How To Turn Distortion On Guitar Amp

how to turn distortion on guitar amp

All Stringed is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more

Are you a beginner still learning your trade, but you’re unsure how to add distortion to your guitar amp? If so, then you’re definitely in the right place.

Turning distortion on a guitar amp can be a bit challenging, but not impossible. There are multiple ways you can get a distorted tone including increasing the volume on your guitar, adjusting the preamp gain, stacking pedals for adding layers to your sound, and more.

In this article, you’ll get to know all about how to distort guitar amp, different ways how to turn distortion on guitar amp, common problems that might arise during such situations, and more. Continue reading to know all the answers that you’re looking for.

How to distort guitar amp

Achieving a distorted tone on your guitar amp can be slightly challenging. With the right information, it is easily possible. Here, you’ll get to know how to distort guitar amp and the pre-sets that you can try for adding distortion.

For a distorted tone, you should set the amp settings to 4-5 for bass, 5-7 for treble, 5-7 for mids, and 7-9 for gain. For metal, you should decrease the mids and increase the bass and treble. For adding heavy rock distortion, slightly lower the gain while increasing the mids. This is only the starting point. The exact settings that you’ll be using will depend on your amp, guitar, and the style of distortion you’re looking to achieve.

Basics of adding distortion on a guitar amp

Before knowing how to turn distortion on a guitar amp, it’s important to know the basics. Look at the common controls that you’ll find on your guitar amp, how the settings will differ, and the type of amp you’re using.

Tube amps vs. solid-state amps

When you’re looking to achieve distortion on your amp, it’ll be important to know if you’ve got a tube amp or a solid-state amp. Solid-state amps are the most common type of amps for beginners. They come with dedicated gain/overdrive or distortion channel to add more distortion to the amp’s tone. Meanwhile, with tube amps, you’ll need to turn up the volume until the sound starts breaking to achieve a distorted tone. These amps come with master volume and preamp controls.

It’ll be easier to turn distortion on a solid-state amp, as you won’t have to turn up the volume. Achieving a distorted tube on the tube amp can be tricky, especially if it has got a lot of headroom. In such cases, it’ll be best to buy a distortion pedal and use it to get the distorted tone instead. However, you can also increase the master volume to full on the tube amp. Then, use the preamp controls for adjusting the volume, which will allow you to increase the distortion at lower levels.

Amp channels

The majority of solid-state amps come with at least two “channels”. One will likely be the “clean” channel while the other will be either distortion, gain, or overdrive. Regardless of the name, these channels will have the same effect. You’ll need to set the amp to distortion/overdrive/gain channel unless you’re using a distortion pedal too. You can also try using the clean channel, as it’ll help you achieve a high-quality distortion tone.

Gain controls

Here are some of the common gain settings that you’ll come across on your guitar amp.

  • Solid-state amps – The control will normally be called gain, drive, or distortion, and increasing it will cause the tone to be distorted.
  • Tube amps – These will normally feature a master volume control and a gain/preamp control. For achieving a distorted tone at lower volumes, you should increase the master volume to maximum and then decrease the preamp controls for adjusting the volume.

Bass, treble, and mids controls

guitar amp controls

Regardless of what type of amp you’re using, it’ll likely have controls that will allow you to shape the tone. You’ll be able to make the tone either more mellow or brighter. Some amps might have different controls, so here are some of the common ones and their functions.

  • Bass – This will determine low-frequency sounds. High bass settings sound more boomy and fuller.
  • Treble – This will refer to high-frequency sounds. High treble will cause the tone to be sharper and crisper.
  • Mids – This will refer to the mid-frequency sounds. High mids settings will give more depth to the tone.
  • EQ or Tone – EQ or tone combines the bass, treble, and mids controls. Turning down the control emphasizes the bass, while turning it up will emphasize the treble.
  • Presence – This will work very similarly to treble. Increasing the presence control means making the tone sound brighter and sharper.
  • Contour – This will work exactly opposite to the mids setting. Turning it up causes the mids to get lowered, which makes the tone sound thinner. Meanwhile, turning down the contour increases the mid and makes the tone fuller.

Other effects to know about

Your amp might come with some effects built-in. Some of them include –

  • Reverb – This effect gives the tone an echoing quality. It’ll give your amp’s sound more depth and presence. Adding reverb to your amp’s distorted tone will make it sound livelier.
  •  Delay – Delay causes the note to be repeated back. You should be careful when you’re using distortion and delay together, as things can sometimes get quite messy.
  • Chorus – This effect makes the tone sound like there is more than one guitar being played. It will also be useful for distorted riffs and solos.
  • Flanger or phaser – These effects add a “whooshing” sound, which works well for distorted solos.

How to turn distortion on guitar amp

Creating a unique, distorted sound is what sets musicians apart, especially the ones who are talented guitarists. Having the right distortion heavily influences the tone that you’re able to achieve as a guitarist. There are many ways how to turn distortion on guitar amp. Some of the easiest methods involve adjusting the preamp gain, increasing the guitar’s volume, and stacking pedals to add more layers to the sound.

