Overdrive Pedals: What They Are and Why You Can’t Do Without

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  May 3, 2022

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Want that growling sound coming out of your amp? That’s overdrive pedals for you!

Overdrive pedals make your amp sound like a tube amplifier being pushed to its limits by increasing the gain. They’re used to get that warm overdriven guitar sound. They’re one of the most popular pedal types and great for blues, classic rock, and heavy metal.

In this guide, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about them. So read on to learn more.

What are overdrive pedals

Understanding Overdrive Pedals

What Makes an Overdrive Pedal?

An overdrive pedal is a type of stompbox that modifies the audio signal of an electric guitar, increasing the gain and producing a distorted, overdriven sound. Overdrive pedals are designed to emulate the sound of a tube amplifier being pushed to its limits, creating a warm and dynamic tone that can range from mild to aggressive.

Types of Overdrive Pedals

There are various forms of overdrive pedals available in the market, each with its own unique characteristics and flavor. Some of the most popular types of overdrive pedals include:

  • Tube Screamer: The Ibanez Tube Screamer is one of the most revered overdrive pedals of all time. It’s known for its mid-range boost and warm, creamy sound.
  • MojoMojo: The MojoMojo by TC Electronic is a versatile overdrive pedal that can serve as a foundation for a variety of musical styles. It strives to interact with the guitar and amp in a vigorous way, allowing for a massive range of tones.
  • EarthQuaker Devices: EarthQuaker Devices produces a handful of overdrive pedals that have been modified and experimented with to produce unique sounds. Their pedals represent a modern take on overdrive, with big, bad boys like the Palisades and the Dunes.
  • Clipping Pedals: Clipping pedals are designed to change the existing waveform of the guitar signal. They can be used to achieve a spicier or rounder tone, depending on the type of clipping employed.

Overdrive Pedals vs. Distortion Pedals

Overdrive pedals and distortion pedals are often confused, but they serve different purposes. Overdrive pedals are designed to produce a round, warm sound that emulates the sound of a tube amplifier being pushed to its limits. Distortion pedals, on the other hand, are designed to produce a more complex and aggressive sound.

What is Overdrive?

The Definition of Overdrive

Overdrive is a term used in audio processing to describe the alteration of an amplified electric musical signal. Originally, overdrive was achieved by feeding a signal into a tube amplifier and exerting enough gain to cause the valves to start breaking up, producing a distorted sound. The term “overdrive” describes what happens when the signal is pushed beyond its limits, mimicking the sound of a loud, cranked amplifier.

Experimenting with Overdrive Pedals

One of the cool things about overdrive pedals is that they can be easily modified and experimented with to achieve different tonal characteristics. Guitarists can use overdrive pedals to highlight certain frequencies or break up their sound in different ways. Finding the right overdrive pedal for your sound can take some time, but the benefits of having a versatile and dynamic overdrive pedal in your pedalboard are well worth the effort.

Why Choose Overdrive?

1. Achieving a Natural and Vigorous Sound

One of the biggest reasons guitarists choose overdrive pedals is to achieve a natural and vigorous sound. Overdrive pedals strive to represent the interaction between a tube amplifier and a guitar, serving as a way to mimic the sound of a tube amp being pushed to its limits. When plugged into an overdrive pedal, the guitar’s sound is colored and the source signal is boosted, resulting in a fatter and more perceived sound.

2. Creating a Dynamic Effect

Overdrive pedals have a strong impact on a guitar’s sound by hitting the preamp section of an amplifier. This function allows plenty of room for dynamic play, making it perfect for blues guitarists who want to achieve a blasting sound without having to play too hard. Overdrive pedals produce a harmonic effect that is hard to obtain by just playing the guitar, instead, they create an original sound that is clear and highly built.

3. Mimicking Valve Amplifiers

Overdrive pedals were originally developed to mimic the reaction of a valve amplifier being overdriven. By exerting a lower state of energy, overdrive pedals allow guitarists to imitate the sound of a valve amplifier without having to pay for one. This close representation of a pure valve amplifier sound is what makes overdrive pedals highly sought after in the guitar-playing neighborhood.

