When overdrives first came out, they were used simply to drive an amp to get an overdriven sound at a respectable volume level. They’ve come on a long way since then as you’re about to find out, and offer you a treasure trove of layered, multistage tonalities.
Overdrive pedals are one of the most prolific pedals out there, with literally hundreds to choose from. Most of them are made from the same classic circuits and designs but have been modified and experimented with by pedal manufacturers.
They all work by “clipping” the signal, thereby altering the waveform (and thus producing a specific sound), but how much the clip (soft vs. hard clipping) depends on the type you go for.
In this article, we’re going to walk you through everything you ever wanted to know about these pedals, breaking down their tonal characteristics to match what you play and help you identify the perfect one for you.
At a Glance – Our Pick of the Best Overdrive Pedals on the Market
- Ibanez Tube Screamer TS808
- Fulltone OCD V2
- Boss SD-1
- Wampler Tumnus
- Mesa Boogie Flux Five
- Electro-Harmonix Soul Food
- JHS Double Barrel V4
- Strymon Sunset Dual
- Fender Santa Ana
- Catalinbread Sabbra Cadabra
- Boss BD-2 Blues Driver
- MXR EVH 5150
- TC Electronic MojoMojo
- Electro-Harmonix English Muff’n
Note: Clicking the above links will take you to further information, current prices, and customer reviews on Amazon.
Here’s what we’ll cover in this article.
Table of Contents
- What is Overdrive?
- How Does it Sound?
- How and When is the Effect Used?
- Types of Overdrive Pedal
- Best Overdrive Pedals – Product Round-up & Reviews
What is Overdrive?
An overdrive essentially adds grit to your signal, giving you a sound similar to a cranked amplifier at the edge of breakup.
They all, to a greater or lesser degree, mimic a tube amplifier at breakup point. Soft playing sounds clean, but when you increase the attack, it gives you a crunchy tone.
From a technical point of view, overdrive ‘clips’ your signal. The overdrive sound is typically a light clipping, known as ‘soft clipping,’ whereas ‘hard clipping’ is more extreme, making the waveform get even more compressed (turning into a square wave, eventually).
How Does it Sound?
Overdrive adds grit to your signal, adding color and texture to your tone, but less intense than you’d get from a distortion pedal.
The effect comes from tube amplifiers when you ‘drive them’ – that’s to say, its a natural consequence of straining the tubes (or valves). Instead of relying on an amp to get this sound, the pedal recreates it at the stomp of a footswitch.
These stompboxes also give you a ‘pushed’ clean tone that can be stretched to a crunch if you dial up the effect (and subject to how hard you pick the strings). How the pedal reacts to playing dynamics is one of the most important factors when choosing one.
How and When is the Effect Used?
Most musicians choose to use overdrive with the clean channel on their amp to get a crunchy tone (known as ‘pushing’ the front end of the amp speaker), giving you a punchy tone with better width and sustain. However, metal players often use them with the amps distortion channel to tighten up the sound, resulting in chunky rhythm and lead tones.
Overdrive is used in many types of guitar music; metal, hard rock, indie, blues, even some jazz players (e.g., John Scofield) use it.
It is used to bring out choruses, to blast out guitar solos, or throughout a song to give it its ‘rockiness.’ Without it, the classic rock tunes you know and love would sound weak and underwhelming. It’s difficult to imagine Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ solo coming through a clean guitar.
Players into heavy tones also use overdrive in conjunction with an amp’s natural distortion to tighten up distorted sounds and to add a chunkiness that’s great for heavy rhythm parts and classic lead lines. Some pedals give you a full-on saturated distortion tone all by themselves, too.
Another benefit is the ease with which you can access driven valve-amp sounds via a pedal. Even if you’re already playing through a valve-amp, it’s impractical – often impossible – to switch from clean to a cranked sound, especially if you’re mid-show. With one of these pedals, you can play through a clean channel, then click on the overdrive when you need to ‘lift’ things and get a crunchy, biting sound for a solo.
Boosting your signal is another overlooked feature. Overdrives are often used to boost the signal and increase the volume from the amp, used mainly for solos (and aggressive rhythms), to help them cut through the mix when playing live.
