Ultimate Guide to
Overdrive & Distortion Pedals

There’s no shortage of overdrive pedals available on the market today. As arguably the most popular pedal type, tone-chasers are very particular with what they want. That's why there are so many different models out there!

With a countless number of pedal brands producing their own overdrives, from affordable to premium; it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice. Let's break it down.

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Written by

Elliot Stent

Overdrive Pedals

What Are Overdrive Pedals?

Despite the massive amount of overdrives out there, don’t feel intimidated! Most overdrive pedals actually derive from only a handful of classic circuits and designs. The difference being that these have been modified and experimented with by companies over the years, using those circuits as the foundation for their own unique-sounding stompboxes.

In this guide, we’re going to highlight the key pedals that have inspired so many, and break down their tonal characteristics so that you can find the right flavour of overdrive for you. We’re also going to look into distortion and how it differs to overdrive. We can help you identify their main selling-points so you can feel comfortable when deciding the next addition to your setup.

What Does An Overdrive Pedal Sound Like?

An overdrive essentially adds grit to your signal, giving you a sound similar to a cranked amplifier at the edge of breakup. Most overdrive pedals therefore produce a “pushed” clean tone that can stretch to a crunch, dependent on how it’s been dialled in and how hard you pick your guitar strings. This is sometimes a key factor when players are looking for their perfect overdrive, with many preferring one that reacts to playing dynamics and that cleans up when lowering the guitar’s volume control.

Some overdrives can also be dialled in to give you a full-on saturated distortion sound. There are many pedals which meet in the middle, bridging the gap between overdrive and distortion thanks to their wide-ranging gain controls. But we’ll get to that later.

Overdrives can also boost your signal and increase the overall volume and output from your amplifier. This is why overdrive pedals are often engaged for playing leads, to help solos cut through in a mix when playing live.

How Do I Use An Overdrive Pedal?

Overdrive pedals are conventionally used in the front of an amplifier. This means that you run your guitar into the pedal’s input, with the output of the pedal running straight into your amp’s input. If you’re using a variety of other pedals and have constructed a pedalboard, the placement of an overdrive in your signal chain is fairly subjective. However, most players will place it after their tuner and wah pedals.

Most will use an overdrive with the clean channel of their amp, to deliver a crunchy and more-raucous tone when engaged. This is how blues players prefer to use overdrives, to “push” the front end their amp’s speakers. This offers a punchier tone with improved sustain and width. Overdriven tones are also associated with other genres such as classic rock, indie and even more modern contemporary styles.

Overdrive pedals can also be used in conjunction with an amp’s distortion channel. This is a popular method with metal players, who will use an overdrive to “tighten” up their sound; giving it more focus. Players will often set the pedal up with the drive and volume low, so that only slightly more gain will be added without getting too out of control. This will introduce more saturation and sustain, making it great for chunky rhythm tones as well as leads.

What Are The Best Overdrive Pedals?

With so much choice, we’ve narrowed down some of the iconic pedals that many modern overdrive stompboxes are based on. Here are some of the big hitters:

Around since the late '70s, the Ibanez Tube Screamer is a truly iconic pedal. The most recognised and used iterations of this pedal are the original TS-808 and the TS9, the latter of which has more top-end presence. Both featuring volume and drive controls, letting you adjust the output and amount of gain respectively, Tube Screamers also feature a tone knob. The tone control acts as an EQ of sorts, letting you brighten the overall sound of the pedal.

Renowned for its ability to push the upper mid-range frequencies of your signal, the Tube Screamer is also regarded for adding a soft compression to give you more dynamic consistency. It’s popular for pushing your guitar sound through in a busy mix, thanks to its punchy mid-range and adjustable tone control.

The late Stevie Ray Vaughan used the Tube Screamer extensively to form his signature sound. Running it through the clean channel of his high-headroom Fender amplifiers, the Tube Screamer would push his amps into break-up, without deafening his audience by maxing out their volume for a similar effect!

Metal players are also known to utilise Tube Screamers or derivations of the circuit in their rigs. As a Tube Screamer typically shelves the low-end frequencies, it takes out any unwanted flab from a distortion channel to give a more focused and saturated sound.

Keeley are the most famous brand to modify this circuit, although several others have used the Tube Screamer as the foundation for their designs. TC Electronic’s Spark Booster pedal is a versatile digital overdrive, with three different modes. It can emulate the characteristics of a Tube Screamer in its “Mid” mode, but has an added bass control to let you tweak your sound even more! Mooer’s Green Mile is another imitation of the classic Tube Screamer, however is incredibly affordable with its circuitry fitted within a mini enclosure – saving precious real-estate on your pedalboard!

Blindfold Tube Screamer Challenge On Andertons T.V.

Shop All Tube Screamer Style Pedals!

