Mastodon’s Bill Kelliher Recalls Odd Way He Achieved Guitar Distortion as a Kid

Mastodon axeman Bill Kelliher recalled a very unconventional way he achieved the distortion effect while he was still in the early stages of his guitar journey. Speaking to Guitar World recently, he looked back on his childhood and how his father, owner of a hi-fi business, was strictly against distortion.

Of course, for guitar players, certain flavors of distortion are an extremely important part of our endless pursuit of tone. But to hi-fi guys from the old days, you couldn’t really explain how distortion was in any way, shape, or form a desirable effect. Kelliher recalled:

“I was like, ‘Dad, I need distortion.’ And my dad being in the hi-fi business told me, ‘Well, Billy, us in the hi-fi business are trying to rid the world of distortion. We want a crisp, clear sound coming out of our speakers and our hi-fi gear.’ He didn’t believe in distortion.”

We asked Mastodon’s Bill Kelliher to tell us about tone and instead he cooked us lunch

Sure, this was a real bummer for young Kelliher. However, he didn’t feel like giving up. Getting a distortion pedal or an amplifier that easily produces distorted tone wasn’t an option obviously. So he came up with a very odd solution. He continued:

“I had to figure out how to get distortion. I had an old Sony receiver that was from the late ‘70s, I had two Advent speakers, a turntable, I had this little MXR EQ…”

Although unconventional, the setup was somewhat straightforward. However, it required some thinking and Bill was motivated enough to get his distorted tone no matter what. Here’s how that went down:

“I figured out how to plug my guitar into the EQ, into my tape deck, hold down the Record and Play button – so it was in Record mode, so it would pass the signal, but there wasn’t even a tape in there – press the Pause button and run signal through that.”

The Captain Meets Bill Kelliher! (Mastodon)

And not only it worked but Kelliher managed to get something that was close to the tone of one of his guitar heroes:

“I got this crazy distorted sound that wasn’t unlike Greg Ginn of Black Flag and that was my dude that I was looking up to at the time.”

“I don’t know how I figured out these things but when you’re a kid and you want something, and you have ambition to get it, you make it happen.”

Using non-standard equipment to achieve a certain effect isn’t all that uncommon. In fact, Ritchie Blackmore used a tape recorder as sort of an overdrive or a boost while he was in Rainbow. Of course, the tape itself wasn’t directly involved, but the device was enough to boost the signal and then further add some coloration to the amp. Here’s an interesting video about that.

Blackmore's TONE Trick I've NEVER Tried!

And yeah, the story that Bill is sharing checks out. There was a whole generation of people in the hi-fi business who were all against distortion. The effect requires clipping and even the old-school guitar amp manufacturers considered this to be an error and not a norm. But we all know how that quickly changed when all guitar players started looking for that dirty tone back in the 1950s.

As far as Mastodon goes, there’s currently no news of any activity. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the band won’t be making any music. But we also know that they won’t just release anything since their 2021 record “Hushed and Grim” was received well by the fans, as was the 2017 EP “Cold Dark Place” which included previously unreleased songs. And same could be said about the compilation “Medium Rarities” from 2020 which also featured some previously unheard material on it.

Mastodon - North Side Star [Official Audio]

During an interview with Guitar.com which was published early this year, Bill Kelliher was asked whether Mastodon are writing new music. Although it seems that there aren’t any plans set in stone, things seem to be happening at the Mastodon camp. He said:

“There’s no official announcement or anything, but things are happening. Like I said before, I’m very interested in writing a batch of rapid-fire, heavy songs, kind of like ‘Fallen Torches or ‘Crusher Destroyer.'”

“I want to write music that’s really fucking heavy and to the point. I want it to sound like Mastodon but steer away from the long, drawn-out songs. I feel like we’ve been on that kind of kick for a while, and I want to move on to something a little more tangible.”

“So, I’m messing with a lot of rapid-fire, fucking hot songs that are catchy, memorable, and just kickass. The stuff I’m working on is the sort of stuff that comes out swinging, you know? I’ve been listening to a lot of Turnstile, and their last record, ‘Glow On,’ to me, is fucking great. I just love their guitars, and their production of it sounds great. Their songwriting is really good. It reminds me of Bad Brains, but if they were more modern, with some Jane’s Addiction mixed in.”

Photo: Mr. Rossi (Mastodon – Rock im Park 2022 – IMG 2503 – 2)

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at Ultimate-Guitar.com, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor and brands like Sam Ash.

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