Understand some of the broad categories of overdrive pedal out there, so you can add the right pedals to your setup and dial in those killer blues tones
If you want a beautiful vintage blues or blues rock tone, you don’t need a whole range of different guitar pedals. The blues is not really a ‘pedal heavy’ genre. And whilst there are a number of blues and blues rock guitarists – like Jimi Hendrix, Gary Moore and Gary Clark Jr. – who have used pedals more extensively to shape their sound, you don’t need a wide variety of different effects or pedals to dial in a killer blues tone.
Having said that, there are a few key types of guitar pedal that will go a long way in helping you shape your tone. And of these, overdrive pedals are amongst the most important.
Since the inception of guitar amps in the 1940s, almost all blues guitarists have played with a slightly overdriven tone. At first, overdrive was produced in the amp itself. Guitarists found themselves playing in large venues, and they had to crank the volume on their amps to reach the audience.
This caused the signal of their amps to start breaking up, which produced a sound that we now refer to as ‘overdrive’. Far from being problematic, this sound proved popular with guitarists – many of whom actively started seeking out an overdriven sound.
Over time, this resulted in the creation of a wide range of different overdrive pedals. For although you can create overdrive by simply cranking the volume on your amp, there are a wide range of benefits to using an overdrive pedal, or multiple overdrive pedals. These are too extensive to list in full, but some of the key benefits are as follows:
- Using an overdrive pedal gives you the ability to quickly switch between clean and overdriven tones
- An overdrive pedal can help you to sculpt and alter your sound. It opens up more tonal possibilities beyond those in your amp
- Overdrive pedals allow you to create overdriven tones at lower volumes
- You can stack multiple overdrive pedals together to create a range of different tones
Each of these benefits is significant, regardless of whether you are gigging or playing at home.
Finally, overdrive pedals respond to both the nuances of your playing and to the way you set the controls on your guitar. This allows you to further tweak your sound and create a different feel by adjusting your pick attack, as well as your tone and volume controls. It is for all of these reasons, that choosing the right overdrive pedal(s) is key if you want to dial in a beautiful blues tone.
It is not easy to choose the right overdrive pedals for your set-up. The guitar pedal market has exploded in recent years and there are now a huge range of different overdrive pedals out there. And whilst in many ways this is brilliant, it does make it more challenging to work out which pedals are going to work for you.
What is perhaps even more challenging, is the fact that every overdrive pedal is different. They all have different features and functions, and this makes it tricky to even figure out where to start your search.
That is what this article is all about. Here I am going to run through some of the main different types of overdrive pedal. For although there are a huge number of overdrive pedals out there, we can group them into categories, based on their circuitry, features and the tones they produce.
Here then, I am going to break down some of the main categories of overdrive pedal, and list some of the best pedals within each category that are currently on the market.
Overdrive pedal categories
Overdrive pedals are categorised and described in a number of different ways. There is not really a defined system for organising them, and sometimes they are not presented in categories at all. Instead, they are just presented as ‘overdrive pedals’, or perhaps organised by price. Yet in my opinion, there are some loose categories that we can use to make the process of buying a new overdrive pedal a little easier. These are as follows:
- Ibanez Tube Screamer style pedals
- Klon Centaur style pedals
- Marshall Bluesbreaker style pedals
- ‘Amp In A Box’ overdrive pedals
- Low gain overdrive pedals
- High gain/wide gain range overdrive pedals
- Dual overdrive pedals
These categories are not that tightly defined. There is crossover between them, and there are overdrive pedals that have characteristics that make them suitable for multiple categories.
For example, there are dual overdrive pedals that also have a wide gain range. And there are low gain overdrive pedals that could be defined as ‘Amp In A Box’ overdrive pedals. As such, what I have tried to do here, is to group the pedals by their defining characteristics. And here I am going to start with the ‘classic’ overdrive pedals. These are some of the most famous of all time, and those that have been copied extensively.
Ibanez Tube Screamers & Tube Screamer style pedals
The Ibanez Tube Screamer is arguably one of the most famous guitar pedals of all time. It was initially made famous by Stevie Ray Vaughan, and has since been used by a whole variety of notable blues guitarists. This includes Gary Moore, Joe Bonamassa and John Mayer, amongst others.
