Before the advent of channel-switching guitar amps using your guitar’s volume control(s) was the main way to adjust your gain level.
This works especially well with amps that have relatively low clean headroom and break up into distortion easily.
In this video I use an approximation of the Who’s live arrangement of ”Pinball Wizard” to demonstrate this way of adjusting your distortion levels.
Guitar: Arvo Guitar with 2 P-90s
Amp: Bluetone Shadows Jr combo (Vox AC15 style amp)
No effect pedals used!