Guitar Pedals Explained: Overdrive vs Distortion vs Fuzz

Overdrive vs. Distortion vs. Fuzz Guitar Effect Pedals Explained (With Tips)

In Audio Advice, Tips & How To by MusicGearo

Have you ever thought about how dull and uninspiring guitar playing would be without guitar effects pedals?

Thankfully, we have been blessed with loads of effect options that we now line our boards with different guitar effect pedals. Stomping, tweaking, and generally creating stuff that previously could only have been imagined.

We have so many different excellent guitar effect pedals, but in this article, we will be focusing on three from the gain effects group. The effects we are going to talk about are overdrive, distortion, and fuzz. These three effects are members of the same family, but we will be looking closely at them to find out what makes one different from the other.

However, first, we delve into how these guitar effect pedals came into being.

A Little History

Guitarists have always been looking for ways to achieve a fuller, grittier sound. With only a 10-watt speaker amp combo available in the 1930s, getting such a sound was practically impossible.

Over the years, the different guitarists came up with different ways in their attempt at achieving what we now call the distortion effect. In the 1940s, Junior Barnard combined two pickups, creating what the humbucking pickup. This made some impact, but it still wasn’t enough.

Fender introduced its 18-watt amp and guitarists discovered that by turning the volume all the way up, you could achieve some distortion, so they went for it.

By 1949, Fender had introduced its 50-watt amplifier, taking things to a much higher energy level.

Link Wray stabbed his speaker repeatedly to achieve the sound you hear in his instrumental “Rumble.” Dave Davies slashed his speakers with a razor blade to achieve the distorted sound you hear in his recording of “You Really Got Me.”

When Grady Martin played his bass solo through a faulty preamp in the recording of Marty Robbins’ “Don’t Worry” in 1961, the idea for a distortion pedal was born.

The first of these guitar effect pedals were the Gibson Maestro FZ-1 which was released in 1962. The rest they say is history.

Overdrive Pedal

Present Day

Guitar effect pedals have gone through a lot of transformation and are now better made than they were years before. It is, therefore, easier to examine these three gain effects that all emerged from the same foundation.

Let’s get started.

Main Difference Between Distortion, Overdrive, and Fuzz Guitar Effect Pedals – A Summary

Before we go into looking at these guitar effect pedals individually, we will quickly do a summary of their differences.

How they Work

Overdrive – Overdrive pushes your amp’s valves to the point where they distort. In solid-state amplifiers, overdrive mimics the sound of your valve amplifier being driven until it distorts.

Distortion – Unlike overdrive (which relies on the gain hitting the front of the amp), causing the soft clipping it is known for, distortion simply changes the guitar’s sound wave in a way that is not dynamically affected by the intensity of play or a lack of it.

Fuzz – Fuzz effect turns your guitar’s tone into square waves, clipping it really hard. The distortion that is achieved is compressed obliterating the original sound of the guitar. If distortion offers high intensity, then fuzz offers ultra-high.

How they Sound

Overdrive – Overdrive offers a somewhat soft, dynamic distortion. It adds grit and dirt to your guitar’s tone, but you can still hear the guitar’s natural tone. It also responds to the intensity of your play. The distorted sound is less when you pay soft and higher when you play hard.

Distortion – Distortion is much more intense and grittier than overdrive. It takes over the tone of your guitar and turns it into a growling animal. You can, of course, modify the overall tone of this growl using the controls.

It also does not respond to how hard or soft you play – it is not dynamic. It grows with the full distortion of whatever setting you have chosen whether you play hard or soft. Where overdrive is soft clipping, distortion is hard clipping.

Fuzz – As a result of its high intensity and the amount of gain it pumps into the guitar’s signal path, a lot of overtones surprisingly emerge, giving it a fuller, expression laden sound. When you play your guitar with the fuzz effect, it fills the space with its metallic and gritty awesomeness.

The genre of Music Best Suited For

Overdrive – Popular in genres like Country, Blues, and Rock.

Distortion – Distortion is commonly used on hard rock, metal, and other high energy music.

Fuzz – You will find this effect used a lot in Grunge and Metal.

Let’s now look at each of these guitar effect pedals individually.

Overdrive

The overdrive effect is derived by driving the volume of the guitar hitting your amp to the clipping point. Though the amp is pushed to clipping point, it is not so much as to totally distort the guitar’s tone.

