Turn Distortion into Overdrive with a Compressor

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Oh, Pedal Effects. How Well We’ve Come to Know Thee

One of the most glorious traits about the guitar is the fact that you can use (and in some guitarists’ cases outright rely) on external appliances to shape your tone according to your style. With the guitar we can journey into a world completely unknown to most other musical instruments out there. The world of pedal effects. With effect pedals guitarists can shape the sound of the guitar in ways more vast than the observable universe.

In this article I’m going to walk you all through a handy method I’d come across with a distortion pedal and a compressor that gives you the versatility of controlling your saturation level on a whim giving you thick distortions or gritty overdrive tones without any additional tweaking to the pedals.

What You’ll Need

Obviously you’ll need a type of distortion pedal, a compressor, and the necessary cables to make this dream into a reality. For this I used a Boss DS-1 and a Keeley compressor. It’s that simple.

What You Do

Compression and Distortion
Fig 1A-03

I had set my pedal chain up to go from the guitar to the compressor to the distortion pedal and out to the amp. The real magic came from how I’d set the pedals in the aftermath.

As shown in Fig. 1A-03 you can see I had the compressor set at about 1:00 for both the sustain and level knobs. I had made no additional tweaks to the internal attack control. This was a setting I had chosen because it sounded good to me at the time considering the room I’m in and the setup I’m working with. Obviously you have the power to tweak to whatever sounds good to you. Fox News style. I just reported now you decide.

Anyway. The DS-1 is set up with the tone knob at about 10:00ish. I like that tone so I stick with it. The volume and distortion knobs are cranked as loudly as they can go. This is also tweakable to taste, but for the most dramatic effect maxing these out is necessary.

Now because the guitar is sending a signal into the compressor first the volume has been forced to conform to the set level. Normally the maxed out volume on the distortion pedal would have alternate effects like letting your neighbor know what the rest of the locals have to put up with for a change, but the compressor’s preset volume level will override that and balance it down to a much more manageable level that doesn’t result in tinnitus.

Next we turn to the volume knob on the guitar (as pictured in Fig. 2BC-33333971A). This volume knob has a new purpose. Because the compressor is there to establish a specific volume level we can turn the volume down on the guitar without reducing the actual level output from the amp. But a curious side effect happens. As the connections in the guitar grow weaker the distortion level will start to break up and fade away, but the compressor will retain the volume level. With a quick twist of the knob right next to your hand you can go from distortion to overdrive and back again with next to no effort.

Compression and Distortion
Fig 2BC-33333971A – Click to Enlarge

This kind of thing is handy for people that like to have a rather simplistic pedal chain without sacrificing too many tonal possibilities or people like me that have this inherent incapability of hitting a pedal on time. Plus it’s a fun way to exploit new tonal possibilities from already familiar pedals laying around.

On a side note I had tried this with modulation, delay, and some other pedals, but I couldn’t garner any satisfactory results. The guitar reacts differently to distortion over other types of effects. The best I can do is save you all the trouble of hooking everything up only to find it sounds the same.


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Kyle Smitchens

Kyle Smitchens is the Guitar-Muse Managing Editor, super hero extraordinaire, and all around great guy. He has been playing guitar since his late teens and writing personal biographies almost as long. An appreciator of all music, his biggest influences include Tchaikovsky, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Steve Vai, Therion, and Jon Levasseur of Cryptopsy.

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