Distortion and overdrive pedals are an essential item found on almost any pedalboard. So much so that they are often the main, and in many cases the only tool in a guitarist’s tone-shaping arsenal. But before we can find the perfect pedal – that bone-rattling match made in heaven – it’s important to first understand the difference between overdrive and distortion.
Overdrive stompboxes have two primary uses - one is to deliver a gain boost that pushes a tube amp to distortion, while the other is to emulate the sound of an overdriven, slightly distorting vintage tube amp. The latter became necessary following the introduction of solid-state amps that, while more dependable, would often be found wanting when guitarists were looking for that heightened tube driven crunch.
Boss OD3 Overdrive | Ibanez TS808 Overdrive
Overdrive and distortion are the product of a type of waveform distortion, referred to as clipping. This is achieved by pushing an amplifier to create a signal that is beyond its means – one with more power than its power supply can produce – to the extent that the signal is cut at its point of maximum capacity. This results in a distorted square-like waveform or ‘clipping’ that is responsible for those wonderful warm and dirty overdrive tones.
Overdrive pedals are commonly soft-clipping devices and, as such, usually exist in a range that starts at subtle breaking up and ends at a solid dose of crunch and at times, hints of self-generated distortion when dialled up to max. This allows for soft playing to barely engage the effect, and for louder playing to trigger the overdrive – the responsive nature of which really brings playing technique to the fore.
Bogner Ecstacy Blue Overdrive
For the most part overdrives flourish when matched with a quality tube amp set at no lower than medium level volume. By doing so the pedal merely has to work as a pre-boost that engages the already high volume of the tube amp to land creamy distortion – one that still maintains that natural overdriven character.
Distortion stompoxes are hard-clipping devices that are more gain and crunch-heavy than your compact, cleaner OD tones. They’re self-reliant pedals that crank, gnarl and grate at your sound by boosting signal and altering waveform, often with the help of multiple gain stages.
Boss MT-2 Metal Zone | Rat 2 Distortion
These pedals produce constant and consistent clipping to the peaks of the waveform and therefore don’t rely on your level of attack to engage. It’s a blanket effect that lacks the subtlety of an overdrive pedal, but is often more impactful. While rock, blues and alternative guitarists will have no trouble finding overdrive and distortion effect pedals that equally meet the demands of their playing style and desired sound, once we get into the realm of hard rock and metal, distortion pedals become the sole choice.
In this particular area features are catered towards nailing that desirably scooped-mid sound, characterised by booming lows and cutting highs. Which is why we start to see tone controls that focus on the mids rather than altering the highs and, in turn, a greater focus on adjusting the thickness of the bass.