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October 26, 2008

What is the difference between distortion and overdrive?

Distortion and overdrive pedals are both sometimes referred to as gain pedals, or perhaps dirt or crunch pedals. These types of pedals add extra grit to your guitar tone, and in the process they can also boost the volume a bit, if so required. Whether it's called gain, dirt or grit - the idea is the same. There is another type of gain pedal that should be mentioned here as well - the fuzz pedal, as it also belongs to this family of pedals. However, I'm leaving fuzz pedals out of the discussion for the rest of this article.

Depending on who you ask, you might get slightly difference answers to this question about the difference between distortion and overdrive. I find it is hard to describe in words the difference between the two. The easiest way to get an idea would be to start by having a listen yourself. Here is a video clip the demonstrates each type of pedal:

If you still insist on a description, I would say think of Distortion as a crunchy, edgy type of gritty sound with plenty of sustain. It is the basic sound of the classic rock bands as well as heavy rock bands all the way to metal bands. Many guitar amps can create a fat, rich distortion by themselves, and then a distortion pedal is often not needed. However, there are also many amps that don't produce much distortion, so adding a distortion pedal can then give a player a lot of versatility by transforming the clean sound to a fat rocking tone.

Overdrive, to my ears, has a more hollow sound, usually less sustain and a more "bluesy" sound. There are many overdrive pedals out there, but the one with the most fame attached to it would probably be the Tube Screamer, by Ibanez. There are nowadays many companies making tube screamer type of pedals. Stevie Ray Vaughan used Tube Screamers throughout his career, and partly because of the huge influence he continues to have on so many people, you often find a Tube Screamer of some variation or another on most guitar players' pedalboards.

The difference in sound between distortion pedals and overdrive pedals can sometimes be very subtle. I find I can set my distortion pedals to sound very much like an overdrive pedal, by turning down the gain a bit, while also turning back the tone knob somewhat. Turning those knobs in the opposite direction however, would create a more typical high gain distortion sound on most distortion pedals.

Getting an overdrive pedal to sound like a distortion pedal is harder though. I find they sound best on medium gain settings through a clean or semi-clean amp. Again, have a listen to almost any bluesier or rockier Stevie Ray Vaughan song, and you can often hear how he kicks in a Tubescreamer when he takes a solo. The tone gets louder, and changes from semi-clean to rich, dirty and gritty.

How to use distortion or overdrive pedals

A gain pedal can be used in several ways. You can use it with a medium gain setting through a clean amp tone in order to get a good gritty rhythm guitar sound. You can use it as a boost, with a low gain setting but the volume turned up through an already semi-dirty amp. This will make the signal into the preamp a little "hotter", which will lead to increased sustain and fatter tone. Maybe you have good amp distortion already, but you want more crunch - kick in a distortion pedal of your choice and you're rocking! Experiment - try different variations and combinations to see what interesting tones you can get. There are no rules for how to use pedals - as long as it sounds good, your're on the right track.

Using two gain pedals together

Here's a little trick you should try if you haven't: using two gain pedals together. It's an interesting way to get versatile tones, and I often do this. I may use my Maxon SD-9 for distortion, then add my Boss Blues Driver for additional gain and volume. Perfect for plaing lead stuff. Again, there are no rules - try both overdrive and distortion pedals together and see what you come up with. You can for example have them both set up low amounts of gain, but together they deliver lots of gain. Or, you can have one set up with a fair amount of gain and the other with just a touch of dirt and perhaps slight volume boost. This way, you have the perfect setup for playing solos and leads.

If you are thinking about getting a gain pedal and don't have much experience with these, I would recommend you got to a well equipped music store and ask to try a decent overdrive pedal, as well as a decent distortion pedal. Have both of them hooked up together and try all combinations and settings. See what tones YOU like out this gear.

My top picks for Distortion and Overdrive

Here are some recommendations for pedals - just remember that there are so many people making great pedals today, and these recommendations are by no means meant to represent the best pedals available - they are just some examples that came to mind as I am writing this up.

My personal favorites for distortion - the Maxon SD-9, because it sounds very organic and fat. The tone knob is extremely powerful, so you can go from a mild overdrive to high gain lead tones. Highly recommended.

For the best overdrive tone, I choose the Maxon OD-9, or the Lovepedal Eternity - both are incredibly good at what they do. I also use a ZYS, but this pedal is not available any more.

By Robert Renman - www.dolphinstreet.com

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Posted by Robert Renman on October 26, 2008

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