Perhaps the most basic type of guitar effect is a drive pedal. Overdrive, distortion, and fuzz are all synonymous with the guitar itself.
In this article we’ll take a look at each kind of drive pedal, looks at what makes them different, and start you on the road to picking out the one(s) that are right for you!
WHAT IS A DRIVE PEDAL
Looked at broadly, drive pedals are maybe the most fundamental type of pedal to find ‘your’ specific sound. This is because the drive pedal alters your sound in a very fundamental way.
Drive pedals function by inducing ‘clipping’ into your sound. If you picture the basic sine wave and chop off some of the peak and the trough, that’s essentially what these pedals do. How they do it, and how much clipping they do, however, is what gives each one of these pedals their own distinctive character.
The mildest of the three types of drive pedals, overdrive was originally produced by driving a tube amp very hard – usually by maxing out the volume and really pounding in the strings.
Today, however, there are lots of pedals that let you get a mild to moderate overdrive sound at just about any volume. Overdrive is characterized by a generally “warm” and “natural” sound. This is achieved by soft and symmetrical clipping of the sound wave.
Overdrive pedals are generally more sensitive to the volume of the guitar and of the amp than other pedals. They definitely sound the most characteristic through a guitar with the volume turned up and played through a medium volume (or higher) tube amp. Most good overdrive pedals are also sensitive to the volume controls on your guitar and your playing style – cleaning up the sound when you turn the volume down or lighten up your pick attack.
One step further than overdrive is distortion. Distortion is, by definition, a more opaque effect than overdrive, and generally distortion effects pedals let less of “your” sound through (in general) than overdrive pedals.
Using the same type of circuits as overdrive pedals, but with silicon diodes in place of the warmer-sounding germanium diodes found in overdrive pedals, distortion pedals clip the guitar’s sound more aggressively than overdrive pedals. Some distortion pedals feature these silicon diodes in asymmetric circuits, which results in even harsher and more “jagged” clipping.
In addition to this more aggressive clipping, just about all distortion pedals feature a mild-to-moderate mid-scooped EQ and a fairly heavy compression – especially when the drive knob is turned up higher. All these factors combine to make distortion pedals more of a sound-in-a-box than overdrive pedals.
Going a step farther than distortion, you start to get into the wild-and-wooly word of fuzz pedals.
If distortion pedals color your sound a medium amount, you can think of fuzz pedals as a total transformation of your sound. No matter what goes into the fuzz pedal, the only thing that comes out is fuzz! Despite this, many of the best fuzz pedals are sensitive to a player’s touch and guitar volume, and some are also designed to drive a tube amp into a little bit of overdrive-style clipping as well as adding lots of fuzz to the sound.
Despite being the most extreme of the drive effects, fuzz pedals were actually the first of these effects in pedal form. Fuzz pedals use either silicon or germanium transistors, and although many players feel strongly about the choice of transistor material, the truth is that great fuzz pedals are made with both types.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A DRIVE PEDAL
There are, perhaps, more options for guitar drive pedals than any other single type of guitar effect. In order to narrow down your selection, the first question you need to ask yourself is:
WHAT KIND OF SOUND ARE YOU LOOKING FOR?
Maybe the easiest (yet most important and often overlooked) step of picking the right kind of drive pedal, is figuring out as specifically as possible what kind of sound you are looking for.
You won’t easily get a Randy Rhoads-style distortion from just an overdrive pedal, or a Stevie Ray Vaugh-like blues sound from a fuzz pedal, so your first step should be to narrow down your choices.
While Google is a great resource, here are a few things to consider while you’re trying to narrow down the pedal type:
- Overdrive pedals are a great start if you don’t know where to turn. They are generally the most transparent drive effect you’ll find, they are easy to dial in anything from a subtle breakup to a more aggressive almost-distortion sound. Depending on the rest of your guitar rig, they can be more of a one-stop-shop drive pedal – enough boost for solos and lead lines, but flexible enough for rhythm and cleaner sounds as well.
