Herbst, Jan (2018) “Put It Up to Eleven”: An Experimental Study on Distorted Solo Guitar Techniques in Sixty Years of Rock Music. Vox Popular, 3. ISSN 2531-7059 (In Press)

Théberge (1997) has argued the modification of instruments to lead to a change of playing or even to establish completely new playing techniques. The introduction of amplification marked such a cornerstone of guitar playing. Overloaded valves caused the amplifier to distort, and this new sound has led to new practices on the electric guitar.
Research on the electric guitar in blues, rock, and metal music has mostly been focused on historical reconstruction, structural analysis, or cultural interpretation. Studies on how distortion affects the guitar’s playability are still on the fringes, yet such knowledge from the musician’s perspective is needed to interpret guitar performances within the larger cultural context. This article aims at contributing acoustic evidence to the practice of electric guitar playing by investigating the effects of distortion on the instrument’s playability and expressiveness. The study followed an experimental design. Parts of five songs from six decades of rock music were re-recorded with different guitar sounds for analysing acoustic features. Visual representations like spectrograms, frequency curves, and dynamic waveforms were combined with acoustic feature extraction for a detailed analysis of the interrelation of sound and playing.
The findings offer explanations of how the changing of acoustic features affects electric guitar playing. In some regards, distortion enhances the guitar’s potential as an expressive solo instrument confirming theoretical claims in academic literature. Yet, it can also reduce expressiveness and tonal variety, and force the player to put more effort into phrasing. The results contribute to an empirical foundation for future musicological and cultural studies oriented research to build on. In addition, the findings may be insightful for musicians, educators, producers, arrangers, composers, and bandleaders due to the pivotal role of the electric guitar’s characteristic sound in popular music.

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