Types of Overdrive Pedal
There are broadly three types of overdrive pedal; here, we’ll look at each in turn.
If you want to enhance your tone without totally reshaping your sound, the transparent overdrive might be for you. These pedals – which started in the ’90s with the legendary Klon Centaur (more on that in a mo) – work by adding gain to the signal without changing the baseline sound too much. They won’t affect your base tone or its EQ.
The key to the revolutionary Klon Centaur sound was that it augmented your tone, rather than replaced it, providing sparkle and crunch but not overly compressing matters. These iconic pedals are tough to find (there were only around 8,000 of these made) and sell for thousands of pounds, so forget trying to pick up an original. John Mayer is a modern player who uses a Klon, helping him achieve his warm and rounded tone.
Fortunately, there are some decent alternatives these days (such as the Electro-Harmonix Soul Food and Paul Cochrane’s Timmy, which we review below), which give you the same boutique vibe without the astronomical price tag.
Next up, we have IC/Op-amp based overdrives. The most famous of the bunch is the legendary Ibanez Tube Screamer TS808 (and it’s successor the TS9, which has a more top-end presence, was released in the ’80s) which both use the JRC4558 chip for a ‘mid-hump’ tonal signature that accentuates mid-frequencies really well.
Many musicians use this style of overdrive purely to dirty up the tone; however, the pedal is equally great for boosting the signal, hitting the front end of the amp harder.
To this day, most boutique pedal makers use the same approach, mixing things up with their own tweaks, of course, but the foundations are all thanks to the innards of the Tube Screamer.
We can’t talk about IC/Op-amp based without mentioning the ProCo Rat. Sounding distinctly different to the Tube Screamer (heavier gain, somewhere between distortion and fuzz), the LM308N chip gives the rat its bite (pardon the pun), and sounds incredible.
Next up, we have the new kid on the block, what is called the ‘amp-in-a-box.’ As the name suggests, these stompboxes emulate the tone of several specific amps, from Marshall and Vox to Fender and Mesas. They get you the sound of classic amps in a small package (i.e., a pedal) without having to cart around multiple amps.
An idea unimaginable a few years ago, but now thanks to modern gear wizardry is possible, you can get access to amp tones with a simple click. Take, for example, the Catalinbread Sabbra Cadabra (see below for full review), which you get the early Sabbath sound at a press of a button. Yes, the Sabbra Cadabra emulates the unique sound of Tommy Iommi’s early rig. Pretty cool, eh!
To make the tone sound even more realistic, some include cabinet modeling and impulse responses to make the tone sound even more authentic.
Another excellent example of an amp in a box is Tech21’s Sansamp.
Best Overdrive Pedals – Product Round-up & Reviews
Ibanez Tube Screamer TS808
The Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer has legendary status in the world of overdrive effects units – it’s a simple stompbox and designed with the same funky green color and square footswitch button as the original.
Many choose to use one of these in conjunction with a tube amp to really crank things up into sweet, screaming sounds (it pushes the upper mid-range frequencies of your signal). It’s easy to use with its three controls, and the metal casing and trusty square footswitch mean that it won’t mind getting thrown around a bit at gigs.
If you want great dynamic consistency, it’s able to add some soft compression, and the punchy mid-range and tone knob lets you cut through the mix with ease.
Heavy rock players who always play with a bit of overdrive, and sometimes need to send their guitars right over the edge. The TS typically takes out any unwanted fat from a distortion channel and helps to deliver a more focused and saturated sound.
In summary, it’s a classic pedal played by the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan (who ran it through the clean channel of a high-headroom Fender amp), John Mayer, Alex Turner, Joe Bonamassa, among others. It will be less suited to players who want more control over their EQ, as there’s very little knob fiddling to be done.
What we like:
- Controls allow you to fine-tune the tone.
- Stomp-box sized, so it will be easy to fit into your pedalboard.
- Well-built in a sturdy metal casing.
Fulltone OCD V2
The Fulltone OCD has been around for some 12 years and has had a couple of incarnations. This V2 model takes all that was good with the original and packs an output buffer, helping to stop the pedal from getting ‘muddied’ by other stompboxes in your chain (before or after it).
It can switch between high-peak and low-peak gain settings, giving you control over the intensity of your overdrive.