Considered by many as the “Holy Grail” of overdrive pedals, the Klon Centaur is an often-imitated pedal design. Developed in the early '90s and manufactured between 1994 and 2000, only around 8,000 of these rare pedals were made. With originals selling for thousands of pounds these days, this pedal’s circuitry has been copied many times over the years, with players wishing to attain that iconic sound for a fraction of the price.

Featuring a similar control set to the Tube Screamer, the Klon is regarded for being a “transparent” overdrive. This means that it adds gain to your signal like any overdrive pedal, however will not dramatically affect your base tone or its EQ. It can range from a low-gain boost to a convincing amp channel emulation when cranking the gain control, being labelled as an “amp-in-a-box” by some. The treble control will let you boost the higher frequencies for more cut if you wish, and is a versatile option that can be ideal for lead playing. Subtler overall compared to a Tube Screamer, the Klon is considered to be more reactive to your playing dynamics, providing a cleaner, smoother and more open tone.

John Mayer is a prominent modern player who uses a Klon to achieve his enviable sound – letting him attain his signature warm and rounded tone. A huge range of other famous artists have used original Klon pedals or recreations too, making this style of overdrive a very popular choice.

RYRA have designed a line of convincing Klon recreations, and their "The Klone" pedals are available in a range of colours. Not only do they spice up your tone, but the look of your board too! The JRAD Archer also recaptures the essence of the original Klon, with similar aesthetics and circuitry. However, if you’re looking for a pedal that gets close to the Klon sound for under £100, then Electro Harmonix’s Soul Food might be appetising.

Klon Clone Shootout On Andertons T.V.

Shop All Klon Style Pedals!

Another pedal you’ll commonly see on pedalboards is the Boss BD-2 Blues Driver. Boss are a giant in the pedal world, and like Ibanez’s Tube Screamer, the BD-2 is a classic pedal that’s been in production for decades! Far more affordable compared to Tube Screamers or Klons, the BD-2 is distinctive for offering a smooth, creamy overdrive sound that satisfies blues players in particular - hence the name!

The Blues Driver features a similar set of controls to most overdrives, with level, tone and gain knobs. It’s versatile gain control provides a sweet, saturated drive tone when turned up - giving a convincing vintage tube amp crunch. The Blues Driver therefore works as well for rhythm tones as it does for leads, giving width and clarity to chords or riffs. The tone control can boost top-end frequencies very high should you want to pierce through the mix, giving a rich and musical sparkle to your lead lines.

As the BD-2 is so inexpensive, there are very few companies that sell clones of this excellent circuit, however brands like Keeley have made modifications to this pedal in the past. As part of their premium Waza Craft series, Boss’ BD-2w is an improved and updated version of the stock model. With all-analogue circuitry as well as two modes, the BD-2w is a great option for those wanting the sound of the BD-2 on steroids!

Boss BD-2 vs. BD-2W Waza Craft

Shop All Boss Overdrive Pedals!

Which Overdrive Pedal Should I Buy?

From those descriptions, it’s clear that each of those three iconic overdrives offer something a little bit different. Certain pedals cater for different style more effectively, so if you’re into hard rock and metal, a Tube Screamer type pedal will be the most usable for you. And if you’re more into cleaner, blues-esque styles, then a Klon or Blues Driver style pedal will work great.

We’d recommend checking out some of the overdrive pedals on our site and narrowing down to around 5-10 choices. From there, check out videos online to get a sense of which sound appeals to you the most. In fact, on Andertons TV we’ve got a raft of informative pedal demos available to watch, including the David vs. Goliath series, where we compare similar pedals - one affordable, one more expensive.

As we’ve said, tone is completely subjective, so it’s important to just buy the pedal which sounds the best to your ears. Have fun finding the right one for you!

Overdrive Pedal Shootout on Andertons T.V.

Distortion Pedals

What Does A Distortion Pedal Sound Like?

The key difference between an overdrive and a distortion pedal is that the latter should provide you with a high-gain sound, almost completely transforming your unaffected tone. With far more “hair” and attitude, most distortion pedals will give you the sound of a metal-style amp channel with plenty of saturation. Distortion pedals are generally more tweakable compared to overdrives too, often featuring more EQ controls to let you shape your tone how you want it.

Generally, distortion pedals have a more compressed characteristic, with good examples delivering a convincing “amp-like” sound. The main benefit of having a distortion pedal on your pedalboard, especially one that gives you great amp emulation (both sound and feel-wise), is that you can take your pedalboard anywhere and plug into any amp to get your sound. Some distortion pedal builders will even utilise real amp tubes in their distortion pedal designs, to get you even closer!

How Do I Use A Distortion Pedal?