Moreover, using a wide variety of pedals like overdrive pedals, fuzz pedals, and distortion pedals can increase distortion even more. Here are the different ways to add distortion to your amp’s tone and create a unique style with electric guitars.

1. Altering the amp’s sound with distortion

If you’re playing an electric instrument, be it guitar or bass, you will likely use an amplifier. Amps will allow you to increase the intensity and volume of music while creating a sound distinct to your style. Whether you’re using a tube amp or a solid-state amp, distortion will alter the sound of the instrument, most commonly the electric guitar. It does so by increasing what is generally called “gain”.

This increase will produce a tone that most musicians deem “fuzzy” or one that’ll produce a gritty and growling tone. This gritty tone is one that is incredibly popular in many genres, most notably in genres like heavy rock music, hard rock, punk, and even blues. Distortion will not only intensify the tone and sound, but it’ll also change it. When you push the signal in an amp past its maximum by overloading it, the result will cause the signal to clip or distort.

Unlike overdrive which uses the original tone you’ve created and pushes it harder, distortion will give you a totally different sound. Basically, overdrive is the action that’ll create the distortion that you’re going to hear. When an amp is overdriven, it cannot sustain the output voltage.

Moreover, the sound gets clipped/cut off at the peaks (high points) and troughs (lowest points of the sound cycle). When you seek the fuzzy tone sought after by most electric musicians, you’ll get a heavy, aggressive style of distortion. It’ll be capable of creating tones that may cause beginners to assume that their amp might have finished its lifecycle. Despite this sound, most amps can easily last for decades or more.

All the distorted sounds will result in the quality and tone of music that millions of listeners love. It can be either hard rock, blues, or even distorted bass in genres like alternative and hip-hop. There are many ways you can create the distortion effect. Although, all the overdrive actions will likely result in some sort of distortion. This happens when your amp is alone, or you have a combination of both the amps along with one or more pedals.

2. Using preamp settings and guitar volume to create distortion

Distortion can be added just by increasing the guitar’s volume and setting the input gain high enough on the amp. This combination of preamp gain and volume will allow you to create the needed distortion. Moreover, you’ll also get the gain exceeding the voltage capacity, which causes the sound waves to clip.  Although this might seem slightly confusing at the start, the preamp isn’t the same as the power amp. However, they are still components of the same piece of equipment.

Essentially, the preamp will come before the power of the amp’s sound or output. This is only part one, the first connection that your guitar has with your amp. When you start playing, the preamp will increase the electric guitar’s output to what is known as “line level”. There’s also more audible volume, while it’ll compress the sound before it’s projected with a higher intensity through the speakers.

The preamp gain and increased volume combination result in a distorted tone that’s notably saturated and a bit fuzzier. Whether there’s particularly heavy distortion will be up to you to decide. It’ll vary depending on how heavy you’ll be taking things, and the type and brand of the amp you’re using. 

3. Use pedals to create heavy distortion

Many musicians and guitarists use pedals for creating a heavier level of distortion, especially when using solid-state amps. There are three types that you’ll need to know for creating heavy distortion – overdrive pedals, fuzz pedals, and distortion pedals. Using a combination of distortion, overdrive, and fuzz pedals alter the sound. Moreover, it increases the options you get to create the right tone, and it’s known as gain stacking.

Gain stacking will mean that you’re using multiple pedals to generate distortion and get the appropriate gain level you want. This is a matter of experimenting to find the pedal or combination of pedals that best suits your guitar and the sound you’re looking to achieve.

4. Add distortion using overdrive pedals

Overdrive pedals are used frequently with solid-state amps and are designed for reproducing sounds created by tube amps. Moreover, this type of amp also produces sounds that can be tough to get with solid-state amps alone. Overdrive pedals will be similar to boost pedals. The latter gets used in connection with the preamp section of the amp.

Most musicians suggest that these pedals can give a lighter level of distortion. When used alone, they aren’t able to create intense, heavy distortion. Meanwhile, overdrive pedals come with settings that allow you to produce a much more intense overdrive and heavier distortion. The higher the settings, the more intense will be the sound. If you’ve set the input gain high on the overdrive pedal and increased the preamp gain, when combined with a high level of guitar volume, you’ll be able to achieve both the amp and pedal distortion.

5. Add distortion using distortion pedals

Distortion pedals can be seen as mid-tier distortion creators. They’re stronger than boost pedals or overdrive pedals, but not as cacophonous as fuzz pedals. A distortion pedal can add quite a generous amount of grit, sustained power, and preserve the sound that you can alter to your needs. With distortion pedals, it’ll matter how hard you’re playing and more than the pedals doing their job, sustaining a unique distorted sound will be totally different had you not used them at all.