Many aspiring guitarists have added a Tube Screamer to their setup in the hope of achieving similar tones. And in addition to the original Tube Screamer pedals, a whole market of Tube Screamer clones has also sprung up.
The defining characteristic of the Tube Screamer is the ‘mid-hump’ that it produces. Like a lot of overdrive pedals, the Tube Screamer boosts your signal. But unlike a lot of overdrive pedals, it doesn’t boost all parts of the frequency equally. Critically, it disproportionately boosts the mid-range frequencies of your signal. So it doesn’t greatly alter the bottom or top end of your sound. It won’t give your tone a fat bottom end, nor will it make the top end of your tone sharp or strident. It just makes the mid-range really punch through.
Tube Screamers perform this function very effectively, and it is part of why they are so popular.
Is a Tube Screamer right for you?
As a result of its pronounced mid-hump, the Ibanez Tube Screamer has quite a distinctive sound. This is particularly the case when it is paired up with a Fender Stratocaster and a Fender guitar amp.
Both Fender Strats and Fender amps are renowned for lacking in the ‘mids’. Their tones are tight and well defined at the bottom end and bright at sparkly at the top. But in the middle they aren’t so well defined. So you end up with somewhat of a ‘scooped’ tone.
As mentioned above, the Tube Screamer amplifies the middle portion of the signal disproportionately, and puts all of those mids back into the mix. This makes the sound of the Fender guitar and amp combination significantly warmer and fatter. It is a killer tone that is perfect for the blues.
Having said that, the Tube Screamer is actually surprisingly versatile. For example, Gary Moore crafted a beautiful tone by pairing a Tube Screamer with a Gibson Les Paul and a Marshall amp.
Unlike Fender amps and Fender Strats, Gibson guitars and Marshall amps are not lacking in the mids. So combining them with a Tube Screamer produces quite a different effect. In the case of Gary Moore, adding a Tube Screamer into the mix pushed the combination of his Marshall amp and Les Paul to its breaking point. He added more distortion to his sound, as well as the sustain that was a characteristic part of his tone.
In short, the Ibanez Tube Screamer is a pretty amazing guitar pedal. You can use it to produce a variety of different tones, and in a multitude of different playing contexts. It is for this reason that Tube Screamers and Tube Screamer style pedals are used by so many different guitarists.
Which Tube Screamer should you buy?
If you decide that you want the Tube Screamer sound, there are 4 different routes that you can go down. These are as follows:
1.) You can buy an original Tube Screamer. Over the years, Ibanez have released a number of different Tube Screamers, but the most popular are the TS808, TS9 or the TS10. And you can still buy originals of these pedals on sites like Reverb. Prices vary between different models and their condition. The TS9 and TS10 start from prices around $350/£300. The TS808 is much more expensive, and typically sells for around $1250/£1000.
2.) You can buy a Tube Screamer reissue pedal. Ibanez have released reissue versions of both the TS808 and the TS9. And these are readily available. Additionally, Ibanez have released a variety of pedals that are based on their original Tube Screamers. These offer a differ take on the early Tube Screamers, and might also be worth considering. I have outlined all of these in much more detail here.
3.) Finally, there are a vast number of Tube Screamer style pedals out there. I have covered these in great detail in this article, but some of the most notable are as follows:
Given that you can still buy reissue versions of the original Ibanez Tube Screamer pedals, the idea of looking at Tube Screamer clones and alternatives might seem unnecessary. Why would you look at alternatives to the pedal, when you can buy the real deal for the comparatively reasonable price of around $180/£150?
This is because a lot of pedal manufacturers believe that the Tube Screamer can be improved; either by adding features, or by subtly altering the tonal characteristics of the pedal. Others have sought to improve the Tube Screamer by making it cheaper, altering its enclosure and design, or building it with different components.
If you decide then that you want a Tube Screamer style pedal, it is worth looking at these different pedals before you make a decision. Consider how much you are willing to spend, how significant a role the pedal is going to play in your sound, and whether you want some of the features of the Tube Screamer alternatives.
