Overdrive Vs. Distortion: What Is The Difference?



It is not easy to build the perfect pedalboard. There are so many different guitar pedals that you can choose from. And at first, this makes it challenging to even know which types of pedal you should be considering for your board; let alone which specific pedals will help you to create your desired tones.

One area which causes particular confusion amongst guitarists, is understanding the differences between overdrive and distortion pedals. For whilst these pedals do have a lot of similarities, they are not the same. As such, here I have outlined the key differences between overdrive and distortion pedals, and the impact that these differences have on your tone. In this article I will cover:

  • The fundamental characteristics of overdrive pedals, and the impact these have on your tone
  • The fundamental characteristics of distortion pedals, and the impact these have on your tone
  • Why I wouldn’t recommend distortion pedals if you want to dial in beautiful blues tones
  • How to set your pedalboard up to create a variety of killer blues tones

So without further ado, let’s get into it. Here are the key differences between overdrive and distortion pedals that you need to know about:


Some opening thoughts…

In part, it is difficult to understand the differences between overdrive and distortion pedals because of the ways the pedals are described by pedal manufacturers and gear reviewers. The range of words used to describe these pedals is both extensive and varied.

‘Drive’, ‘break up’, ‘crunch’, ‘dirt’, ‘saturation’, ‘distortion’, ‘overdrive’, ‘warm’, ‘sharp’, ‘dirty’, ‘crunchy’, ‘creamy’, ‘gnarly’, ‘angry’, ‘aggressive’ and ‘soft’ are just some of the many words that you are likely to encounter when researching overdrive and distortion pedals and their tonal characteristics.

These words make it challenging to understand exactly what specific pedals do, how they function, and how they might differ to similar pedals. Arguably more confusing though, is that the same words are used to describe the qualities of both overdrive and distortion pedals. I suspect it is for this reason that so many guitarists believe that overdrive and distortion pedals can be used interchangeably.

So before we go deeper and look at the specific differences between overdrive and distortion pedals and why the two pedals cannot be used interchangeably, I think it is first worth looking at why they are spoken about in similar terms, and as a result – why they are so often confused with one another.

To do this, we need to start by looking at the key similarity between the two effects. And this is as follows:

Overdrive and distortion pedals both distort your guitar’s signal. Both types of pedal fundamentally alter the sound wave produced by your guitar. And this causes your guitar’s tone to change. In this way, both overdrive and distortion pedals perform the same basic function. Specifically, they ‘clip’ away parts of the sound wave.

Significantly though, they do this in quite different ways. And this has an impact on the tone the different pedals produce. It also affects how they react to your playing, and how they function as part of your pedalboard.

As you might imagine, expressing the differences between how overdrive and distortion pedals clip the sound wave that your guitar produces – without referring to waveform charts and very technical terms, is challenging. And it is for this reason that guitarists have come to rely on using catch all descriptors like ‘overdrive’ and ‘distortion’.

The good news though, is that you don’t need in-depth scientific knowledge to understand how overdrive and distortion pedals function, and how they are different from one another. Just learning some of the basics will help you to develop a much greater understanding of each type of pedal. And this will ensure that you make the right decisions when building your own pedalboard.


Soft & Hard clipping distortion

As noted above, both overdrive and distortion pedals alter the sound wave created by your guitar. And both pedals do this by cutting or ‘clipping’ away certain frequencies from your signal. Specifically, they both shelve off frequencies from the peaks and troughs of the sound wave. This might sound complicated, but it becomes a little bit easier to understand when we look at an image of a waveform:


Overdrive and distortion pedals both 'clip' away certain frequencies from your sound wave.

Distortion – in its broadest sense, causes sections from the tops and bottoms of sound waves like this to be clipped away. There are innumerable different ways that a waveform can be altered and ‘distorted’. But when we are talking about overdrive and distortion pedals, it is common to discuss two of the most common types of distortion: soft clipping and hard clipping.

Both of these terms refer to the way that frequencies are clipped out of the waveform.

In the case of soft clipping distortion – frequencies are cut away from the peaks and troughs of the waveform in a way that is gentler and more subtle. This produces what are known as ‘even-order’ harmonics.

