Dirty Deeds: Breaking Down Overdrive, Distortion & Fuzz Pedals
by Justin Boden
Dirt, grit, filth, fuzz, drive, boost, crunch, distortion? There’s seemingly one hundred different terms that all describe the same thing - but do they? It’s likely you already know what a general distorted signal sounds like, and the overall reality is that these are all varying types of tone within the “distortion” world, but they do offer varying effects, ranges and tones nonetheless.
These differences bring both perks and detractors for each, given your particular scenario, and the end result you’re trying to achieve. Knowing the difference between the main three distortion types will not only allow you to appreciate the variations properly but will also allow you to a make more informed purchasing decision before you gear up.
Historically speaking the discovery of distortion was somewhat of an accident. During the 1940’s and into the early ‘50s, as electric guitars began making appearances the amplifiers and speakers that projected their signals were extremely lo-fidelity, and simply not suited for an electric guitar. The louder they turned up their volume, the more distorted the sound became to as a result of both lo-fi speakers and tubes being pushed beyond their power limits. As players such as Junior Barnard and Goree Carter began experimenting with this phenomenon, they tried different types of pickups like humbuckers which provided an even thicker, fatter tone that began to shape rock music.
Into the late ‘50s players like Link Wray began searching for other ways to further produce the distorted sound of poor speakers by poking holes in the speaker cones and manipulating the vacuum tubes to produce prototypal classics like “Rumble”. Then came the ‘60s which completely blew the roof off of overdriven tones by introducing commercial preamp pedals. As amplifiers and speakers gained considerably more power and fidelity, known as headroom, it was simply harder to reproduce natural distortion without blowing out your ears. Thus the advent of the stomp pedal became a necessity. Pedals that changed the game, that introduced a new vigor in music and set the world on fire by taking Rock & Roll from the ‘50s and supplementing it with energy, power, and angst that had never been previously heard.
Overdrive is perhaps the most direct in name as an overdrive pedal aims to do exactly what it states: overdrive, or push the signal higher to produce a warm yet slightly distorted sound. Meant to both reproduce and compliment tube amps, overdrive sound was originally achieved by turning the volume beyond a tube amp’s limits causing the sound to break up. With a pedal, this is simulated using processors called op-amps as well as diodes that both color and shape the original signal to produce and add gain which creates a similar tone synthetically allowing solid-state amplifiers to find similar sound despite their lack of tubes.
Overdrive allows a more dynamic range where softer playing shouldn’t cause more, or perhaps even any noticeable distortion while harder, more aggressive playing or a higher signal volume will produce a distorted sound. Overdrive pedals are often described as “warm”, “natural” and “tube-like”, and for good reason - they are directly attempting to reproduce tube tone and succeeding. These dynamics are what really set the overdrive apart from distortion and fuzz. It allows for so many varying tonal nuances without changing anything besides how you are attacking the strings that a well dialed in overdrive pedal will virtually grant you an endless array of tonal distortion options and remains a staple within the blues community.
Notable Overdrive Users:
- Stevie Ray Vaughn
- Joe Bonamassa
- John Mayer
- Eric Johnson
Arizona Music Pro Recommends:
When it comes to overdrive pedals everyone seems to immediately tell you about the Tube Screamer, made famous by blues artists like Stevie Ray Vaughn. But what if we told you that Ibanez’s now legendary pedal was actually made by Maxon specifically for Ibanez and that the true original screamer is the Maxon OD-808? It’s true; which is why we carry the Maxon OD-808 and why we believe it deserves just as much notoriety as the TS-808 marking our recommendation on one heck of an overdrive.
If overdrive is the milder, calmer and more refined little brother of the distortion family, then distortion is smacking overdrive in the back of the head every time Momma Dirt turns her head and does everything it can to be more gnarly, more ostentatious and more aggressive than overdrive could ever dream of. It does this not just by adding gain, like overdrive tends to do, but by also actually reshaping the soundwave and adding equalizer effects. This usually does away with the dynamic soft and loud playing range offered with overdrive pedals, but creates a fantastically uniform clipping that just rocks! When you think gritty, loud and chugging rock & roll, standard distortion is your muse and while they may be in the similar families when it comes to sustain and feedback, distortion pedals are the real G.O.A.T.
Distortion pedals, like overdrive, see a melding of diodes and op-amps that in today’s distortion specific pedals see scooped-out mids delivering a thumping low-end and crisp highs suitable for much of the heaviest metal and sludgiest of rock music being produced, but are usually run through a clean amp. With so much variety in types of diodes used as well as how EQ and filters are handled within each individual pedal model, there are literally thousands of variations among the term distortion. It is not uncommon to not only see an overdrive pedal next to a distortion pedal, but even several variations of distortion specific pedals as well. There’s just too many flavors out there these days to stick with one.
Notable Distortion Users:
- Kurt Cobain
- Dave Grohl
- Steve Vai
- Zack Wylde
- James Hetfield
Arizona Music Pro Recommends:
The DS-1 is a classic. Used on albums such as Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and by Red Hot Chili Pepper’s John Frusciante, some of the biggest, most important albums and players have featured the Boss DS-1 as their choice for a distortion box
Say “Hello” to the grand-dad of all distortion pedals. Preceded only by the over-cranked amplifier, fuzz is the first distortion tone to be adopted into pedal form, and is synonymous with hard rock and ‘60s guitar sounds. Fuzz finds itself somewhere in the middle of both distortion and overdrive in many ways. While sound dynamics are muffed a bit, fuzz still retains some of the overall dynamics offered up by overdrive, meaning both the guitar and player’s nuances aren’t lost completely through the pedal as they often are with distortion. A girth of buzzing warm distortion more comparable to distortion powers through too though, something not quite captured with most overdrives. What really sets fuzz apart from both overdrive and distortion, though, are the lack of op-amps and diodes instead being produced using much simpler transistors made with germanium or silicon respectively.
They are the simplest design with few components, can sound fatter than distortion when using single-coil pickups, and most noteworthy are a staple of the Jimi Hendrix sound throughout many of his most famous recordings. This is a result of the aforementioned germanium and silicon transistors which allow many more harmonics to ring through adding a unique fullness not matched by distortion or overdrive.
Notable Fuzz Users:
- Jimi Hendrix
- Keith Richards
- Billy Corgan
- Jack White
- Jimmy Page
Arizona Music Pro Recommends:
There is a seemingly endless supply of fuzz pedals on today’s market and due to their generally simple design, often the only difference is whether a germanium or silicon transistor is used. That’s why the Boss FZ-5 stands out because it uses COSM technology that can match several of the most famous fuzz tones around from the FuzzFace to the Octavia and serves as a great all around fuzz pedal.
Ultimately, all of these pedals come from the same family tree so despite their differences it is understandable why even the best of ears still misalign their tones from time to time. As technology advances and even more pedals come to market the lines between them continue to grey even further, so it goes without saying - You might as well buy several of each anyway.