Ride the Feedback: A Brief History of Guitar Distortion
Or, how one of music's happiest accidents went on to shape countless careers and spawn entire genres, from rock 'n' roll to experimental noise
The discovery of guitar distortion just may be one of the happiest accidents in modern music history. Born the bastard child of dysfunctional amplifiers, its unmistakable fuzzy squall has since gone on to define countless careers (and entire genres). From bowel-loosening doom to antagonistic punk rock and suffocating noise, guitar distortion and amplification are air in the lungs for some of the most influential music ever made.
To start from the beginning: The guitar amplifier first went into large scale production in 1931. A small wooden box with a speaker, Electro String's seemingly innocuous 10-watt amp was sold as an accessory to the Frying Pan, the first mass-produced electric guitar. For the next 16 years, amps didn't exceed a puny 10 watts. The groundwork for someone to obliterate what people thought they knew about the guitar amplifier was perfectly laid out.
Then Leo Fender came in with a fucking bomb: the Super Amp.
Fender's 1947 amplifier pushed 18 watts, resulting in an immediately noticeable increase in loudness. Guitarists across the country scrambled to get their hands on a Super, quickly discovering that the device had something unintentionally beautiful to offer. When you turned its volume up all the way, the amp went into overdrive, wrapping guitar notes in fuzzy distortion. As with many world-changing advancements in technology, guitar distortion came about by accident.
About two years earlier, Western swing lord Junior Barnard designed a rudimentary humbucker pickup for his guitar, combining two pickups to buck the unpleasant hum of a lone single-coil and produce a fuller tone. Barnard played with percussive fury, routinely snapping his strings. The higher output of his proto-humbucker combined with his violent playing style to push his amp into overdrive. Legions of country, Western swing, and blues players had been searching for a dirtier sound, a sound that reflected the grittiness of their music. Barnard's earthy tone became gospel.
When word got out in 1947 that you could get a tone similar to Barnard's just by cranking the Fender Super, every guitarist that wasn't a total square bought one, or started saving up to get one. Overdrive swept over the country like a plague with a bad attitude. Fender soon improved upon the Super's design, increasing its output to 50 watts. Competing amp companies immediately followed suit. The 50-watt amplifier was a machine gun, changing music in the same way that weapon changed warfare. Opponents with lesser technology became targets. Technology is only as good as its user, though, and the 50-watt amp needed pioneering musicians to put it on the map.
Leave it to a guitarist like Goree Carter to fire what equates to rock 'n' roll's shot heard round the world. Music coursed through Carter like blood. Born in Houston's violent and poverty-stricken Fifth Ward—also known as the Bloody Fifth—Carter began playing the blues at age 12. He wanted his music to capture the intensity of growing up in the stomach of a hyper-racist city, state, and country. With a 50-watt amplifier, he could project his frustration, heartache, and joy in a way that mimicked those feelings in raw form. What he loved even more than the amp's loudness: if he dimed the volume, it smothered his guitar notes in fuzz.
Working his ass off in a rice mill during the day, Carter formed The Hepcats and quickly became a force in Houston's brutally competitive music scene. Heavily influenced by T-Bone Walker, The Hepcats' version of the blues was fast and aggressive, much like the automobile culture that was devouring America. In 1949, Carter and his band laid down "Rock Awhile," the first known recording of an overdriven guitar. The song was a ton of bricks, dropped right onto America's unsuspecting dome. Carter splits the world open with the first guitar lick of "Rock Awhile." He strums with murderous precision, dousing his notes in distortion. All of the instrumentation in the track is badass, but Carter's guitar cuts through like a ray of light in a pitch-black room. Fuck Elvis. Goree Carter should be heralded as the true King of Rock 'n' Roll.
Carter's distortion was groundbreaking, but the fuzz tone that now embodies what we mean when we say distortion and overdrive didn't emerge until 1951, when Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats—a pseudonym for Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm—set "Rocket 88" loose upon the world. The Kings had a nuclear warhead in its ranks: guitarist Willie Kizart. Although Ike Turner's reputation easily overshadows that of the other members, Kizart's is the name that should echo through the ages.
No one knows for sure how Kizart's amp got fucked up before the "Rocket 88" session. It might've fell off the top of the band's car on the way to the studio, crashing onto pavement. As Ike turner tells it, rain seeped through the trunk and messed up the amp's wiring. In the end, the how doesn't matter nearly as much as the sounds that the damaged amp produced. Kizart didn't realize that his amp was messed up until he fired it up in the studio. He immediately fell in love with its filthy sound. "Rocket 88" is a standard boogie played with more speed. Kizart's guitar tone, on the other hand, was a revolution.
Before you listen to "Rocket 88," try to imagine that you've never heard fuzz distortion before. You're drinking at a bar in 1951—somewhere in the South, say Nashville, Kansas City, or Houston. The vocal-driven music of Nat King Cole and Tony Bennett dominates the airwaves. In hits like "Too Young" and "Because of You," instrumentation comes second, working in service to the vocals. Without fully realizing it, you've gotten tired of this stuff. You want something new. Suddenly, you feel like someone has stuffed velvet ribbons into your ears. You walk over to the jukebox, thinking that the speakers must be blown. Kizart's notes swallow your brain.
10 years later, Grady Martin used a shoddy preamp in a recording console to create an even fuzzier form of distortion for Marty Robbins' song, "Don't Worry." An otherwise harmless country tune, Martin's distortion tears open the earth at the 1:26 mark, providing a template for the thick-as-molasses wizard fart tones that many doom and sludge bands use today.
