The Electric: Overdrive, Distortion, and Noise

Each Week I’ll try and address different aspects of the practical side of playing electric guitar in church music.

This week we’ll talk about using the electric guitar and distortion: How Much is Too Much? or how I learned to Stop Worrying and love my TS9.

This conversation is pointless in certain churches so let’s assume that yours isn’t one of them and it would be ok for you as the electric guitarist to have a “dirty” tone signal of some kind. At that point you would be talking about 3 Basic Catagories: Overdrive, Distortion, and Fuzz.The Wikipedia definition of these three is as follows: The terms “distortion”, “overdrive” and “fuzz” are often used interchangeably, but they have subtle differences in meaning. Overdrive effects are the mildest of the three, producing “warm” overtones at quieter volumes and harsher distortion as gain is increased. A “distortion” effect produces approximately the same amount of distortion at any volume, and its sound alterations are much more pronounced and intense. A fuzzbox (or “fuzz box”) alters an audio signal until it is nearly a square wave and adds complex overtones by way of a frequency multiplier.

How Do I Get These Sounds?

Amplifier

The easiest way to get a overdriven tone is to crank your tube amp and let it “break up”, which is how they did it back in the 60’s before pedals. I have a Vox AC4 that can be turned down from 4watts to 1/4 watts and it’s gets a great ‘dirty’ sound without being over bearing.

Pedals

There are countless pedals and effects out there that will get you the sound you want or need.

What Do I Use?

Overdrive

Generally speaking for church bands this is the one I would go with. It’s warmer, cleaner, and clearer. I have 3 on my board: a Xotic AC Booster, a Ibanez TS9, and a Fulltone Plimsoul.

The AC boost is really just a “dirty” clean boost and I treat it as such with barely any over drive. I use it for rhythm parts that don’t need much edge but a little bit of punch. I also can use it for the clean boost if I needed to for a lead part.

The TS9 is the middle of the road, and I use it for my straight overdrive sound on Rhythm and some lead parts. (Tip: this pedal is used by EVERYONE from Joe Banamassa to The Edge, it is THE go to pedal. there are better ones out there, but this is a great one to start with.)

The Plimsoul is the most versatile of the three and before I got my TS9, I used the Plimsoul like the TS9, but now that I’ve got one, I have the Plimsoul set for a harder clipping mild distortion sound. I use it for songs that need that punch.

Distortion

This is up to you. I stay away from distortion pedals in general because I prefer overdrive and fuzz. You know what would best serve the song, and by extension the church. But in general you may find that you get a better fit from just cranking a tube amp than a Boss Metal Zone. Where I would use distortion for church music is if you had your volume down a little or you were using it to add “layers” and atmosphere, especially in a minor key song (Exalt the Lord, More Love, Rise Up Oh Men Of God, etc)

Fuzz

Same as distortion. You know what will fit with your church or youth group or band. I love the sound of a good fuzz pedal. I own a Sovtek Big Muff PI which is a cross between a distortion and fuzz box. I haven’t put it on my board for worship yet, but it is possible it’ll get on there eventually.

Where Do You Use Your Pedals?

It’s up to you. You know what best fits your sound, the songs you are playing, and the church you are serving.

When I’m leading worship with an electric i keep the sound pretty simple, clean tone or mild overdrive, maybe with some reverb and I don’t change much through out the whole set.

When I’m backing up the leader with an electric, I listen for what’s going on, and I tend to use the TS9 or Plimsoul for more up beat songs, the AC boost if i want a “cleaner” sound for the rhythm parts. I use the Plimsoul or eventually the Big Muff to strum Whole Notes or finger pick lightly to “fill in the sound” and give the song “atmosphere” especially on minor chord songs.

What’s The Point?

The point as always is to glorify Jesus, serve His church and make good music. These pedals and effects are just tools for that purpose. If you know how to use and utilize guitar effects you’ll have more tools to offer in building the sound of the church’s music.

Behind the Music: He Giveth More Grace

He Giveth More Grace is one of the first “new” songs we’ve done at Calvary:Arlington. The version we do uses the original lyrics and new music written by Pastor Brett Williams from Calvary Chapel on Whidbey Island.

The song was written by Anne Johnson Flint, who by the age of 6 had lost both her parents. By her teens she had developed arthritis and soon after lost the use of her legs. Bedridden, she was covered with sores and lost control of her hands and many of her bodily functions.

The song itself was published in the 1940’s during a time of war, suffering, pain and loss.

If anyone could have been excused for writing dark and depressing lyrics it would have been a woman like Anne Flint. Instead, she focused on Jesus and the lyrics that she was inspired to write were of hope and faith.

In the Revelation of Jesus, where the writer John sees the throne room in heaven and the question is asked “who is worthy to redeem the Earth from it’s bondage of sin?” and the answer was given that no one on Earth or in Heaven was found worthy, John began to wail with tears in despair. This would have been a very understandable response for a lady like Anne Flint. People will far lesser trials easily succumb to despair and despondency. But like the Apostle John, Miss Flint saw “the Lamb who had been slain” and then saw hope for her life and her world.

This is not easy believe-ism. This is not “feel good” faith. This is a desperate clinging to the only hope humanity has. Like a shipwrecked sailor clings to a piece of wood, we who are believers cling to the cross of Calvary from where our hope comes from. We cling to the reality of an empty tomb for the strength to live a world that has caused men and women far greater than ourselves to surrender to hopelessness.

The message of the Christian faith is not the way for us to be strong. It is the realization that we have no strength. It is the moment when, like in a tag team wrestling match, we tap out and let God do the fighting for us.

I sing songs like these as a prayer: God give me the faith of people like Anne Flint, and give me the wisdom to seek Your strength and not mine.

“He Giveth More Grace”
by Annie Johnson Flint – (1866-1932)
He giveth more grace as the burdens grow greater,
He sendeth more strength as the labors increase,
To added afflictions He addeth His mercy,
To multiplied trials His multiplied peace.

His Love has no limit; His grace has no measure. His pow’r has no boundary known unto men. For out of His infinite riches in Jesus, He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again!
When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources,
Our Father’s full giving is only begun.