The opposite is true of hard clipping distortion. With hard clipping distortion, frequencies are shelved off in a more angular and abrupt way. And this produces even-order harmonics, in addition to what are known as ‘odd-order’ harmonics.

These harmonics have a significant impact on your tone. As a result, you will create quite a different sound, depending on whether you are using pedals that produce soft or hard clipping distortion.

To describe the tonal characteristics of these types of distortion, without using some of the more nebulous terms mentioned above is challenging. Having said that, the names of the different types of distortion do help to give an indication of the sounds they both produce:

  • Soft clipping distortion produces a gentler and more subtle tone. Soft clipping distorts your guitar’s signal, but not so much that it becomes fundamentally different or unrecognisable

  • Hard clipping distortion produces a harsher and more aggressive sounding tone. It significantly distorts your guitar’s signal and fundamentally alters your tone

This explanation is overly simplistic. Yet thankfully you don’t need to understand the science in great depth to appreciate that there are different types of distortion, and that they have affects your guitar’s signal in different ways.


Overdrive vs. distortion – Pt. I

As you might have guessed, overdrive pedals produce soft clipping distortion. Conversely, distortion pedals produce hard clipping distortion.

It is for this reason that overdrive pedals are generally associated with ‘softer’ and ‘warmer’ guitar tones, whilst distortion pedals are associated with ‘heavier’ and ‘dirtier’ guitar tones.

The level of distortion that overdrive and distortion pedals can create is one of the key differences between them. And it is important to understand this difference. Yet it is not the only difference between the two types of pedal.

As such, I think it is important to understand some of the further ways that the two types of pedals differ. This will decrease the likelihood of potentially adding the wrong pedal to your rig. It will also help you to develop a deeper understanding of how the two types of pedal function. And this is important in helping you get the most from your set-up. Here then, are some of the further differences between the two pedals that I feel are worth noting:

Produce High Levels of Distortion?Fundamentally Alter Your Tone?Respond To Your Volume Controls?Respond to Your Pick Attack?
Overdrive PedalsNoNoYesYes
Distortion PedalsYesYesNoNo

The characteristics listed here are not universally applicable. There are overdrive pedals that produce high levels of distortion. Likewise, I am sure there are distortion pedals that respond to your pick attack. Having said though, the characteristics highlighted above do broadly apply to both overdrive and distortion pedals. And so when you are considering what type of pedal to add to your rig, it is important to take all of these factors into account.

Let’s examine each of them in a bit more detail:

Level of distortion

The significant benefit of distortion pedals, is that they allow you to add a lot of gain to your sound. You can heavily distort your tone with a single distortion pedal. As such, if you have a distortion pedal on your pedalboard, you can switch from a crystal clean tone to one that is heavily distorted at the push of a button.

This is not really true of overdrive pedals. Of course there are overdrive pedals that allow you to add significant amounts of gain to your tone. Broadly speaking though, they do not produce the same levels of gain as most distortion pedals.

So, if you playing genres of music like heavy metal, I would recommend adding a distortion pedal to your rig. In fact I suspect that you might struggle to create the tones you have in mind without adding a distortion pedal to your rig. The distortion pedal will be necessary to help you create the heavily distorted sound that you have in mind.

Tone, control & response

Outside of this context though – and particularly if you want to produce blues or blues rock tones – I would always recommend adding an overdrive pedals (or pedals) to your pedalboard.

In short, this is because they are more responsive and give you more control over your tone. In many genres of music, this is not so important. But the blues is all about expression and nuance. And so it is important to have as much control over your tone as possible.

In my opinion, this is why distortion pedals fall short in a blues context. If you are playing with a clean tone and you step on a distortion pedal, your tone will instantly become distorted. This of course is what you expect. And so it might sound so obvious that it is barely worthy of mention. Yet significantly, if you roll your volume control down when using a distortion pedal, your tone will remain unchanged. Your tone will be just as distorted as at full volume. Now though it will be quieter.

Likewise, if you adjust your pick attack when you use a distortion pedal, your tone is unlikely to change. Digging in a bit and using a heavier pick attack may help to make the notes that you play sound more prominent. Yet backing off and using a lighter pick attack won’t make your tone sound any less distorted. Again, your tone will be as distorted as before, just quieter.