Distortion pedals are made specifically made for distorting sound, regardless of the guitar volume. This makes it slightly different from overdrive pedal and preamp distortion, which is largely dependent on high volume. The louder the volume is on your guitar, the heavier will be the resulting distortion. The aim of distortion pedals would be to create distortion more from the pedal and less from the amp. Keeping that in mind, you should set the preamp gain lower and allow the pedal to do its work.

person playing guitar with guitar pedals and amps on the floor

With that said, you can use distortion pedals in the same way that you would be using an overdrive pedal. It’ll be in combination with overdriven amps to create a deeper and more saturated tone. If you’re using the pedals without overdriving the amp, you can also create a distortion effect.

You can also take things a step further and stack pedals together. Multiple distortion and overdrive pedals used simultaneously creates a dependence from one to the other through an overdrive pedal. In essence, it’ll boost the distortion pedal, which creates a higher level of dissonance in sound. All the effects will need experimentation and depend on your personal taste. While some might find discordance in the sound emanated from heavy distortion, others will consider it the root cause of what makes heavy metal the art form it is.

6. Add distortion using fuzz pedals

If you’re seeking a sound so heavily distorted that some might cringe, fuzz pedals will be the way to go. Fuzz pedals clip will sound incredibly hard and saturate the tone so intensely that it’ll create the “fuzzy” tone mentioned at the outset, it’s the one that sounds similar to a broken amp. Unlike overdrive pedals, these pedals are very specific in their ability to create heavy distortion. They’re used by many prolific heavy metal artists, including the band Smashing Pumpkins and Jack White.

There are many options to choose from if you’ll be taking this route – the Big Muff fuzz pedal is a great option, and so is the Fuzz Face. They’re considered to be two of the best models that are available and will give you unmatched distortion and gritty effects that are as heavy as things get.

7. Gain stacking pedals for creating more distortion

If you’re using multiple distortion pedals at a time, you’ll be stacking them. How you’ll go about the details of stacking the pedals will affect the sound that you ultimately create. You will often read about a “clean” amp. It means that you’re not creating distortion with your amp, but rather pedals alone. This will allow you much more flexibility in creating particular sounds, whether distorted lightly or increasingly heavy.

If you’re looking to achieve multiple different sounds, most professionals recommended that you should stack different pedals that can achieve different characteristics in tone. These tones can differ from your amp. You should stack it with a pedal and then stack it with another for creating different tones and characteristics.

You’ll hear multiple distinct sounds that can be overdriven to a maximum, heavy, and stacked. Continue stacking, and you’ll be able to influence the tone in a wide variety of ways. The final pedal will have the most impact. You should remember that experimentation will be key. This is a part of what makes the process of finding the right amount of heavy distortion a lot more fun.

Common problems that arise when turning adding distortion to your guitar amp

If you’ve gone through the steps on how to distort a guitar amp and the tone isn’t sounding right, troubleshooting is needed. To achieve that, you’ll need to look at some common issues and how you can fix them.

Muddy or muffled tones

This is common when you’re trying to get a heavily distorted tone, especially if your guitar has got humbucker pickups. If this issue arises, you can try out these adjustments –

  1. Decrease the gain
  2. Increase the treble
  3. Decrease the bass
  4. Use the neck pickup on the guitar and make sure that its volume controls are set to maximum 

You should ensure that you’re making adjustments one at a time and listen for any changes. Moreover, if the amp settings aren’t called gain, mids, and bass, skip back to the “basics” section and see the alternative names your amp may be using.

Getting a weak, thin tone

This is pretty common with guitars having single-coil pickups. It will be particularly evident when you are trying to achieve a metal tone or when you are palm muting. Here are the fixes –

  • Increase the bass
  • Increase the gain
  • Increase the mids 
  • Switch to the middle or neck pickup on the guitar and increase the treble if required

Feedback issues

This is an issue that arises when you are using high gain, especially if the guitar features single-coil pickups. Here are the adjustments you should make –

  • Decrease the volume
  • Decrease the gain
  • Position the amp in front of your guitar instead of behind it
  • Position your guitar and amp as far away from one another as possible
  • Try to use a noise gate pedal for reducing feedback 


Thank you for reading. Hopefully, now you know a lot more about how to distort guitar amp, different ways how to turn distortion on guitar amp, common problems that might arise during such situations, and more.

There are many ways you can add distortion on a guitar amp, and it can be achieved with ease. The easiest methods include increasing the volume on your guitar, adjusting the preamp gain, and stacking pedals for adding layers to your sound, and more. With the right settings and guitar volume on the amp and the right combination pedals available for playing, you can easily create pretty amazing distortion effects. It’ll be comparatively easier to turn distortion on solid-state amps as compared to tube amps. This is the case as you won’t need to turn up the volume on solid-state amps.

Photo of author
Rick is the founder of All Stringed. He started playing with a classical guitar when he was 10, but changed soon to electric guitar and later also to an acoustic. You can find more about him here.