Like overdrives, distortion pedals should only be plugged into the front of an amplifier. Whereas overdrive pedals can be used through your clean or distortion channels, you’d only want to run your distortion pedal through the clean channel. Trust us! Again, their placement in your signal chain is also down to opinion and preference, but a general rule of thumb is to place them after your tuner and wah pedals too.

An interesting thing to point out is that distortion and overdrive pedals can be used together. In a similar fashion to running a Tube Screamer through an amp’s distortion channel, with an overdrive you can “tighten” the sound of a distortion pedal as well. Running a TS-style overdrive before a distortion pedal will give it more saturation and focus, improving your picking response for a tightened metal tone when palm-muting. We’d suggest looking into a noise gate pedal when using both together though, as they will generate a lot of noise.

What Are The Best Distortion Pedals?

We’re spoilt for choice when it comes to distortion pedals too. So like we did with overdrives, we’re going to point out some key trend-setters:

As one of Boss’ first ever pedals, the DS-1 started life all the way back in 1978. Still manufactured over four decades later, the DS-1 is a true icon of the pedal world. Although somewhat primitive in terms of features compared to some pedals you’ll see nowadays, the DS-1 is still a popular and affordable choice for players.

Featuring level and distortion controls, letting you set the output and amount of gain respectively, the DS-1 also features a single tone (EQ) knob. The DS-1 is renowned for delivering an aggressive, grinding distortion with a strong treble presence and scooped lower-mids. Although lacking some low-end, in a live situation the DS-1 is in the sweet spot of the frequency spectrum, emphasising the upper mid and top-end frequencies where a guitar should typically be heard in a mix.

There are a number of companies that have modded the DS-1 circuit to give it a more pronounced mid-range, as well as a lower noise floor. The Ultra Drive Distortion pedal from Mooer gives you the DS-1 sound for slightly less money. An advantage it has over the original is its smaller footprint, with its mini enclosure guaranteed to save you space on your pedalboard.

Boss DS-1X On Andertons T.V.

Also released in 1978 and still going strong, the Pro Co RAT distortion pedal has inspired a generation of tone-chasers. With a similar control set and design to the Boss DS-1, this all-analogue pedal delivers a saturated distortion with a strong mid-range punch and a clear top-end. Able to produce hi-gain sounds, the RAT has been a popular choice for rock, punk and metal players.

Used by a raft of famous guitarists over the years, including Nuno Bettencourt, Matt Bellamy and Graham Coxon; the RAT has been a staple on pedalboards across the world. Providing a more amp-like distortion compared to the DS-1, the RAT was the go-to distortion pedal in the 80’s and 90’s.

The RAT circuit has been often imitated over the years, inspiring a bunch of pedal builders to develop units that achieve the same level of tone. Companies such as JHS have modified RAT units; improving their internals with upgraded components to get an even better sound out of this game-changing circuit.

Pro Co RAT On 'That Pedal Show'

Another stompbox that was spawned in the '70s is the MXR Distortion +. WIth a more primitive control set compared to the previous examples (just volume and distortion), the MXR nevertheless dishes the dirt - still to this day!

Providing a full-on fuzz-esque tone, the Distortion + is a classic pedal that delivers a more “transparent” distortion compared with the DS-1 and RAT. Lacking EQ controls, the Distortion + relies more heavily on your amp’s EQ settings, meaning it’s sound is more dependent on your setup.

Used by legendary guitarists like Randy Rhoads, who would used his Distortion + through a Marshall Plexi; he could achieve more compressed, bolder gain tones. Iron Maiden’s Dave Murray also used the Distortion + in the '80s, and the pedal became a core ingredient of that early thrash metal sound.

Modern Distortion Pedals

The trend-setting distortion pedals of yesteryear have provided guitarists with great tone for decades. However, the amount of recent offerings on the market have given us even more choice and the ability to get closer to that valve amp sound (in a box!).

The Fulltone OCD is an example of a pedal that bridges the gap between overdrive and distortion. Able to produce low-gain crunch tones with its drive control dialled down, the OCD can offer a raw and gnarly distortion when it’s cranked.

With a tone knob letting you brighten the sound of the pedal, the OCD also features a high-pass/low-pass switch for further EQ possibilities. The pedal has a naturally strong mid-range punch, giving incredible depth and power to riffs and leads. So if you’re looking for a distortion unit that can really bring your guitar to the forefront in a live mix - the OCD is one of the best. Think of it as a classic Marshall plexi, but on steroids!

Undergoing several tweaks over the years, Fulltone have sold over 250,000 of these units since its inception in 2004. V2 is their biggest overhaul of the mighty OCD, introduced in mid-2017. Now featuring upgraded components, an effective output buffer to keep its signal clean, and also switchable true-bypass; the OCD is better than ever before.