4. Providing Sustain and Presence

Overdrive pedals help guitarists achieve a perfect combo of sustain and presence. By having an overdrive pedal in place, guitarists can easily obtain the sustain they are looking for without having to break a sweat. The overdrive pedal supplies the driving force needed to create a sustained sound, making it perfect for guitarists who are expecting to hear a strong and present sound.

Where You’ve Likely Heard Overdrive

Famous Overdrive Pedal Users

Overdrive pedals have been used by literally thousands of famous guitarists over the years. Some of the most identifiable overdrive pedal users include:

  • Stevie Ray Vaughan
  • Kirk Hammett
  • Santana
  • John Mayer

Overdrive in Amps

Overdrive isn’t just limited to pedals. Many amps are able to saturate their preamp section, putting out a hugely saturated tone that’s easily identifiable. Some of the biggest names in overdrive amps include:

  • Mesa Boogie
  • Marshall
  • Fender


Overdrive Vs Fuzz Pedals

Alright, folks, let’s talk about the difference between overdrive and fuzz pedals. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “What the heck is the difference?” Well, let me tell you, it’s like the difference between a gentle breeze and a hurricane.

Overdrive pedals are like that cool friend who always knows how to add a little bit of spice to the party. They give your guitar that extra oomph and grit, making it sound like you’re playing through a tube amp that’s been cranked up to 11. It’s like adding a little bit of hot sauce to your meal, just enough to make it interesting without setting your mouth on fire.

On the other hand, fuzz pedals are like that one friend who always takes things a little too far. They take your guitar sound and turn it into a distorted, fuzzy mess that sounds like a swarm of bees attacking your amp. It’s like adding a gallon of hot sauce to your meal, to the point where you can’t even taste the food anymore.

The difference between the two is all in the way they clip the signal. Overdrive pedals use soft clipping, which means they gradually round off the peaks of the signal, creating a smooth distortion. Fuzz pedals, on the other hand, use hard clipping, which means they chop off the peaks of the signal, creating a square wave distortion that’s more aggressive and chaotic.

So, if you want to add a little bit of spice to your guitar sound, go for an overdrive pedal. But if you want to set your amp on fire and watch it burn, go for a fuzz pedal. Just be warned, your neighbors might not appreciate it.

Overdrive Vs Distortion Pedals

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Isn’t it all just loud noise?” Well, yes and no. Let me break it down for you in a way that even your grandma can understand.

Overdrive pedals are like a spicy seasoning for your guitar tone. They add a little kick, a little grit, and a little attitude. Think of it like adding some hot sauce to your eggs in the morning. It’s not going to completely change the flavor, but it’ll give it a little extra something-something.

Distortion pedals, on the other hand, are like a sledgehammer to your guitar tone. They take that nice, clean sound and beat it into submission until it’s a distorted mess. It’s like taking a beautiful painting and throwing a bucket of paint on it. Sure, it might look cool, but it’s not for everyone.

Now, I know some of you are thinking, “But wait, isn’t distortion just a more aggressive version of overdrive?” Well, yes and no. It’s like the difference between a slap on the wrist and a punch in the face. They’re both forms of physical aggression, but one is a lot more intense than the other.

So, why would you use one over the other? Well, it depends on what you’re going for. If you want a little extra oomph in your rhythm guitar parts, an overdrive pedal is the way to go. But if you want to melt faces with your guitar solos, a distortion pedal is the way to go.

In the end, it all comes down to personal preference. Some people like their guitar tone with a little extra spice, while others prefer it to be completely distorted. Just remember, there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to music. As long as it sounds good to you, that’s all that matters.


Overdrive pedals get you some extra gain from your guitar signal to give you a little extra push for those crunchy, overdriven tones. 

So, don’t be afraid to try one out! You might just find a new favorite pedal!

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera and a content marketer, dad, and love trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of my passion, and together with my team, I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.

Check me out on Youtube where I try out all of this gear:

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