Best Overdrive Pedals: a Comprehensive Guide
We have news for you: the best overdrive pedal does not exist.
Overdrive is not something whose quality can be precisely measured; it comes in many different flavors, and different ears seek different sonic nuances. Also, comparing – say – a Tube Screamer to a Klon (two of the most popular overdrives) is a fool’s errand; you may think the Klon is better because it’s a lot more expensive, but you can’t get TS tones out of a Klon, and vice-versa. They are like (green) apples and (overpriced) oranges.
What you should be looking for, instead, is a drive pedal that works for your ear, your guitar/amp chain, and your band(s). It could very well be that different overdrives will work better on different musical projects or songs – although it’s likely that not very many of your fans will notice any difference when you swap them during a live gig.
What does an Overdrive do?
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In this article, we don’t simply rank overdrives from 1 to 10, but we group them into type-related categories to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges, giving you three top-notch options per category. Our selections are based on sales data, price range, and reviews.
For those interested in exploring each category more in-depth, at the bottom of these top 3 lists, you’ll find a link to a comprehensive article about that specific overdrive circuit.
You can find the list of the categories included in this guide in the Table of Contents.
Here we begin!
| CLASSIC OVERDRIVES |
As discussed, overdrive pedals simulate the behavior guitar amps have when, at high volume, the internal components start distorting the signal. The “classic” drive pedals accomplish this “break-up” effect without trying to recreate the sound produced by a specific amp. On the other hand, several more recent pedals clearly state what amp style or even model they are voiced after. These type of overdrive pedals are referred to as “amp-in-a-box,” and are covered here in a separate section below, while the following chapter only includes the most popular “classic” overdrives, whose sound isn’t inspired by specific amps.
• Best Original Tube Screamer Pedals
The first Tube Screamer was released by Ibanez in the late ’70s to compete with the first compact overdrive and distortion pedals by BOSS and MXR. However, it sounded quite different from those other effects, and the word “tube” embedded in the name wasn’t there by accident. It was designed to emulate the response of a tube amp, with an added mid-frequency bump that made your guitar cut through even the densest of mixes. Needless to say, guitarists LOVED that!
This list comprises only original Tube Screamers and variants by the original manufacturer, Ibanez.
Find more options in our article about the Best Tube Screamer Pedals
• Best Tube Screamer Clones/Variants
The Tube Screamer is, in all likelihood, the best-selling pedal in the world. It’s only natural that other stompbox builders would try to replicate its magic, or even try to improve upon it. This list includes the best clones and variants of this very popular green box.
Find more options in our article about the Best Tube Screamer Clones and Variants
• Best Blues Breaker-Style Overdrives
The Blues Breaker-mania was triggered by a short-lived pedal released by Marshall in 1991 and somewhat inspired by the sound of Eric Clapton in his 1960s band, the Bluesbreakers, obtained by plugging a Les Paul plugged into a Marshall 2×12 JTM combo. The pedal didn’t really do what it promised, but provided a rather clean driven sound that nowadays is referred to as “transparent.” So yes, this is the pedal that began that “transparent overdrive craze,” and plenty of pedal builders used it as an inspiration for their own designs.
Find more options in our article about the Best Blues Breaker-Style Overdrives
• Best Blues Driver-style Overdrives
First released in 1995, the Boss BD-2 Blues Driver is an affordable, transistor-based overdrive that uses stages of FETs to create clipping, a circuit that doesn’t color the tone with a mid-hump typical of the Tube Screamer and also retains the low-end and touch responsiveness. of the original tone. Unlike other transparent overdrives, the BD-2 can produce distortion at higher settings. Since it’s very affordable, the BD-2’s clones are in most cases evolutions that try to improve upon the original.
Find more options in our article about the Best Blues Driver-Style Overdrives
• Best Original Klon Centaur Overdrives
Still the most hyped pedal in the world (original units go for up to $5k!), the Klon was launched in 1994 and boasts a circuit running at 18v and featuring an IC MAX1044 voltage converter and two germanium diodes. It belongs to the “transparent and glassy” category of drives, adding pleasing harmonic content to whatever signal chain was lucky enough to go through it. There are only two original Klones made by designer Bill Finnegan, although the first version had a golden and silver version, which apparently sound different only due to synesthesia.
Find more options in our article about the Best Klon Centaur-Style Overdrives
• Best Klon Centaur Clones (aka, Klones)
The Klon is the most cloned pedal ever, and its variants (aka Klones) range from the authentic to the imaginative. They greatly vary in size too!
