In the field of effects pedals, there is a genre that is largely over-represented! It's simple, most manufacturers have at least 2 or 3 models of overdrive and / or distortion in their catalog when it's not more. And we find everything. Models offering saturations for metal, passing through Boosts to arrive on thick Crunch. We agree, it is difficult to navigate. Let's go, today we're going to talk about the differences between overdrive and distortion pedals and how to choose them.

As we saw in the introduction, dverdrives and distortions are the most common effects pedals. For what ? It is very simple. First of all, these are historically the oldest effects in the field of the electric guitar (along with Reverb, but we will come back to this in another article). The first distortion pedals date back to the 60s. At that time, tube amplifiers delivered clean sounds and faithfully reproduced the sound of the guitar. There was no gain knob per se, just a volume. Physically, when you pushed the amplifier to the maximum, the sound twisted and then resulted in saturation. The concern is that at that time, manufacturers did not see distortion in a good light. Indeed, the latter recommended not to push the amplifiers, at the risk of damaging them. How ironic!  

Faced with this observation, some began to develop the first saturation pedals (often Fuzz at that time). These pedals, made up of a few transistors, therefore relatively simple to design, caused the amp to saturate thanks to a modification of the input signal. Immediately transforming a clear sound into distortion: The race for gain is born! 

Overdrive vs Distortion, the differences 

Now that we have seen together the fundamentals of these effects, it is important to differentiate between these 2 types of pedals! 

  Overdrive : The overdrive is obtained by "boosting" the volume of the amp, which has the effect of deteriorating part of the signal, while retaining the original signature. These pedals are designed to “simulate” a tube amp or to push it to its limits. To simplify the reasoning, an overdrive pedal will bring an additional character to the original grain but will not modify it drastically. Basically, an overdrive on a Vox AC30 can modify its rendering, but will not transform it into a Mesa Boogie Rectifier! (Of course we are oversimplifying) 

 The Distortion: Physically, a distortion pedal will produce the same effect as an overdrive, namely to saturate the signal. Yes, but in different proportions. Simplifying the argument, distortion starts where overdrive ends. The gain levels are much higher on the latter and it is possible to completely modify the rendering of an amplifier. It's not for nothing that many distortion pedals promise to emulate the sound of a particular amplifier model. The modification of the signal being more drastic, it therefore becomes easier to shape it. Add to that, that in the vast majority of cases a distortion pedal will be used on a rather neutral clean channel compared to a Crunch channel. 

But then, what to choose? 

Yes, technical considerations are nice, but that's not what will help us make our choice. At Effects Area, we had the chance to see many references. We will therefore try to guide you! 

We recommend an Overdrive if... 

  • You like the natural saturation of your amp! Quite simply. As seen previously, an overdrive will make it possible to preserve the signature of the latter. So think of overdrive as an opportunity to complement the sound of your amplifier. Let's take an example, you like the crunchy sound of your Marshall Plexi. However, as it is a Monochannel, when you like a sound it is difficult to modify it during the game. It's a shame, because with your band you are playing a song requiring a little more pronounced saturation. and above all sharper. It's very simple, add a colored overdrive like the T-REX DGTM over your Crunch channel and voila! Another example ? You love the sound of your Mesa Boogie Rectifier, especially its powerful overdrive. However, during the solo you would like to break into the mix and add compression and treble without increasing the overall volume too much. All you have to do is add a Tubescreamer type pedal, such as the Mythos Pedals Herculean, gain at minimum volume at maximum. Guaranteed effect. 
  • You want to keep as much momentum as possible. Low gain overdrives offer a significant advantage against the most aggressive distortion: they retain the dynamics of the game, namely your touch. And the dynamic is very important for playing styles requiring nuances such as Blues, Jazz etc. 

We recommend a Distortion if… 

  • The saturation of your amp does not suit you or it is simply not designed to deliver it. Yes, it may sound strange, but some amplifiers are designed to be pedal platforms. We naturally think of Two Rock (very high-end brand). On these amps, the only way to get a saturation is to stick a distortion. It is important to note that a pedal of this type must absolutely be used on a Clean channel, otherwise the performance will be disappointing (not to say disastrous). 
  •   You rehearse in the studio and rarely play on the same amp. This scenario is extremely common among musicians rehearsing in the studio and not moving their amps. Let's imagine that you are used to playing a Marshall JCM 800 and that you arrive in rehearsal (or worse in concert) and that the only model available is a Fender Blues Junior. Complicated to find your sound! However with a distortion pedal it will be easier to get closer. As seen above, these pedals will drastically modify your original signal and shape it in a specific way. Therefore, a JCM 800 sound can be emulated on a Blues Junior. This statement should be taken with a grain of salt, as the result will greatly depend on the quality of the amp. The more neutral the Clean of the latter, the better the results. A distortion pedal sounding wonderful on one amp, can be disappointing on another because many elements have to be taken into consideration (speakers etc.). But let's say that in general, the essence of the desired sound will be there. 

To conclude, I would say that there is no absolute truth because sound is really a purely subjective domain. One person may find an unpleasant rendering when another finds the same pleasurable. However, there are still guidelines and we hope that this article will help you better navigate this jungle. 

Be sure to check out our latest releases, because at Effects Area we strive to bring you rare models continuously, so you can define a sound. Yes but not just any, YOUR sound. 

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