Guitar Pedal Guides
Though they’re often lumped together, overdrive and distortion are two very different effects. They both work towards different purposes, and they both have a different impact on your tone. If you’ve ever asked yourself: “What is the difference between overdrive and distortion?" - you’ve come to the right place!
A Description of Overdrive
Overdrive is actually a side-effect of cranking a tube amp, and this is where the effect originated. Put as simply as possible, overdrive is what happens when you feed a tube amp too much power. This makes the amp “clip”, which is what gives it an overdriven tone. Overdrive is “soft-clipping”. Soft-clipping can best be thought of as the clipping that produces harmonic overtones, which are less dissonant than enharmonic overtones produced by hard-clipping.
As stated above, tube amps actually create overdrive on their own when they’re pushed hard enough. Many blues guitarists actually just use the overdrive from their amp, rather than using pedals.
Uses of Overdrive
Overdrive sounds best in genres that don’t require a lot of distortion, with good examples being things like blues, country, and garage rock. There are a ton of different bands who use overdrive. Essentially any artist who falls into the categories previously mentioned uses overdrive over distortion (though exceptions do exist).
Another thing to know about overdrive pedals is that they can actually be a valuable addition to your rig even if you play harder genres. When placed before distortion pedals, you can use an overdrive pedal to increase the gain of your distortion pedal. This is a great way to increase volume and sustain for solos and lead lines.
Lastly, some guitarists use overdrive pedals as a volume boost. This also increases the gain of a tube amp, but it does so in a way that retains more of the amp’s original tone. If you’re looking to go this route, you’d likely be happier with a clean boost pedal. A clean boost pedal boosts the volume without coloring the tone of your amp.
For a better look at overdrive pedals: check out our article The Best Overdrive Pedals.
A Description of Distortion
Distortion pedals are generally hard-clipping devices. As mentioned above, they create enharmonic overtones. Enharmonic overtones can best be described as overtones that are dissonant with your fundamental, which is the note you play. This is why when you play chords with a lot of distortion they don’t sound very good. The enharmonic overtones conflict with the fundamental. However, the sound is also fuller and more complex, which is what gives the genres that you distortion their trademark tone.
Use of Distortion
Distortion adds sustain and complexity to your tone, with sustain and complexity increasing as the level of distortion increases. Distortion pedals are the easiest way to get a hard rock and metal tone. It’s theoretically possible to push an amp hard enough for metal and rock tones with just overdrive pedals, but its much easier to just use a distortion pedal.
Another thing to know about distortion pedals is that there are a ton of varieties. Different types of distortion are geared towards different genres, with some being focused on classic rock, some on hard rock, and others on metal.
For a better look at different models, check out our article: The Best Distortion Pedals.
A Quick Word On Fuzz
Fuzz pedals, used by artists such as Pink Floyd, The White Stripes, The Black Keys, and Jimi Hendrix, are actually a unique effect, separate from distortion and overdrive.
As covered above, distortion uses enharmonic distortion while overdrive uses harmonic distortion. Without getting too far into the nitty gritty, fuzz is a dramatic increase in harmonic content. It clips your signal more than distortion, to the point where it creates a noticeably different tone.
For an example of this tone, check out the video below:
Fuzz is best used in blues-rock and garage rock, though it does have its place in classic rock as well. However, fuzz is significantly less versatile than distortion and overdrive. If you’re looking to cover as much ground as possible on a budget, you’ll likely be happier with a distortion or overdrive pedal.
Wrapping It All Up
In summation, overdrive can best be thought of as the tone of the blues and other roots genres. Distortion is the defining effect in rock and the genres that evolved from it. Knowing the difference between these two effects, and a bit about how they work, is all you need to get started on the journey to your perfect tone.