During the early days of rock music, which you may rightly recall as being called blues, amplifiers were frankly not very good. The initial designs were low powered, somewhat incapable affairs. They were basically a small speaker at the end of some wires. As electric guitars increased in popularity, players tried to get more and more out of these relatively cheap units, pushing them well beyond their abilities. Beginning in the mid-40s, blues players began playing in a such a way that these early amps were actually damaged permanently. What began as a flaw found favor on a few hits from the day, leading others to chase that particular sound of a raw, distorted, clipping amp. Intentional doctoring of amps became common as records were released from sessions with damaged or malfunctioning amps. Surf rock came along in the 60s and cemented the appeal of the distorted sound, forever ensuring its place in rock music.
So much of modern music casually relies on this “dirty” or “gritty” sound that was so novel then. Commercial soft rock and high-polished pop often features distortion almost as an afterthought. Those humble yet daring origins are an expected part of the musical landscape, and as such, there are hundreds of ways to achieve that particular effect. While heavy distortion and blown-out fuzz certainly have their place, the effect far more universally adored by players and listeners alike is called overdrive. That’s essentially what all those old amps were experiencing; being overdriven until breaking up into that lovely grittiness.
Naturally, as technology improved, that overdriven sound was accounted for in amp designs. Today’s amps are fully capable of enduring punishing overdrive without sustaining any damage at all. That’s the key difference between overdrive and distortion: when you use distortion, you’re merely amplifying a signal created by a pedal. When you use overdrive, you’re pushing some component of an amplifier to create that sound naturally.
Overdrive is typically a soft-clipping type of distortion that is a result of a sound wave exceeding the limit of a given output. This is achieved through many different means, but the basic idea is that an overdrive pedal is a gain stage (or many gain stages) that increases the signal to the amplifier. These days, the overdriving happens most commonly in the preamp section of an amplifier, not at the relatively delicate speaker cone. Amps that have multiple channels are essentially like having overdrives built in, with gain stages occurring at different points. And even then, you can throw an overdrive in front of it and increase the effect even more.
Modern overdrive pedals strive to find the perfect balance of breakup and clarity, while generally trying to avoid changing the tone or the voice of either your amp or your guitar. With a good overdrive pedal, you should hear your guitar, but louder, naturally broken up in a musical, even soulful way. It can be a very subtle or dramatic effect, leading to cutting, soaring tones and long, satisfying sustains. Many see the effect as the sound of your guitar, only better. I personally love it, and virtually never play without an overdrive and a delay (read our post on delay pedals here) in my signal chain. A good overdrive pedal can make a middling amp sound far better.
If you’re looking to tap into the very soul of rock music, consider improving your rig with a selection from our list of the top ten best overdrive pedals.
1. Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer
Let’s get this one out of the way first thing. Depending on your outlook, it may be either fortunate or unfortunate that it’s virtually impossible to have a discussion about overdrive that doesn’t touch on the Tube Screamer. It’s been copied hundreds of times, in both the TS9 chip configuration seen here and the original-design TS808 chip version. Digging around YouTube will quickly reveal many comparisons between the various versions, similar to what we discussed previously with the Big Muff. Technically, the only difference between the two was supposed to be output, but the TS9 came later and suffered from indiscretion when it came to selecting the amplifier chips, leading to even more disagreement amongst the devout.
All that aside, the Tube Screamer is a mid-boosting overdrive that produces a somewhat thin, relatively transparent tone that was popular for power blues players beginning in the late 70s. Many, many players have used it, and that almost certainly includes one of your favorite musicians. Of course, what’s available new these days is a reissue, and with its higher output and now made with quality controlled parts, the TS9 is likely the choice for modern players. It doesn’t have nearly as much gain on tap as most other overdrives, so you’ll want to go with this if you only need a little bump or tonal variation. You get knobs for Drive, Tone, and Level. A common application for this is to put the Drive to max and control the pedal almost entirely with Level.