With the mild clipping that the overdrive achieves, the original tone of the guitar is still retained. The only difference is that it sounds slightly more metallic and grittier.

If you listened to the example of overdrive as shown in the video above, you would notice the aggressiveness of the guitar, but you will still hear the original guitar tone. Of course, the higher the overdrive setting was, the grittier the sound became.

The overdrive used in the video is the Boss Turbo Overdrive OD-2.

Using Overdrive

You can use overdrive practically in any genre, especially with all the experimentation going on in music today. However, this effect is traditionally used mostly in blues and classic rock. What is more important is now where you use but how you use it.

This effect can be used on guitars as well as basses. There are some great songs that this effect has been tastefully used. A good example is The Beatles’ “Think for yourself.”

Another good example is “Simple Boy” by Karnivool. This time, you can hear the overdrive clearly on the bass line.

There are many other songs out there. But these two should give you an idea of how to use this effect.

Examples of Overdrive Effects Pedals

There are different brands and models of overdrives out there. Choosing from these different options can get quite confusing. What we will do here is look at a few popular overdrive pedals. It will help you have a better idea of what they generally offer.

Fulltone OCD

Fulltone OCD Obsessive Compulsive Drive Pedal

When it comes to overdrives, Fulltone OCD  is easily among the most popular and revered. The Fulltone OCD Obsessive Compulsive Drive Pedal is a newer pedal that was made along the same line.

Aside from the regular controls, you will expect in overdrive; it adds a HP/LP switch. This stands for high-peak and low-peak.

One of the things going for this pedal is that it is versatile and also very user-friendly. 

Wampler Tumnus

The Wampler Tumnus is not one of those kinds of guitar effect pedals that you find everywhere. The original version of this effects pedal can cost as high as $3,000. This is certainly not a price that most musicians will be willing to pay for an overdrive pedal. 

If we were to crown a particular overdrive as king of all the drives, this would likely be a top contender if not the top contender. This is one of the attempts by different manufacturers to produce something that will be more within the range of musicians everywhere.

Boss BD-2 Blues Driver

The Boss BD-2 Blues Driver is an overdrive effects pedal well known for its suitability for driving low gains. If you own a strat and you love a warm, natural-sounding overdrive, then this is a classic pedal you will love. 

Setting Your Overdrive

We already noted above that the important thing is not just using the effect but how you use it. It is therefore important to understand how to set your overdrive effect pedal.

The controls on your pedal may differ slightly from another. However, there are important parameters that should be present in all. The three main controls to be very aware of are volume (or level), tone and overdrive (or “drive” or “gain”).

You can get better at using your effect pedal by trying it out as often as you can, tweaking and trying different settings each time. That said, there are a few guides that can help you achieve better results faster with your pedal, especially if you are new to it.

Tip 1

You need to start by looking at the manufacturers recommended settings. This should act as a launching pad from where you can begin your experimentation. It surely does make sense that since they’ve made the product, they should know a thing or two about how to get the most out of it. Start with these recommendations and go from there.

Tip 2

Understand what each knob does and how it can affect the sound of your guitar. The volume or level knob controls the overall volume of the pedal’s output while the tone controls how dark or light the tone is. Usually, when you turn it up, the tone gets lighter, and when you turn it down, it gets darker. The main job of the gain, drive, or overdrive knob is to control the amount of the effect is added. Turning the knob all the way up will add a whole lot of grit and dirt to the guitar’s sound while turning it all the way down will delete it.

Tip 3

Always go for unity gain. Unity gain simply means that the volume of your pedal’s output when it is engaged is the same as the volume of the pedal’s output when it is not engaged (bypassed). To achieve this, you need to ensure that the volume you are sending from your guitar to the pedal is the same level as the one coming out of the pedal when it is engaged.

This setting should not be done by sight but by ear. Listen and try to get the gain settings to unity level. This will ensure that when you engage the effect pedal, you will indeed hear the energy burst you expect.

Tip 4

Raising your sound source’s level too much can mar the quality of your pedal’s output. If you want your overdriven output to be precise and articulate, start by placing your pedal’s output at a reasonable level. Then, begin to adjust your instrument’s gain until you achieve the exact overdriven sound you want. This is basically like what we mentioned in Tip 3 above.

Tip 5

Form the habit of noting any settings that yield an output you love. You can have different settings that give you different outputs. Music is very dynamic, so no one tonal color will suit every song. Having different tonal options means you can use different options that will suit different types of musical arrangements.

