Distortion is one of the most fundamental concepts in guitar playing. It’s what makes your sound “grungy” and gives it that sweet, thick crunch — it’s excellent for solos because it adds a nice texture to your tone. However, sometimes you may not feel like spending money on a distortion pedal or may not find an open power outlet.
Here are some of the ways you can get distortion without a pedal:
- Use a tube amp.
- Turn on your amp’s overdrive channel.
- Turn the gain to 10.
- Use a low-wattage amp.
- Use a vintage amp.
- Use the bridge pickup setting.
- Play with palm muting.
- Turn the volume dial to the maximum.
- Use a Tube Screamer.
- Try out different EQ settings.
- Use an amp with built-in distortion.
- Use heavier strings.
Read on for a more in-depth look at each method listed above. Find out about some of the best equipment to use to add distortion without a pedal.
1. Use a Tube Amp
This is one of the most powerful, crucial tips to getting distortion without a pedal: use a tube amp.
Tube amps have a naturally “overdriven” sound that you can’t get from a solid-state amplifier. By using an overdrive channel on your amp and turning up the volume knob, you’ll almost immediately begin to hear distortion come through your speakers.
For instance, if you were playing a classic rock song with three power chords per bar at an average volume level of 4-5, cranking up the volume knob to 10 would give those same power chords the necessary amount of thickness and grit for metal or hard rock songs.
Recommended Tube Amps
If you’re looking for a tube amp that can help you distort the sound, you may come across several options.
However, the following tube amps (available on Amazon.com) often stand out due to their impressive capabilities when it comes to distortion:
If you’re looking for a tube amp to use, the Orange Rocker 15 is one of the best low-wattage amps to try out.
It has an extremely warm sound that’s perfect for jazz and blues, but it also works well when you turn up the distortion channel and use a lot of power chords or simple riffs.
Even with the gain set at 10, the Rocker 15 won’t get extremely dirty — it still has an excellent clean sound.
This tube amp is an excellent choice for those who want to limit how much space their amp takes up without sacrificing too much on sound quality.
The EVH 5150III is one of the best tube amps out there for guitarists who love blues and classic rock but want to get heavy when they need to.
It’s capable of producing a lot of distortion without being excessively noisy.
The amp also has good auditory feedback, so you won’t have to worry about not hearing what you’re playing too well.
The Revv G20 is one of the best tube amps for heavy metal guitarists looking for an affordable alternative to other similar amps.
It has a responsive distortion channel complete with shimmers, effects, and tones that mimic other amps.
Turning the gain up to 10 on the Revv G20 will give you an excellent, thick sound that’s perfect for crushing solos or power chord rhythms.
2. Turn On Your Amp’s Overdrive Channel
This is a great way to add some grit and distortion to your tone without using a pedal. There are two ways to go about this:
- You can turn up the overdrive channel on your amplifier’s clean channel.
- You can use the overdrive channel of your amp’s distorted channel (the distorted channel will sound much better most of the time).
If you want to switch between overdrive channels with a footswitch, many amps come with one built-in. If not, you can always purchase a third-party footswitch or even rig one up with a killswitch and some alligator clips!
3. Turn the Gain to 10
Many amplifiers have an input gain knob that determines how much ‘input’ power is needed before beginning amplification. Turning it up will give you maximum power (and maximum distortion).
For amps with multiple overdrive channels, turning the gain up will usually make the pre-driven channel much more distorted than if you were to turn it down. This can be very helpful if you want a light overdrive rather than full power.
4. Use a Low-Wattage Amp
If you’re looking for some dirty power but don’t want to spend your money on an overpriced tube amp head, don’t worry!
You actually might find that lower-wattage amps are better for metal and other kinds of hard rock music, as they tend to have thicker lows, crisper highs, and better compression than high-wattage amps.
Higher wattage amps may offer increased volume levels and a broader soundstage, but you might find that they don’t have the in-your-face tone that makes distortion so desirable.