This output buffer is always in use when the pedal’s set to ‘enhanced bypass,’ and in use when the pedal’s on if it’s in true bypass. The enhanced bypass can solve any tone-sucking problems of true bypass, meaning that you always get the fullest, chunkiest possible tone.
The OCD responds to your playing so that you don’t have to keep adjusting the settings. Play softly, and it knows not to push the drive. Play heavily, and it pushes it. In that way, it works just like a quality valve amp.
The OCD is sometimes marketed as a ‘transparent’ overdrive (see the section above if you’re unsure what that means). The effect is anything by transparent really, and colors your tone in an obvious way (it goes from light drive/compression to something approaching fuzz).
It’s more expensive than some of the other products on this list but will suit those who are looking for a stompbox that offers quality, innovation, controllability, and reliability. It might not be suited to those on a budget, or to guitarists who are looking for something that offers a bit more distortion.
What we like:
- Captures those classic rock tones and caters for all those ‘tone obsessives’ out there.
- Switchable high-peak and low-peak gain settings, so you can quickly alter the intensity of the effect.
- Includes an output buffer, which stops it from being affected by pedals after it in the chain.
- It offers enhanced bypass as well as true bypass.
Another classic here, the SD-1 has been used by luminaries such as U2’s The Edge, Metallica’s Kirk Hammet (during the Kill em All era), and many others.
It’s no doubt so popular because of its simplicity (no EQ, one output) and the fact it’s built like a tank. But don’t let it’s simple exterior fool you. Its asymmetric overdrive circuitry is pretty amazing, and it delivers a natural valve amp’ growl’ that we all know and love. It’s also incredible value for money and a good bit cheaper than its rivals.
Like the Fulltone OCD, it’s also responsive and reacts to your playing in the same way. It has a level, tone, and drive control and also a check indicator that flashes if your battery is low.
It’s a small stompbox that is easy to insert into your pedalboard and can be powered off a battery or an adapter – it’s casing is sturdy metal, and the knobs are also secure and made of metal.
It will suit blues or rock players who want classic sounds that are easy to access and will be less suited to heavier players unless they plan on using it in conjunction with other pedals or their amp’s distortion settings.
What we like:
- Stomp-box that fits easily into your pedalboard.
- Tone, level, and drive knobs give you control over the shape of your sound.
- Budget-friendly and built like a brick, so will last forever.
If you’re adamant you want a Klon Centaur but don’t have the spare thousands of dollars to pay for one (who has?!), the Tumnus is worth serious consideration. It does a great job at reproducing the Klon at a fraction of the price.
In terms of sound, it’s considered a transparent tone, but it’s crunchy and dry with the gain up.
It’s incredibly compact 1590A-sized enclosure means it shouldn’t be hard to find a spot for it on your pedalboard.
What we like:
- Good alternative to the Klon Centaur
- Small size, handy to fit on the pedalboard
Mesa Boogie Flux Five
Mesa Boogie have been making quality equipment in their HQ in Petaluma, CA, since the ’60s, with high profile admirers such as Keith Richards and Carlos Santana. Their amps have been a favorite of rock and metal players, and generally considered the gold standard for thick, expressive gain.
The Flux Five is a rethinking of their classic Flux-Drive pedal, with some great additions. For a start, the sheer amount of overdrive tones you can dial up with this thing is incredible, from subtle to high-gain.
There are two gain modes, LO and HI, controlled by a footswitch. LO is the original gain from the Flux-Drive, whereas HI adds a ton of gain for creating fiery leads and chunky rhythms.
Also, the built-in 5-band parametric EQ lets you dial in your dream sound, boosting or cutting the 80Hz, 240Hz, 750Hz, 2.2kHz, and 6.6kHz ranges.
Add to that the fact it’s made in the USA, and you have one helluva pedal in front of you! It’s not the cheapest on this list, but it’s right up there with the best.
It’s like adding two extra channels to your amp. If you have a sterile sounding solid-state or valve amp, it will give you a warm, hot-tube effect. If you feel limited by your combo amp, it will make it sound larger (and add more space).