- Distortion pedals are a good place to look for your more aggressive sounds (think Metallica, Nirvana, Pantera, etc.). These pedals are more difficult to pick out, since they all have unique sound qualities, and may require extensive tweaking to play nice with your amplifier (and other pedals).
- Fuzz pedals are generally easy to recognize in songs. If you’re looking for a fuzz sound, you generally know it, and nothing else will do. These aren’t subtle, and the do pretty much take over your tone, but if that’s the sound you’re looking for – that’s what you need!
Once you’ve figured out what style of drive pedal you need, the next step is to consider the amount of control(s) that you want. Pedals with 2 or 3 knobs are easy to dial in, but may not have much flexibility to use with different guitars or amplifiers. Pedals with lots of knobs and switches may work well with all sorts of other equipment and provide a wide variety of sounds, but can take longer to dial in or adjust sounds.
BASIC DRIVE PEDAL CONTROLS
Since overdrive, distortion, and fuzz are all varying degrees of the same effect, they share lots of controls in common.
The most common controls found on these pedals are Drive (which controls the amount of overdrive, distortion or fuzz), Tone (which controls the brightness of the sound – make sure that you try many settings of this knob!), and Level (the output level of the pedal).
ADVANCED DRIVE PEDAL CONTROLS
If you’re looking for more control, however, some pedals offer additional features, such as:
- Variable boost – Some drive pedals provide a separate footswitch for an extra lead boost in volume (and sometimes gain). On some pedals, this boost is fixed, and others allow you to set the boosted volume yourself.
- Variable gain switches – If you’re looking for an all-in-one solution, some overdrive or distortion pedals offer switches that let you switch from an overdrive-style circuit to a heavier distortion-style circuit. Some pedals offer multiple options for clipping style (which is how drive effects get their sound), for even more tonal options.
- A/B channels – Some pedals also offer the ability to set two levels of distortion (using two different knobs) and switch between them via footswitches. This is similar to the above-mentioned gain switches, but having the two independent channels means it’s easier to switch between a light crunch and a heavily-distorted lead sound.
- Expanded EQ – While just about all these pedals feature at least a single “Tone” knob, some drive pedals offer more EQ options when it comes to sculpting your sound. These include separate low, mid, and high adjustments, or even a graphic EQ with more tone-shaping options.
TRUE BYPASS VS. BUFFERED BYPASS
Many boutique pedals feature true bypass construction, but what does that mean? It’s worth taking a minute to explain the differences between a “standard” buffered bypass and true bypass.
True bypass means that the pedal’s on/off switch physically connects the input jack to the output jack. This should make the input signal and output signal essentially the same, but it does have one drawback. If you have long cable runs (or a lot of pedals) remember that each pedal and cable introduces a bit of resistance into the original signal. In this case, you may want a buffered bypass pedal to keep the signal clean and strong. Some true bypass pedals also have significant noise when turned on or off, due to the physical on/off switch. If you have a true-bypass reverb or delay, you also won’t get a natural decay of sound, since the effect will stop as soon as the circuit is disconnected.
Most standard pedals (like Boss) use a buffered bypass. While cheap pedals with poorly-designed buffers can degrade your tone, most buffered pedals have a negligible effect. Additionally, buffered pedals can help maintain signal level over long cable runs (or through true bypass pedals), and can have completely silent switching. For reverb and delay pedals, buffers also allow the reverb or delay “tails” to hold over after the pedal is switched off.
In the end, like most guitar effects, there is no one right answer. In fact, most guitarists use a mix of true bypass and buffered bypass pedals, depending on their specific needs.
BEST DRIVE PEDALS – REIVEWED
While there are hundreds (if not thousands) of different drive pedals for each flavor of drive you may want, we’ve picked out some of the most popular in each category to list here. These aren’t our only recommendations, but they are good starting points if you’re in a hurry!
The definitive choice for a classic overdrive pedal.
The Ibanez Tube Screamer is the overdrive pedal that most people think of when they think of overdrive. This iconic pedal, with its sea-sick green paint, isn’t particularly versatile, as far as overdrive pedals go, but it does what it does very well.
