Distortion is an electronic effect produced by overloading an audio circuit. This simple excess of electrons is responsible for everything from Chuck Berry’s overdriven twang to Jimi Hendrix’s chewy fuzz, Black Sabbath’s bone-shaking crunch and Nirvana’s defiant grunge.
It’s the crucial ingredient in the thundering guitar tone at the beginning of AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” Put simply, distortion is almost as central to rock and roll as the sex and the drugs.
When Nigel Tufnel explained in Spinal Tap that his guitar went to 11, he wasn’t just explaining how his amplifier worked, he was explaining how rock and roll worked. Whether it’s Elvis’ hips, The Beatles’ ever-increasing shag, Led Zeppelin’s bacchanalian 747, Sammy Hagar’s inability to drive 55, or Courtney Love (in general); in rock and roll, a little bit more than normality can handle is just the right amount.
Over the course of the 20th century, popular music cranked up the volume. This increase coincided with rapidly expanding industrialization, and took place in a world increasingly obsessed with an ethos of faster, cheaper and more. Between 1900 and 1910 popular music transformed itself from staid little piano tunes to give birth to the earliest big bands. Over the next two decades, as bands grew larger and louder, the popular rhythm sounds produced by acoustic guitars were buried under big horn sections.
Enter Santa Ana’s Rickenbacker International Corporation. Founded by Adolph Rickenbacher and George Beauchamp in 1931, the company specialized in Hawaiian-style guitars that were played on the lap of a seated guitarist. With the unexplainable magic of magnets, these sonic sorcerers were able to convert a sound wave into an electrical signal. The vibrations of the guitar strings were replicated as variations in electrical current. Voila! Thunder becomes lightning. When you run that signal into an amplifier and speaker, converting the variations in current back into vibrations in the air, the lightning once again becomes thunder.
The louder the music, the taller the peak and the deeper the trough of its sound wave. When an audio signal grows too loud, the waveform becomes too big for the amplifier to accommodate, and like a tall man in a Prius, the signal runs out of “headroom.” As a result, the top and bottom of the signal are “clipped.” It’s flattened or squared. The resulting magic has been giving listeners goosebumps and damaging their hearing for almost 75 years.
In March 1951, a 19-year-old Ike Turner was recording his saxophonist Jackie Breston’s song “Rocket 88,” an ode to the Oldsmobile 88 (and later inspiration for Public Enemy’s “You’re Gonna Get Yours”). Turner played his guitar loud, so loud, in fact, that his amplifier couldn’t handle it. The resulting distortion is the stuff of legend in the fable of rock and roll, giving voice to the intensity of the times.
The 1950s in America were the best of times and the worst of times. A victory in World War II and the spoils that came with it led to a baby boom, sprawling suburbia, rising standards of living, and a new thriving middle class, while at the same time racism, sexism and economic exploitation lingered in this landscape of opportunity. America also clung to its puritanical origins, cultivating a Victoria-era disdain for exuberance and physicality into a repressed and buttoned-down society that mocked, scorned and punished deviation from the norm.
As the 1950s progressed, the rising wave of progressive hedonism embodied by the new musical phenomenon of rock and roll crashed on the limitations of American culture. That tension is evident in Turner’s guitar tones, in its refusal to obey or to conform.
As guitar distortion grew more prevalent in the late ’50s and ’60s with artists like Chuck Berry and Bill Haley, and later with bands like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, so did the tension between the lofty ideals of hippy-dom and the constraining drag of “the man.” Watch footage from Detroit and Chicago in 1967 and 1968. You can see what happens when a wave of social change pushes our cultural circuitry beyond its limits. And you can hear it in the guitar tones of The Stooges and The MC5.
So rock and roll found its antagonist: limitation itself. Over the next 50 years rock and roll clawed away at all restrictions, pushing the envelope of individual freedom further and further—a revolution that advanced across all sectors of the cultural battlefield. Musicians came to embody every libidinous urge, every raised fist of defiance, every desire for new territory that polite society claimed was off limits. Like a child, rock and roll is constantly outgrowing its clothes. Distortion is the sound of all those clothes ripping, and something both wonderful and slightly terrifyingly naked emerging.