The Difference Between Overdrive and Distortion Explained

Overdrive and Distortion Explained

There is still much confusion about the difference between overdrive, distortion and, by extension, fuzz. Each one has attributes that may also be present on the other such as different kinds of Audio Clipping. To make the distinction clearer and easier, we decided to identify each type according to factors like tonality, componentry, clipping type, controls and musical context.

A Description of Overdrive

Believe it or not, overdrive is a result of a flaw or limitation. It’s when a tube has been pushed in voltage that the signal has hit a ceiling in what the tube can handle efficiently. This leads to the signal being forced to “clip” or have some of the waveform cut off by the limitation of the tube. To us, this sounds like a slight warm, fat and sometimes, sizzly tone. That’s overdrive. You are literally driving the signal through the tube and causing it to clip the very top of the waveforms.

The way tube amps truncate the waveform is special because one of the factors with the production of tone and the signal alteration is quite surprising: heat. Heating up a tube causes it to push electrons (and your signal) around in a non-linear fashion. The voltage coming in from your guitar is amplified by different stages of tubes, each increasing in power. Some amp builders harness this by determining how hard the tubes get hit with signal, and how much they clip.

“But that’s for amps!”, you say. True. But this is where overdrive pedals come in. Overdrive pedals are meant to recreate the tone, and sometimes even the process of making the tone. That sweet, fattening of your tone, with or without audible clipping, that’s overdrive. The harder you strum, the angrier it sounds. simple right?

That’s where the different kinds of circuitry comes into play. You can’t pinpoint one type of circuit to being THE “overdrive” circuit. Though over the years, different archetypical models like the Ibanez Tubescreamer has spawned dozens of variants from different manufacturers: all attempting to do the same thing: Give the feel of an amplifier pushed to work hard with a loud and hot signal.

Uses of Overdrive

Bill Finnegan designer of the now-famous Klon Centaur circuit originally designed the pedal to give him the sound of a cranked Fender Deluxe reverb without the ear-splitting volume. In order to get the thick, gritty tone that he liked at a lower volume, he needed to design an overdrive pedal that could give him the same characteristics as a pushed Deluxe. This is a prime example of the uses of an overdrive pedal: to replicate the sound of a cranked tube amp.

The Ibanez Tubescreamer, another commonly referred-to pedal, was designed on that same principle. By being able to control the amount of grit you get starting from a clean signal, you can achieve cranked vintage amp tones at lower, more manageable volumes. This means that overdrives are perfect for genres of music that don’t require intense amount of saturation or palm-mute level distortion. But we’ll get to that later.

Another use for an overdrive pedal is to serve as another gain stage before your amp, essentially like adding another tube to an amp’s circuit. Even some of the best cheap overdrive pedals have high output headroom: This enables you to push the front end of your amp harder than you would with just the pickups on your guitar. Pedals like the aforementioned Tube Screamer are commonly used for this. Because of the Tube Screamer’s low frequency roll off, it has an added side effect of tightening up the sound of thick sounding amplifiers like the Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier.

To differentiate, you wouldn’t usually use a distortion pedal to push the front end of an already high-gain amp (unless it’s a stylistic choice that you pull off well). Overdrive pedals enable you to slam that first tube with more output and pushing it to saturate earlier. This cascades down to the other tubes in the line, being hit with an already saturated signal. This gives you more gain overall. That being said, it’s advisable to lower your amp’s gain as well.

You can also do this method to push another overdrive pedal into harder Audio Distortion. Though much less commonly used these days, cascading two overdrives, commonly a Boss SD-1 pushed by a Tubescreamer was common practice during the 90s.

For a better look at overdrive pedals, check out our guide to The Best Overdrive Pedals.

A Description of Distortion

While you can call a highly saturated tube amp “distorting”, the word is used differently when referring to pedal effects. Distortion pedals are usually meant to provide harder levels of clipping via one or more clipping stages. The more clipping stages a distortion pedal has, the higher it’s distorted gain. Because of the hard clipping typically used in distortion pedals, odd-order harmonic overtones happen. While typically these are a non-issue in well designed pedals, some hard clipping manifests as a layer of white noise that can’t be eq’ed out of the tone. This is why heavily distorted tones often lack note definition beyond power chords and octaves. The harmonics become too complex they end up becoming white noise. However, the sound also occupies more sonic space; perfect for the wall-of-sound that some genres demand.

Use of Distortion

Distortion adds an immense amount of sustain to your notes at the cost of some definition to more complex chords. Power chords sound just what they’re named for, octave chords sound grand. Though with increasing amounts of clipping and distortion, you also bring the noise floor up. For precise metal tones, you may need a noise gate.

Even the best cheap distortion pedals are usually designed to work well on their own unlike overdrive pedals. Boosting an already high gain pedal will only bring about more noise into your signal and will make muting unintended notes more difficult.

Most distortion pedals work better with clean amps, which is nearly the opposite of overdrive pedals where a slightly more gritty tone is needed for the overdrive pedal to work its magic. A distortion pedal gets you a high gain tone at any volume.

For a better look at different models, check out our guide to The Best Distortion Pedals.

