Boost, Overdrive, Distortion and Fuzz Pedals Explained

Boost, Overdrive, Distortion and Fuzz Pedals Explained

Amongst the most popular guitar effects we find the boost, overdrive, distortion and fuzz pedals. One of these is often the first pedal a player will buy; and most players will have at lease one of these on their pedal board. 

Why are they so popular?  Think of all the classic guitar tones with sweet, singing lead lines or saturated, crunchy riffs and chords. Chances are (at least until recently with the proliferation of modelling technology for guitar tones) that an amplifier (most commonly a valve amp) was turned up ‘really loud’ to achieve this. In reality that is not always possible and so pedals can be used to drive the amp into distortion at a lower volume level. The different sonic characteristics of pedal design can also be sued to further sweeten the amp’s natural tone or to modify that tone into something else.

The distinction between each pedal type can become blurred and as the parameters are tweaked the response of the pedal’s circuitry can change; a boost pedal might start to take on the characteristics of a fuzz as the gain is pushed, or a smooth overdrive become a harsh distortion when the gain is dimed.


This is often a simple preamp placed before the amp’s input. This increases the guitar’s volume and can lift the guitar’s volume during solos or push the amplifier into overdrive. Some boosts offer a clean signal increased while others manipulate the tone while adding the desired boost.

When the boost is kicked on it will take the amp into a singing and more harmonically rich overdrive. 

An Overdrive pedal is designed to sound like a pushed valve amp…without the volume.The most famous of all is the Ibanez Tube Screamer, and many overdrive pedals available on the market have been modelled on this classic. An overdrive pedal will respond to your playing. Pick lightly and the pedal will not be that noticeable, dig in and the breakup will be evident. The tone of an overdrive pedal will be softer than a distortion; it will add a smooth, dynamic sound instead of melting faces.

In my experience an overdrive pedal works best with a valve amp that is already at the point of breakup.

A distortion pedal produces a harder sound than an overdrive. Where an overdrive pedal often works best with complimenting an already breaking up valve amp, a lot of players use a distortion pedal into a clean amp channel and let the pedal dictate the sound. Overdrive and distortion pedals can produce quite similar results, depending on how they are set and the guitars used with them.

This is distortion to the extreme. Imagine an amp with the speakers imploding with the volume on full and then some…fuzz is not subtle in anyway. A fuzz pedal heavily saturates the tone, covering it in a wooly and very sustained tone. The level of clipping is so extreme that it generally sounds best playing single note lines instead of chords. Playing more than one note can make it sound extremely messy…but maybe that is what you want! And as with overdrive pedals, a fuzz pedals seems to sound best when the amp is already breaking up slightly. On a clean channel it can sound thin and nasty.

But it isn’t always that clear cut!
Whilst some pedals are very clearly one or the other, many pedals can be used in a number of ways to achieve a wide variety of tones. Some boost pedals simply provide a lift in the signal level, but others colour the tone to some degree and add some grit so they can be thought of as mild overdrive pedals. Some pedals offer a wide range of tones as the gain increases, starting out as an overdrive but then the clipping characteristics change as the gain increases to be more akin to a distortion, and then maybe even developing more of a fuzz pedal character when fully pushed. Certain fuzz pedals simply have an on/off switch, whilst others allow the amount of fuzz to be shaped and sculpted to offer a wide range of tonal options. 

If you have any questions on pedals, amps, guitars and setups don’t hesitate to talk to us. Engadine Music offers a complete range of pedals, multi-effects and accessories and we can help you get the tones you want.


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