Because it’s so enormously popular, emulations are common, including the ultra-cheap Joyo Vintage Overdrive. The overdrive I use is a discontinued BBE Green Screamer with very similar attributes that I got for less than $50. Ibanez also maintains various versions to keep up with the imitators, including the somewhat cheaper Mini and (for 808 lovers) the very costly hand-wired version. If you’re planning to spend that much on an 808, though, hold on for our next selection.
Need more options? Browse more Ibanez products here.
2. Earthquaker Devices Palisades
Yes, as I previously mentioned, I am an unabashed EQD fanboy. I’ve yet to be disappointed with any of their pedals and find that they often exceed what has traditionally been viewed as the best. This one is no exception. After long resisting calls to do so, EQD finally came out with their take on the vintage TS808. Uninspired by the original, though, they went above and beyond to make the old workhorse into something new. For quite a bit less than the hand-wired Ibanez version, you get this (still hand-wired) incredibly versatile unit.
For knobs, you get Boost, Volume, and Tone, as well as Gain A and Gain B. You also get a Voice knob that lets you choose from six different clipping voices, as well as a Bandwidth knob that sets the range of tone and gain available to those respective knobs. The settings for the Voice knob are as follows: 1. No diodes: Least distortion, most open. 2. LED clipping: A small amount of breakup with lots of volume. 3. Mosfet clipping: Sparkly overdrive good for harmonics. 4. Asymmetrical Silicon clipping: Closest to the original 808 sound. 5. Symmetrical silicon clipping: Tight and distorted. 6. Schottky Diode clipping: More akin to fuzz.
This is huge for experimentation, but also for dialing in the right sound for your exact setup. The Boost footswitch is, of course, set by the Boost knob and gives you additional volume when you need it. You select between the two Gains using the Gain B switch, and the Activate switch is a true-bypass on-off. Gain A is lower in gain an better for chords, while Gain B is heavier and excellent for shredding. If all that weren’t enough, you also get a Bright/Normal switch and a Buffer switch that can tighten up tone. Sure, it’s a bit of a pedalboard hog, but it’s also among the most supremely flexible overdrives on the market. If the scope of this thing overwhelms you, don’t worry: EQD saw fit to release a condensed version and call it Dunes.
Need more options? Browse more Earthquaker Devices products here.
Price: $240.26 (4 percent off MSRP)
3. Fulltone OCD Obsessive Compulsive Drive
I like to think of the OCD as a dark horse candidate as the replacement in many conversations for the Tube Screamer. Tonally, they’re not that similar, but their relative popularities mean that the OCD appears almost as often. The reason for this is that the OCD was designed for people who don’t like pedals, preferring instead to save their pennies and get a really great amplifier. When you have one of those really great amplifiers, you get all the benefits of touch, harmonics, and responsiveness. Typically, this means a tube amp, often from a bygone era, but not always.
This pedal is meant to restore that full-range sound and feel you get with very high quality amps. Accentuating what’s already great about your guitar, the pedal delivers more gain and tonal range than the average overdrive. You get knobs for Volume, Drive, and Tone, as well as a switch for High Peak (brighter, British tones) and Low Peak (subtler, transparent boosts). While the Palisades allows you to change every minute detail of the tone, the OCD is meant to be everything to everyone with far more simplistic controls. If you’re not sure what overdrive to get, but you can spare the money, this is almost certainly the one to go for.
Need more options? Browse more Fulltone products here.
4. Fulltone Fulldrive2 MOSFET
If you’re a fan of the big footprint and maximum flexibility, we’ll stick with Fulltone for our next pick. For the same price as the OCD, you can get this highly flexible pedal that has even more gain on tap. While still incorporating the wide range and sensitivity of the OCD, this one gives you a larger palette of options to choose from, even if you have to sacrifice a little board space to get it. If you find that the overdrive you’re using now is too dark, this will surely be a good solution for that.