The final and significant point to mention, is that generally speaking, overdrive pedals don’t fundamentally alter the sound of your guitar. Of course they change your tone. But they preserve the core elements of your sound. And assuming that you like the sound of your guitar and amp, this is a real benefit. It helps you to alter your tone, without changing its fundamental character.

You can see this when you listen to the solos of various famous blues guitarists. However Stevie Ray Vaughan provides one very obvious example to support this point, in his song, ‘Life Without You‘. Vaughan famously used a range of Ibanez Tube Screamer overdrive pedals in his career. The Tube Screamer helped Vaughan to create the beautiful blues tones for which he is celebrated. Yet it didn’t mask the character of the amps and guitars that Vaughan used. It simply enhanced his tone.

You can hear this clearly during the solo in ‘Life Without You‘. Shortly after the solo starts (around the 2.30 minute mark), Vaughan’s tone changes. It suddenly becomes more overdriven – most likely in response to Vaughan engaging his Tube Screamer. Yet even though Vaughan’s tone changes, it does not alter beyond recognition. You can still hear the core tone that comes from his guitar and amp.

Had Vaughan used a distortion pedal on the same track, this would not be the case. The distortion pedal would have masked his fundamental tone. Not only this, but the tonal change resulting from Vaughan engaging a distortion pedal would have been more profound than is the case on the track.


Overdrive vs. distortion – Pt. II

As a result of these different factors, I tend to think of distortion pedals as operating in a binary way. They are either on or off. And when they are on – you don’t have very much control over your distorted tone.

Conversely, I tend to think of overdrive pedals as operating on a spectrum. If you have a clean tone and you step on an overdrive pedal, your tone will change and distort. And if you play with your heaviest pick attack and have your volume control turned up to 10, then your tone will immediately shift to being at the higher gain end of the tonal spectrum.

Yet you can choose where you enter in on that spectrum, by altering your pick attack and rolling your volume control down. In other words, you can step on an overdrive pedal, without heavily distorting your tone. This is true, even if you are using a higher gain overdrive pedal, with the drive control set high. By rolling your volume control down and backing off with your pick attack, you can keep playing with a fairly ‘clean’ tone. Significantly, you can then change the amount of gain and ‘bite’ in your tone, by digging in with your picking hand and increasing your volume control.

In this way, when you are using an overdrive pedal, you can continually shift across a tonal spectrum. You can go from totally ‘clean’ on one side of this spectrum, to heavily overdriven on the other. If you listen to some of the greatest blues guitarists of all time, you will hear that their tone is constantly changing. And this is almost always executed in a subtle way. There are rarely big shifts in gain when they use pedals. Rather, they adjust their tone gradually to suit their playing and to alter the feel of the lead lines.

It is for this reason that I would always recommend overdrive pedals if you want to dial in a range of blues and blues rock tones. They give you so much more control. And they allow you to create a range of interesting and subtle overdrive tones in your solos.

How to create high gain blues tones

At this stage, you might be wondering what approach you should take if you are a blues guitarist, but you favour a heavier and more distorted tone.

The good news here, is that there is a simple answer to this question – gain stacking. This will give you control over your tone, whilst also giving you the option to create a range of heavy blues and blues rock tones.

This is the approach taken by a whole range of famous blues and blues rock guitarists, including Eric Johnson, Billy Gibbons and Philip Sayce, amongst countless others.

If you are new to the concept of gain stacking, then don’t worry – in principal it is not complicated. It simply involves adding multiple overdrive pedals to your pedalboard. This allows you to ‘stack’ different pedals on top of each other. And when you do this, you can add further gain to your sound every time you step on an additional pedal. This is great if you want to create a more overdriven tone.

You might be wondering however, how this differs to stepping on a single distortion pedal. You may for example, think it would make sense to use an overdrive pedal for your lower gain tones, and then engage a distortion pedal for those moments where you want a more distorted tone. After all, doing so would give you multiple different gain sounds. It would also save you the expense of having to buy a range of overdrive pedals.

