Guide to Pedals: Overdrive Pedals

A quick look to the overdrive pedal, the one all guitar players have.

Ultimate Guitar
Hello everyone! How are you pedal-geeks doing? I hope all is well.

Today, I am here to pick up where we left last time. If you recall, in the first Guide to Pedals column we discussed what a boost pedal was and what you could do with it, and I tried to make a really poorly developed link between that article and this one.

Today we are here to discuss what is possibly the most used pedal by guitar players: the overdrive pedal.

What kind of sound does it make?

I suppose that the best way to explain what an overdrive pedal is to say that it is a boost pedal on steroids, and a bit more! Lets see it this way, imaging that you have a Les Paul style guitar (with 2 humbuckers and 2 volume knobs) going into a mildly distorted sounding amp. Now, set the neck pickup to a very clean sound (rolling the volume knob half way down) and keep the bridge pickup at max volume. Switching from one pickup to the other will give you 2 very different sounds, a clean sparkly one (in the neck pickup) and a bluesy/rocky sound (in the bridge pickup). The bridge sound is like the neck sound plus the overdrive pedal.

This happens because the valves (or transistors) in your amp react differently to different signals, generally producing: more sustain, different overtones, easier harmonics, and some nasty sounds (yes! Distortion). The purpose of an overdrive pedal is to take advantage of the fact that adding some smooth distortion to your sound and take it to the next level, but how?

What does the pedal does to your signal?

Overdrive pedals re-shape the signal that comes from your guitar flattening the peaks (highest amplitude value) and trough (lowest amplitude value) of the waveform. This is called "clipping," and it is the basis of distorted signals. This process adds harmonic and inharmonic overtones, and some times a bit of unwanted white noise, which to us sounds warm, controlled, gritty, dirty and pleasant.

In tube amplifiers, this effect is produced by gently compressing the instrument's out-going electrical signal in vacuum tubes or "valves." In a pedal this is done by a series of transistors that mimic the valves effect on the instrument signal. Overdrive pedals are design to produce "soft" or "gentle" tube-like clipping by compressing the sine-like wave without completely flattening it. Electronically, this is usually achieved by either amplifying the signal to a point where it must be clipped, or by clipping the signal across diodes. Much like tube amps, overdrive units produce "clean" sounds at quieter volumes and distorted "warm" sounds at louder volumes (not like distortion pedals which will be the topic next time).

A visual example of this process can be seen on the next figures:

A good explanation of the clipping process is given in this video:

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Here is a link to a website that describes the way an Ibanez Tube Screamer (one of the most well know overdrive pedals) works.

How you use it?

Once again, the overdrive pedal is not exactly the most radical pedal you can have and there are not many ways to use it. Much like the boost pedals it will make only one thing: overdrive your signal; the important thing is what you can do with this extra power. If you are running into a clean channel, an overdrive pedal will give you an extra push into a blues-appropriate tone, great for leads and for crunchy rhythms but not into "rock-like distortion." The other way to use it is to change the sound for leads and guitar solos. Putting an overdrive pedal into a distorted sound will give you more sustain and more feedback (some times a bit too much).

Overdrive pedals also have a tone knob and a volume knob. These will help you to further shape your sound. Maybe you want it a bit brighter/darker or more volume, it's all there at the twist of a knob!

Here is a very bad video that reviews Zakk Wyld's overdrive pedal, is not a great review but listen to the sounds and effects of an overdrive pedal:

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Three good choices

1. Cheap

DigiTech Bad Monkey Analog Tube Overdrive: Here is a great entry-level overdrive (so great that some musicians like it over pedals twice and three times its price). In a world where all overdrives are compare to the master-of-them-all (the tubescreamer) the Bad Monkey has some cool options:
  • It has a bass knob (which a lot of overdrive pedal need and don't have);
  • The possibility to use it as a nice boost pedal (which you would think all overdrive pedal should do, but some of them just wont);
  • It has a nice range in the gain knob;
  • Low noise (or at least lower than some much more expensive pedals).
The down side is the low quality buffer which will suck some of your tone and some cheap electronics, I guess Digitech had to cut corners somewhere with this one.

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2. Mid

Ibanez Tube Screamer Serie: The Tubescreamers are standard of the industry; they have a nice midrange that will help you cut through any mix, and good range and a simple but effective buffer. These pedals are simple but effective and if you stay away from the custom shop/hand-wired ones they will not have a great impact in your budget.

Here is a comparison video between them:

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There are a lot of overdrive pedals out there in the mid-range look at MXR, Boss and so many other companies that make great overdrive pedals out there. Here there are some cool videos about overdrive that might help you choose one for yourself:

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3. Expensive

JHS line of overdrives: The guys at JHS surely know how to make great overdrive pedals and seems to me that they make one for everyone. They are properly engineer, use illustrious components and sound great. You can't really go wrong with them, so check them all out and choose the one wish the tonal characteristics you prefer. Here are two of the most popular ones:

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My weapon of choice

As I said in the previous column, my weapon of choice is a J. Rockett Archer, a modern day copy the classic Klon Centaur overdrive (a legendary overdrive circuit). This pedal can do it all from blues to metal lead in front of an amp, and actually replaced the crunchy channel on my amp, now I run it into my clean channel for that "Layla" tone. Here are some examples:

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Wow, this was a long article! I hope that this help you to comprehend better what an overdrive pedal is and does. Next time we visit the next step in out noisy-pedals ladder, the Distortion pedal!

I hope you have a great week, thanks for reading!

9 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Nice article, but the best way to put your tone into overdrive is to add an "overdrive" button into your amp's gearbox. It doesn't work if your amp has a manual transmission, so be careful when modding. But seriously, this is highly informative, and your ample inclusion of links is entirely appropriate and appreciated. I miss my rig back home immensely now. Further kudos for not ragging on Boss. The SD-1 is tried and true.
    EHX's Soul Food is an affordable approximation of the Klone Centaur circuit, a great alternative to the trusty but overused Ibanez Tube Screamer.
    Thanks for the comment DanTheHobbit. It is appreciated.
    Respect is due. In my 15 years of playing, I hadn't even thought of a boost pedal, so your previous article caught my attention. Beyond that, you offer an approachable view on gear that's not exclusionary. Knowing nothing of your life outside of your articles, I say that you're a good person. Thank you for that.
    Once again, thanks mate. You caught exactly the idea of the article. Please, keed on checking them as they come out!
    Great article I really liked checking out the demos. My OD of choice is the protone pedals bulb overdrive deluxe. My main reason for choosing it (besides being a djent fanboy) is because it has a mid-range boost that you can activate which makes chords and riffs really stand out more.
    Leather Sleeves
    Nice one. I had never really thought about ODs until I had to down-grade to a low-gain amp. I stumbled upon a Marshall Jackhammer and that's what I use over any distortion pedal I have access to.
    Tremendous article, i have a hard time explaining these things to a few of my mates. Guess i'll send em thos link and go on my lazy road :3. Very helpful, thank you.