If you have spent any time learning about gear, you might hear about overdrive and distortion pedals. The terms seemed to be used interchangeably, but that just isn’t the case. They have unique differences that make them great for all sorts of different scenarios in music. Let's take a look and see what the difference is between overdrives and distortions.
Overdrive was notably used for the first time in the 1950s during the birth of rock ’n' roll. One of the first songs that took full effect of the overdrive was “Maybellene” by Chuck Berry, in which he used a cheap tube amplifier with the volume all the way up to achieve the sound. It wasn’t until the mid 1970 that the effect made it into pedal format. Since then, there are literally thousands of overdrive pedals made by big companies and boutique guitar brands alike. Some of our favorites are the Klon Centaur, JHS Morning Glory, Walrus Audio 385, and our own Dumble overdrive.
Overdrive is meant to mimic the sound of an amp, just turned up. The goal of an overdrive pedal is to get you that screaming amp breakup but at low levels, and be easily controlled. This being said, most overdrive pedals mimic different amps, different frequencies of response, or maybe a blend of the two. The Tube Screamer, the first and most famous overdrive, attempts to mimic the sound of a tube amplifier, with a signature “mid frequency” hump. This frequency response can help your guitar stand out in the mix without turning up the volume of your guitar.
Overdrive covers such a broad spectrum of sounds, from fairy clean with a bit of breakup, to the sound of a small amp imploding at your fingertips. The most common genres we see overdrive used is classic rock, worship, jazz, country, and alternative.
Distortion, while very similar in history to overdrive, does deviate a bit from the story. In 1961 Grady Martin was recording guitar tracks for the song “Don’t Worry” by Marty Robbins, but the preamplifier he was using seemed to be faulty. What came out was this crazy fuzzy tone that later became the birth of the fuzz pedal. The Big Muff is probably the most famous fuzz, and while it isn’t exactly a distortion, it operates in very similar ways. To make distortion work, your signal essentially alters the waveform by clipping the top points of the signal. Soft clipping will give you a bit different of distortion sound than a square wave clipping, but that just alters the characteristic of the pedal or effect. Some of our favorite distortion pedals are the ProCo Rat, Boss DS-1, MXR Distortion +, Earthquaker Devices Hoof, and our own GDS-20 distortion pedal.
Distortion tends to much more upfront and in your face than overdrive. When its turned on, it has a huge effect on your amps sound, and everyone in the room will know something changed. Distortion takes where overdrive leaves off, and kicks it up to ten. With this effect, you will hear much more grit in your sound, as well as have increased sustain in your notes that you play. Distortion will give you a bit more of that heavy rock sound that we all love.
Distortion is typically used in more hard rock settings, as well as metal and ska. However, in recent years there has been much more creative use of the effect, and your favorite band is most likely using one. Some bands that we like that uses a distortion are Van Halen, Switchfoot, Nirvana, Steve Vai, Relient K, 1965, and many others.
So there you have it! You now know the difference between overdrive and distortion pedals. While they are very similar in design, usage and history, they create unique sounds that can inspire us all! Make sure you try out both of these effects, and create music that you love.