Amp Distortion Vs Distortion Pedals – Which is better?

Chris Toft

Chris Toft

Amp distortion or distortion pedals…Which is better? It is a question as old as time and the simple answer is, there is no right or wrong answer! Let’s get the one thing straight…When it comes to guitar tone, everything is subjective, so what might work for one person, may not work for you. Guitarists have been chasing the elusive “Holy Grail” tone since the guitar’s inception and to some players, it’s a never-ending search. So, the longer, more complex answer to the “which is better” question is that it very depends on how you plan on using distortion. Let’s take a ride on the gain train and see where it takes us, shall we?

Amp Distortion

Before the first stompboxes came along, there was just the guitar, the lead and the amplifier. Sometimes, keeping things simple is the best thing you can do.

Tube Distortion

To many guitarists, this one included, you just can’t beat the sound of a cranked tube amp. There’s something about the way a tube amp responds to your playing that is very difficult to replicate, although not impossible. When you think of some of your favourite guitarists and their iconic signature tones, nine times out of ten, you’re hearing a cranked tube amp. Be it Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen or Jimmy Page, those heavenly guitar tones we strive so hard to emulate are usually the result of a guitar plugged into a good old fashioned tube amplifier. Oh, and it can’t be understated how much of the tone is in the player’s fingers! Eddie Van Halen would like still sound an awful lot like Eddie Van Halen even if he plugged into a Fender Twin!

Tube amps are not without their issues, however. In order for a tube amp to work to its fullest potential, you need to get the tubes/valves nice and hot which usually means cranking the volume. This is all very well and good if you’re playing a gig or you’re in the studio, but if you’re playing in your one-bedroom flat, the chances are you won’t have the option of turning up to eleven without getting evicted! So, that 100-watt Marshall Super Lead you thought was a good idea is going to be pretty useless if you’re not able to get the volume knob above 1! Think of a tube amp like a Ferrari…If you live on a farm, you’re probably not going to get the most out of it!

One Trick Pony?

Another thing to consider when buying a tube amp is versatility. When you buy an expensive tube amp, you are essentially buying into the sound of that specific amp. What we mean by this is that when you buy a Fender Twin Reverb or a Vox AC30 for example, you are going to get a very sparkly, clean sounding amp with lots of headroom (meaning it won’t break up into overdrive/distortion very easily). By comparison, when you buy an EVH 5150III or a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier, you’ll be getting an amp with tonnes of gain that produces a smooth, organic overdrive/distortion. With this in mind, you better be sure you like the way the amp sounds before you buy it as you’re “stuck” with that sound going forward.

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Solid State Distortion

Another way of achieving amp distortion is via a solid-state amplifier. Solid-state amps rely on electronic transistors to generate distortion, which are much cheaper to manufacture than tubes. As a result, solid-state amps are usually a more affordable option for guitarists, but the general consensus is that they don’t sound as natural and organic as tube amps.

One of the main selling points of solid-state amps though, other than their affordability, is that they generally sound as good at bedroom volume as they do when cranked! It is possible to achieve high gain tones at very low volumes, therefore making them a great option for home use or in situations where it’s not possible to turn the amp up.

Many solid-state amps come loaded with a plethora of great presets which means that you have a much bigger selection of distorted tones at your disposal than a tube amp. Amps like the Fender Mustang LT25, Marshall Code 25 and the massively popular Boss Katana range, all offer excellent distortion tones, with options to expand their preset libraries via external software and mobile apps. Whilst solid-state amps may not sound as organic as tube amps, many players are willing to look past this because of the multitude of other features they offer that just aren’t available on the majority of tube amps.

Modelling Amps

With the advancements in digital technology, modelling amps are becoming more and more popular with gigging and recording guitarists. The industry leading Kemper Profiling Amp is able to “profile” (create an audio snapshot) of any amp in the world with incredible accuracy, so accurate in fact, that they are almost indistinguishable from the real thing! So it’s now possible to get that smooth saturated distortion sound from a Soldano SLO-100 for example, at low volumes in your practice or recording environment. Perfect, right?!

So if you’re the kind the player who likes to make use of presets, or play around with lots of different distorted tones, then a solid-state amp could be the way to go!

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Pedal Distortion

Ahh pedals…The little boxes of tricks we guitarists just can’t get enough of! Stompboxes have become an obsession for many guitar players and provide a wealth of options for all of the tone chasers out there!

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There are probably more distortion pedals on the market today than any other guitar effect. Guitarists just can’t get enough when it comes to overdrive and distortion, from low gain Tube Screamer style to searing, high gain “amp in a box” style distortion and pre amp pedals. It’s no surprise then, that many guitarists chose to rely on overdrive and distortion pedals in front of a clean amp as the foundation on which to build their tone.

A good distortion pedal is probably the easiest way to turn your sparkly clean amp into a ferocious, fire breathing monster! There’s just something about those small, brightly coloured boxes of gainy goodness that us guitarists can’t resist! With so many distortion pedals available now, many of which are extremely affordable, it’s never been easier to coax awesome distorted tones out of your clean, or single channel amplifier.

Transform Your Amp!

Let’s just say you’re using a single channel amp that really only does clean tones, yet you want some smooth, distorted lead tones for solos. You’re not going to get that sound out of the amp alone, even if you’re lucky enough to be able to turn the volume right up. This is where distortion pedals really come into their own. Stompboxes like the ever-popular Boss DS-1 Distortion provide a wide range of classic distortion tones in an affordable, pedalboard friendly package. Other options include the Horizon Devices Precision Drive and the MXR 5150 Overdrive which both feature built-in noise gates for taming the extra noise that comes with high gain pedals.

Distortion pedals present a vast array of tonal options for players, making them a perfectly valid way of generating gain in your otherwise clean amp! Do they sound as good as a cranked amplifier? With the right amount of tweaking, yes, they absolutely can! With that in mind, if you’re the kind of player who is constantly evolving their tone, distortion pedals may be the best option for you!

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As previously stated, when it comes to amp distortion and distortion pedals and which is better, there really is no right or wrong answer. However you chose to create your tone is the right answer, as long as it works for you. There are of course pros and cons to each method and it’s worth experimenting with both to see what you can come up with. You might just be surprised!

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Chris Toft
Chris Toft
Chris is a Senior Digital Product Marketer at Andertons and a self confessed guitar nerd. With a love of all things 80s Rock and Hair Metal, Chris favours humbucker equipped guitars, high gain amps and plenty of chorus and reverb! Clean tones and spandex leggings are optional!

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