How to: Overdrive Pedal Settings (+ 4 Easy Strategies)

Overdrive pedals can be a blessing and a pain in the ass.

I’ll show you the basics and strategies to help you find the best overdrive pedal settings for you! – No matter if you already used overdrive pedals for years, if you just bought your first overdrive pedal, or if you’re just thinking of buying one.

I try to make the explanations as hands-on as possible, so you can follow up with your overdrive pedal while reading!

My explanations and strategies apply to every popular overdrive pedal, like the Ibanez Tube Screamer, the Boss BD-2, the Fulltone OCD V2, or the Boss SD-1.

Overdrive Pedal Settings Explained

On most overdrive effect pedals, you can find three knobs for adjusting the tone.

So how do the volume, drive, and tone knobs on an overdrive pedal affect your tone?

Volume / Level Overdrive Setting

The volume/level knob on your overdrive pedal affects the guitar signal’s output loudness. Turning up your overdrive pedal’s volume will make your guitar sound louder, but it doesn’t change the tone.

You may think: “Well, that’s quite obvious.”

But it becomes clear why this definition is essential when you put it in contrast to the gain/drive setting of your overdrive pedal.

Gain / Drive Overdrive Setting

The gain/drive knob on your overdrive pedal affects the guitar signal’s input loudness (into the preamp). Turning up the gain on your overdrive pedal will make your guitar sound more distorted.

You can use overdrive pedals in different ways to capitalize on the extra volume and gain they offer.

When using a tube amp, your pedal’s volume and gain will both impact your sound’s distortion.

But in general: Volume controls loudness, not tone. Gain controls tone (distortion), not loudness. (Source)

Best gain and volume settings on a Marshall amp for using an overdrive pedal.
(Pixabay/Pexels)

Treble / Tone / Bass Overdrive Setting

The tone knob on your overdrive pedal affects the level of high frequencies. Turning your tone down will make your sound darker. Turning your tone up will make your sound brighter.

You need these settings to fine-tune the sound of your overdrive pedal to your personal preference.

So take some time to familiarize yourself with the options available and see what overdrive pedal setting you like best!

Further down in this article, I will tell you exactly what overdrive pedal settings I recommend for specific set-ups.


Not sure whether to buy a distortion pedal or an overdrive pedal? You can read everything about the differences between overdrive and distortion pedals in this article on the Unholy Guitars blog!


Setting Your Overdrive Pedal to “Unity Gain”

Unity gain is the configuration in which the final volume is the same with your overdrive pedal turned off and on.

This means: When you play your guitar with the overdrive pedal turned off, it is precisely as loud as with the pedal turned on.

Unity gain is an essential concept for setting up overdrive pedals or any other type of gain pedal. (Source)

You start fine-tuning your overdrive pedal’s settings after setting it to unity gain.

But what are your pedals settings for unity gain?

Your overdrive pedal, the other pedals in your pedal chain, and the amp you use determine the exact setting for unity gain on your overdrive pedal.

Here are the simple steps you can use to set your pedal up for unity gain:

  • Your amp’s settings:
    1. Set your amp to a clean or distorted sound.
    2. Adjust the volume to the situation you want to use the pedal in (practice/rehearsal/concert).
    3. Adjust your amp’s EQ to your personal taste.
  • Your overdrive pedal’s settings:
    1. Turn the gain to your preferred level.
    2. Turn all other settings to the middle position (12’o’clock).
    3. Experiment with the volume knob to reach the point where your amp’s volume is the same with the overdrive pedal on and off.

The Best Overdrive Pedal Settings

Now that you know the fundamentals on overdrive pedal settings, you’re ready to learn the 4 magical strategies for setting your’s up.

You can use overdrive pedals in different situations. I recommend you to look at every strategy and decide which one to use in the end!

Boost: Overdrive Pedal Settings

You can set up your overdrive pedal to work as a boost. With this strategy, you want the volume to jump when the pedal gets turned on.

This can be useful if you want to have extra volume for a solo but don’t want your tone to change much.

Many blues guitarists use their overdrive pedals with similar settings.

Using your overdrive pedal as a boost works best with a clean tube amp.

Using your overdrive as a boost:

  1. Start from unity gain.
  2. Turn the gain on your overdrive pedal down.
  3. Turn the volume on your overdrive pedal up.
  4. Fine-tune the tone on your overdrive pedal as preferred. (more treble is usualy best)
A guitarist dialing in the settings on his overdrive pedal.
(Adi Goldstein/Unsplash)

Tweaking: Drive Overdrive Pedal Settings

You can also set up your overdrive pedal to tweak the amp’s distortion. With this strategy, you want the pedal to compliment the already distorted sound of your amp.

This can be useful if you like your amp’s distorted sound and want to fine-tune it or if you want to add even more distortion to your amp’s natural sound.

Your amp needs to already be distorted for this configuration.

You’ll probably want to turn up the tone knob on your overdrive pedal, to have more treble in your sound. (Source)

Using your overdrive pedal to tweak the amp’s distortion:

  1. Start from unity gain.
  2. Turn the gain on your overdrive pedal up if you want additional distortion.
  3. Fine-tune the tone of your overdrive pedal as preferred. (more treble is usually best)

Standalone: Drive Overdrive Pedal Settings

Another option is to set up your overdrive pedal to work as a standalone source of gain for your sound. With this strategy, you want the pedal to overdrive your clean amp.

Using your overdrive pedal as a standalone gain can be useful if you don’t like your amp’s natural distortion. Or if you want to test what your overdrive pedal can do by itself.

Your amp’s sound has to be clean for this configuration to work.

Using your overdrive pedal as a standalone source of gain:

  1. Start from unity gain.
  2. Set the gain to your preferred level
  3. Fine-tune the volume for unity gain
  4. Fine-tune the tone of your overdrive pedal as preferred

Set-and-Forget: Overdrive Pedal Settings

The set-and-forget strategy for setting up your overdrive pedal is useful if you don’t want to do any pedal management in the middle of your gig. With this strategy, you want to control your sound’s distortion and volume with the volume knobs on your guitar.

Many guitarists favor this approach in live situations because they can easily alter their tone just with their guitar’s volume control. 

This can be useful if you need to change between two different tones fast. This could be a rhythm- and a solo-sound.

For this strategy to work, you need a tube amp that’s at least on the edge of breakup.

Using your overdrive pedal with the set-and-forget strategy:

  1. Set the max volume on your amp with your guitar’s volume up.
  2. Set the guitar’s volume control to half.
  3. Set the overdrive pedal to more gain than usual, so the sound is still distorted with half guitar volume.
  4. Control the sound’s volume and gain with the volume control of your guitar.

Here’s a great video for you, if you’re thinking about stacking overdrives:

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Eddie Van Halen was a genius at using effect pedals, but his “Frankenstrat” was what made him famous! Read all about it in my other blog article!


Conclusion: Trial and Error

The strategies in this article may be overwhelming if you’re just starting out with your new overdrive pedal.

The one thing to remember is: All rules are meant to be broken.

Feel free to experiment with your overdrive effect pedal!

Methodical trial and error can help you in reaching the best overdrive settings for your situation.

Being methodical and mindful about your overdrive pedal settings can save you a lot of time and stress.

So follow the steps and strategies I described above or make up your own!

I hope you could learn something new in this article on overdrive pedal settings. Good luck with finding your perfect tone!