For knobs, you get Volume, Tone, Overdrive, and Boost. The unique feature of this pedal is that the Tone knob doesn’t boost or cut highs or lows, but functions more like a presence would on an amplifier, increasing the mid-highs and improving sparkle. The first switch has three settings: CompCut, which removes all clipping for a clean first-stage boost; FM, which stands for Flat Mids and gives you a clear overdrive; and Vintage, which gives you more overall drive and fuller midrange. The second stage is a boost stage, controlled with the Boost knob and switchable between standard boost and Mosfet. Mosfet mode uses the transistor it’s named for to produce more low-end.
This is meant to be used as a two-stage overdrive in a cascading and layered effect. This pedal is more akin to the Palisades, giving you lots of options to build a unique overdrive tone. You can also get the Fulldrive3, which uses a JFET chip in place of the Mosfet.
Need more options? Browse more Fulltone products here.
Here's our list of the top 15 best chorus, flanger, and phaser pedals to add intrigue to your guitar tone.Click here to read more
5. JHS Pedals Morning Glory
In building a high-quality overdrive, people seek to create a circuit that adds dirt without sacrificing anything else about the tone. That usually means a modest reduction in drive capabilities, but for some, that trade-off is worth it. It’s in that spirit that the Morning Glory was born. It was built to enhance and promote a guitar’s voice without noticeable changes in dynamics or EQ curve.
Controls on the Morning Glory include Volume, Tone, Drive, and a switch for Gain. On the side, you also have a Hi-Cut switch, which is useful for chiming amps or at higher drive settings. You can attach a separate foot switch into the Remote Gain port to have the boost activated while playing. Essentially, this pedal is meant to specifically enhance the sound of a guitar you love, and all the controls are meant to be used to that end. This is more of a set-it-and-forget-it pedal. Unlike some of the others on this list that can provide a wealth of options, consider this your quiet ally, providing the holy grail of tone enhancement: transparent gain.
Need more options? Browse more JHS Pedals products here.
6. J Rockett Audio Designs IKON Archer
Speaking of transparency, let me tell you a story. Between the years of 1990 and 1994, a man named Bill Finnegan tinkered with circuitry until finally he stumbled upon what would become one of the most vaunted guitar pedals ever created: the Klon Centaur. He produced about 8,000 units between 1994 and 2000, and the collecting frenzy that sometimes surrounds certain products got a hold of his creation. If you can find one, these original units sell for around $1,500 are nearly universally praised for their uncanny ability to discretely boost guitars without coloring them in any way. Finnegan later released a reissue of it under the name KTR and showed his disdain for the cult obsession by inscribing them with the following passage: “Kindly remember: the ridiculous hype that offends so many is not of my making.” Naturally, as with the Tube Screamer, something so cherished will have many, many imitators.
Perhaps the best among them is this J Rockett design, which shrinks the original footprint considerably while allegedly containing a part-for-part remake of the original Centaur. The key to this pedal is the internal charge pump that increases the input voltage of 9v to 18v, creating unsurpassed headroom that allows it to be stacked with other pedals. This is essentially a glorified clean boost that pushes amps into just breaking up and lends the much sought-after, subtle drive tone purists look for. This pedal isn’t great for distortion-like power, but it is excellent for giving your tone that certain something — and for a lot less than a used Centaur. If what you want in your overdrive can’t be described, look here.
Need more options? Browse more J Rockett Audio Designs products here.
7. Wampler Tumnus
If the large footprint pedals on this list have got you down, but you still lust after the ethereal quality of the Centaur, you’re in luck. Wampler have taken it upon themselves to some how cram everything magical and transcendent about a Klon recreation into a pedalboard-friendly package. This is a pretty ideal situation, too, since pedals like the Centaur are meant to be turned on and stay on, quietly doing their part without a lot of fuss.
