Music & Entertainment

Guitar 101: What Is the Difference Between Overdrive, Distortion, and Fuzz?

Written by MasterClass

May 29, 2019 • 6 min read

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Tom Morello Teaches Electric Guitar

The early electric guitars were designed to sound clean and bright. Pioneering electric guitarists like Charlie Christian played in large jazz orchestras and used amplifiers to play solos in the style of saxophone and trumpet players. To this day, most jazz players prefer a fairly clean sound from their electric guitar. But blues and rock players see it differently. Starting in the 1950s, players in those genres would turn their guitar amps up to maximum volume. This served to overdrive the vacuum tubes that powered the devices. It produced a level of heavy saturation that was quickly beloved by players and audiences alike. And hence the term overdrive was born.

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What Is the Difference Between Overdrive, Distortion, and Fuzz?

When today’s electric guitar players are looking for rough, heavily saturated tones, they seek out one of three methods: overdrive, distortion, and fuzz. All of these terms are somewhat synonymous, because they all produce their sounds through audio clipping, where extreme frequencies are cut from the harmonic palette and the remaining frequencies are overly emphasized, which creates harmonic saturation.

There are nuanced differences that keep them distinct. In a general sense:

  • Overdrive refers to the sound made by a tube amp that’s pushed to its operating limit. Indeed, the purest overdrive sound comes from a maxed out tube amp, but since many players don’t want to blast their audience with too much volume, they use stompbox effects pedals to create overdrive.
  • Distortion refers to the overall effect of altering an audio signal to make it rougher, with greater harmonic saturation, more audible overtones, and more sustain than a clean signal. An overdriven tube amp creates distortion, but in the world of effects pedals, distortion stompboxes tend to be a bit more intense than overdrive stompboxes.
  • Fuzz is a special type of distortion where harmonic overtones dominate the overall sound. A fuzz tone tends to emphasize upper frequencies and can sometimes cut away the middle frequencies. This makes a fuzz tone harder to hear in a dense band mix—but the saturation is undeniable.

What Are the Best Amps for Overdrive?

The original and—for many players—still preferred way to get overdrive is from your amplifier. This means either turning it up as loud as it can go, or—if your amp has a master volume control—turning up your “gain” knob but leaving the volume fairly low. (On some amps, there are separate knobs for “volume” and “master.” To get overdrive, turn the “volume” knob way up, but leave the “master” knob fairly low.)

There are two main families of amplifiers that provide classic overdrive:

  • British-style overdrive. This comprises a category of amps that are primarily made in Great Britain and tend to run on either EL-34 or EL-84 power tubes. The most famous British amp brands are Marshall and Vox, and each style of amp produces its own distinctive form of overdrive. Orange is another British brand that slots in the same sonic realm as Vox and Marshall. Some of the most famous purveyors of British-style overdrive include Led Zeppelin and Queen, but plenty of Americans like Slash (a Marshall user) and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck (a Vox user) are also sonically identified by these amps.
  • American-style overdrive. These amplifiers, usually based on the 6L6 or 6V6 power tube, have circuitry that originates with Fender amplifiers like the Twin or the Princeton or the Deluxe. But Fender itself is not famous for overdrive. Rather, it’s the next generation of brands, like Mesa/Boogie and Dumble, that have created the signature “American” overdrive sound. (Think Metallica, Foo Fighters, and Santana.)

What Are the Best Overdrive Pedals?

These days, most guitar players get their overdrive from pedals. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of overdrive pedals that have graced the market over the years, but a few standout models include the:

  • Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer. Truly the iconic overdrive pedal. The Tube Screamer (which also comes in other models like the TS9 and TS10 and has inspired hundreds of knock-offs) will not provide you with heavy metal tones, but it’s great for blues rock, or for adding extra girth to an already overdriven amp. Some players, like Phish’s Trey Anastasio, have been known to stack two Tube Screamers in a row to create layered saturation.
  • Klon Centaur. This pedal is no longer being made, but there are boundless imitations on the market, including the J. Rockett Archer Icon and the Wampler Tumnus. Like the Tube Screamer, the Klon won’t give you a particularly “heavy” sound. It simply provides a more overdriven version of your amp’s natural clean tone.
  • Fulltone OCD. If you want an overdrive pedal that does get quite heavy, the Fulltone OCD is a great pick. It’s voiced a little darker than a lot of overdrives, which means you’ll get a more bass-focused tone than you would with a Tube Screamer or a Klon.
  • J. Rockett Blue Note. If gritty blues is your thing, check out the J. Rockett Blue note for some overdrive that lets your guitar stand out but won’t overwhelm the rest of the band.

What Are the Best Distortion Pedals?

As a general rule, distortion pedals are a bit harsher than overdrive pedals and are really only used in hard rock and heavy metal applications. Some famous distortions include the:

  • Boss DS-1. This orange pedal is often described as the original distortion stompbox, and it remains one of the most affordable models in the category. Its brash tone is not for everybody, but you’ll hear it on all sorts of recordings. Kurt Cobain is a noted user; the DS-1 is all over Nirvana’s Nevermind.
  • ProCo RAT. This is another distortion pedal that’s heard just about everywhere, especially in indie rock. The RAT is about as gnarly as the animal it’s named after, and it will let your guitar slash through a mix like a dagger.
  • MXR Distortion +. A milder distortion than the DS-1 or the RAT. This MXR pedal is noted for having just two controls: an output volume and a distortion level.

What Are the Best Fuzz Pedals?

Fuzz pedals use extreme clipping to turn your audio signal into what’s essentially a square wave. This creates massive amounts of harmonic saturation, but it diminishes the intensity of the fundamental—which, in audio terms, refers to the note you’re actually playing. So if you play the note C4 through a fuzz pedal, you will loudly hear some of the harmonic overtones that note produces, particularly C5 and G5. But ironically you won’t hear the C4 you played as loudly as you would if you’d been using a plain old overdrive pedal.

Because of this fuzz pedals are often best for rhythm guitar, where you don’t have to cut through a mix as much. If you want to play fuzzed out lead guitar, try pairing a fuzz with an EQ pedal that boosts middle frequencies. Or use an overdrive pedal that accents mids. The Tube Screamer and the Klon Centaur are both great at this.

Some famous fuzz pedals include the:

  • Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi. This is the quintessential fuzz pedal, used by everyone from David Gilmour to Billy Corgan.
  • Dunlop JHF1 Fuzz Face. This circular pedal is famous for one very specific user: Jimi Hendrix. If you want Jimi’s tone, a Fuzz Face should be on your board.
  • ZVexx Fuzz Factory. If your objective is to get the wildest, most extreme fuzz possible, the ZVexx Fuzz Factory may be your best bet. Packing a lot of noise for a surprisingly small pedal, this stompbox oozes saturation.

Learn more about guitars in Tom Morello’s MasterClass.