Klon Centaur Clones
Next up we have perhaps the second most copied overdrive pedal of all time; the Klon Centaur.
Like the Tube Screamer, the Klon Centaur ‘Professional Overdrive’ is unquestionably one of the most famous guitar pedals ever built. In fact, in recent years it has achieved an almost mythical status that befits its name.
The Klon Centaur was first released in 1994, and production of the pedal continued until 2009. Original models of the Klon have now become some of the most sought after guitar pedals ever made. They are both rare and very expensive, selling for upwards of $3100/£2500 on sites like Reverb.
The Klon is particularly celebrated for the ‘transparent’ nature of its overdrive. In essence, this means that the pedal causes your signal to overdrive, without ‘colouring’ your tone in any way. It adds warmth and gain to your tone, whilst preserving the natural sound of your guitar and amp. This sets it aside from a lot of overdrive pedals – the majority of which alter your tone more significantly.
Is a Klon Clone right for you?
If you love the natural sound of your guitar and amp, but you want to add warmth and thickness to your sound, then a Klon clone could make a brilliant addition to your rig.
The pedal can actually produce quite a lot of gain. And there are some guitarists who use the pedal in this way. Broadly speaking though, these guitarists are in the minority. The Klon is most commonly used as a low gain overdrive or boost pedal. It is for guitarists who want to enhance their sound, without fundamentally altering it.
The transparent nature of the Klon Centaur’s overdrive also makes it very versatile. In fact one of the reasons that the Klon is so beloved is because you can pair it up with any guitar or amp, and it still sounds great.
It is for this reason that the pedal has been used by a huge number of famous guitarists, including Warren Haynes, Phillip Sayce and John Mayer, amongst countless others.
So if you are looking for a versatile overdrive pedal that will make your guitar and amp sound better, a Klon style pedal could be a great choice.
Which Klon Clone should you buy?
The original Klon pedals have reached an almost legendary status, and they now sell for upwards of $3100/£2500 on sites like Reverb. This price is not totally reflective just of their tone – but rather of a whole range of different factors which I outline in more detail here. As such, unless you want to buy the original Klon as a collector’s item, I would instead recommend buying a Klon clone.
There are a variety of these available – which I cover in more detail in this article. But some of my top choices are as follows:
Whilst there are some competitively priced Klon clones out there, generally speaking these pedals do tend to be a little more expensive. But if you want a low gain, transparent drive – then one of these types of pedals could make an amazing addition to your setup.
Marshall Bluesbreaker Clones
There is often confusion amongst guitarists around the usage and meaning of the word ‘Bluesbreaker’. For unlike the Klon and Tube Screamer, there are 3 different ‘Bluesbreakers’ you may already have encountered or are likely to encounter. It is helpful to know about these, as they are all connected. And in fact the original meaning of the term ‘Bluesbreakers’ later resulted in the production of the Bluesbreaker pedal. The 3 ‘Bluesbreakers’ you need to know about, are as follows:
‘John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers’ were one of the early British blues bands to rise to prominence in the 1960s. Their album John Mayall’s Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton (often referred to as the ‘Beano’ album, because Clapton is reading a copy of the Beano magazine on the cover) is one of the most famous blues albums of all time.
It played a huge part in the start of the second wave of the British blues movement. And this caused an explosion in the popularity of blues and blues rock music, not only in the U.K., but also in the U.S.
Guitarists like B.B. King and Muddy Waters gained new levels of stardom both in the U.S. and abroad. They were granted access to prestigious venues like the Fillmore East, from which they had previously been banned. And they played in front of fully white audiences for the first time in their careers.
The album helped to catapult Clapton into stardom. This was partly a result of his amazing guitar playing, but also a result of his guitar tone. The sound that Clapton created was unlike anything that audiences had heard before. And to this day, many regard Clapton’s tone on this album to be the gold standard of electric blues guitar tone.
This led to the amp that Eric Clapton used on the album being nicknamed ‘The Marshall Bluesbreaker’.
