I was watching Steve Vai's rig rundown last night and he was walking through his legacy amps and talking about how much he likes the dirty channel on them and then he shows us his signature distortion pedal. So here's the question, if you like your amp's dirty channel, why do you need a distortion pedal?

I can see on something like a JCM800 where it really takes some serious volume to get those great distorted sounds so you want to have it there at lower volumes, but on something like my DSL40, the dirty channel is just amazing (I think at least) so I wouldn't want to screw it up with further pedals.

So if you do this, help me understand why. Are you using it for a boost for solos, or just when you want a little more dirt? I can see that working. Am I missing a critical piece of this and therefore sacrificing the tone of the gods by NOT doing this?
a boost for solos can be useful even if you like the od channel (in fact that's what it's for, if you didn't like the od channel you wouldn't want to boost it )

also you can get different tones from standalone dirt pedals (i.e. not boosts) which your amp can't get, which can be useful.

but if you like your amp's od channel and it gets all the tones you need already, then yeah there's no need for additional dirt pedals.
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yeah I run a clean boost that is just awesome (just makes my same tone louder without coloring it) but sometimes I think a little heavier distorted sound would be better for solos so I guess I see that!
Considering how many different sounds Vai gets out at a concert, I wouldn't be surprised that he is just using the clean channel.

I know some people that set the od channel on mild crunch and then slap it with distortion but in case of Vai, his sig. "distortion" is probably an overdrive.
Another reason might be that Vai is forced by his contract to push his pedal in all press, so that won't be surprised.
steve's distortion pedal is indeed a distortion pedal as opposed to an overdrive. I think that in steve's case it just another flavor of distortion that he uses when appropriate. I'm sure that the pedal does certain sounds that an amp may not do naturally. joe satriani does the same thing as do many other guitar players.
I set my DSL40 red channel at noon (classic rock territory) then use various OD pedals for hard rock and metal tones.

There's something extra you get by hitting the V1 tube of a distorted amp with an OD.
great responses guys thanks - so here is my noob question then, what is the difference between a distortion and overdrive? Does the overdrive just provide more gain?
Last edited by tobin1634 at Oct 4, 2016,
tobin1634 Distortion tends to provide more gain than OD, but many people and manufacturers swap the terms often. I'd assume they are about the same thing.
^^ That's a good question. Technically, distortion and overdrive are the same, they're just the clipping of a signal. And a lot of times pedals are named almost arbitrarily by manufacturers. However, there are some rough rules of thumb which also apply.

First of all, no, an overdrive doesn't just provide more gain- that's more a clean boost pedal like the one you currently use. Overdrives were initially designed to provide all of the distortion inside the pedal, just like a distortion pedal, except with a softer tone with less distortion available, to sound more like the overdrive of a (vintage-style, lower gain) tube amp.

However, guitarists found that a lot of overdrive pedals had enough level boost on tap that they could use them as a pseudo-clean boost, and a lot of overdrives these days are used like that (tubescreamer, boss SD1, stuff like that- though plenty of players also use them as standalone pedals i.e. using the pedal to generate all of the overdrive and not using them as a pseudo-clean boost).

Tubescreamer and SD1-style overdrives do some things when used as a pseudo-clean boost that genuine clean boosts don't do, though- first of all, they cut your bass. This tightens up your tone which is very useful for higher gain tones where you usually want a tight bass so that things don't turn to flubby mud. Secondly, they boost your mids. This helps you cut through and makes you appear louder, and also generally just fattens single notes for leads and sounds awesome. Thirdly, they compress your tone a good bit- again, this helps for leads and makes pinch harmonics etc. really jump out. Fourthly, especially in the case of the tubescreamer and clones (the SD1 is a bit brighter but still probably smoother than your original signal) , they roll off some highs which makes things sound a bit smoother. Lastly, even with the drive control set to zero, they're adding a little pedal clipping/overdrive to your signal which also affects the tone a bit.

You can also use more transparent type overdrives to boost your tone which don't cut the bass as much and/or don't boost the mids as much, and/or aren't as compressed-sounding. E.g. the timmy, the klon centaur, boss blues driver and stuff like that.

Anyway, back to the original question. Overdrives tend to have softer clipping, which often means the clipping diodes are in a feedback loop around the op-amp. Distortions tend to have hard clipping which often means the clipping diodes are "to ground", rather than in the feedback loop. This normally means that distortion pedals have more distortion available, and an edgier, harder tone whereas overdrives have a softer tone and less overdrive available.

examples of feedback-loop clipping overdrives: tubescreamer (and clones), boss sd1, timmy, marshall bluesbreaker (and clones) etc. etc.

examples of "to ground" distortions: boss ds1, pro co rat (various versions and also clones), marshall guvnor/crunchbox (and clones) etc.

As I said above, the big thing to remember is "tends". There are other things you can do to the circuit to affect how it sounds as well as where the clippers are (and also some overdrive and distortion pedals don't even use clipping diodes, they maybe use mosfets or jfets cascading into each other to produce distortion or overdrive), so there are a lot of exceptions as well. For example, the klon centaur I mentioned above is considered by most people to be an overdrive (and in fact when its drive control is set to 0 it's actually a genuinely clean boost) and its diodes are "to ground". The fulltone OCD is another that has its clippers to ground, but a lot of people would consider it an overdrive; ditto the MXR Distortion+ and the DOD 250 (both of those have very similar circuits).

And as I said above, the naming by manufacturers is normally driven by what they think will sell the pedal more easily rather than any technical considerations. Basically, remember there are tons of exceptions, but just because there are a lot of exceptions doesn't mean you can't have a rough rule of thumb which can be helpful (as long as you don't forget about the exceptions!).

As a very rough rule of thumb, overdrives are normally just milder versions of distortion pedals. Or distortion pedals are more extreme versions of overdrive pedals.

EDIT: It's also worth noting that, as most overdrive and distortion pedals have some level boost on tap, you can use them as both a boost and an overdrive/distortion pedal at once. So, you can set up a crunch tone on your overdrive channel, and kick on your distortion pedal which is set to both distort *and* boost, so you're getting more distortion from the pedal, but also boosting your amp to distort a bit more as well. In fact, using them like that (most people do, at least a little, and even if they don't realise it) may well be one of the reasons why a lot of people (myself included) think that solid state distortion and overdrive pedals sound better through tube amps- because you're boosting a bit too, you're getting a bit of tube clipping as well as the pedal clipping which often warms things up a bit.
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Last edited by Dave_Mc at Oct 4, 2016,