Trying to recreate Martin's filthy sound, electronics wiz Orville Rhodes built a rudimentary fuzz pedal for his friends in The Ventures. The Gibson guitar company capitalized on the idea, unleashing the Fuzz-Tone pedal in 1962—one of the standout characteristics of The Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." In 1964, a year before Keith Richard's guitar sound sent people across the nation into a frenzy, Dave Davies of The Kinks slashed the speaker cones in his guitar cabinet with a razor blade to get a gnarlier sound. The result is the knockout-punch distortion of "You Really Got Me." At the time of its release, listening to the song would've been akin to hearing Sabbath invent heavy metal six years later.
The 60s and 70s became an arms race for manufacturers of amps and distortion pedals, opening new realms of possibilities for musicians. A genius in so many ways, Jimi Hendrix made fuzz and reverb integral parts of his chaotic live shows, using those technologies as instruments in themselves. Deep Purple then pushed sound into the realm of weaponry in 1972, knocking three people out cold with 117 decibels of classic rock fury at London's Rainbow Theatre. Guinness invented the World's Loudest Band category three years later, crowning Deep Purple as the original kings of noise.
Motörhead leapt on the idea of attacking audiences with sound. (Lemmy always seemed to fashion himself as a brigadier general of heavy metal, so it makes sense.) One of the first bands to use heavily distorted tones for bass, Motörhead reached 130 decibels with its arsenal of amps and cabs at a 1984 concert in Cleveland. An air raid siren, which lies right above the threshold of when sound causes pain, clocks in at just over 120 db.
Motörhead's punishing volume knocked chunks of plaster from the roof of Cleveland's Variety Theatre. Imagine what it did to fans' eardrums. This grotesque display of amplification only made people love the band even more, though. Fans went to Motörhead concerts expecting to get bulldozed by sound.
At My Bloody Valentine shows throughout the late 80s and early 90s, Bilinda Butcher, Kevin Shields, and Debbie Googe would routinely extend the feedback that ends "You Made Me Realize" into 15 minutes of torturous noise. As Tom Ewing wrote, "almost everyone [at My Bloody Valentine shows] hoped and expected to leave in pain." My Bloody Valentine simultaneously hurts and pleases its audiences, using amplification to capture the violent binary that defines love.
Electronica godfathers Leftfield reached 137 db at the Brixton Academy in 1996, achieving a new world record for loudness—the only house/dance group to hold that title. The English duo engulfed its audience in relentlessly pulsing rhythms and an atmosphere of layered, high-pitched sounds. Like Motörhead's infamous concert in Cleveland, the intensity of Leftfield's sound at Brixton caused dust and plaster to rain down from the ceiling. With Leftfield, you didn't need ecstasy—the loudness created a more consuming high.
Since then, musicians have continued to push distortion and amplification to the furthest imaginable extremes—with orchestration as well as intensity. For consumers and purveyors of extreme loudness alike, it's not enough to hear music anymore. We need to feel it rattling our bones. Expanding upon the violent legacy of noise antagonists like Whitehouse, SPK, and Merzbow, contemporary electronic composer Tim Hecker describes his writing process in an interview with Resident Advisor as "very brutal, bloody, bone-crushing experiences."
With a cruel ensemble of amps and cabs, he works to ensure that his performances are just as torturous for listeners. Taking bone-shaking amplification into the world of hip-hop, Dälek drowns audiences with churning beats, socially-focused bars, and oppressive waves of synthetic sounds. The New Jersey trio has played alongside such heavyweights as Godflesh and Isis; they recently released a new album via Profound Lore, and in doing so, made it clear to metal connoisseurs that hip-hop can be just as sonically devastating as any other genre.
Drone legends Sunn O))) have taken amplification and distortion to its logical conclusion, pulverizing audiences (as well as themselves) with lead curtains of distortion for the past 19 years. Through relentless sub-bass droning, guitarist Stephen O'Malley and bassist Greg Anderson send listeners' brains into a reptilian trance. Each of the band's records are brilliant, but listening to Sunn O))) at home is a far cry from experiencing it live. After a Sunn O))) concert in 2010, I watched a fan waterfall puke onto the sidewalk outside Denver's Blue Bird Theatre. Constant pressure from the band's amplification made her sick.
Amber Gazelle Valentine, guitarist-vocalist for Jucifer, uses 19 cabs to form what she calls "Thee White Wall Ov Death." She and her husband, drummer Edgar Livengood, spit on each other throughout Jucifer sets, which weirdly reflects the mixture of pleasure and pain that drives musicians and fans to seek out copious levels of volume. Venue managers routinely complain about Jucifer's loudness. Responding to these complaints in an interview with WV Rockscene, Valentine says, "We're Jucifer. We can't physically be quiet… We just want to feel it and hear it, this mass of sound. And I want to shape it, ride the feedback."
During misanthropic sludge duo The Body's earlier years, guitarist-vocalist Chip King often performed his vocals without a microphone, even though he uses a wall of cabs that reaches a comparable threshold of volume as Jucifer's. Beneath a lead blanket of distortion, his vocal-chord destroying screams created the sense that he was getting smothered by his own amplification. As technology many of us don't understand defines our existence in increasingly pervasive ways, artists such as The Body will only continue to explore amplification and distortion as a means of depicting that relationship.
Extreme amplification captures human powerlessness in the face of technology, but it also presents a way to fight back. To our eardrums' dismay, amp, speaker, and distortion technologies will only improve as musicians seek more punishing levels of volume. In an age of so much political and social uncertainty, one thing's for sure: the future of music will be crushingly loud.
J. J. Anselmi is riding the feedback on Twitter.
Cover photo credit: Total Guitar Magazine / Getty Images