The Marshall 1962 was Marshall’s first combo amplifier. And it remains one of the most important amps the company has ever produced. Over the years it has been described as ‘the definitive rock amplifier’ and as being the amp that created, ‘the sound that launched British blues-rock in the mid-1960s‘.
The Bluesbreaker amp appeared at a time when the majority of guitarists were using American voiced, Fender amps. These amps had a lot of headroom and produced a predominantly clean tone. By contrast, the amps that Jim Marshall produced for British musicians like Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton had a much more overdriven tone. This allowed guitarists to create a totally different sound. It is one that was totally novel at the time, but which we now associate with the sound of classic rock and blues rock.
The success of the Bluesbreaker amp eventually lead to the production of the original Marshall Bluesbreaker pedal. This was released in 1991, alongside both the Drive Master and the Shred Master pedals. And each of these was based on the tone of one of Marshall’s most iconic amps.
Unlike both the Tube Screamer and the Klon, the Marshall Bluesbreaker wasn’t an instant success. It was released as a fairly low to medium gain pedal, at a time when guitarists were seeking increasingly distorted tones. As a result, production of the pedal was discontinued in the early 1990s and it almost disappeared without trace.
This was until 2005/2006, when John Mayer released his Continuum album. This album featured a whole range of beautiful guitar tones, and Mayer posted online that the Marshall Bluesbreaker pedal had played a key part in his rig. He repeated this again during an interview in 2010 with Guitarist magazine, and it was at this point that sales of the Bluesbreaker started to pick up on the second hand market.
Although the pedal was modelled on the original Marshall amp, there is some divergence in opinion as to how successfully this was achieved. For although Clapton’s tone is not unruly on the Bluesbreaker album, it is quite heavily overdriven. Yet despite this, the Bluesbreaker pedal tends to be used more frequently as a low gain or transparent overdrive pedal. Indeed, this is the way that John Mayer used it. And slightly bizarrely, it was his tone – and not the tone of the Bluesbreaker amp – which eventually led to the popularity of the pedal.
Which Bluesbreaker style pedal should you buy?
Marshall discontinued production of the original Bluesbreaker pedal in the early 1990s. And although they released the Bluesbreaker II at some point in the early 2000s, the general consensus is that it doesn’t really compare to the original.
If you want one of these first Bluesbreaker pedals, you can still pick them second hand on sites like Reverb. However because of the increasing popularity of the pedal over the last 10 years, prices now start from around $440/£330.
The great news, is that in the last few years a whole variety of pedal manufacturers have produced their own take on the Marshall Bluesbreaker pedal. Some of the most popular out there are as follows:
It is worth noting that these pedals are based on the Bluesbreaker pedal and not the Bluesbreaker amp. So whilst these pedals have the potential for higher gain settings, similar to those of a cranked Marshall Bluesbreaker amp, the Bluesbreaker pedal – as well as the pedals that have been inspired by it – are celebrated for the ‘transparent’ nature of their overdrive.
As such, if you are looking for an overdrive pedal that will help you achieve Marshall style amp tones straight out of the box, I would recommend going down the ‘Amp In A Box’ pedal route.
‘Amp in a box’ overdrive pedals
As the name suggests, ‘Amp In A Box’ overdrive pedals, aim to produce the tones of classic amps. And they try to do this fairly independently of the rest of your set up. In other words, the idea is that you can put one of these pedals between any guitar and amp and create the sound of a specific and totally different amp to the one you might be using.
There are a wide variety of these different overdrive pedals available, each one based on a different amp. These range from Dumble and Fender, to pedals based on a number of classic Marshall amps. There are even pedals based on more modern amps too. Some popular ‘Amp In A Box’ overdrive pedals are as follows:
If you are looking to recreate a specific sound, without having to buy lots of different overdrive pedals and without having to alter the rest of your set-up, then one of these pedals could be a great choice.
Of course, the guitar and amp that you use alongside the pedal will both make a difference, but generally speaking these pedals do a great job of helping you create specific tones without having to totally overhaul your rig.