Built like a tank and with impeccable quality, the OCD has always been a reasonably priced pedal. Considering the tones it delivers, it’s well worth every penny, but more affordable alternatives are around. The Tone City Dry Martini is worth checking out if you’re looking for a British-voiced, cheaper OCD-inspired unit. With the benefit of its mini footprint, it’s super-easy to add to your board.

Fulltone OCD vs. Tone City Dry Martini

JHS are an accomplished pedal company, establishing themselves amongst the big brands in the 21st Century. Gaining more recognition in recent years, the Angry Charlie is arguably their most celebrated pedal. Unveiled in 2009, the Angry Charlie is regarded for its realistic, full-bodied amp-like tone and has become a true modern classic.

Able to run at 9-18V, the Angry Charlie is known for its high headroom; able to produce a more open distortion that reacts well to varying playing dynamics. With a 3-band EQ, the Angry Charlie is also very tweakable compared to its competition, with a large palette of tones at your disposal.

With so many sounds available within its standard single enclosure, the JHS Angry Charlie is really in its element when you turn its drive control up. Emulating a legendary Marshall JCM800 with incredible conviction, the Angry Charlie becomes more compressed and consistent, and stays controlled and crisp even when using extreme settings. It’s definitely one of our favourites, and with guitar virtuoso Andy Timmons having his own signature version - you know this pedal is something special!

JHS AT+ vs. Xotic BB Preamp

There are a few brands that even make pedal-formatted versions of their amps. This means that you can achieve sounds that closely resemble some formidable amplifiers, for a mere fraction of their full-fat prices. For example, Bogner have a range of distortion pedals based off some of their classic heads, including the Uberschall and Ecstasy. MXR have also followed this trend, releasing the 5150 Overdrive to give you the tone of the game-changing Peavey/EVH 5150; an amp that has been used on countless rock and metal records.

Usually featuring a full 3-band EQ like you’d find on an amp channel, these pedals offer more tweakability and tonal options. These amp-derived units are also examples of pedals that feature both distortion and overdrive/boost circuitry. With dual footswitches, you can use the boost in conjunction with the distortion side. For example, the 5150 pedal gets that tightened “Tube Screamer into an amp” sound with both engaged. An ergonomic built-in noise gate keeps the noise down too, making the 5150 Overdrive an all-encompassing pedal.

Friedman are known for their high-end valve-powered amplifiers, with heads such as the BE-100 delivering crushing tones. Their BE-OD stompbox is based off of this expensive, coveted amplifier, and is capable of reproducing the essence of the BE-100’s rich tone. They have also added other pedals to their range, such as the Dirty Shirley.

Friedman & Bogner Distortion Pedals on Andertons T.V.

These amp-style pedals are great, however they tend to be in a higher price bracket due to their more comprehensive features. They are a great investment after all though, allowing you to essentially get your sound no matter what amp you plug into. So, if you’re a musician who regularly gigs and has to plug into different rented amps night-after-night - these pedals can save your skin.

But there are more attainable alternatives around, such as those from Mooer’s Preamp pedal line. Unleashed at the 2017 NAMM Show, these mini pedals emulate a number of championed amps, and at around £100 each, they’re definitely worth considering!

Amp-Style Distortion Pedals on Andertons T.V.

Which Distortion Pedal Should I Buy?

In a similar vein to overdrive pedals, distortion pedals are often compared as there are so many tastes to appeal to and genres to cater for. So, it’s important to be aware of your requirements and what you want from a distortion pedal before narrowing down your contenders.

If you want a simple, no-nonsense pedal that gives you classic tones for a reasonable price, then the old-school units that we explained would be a good shout! However, if you want something that offers realistic amp sounds and features an amazing control set, amp-derived pedals will provide more satisfaction.

But what if you want to meet in the middle? For the best of both worlds, the Angry Charlie is a strong choice. With such a versatile range of tones on tap, a pedal like this will appeal strongly to guitarists that play a variety of styles and want a single stompbox that can cover all of the bases.

There’s no right or wrong, we recommend just choosing the pedal that sounds the best to you. If a certain tone inspires you to play, there aren’t many feelings better than that!

Summary

If you’ve stuck around, we hope that this guide will help to steer you in the right direction. The aim of this is to inform and make you feel confident when making your next pedal purchase, so we suggest you get out there and start making some awesome decisions!

We hope that we have dispelled the differences between overdrive and distortion pedals effectively too, because it can be easy to confuse them and not realise exactly what you want or need.

Despite picking out some renowned pedals, it’s still clear that the amount of choice is mind-blowing, but it’s always a good thing to have such a huge amount of options available. We suggest that you have a look around and find something that you think will suit your demands the most.

Shop All Distortion Pedals!

Want To Learn More?

For more information about the other pedal types mentioned in this piece, check out our dedicated guides for each of them:

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