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 overdrive 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.
While you’re shopping, consider these four questions when picking out your new overdrive pedal:
- How much gain do you want? — Overdrive pedals are soft-clipping by their nature, so this refers to the volume increase available within each pedal.
- What kind of tone are you looking for? — Darker pedals have less high-end content, and brighter pedals have more. Scooped EQs remove the midrange, while added bass or lower mids make things sound thicker.
- Transparent drives or drives that color? — A lot of players are looking for so-called transparent drives that simply add grit at the touch of a button. Others specifically want a different sound so they can use pedals as tonal paintbrushes.
- How much EQ control do you want? — In some cases, you’ll just get a single tone knob, while in others, you’ll have a three-band EQ. The pedal you choose should have the degree of flexibility and control you want.
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. 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.
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. Alternatively, you could dip into the world of Tube Screamer clones for more options.
2. Caroline Guitar Company Haymaker Dynamic Drive
Caroline has been making quite a name for itself of late, appearing on an increasing number of pedalboards. They strike an interesting balance between the new-wave, boutique pedal makers coming up with interesting noises and delivering on time-honored sounds. In creating the Haymaker, they explicitly tried not to copy the well-known counterparts mentioned elsewhere in this article, but instead created something wide-ranging with excellent versatility.
This pedal’s story begins within the Kilobyte Lo Fi Delay Caroline makes, after repeated requests to make a standalone unit. They’ve done that, but also given you access to far more. Controls include Volume, Punch, Highs, and Shape. Punch sets the gain level, Shape the frequency response, and Highs attenuates the treble.
The three-mode A/B/C switch controls the asymmetrical clipping network Mode A is a soft-clipped, traditional overdrive. Mode B removes the clipping diodes so you’re driving the chip itself. Mode C is hard-clipped, moving into distortion or fuzz territory, depending on the other settings. There’s a secret wet/dry trimpot on the inside of the pedal that allows you to emulate the Kilobyte sound that inspired the pedal to begin with.
Even Caroline has this to say about their creation, from their blog: “Long story short – if you’re not sure which Caroline drive pedal to get, you should probably get this one, because instead of trying to make an overdrive pedal, we’ve decided to make all the overdrive pedals we would make.”
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.
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). The OCD is meant to be everything to everyone with relatively 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 sought-after 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.
For a less compressed and cooler tone, there is also the silver Archer.
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.
There’s also the Tumnus Deluxe if you love the sound but want more control over the EQ.
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.
11. Greer Lightspeed Organic Overdrive
Greer makes a few drives worth your consideration, including the Tomahawk Deluxe Drive, The Southland Harmonic Overdrive, and the Elliot Little Samson. All of these hang around the medium to crunchy area of things. The Lightspeed, however, is the very natural, very mild drive from Greer, meant to do the “transparent” thing a little differently than pedals that have come before it.
It’s also Danish Pete Honoré’s favorite drive, if that means anything to you. To that end, you might strongly consider this one if you’re looking for the best overdrive pedal for blues, for example.
This is a three-knob unit featuring Loudness, Drive, and Freq controls. The Freq is basically a tone, rolling in some upper mids when you want them. The clipping is smooth, as you would expect from something meant to just bestow the lightest amount of drive to your signal. It’s basically a dirty booster, but part of the newer generation of them, with its own distinct vibe. Use this as your first gain stage for a rich tone that responds well to pick attack.
12. EarthQuaker Devices Westwood Translucent Overdrive Manipulator
Continuing with the trend of transparency (whatever that actually means), the new option from EarthQuaker is the Westwood, a light-to-medium drive in the tradition of several of the others on this list. What sets it apart, though, is a relatively unique control set.
Those controls include Level, Drive, Bass, and Treble. As stated, the Drive knob ranges from very light for a just little bit extra to medium breakup. The Level knob has a lot of output available to it, which is something EQD pedals tend to excel at. If you want to drive your amp hard, grab yourself an EQD drive; the Level range on this should easily exceed other options on this list. The Bass and Treble controls are active, which means you cut below noon and boost above. The Bass affects frequencies around 80Hz, while the Treble around 2kHz. Otherwise, it’s true bypass with silent, relay-based switching.
On the other hand, if you’d rather have fewer knobs, EQD will let you get down to brass tacks with the 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. Either option is perfect for gain stacking into higher-gain drives later in your chain.
13. Emerson Custom Paramount Overdrive Pedal
Speaking of later in your chain, this pedal would be just the sort of thing you’d want to use as your second stage. This is specifically designed to be that medium gain drive, hit by a booster or one of the lighter drives above, possessing a custom circuit that really doesn’t derive from any one tradition.
Controls are as you’d expect: Volume, Gain, and Tone. Like the Lightspeed, it’s very sensitive to picking dynamics, so you might consider pairing the two of them. While the Klon-type drives have an internal voltage rail, this pedal can be run at 18 volts to optionally achieve that higher headroom. Otherwise, it’s all the things you’d expect in a modern pedal: Switchcraft jacks, relay-based true bypass switch, and assembled by hand in the U.S.
It’s a dead heat between this and its stablemate the EM-Drive ($159.99) for what I see on pedalboards most often. The EM-Drive is the light-drive, Lightspeed/Westwood competitor and lacks a tone control.
14. Bondi Effects Sick As
Speaking of pedals that are becoming mighty ubiquitous, this unit has been popping up everywhere of late. As the footprint might suggest, the basic circuit and feel is that of a Klon, but Bondi have updated it considerably, making it even more usable.
Controls include Level, Gain, Bass, and Treble. Like the Westwood, the tone controls are active and let you cut or boost each by 15dB. As the gain is increased, so is the ratio of driven tone to clean tone, which works not unlike the Saturate knob on my favorite distortion, the Malekko Sloika. There’s a toggle switch that allows you to choose your gain character between a compressed sound with a midrange push (think Tube Screamer) or a transparent tone (the Klon). It has the internal 9v to 18v power rail for that special clean headroom feel.
It’s a very good pedal worth considering. They’ve recently come out with the Breakers Overdrive, which started life as an update to their now-retired Del Mar and sports many of the same features as the Sick As. It’s a little more pedalboard friendly, too, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Price: $229 to $370, depending on retailers
15. TC Electronic MojoMojo Overdrive Pedal
We end this list on something slightly more egalitarian than handmade, organic, custom drive manipulators. Price exactly the same as the Boss above, this option from TC Electronic will get you into a quality overdrive for less than 1/3 the price of a few of the others on this list. And hey, Paul Gilbert uses it every night, so they must have done something right with it.
The MojoMojo takes after the Dark Matter we included on our distortion pedals list in layout and controls. You’ve got Drive, Level, Bass, and Treble. The tone knobs are active, like the pricier Westwood and Sick As, and it does the whole internal voltage increase thing for more headroom, but rather than to just 18v, TC call it “3-4 times the amount of typical drive pedals”. The result is that this isn’t very compressed at all The toggle switch gives you the option of the full, natural signal, or a bass roll-off.
Sure, you don’t get the warm-fuzzies from domestic production by hand, but if you only have a single Ulysses S. Grant to spare, you could do a lot worse than this option.