There was a time, of course, when a distorted guitar sound was the curse of professional sound engineers - and indeed, guitarists. The earliest valve amps, many of which are highly prized now for their ability to be overdriven, were designed solely to make guitars audible above the sounds of the other instruments in the ensemble typically a big-band or small jazz group in the early days. It seems incredible now, but the original Gibson Les Paul series was taken out of production in 1960 because its humbucker pickups delivered too much signal for the amps of the day. People just didnt want that noisy, crunchy sound...
That was until Messrs Clapton, Beck, Page, Townsend and others (including The Kinks Dave Davies and Jimi Hendrix, of course) started emulating the overdriven sounds of the Chicago blues players of the 50s. They heard Hubert Sumlin, Pat Hare and Elmore James - whose sounds were forged with cheap equipment in the noisy South Side clubs - and went in search of their own versions of those hair-raising, spine-tingling tones. With the appearance of John Mayalls immortal Beano album - properly entitled Bluesbreakers and credited to John Mayall with Eric Clapton - the Les Paul was suddenly back in fashion.
Meanwhile, Jim Marshall had introduced his now legendary range of amps and speaker cabinets. As rock music rocketed in popularity and arenas grew larger, so the demand for powerful amplification increased. But with more power, the volumes required to achieve the required crunch became ear-splittingly high, especially for guitars with single-coil pickups.
It was this new challenge that led engineers like Roger Mayer to experiment with devices that could recreate the sounds of overdriven amps, even at low volumes. The first boosters and distortion pedals began to appear, often affectionately known as fuzz boxes. By the late 60s, the combination of valve amplifiers, humbucked guitars and an increasing armoury of stomp boxes had given rise to the sounds of Cream, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath. Rock music had come of age, and heavy metal was born.
Technology advanced rapidly in the 70s with the introduction of boxes like the Ibanez Tubescreamer and Boss overdrive pedals. Guitarists were finding new ways to work with overdriven signals and high quality valve amplifiers, creating sweet, sustaining tones, as well as the hard and dirty sounds associated with distortion pedals. In the hands of David Gilmour or Carlos Santana, overdrive boxes became sources of rich, warm sounds with near-infinite sustain.
With the arrival of the new decade, amplifier technology had advanced to the stage where master volume controllers and gain controls could be used to achieve distorted, sustaining sounds without the need for pedals. You can read more about this in our Amplifier Online Advisor. It was a time when those guitarists who could afford them were hauling vast, refrigerator-like stacks around with them, complete with a rack of studio effects modules. The boom days of overdrive and distortion boxes seemed to have passed.
For many guitarists, the clinical, digitised sounds of the late 80s and early 90s were characterless and bland. They began to rediscover the joys of a simple guitar and amp combination, and quaint old pedals that were so much fun to play with. Vintage stomp boxes soared in value, and new retro-styled ranges began to appear, often using digital modelling technology to recreate the sounds and functions of the classic pedals.
And so we entered the new millennium with a greater choice of high quality pedals than ever before, and at more affordable prices. Today, guitarists have never had it so good - once they can work out which of the huge range of boxes out there is right for them...