The Best Overdrive Pedals For The Blues
A number of months ago, I wrote an article about the best guitar pedals for the blues. It really got me thinking about how crucial guitar pedals are when it comes to achieving a beautiful blues tone. So I thought it would be interesting to break down my last article on the subject, and look at the different types of guitar pedal I outlined there in more detail.
I want to start by looking at the best overdrive pedals for the blues.
Distortion has been a key part of the blues since the 1950s. When guitarists like Elmore James and Muddy Waters amplified their instruments, they did so initially with the aim of making themselves audible to larger audiences. However they soon discovered that when they cranked their amps to full volume, their sound distorted. This wasn’t what amp manufacturers intended, but it turned out to be a happy accident. Since that point, almost every famous blues guitarist has played with at least some distortion in their sound.
There are a couple of different ways that you can create distortion, but for most of us, a high quality overdrive pedal is the best bet. There are countless different makes and model of these available; and a lot of these will be ill suited at replicating those beautiful vintage blues tones you’re after.
So to save you the hassle of trawling the web, or wasting your money on an ill-advised purchase, here I’ve shortlisted some of the best overdrive pedals for the blues:
The Ibanez Tube Screamer is one of the most famous overdrive pedals of all time. It is after all, the guitar pedal responsible for Stevie Ray Vaughan’s beautiful guitar tones. These are widely recognised as some of the best in the blues. Just listen to a song like Pride and Joy. The guitar tone is warm and ‘creamy’, but not too distorted. There is a crunch to the sound, but the clarity of the notes are maintained.
The Tube Screamer played a huge part in this sound. This is because it combined perfectly with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s set up. Stevie Ray Vaughan predominantly played a Fender Strat and Fender amplifiers. Fender guitars and amps have tones that are tight and well defined at the bottom end, and bright at sparkly at the top. In the middle they are somewhat lacking. So you end up with what is known as a ‘scooped’ tone.
The Tube Screamer amplifies the middle portion of the signal disproportionately, and put all of those mids back into the mix. When combined with a Fender Strat and a Fender amp, this creates a thick and warm sounding crunch. If you are playing using the same combination, then adding a Tube Screamer to your rig will work wonders for your tone.
Having said that, The Tube Screamer is also effective with other combinations. Both Gary Moore and Joe Bonamassa use(d) the Tube Screamer and they play(ed) them with Gibson Les Pauls and Marshall Amps. And their tones – whilst very different to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s – are equally brilliant.
In short, the Tube Screamer is one of the best overdrive pedals on the market. There are various different models available, but for those beautiful vintage blues tones I would recommend opting for either the TS808 or TS9.
Prior to the inception of the Blues Driver, a lot of blues guitarists relied on boutique, hand-wired guitar pedals. Then Boss introduced the Blues Driver, and created a brilliant all-round guitar pedal that is also budget friendly. Unlike the Tube Screamer, the Blues Driver pushes your guitar into overdrive, but it does so without dramatically altering the frequencies of the signal.
In this way, your guitar and amp retain more of their natural sound. This makes it a great guitar pedal to use with different amps and guitars. It might not have the depth and character of some of the other guitar pedals listed here, but it is a great pedal to have on your board. I’ve had one for a number of years and have always been impressed by it’s versatility and the quality of it’s tone.
At only around $80/£80, it is also one of the best overdrive pedals to add to your set up if you want those classic blues tones, without breaking the bank.
The EP booster is one of the best overdrive pedals for those of you looking to add a bit of thickness and warmth to your sound. It is modelled on the Echoplex, which was used by guitarists like Jimmy Page and Brian May, amongst others.
The Xotic EP Booster is a very subtle overdrive pedal. So much so, that many guitarists use it as an ‘always on’ pedal. In other words, they don’t use it as a boost pedal, but rather to beef up the tone of their guitar and amp.
This makes it a great choice if you’re using a guitar like a Fender Strat. Strats have low output pickups and when they’re played clean, they can sound a little thin. This is especially the case if you pair them with classic Fender amps. The EP booster will help here. It will drive your amp harder and add warmth and thickness to your sound. If you only dial the pedal in slightly, then it won’t distort the sound very much at all. So it’s ideal if you want a cleaner blues tone, like that of B.B. King.
If you’re in search of a bit more crunch, then you have two choices. Either you can crank the drive on the EP, or you can add it alongside one of the more powerful pedals listed here. This second option is called ‘cascading’. There’s enough on that topic for a whole other article. But in short, stacking a boost pedal alongside an overdrive pedal will produce a beautiful tone that it is quite different from what you get when you just use a single high gain pedal.
Daniel Steinhardt of ‘That Pedal Show‘ described the Analog Man King of Tone as ‘one of the most important pedals of the last 10 years’. There are a number of different reasons for this. The first of these, is that the King of Tone performs the role of both a boost pedal and an overdrive pedal.
It has two channels – a clean boost and an overdrive. This makes it a very versatile pedal. The clean boost will add thickness to your sound, whilst the overdrive will push your guitar into a beautiful, warm sounding distortion. Playing both channels at once will produce more distortion and give you a heavier and crunchier tone.
What makes the King of Tone one of the best overdrive pedals available, is that it does all of this, whilst retaining the natural character of your guitar and amp. This is quite rare. Most guitar pedals ‘colour’ the sound of your guitar and amp, which is not always what you want. Classic guitar and amp combinations – like Gibson Les Pauls and Marshalls, or Fender Stratocasters and Fenders – sound amazing together. The King of Tone enhances the sound of these combinations, without altering them too much.
This also means that you can use the pedal successfully with different guitars and amps. Again this isn’t that common. Some pedals sound amazing with certain combinations, and distinctly average with others.
