Amp Distortion vs. Pedal Distortion

Posted: March 24, 2011 by phanson in Tips & Tricks
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I received this question:

I was just wondering… what are your favorite distortion pedals? Also do you like to keep your amps clean and use pedals for your main distortion sounds, or do you mix pedals with your amp’s distortion?”

Here’s my answer:

If I set my amp clean, lately I’ve been partial to the the Boss ML-2 “Metal Core” pedal for metal distortions and the Boss DS-2 “Turbo Distortion” for rock distortions. The ML-2 is fairly new but the DS-2 was the pedal Kurt Cobain used on his later recordings, like “Heart Shaped Box”. Because I have done so much work for Boss I favor those pedals because I’m so familiar with them. Other pedals are great too, it really depends what you are going for and what you are used to.

To overdrive an already overdriven amp, I like the Boss SD-1 “Super Overdrive”, and the Ibanez TS-9 “Tube Screamer”. Most of the time I prefer to get the amp naturally overdriving for rhythms and then add extra gain with an overdrive pedal for solos. That’s the way I have rolled for years. George Lynch, Paul Gilbert, and a lot of other great players have relied on a Boss DS-1 “Distortion” for extra gain on an overdriven amp, so the DS-1 is a great pedal for this application too. At under $40, the DS-1 is not a bad deal as well.

In either situation, amp clean or cranking, the preamp tubes, power amp tubes, transformer, speakers, speaker cab etc., all are important components. (If you’re going direct with a Line 6 Pod, software like NI’s Guitar Rig, or a Boss GT processor, this is another matter I’ll save for a later date.)

If you’re getting the amp to overdrive by itself, then you’ll be stuck with the amp’s tone, and it becomes kind of a one-trick pony. But this is totally cool if you have a good amp! Check out Eddie Van Halen’s first album, that’s all amp distortion. He ran his old hundred watt Marshall all the way up and then used a dummy load on the speaker-output to reduce the level! Eddie also used a variable voltage supply to lower the amp’s voltage so the amp had to work harder. Pretty sure Eddie just cranked every knob, he said he liked power tube distortion. Also Eddie used low wattage twenty five watt celestion speakers so they distorted too.

Alternatively, an advantage of setting your amp clean, is that with different pedals you’re not limited to only one tone. You can get a wider and more versatile range of distortions. Also with the amp set clean you can insert a reverb or delay between your distortion pedal and the amp. If the amp is creating the distortion, and you insert reverb or delay before the amp, you’ll get a distorted reverb or delay. Not good (in my opinion). Then the answer is, if your amp has an effects loop, put the reverb or delay in the effects loop.

Back to amp distortion vs. pedal distortion. I recorded three examples, so you be the judge.  All three examples were played with the same strat type guitar, humbuckers and my Peavy 5150. For rhythms the mic was about 6 inches from the speaker, I moved the mic back a foot for the solos. Each example I played the same thing with the exact same amp tone settings. They were all recorded at the same volume, and I used the same mic, mic preamp and console EQ. I also used my bridge humbucker for all the rhythms, and the neck humbucker for all the solos. Anything I did on the mix was the same on every example.

1) Example 1. Pure amp distortion. No pedals for the rhythms and solo. Same amp settings on rhythms and solo.

2) Example 2. Amp set totally clean. All distortion on the rhythms and solo were from a Boss DS-1 Distortion pedal.

3 Example 3. Amp’s natural distortion used for the rhythms, for the solo I added extra gain with a Boss DS-1 Distortion pedal.

(The riffs are from a tune on my latest album Mindscanner, available at iTunes and CD Baby.)

As I said before my favorite way to go is usually the natural amp distortion, along with extra overdrive from a pedal for solos. But here I liked the first example with only the amp distortion. I have to say though, contrary to my old belief, with a clean amp and distortion coming from a pedal I got great tone, and sometimes that setup may provide more sonic room for the bass and drums in a mix.

Also just about all the audio clips I created for Boss’s Tone Index, I recorded with the amp set clean, and some of those tones are huge and fat. You can check out those examples at and click the Tone Index button. Over a three year period I created about 300 music clips there. I’ll cover this Tone Index more in the future.

So my final answer is, there are no rules, and differences can be subtle. As I always say, what you play is way more important than what you play through. Rock on!




  1. bingefeller says:

    Hey Paul,

    Good topic, I remember asking you about this a while back. :-)

    I am definitely a pedals into a clean amp player. I actually set up a few Boss pedals and currently I’m playing into a CS-3 Compressor – SD-1 Super Overdrive – OD3-Overdrive – DD-3 Delay. I use the compressor for clean sounds and all my main overdrive comes from the OD-3, which I sometimes boost with the SD-1 for leads or a heavy rock rhythm sound. My amp is a Cornell Romany, which is basically a Fender Tweed, and it only has a master volume so it gets loud before it starts to overdrive. :-)

    I really liked the tone of your 5150 with no pedals, there was very little difference between the 5150′s gain and the DS-1 being used for the main gain.


  2. For me it is a matter of personal choice. A lot of factors play into how I set my tones and what I use for them. Ill first list the tools. Guitars; Ibanez JS 1200, Jackson Kelly 3, Yamaha CPX 5 (acoustic), Kort (acoustic)
    Pedals/stomp boxes: Boss GT 6, Guitar rig 4, Amplitube X-Gear, Roland G 20 (guitar synth).
    I use any of these units individually or in tandem to arrive at my required tones. Personally, my fav of the lot are Guitar rig 4 and Amplitube X-gear. They have in built amp simulators which are incredible if one knows how to calibrate them. When I record guitars I use Guitar Rig 4 mainly and Amplitube second. The kind of guitar used is an important factor though. I mainly use the Ibanez JS 1200 and I cannot being to tell you how good it is. All in all, for me, the best set up is when using Guitar rig, Amplitube and the Roland synth connected. The possibilities are almost infinite.

    • phanson says:

      Hey Brian,

      I created some presets for the Native Instruments Guitar Rig 4 guys, the software, you mention above. I fell in love with this program myself! The interface is so easy and it’ll transform a mild and meek computer into a tone beast! BTW, GR-4 needs a fairly new computer with plenty of ram. If you have a Mac, be sure to turn airport off when running GR-4! I hope to work with Native Instruments in the future!!

      Paul H

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