Distortion and Overdrive

Good afternoon,  music fans! Earlier this week, we here at the PAL blog tried to clear up one of music’s most prevalent and annoying misnomers – the mixed-up use of the terms Vibrato and Tremolo. And when you think about it, you really can’t blame people for thinking they’re one in the same. Although they’re technically completely different in what they actually do they both do share certain superficial similarities that can be easily confused to the untrained ear. And making matters worse are all of those amp manufacturers who flat out use one term when they mean the other – often on purpose! Anyways, all that is explained in the article so if you’re not sure what a tremolo effect is versus a vibrato or are just interested in learning a bit more about the two, you should definitely check that out. That particular article was pretty popular actually and we got a lot of good responses from veterans and newbies a like so with that said, we would like to take the time to discuss another hazy field in the world of guitar effects – distortion versus overdrive!  If you were to ask ten different musicians about distortion vs overdrive chances are you’ll get ten different answers but a common theme they will all share is what each sounds like. In other words, they will be describing the effect’s sound qualities rather than what it is technically doing.  Still though, the line between distortion and overdrive tend to blend together that it’s hard to draw a line between the two – especially when it comes to effects pedals! Anyways, let’s break them down to get a clearer picture.



What is Overdrive, Distortion?

First, let’s look at the two terms, but from the perspective of an amplifier. The simplest way to explain overdrive is what occurs when input gain exceeds the capacity of a device to handle the amount of gain thrown at it; in this case, a tube. What happens is that the smooth wave form that goes into the device gets “clipped” because the device’s input capacity is less than what is being thrown at it. Sonically, we perceive the result of this clipping as distortion. The higher the amplitude of the wave, the greater amount of distortion we hear. There’s been a lot of confusion about these two terms because they’re used so loosely, and oftentimes interchangeably. For me, I’ll stick with the audiophile’s perspective of overdrive in that distortion is the result of overdrive or over-powering an amplification device.

A way to think about overdrive vs distortion is that overdrive happens in the front-end (what you put in), while distortion happens on the back-end (what you hear). But here’s where we get into a bit of murky territory, especially with pedals. Strictly speaking if we’re talking about overdrive as simply overpowering the front-end of an amp to make the tubes clip, the only pedal that is technically an overdrive is a boost pedal that takes your guitar’s signal and ups it voltage. But lots of manufacturers call their pedals overdrive pedals. In reality, most of those are distortion pedals – this includes the popular Tube Screamer.  So how do you tell the difference? Well, it’s still a bit murky but as a rule of thumb, a distortion pedal will create a distorted sound irrespective of the amp and its settings. In other words, it’ll clip on its own. Put it front of the clean channel of an amp, switch it on, and it’ll create distortion. However, many, if not most, “distortion” pedals also provide a bit of gain boost to overdrive an amp. That’s where it gets murky, as most of the pedals termed “overdrive pedal” function as a combination of both overdrive AND distortion.

There are no clear cut rules but in general most pedals that are commonly known as overdrive pedals (Tube Screamer, etc.) employ what’s called a “soft-clipping” circuit or transistor where only a small portion of the input signal is clipped. Most distortion pedals employ a “hard-clipping” device to severely clip the input signal to get that “square wave” tone. But as mentioned above – there are no hard and fast rules. So which kind of pedal to choose? The best answer is it depends on what you’re after with respect to your distorted tone. I know that this is a rather ambiguous statement, but again, there are no hard and fast rules. In the end, you should choose based on what sounds good to you. But there are a couple of good guidelines to follow.


Which Effect is Right For You?

If you have a tube amp and just want distortion purely from overdriving the tubes, then a booster pedal is probably what you’re after. There are several kinds of boosters. Some boost only a certain frequency range, like a Fat boost that boosts the lower frequencies. For example, if you personally prefer a clean, transparent boost that has a flat frequency response so that the distortion that occurs is my amp’s tone, you can use a booster in conjunction with your amp set just at the edge of breakup, so when you switch it on, not only will you get a volume boost, you’ll overdrive the pre-amp tubes. And depending upon how much gain you throw at the amp, you’ll get the power tubes working as well.

If you want to add a bit of color and overdrive your amp, then a soft-clipping pedal like a Tube Screamer (or its more affordable but equally superb clone) works quite well. Tube Screamer-type pedals typically give you a midrange boost that results in a much warmer and smoother distortion. Many also add sustain and a bit of compression to simulate power tube saturation at any volume. The Tone Freak Effects Abunai 2 is exceptional in this department, as is the Geek Driver. Then there are others, like the Kasha Overdrive that add different EQ voicings as well as gain. But with that said, there are some like the Timmy Overdrive that are transparent. They’ll give you the gain and boost, but will not color your sound.

If you want to get a distorted tone at any volume, then a distortion pedal is the way to go. There are lots of these on the market. A popular model to look at is the Way Huge Fat Sandwich. It’s a full-sized pedal with plenty of tweakability – plus it will give you TONS of distortion at any volume. I normally use it for leads, as it gives just a few dB of gain, but gives me all the distortion I need to get a great screaming tone! If a distortion pedal is still not enough gain for you and you need to get a hard-clipped, super-squishy, compressed distortion, then the fuzz pedal will get you there. Hendrix was famous for his masterful use of the fuzz effect and even has a pedal modeled after that very tone!

You can also chain overdrive and distortion effects to great success. It’s actually done quite a bit because you get colors that you can’t get with just your amp. One thing that musicians do regularly is to use an overdrive pedal to push their amp hard, then when they want to get more tube compression and sustain, they slam the front-end with a booster. This doesn’t result in a volume boost because the tubes are already saturated, but you do get much more “gainier” sound, and that can really work with solos.



Alright, well, hopefully that cleared a few things up and now that we all know a bit more about distortion, overdrive and even fuzz so why not check out our huge selection of effects at the best prices guaranteed! Also, if you don’t have the cash on hand, try Pay Pal’s Bill Me Later program to start rocking now and pay the bill later!


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