However, there are in fact a number of significant benefits of stacking overdrive pedals. To explore these fully is beyond the scope of this article. It is a topic that I will address in a separate article in the future. However, some of the most notable benefits of taking this approach are as follows:

  • You can combine the different tonal characteristics of the pedals that you are stacking together. This creates a unique and interesting sound that you can’t get from just your amp or a single pedal

  • Each of the overdrive pedals in the chain responds to your pick attack and adjustments to your volume control. This allows you to vary and alter your tone, even as it becomes more distorted

  • You can assign different ‘roles’ to different pedals. For example, the first pedal in your chain could be an ‘always on’ overdrive pedal that you use to shape your core tone. You could then choose pedals further down the chain that would bring a very different or new characteristic to your tone. And of course, having multiple pedals on your pedalboard allows you to engage them individually or in different combinations – further increasing the tones available to you

The one downside to gain stacking is that it can be expensive. Overdrive pedals are not cheap – especially if you are looking at boutique pedals. And it is worth taking this into account. Having said that, the good news is that you don’t have to buy all of the overdrive pedals that you will ever need in one go. If budget is a concern, you can build your pedalboard up over time, rather than paying for everything up front.

Organising your pedalboard

When it comes to actually constructing your pedalboard, there are a number of different approaches you can take. However I would generally advise organising your pedals so that the lowest gain pedals are those at the beginning of your signal chain. I adopted this approach following the advice of Daniel Steinhardt, from ‘That Pedal Show‘, who when talking about the subject stated:

I keep coming back to this: lower gain pedals first, cascading up to the higher-gain pedals. Why? Well, if you take a really high-gain overdrive pedal and put a low-gain overdrive after it, you’ve got a huge amount of gain and nastiness with the first pedal, but that gets tamed down by the natural compression in the low-gain pedal. However, if I swap that around and take the clipping and warmness from the low-gain overdrive pedal and push it into the high-gain pedal, it embellishes the harmonics and the compression that I’ve already got going with the low-gain pedal.

I have quoted Steinhardt at length here, as I believe he very succinctly highlights the benefits of organising your pedalboard in this way. Of course it is not the only approach. There are innumerable different ways to set up your pedalboard and organise your drive pedals. And there are also various schools of thought on which approach is best.

When it comes to the blues however, I would personally recommend stacking them as suggested by Steinhardt. It will give you access to a range of different overdrive tones, and help you to extract as much as possible from all of the pedals on your pedalboard.


Some closing thoughts…

Well there we have it – some of the key differences between overdrive and distortion pedals, and the main reasons – in my opinion – that overdrive pedals are much better suited and more versatile within a blues and blues rock context.

I hope the information outlined here helps you to make the right buying decisions when you are looking for new pedals to add to your set-up. I hope that it also gives you a greater understanding of these two different effects. This will help you to understand not only what different effects are out there, but also how they function, and as a result – whether or not they will work for you.

Of course, establishing which type of pedal will work for you, is only the first step. Next, you need to look at the various different overdrive pedals on offer to decide which pedal(s) will help you to achieve the tones you have in mind.

If you are feeling stuck on that point, then I would recommend reading my article – ‘7 Types of Overdrive Pedal For Killer Blues Tones‘. There I cover some of the most common types of overdrive pedal and their tonal characteristics. Combined with the information outlined above, I hope it helps you to add the right pedal(s) to your board.

Good luck! Let me know how you get on, and if you have any questions at all please do get in touch. Drop a note in the comments section, or send me an email on [email protected] I’d love to help.


P.S. If you enjoyed reading this article, please share the love 😁 Thank you!

Images

Unsplash, Wikimedia Commons (Image is in the Public Domain)

Image of Eric Johnson – Michael Bush / Alamy Stock Photo
Image of Stevie Ray Vaughan – ©RTBusacca / MediaPunch (Taken from Alamy)

References

Sweet Water, Wampler Pedals, Guitarist Magazine: Guide To Effects

Links

Many of the links embedded in this article are affiliate links. As such, if you buy one of the pieces of gear I recommend, or an item from the same store after clicking one of these links, I will earn a small commission. I never recommend pieces of gear that I wouldn’t use myself, and I include these affiliate links to ensure that I can keep this content free. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me on [email protected].

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