Overdrive pedals are one of the most basic and important pieces of gear in any guitar player’s equipment locker.
In fact, some folks have separate lockers just to hold their ever-expanding collection of these little boxes of Heaven because none can be sold. Not now. Never. You know how it is.
Overdrive pedals are designed to replicate the sound of an overdriven tube amplifier. They usually provide much less gain than many people realize, especially the legendary Ibanez Tube Screamer. If you’ve ever cranked a tweed-style amp all the way up, you know the sound most of these pedals are going for.
High gain comes from distortion pedals, which are entirely different animals that we are not discussing here. We are here to talk about the best overdrive pedals for electric guitar.
In the early days of electric guitar playing, blues players were often using smaller amps turned up all the way in an effort to cut through the sound of the band and the noise of the crowd they were playing for. It didn’t matter if the amp distorted as long as they were heard. Check this article to know how the amp produce gain.
Over time, fans and players alike grew fond of these edgy, snarling tones and they became an accepted part of the sound of electric guitars. Problem was, you had to turn your amp all the way up LOUD to get those sweet tones. Overdrive pedals were developed to go between the guitar and amp to let players get those driving sounds at any speaker volume they like. They can also push an already overdriven amp deeper into the Red Zone and make it nastier, dirtier, and a whole lot more fun to play.
In the modern day, there are literally thousands of overdrive pedals to choose from, ranging from bargain-priced mass produced models to artisanal and boutique pedals made by hand like fine Swiss watches.
Which one is the best?
That’s a tough question to answer.
What matters is finding which pedals do and don’t work for you and the music you play. The way you intend to use a drive pedal matters, too.
They can be used at low-gain settings to give your guitar sound a subtle warm-up and enhancement just as well as they can be dimed out for more intense applications. In this article, we’ll discuss a few favorite drive pedals as well as some tips for using them.
What you will need
- Internet access.
- Good Speakers or headphones.
- Time to listen to demos.
- Time to read this in-depth review.
How To Choose The Best Overdrive Pedal
(Also, the RIGHT one for you)
A great deal of pedal selection comes down to knowing the sound you’re going for and how you’re going to use your drive pedal.
1. Your Music Genre
On their own, most overdrive pedals are applicable to most guitar styles that don’t require gobs of saturated gain and are normally run into a clean-sounding amp. Blues, classic rock, country, funk, and singer/songwriter situations are all great settings to deploy a cool drive pedal as part of your rig.
Some players even use multiple overdrives on their pedal boards to allow discrete crunch tones for different songs, not just the sound of one pedal all night. Here is a demo clip showing some of the tones possible with two drive pedals in a rig.
Players of harder rock, punk, and metal styles will typically use an overdrive pedal to add an extra layer of gain and boost to an amp that is already distorting itself via its preamp and master volume circuits.
At high volume, this can turn your amp into a screaming demon and can require the use of some kind of noise gate to prevent feedback when not playing. Enjoy this clip of ex-Morbid Angel guitarist Erik Rutan discussing his Maxon OD-808 overdrive pedal, which is a Tube Screamer variant.
2. Your role in the band
If you are a rhythm guitarist primarily, such as Black Crowes groove merchant Rich Robinson, you’ll most likely use an overdrive pedal as a set-and-forget crunch sound at low or medium gain settings. It will interact well with your guitar’s volume knob and allow you to use the knob to make your sound cleaner or dirtier with a simple twist up or down.
You’ll be able to dial up tones ranging from 50’s blues to modern country with this method and your sound will be very organic and satisfying.
If you play a lot of lead, you’ll probably use an overdrive pedal as a gain boost of some kind, whether for a medium gain rhythm sound or to push you over the cliff into higher gain realms for soloing. This typically requires you to use most or all of the gain your pedal has on tap, so don’t be afraid to crank it up.
The idea is to hit the front end of your amp harder and control the actual speaker volume from the amp, itself. This is brilliant fun, really, whether your neighbors agree with you or not.
Stevie Ray Vaughan was the king of this approach and is a big part of the reason why Tube Screamers are still popular. Check the man, himself, getting it done live early in his career:
The only way to truly find the best overdrive pedal for your guitar rig is by hands-on testing of many different units.
Try to bring your own guitar along when shopping. Online pedal demos can give you an idea of the tone a particular pedal delivers but not what it feels like to play through and how it responds to your individual touch.
Sometimes, you end up buying and selling a few different pedals until you find one you really bond with and want to keep.
Don’t worry about that. It’s hard to tell if any piece of gear is really going to work out for you until you use it for a while.
The Superb List of Overdrive Pedals
1. Ibanez TS-808
The Ibanez TS-808 is probably the most famous overdrive pedal in the world. It’s been used by players of all levels around the world since the early 1980s and collectors now pay big bucks for original units, even in beat-up condition.
It’s really a fairly low gain pedal but has become an industry standard for guitar overdrives, so much so that any modern overdrive pedal that comes in a green box or features words like ‘green’ or ‘screamer’ in its name is announcing that it is made in the Tube Screamer mold in one way or another. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s fans particularly love the TS-808, as he was one of its most famous users.