Low gain overdrive pedals
Up to this point, we have focused on classic overdrive pedals and the pedals inspired by these original designs. These pedals cover a huge number of the different overdrives out there. For even if it is not always obvious at first, a lot of overdrive pedals are based on one of the ‘classic’ pedal circuits, like the Tube Screamer or the Klon.
However, there are also a lot of overdrive pedals that are not based on these circuits. And whilst these pedals might have similarities to those listed above, they are in fact something quite different. So here I think it makes sense to categorise the pedals by the amount of gain they can produce. And we can split these overdrives up into 2 broad categories – low gain and high gain.
We will start here with low gain overdrive pedals. As the name suggests, these are overdrive pedals that produce a more moderate level of gain. They work perfectly for guitarists who favour a softer vintage blues tone, similar to players like B.B. King.
These overdrive pedals typically respond very well to the nuances of your playing. They let the natural sound of your guitar and amp shine through, and respond to your pick attack and the way you set the volume control on your guitar.
This gives you a lot of control over your sound. It also allows you create an expressive and nuanced guitar tone that is perfect for the blues.
There are many of these pedals out there, a number of which have become ‘classic’ pedals in their own right. Some of the most notable low gain overdrive pedals out there are as follows:
Typically there are 2 ways that guitarists use low gain overdrive pedals. The first is as an ‘always on’ pedal. When using the pedal in this way, you just need to set the pedal with a light bit of overdrive. You can then keep the pedal on continually, and this will add warmth and body to your sound. This works very well if you want a thick and slightly overdriven tone for your base tone.
The other common way that guitarists use this type of overdrive pedal, is to stack them together. In other words, you use multiple different low gain overdrive pedals in a row. This allows you to create different levels of gain at different moments.
You can start with a softly overdriven tone, and then push it up to the next level by stacking it alongside another low or medium gain overdrive pedal. This is one of the most common ways to use a low gain overdrive and it is very effective. It gives you a lot of control over your sound and helps you to create tones that you cannot create with your amp alone.
High gain overdrive pedals
At the other end of the spectrum are high gain overdrive pedals. These are not necessarily pedals that are only capable of high gain sounds. Rather they are overdrive pedals that have a wide gain range. And this allows you to go all the way from a soft and subtle overdrive through to a much heavier rock or blues rock tone.
The key thing to note with these pedals is that they are still overdrive pedals. As such, they produce ‘soft clipping’ distortion. This is a less harsh and aggressive sound compared with the type of tone you produce with a distortion pedal. The latter produces a ‘hard clipping’ distortion which is associated with a heavier and arguably more modern sound. Distortion pedals also don’t typically respond so well to the nuances and dynamics of your playing. And this makes them a less suitable choice for blues guitarists.
So if you favour a heavier guitar tone, but you want to be able to control and alter your tone through your playing, then one of the following pedals would be a great option:
It is worth noting that some of the pedals listed above – and particularly the Marshall style, ‘Amp In A Box’ pedals – could be categorised as high gain overdrive pedals. However, as mentioned earlier, the pedals here are not designed to replicate the sound of a specific amp. Rather, they are designed to help you create a unique and more heavily overdriven tone.
Dual overdrive pedals
Lastly, we have dual overdrive pedals. These have become increasingly popular in recent years, to help give guitarists more control over their sound and produce a variety of different tones.
Up to this point I have spoken for the majority of this article about overdrive pedals in isolation. Yet in reality, it is quite common to have multiple different overdrive pedals. There are a number of benefits of using more than 1 overdrive pedal. You can create different tones using the pedals, and as mentioned above, you can ‘stack’ different pedals together. This gives you an almost limitless number of tone shaping options, and access to sounds that you can’t create with your amp or a single overdrive pedal alone.
Dual overdrive pedals aim to take some of the guess work out of ‘gain stacking’ for you. And they do this by combining 2 different circuits in a single pedal enclosure. There are a lot of variations here, and so it is always worth looking at these pedals in depth before you buy one. But typically speaking, dual overdrives tend to be comprised of either 2 complimentary overdrive pedals, or an overdrive pedal and a boost pedal. Often, when these pedals combine 2 different overdrive pedal circuits, they are based on ‘classic’ pedal circuits.
