Beginner's Guide to Overdrive, Distortion and Fuzz Pedals

Beginner's Guide to Overdrive, Distortion and Fuzz Pedals


Dirty guitar tones come in many different flavours, and even some ‘clean’ tones still have an element of dirt to them. For the guitarist, dirt pedals come in three types; overdrive, distortion and fuzz. Some would argue that clean boost should be included in this, but a clean boost adds volume to the original signal but without altering the tone of the guitar. This can, however, send a valve amplifier into overdrive as the hotter signal makes the amp work harder. In practice the distinction between these pedals are not always so clearly defined and many pedals can be used in a variety of ways. 

Overdrive offers the last amount of gain and aims to reproduce the sound of a valve amp turned up to be loud. This is not always possible or practical, especially with larger valve amps. Overdrive pedals can also used to boost an already cranked amp into further levels of situation, or boost other dirt pedals via a process called ‘stacking’.

Overdrive pedals produce what is called ‘soft clipping’, which will retain more of the original guitar and amp tones Distortion pedals are ‘hard clipping’, which changes the tone and reduces the dynamic range. 

Overdrive pedals tend to work best with a valve amp that is already breaking up.

Stevie Ray Vaughan used an Ibanez Tube Screamer to now legendary effect with his Fender amps. 

 The MXR Sugar Drive


Many players use distortion pedals into the clean channel of an amp, and the hard clipping creates a more extreme sound with much more gain and in increase in sustain and feedback. They can also increase noise as well, so a noise gate can be useful. 

A number of distortion pedals also feature EQ controls (bass, middle, treble) allowing for further tonal shaping. 

The intro to Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ features Kurt Cobain stomping on a BOSS DS-1, and distortion pedals are standard throughout rock and metal.

MXR Custom Badass '78 Distortion 



Keith Richards created history using a fuzz pedal on the riff of The Rolling Stones (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. 

Fuzz comes in many types, but what they do have in common is very hard clipping that results in a sound that can be very close to that of a synth with an almost totally square wave.

Fuzz pedals are built using either germanium transistors, which produce a warm, mid-gain sound, or with silicon transistors, which produce a much harsher and more compressed tone.

In my experience fuzz pedals can sound best with a valve amp slightly breaking up. When used on a clean channel on a transistor amp they can sound very harsh…but that might be just the sound you are looking for!

Apart from Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix,  Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins and Matt Bellamy of Muse are well-known fuzz users. 

 Jimi Hendrix Gypsy Fuzz Pedal

For all your pedal needs call (o2) 9520 3044  or come in and talk with James

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