The Complete Guitarist’s Guide: Overdrive vs. Distortion

Are you unsure whether you need an overdrive pedal or a distortion pedal?

Are you intrigued by the mysterious differences between overdrive pedals and distortion pedals?

No need to look further.

I’ll tell you the things overdrive and distortion pedals have in common, what their differences are, and what to buy when!

Common features: Overdrive and Distortion Pedals

Let’s start simple:

Overdrive and distortion are like brothers from different mothers.

They have a lot in common and share a similar history.

So let’s first cover their similarities before we look at how you can tell them apart!

They’re both Small Amplifier Circuits

Overdrive and distortion pedals, in theory, both are miniature amplifier circuits.

They are used to simulate the sound of an overdriven tube amp.

When the incoming signal is too high for the tubes to handle, they clip the top of the waveform.

This clipping creates the iconic tone guitarists are trying to reproduce with overdrive and distortion pedals.

They’re Different Types of Gain

Overdrive and distortion pedals are different types of gain.

Gain is the signal strength of the preamp stage in a tube amplifier.

With the preamp output (gain) set to a higher level, you can overdrive the tubes so that the tone becomes distorted and clipped.

The gain control on your amp primarily affects the tone and not the volume of your amp. 

Overdrive and distortion pedals alike raise the gain of your sound. 

Distortion Without Pissing Your Bandmates off

With more gain, you can create distorted sounds even at lower volumes.

So you know that overdrive and distortion pedals are different types of gain.

You may be thinking:

Why do I need more gain?

With an overdrive or distortion pedal, you don’t need to risk pissing off the rest of your band to get that heavy and dirty sound. 


Did you know that the sound of Eddie Van Halen’s “Frankenstrat” used to piss off his bandmates? Read more about the mods that made his band love the Frankenstrat’s sound!


More Sustain!

Overdrive and distortion pedals alike give your guitar sound more sustain.

More gain also equals more sustain. And who doesn’t love sustain?

Sustain is just another reason to buy an overdrive or distortion pedal!

Are you looking for other (free) ways to increase the sustain of your guitar sound? Maybe this can help you!

The Differences: Overdrive vs. Distortion Pedals

Disclaimer:

The boundaries between overdrive and distortion pedals slowly fade. Many manufacturers sell pedals with the name “distortion” and “overdrive,” although they don’t match the traditional definitions anymore.

So take a double look at the description of any pedal you want to buy to know for sure if it’s an overdrive pedal or a distortion pedal!

The Amount of Added Volume

A fundamental difference between overdrive and distortion guitar effects pedals is the amount of volume they add.

An overdrive effect usually adds more volume to the signal than a distortion effect.

Still, the rule that applies is: If you want more volume with less distortion, go for an overdrive pedal. If you want more distortion with less volume, go for a distortion pedal.

Soft and Hard Clipping

The most significant difference between overdrive and distortion pedals is the clipping they apply to the sound. 

Overdrive effects apply soft clipping to the sound. Soft clipping is considered the most natural and amp-like form of clipping. This soft clipping creates the warm, only slightly distorted sound that is famous in modern blues.

Distortion effects apply hard clipping to the sound. Hard clipping creates more square waved and saturated sounds. An excellent example of this is the heavily distorted, mechanical sound famous in modern metal genres.

If you want to read up on audio clipping, this is an excellent place to start!

How They Interact with Amps

An overdrive pedal interacts with and relies on the amp’s sound. In contrast, a distortion pedal has a more intense influence on your sound. 

An overdrive pedal gets the best result in combination with a tube amp. When you aim for high-gain sounds, you need a tube amp’s saturation for the iconic warm tone.

With solid-state amps, the overdrive effect may sound disappointingly flat.

If you don’t have a tube amp but want to get a saturated, fat, and distorted sound, nonetheless, then a distortion pedal will probably be the best choice.

In some music genres like death metal, the gain of a distortion pedal is preferred over natural amp gain anyway.

Distortion pedals are also a perfect fit with clean amps since they provide higher gain.

Less Gain, More Gain

I already implied it in the last passage: Distortion pedals provide you with more gain than overdrive pedals.

At least that’s the traditional difference between these two effects. Many modern pedals cross the thin line between these definitions.

This difference in provided gain is why I recommend overdrive pedals for playing through tube amps and distortion pedals for playing with solid-state amps.

However: All rules are meant to be broken. 😉

Overdrive Has a More Dynamic Sound

Generally speaking, you have a more dynamic sound with an overdrive than with a distortion pedal.

As you know, an overdrive pedal’s effect is more subtle and interacts strongly with the amp’s sound. When playing through an overdrive, the volume knob on your guitar and the attack you put on the strings can create significant differences in tone.

When using a distortion pedal, these subtle dynamics often disappear. 

That’s perfect for playing hard, fast, and evil death metal riffs! But if you want to play laid back blues rock, you should go for an overdrive pedal.

Overdrive and Distortion in Different Genres

I’ll provide a quick overview on which genre (typically) uses which gain pedal combinations:

  • Blues: Overdrive
  • Grunge: Distortion
  • Modern metal: Distortion + Noise gate
  • Folk/Country: Overdrive as boost (gain down)

No matter which genre you favor: Power chords can drastically improve your guitar playing! Read more about them here.


How to Stack Pedals: Overdrive and Distortion Order

Can you stack overdrive and distortion pedals? If so, which one should go first?

Do you have two or even three overdrive or distortion pedals and can’t decide which one to use?

No problem:

You can stack up to two or three overdrive pedals in a chain. It may take some experimenting to get the sound you want, but it’ll be worth it! 

The same goes for an overdrive pedal with a distortion pedal. 

Two distortion pedals are usually too much distortion (even for death metal).

When you want to stack two or more gain pedals, be sure to put the lower-gain pedal first. For example, the signal should go through the overdrive first and then through the distortion pedal.

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Conclusion: Buy Overdrive or Distortion?

The short answer? – Buy whatever your heart desires!

The long answer?

You should consider buying a gain pedal, if you…

  • … want to recreate that sweet distorted tube amp tone.
  • … want to raise the gain of your guitar tone.
  • … want to create distorted sounds even at lower volumes.
  • … want to have more sustain.

Ok, you’ve decided that you want a new gain pedal.

But which pedal fit’s your needs best?

In the graphic below I summarized the characteristics of each:

An overview of overdrive vs. distortion pedals specs and differences.

I hope you learned a lot about overdrive and distortion pedals in this comparision!

What’s more useful in your opinion: An overdrive pedal or a distortion pedal?

If there’s anything you’d like covered, be sure to let me know! You can contact me via social media, in the comments of this article, or via mail!