Recommended Low-Wattage Amps
There are several low-wattage amps on the market.
Because of that, it may not be easy to pick one if you’re a beginner — but don’t worry! Here are some low-wattage amps worth trying out to get the best distortion.
Most Versatile: Fender Blues Junior IV
The Fender Blues Junior IV is one of the most popular amps for metal players because it offers excellent power without being too pricey.
It has three channels with independent volume controls, allowing you to switch between clean, crunch, and full-powered modes even if they’re all at different volume levels.
This model also features a built-in compressor that can smooth out your tone when playing chords or single notes by reducing the volume of any higher frequencies.
Budget Option: Orange Crush 12 1×6″
One of the cheapest tube amps on the market today, this little guy has enough power for small gigs but not much else. It won’t be loud enough for anything larger than a small house party!
This is a great starter amp for players who want to get the most out of the tube sound without spending a lot of money.
Premium Option: Dr. Z Z Wreck 112
Another very popular tube head, the Dr. Z amps are known for their incredibly bright tone that cuts through any mix.
One of its most remarkable features is an adjustable compression feature that limits your signal if you’re playing loud. This can be great if you play with a lot of palm muting or other aggressive techniques because it will prevent your notes from overloading and sounding muddy.
5. Use a Vintage Amp
There’s definitely something special about old tube amps. Whether it’s their classic look or raw power, there’s just no way to improve on them! Guitarists from all genres and backgrounds love vintage amplifiers for their distinctively dirty feel and nostalgic appeal.
If you’re tired of modern amps with digital effects and want a truly unique, vintage sound, then a vintage amp may be your best choice. And if you don’t have hundreds of dollars laying around, then buying a vintage amp might be a better option in the short run, as their resale value is typically lower than that of modern amplifiers.
Also, with vintage amps, you don’t have to worry about replacing a fried power tube. They just keep on going, no matter how old they are. With that in mind, it’s worth investing in a good quality amp cover for when your amp isn’t in use; otherwise, you may end up with an expensive paperweight!
6. Use the Bridge Pickup Setting
Although not every guitar has a “bridge pickup,” if your guitar does have one, it’s usually used for heavier riffs and playing styles. This may include power chords, palm muting, and other metal techniques.
If you want to add some extra crunch to music played with power chords or palm-muted open strings without going full-on metal, switching to the bridge pickup setting will give you a good start!
This trick also works well when playing around with an amplifier’s overdrive channel.
In addition, the bridge pickup setting might be a good option if you want to add a slight edge to clean tones, as this setting is often associated with rock music.
7. Play With Palm Muting
Palm-muting is a technique used by guitarists to achieve a tighter sound while strumming chords, and it can also be used in metal songs for riffs that have an extra edge.
If you’re looking for some moderate distortion for your rock song, using palm muting while strumming power chords is an excellent place to start.
To get started, place your picking-hand wrist at an angle across the strings so that your palm lightly rests on them — this will muffle the notes slightly. You may not need any other effects or adjustments to the amp; however, make sure you turn up the volume to its highest setting (to increase saturation).
8. Turn the Volume Dial to the Maximum
If your amplifier has a volume dial (even if it’s not labeled as “gain” or “drive”), then this is one of the simplest ways to give your sound some extra crunch.
It might take some practice before you can get used to playing with this technique. But once you do, you’ll be able to move between distortion and overdrive without needing any extra pedals!
Note: Turning up the volume comes at a risk: If you turn it too high, your speakers may begin feeding back or producing unwanted noise. If you’re struggling with feedback, try turning down the gain and turning up the volume on your guitar’s pickups instead — this will give you a little more clarity.
9. Use a Tube Screamer
A tube screamer is an overdrive pedal that simulates the sound of an overdriven tube amp; it gives your tone some added punch and helps to reduce noise (when compared to non-pedal distortion effects).
While many professionals consider these pedals “mainstream,” there’s no denying that they can help you get started if you’re looking for a new sound. And thanks to their relatively affordable price point, they won’t break the bank.
