An Audio Engineer’s Guide To Overdrive, Fuzz and Distortion

Whether you call it dirt, grit, drive or anything else, you need some of it in your studio—and not only for guitars.

There are countless flavors of saturation and distortion out there, and over the years, some terms have taken on very specific connotations. If you’ve ever wondered what the differences are between an “overdrive”, “distortion”, and “fuzz” pedal, today’s story is for you.

Read on below for some tips on choosing the right color of gain from your palette of guitar pedals, and some classic references to help get your ear accustomed to picking out each of these classic types of hyper-saturation.

Gain By Any Name

Generally, “overdrive” pedals are described as sounding organic, natural, smooth, and amp-like.

On the other hand, a “distortion” pedal generally creates a raunchier, hairier, more saturated type of sound that tends to be a little more aggressive.

Fuzz” pedals are a little harder to generally describe as there are many unique kinds of fuzz, but overall the drive they produce sounds and feels compressed, with more sustain and less note definition. Here’s the skinny on each:

Overdrive​ pedals achieve their sound from the soft clipping of diodes. Most overdrive circuits cut the bass a bit before the signal hits the soft clipping stage, and then many of them have a tone knob to add bass back later if desired.

The original Tube Screamer from Ibanez is easily one of the most iconic overdrives around. In more recent years, a variety of higher-gain and more flexible overdrives have become available from a wide range of major and boutique makers.

One of the classic examples here is Stevie Ray Vaughan’s​ “Pride and Joy“, created ​by using a Ibanez Tube Screamer Overdrive into a blackface Fender amp.

Overdrives can be nice to make a guitar sound “bluesier,” and famous overdrive pedals like the Tube Screamer, Boss Blues Driver, and Klon Centaur have been used by countless guitar players all over the world. A studio really isn’t complete without one such option on hand.

Many guitarists use overdrive pedals straight into a clean amp as a way of getting a smooth overdriven tone, but you can also use overdrive pedals to help push an already cranked-up guitar amp into further distortion by hitting the preamp section of your amp harder, often while reducing low end, thereby adding some presence and clarity.

This can make your guitar rig sound tighter as you reduce rumble while increasing gain, and players like Randy Rhoads and Zakk Wylde often used MXR overdrive pedals into already cranked Marshall amplifiers, coaxing more grit out of the amp, to get their signature heavy guitar tones.

With this classic approach, some of the dirt and saturation comes from the amp itself, as the overdrive pedal pushes the preamp and and even power amp circuits to their limits. Naturally, this kind of effect works best with tube amps but some guitar players run overdrive pedals into amp sims like the Axe FX II and Kemper Profiling Amp to add more “analog warmth” to their digital rigs.

There are also high-gain overdrive pedals like the Fulltone OCD and Friedman BE-OD that sound fantastic in front of a clean or solid-state guitar amp and can create the effect of having a second, gain-ier channel in your tube amp. These can be ideal for getting a classic overdriven tone even if you don’t have an amp that’s easy to push into natural overdrive using a classic lower-gain option like an Ibanez Tube Screamer.

You can also experiment plugging your guitar straight into a pedal like the Friedman BE-OD and sending the output straight into the effects loop return on your amp, bypassing your amplifier’s preamp section and essentially giving you the preamp sound of a Friedman Brown Eye in your existing rig.

 

Fuzz​ pedals tend to be transistor-based and, unlike overdrive pedals, produce hard clipping. Most of them tend to increase the bass before the hard clipping section, creating a fat-sounding driven sound. The type of transistors can make a huge difference to the type of sound, with some classics including Fuzz Faces, Big Muffs and Octavias.

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  • Elliott Randall

    the biggest problem with these devices is that when ganged together (especially with an already overdriven amp) you get lots of unwanted noise 🙂

  • Stephen Muir-field

    apply a gate to mute the sound of the noise (DRMER GRATE NOISE GATES)

  • Fried Shipping

    I LOVE DISTORTION! KEEP IT DIRTY MY FRIENDS

  • Matthew Wang

    This can be true but you could consider a noise gate as Stephen below suggested, or if you’re recording, try using RX5 by Izotope as it can really get rid of a lot of unwanted hiss and noise from dirty guitars!

  • Elliott Randall

    Hey Matthew & Stephen – a noise gate only kills the sound when the threshold drops below a certain assigned level. so dynamics (i.e. volume control swells) get messed up. As for Izotope grabbing & killing certain frequencies – many of those freqs are also part of the guitar tone too, and using a tool such as this will rob the player of whatever parts of that tone are being treated.

    There are good tricks, but imho these are not them!
    ~ Respect.