliseconds, depending on the speed of the song and the desired effect. At this rate, you can play leads and single note parts over the music, especially slower playing, with a beautiful otherworldly thickness . Think David Gilmore in Pink Floyd. And check out the Bomb song "Hate Fed Love" on the CD. Most of the single note guitar on that one has some delay. Also check out Tristeza's "Respira," and "Everything's Not Lost" by Coldplay. And "Explosions in the Sky" by Godspeed You Black Emperor, and "House of Jealous Lovers" by The Rapture.

There are analog delays and digital delays. Both have their pluses and minuses. They just have slightly different sounds. Try them both. Some guitarists feel that they have enough differences if they have one of each.

Delays usually have three or four knobs: Delay speed, Mix (ratio of Dryunaffected signal to Wetaffected signal), feedback (or regeneration)the number of distinct echoes for each note played. Also determines how closely the delay comes to going "over the top" in a wash of noise. This can be used as an effect in and of itself. It's cool to hit a note or chord and let it spill over into noise. Then you can reach down and manipulate the knobs manually while this is happening, to change the pitch in a bizarre "space ship" way. Flipper did this on "Ha Ha Ha" on the vocals. [1.] Bomb did it a lot with the guitar. Then hit the Off button and go back to playing normally. This can work great over a tight bass and drum groove, and it gets better the more you work at it.

[1.] I mention a lot of songs that I couldn't get the rights to put on the CD. You could just download them with Kazaa (kazaalite.com). But I can't really recommend that because it might not be legal to do so, and as I have told you often, I would never recommend that you do anything illegal .

The guys in Bomb were great at this.

Delays also sometimes have some kind of tone or volume knob.

Some delays also have a built-in chorus and built-in pitch shifter setting.

There are also actual tape delaysa larger box that has a loop of spinning magnetic tape. Under the tape is a record head and several play heads varying degrees of distance away. East Bay Ray used one on the first few Dead Kennedys albums before he went digital.

The tape adds noise and wears out with time. And you can't set speeds between the few presets based on the heads. But nothing else sounds like these. Look in pawn shops .

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