As its famous predecessor, this comes with three knobs, one each for Gain, Treble, and Level. If you understand what the Centaur is about, you understand the Tumnus. The major advantage here (besides price) is the smaller footprint. The J Rockett seems to have a bit more gain on tap, but if all you need is that shining finishing touch, this is an excellent option. Turn it on and let it get immediately out of the way.
Need more options? Browse more Wampler products here.
8. Boss SD-1 Super Overdrive
If the rarified air of Klon worship is giving you a nosebleed, let’s come back down to something more egalitarian. Of course that means a Boss pedal. The old reliable pedal of the working man, this is a no-nonsense overdrive meant to provide industry-standard gain with a healthy dose of midrange.
Controls on this unit are Level, Tone, and Drive, giving you simple, direct access to the necessary tones. The sweet spot on this is about 3/4 drive, where you’re well into breakup territory, but not maxed out. Your pickups will benefit from the boost, but you’re not in danger of coloring anything too much. Of course, the best part of this one is the price. If you overspent on your amp, you can still drive it with what little cash you have left in the bank. Add some grit for short money.
Need more options? Browse more Boss products here.
9. Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret
If your amp is perhaps not the best, but can generate decent power with a flat EQ, you need a pedal like the Dirty Little Secret. The magic of this pedal is that there are two circuits within: one meant to emulate an early Marshall Plexi (aka Super Bass) and one meant to emulate a 70s Marshall Super Lead. As the maker says, this is a foundation pedal. It’s basically like adding a gain stage or a preamp to your amplifier, distinctly designed to sound like these iconic amps. In the case of this overdrive, there will be some coloring, but that color will be in the shade of some of the greatest tones of all time.
Controls include Treble, Middle, and Bass, and depending on which amp you’re using, you’ll need to tune them in concert with one another. The Middle is especially important, since those British stacks were all about powerful midrange. As a result, you can use the Middle knob to help control the gain. In addition to these three, there is also a Master (volume), and a Pre-amp that controls the overall amount of gain. This will vary quite a lot between the two modes, so spend a lot of time with this to get it dialed in. You can also run this pedal in 18v mode to emulate a 100 watt Marshall and bump up the headroom considerably. Once you have it perfect, leave it on all the time and stick additional drive ahead of it to wring the most out of this setup. This is not a subtle boost box; this is complete overdriven amp emulation.
Need more options? Browse more Catalinbread products here.
10. Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive
Our last pick uses a somewhat novel approach to transparently boosting your guitar without coloring it. Using a similar circuit to an 808 Tube Screamer, the Sparkle Drive gives you that midrange-y grit. But by including a Clean knob, you can also directly control the amount of dry guitar signal reaching the amp, producing a nice combination of grit and straight ahead tone.
The other controls are Gain, Tone, and Volume, as with any other drive pedal. When you mix in the Clean, you get the unvarnished sound of your guitar, merely boosted to match the level of the drive side. It’s effectively like having two amps, as with the Catalinbread, except that these are running simultaneously and can be carefully mixed together. The gain on this one is somewhat limited, as with the Tube Screamer, but if all you need is a little breakup, this is a good choice.
Need more options? Browse more Voodoo Lab products here.
Other Overdrive Options
If all of these options have seemed a bit on the safe side, please allow me to suggest one of my favorite effects of all time. The Electro-Faustus EF103 Guitar Disruptor ($90) is an overdrive pedal of sorts. It’s also an octave and oscillation machine that will make your guitar sound like a dying 8-bit video game cabinet. It’s not really an overdrive in the purest sense, but it will add grit, along with some random chaos.
On the other hand, if everything we’ve listed is simply too complicated, get down to brass tacks with the Earthquaker Devices Speaker Cranker ($105). It looks like a booster, but it isn’t. It has one knob: More. That’s pretty much all you need to know, except that you can add More to other pedals in addition to amplifiers.
If nothing on this list will work for you, you can browse all guitar effect pedals here to search out your new favorite. If it’s price you’re worried about, check out our list of the top 15 best cheap guitar effect pedals.