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The answer is a resounding NO! The Kinks and specifically Dave Davies of the Davie brothers did not invent the concept of guitar distortion. The fact is that guitarists have been intentionally overloading their amps to create distortion for pretty much as long as amplifiers have been around. The Kinks happened on a sound that they certainly already knew existed. They simply ended up with a big hit that brought that sound to a wider audience. Yet, many claim that You Really Got Me by the Kinks was the first song with distortion. It is a ridiculous claim, easily countered.
First, we have to understand what distortion is. We think of it as a good and desirable thing. It defines modern rock. But in reality, it is extraneous noise brought on by overloading or otherwise causing a malfunction in an amplifier. Electric guitars weren’t originally meant to sound that way. The idea was to produce as clean and pure a sound as possible. But guitarists found that if they turned up their amp as loud as it would go, the amp would overload and produce noise. At some point, this extra sound stopped being noise and became music, at least to some.
The early electrified hollow-body guitars were prone to ‘distortion’ all by themselves. They were plagued by extra noise. You could only overload them so much without producing something undesirable. There is good distortion and there is nasty, uncontrolled distortion. Guitarists wanted controlled distortion. Ironically, the Les Paul and the first solid-body electric guitars, meant to do away with all the extra noise and produce a clean sound, paved the way for the massive but controlled distortion we have today.
In the old days, guitar distortion would happen by accident sometimes but it turned out to be a happy accident. Even jazz guitarists from the 1940s would intentionally overload their guitars just a little, producing some distortion. But one of the first songs to feature notably heavy distortion was Rocket 88, written by Ike Turner and recorded by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats. The guitarist, Willie Kizart, had a mishap with his amp but both he and the producer loved the result. This song was big on the R&B charts but is often considered one of the first rock songs.
Before the invention of the master volume, one of the main ways to get some distortion, as above, was to turn your amp all the way up. This got you the extra noise or ‘fuzz’ but also turned you deaf in the process. Obviously, better ways were sought. Some guitarists dislodged a tube in their amp. Others slashed their speakers.
There are many other examples. Just because it doesn’t sound like Eddie Van Halen, doesn’t mean it’s not distortion. Even the old blues legends, like Muddy Waters, distorted their guitar, quite recognizably. The Kinks were by no means the first. However, as stated, they did help introduce heavy distortion to a mass audience.
You Really Got Me was originally meant to be a slower and cleaner blues number. It went through several iterations in the studio before the final driving and angry version was settled on. As the story goes, guitarist Dave Davies, in a fit of anger, taught his amp a lesson by slashing the speaker cone. Pleased with the change in sound, he hooked this Elpico amp up to another Vox AC30 amp to make it extremely loud. Some further amplification in the studio and a legend was born.
Dave Davies’ brother ray tells another story. He says he stabbed the speaker with a knitting needle. Apparently, the Kinks think they invented something as well since they both call each other liars as if it is important who damaged the speaker. In the end, it hardly matters, as it was never an original idea in the first place.
But not so fast. Listen to Link Wray. If that is not distortion, I don’t know what is. How did he get it? Well, he claimed to have slashed his amp speaker. His 1958 instrumental album ‘Rumble’ features heavy distortion and copious use of another rock n’ roll staple, which some claim Ray invented, the power chord. The Kinks were standing on a solid foundation when they recorded You Really Got Me, a song that was not even mean to be distorted in the first place.
It’s time to put the final nail in the coffin. You Really Got Me was released in 1964. Long before that, guitarists had been searching for a simple and controlled way to produce distortion or ‘fuzz’. Perhaps the most important invention, to that end, was the Maestro Fuzz-Tone, which was marketed by Gibson.
The Fuzz-Tone or ‘fuzz box’ was invented in 1962 by a Nashville engineer named Glen Snoddy, two years prior to the release of You Really Got Me. All a guitar player had to do was to plug their amp into the box, tap it with their food, and get a fuzzy, dirty, noisy, distorted sound. Keith Richards used one, and you can hear one of the first major outings of the Fuzz-Tone on Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones.