The Five Best Guitar Sounds EVER!!!!

Not really. That headline is just designed to push buttons. I should name this like an article in a technical journal. On guitar tone and its use to achieve emotional response through technical progression and historical repetition. Okay, maybe not.

Still, here are five guitar sounds that really impressed me for some reason or another. There is no order here based in quality or chronology. This has no deeper meaning. It’s just for fun and the love of music and sound.

1. Wire – Raft Ants. Let’s just forget everything about guitar tone historically. Let take the tools we have at this point in time and see what we can invent. Oh, this sounds really harsh and fun.  Wire – Raft Ants

2. Silkworm – Slow Hands. Sometimes I like my guitars to be guitars; classic, rock guitars. This is a great example of a really natural and talented player using a distorted amp, maybe a fuzz, and, most importantly, a volume knob. I usually don’t like guitar solos, but this has two that I find to be exceptional.


3. Slowdive – Celia’s Dream. I remember getting this album around the time it was released. I didn’t know guitars could do this. People were just re-assigning the place and sonic character of guitar in music. People were making textural music with guitars that was totally separated from the traditional, blues based origins of rock music. It excited me. I still enjoy this song even though it does sound a bit dated now.


4. Shellac – Wingwalker. I first discover Shellac when I went to see the band Tar in Muncie. For some reason Tar was opening for this band Shellac. Tar had been around for years, and this Shellac band seemed fairly new at the time. Oh, and is that guy playing guitar through a PA speaker? Holy balls, that sounds so wrong in the right way.


5. Low – Violence. The first time I heard this song was in my car in Indiana. A band from Minneapolis was in town and I was carting them around to get food. A member brought this CD and put it in my discman on the floor hooked up through a cassette tape adapter. I remember hearing the first few notes and being stunned. The tone was so rich and haunting.

It turned out to be very important. It led me to getting a Pro Reverb amp, which was very similar to the amp Alan from Low was using at the time. When I purchased that amp, I bought it broken knowing that I’d have to fix it up. That made me learn all about how tube amps worked, and that gave me the confidence to pursue music gear and gear repair as a career. Perhaps this is why I put so much weight into music. Music informs my decisions as a musician. Since I tend to be a DIY musician, I did as much work as I could for my own bands. This included recording, gear repair and choice, flyer and album graphics, web design, and quite a bit more. Many musical decisions required research and learning, which I found as thrilling as playing the music. The path of my life was cut using tools I developed by doing all the work necessary to be a DIY musician. I worked for internet companies, I worked as a recording engineer, I repaired gear, I did graphic work, and now I design software guitar amplifiers. It can all be traced back to, in part, chasing cool guitar sounds.


Distortion Pedal Volume Drop (and how hard diode clipping works).

This seems to happen to every guitar player at some time or another. They get a distortion pedal, put it in their signal chain, tweak it to get a good sound, and prepare start rocking out. There is usually a point where they kick on the pedal at a pivotal moment and poof, the guitar seems to almost vanish. The volume knob will be at max on the pedal, but it just can’t seem to keep up.  What gives?

I never personally encountered this issue, but once I became more of a gear head people came to me with this problem. I found a trend. it was usually the combination of super-hot pickups mixed with older style distortion pedals that used clipping diodes to generate the distortion.

Back before the days of super-hot pickups, people were designing very simple distortion boxes. These circuits work by running the guitar signal into a clean(ish) booster of some type, and then running the boosted signal into a passive clipping diode network that places the diodes between the audio signal and audio ground. The diodes cause the distortion that is heard. Some examples of pedals that work in this manner are the MXR Distortion +, the Ross Distortion, the DOD Overdrive 250, the ProCo RAT, and the Boss DS-1.

Let me give a very brief and simplified explanation of what a diode does. A diode will only allow and electrical current to flow through it in one direction, positive or negative.  Which direction it flows is determined by the orientation of the physical component in the circuit.  Let’s say we have a diode that is wired to only pass a positive current. If we try to run a negative current though the diode, it will block it completely. If we try to  put a positive current through it, it will flow just fine, but only once a positive voltage charge has been applied to the diode. This trait is called the diode’s forward voltage. Most silicon diodes used for distortion pedal clipping have a forward voltage of 0.7 volts.

In audio signals, the signal’s voltage corresponds to its loudness. Here is a sine wave, crappily drawn by me.Sine WaveThe center line is zero volts, the peaks are a positive voltage, and the troughs are a negative voltage. Let’s imagine this as the signal coming out of the booster section of a distortion pedal. Following this booster is the clipping section of the circuit. This usually consists of two clipping diodes placed in opposite directions. As I stated above, these clipping diodes are placed between the boosted audio signal and ground. It’s generally known that grounding out an audio signal will mute it. If a straight wire was hooked between the audio signal and ground, the result would be silence (a volume pot on a guitar varies the resistance between the audio signal and ground). Hooking up the diodes between the audio signal and ground will not mute the audio, at least not until the signal voltage reaches the forward voltage of the clipping diode.

If the audio signal never reaches more than +/- 0.7 volts, then the clipping diodes will never reach their forward voltage, they will never be able to bass signal in either direction, and nothing will happen to the audio signal. Should the signal go above +0.7 volts, or below -0.7 volts (and it usually does), that will allow the clipping diodes to reach their forward voltage amount, and the diodes will begin to conduct. Since the diodes are connected to ground, any of the signal voltage that exceeds +/-0.7 volts will be shunted to ground.  I’ve modified my crappy drawing to show the result.Clipped Waveform

So, in short, and what I probably should have said in the first place, the pedals create distortion by amplifying the signal and then hacking off the loudest parts to make a quieter but distorted signal. The amount of level going into the clipping diodes determines the amount of distortion. There is also a passive volume control to determine the desired output level.

Now, as the 1980s progressed, companies began producing louder and louder pickups. These were designed to drive amps harder, to get more sustain, and just sounds generally bigger, louder, and more powerful. This is awesome if that is what is desired.  However, the early distortion circuits were not designed when these very loud and aggressive pickups existed. In a best case scenario, the distortion pedals will never be able to produce an output with a a signal voltage greater than the forward voltages of the clipping diodes. In the case above, this would be a signal of +/-0.7 volts. If germanium diodes are used the result would be a +/-0.4 volt signal. In many cases there are passive circuits in the distortion pedals after the clipping diodes. These passive circuits will take even more level away.

So, why is there sometimes volume loos with distortion pedals?  The distortion pedals simply have maximum voltage output levels that are lower than the levels that are able to be produced by very hot, modern pickups. The voltage of the guitar signal when the pedal is bypassed it going to be hotter and stronger than the highest possible output of the pedal.

There is no real elegant solution. Everything seems like a compromise on some level. The first solution is to change pickups or put some kind of permanent level pad before the distortion unit. Another workaround is to put a clean volume boost pedal after the distortion pedal and only switch it on when the distortion pedal is on. The classic distortion circuits can be modified to clip at a higher threshold, but the tradeoff is that the higher output level sacrifices the saturation amount. There are also many modern distortion pedals that have adapted classic circuits and added more output level. All of these solutions are either clunky or incur some kind of expense. Quite frankly, the people who have come to me in this scenario approached me because they were unable to throw money at the problem.  Still, people love the classic distortion circuits, and people love hot pickups, so we’re always going to encounter situations where these kinds of mismatches can occur.