Unlike the other guitar pedals listed here, the King of Tone is a boutique pedal. Each pedal is handmade, and due to high demand – the Analog Man team are working their way through a waiting list of around 2 years (which you can sign up to here). So you can’t get your hands on one of these pedals that easily. But when you do, it will be well worth the wait!
If you are lacking in patience – or if you’re looking for a more budget friendly version of the King of Tone – then The Tone City King of Blues is a great choice.
Over the past few years, there have been a wide variety of guitar pedals built to replicate the King of Tone. These include the Fulltone Fulldrive 3, The T-Rex Moller Drive and the Wampler Paisley Drive Deluxe.
Like these other replicas, the King of Blues is built to very closely mimic the King of Tone. The pedal has two channels – a clean boost and an overdrive, and the controls for each of these channels are identical to those on the King of Tone. But what makes the King of Blues stand out for me, is the price. It is a very cheap guitar pedal. This is especially true when you compare it to many of the other King of Tone replicas on the market.
Most of these Replicas are in the same price bracket as the original (around $200-300/£150-250). By comparison, the King of Blues is only $90/£70. It’s a budget friendly pedal that will help you get very close to the King of Tone sound, without breaking the bank.
Compared with the King of Tone, the Tone City does lack a bit of depth and clarity. But it is a genuine and viable alternative. So if you want a versatile pedal that is amazing value for money, then this is one of the best overdrive pedals out there.
Just like the Tube Screamer, the original Klon Centaur has a legendary status in the world of guitar pedals. This is largely due to it’s popularity amongst famous blues guitarists. John Mayer, Warren Haynes and Philip Sayce are just some of the players who have used the pedal since its release in 1990.
It shares a lot of similarities with the Tube Screamer. The key difference though, is that with the Klon, there is less of a mid-boost. In this way, the pedal does more to retain the natural sound of the guitar and amp. It also produces a tone with greater clarity and a bit more bite than the Tube Screamer.
In essence, the two pedals are very similar. But if you are looking for a pedal that will boost the sound of your guitar without colouring it’s sound, this is one of the best overdrive pedals out there.
As is the case with a number of the pedals listed here, the original Klon Centaur is no longer in production. And buying one of the originals will set you back in the region of around $1500/£1200.
Luckily, the company have released the Klon KTR Centaur. This is an updated version of the pedal based closely on the original. Compared with the majority of the other pedals listed here, it is still in the higher price bracket. But if you are looking for a ‘transparent’ overdrive that will boost your guitar whilst retaining it’s natural tone, it’s a worthy investment.
If you are a bit more budget conscious, then you should also consider the J. Rockett Archer or the J. Rockett Archer Ikon. Both of these are modelled very closely on the original Klon and offer a lower priced alternative to the KTR Centaur.
The tones that Moore captured on that album are some of the best in modern blues. They also represent a turning point in blues guitar playing. Prior to Moore, when guitarists like Eric Clapton, Paul Kossoff and Jimi Hendrix really cranked their amps, their tone lost a bit of clarity. By comparison, Moore managed to play with more distortion, whilst maintaining a clear and precise tone. It is a brilliant blues guitar sound, and one that inspired modern blues guitarists like Joe Bonamassa.
If you want to recreate these tones, then the Marshall Guv’nor is one of the best overdrive pedals on the market. It will help you sound like you’re playing through a cranked JTM45, but at much lower volumes.
Unlike some of the other pedals listed here, the Guv’nor is not a subtle overdrive pedal. In fact it is one that will colour your tone quite significantly. So if you have a Fender amp (or an amp less inclined to naturally break up at lower volumes) you can still get close to the sound of a cranked Marshall by adding this pedal to your rig.
The original Marshall Guv’nor pedal is no longer in production. You can buy yourself an original for around $150/£110, but instead I would recommend opting for their updated model of the pedal, the Marshall Guv’nor Gv-2.
At only $100/£45, this is one of the cheapest guitar pedals on the market and is amazing value for money.
The Plimsoul Fulltone bridges the gap between an overdrive pedal, and a distortion pedal. Although they are often confused, overdrive and distortion pedals are slightly different. Although they both distort the sound wave of your guitar, they do this in different ways. Overdrive pedals softly ‘clip’ the edges of the sound wave. This produces a soft crunch and adds a bit of bite to your sound. Conversely, distortion pedals clip away much bigger chunks of the sound wave. This produces a harsher sound.
The Fulltone is unique in that it has two different ‘stages’. The first of these produces a soft clip, whilst the second produces a hard clip. So you have the option to either add a light crunch to your tone, or to make it sound like you’re playing through a cranked JTM45!
This could quite easily be achieved by using two different guitar pedals. But the Fulltone stands out in that you can blend it’s two stages together.
So rather than having to play with either a soft clipped or a hard clipped sound, you can play with both at the same time. This is where the guitar pedal really comes into its own. It is for this reason that it’s considered by many to be one of the best overdrive pedals of recent years.
Some Closing Thoughts…
Well there we have it, some of the best overdrive pedals for the blues. All of the pedals outlined here are brilliant and if used properly, will help to improve your blues guitar tone.
Having said that, the key thing to keep in mind with all of these pedals, is that they are only one part of the tonal equation. Each of these pedals will sound very different depending on your guitar, amp and your playing style. Although there are classic combinations; like a Fender Strat, Fender amp and a Tube Screamer, there are no hard and fast rules. Some of the pedals listed here will sound amazing with your set up, whilst others will sound totally average.
To make sure you are spending your money wisely, go and try these pedals out. Play them with your specific amp and guitar. See how they react and sound, and take it from there. Adding a decent overdrive pedal to your set will make a world of difference to your sound. So if you feel like your tone has been missing something, give one of these pedals a go.
Good luck, and let me know how you get on in the comments!