What we like:
- A superb bit of kit from one of the best tone houses around
- Great tone-sculpting
- Incredibly versatile
Electro-Harmonix Soul Food
The Soul Food from EHX is a clone of the rare Klon Centaur, a ridiculously expensive pedal from the ’90s with incredible quality overdrive. With the Soul Food, you get something close to the iconic tone and a fraction (and I mean a teeny fraction) of the price of the Klon.
Compared to other pedals in this list, it’s incredibly simple to use. It has three simple three-knobs (drive, volume, and treble), which gives you a range of gain from clean boost up to mid-range drive.
Of course, it doesn’t match the original, but it comes pretty close. Like the Klon, it’s a transparent overdrive that keeps your original sound intact and is touch-sensitive.
The Klon is beyond the means of most of us, the Soul Food gives you a very decent alternative at a non-boutique price, and a great complement to a valve amp.
What we like:
- Superb alternative to the Klon Centaur (that’s out of reach of most players)
- Surprisingly good for the price, and well priced
- Easy to use
JHS Double Barrel V4
JHS have a reputation for being obsessed about tonal perfection, and with the Double Barrel V4, they’re taken things to a new level.
The ingenious thing about it is that It’s actually two of their classic pedals combined into one. Namely the Morning Glory V4 and the Moonshine V2, both classic stompboxes in their own right, but now integrated the two overdrive circuits into one pedal. You can get some tremendous Southern bluestones in the style of SRV.
The Morning Glory side gives you a transparent gain and touch dynamics and works great as a clean boost, or to add some ‘dirt’ to your tone. It’s capable of giving you that iconic Tube Screamer tone with more grit and saturation.
On the Moonshine side, you get midrange-forward overdrive for chunky rhythm and glassy solos. The Double Barrel V4 lets you switch between the two tones or a mixture of both.
The JHS is excellent if you’re looking for classic rock or blues.
What we like:
- Two classic pedals in one tidy unit
- Great tone for classic rock or blues
- Very versatile
Strymon Sunset Dual
Designed and Built in the USA, the Strymon Sunset Dual pedal is, in effect, two customizable overdrive pedals rolled into one. This gives you the best of classic overdrive tones. Its all-analog JFET gain stage coupled with custom-voiced, precision-crafted DSP algorithms, captures an incredible amount of nuance and character. The analog class A JFET input gain stage maximizes headroom while at the same time adds up to an extra 20dB of pure analog gain.
It features a total of six drive circuit topologies from iconic overdrive and boost pedals – each with their own custom tuned voicing – from a subtle transparent drive to a heavy saturated fuzz and everything in between. This stacking of tones gives you a ton of flexibility and tone range.
What we like:
- Two pedals rolled into one
- Captures an incredible amount of nuance and character
- Designed and built in the USA
Fender Santa Ana
Guitar maker Fender have had a chequered past when it comes pedals. They’ve made some absolute turkeys that are better forgotten. Their new range, however, deserves mention here as what they’re offering is pretty decent at an okay price.
With the Santa Ana, you get two amp voicings – an American, which is bright, sharp with an almost percussive chime; with the British, you get a darker, broodier thing (almost distortion), which is particularly good for sticking in front of overly bright amps.
What you have here is a natural sounding overdrive and a switchable boost in one box, designed with FET circuitry to deliver valve amp-style drive. It’s an imminently practical addition to your pedalboard. The boost has an option to boost volume or overdrive too, which is pretty neat (though the addition of a boost level control would be nice).
The option of switching between true bypass and buffered is also pretty useful. This allows you to choose whether your signal is affected by the pedal or not. It has some nicely expressive touch sensitivity too.
One of the neatest things about this stompbox is the magnetic battery compartment. Sure, it adds nothing to the sound so, in a way, it’s a gimmick (edit: it totally is a gimmick), but it’s pretty cool nonetheless and saves you messing around with a mini screwdriver and such. Will it still work after twenty years of use? That’s another question 🙂
What we like:
- Two amp voicings (American and British) covers a lot of bases
- The magnetic battery compartment is a neat addition
- Boost switch lets you switch between volume or overdrive
Catalinbread Sabbra Cadabra
Catalinbread Sabbra Cadabra
You have to admire the name and the design of this little beauty. The Sabbra Cadabra (a nod to Black Sabbath) is a US-made amp-in-the-box marketed as ‘early Sabbath in a box.’
