14 Best Overdrive Pedals: The Ultimate List

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. 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 best overdrive pedals.

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What Is Overdrive?

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.

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 (see our favorite delay pedals) in my signal chain.

How Do I Choose an Overdrive Pedal?

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. Some of them can be quite extreme, but that can limit the "usable" section of the knob sweep. It can be frustrating for some and liberating for others to have a huge spectrum, while limitations can often breed quality.
    • 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 but do not overly color the sound of the guitar and the amp together. 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.

We didn't include stuff that falls into the unobtanium category, even if they almost certainly belong in the discussion. That means no Analogman King of Tone, 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 in search of those units, Reverb may have a few kicking around.

The Paul Cochrane Timmy is also not on this list for similar reasons. However, if you're interested in that very popular, yet rare unit, you might want to consider the MXR Timmy. The pedal giant collaborated with Cochrane himself to bring his design to a wider market at a reasonable price.

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