Be aware, however, that the TS-9 is a reissue (and, some say, a slight redesign) of the original TS-808 Tube Screamer. While most people think that the sound is just as good (although slightly different) than the TS-808, there are some purists that will swear that the TS-9 is an inferior pedal to the original.
One key feature to this pedal’s success (besides its sound, of course), is the ease of dialing in the sounds. With only three self-explanatory knobs (“Drive”, “Tone”, and “Level”), the sound is easy to dial in. Like all overdrive-only pedals, though, be aware that this is not what you should get if you are looking for a heavy-metal or mid-scooped sound.
Key Features: “The” overdrive sound, buffered bypass, well-made, runs on batteries or A/C power (with adapter).
Pros: This pedal is the classic overdrive sound. If there’s an artist you love, they have, most likely, use (or have used) a Tube Screamer.
Cons: The lack of true bypass may be a drawback for some (although there are mods available), and it definitely colors your sound. Most people like the mid-boosted Tube Screamer sound, but if you don’t, this is not as transparent as some overdrive pedals.
Flexible and reliable, Boss’s OD-3 gives you some boutique sounds at less-than-boutique prices.
Maybe one of Boss’s most underappreciated pedals, the OD-3 Overdrive continues the long legacy of Boss overdrive pedals dating back to 1977 and the OD-1 Overdrive pedal.
The OD-3 improves on the older circuitry of the OD-1 and OD-2 by incorporating a “dual-stage” overdrive circuit, which gives this pedal some extra gain and compression when the gain is turned up. This gives the pedal a bit more versatility than some overdrive pedals, as it borders on a warmer distortion with longer-lasting sustain when turned up this high!
Aside from the extra gain on tap, this pedal is also relatively transparent, with the “Tone” control providing a great variety of sounds between “warm, mid-range, crunch” and “harsh ice-picks to the ears”. This lets the pedal work with a wide range of amps and guitars, and means it can fit almost any musical situation that calls for a mild to heavy overdrive sound!
Additional points to know about this pedal – it’s very sensitive to pick attack and guitar volume, and this pedal can get quite loud!
Key Features: Extra gain compared to most overdrive pedals, fairly transparent, buffered bypass, uses batteries or A/C adapter.
Pros: The extra gain means this pedal can cover more than your average overdrive, while the transparent sound and wide adjustment capability in the tone controls means this can work in just about any rig.
Cons: This pedal, like just about all the Boss lineup, uses a buffered bypass rather than true bypass.
No list of overdrive pedals would be complete without one of the most versatile of them all, the Fulltone Obsessive Compulsive Drive.
Probably one of the most highly recommend overdrive pedals of them all, the OCD maybe the best in Fulltone’s very impressive (and deep) lineup of overdrive pedals.
One of the things that make the OCD so great and highly recommended is its simple versatility. Featuring the typical three-knob arrangement, the Fulltone OCD includes one additional switch, which can quickly switch between HP (High Peak) and LP (Low Peak) modes. The HP mode features more mid- and low-frequencies, as well as more gain and more volume throughout the range of the “Gain” and “Volume” knobs. The LP switch position eliminates this coloration, making the OCD much more transparent and true to the sound of your guitar and amp – excellent for a lower-gain or clean boost type of sound.
In addition to this tonal flexibility, the OCD also features true bypass switching and lots of available boost (to either help drive a tube amp into natural breakup, or give a nice solo boost) makes the OCD a great overdrive pedal for just about any style or genre.
Key Features: LP/HP switch for extra flexibility, true bypass, lots of boost available, runs on batteries or A/C (with adapter).
Pros: Can be either a warm and colored overdrive, a very transparent clean boost, or just about anything in between. Easy to find all the sounds as well. True bypass.
Cons: It’s a bit tricky to replace the battery? There honestly isn’t much that this pedal can’t do!
One of the classic distortion pedals is still one of the best that you can find.
