Whether you’re just getting started with guitar effects pedals or already have a collection, you’ve probably heard of both a distortion pedal and an overdrive pedal. Maye you’ve heard these terms used interchangeably or heard they’re similar, but you don’t really know the difference. Gear heads could probably go on and on about the big differences between distortion and overdrive, but they still may not get into the technicalities of it all. Maybe you’ve actually listened to songs that have a distinct overdrive sound and songs that have a distinct distortion sound; you know it when you hear it, but you still don’t know the difference.

Well, let’s go through the difference between distortion and overdrive in a little more depth. Let’s talk about what each effect sounds like, why it sounds like that, and how use each one.

What Is An Overdrive Pedal And How Does It Work?

To start thinking about overdrive and what it is, you need to go back to tube amps, what they are, and how they worked. These days you’ll mostly find solid state amps, but back in the day vacuum tubes were used – here’s an article on the difference between tube and solid state amps. Push those tubes too far and the sound starts to do fun things. I would say the sound starts to “distort,” but I’m trying to cut a clear line between distortion and overdrive.

Early tube amps were designed to keep a clean sound and not distort as much as possible; yes, they did distort when pushed too far, but manufacturers tried to avoid this. Until musicians figured out that an overdriven amp sounds awesome and started pushing amps to the limit. Then amps started getting build with overdrive in mind; they’ll play clean and they’ll play overdriven.

Put simply, overdrive is a tube amp getting pushed beyond its limits. If you’re using a solid state amp, an overdrive pedal simulates that sound.

The advantage of having an overdrive pedal (or function on the amp) rather than actually pushing the amp to the limit is that you don’t need to blow your neighbourhood or audience out of the water to get the desired tone. To get overdrive, the amp has to be working hard, which means having it turned up loud. An overdrive pedal allows you to get that sound without the extreme volume.

When using an overdrive pedal, you will hear an increase in volume. And the harder to play, the more the distortion from the overdrive will come through. That’s a main feature of overdrive.

What Are Some Songs With Overdrive?

Overdrive features a lot in blues music. In blues, they’re not doing it for distortion, they’re looking to push the amp to the limits and get the noise and squeals that overdrive offers.

Take a look at the video here of La Grange by ZZ Top. This is Billy Gibbons at his best. Not only is the extended solo very overdriven, he’s using it to his advantage with plenty of pinch harmonics and bends to make that guitar scream.

Notice that the guitar tone doesn’t have a crunch to it that you would expect in distortion. It’s relatively clear but sounds and feels like amp is struggling a little bit. That’s overdrive. Even if you listen the song on a lower volume it still feels loud. With that in mind, rather than the studio recording, I’ve opted for the video below because there’s three guitars with wildly different tone, all using overdrive. The sound is clean, but pushed to the limits. That’s overdrive.

What Is A Distortion Pedal And How Does It Work?

A distortion pedal adds distortion to the sound that’s going through it. There, question answered. But what is distortion? There’s a reason why I went through overdrive first.

Distortion has a bit of a crunch to it. Put a little bit technically, a distortion pedal clips the sound wave, removing the peaks of the wave so it’s not as smooth. Unlike overdrive, where the sound gets more overdriven the harder you play, distortion is a consistent regardless of how you’re playing.

Boss, who are well known for their quality effects pedals, put it well in their article on distortion versus overdrive. Here they refer to overdrive as “natural” while distortion is a more unnatural sound, and this is true. As mentioned, overdrive is the natural consequence of pushing an amp too far while distortion is an unnatural clipping of the sound wave to produce a fuzzy sound.

And there’s the word: fuzz. While there are such things as fuzz pedals that are different from distortion pedals, it’s also a good way to describe the difference between distortion and overdrive. Overdrive isn’t a clean sound, but it’s relatively clear. Distortion is a dirty sound and is unclear.

What Are Some Songs With Distortion

You’ll hear distortion in a lot of heavier rock, punk, and general rock and roll.

A good example of how distortion is used is in Cherub Rock by The Smashing Pumpkins. After the intro, which is relatively clean, you can clearly here the distorted guitar sound. Regardless of how hard Corgan and Iha are playing, the tone and volume remains the same, as does the level of distortion. It’s a consistent crunch that gives the song a heavier feeling.

The sound is far from clean and is great.

What Are Some Good Distortion And Overdrive Pedals.

If you’re looking at getting a new distortion or overdrive pedal, there are plenty to choose from. Some are great all around pedals while others are made for a specific purpose, genre, or tone.

Great Overdrive Pedals

When you’re looking for guitar pedals in general, Boss always do a great job. I personally got started with a Boss OD-3, which is a great all around overdrive pedal. Beyond that, the Boss Blues Driver is, as you probably guessed it, a great blues oriented overdrive pedal.

If you’re looking for a different brand, the Ibanez Tube Screamer is another reputable pedal that emphasises a classic tone similar to more vintage amps.

Great Distortion Pedals

Sticking with Boss, their DS-1 is an excellent all around distortion pedal. If you want to go really heavy, they also have specialised distortion pedals like the Metal Zone.

The RAT distortion pedal is another pedal that gives a good all around distortion, if that’s what you’re looking for.

From here, I could likely list dozens more distortion pedals that are great for specific types of music, but it will make this article longer than it is. Maybe in the future I’ll make an article about the best distortion pedals for different genres, but for now, I’m just giving the general ones.

So What’s The Big Difference Between How Overdrive And Distortion Work?

Without getting into the technicalities (too much), overdrive and distortion use the same basic circuitry, but distortion just does it more.

To create an overdrive or distortion pedal, the signal from the guitar is increased through an operational amplifier (often called an op-amp). An op amp is able to take a weak electrical signal and increase it (with additional electricity). If you’re just passing a guitar signal through an op-amp and some resistors, all you get is a volume boost. If you then clip that signal with a couple diodes, you get an overdriven or distorted sound. The amount of clipping is what makes the distinction between the two.

Now you’re probably wondering “what is clipping.” A sound wave is just that, a wave. Clip the tops off that wave a little bit and you have soft clipping (overdrive). Clip the wave a lot and you have hard clipping (distortion). Boost Guitar Pedals has a more in depth analysis of the electrics of it if you’re so inclined.

But if want a visual representation, here’s a diagram of a normal sound wave in black with soft clipping in yellow and hard clipping in red. Notice that the hard clipping is effectively a square wave. That’s distortion!

Diagram showing soft clipping taking the top off a sound wave versus hard clipping turning it into a more square shape.

And That’s That

Hopefully you now understand the not so subtle difference between overdrive and distortion. The two example songs I’ve given should make it pretty clear that the sounds are actually pretty different.

If you’re exploring the type of music you like to play, the sound, and the tone you want, it’s always good to experiment. Perhaps look into the gear your favourite guitarists use and start narrowing down on their sound, then expand from there.

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