Yes, it mimics the exact sound of guitarist Tommy Iommi’s early rig (a modified Rangemaster Booster pedal.
This is obviously for all those Sabbath fans out there. If you’re crazy about them and want to emulate their guitar tone, it’s a no-brainer.
What we like:
- Plug and play Tommi Ionni pedal
- Cool design
Boss BD-2 Blues Driver
Our second Boss pedal on the list, the BD-2 Blues Driver, is another classic that needs a mention in any best overdrive pedals round-up. Like the Tube Screamer, it’s been in production for years and offers a smooth, creamy, saturated overdrive that blues players will love. With it, you’ll get a lovely vintage valve amp crunch.
For lead playing, the tone control boosts top-end frequencies to help you pierce through the mix, making your lead lines shine. It also gives plenty of width and clarity to chords or riffs, so it’s equally suitable for rhythm.
The best bit? It’s so darn cheap. In fact, so cheap that few companies even bother to make clones of it as it’s not worth it. If you want a slightly higher spec, look at their Waza Craft series (the BD-2w) that comes with all-analog circuitry and two modes.
What we like:
- Superb for blues
- Super affordable
MXR EVH (Eddie Van Halen) 5150
This one is for all the fanboys and gals of Eddie Van Halen.
Designed in conjunction with the man himself, the EVH 5150 is a sonic replica of the tube amp he made his name with, the blue channel of the EVH 5150 III. This amp-in-a-box has the same signature characteristics: high gain and string to string clarity. It will give you that righteous rock-guitar tone with ease.
The 3-band EQ lets you tweak the tone to work with your rig, and an onboard boost adds extra gain and compression that allows you to punch through the mix.
We really liked the Smart Gate function that’s modeled after the M135 pedal.
It also includes an output level control allowing you to decide the volume contrast between your clean and affected sound, and also a boost button to push this even further. Plus a noise gate to eliminate unwanted sounds.
It’s quite pricey, but the amount of features it has makes it like having 3-4 pedals in one. It’s also a bit bulky, but not as big as each of those separate pedals would be.
The MX3 EV5150 will suit hard rock players who need high gain sounds and want the control over the effect that they’d have on a real amp. It will be less suited to those who are looking for a simple, stompbox.
What we like:
- 3-band EQ gives you excellent control over your sound.
- Includes a gate to eliminate unwanted noises.
- Additional boost control for guitar solos.
TC Electronic MojoMojo
The TC Electronic MojoMojo is another small pedal, which can come even cheaper than the Boss OD-1. It has bass and treble EQ dials, a voice switch, level, and drive controls. The separate bass and treble EQ dials give you an extra level of control over the shaping of your tone, and the voice switch can give you an instant mid-shift. The level control lets you decide the volume contrast between your clean and overdriven guitar, and the drive dial lets you adjust how much the sound is overdriven.
It’s very responsive to your playing, making it suited to expressive guitarists who want sweet tones with a bit of extra ‘oomph.’ It will be less ideal for heavier players.
What we like:
- True bypass, so you don’t need to worry about it affecting your signal when it’s not in use.
- Separate bass and treble EQ controls for shaping the sound.
- Voicing switch enables a quick mid-shift.
Electro-Harmonix English Muff’n
The Electro-Harmonix English Muff’n uses vacuum tubes to give you an authentic amp sound. It costs around the same as the Dual Fusion above, but you are getting something special with this one. The two tubes are at the top, beneath a protective shield, and there are volume, gain, and EQ controls, which let you shape the sound exactly as it suits you. The volume sets the output level, and the gain decides how overdriven the tone is. There are low, mid, and high EQ controls, allowing you to fine-tune the color of your overdriven guitar completely.
The Electro-Harmonix English Muff’n includes vintage features that make it perfect for emulating a 1960s guitar sound. It will be less suited to those looking for a more modern, distorted sound, or for those on a budget.
What we like:
- Includes vacuum tubes to give it the pure tone of an amp.
- Has volume, gain, and EQ controls so that you can fine-tune the sound to suit you.
- True bypass, so you needn’t worry about it affecting your signal when it’s not in use.
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