Dating from the late 70s, the Pro Co Rat2 has earned its long and distinguished reputation. It can go from a light, gritty distortion to an over- the-top, blistering with just the twist of the “Drive” knob. This, combined with the “Filter” knob that functions more like a high-cut than a normal tone knob. This means that even turned up, you still keep the bass in the sound.
In addition to this tonal versatility, the Rat2 also features true bypass switching and a tough, almost indestructible case. This makes the Rat2 as at home in the studio as it is on the road night after night.
Key Features: True bypass, a wide variety of distortion sounds, heavy duty construction, batteries or A/C adapter for power.
Pros: Wide variety of sounds available, a very useful tone control, and true bypass.
Cons: If you don’t want something with a fairly heavy bass, this may not be the pedal for you.
Great sounds with Boss durability and a price that can’t be beaten!
While Boss pedals often get the reputation for being cheap or lower-quality, a lot of their pedals are standard equipment for guitarists seeking great results on a budget, and perhaps no pedal embodies this more than the classic DS-1.
First produced in the late 70’s, the DS-1 produces a typical moderate to high level of distortion, so it’s appropriate for just about every style (short of very aggressive metal) and reacts very well to changes in your pick attack and guitar volume, which makes it both musical and versatile.
In addition to its sound qualities, it is well priced for just about any level of guitarist, making it a great first distortion pedal for a younger player, or an inexpensive but reliable backup pedal for a guitarist on the road constantly.
Key Features: Typical 3-knob layout, battery or A/C power, rugged Boss construction, moderate-to-high distortion, and buffered bypass.
Pros: Easy to use, inexpensive, makes a great middle-of-the-road distortion sound, lots of mods.
Cons: For some guitar and amp combinations, it can be a bit bright, so the tone control may need to be lower than you expect.
A distortion pedal that is at home with both vintage and modern sounds.
Designed by Brian Wampler, father to many great modern distortion pedals, the Sovereign probably covers more distortion tones than any other pedal on our list.
Thanks to the Sovereign’s unique 4-knob/2-switch layout, this pedal is remarkably versatile. In addition to the standard Volume, Tone, and Gain knobs, this pedal also features a Mid Contour knob, which lets you dial how the mid-frequencies interact with both the treble and bass frequencies. This can change the character of the pedal from scooped-mid to fat lead tone, while the Tone knob can further modify the tone to fit your exact needs.
The two switches are another secret to the Sovereign’s flexibility. The first is a Boost switch, to provides a substantial increase in volume (primarily for solos), and the second is a switch labeled either Modern/Vintage or Even/Standard (depending on the pedal version). This switch changes the tonal character of the entire pedal and is worth experimenting with, especially if you’ve found other distortion pedals (or your amp/guitar in general) to feel dull-sounding.
This pedal is very interactive. Not only are there lots of options, but all the controls are incredibly interactive with each other making this pedal feel a bit overwhelming at first. Have no fear, though, as Wampler (and forums) provide lots of recommended settings for a variety of styles and sounds.
Key Features: Mid Contour, Boost, and Modern/Vintage tonal controls, true bypass, runs on batteries or A/C power.
Pros: There are lots of sounds and character in this pedal. It’s very well put together and can cover just about any distortion sound you want.
Cons: The sheer number of options (and their interplay) can make your initial encounter a bit tricky, but it’s worth sticking with. While it is responsive to guitar volume and pick attack, it really won’t clean up as much as some distortions (but it has more gain, so it’s kind of a tossup).
A legendary fuzz pedal with a sound that is the epitome of a fuzz tone.
Maybe the pedal most synonymous with the “fuzz” guitar sound, the Big Muff Pi is one of the best fuzz pedals you can buy for a classic and easy-to-use fuzz sound.
While the Big Muff isn’t the most tonally flexible pedal, this does work with a lot of different guitar and amps, and it will turn almost any rig into a fuzz tour-de-force. If you’re looking for a pedal to get a tone like the Smashing Pumpkins, White Stripes, Black Keys, or any of a dozen other famous artists, you simply can’t beat the Big Muff for its sound and its straightforwardness.