If you’ve got one lying around at home or would like to buy one for yourself, check around your local music store for more information on where to find them.
10. Try Out Different EQ Settings
Many guitarists don’t realize that they can use the equalizer pedal on their amplifier to boost or cut specific frequencies to change their tone.
Different amps may allow you to use different EQ settings, so it’s worth checking your amp’s manual before playing around with this technique.
For example, if you want to “dirty up” your clean sound, try cutting the low band on your equalizer while boosting the high band — this will give you a more aggressive tone.
If you’re struggling to find a particular tone for metal rock music, increasing some mid-range tones while cutting highs and lows might also help.
11. Use an Amp With Built-In Distortion
Many guitarists prefer to stick with the tried-and-tested tube amplifier when they’re in search of a tight, warm tone. And while there are plenty of amplifiers out there for all budgets, you might want to consider buying one which already has some built-in drive or distortion features.
However, it would help to note that not every amp will have this feature — so it’s worth doing your research beforehand! If you know someone who owns an amplifier like this (or even better, if you manage to try it out before purchase), then ask them about their experience before taking the plunge and making a final decision on whether or not to buy.
Recommended Amps With Built-In Distortion
Generally, these amps allow the player to adjust the level of distortion to get a suitable sound. This can be particularly useful when they’re playing live and need to adjust their tone on the fly. It allows them to change from a clean sound during quieter parts quickly and then switch into full-on drive for faster sections.
Most of these amps also feature built-in overdrive and reverb effects (to add extra depth or dimension to your tone), making them an excellent option for home practice too!
If you want to buy one, then check out this list detailing some of the best amps with built-in distortion (available on Amazon.com):
The Roland JC Series is one of the most popular amps with built-in distortion, and it’s easy to see why.
They’re loud enough for live performances, come with a wide range of features including reverb/overdrive options, and are very affordable. And best of all, they’re designed specifically for guitarists!
Another great option would be the Fender Champion 20. It’s relatively small (so perfect if you need something that will fit on your desk without hogging too much space), but at 20 watts, it’s powerful enough for most gigs if you need to use it out on the road.
Here’s a video that explains how set up your guitar amp for distortion:
12. Use Heavier Strings
If you’re looking for increased power in your hard rock music, then using string gauges (heavier strings) can give you a better range of tone.
Many guitarists prefer lighter strings for their speed and dexterity, but when it comes to rock music, you might have more success with heavier ones!
Caveat: In general, heavy gauge strings aren’t suitable for beginners — so only experiment with them once you’ve got some experience under your belt. If you decide to switch up your string gauge without any previous experience, be sure to take it slow to avoid any serious injuries while playing the guitar!
Recommended Heavy Strings
These strings are typically 12-50 gauges, so they’re much thicker than your standard set.
The thicker gauge means that you’ll need to tune your guitar up much higher — to E or even F tuning, for example.
They include the following from Amazon.com:
The Ernie Ball Mammoth Slinky strings are popular for guitarists who want to experiment with heavier strings. They make three different gauges:
- Mammoth Slinky (9-42). Their lightest string set, and great for players who like to tune their guitars down a half step or whole step.
- Mammoth (10-52). A medium set that’s ideal for down tuning at standard tuning.
- Mammoth M (12-62). The heaviest of the bunch, these are an excellent choice if you want to experiment with Dropped Tunings.
These strings are prevalent among metal guitarists. As well as their heavier gauge, they’re also very thick, making them perfect for down tuning your guitar even further. That’s why they’re perfect for heavier music genres like Metal and Grunge!
There are many ways to add some decent distortion to music — from using heavier strings to adjusting the gain or volume dial on your amp. That said, it’s always best not to make too many changes until you’ve mastered the basics. But once you start performing live with a band and need more flexibility in your sound, then these tips will become invaluable!
That said, don’t be afraid to experiment with different amps, guitars, or strings to find what works best for you. The results may surprise you!