Find more options in our article about the Best Klon Centaur-Style Overdrives
• Best Gainster/Hoochee-Mama-Style Overdrives
The Clark Amplification Gainster and Browntone Hoochie Mama are two expensive overdrive pedals with a similar circuit and a cult following. They deliver a rather transparent and musical tone with rich low-end and clear, singing highs. They work equally well with single coils as well as humbucker pickups and are sought after for the interactivity of their controls, which affect the character of the sound in a unique way.
Find more options in our article about the Gainster/Hoochee-Mama-Style Overdrives
• Other Popular Overdrive Pedals
The pedals in this category are not considered clones, but, truth to be told, pretty much any overdrive is inspired at least in part by an existing circuit. These are extremely popular evergreen pedals that deliver something rather unique.
Browse our Overdrive Pedal Category
• Multi-Mode/Uber-Tweakable Overdrive Pedals
Multi-mode pedals are popular in almost all categories of pedal effects – dirt boxes being the exception, maybe because they are either very expensive or digital. This being said, there are a few interesting devices that deliver different flavors of overdrive, which may work really well for non-purist tone seekers in search of a multi-faceted tone machine.
You can find other multi-mode overdrive pedals here.
| AMPS IN A BOX |
Overdrive – related to guitar playing – is something that was first produced through tube amps, but turning up their volume to deafening levels, until the components would start saturating because they couldn’t handle the amount of signal. But amps don’t just do that, they also affect the tone’s frequency and dynamic their own way, to create a sonic signature. The overdrives in this list recreate, in pedal format, the signature of some of the most popular amps on the market. Hence the “Amp In A Box” moniker.
• Best Plexi Style Pedals
For the unaware, “Plexi” means “classic Marshall amp.” That’s what the pedals in this category do, they give you the sound of a classic Marshall (or two), in a box. The Plexi sound is so high-gain that it delivers a heavy crunch that can border on distortion.
Find more options in our article about the Best Plexi-Style Pedals
• Best Tweed-Style Overdrive Pedals
Just like “Plexi,” the word “Tweed” is used to refer to a series of popular guitar amps, in this case, the Fender amp+speaker combos manufactured between 1948 and 1960. Although they all look like they are wrapped in tweed fabric, they don’t sound all the same, and the real winners that inspired most of the pedals in this list are the ’59 Fender Bassman, famous for its incredibly loud cleans, balanced tone, and sweet overdrive, and the smaller 5e3 Deluxe, with its sagging, fizzy break-up.
Find more options in our article about the Best Tweed-Style Pedals
• Best Vox-Style Overdrives (AC15 – AC30 Amps)
Vox’s combo amps are loved by many guitarists for their chimey clarity and tight low-mids, mostly delivered by their 2nd “Top Boost” channel, as well as their crisp breakup when overdriven. The two most popular models are the AC30 and the less powerful but similar-sounding AC15, and they’ve been in production pretty much unchanged since the 1950s. The pedals in this category recreate their magic in a much smaller enclosure.
Find more options in our article about the Best Vox-Style Pedals
• Best Dumble Style (or D-Style) Overdrives
The word “Dumble” might trigger Harry Potter-related memories among the unconverted, but it’s actually the name of the most expensive boutique guitar amp you can find. There are two models, the Overdrive Special (the most popular, featuring an overdrive channel with a lot of gain) and the cleaner Steel String Singer. Masterfully built by hand, they all sound a little different because in most cases they are custom built. The pedals in this category can get you close to that sacred Dumble tone at a much more affordable price.
Find more options in our article about the Best D-Style Pedals
• Other Amp In A Box Pedals Inspired by Other Amps
While the pedals listed above recreate the tone of amps by legendary brands, the ones in this category are inspired by specific, often not mainstream models used by very famous or influential musicians like Van Halen and Pink Floyd’s Syd Barret, or overlooked brands like Peavey.
• Proprietary Amp In A Box Overdrives
Since pedal makers put out devices that sound exactly like guitar amps, many boutique amp manufacturers are releasing pedal version of their own amp or, in some cases, stompboxes recreating the sound of a single channel of their dual-channel amplifiers. Some of the pedals in this list, admittedly, veer on distortion.
How to Use an Overdrive Pedal – by Rhett Shull
Understand The Types Of Overdrive Pedals On The Market – by The JHS Show
6 Classic Overdrive Pedals And How They Sound – by Guitar Bonedo
How To Choose The Right Overdrive Pedal For Your Needs – by Thet Pedal Show