This pedal is known for its incredible sustain, and it delivers! The Sustain knob controls both the pedal’s gain and sustain, and turning it all the way to the right gives you loads of sustain (as well as a fizzy, aggressive fuzz). The Tone knob does have decent range – giving the pedal character from a low growl to a cutting, bright lead tone.
Key Features: Classic fuzz sound, typical 3-knob control layout, powered via batteries or A/C, true bypass.
Pros: The quintessential fuzz sound for lots of different genres, easy to dial in a good sound, and the pedal works well with a variety of guitars and amps.
Cons: Although the base sound is good, there’s not much room for variation. This pedal does imprint its sound over your rig’s sound, so if that’s a plus or not is up to you.
Classic fuzz sound that cleans up – but with a few trade-offs.
Another classic and iconic fuzz pedal, the Fuzz Face was originally made by Arbiter but is now produced by Dunlop. First made in the mid-60s, the Fuzz Face was well loved (and often used) by the great Jimi Hendrix, and was a very important part of his distinctive sound in many songs.
Original and reissue Fuzz Face pedals (like the one linked on this page) use Germanium transistors. Many years ago silicon transistors were used for a short while, but the made the sound much harsher. Germanium transistors give the Fuzz Face its distinctive warm and creamy fuzz sound. Additionally, the Fuzz Face does a stellar job of cleaning up when you roll down the volume – this is a fuzz pedal that is as responsive as many overdrive pedals!
If you want the Fuzz Face sound, the original pedal is the way to get it, but make sure that you’re aware of a few drawbacks. The first and most obvious – the two-knob control arrangement lacks a tone control. This means that you must rely upon the pedals natural sound or use some external control if you need a darker or brighter sound. As you turn up the fuzz, this pedal does naturally brighten up when the fuzz is turned up, so if you want lots of tonal flexibility, be aware. Additionally, this pedal does not have an input for an A/C adapter, so make sure to have plenty of 9-volt batteries on hand!
Key Features: Volume and Fuzz controls, uses a single 9-volt battery.
Pros: A very responsive and dynamic sound that reacts well to your guitar and your playing. All the fuzz levels are musical and useful.
Cons: Must use batteries, which are prone to dying at the worst times. No EQ or Tone knob limits tonal options.
From straight-up fuzz to outrageous, squelchy, glitching horn sounds, the Fuzz Factory can do it all!
The ZVex Fuzz Factory is not just a typical fuzz pedal, it is really more of a noise and sound oscillation pedal that is built around a fuzz pedal as the base.
The Fuzz Factory has the main controls that you’d expect from a typical fuzz pedal – Volume and Fuzz – and adds to those a trio of other controls – Comp, Gate, and Stab. These are where some of the most interesting sounds come from.
The Comp and Gate controls control the pedal’s onboard noise gate and compressor. The Gate control increases the effects of the noise gate as you turn it up, while the compressor effect becomes more intense as you turn the Comp knob up. These additional effects can add some interesting (though somewhat subtle) effects to the fuzz sound, but the real craziness lies in the Stab control.
Stab is short for Stability, and with this knob, you can go from a fairly straightforward fuzz sound to some very interesting squelches, squeaks, honks, and feedback. Turning it to the left can result in a variety of interesting sounds and feedback. Combine this with the gate and the compressor and things can get very strange very quickly!
Key Features: Comp, Stab, and Gate controls add lots of variety to the typical Fuzz and Volume, true bypass, powered by batteries or A/C power.
Pros: Lots of sounds – from classic fuzz to things only suitable for noise rock. A good classic fuzz sound, although it’s not based on a specific classic circuit.
Cons: Lots of controls and options means that this is not a plug-and-play pedal. Not only are there 5 knobs to manage, but they interact quite a bit, which can take a bit of time to get your head around.
So, there you have it. These aren’t the only drive pedals that are any good, but these 9 cover a LOT of tonal ground in their respective categories. Of course, if you are looking for something else, don’t hesitate to dive into our more in-depth reviews!
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