What's the Difference between Distortion and Overdrive Pedals?

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Q: I've been looking into both distortion and overdrive pedals but I'm not sure which one to get. What's the difference between distortion and overdrive pedals anyway?

It’s not surprising that there’s a lot of confusion about these two effects mainly because they’re used so loosely and oftentimes interchangeably, especially in regards to pedals. From the perspective of an amplifier, overdrive is what happens when the input gain exceeds what the amp was made to handle. Distortion is what we actually hear when that happens. The more overdriven an amp gets, the more distortion we hear.

As far as pedals go, it’s a little trickier since they tend to be named for the sound they give rather than what they technically do (although both are usually the same). From a technical perspective, the only true “overdrive” pedals are boosters since they actually increase the guitar’s signal in order to overdrive an amp. On the other hand, distortion pedals will give you a distorted sound regardless of the amp or its settings. Even on a clean amp channel, a distortion pedal will create distortion. As for a lot of the pedals labeled overdrive, they are actually a combination of overdrive (boost) and distortion. This includes famous overdrive pedals such as the Ibanez Tube Screamer.

While there are no hard rules, most pedals known as overdrive use what’s known as a “soft-clipping” circuit or transistor that causes only a small percentage of the signal to distort on its own. Meanwhile, most distortion pedals use a “hard-clipping” circuit or transistor that severely clips the entire signal. It should also be said that many distortion pedals also offer some gain boost in there as well.

The Right Choice

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As for which one is right for you, it depends on what type of distorted tone you’re after. If you have a tube amplifier and want distortion only from your tubes, a booster pedal is the way to go. There are many types of boosters that emphasize different frequency ranges as well as clean, transparent ones that give a flat frequency response so be aware of that when shopping around. If you want to give your amp’s tone a little color, a signal boost and a bit of distortion, an overdrive pedal is a good choice. Many overdrive pedals also add a little compression and sustain in order to mimic tube saturation at any volume.

If you’re after distortion at any setting, a distortion pedal will get the job. And just in case that’s not enough, a fuzz pedal will yield very hard-clipped, compressed distortion that many players love to incorporate into their sound. In the end, the best choice is simply what sounds best for your style.

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