Distortion

Now, we move on to the distortion effect. Like we stated earlier, it belongs to the same family as overdrive, but it is a more aggressive type of gain effect. Whereas overdrive will add the metallic, gritty sound to the guitar’s tone while still allowing some of the guitar’s own tone to come through, distortion really does change the guitar’s tone. Your guitar begins to growl when distortion is applied.

You can hear the sound of this effect in the video below:

Remember when we talked about how a guitarist slashed holes in his amp’s speaker to achieve that gritty sound? That was Dave Davies in the recording of “You Really Got Me.” This was the sound he was going for. Thankfully, you can now achieve this sound safely without having to slash anything.

You can achieve this distortion without damaging your amp or driving it excessively. With this effect, you get the full growl of distortion while all your equipment will still perform correctly without any clipping.

Using Distortion

This effect is viral in metal, different types of rock, grunge, and also blues. Once again, guitarists are experimenting and can always try to incorporate it into any kind of music. The important thing is the usage more than the where.

Here are a few real performances where this effect was used. This should give you a good idea of how you can use it in your music.

A perfect example is Paul Gilbert’s “Scarified.” This song embodies all the energy and force that you can expect from a distortion loaded music.

Another great example is the cover for Dio’s “Holy Diver” by Killswitch Engage. Another energy loaded performance.

These two songs should give you a good feel of how this effect feels when putting to excellent use. You may begin to understand why it is one of the more popular guitar effect pedals.

Examples of Distortion Effects Pedals

If someone were to ask to know which distortion pedal is the best, an absolute answer would be none. Different guitarists have something they love about some and not others. Despite these preferences, some pedals have managed to become more popular than others. These are some examples.

Boss DS-1 Distortion Pedal

Boss DS-1 Distortion Pedal

The Boss DS-1 Distortion Pedal effect has been on the scene since the late 1970s and is easily one of the guitar effect pedals that has sold the most. Legendary guitarists like Joe Satriani, Kurt Cobain, Steve Vai, Eddie Van Halen, and others all used this pedal to create the beautiful sounds with which they thrilled crowds.

Despite its popularity, this effect has remained very affordable, which means that practically any guitarist can use it to recreate some of the sounds of the legends.

MXR M75 Super Badass Distortion

MXR M75 Super Badass Distortion

Offering a wide range of effect options, from the overdrive sounds of the 1970s to the modern-day hard-hitting, grit-filled distortion sound, the MXR M75 Super Badass Distortion is indeed a badass with loads of versatility.

Pro Co RAT2 Distortion Pedal

Pro Co RAT2 Distortion Pedal

When you hear that great guitarists like Nuno Bettencourt, Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, Joe Perry, James Hetfield, and other notable players, used a certain effects pedal, you should know that that pedal most certainly has something to offer.

This is the case with the Pro Co RAT2 Distortion Pedal. You can rock like crazy with it, bringing the house down with heavily distorted solos and riffs or you can turn it down, mesmerizing your audience with a subtly distorted sound that sends thrills down their spine. You can certainly do a lot with this.

Setting Your Distortion

One thing that should be clearly stated here is that there is no such thing as the right or wrong setting for your effect. The right setting is whatever sounds good to you and fits your music perfectly.

That said, having a good starting knowledge of how to go about using the parameters is surely a good thing. Aside from checking out if the manufacturer offers any setting suggestion, you also get to know exactly what each knob on your effect’s pedal does.

From the images of the different distortion pedals above, we can see three major controls just as with the overdrive. We can see a couple of differences, but whatever these difference, these controls are the main ones and may go by different names. For example, “Level” is the same as “Volume,” “Distortion” (DIST) can also be labeled as “Gain.” The third knob is tone, and that is usually the same for most pedals.

The level will control the general output of the pedal, while distortion will control the amount of grit added to the sound and tone will control how dark or light the sound will be.

Aside from these, there are a few tips you may want to note as you begin to try your hands on this effect.

Tip 1

The first thing you should check is the tone of your amp without the effect. You must always ensure that you are okay with the sound you hear from your amp without engaging the effect. It’s is because a bad sounding amp will affect any sound that comes from it. Once you are okay with this tone, all your settings on the pedal should be targeted at complementing it.

Tip 2

We discussed this briefly when we were looking at overdrive above. You should be careful to make sure that you keep both the volume of the pedal and that of the amp at the same level. Your pedal’s level should not be so high as to overshadow the tone of your amplifier.