There is, of course, a reissue model that Ibanez makes today (Tube Screamer Reissue) that features the same analog circuit and JRC4558D IC chip as the vintage originals did, which makes your quest for tone much simpler and less expensive.
New or old, TS-808 Tube Screamers are simple three-knob pedals that are pretty intuitive for most guitar players. One of these is a wonderful place to start learning about this kind of pedal.
- Hard to go wrong with a legend! Ibanez still makes these for a reason.
- Road-tested tough! A TS-808 can survive 10,000 gigs and come back for more.
- Cool green paint! Boring pedals are no fun!
- Vintage units can be very expensive!
- Not as much gain as many people think.
2. Fulltone OCD
Fulltone is one of the great pedal success stories of modern times and Mike Fuller’s company has given the guitar world quite a few iconic models. The Fulltone OCD, or Obsessive Compulsive Drive (Not Obsessive Compulsive Disorder..Haha), is one of his all-time most popular pedals and it’s easy to see why after plugging into one for the first time.
The OCD truly mimics the sound of a cranked-out tube amp right down to the complex overtones and harmonics that make an amp feel alive. The OCD also feels directly wired into your guitar’s volume knob and is very responsive to that classic method of controlling overdriven and cleaner sounds by riding the knob up and down.
Like most drive pedals, the OCD is a pretty simple item with the expected Volume, Drive, and Tone controls. The only extra on this one is a toggle switch for High Peak (HP) and Low Peak (LP) gain settings.
This give the OCD a bit more versatility than it would with just the rotary controls. It can pump out more gain than you’d think it can.
Fulltone stuff is also famous for build quality and this model is no exception. There’s a reason so many of the big kids choose Fulltone products on stage and in the studio. If you are seeking a serious pro-quality drive pedal, the OCD should be on your short list. Top players like Al Di Meola and Eric Johnson have used the OCD, so maybe you should, too!
- One of the most natural-sounding drive pedals out there!
- Great Fulltone quality!
- More versatile than other units!
- Budget hardware
3. Boss BD-2
The Boss Blues Driver is the modern overdrive pedal for Everyman. It’s one of the few mass-produced pedals that, like the Tube Screamer, has fans and users ranging from garage rockers to country club cork sniffers.
Such is the genius of Boss., the Blues Driver does a convincing job grinding out tones that run from old-school smooth to today’s biting blues/rock. It is just a great, simple-to-use pedal that is affordable to just about anyone. Boss claims to have sold over 10,000,000 of these bad boys, so somebody is digging them, that’s for sure. Consider it the opposite of a Klon. Get one, as they are inexpensive and proven to rock.
- Easy to afford!
- Killer classic tones!
- Practically indestructible!
- Gets a bit grainy with the gain up high.
- If you don’t like Boss overdrives and distortions in general, you probably won’t like this, either.
4. Maxon OD-808
Maxon is the company that built the Tube Screamer for Ibanez in the old days and the OD-808 is pretty much an original TS-808 built brand new. It is the same basic type of pedal, three knobs and a switch, but it is one of the most toneful modern drive pedals you can get.
It also seems to be the choice of many metal guitarists for beating up their input signal and is not just a pedal for blues fans. Personally, I like the Maxon better than the Ibanez. It just seems bigger and stronger through my amps and packs a bit more gain than the Ibanez does, although Maxon claims it is the same circuit and JRC4558 IC chip. Your mileage may vary. Metal merchants like Adam Dutkiewicz of Killswitch Engage, Nick Hipa from As I Lay Dying, and Metal Mike from Halford all use the OD-808 with great results. Check it out !
- Sounds great for most styles, even metal!
- More gain than expected!
- Small pedalboard footprint.
- None, really. The Maxon OD-808 is one of the best pedals made right now at any price. Treat yourself!
Whichever of these pedals you use, turn the Gain down and Volume up for rhythm playing and do the opposite for lead work. Overdrive pedals are really pretty simple things and your ears will steer you towards the right settings for your music if you take the time to experiment and listen.
I hope you enjoyed reading this short tutorial on finding and buying the best overdrive pedal for guitar. The pedals covered here are but a few of the choices available to today’s guitarist but are each pedals that loom large in the market and have many fans and imitators.
They are all capable of producing sublime overdriven tones through your amp of choice and are all built for pro-level use. You can confidently gig and record with any of them and rock any house in the world.
There are other units worthy of your consideration, too, like Fulltone’s Full-Drive 2 (Demo|Check Price), the early 90s Marshall Bluesbreaker (Demo|Check Price), and Electro-Harmonix’s eternal Big Muff line, which will also take you past overdrive and into fuzz territory.
Once more, brilliant fun. Your best bet for finding overdrive pedal happiness is to buy or try as many pedals as possible until you know what really trips your trigger and sounds the best through the rest of your rig.
You may even find that you like different pedals for different applications. Nothing like having the right tool for the job, you know? At least, that’s how you can try to sell your new monthly pedal habit to your Person of Significance and see what you can get away with. Good luck with that.
In any case, buy with your ears and not your eyes and please don’t just pop for whatever is the latest online trend. Seek until you find the drive pedal that fits your sound. It will be worth it.