The electric guitar and amplifier first became popular in the 1930s, and in the nearly 90 years since, guitarists have been experimenting with unique ways to manipulate the sounds that these revolutionary instruments produce.
One of the most famous manipulations of the electric guitar tone is distortion. Distortion is the overdriving of the guitar signal to create a sound that is dirtier and crunchier than it would otherwise be in its unaltered, “clean” state. It can be heard in popular music starting with early blues and is still a well-used guitar sound to this very day. Turn on the radio and you are likely to hear a fuzzy or distorted guitar.
The early blues players were the first to be known for using distorted tones. They played heavy strings and they played hard, which would distort the small speakers with the powerful resonance of the lower strings, creating speaker distortion.The first amps were low fidelity and would often distort when their volume was increased beyond their design limit, or if they sustained minor damage. You can hear this distorted guitar sound in early Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Howlin’ Wolf recordings. Chuck Berry had great success using these dirty tones on songs like “Maybellene” and “Johnny B. Goode”. In the 1950s, guitarist Link Wray found his distortion by poking holes in the speakers of his amp (check out his instrumentals “Rumble” and “Rawhide” to hear his signature tone). These days we don’t have to use damaged amps or take a razorblade to the speakers to achieve these fuzzy sounds.
Tube amps are now made with a master volume knob and a gain knob. Gain is the input volume, which means how much signal the preamp is receiving. Drive is another label for gain, as turning up the input volume (gain) drives the preamp harder. Overdrive is when you run out of headroom and the signal, a sine wave, is no longer clean and it clips at the top and bottom before going to the speakers. If the master knob is up higher than the gain you get a clean, glassy sound. If you crank the gain up higher than the master you start to hear the tone break up or distort. This is a desirable effect for certain applications. In order to go between the two settings you will either need an amp with a footswitch to switch between two channels on the amp, or you will need a distortion pedal that goes between your guitar and the amp.
For the last few years, my main distortion pedal has been the Reissued Electro-Harmonix Big Muff “Pi” pedal. Designed in 1969, it was a favorite pedal of first wave guitar heroes like Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana, and later became popular with rock bands and grunge bands of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
The Big Muff’s high distortion cut, violin-like sustain, low boost, and beautiful break up is perfect for my playing style with The Ghost Wolves, my drum & guitar duo, where I am the only chordal instrument on stage.
Recently, I have also been experimenting with another distortion pedal called The Talons, made by Akron, Ohio based pedal company EarthQuaker Devices. The Talons isn’t modeled off a particular era in distortion pedals, but instead is designed to give the user more flexibility in finding their own flavor of distortion. I am a big fan of their company and especially their Organizer pedal, and their distortion box lives up to their reputation as a purveyor of fine guitar pedals and electronics.
I recently compared these two pedals against one another, testing them on a 1970’s Music Man HD-130 Reverb amp through a 4×12 Fender cabinet wired with Eminence Speakers. I had the volume set at a medium level and the EQ arranged in their middle settings when testing both pedals.
Read below to see how the Reissued Big Muff and The Talons stack up against each other:
Let’s first address the power situation. I power my pedal chain with a Truetone 1 Spot 9 volt DC adapter. The Big Muff is slightly annoying in this instance because it doesn’t work with this setup without an extra adapter cable. On the other hand, the Talons pedal works out of the box with my power supply, no extra adapter needed. This would be nice when you’re on stage and have to troubleshoot a bad connection in the chain – the simpler your set up, the easier it is to find issues. You can also use an 18 volt power supply with the Talons for greater headroom and more volume.
One of the most immediate physical differences between these two pedals is the level of complexity in their control system.
The Talons has 5 separate control knobs:
LEVEL is the master volume control.
PRESENCE: turns clockwise for a brighter tone, counterclockwise to mellow out.
GAIN: pre-amp volume control, controls the amount of dirt available from clean to heavy dirt crunch.
There is a powerful active three-band equalization sector – TREBLE, BASS AND MIDDLE. The noon position is flat, boost is clockwise from noon, and cut is counter-clockwise from noon. I find this to be an intuitive cut and boost control system.
GAIN control gives you extra flexibility that allows you to go from clean to crunch and all points in between with a swift turn of the knob.
The Big Muff has three controls, a much simpler system:
VOLUME sets the output level.
SUSTAIN adjusts the amount of sustain and distortion.
TONE provides a range of sounds from high treble to deep bass. The control knobs are much bigger than the Talons which makes adjusting in the heat of a live performance a little bit easier.
TONE & FUNCTION
TALONS is described by Earthquaker Devices as “an ultra-flexible dirt machine.” I’d say this is pretty accurate after having played it. The EQ and presence knobs do indeed give you more flexibility over your tone. The gain is very hot on this pedal, and I’d say my overall impression of the sound could best be described as “crunchy”.
BIG MUFF – The Big Muff cuts the distortion in the high end, which sacrifices a small amount of clarity but also prevents an overly raspy tone. I really enjoy the sustain on this pedal, but the wide open tone can occasionally get out of control and cause unwanted feedback. I usually play the tone knob at noon or to the left of noon, which gives me a larger, more bass rich tone. Soloists or shredders might like to turn it up higher than that for a smaller, brighter sound.
These pedals both provide wonderful distortion sounds in their own ways. The Big Muff has a slightly more limited scope of tonal possibilities when compared to the Talons, but a simpler control system which is nice for keeping things straight when playing live. The Talons has the crunch and clarity, while the Big Muff has a wider, fatter sound. They’re both fine pedals. We’re lucky to have such excellent choices in foot gear these days.