When you combine 2 overdrive pedal circuits, you get access to 2 different sounds that you can then blend together. When you combine an overdrive pedal with a boost, you get the option to stack a boost and overdrive together. This will help you to sculpt your tone, as well as alter your volume in a live setting.
There are a large number of these pedals out there. But some of my top recommendations are as follows:
- Chase Bliss Audio Brothers Analog Gainstage
- Strymon Sunset Dual Overdrive
- Analog Man King Of Tone
- The King Tone Duellist
- ZVEX Box Of Rock
Often these pedals have a wide range of different tone tweaking switches and options. So if you are looking for a lot of control over your sound from a single pedal, then one of these dual overdrive pedals could make a great addition to your rig.
How to choose the right overdrive pedals
Well there we have it – the 7 types of overdrive pedal that can help you dial in some killer blues tones. I hope that categorising the pedals in this way helps you to focus your search and tackle the challenge of choosing a new overdrive pedal.
Before finishing up though, I think it is worth reiterating 3 points that are often forgotten in the excitement of searching for new gear. And these are as follows:
Establish an aim
Earlier this year I attended an online tone clinic run by South African blues guitarist Dan Patlansky. Patlansky is a killer player, and he has a beautiful Stevie Ray Vaughan style tone. One of the key points he made during the clinic, is that a lot of guitarists end up buying the wrong gear because they never take the time to really think through the tone they are trying to achieve.
I know that I have certainly made this mistake in the past. I’ve read an article on a new pedal, or seen a demonstration on Youtube, and rushed out to buy it – only to quickly realise that it didn’t match up with the tone I was trying to achieve.
So before you rush out to buy any of the pedals listed above, it is first worth establishing exactly what kind of tone you are chasing.
To give you a personal example – I don’t particularly favour heavy guitar tones. I much prefer the softly overdriven tones of players like B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Peter Green. As a result my search is focused solely on pedals that will help me to recreate those tones. I can immediately eliminate almost all of the ‘Amp In A Box’ style overdrive pedals, as well as all of the high gain overdrive pedals out there.
Go through the same process of elimination and you are much more likely to choose the right pedal(s) for your set-up.
Understand your playing context
Similarly, before you rush out to buy a new overdrive pedal – think about how that pedal fits into the context of your rig. Again this is a mistake that a huge number of guitarists make. They see a pedal demonstration or learn that one of their favourite guitarists plays a specific pedal, and they rush out to add that same pedal to their board.
Yet if the only reason you are buying a new overdrive pedal is to create a specific tone – or to recreate the tone you have heard on a demo – you first need to understand your personal playing context.
The tone an overdrive pedal creates – and particularly those on the lower-gain end of the spectrum – is determined by the rest of your rig.
The Ibanez Tube Screamer alone did not create Stevie Ray Vaughan’s killer blues tone. It was that pedal, combined with Vaughan’s specific guitar, amp and playing style. Likewise, the Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster alone did not transform Rory Gallagher’s tone. It worked in conjunction with the rest of his rig to create the sharp and fiery tone with which he is associated.
The guitar, amp, and any other pedals you have on your board, all have an impact on your tone. So before you buy a new overdrive pedal, make sure that you fully consider each of the individual elements of your set-up.
My final piece of advice, is to be patient and learn to enjoy the process of experimentation. Unfortunately there is no single magic pedal that is going to instantly transform your tone. And in fact the tonal magic often occurs when you combine a couple of overdrive pedals together.
Now before you get carried away (or try to use this article as justification when your significant other questions your most recent pedal purchases!), I am not advocating that you go out and buy a whole new set of new pedals.
Instead, I am recommending that you zone in on the types of pedals that will work best for you. You can and should then start to experiment and tweak with different pedals. Keep iterating and playing around with different settings. Provided that you have a clear idea of the tone you are chasing, this will do a huge amount to improve your sound and your set-up in general.
Good luck guys! Let me know how you get on in the comments, and if you have any questions at all, just send me an email on email@example.com and I’m always happy to help!
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