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.
Before we get into our list, just a few notes. We’re not covering stuff that falls into the unobtanium category, even if they almost certainly belong in the discussion. That means no Analogman King of Tone, no Paul Cochrane Timmy, no Hermida/Lovepedal Zendrive, and although we talk about it, no Klon Centaur, either. It’s not a knock against them in any way, but we want you to have these pedals sooner than later and preferably not have to sell a kidney to get them.
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 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. I used to use a 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.
2. EarthQuaker Devices Palisades
EQD pedals 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.
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.
Another very strong contender from the Fulltone stable is the Plimsoul. It’s not seen nearly as often and is a touch more expensive, but if the OCD doesn’t cut it, have a look at that marvelous beast.
4. Truetone V3RT66 Route 66 V3 Series Overdrive/Compression Pedal
Way back before they became huge, I saw Phantogram in a tiny venue on the seacoast of New Hampshire. When I approached guitarist Josh Carter after the show, I noticed he was using the older version of this pedal, the Visual Sound Route 66 V1. It was perfect for the gritty pop they were making at the time, providing just enough texture for his lines.
This is actually a combination overdrive compression. The two sides are swappable using a patch cable, which means you can loop them in any order if you’re using a switching system. Each side can be set to true bypass or buffered independently of one another with internal switches. With help from top-mounted jacks, this takes up less space than two individual pedals would. The V3’s drive side is courtesy of the Reverend Drivetrain, in case you wanted to get your hands on one of those and never could.
Controls on this include Drive, Treble, Bass, Volume, and Clean Mix for the Drive side. There’s an A-B switch for choosing two voices of drive; from the OCD-esque open and uncompressed to a TS-style saturated sound. On the Comp side, you get Compression, Tone, Volume, and Clean Mix. Switches allow you to bypass the Tone knob and activate a Gate. The key to this is really the Clean Blend knobs. You’ll see that again on the Klon-type pedals and the Voodoo Lab options later on this list, in part because drive with limited coloration is what makes an overdrive great.
A fine toolbox of options that’s benefitted over the years from industry collaboration. As a nice kicker, the limited warranty is transferrable in case you decide to go the secondhand route.
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.
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.
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 somehow 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.
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.
In a similar vein, the BD-2 Blues Driver is about double the price, largely because it’s more popular. The gain range on the BD-2 is a bit higher, so this edges closer to distortion in many players’ minds. It’s a classic, and you’d do well to have a listen to both before making your final decision.
9. Fairfield Circuitry The Barbershop Millennium Overdrive
Fairfield Circuitry makes some interesting variations on pedal industry staples, all packaged in unassuming steel boxes. The Barbershop certainly fits that description, combining an interesting control set that sets it apart from more traditional offerings.
The Volume and Control knobs work as you might expect, both with a wide operating range and room for plenty of boost. The Tone switch at the top is a high-cut. Middle is no cut, right is a subtle high-end rolloff, and left is a sharp high cut for darker tones. Sag controls the voltage through the pedal so you can achieve the vaunted “brown sound”. Fully clockwise is full voltage, and as you decrease it, you reduce the power. In a world of overdrives with internal voltage doublers, this takes the opposite approach where the control is in your hands. As a lovely final detail, the JFET transistors are handmade to perfectly match spec.
10. Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive
Using a similar circuit to an 808 Tube Screamer, the Sparkle Drive gives you that midrange-y grit everyone seems to like. Again, 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. 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. Compare and contrast this with the Klon types and the Route 66. You could save a little money with this option.
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 and price is a factor, check out our list of the best cheap guitar effect pedals.
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