A Quick Word On Fuzz

You may think that high gain pedals are a newer invention when in fact, the highest gain and saturation was achieved earlier in the form of fuzz pedals. Fuzz was originally achieved either by accident with failing electronic components or taking a razor and slicing some slits onto a speaker cone. Then on the latter, slits would flap around creating a “buzzing” or “fuzzy” sound. In 1961, a sound engineer by the name of Glenn Snoddy invented a circuit to replicate the sound of a channel strip with malfunctioning components. Why? A hit song called “Don’t Worry” by Marty Robbins had a guitar or bass solo that was recorded on a malfunctioning console strip. He was asked to replicate that sound in what would be known as the first Fuzz box: The Maestro Fuzz Tone.

When you look at the way fuzzes are designed, they are made so to to actually -destroy- your signal. Fidelity goes out the window in favor of a thick, gooey, oftentimes splattery mess of a tone. But this distinct characterization of an otherwise “broken” and “ugly” tone has found it’s way into the hearts (and feet!) of many creative artists ranging from Pink Floyd, The White Stripes, and most notoriously, Jimi Hendrix.

This design process and approach to tone are what makes fuzzes distinct from their overdrive and distortion bretheren. Some modern Fuzz pedals utilize THD to get a warmer sounding fuzz effect.

That being said, Fuzz is an acquired taste. You can’t chug metal riffs with it. You cant play lovely clean ballads with it. You, can however, have a great time just playing the most simple chords and let the flawed majesty of fuzz take you to new creative heights.

For an example of different fuzz tones, check out the videos below:

These are just some examples of uses of fuzz tones. For recording, a fuzzy power chord layer might just be what your song needs! The great thing is, fuzzes tend to be more affordable than overdrive and distortion pedals.

Wrapping It All Up

If you want jangle, chime, grit, something that will make your clean tone sparkle, or something to push your high gain monster, an overdrive would do the trick. Do you use a clean amp and need something for higher gain from a standalone pedal? A distortion pedal is your bet. Want fat, all out tones and don’t concern yourself with words like “tight”, “precise” or “transparent”? Get a fuzz.

Ultimately, these are all just different brushes to make different kinds of art. Pick one and go with it!

13 thoughts on “The Difference Between Overdrive and Distortion Explained”

  1. Avatar
    Joseph Weldinger

    Nomenclature in the electric guitar world is nebulous. Several companies incorrectly label vibrato systems for the guitar as tremolo. To complicate this, some amps with onboard tremolo circuits have them incorrectly referred to as vibrato. Similarly, gain and volume are incorrectly interchanged on different amp models from the same manufacturer. Trying to educate people on the correct terminology of overdrive, distortion, and fuzz seems futile. I just refer to solid state distortion/overdrive/fuzz as “sand” (and stay away from it), and thermionic valve distortion/overdrive/fuzz as “dirt.”

  2. I am just in the process of buying an electric guitar. I thought there is everything in the amp and you don’t need the pedals.

    1. Altering tones and volumes and such mid-song using inbuilt in-built settings can be abit tricky lol. Pedals make it faster and free up the hands to get to business when you are on the go. I use old some old amplifiers still personally and they come with little more then a basic eq, gain, sustain, and an overdrive dials. Many modern amp’s have a extensive range of inbuilt settings you can alter through a modern guitar wireless systems, but wireless changes are not as reliable which can mean alot whether you are performing or just jamming and it can really kill the vibe for the audience or the players. Pedals are very efficient, usually reliable if manufactured well and looked after, and they leave your hands free to capitilise on some tastier business when mixing it up. For instance you might decide to start doing some heavy shredding between some sweet and clear toned, classical melodic riff’s, or perhaps you want to mix some metallica with sone rodriguez y gabriealla metallica cover in the moment, switching from overdriven and heavy tones to metal styled by the spanish flemenco guitar masters lol…

      When it come to being a musician never think any thing is set in stone, there is always some new equipment out there that might add to your experience and your sound so the idea of buying a one size fits all guitar and amp maight be somewhat limited considering the spectrums of sound still waiting to be discovered. Music like life and like blood changes with it’s environment and it reflects and amplifies the very essence of an individual and society simultaneously. Whether you play for yourself or others is up to you but with music we can never forget how it feels to share something with another, even if it’s only a feeling or an ideal BD

    1. Hi Dan,

      It depends on the quality of the solid state amp. Orange make a good few with their Orange Crush series with quite a few pros using them; particularly hard rock, doom, and sludge metal guitarists use them on tour with overdrives and fuzzes.

      I own an orange CR120c myself and when you push the clean channel to the edge of breakup and slam it with an od (I use an EHX Soul Food), it sounds massive.

      But again, not all solid state designs are made the same. Check out our guide for The Best Solid State Guitar Amps if you want to check out some of the market favorites!


  3. Im a self taught guitar player for 30 years now, and I found this very useful. I love the approach. Awesome for beginners, but also very helpful for those who, like me, got inundated with a ton of info to learn early on. Its really liberating to go back to Step 1-2 from time to time. Puts it all in perspective. Gives it clarity. (ya know, he opposite of FUZZ, lol) Thanks!

    1. Hi Chris!

      Yes, having too many options tend to steer us into “option paralysis” much like having that 64pc set of crayons doesn’t really make us more creative or productive. It’s nice to know what we could do with what he have and know what we need to make that next gear purchase worthwhile! Cheers!


    1. Cheers! Now you can move on to asking yourself:

      “What are some creative things I can do with this pedal?”.


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