Tip 3

Distortion can add a lot of noise to your music. You can reduce this by setting your amp’s gain to the same level as the “Distortion” or “Gain” level on your pedal.

Tip 4

If you are not looking to have a very aggressive distortion effect, you can reduce its aggression by trying this setting: Distortion set at level 3, level or volume knob set at level 5 and tone knob set at about level 4. Listen to how it sounds and make any slight adjustments you may require.

Tip 5

Distortion really shines with more low ends than high ends. While making your adjustments, note this and tilt towards a setting rich in low ends if you want a full distortion effect.

These tips are only meant to help you get started.

Fuzz

Finally, we get to look at the third member in this gain effects family. Fuzz is the top dog when it comes to distortion effects, and begins where overdrive and distortion effects stop.

This effect is very impressive because it can enhance the expression a lot more than the others. With the amount of gain that it pumps into the signal path of the guitar, a lot of unexpected overtones are generated, and these give the effect that’s a unique tone.

This is the effect that space-filling in its robustness. Yes, it has all the metal and grittiness of distortion, but it adds an absolute fullness that can take over most sound spaces.

Listen to how it sounds in this video.

The fuzz effect featured in that video is the Boss Fuzz FZ-5.

Using Fuzz

Fuzz effects are cool for songs where the guitar really has to be prominent. Are you going to running some riffs or playing some hot solos? The fuzz effect can help you stand out.

Aside from this, you can most certainly use fuzz effects in any song that you can use a distortion effect. You will only have a fuller and more prominent guitar play.

Listen to songs like “Foxy Lady” by Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and Smashing Pumpkins’ “Cherub Rock” to get a good feel of this effect at work.

Examples of Fuzz Effect Pedals

There are different types, brands, and models of fuzz effects pedals out there. While they all have the same fundamental design, they may differ in one way or another.

Let’s look at a few very popular fuzz pedals:

Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Big Muff

Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Fuzz Pedal

This pedal offers not just a big box (which it does) but also a big tone. Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Fuzz Pedal is a newer box that builds on the tones of the NYC Big Muff Pi, retaining the classic sounds and adding new features. This box can give you the fuzz sound you want with a few tweaks here and there.

Dunlop FFM6 Fuzz Face MiniFuzz Face MiniIf you have listened to several Jimi Hendrix’s songs, then you’ve likely heard this effect or at least one of its models. The Fuzz Face pedal owes its popularity to great guitarists like Jimi Hendrix. The older models were made with germanium transistors while the newer models are now being made with silicon transistors. With these newer ones, you can achieve more gain but less smoothness.

Fuzz Factory


This model is a special kind of crazy fuzz that you may find challenging to manage. It will, however, be an excellent possession for those who want that crazy fuzz effect.

Setting Your Fuzz

Of the three gain effects, the fuzz is the most difficult to manage. Even though its internal circuitry is pretty straight forward, managing all that energy can be a bit tricky. From the three examples of fuzz pedals that we looked at above, you can see that their controls are not as simple as those of overdrive and distortion pedals.

That said, you can still learn how to get the most out of your fuzz pedal as you try out different settings. The more you experiment, the better you will get at getting good results.

We will share a few tips that will help you get more from your fuzz pedal.

Tip 1

Here’s the first thing you need to know about your fuzz pedal especially if you are hoping to achieve that Jimi Hendrix sound. When Jimi Hendrix used his fuzz pedal, he always had his amp volume raised high. So before the signal even hit his amp, the amp was already rearing to go. To try to achieve this, increase your amp’s level to about eight and then play through your fuzz pedal.

If you wish to make an A/B comparison, then you can lower your amp’s volume by half, play again through your pedal and hear the difference.

Tip 2

If you wish to have that fuzz sound and sustain even when the volume of your guitar is pretty low, on your pedal, raise both the fuzz knob and the level knob to about level 7 or 8. Play and hear how it sounds.

Conclusion

Overdrive, distortion, and fuzz have contributed and continue to help a lot to the world of guitars and music. As you strive for more creativity and uniqueness in your sound, do not be afraid to experiment. Music is all about trying new stuff.

As you continue to play, trying new settings and setups for these guitar effect pedals and others you may also use, you will find yourself getting more adept at finding the sound that suits your music the most. You will also continue to get a better understanding of the differences between these effects and how to use these differences to your advantage.

Happy Jamming!