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They all do the same basic thing – add harmonics and clip the audio signal. However, the sounds that they produce, and the amounts of distortion can be quite different.
An overdrive guitar pedal produces enough gain to push your amp into its non-linear clipping (or distorting) level while also providing their own clipping, which is less than that of a typical distortion pedal. An overdrive pedal is used to simulate the sound of an “overdriven” guitar amp, when the tubes are being pushed beyond their limits.
In comparison to distortion, overdrive has a cleaner (but not clean) sound with usually less sustain that is more “bluesy.”▼ Article continues below ▼
An example of this sound would be Ibanez Tube Screamer that Stevie Ray Vaughan used. You can often hear how he uses when he launches into a guitar solo.
Overdrive guitar pedals typically produce a tone that accents or enhances the sound of the guitar amp without dominating it as a distortion of fuzz pedal can. For example, the Tube Screamer can add compression and midrange tone to the sound of the guitar without overtaking original sound of the amp.
Overdrive can be seen as an effect to create sound like a cranked amp with power tubes being overdriven – not a clean sound, but not too distorted, either.
Here’s an example of some well know Overdrive guitar pedals:
In comparison, a distortion pedal produces enough gain to push a guitar signal into a non-linear clipping zone. This enables it to produce a distorted sound at lower levels as it does not rely on the amp also being overdriven as part of the distortion sound. The sound of these pedals can be described as a crunchy, gritty sound with lots of sustain. It is the basic sound of most classic rock, heavy rock to metal.
Distortion guitar pedals often dominate the amps natural gain in order to produce a similar effect. For example, the Boss DS-1 tends to sound the same no matter what amp is being used.
A distortion pedal will create its own type of distortion, generally one that is not based on the sounds of an overdriven tube amp. The idea being that they distort the signal rather than trying to imitate the natural OD of the tubes themselves.
Here’s an example of some well know Distortion guitar pedals:
A fuzz pedal has large amounts of overdrive which is then clipped producing a near square wave. With a square wave comes the addition of almost infinite harmonics. This produces overtones and undertones maximizing the distortion being produced – hence the ‘fuzz.’
An example of the sound of a fuzz pedal would be the Maestro Fuzz-Tone used on “Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones.
Fuzz guitar pedals could be considered to be an extreme form of distortion. However, some fuzzes will work with amps in a manner similar to overdrives (Fuzz Faces into Marshalls like those used by Jimi Hendrix), while others absolutely dominate the sound of the guitar amp like a Big Muff (think J Mascis or Billy Corgan).
Fuzz pedals have an unmistakable sound they also can be used as an overdrive depending on if they’re being used as its own voice, or to drive or distort the amps further at lower, less aggressive settings.
Here’s an example of some well know Fuzz guitar pedals:
We hope this clears up a few things about the key differences between each type of pedal. Now go out there and enjoy!