An overdrive pedal is an essential tool for most guitarists, adding dirt and warmth to a clean amplifier or for pushing an already overdriven amplifier “over the edge”. Here’s our pick of the Top 5 overdrive pedals!
Why you need an Overdrive Pedal
Firstly, let’s define what we mean by an overdrive pedal: it’s technically true that any effect that distorts the input signal and adds distortion is, by default, a form of distortion pedal. However, the umbrella of distortion effects includes many variants! Importantly, you’ll find that fuzz, distortion and overdrive all have their own distinct sonic character.
Unlike fuzz and distortion pedals, an overdrive pedal offers a different sound and feel. For the most part, an overdrive pedal typically offers a warmer, more touch-sensitive feel with gentle “tube-like” distortion.
Furthermore, guitarists soon found the magic in plugging in an overdrive pedal to an already overdriven amplifier. Your sound gets thicker, tighter and more aggressive at the same time. Consequently, a lot of guitarists use an overdrive pedal in addition to a high gain amplifier as a “tightener” for aggressive riffs.
Our Favourite Overdrive Pedals
I asked around the Gearnews office, and amongst my friends, to canvas opinions. I was intrigued to hear many of the same pedals pop up on pedalboards time and again! It seems that many of the designs, now comfortably four-decades-old, are still hugely popular today.
So, without further ado, let’s get down to it and take a look at our pick of the Top 5 essential overdrive pedals.
Ibanez Tube Screamer
You simply can’t have a list of classic overdrive pedals, without featuring the Ibanez Tube Screamer. Reading a list of famous users, is like a who’s who of rock guitar. Guitarists as diverse as The Edge, Steve Vai, Joan Jett, Kirk Hammet and Steve Ray Vaughan (amongst many, many others) have all used the Tube Screamer.
So why is it such a legendary pedal? Well, the Tube Screamer was possibly the first “soft clipping” distortion pedal (although BOSS claims their OD-1 was the first to offer asymmetric soft clipping!). For this reason, it offered a sound much more like the soft breakup of a valve amplifier. Its pronounced mid-range was also great at making solos cut through a mix. Many metal guitarists also found it perfect for tightening up the sound of their cranked Marshalls too. In conclusion, then, it was the *quintessential* overdrive pedal and has remained a reference point to this day.
There’s a whole mythology surrounding the various iterations of the Tube Screamer and the OEM branded “Maxon” variants. Prices of vintage units and rare iterations of the Tube Screamer can also be eye-watering. Thankfully you can still buy multiple versions of the Tube Screamer from Ibanez. There are also numerous clones such as the JHS Bonsai and the Harley Benton Vintage Overdrive.
Boss SD-1 Super Overdrive
I’ll declare my own personal bias straight away; the Boss SD-1 is my own overdrive pedal of choice. It should be noted that I’m not alone, however! It’s a popular one in the Gearnews office and amongst celebrity users such as John 5, Zakk Wylde, Richie Sambora, Warren DeMartini and even Edward Van Halen!
You’ll notice that the SD-1 enjoys popularity amongst hard rock and metal players, and that’s for good reason! The SD-1 doesn’t have the pronounced mid-range “hump” of the Tube Screamer. Furthermore, it has a tighter low-end roll-off compared to the famous green pedal. This all adds up to a pedal which is fantastic for giving an already gnarly guitar sound aggressive teeth and attitude. It’s also perfectly capable of being used as a straight-up bluesy overdrive too!
The good news is that the SD-1, like most Boss pedals, is highly affordable and can be picked up almost anywhere! Our choice would be the recent Waza Craft version of the SD-1W which offers a new, switchable, “custom” voicing.
Boss BD-2 Blues Driver
Yes, it’s another Boss pedal, but it’s an important one for a number of reasons! In 1995, Boss released the BD-2 Blues Driver to capture the emerging blues revival spawned by artists such as Jeff Healey, Eric Clapton and so on. However, the humble blues driver quickly took on a life all of its own…
The circuit topology of the Blues Driver differs from the soft-clipping, op-amp based Tube Screamer type circuit. Cascading, discrete transistor gain stages are used which give the pedal a much more “amp-like” tonality and feel. It was also partly partially responsible for kick-starting the boutique pedal industry; both Keeley electronics and JHS pedals started off with modded versions of the BD-2.
Its super-affordable price point hasn’t deterred big-name users either: Robert Smith of The Cure, Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day and Prince have all used the Blues Driver. If you feel inspired to pick up a Blues Driver you can choose between the affordable original or the still reasonably priced Waza Craft version.
The Klon Centaur is a pedal with mythology, history and a cult following unique amongst effects pedals. Designed and built by Bill Finnegan between 1994 and 2009, only 8000 Klon Centaurs were ever made. A unique circuit employing a clipping op-amp and germanium diodes, original centaurs are now highly valued.
Guitarists such as Joe Bonamassa, Jeff Beck, and Nick Valensi of The Strokes all swear by the Klon Centaur. It’s famed for its transparency and touch sensitivity. Like any good overdrive pedal, it can work as a superb clean boost or add dirt to your signal.
As prices of used Klon Centaurs have gone rather berserk in recent times, a number of Klon, errrr, Clones, have popped up. The Electro Harmonic Soul Food is one of the most affordable, while Finnegan himself offers an authentic reissue with the Klon KTR Centaur Overdrive.
Wait, I thought this was a blog on overdrive pedals, not distortion pedals! Bear with me! The MXR Distortion + is a stone-cold classic, and despite its name, should really be considered to be an overdrive on steroids. This legendary little yellow pedal amplifies your signal with an op-amp and drives it into germanium diodes for an aggressive, hard-clipping tone.
But, here’s the thing, the MXR Distortion + is legendary for its ability to send a pushed amplifier into full-on heavy-metal meltdown! PJ Harvey, Dave Murray of Iron Maiden, Zakk Wylde, and perhaps most famously, Randy Rhoades have all used this little tone wonder. If you like your overdrive gainy, aggressive and bedecked in leather and studs, then look no further than the MXR Distortion+.
Which Pedal is For You?
So there you have it, five different flavours of overdrive pedal from the everyday to the exotic. Which one’s right for you? Do you want a pedal that excels as a clean boost? Do you want something to add grit and teeth to your tone? The right pedal for you will depend upon your own personal playing preference and the tone you’re seeking.
Do you have a favourite overdrive pedal we haven’t featured here? Feel there’s something we missed out? Drop us a line in the comments below!
- Ibanez TS-9 Overdrive Pedal: Ibanez
- A classic overdrive for blues guitarists: Boss BD-2: Boss
- The Klon Centaur, perhaps the most sought-after OD pedal ever.: ArtBrom/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)
- MXR's Distortion+: Despite the name, this has some great OD tones: MXR