Overdrive Pedals: Finding Your Tone

  • Written By 
  • Jordan Holt
  • Dec 18th, 2018

We get a lot of questions at Worship Online about overdrive pedals. It’s a great topic and an important part of a guitar rig and your overall tone’s sonic quality.

Everyone has different taste and a different approach, so today I want to impart some wisdom to help make your pedal choices a bit easier.

What is overdrive?

Without getting too nerdy, overdrive is taking your guitar’s audio signal and clipping it in a musical way. As the signal is clipped you get distortion, compression and frequency coloration.

If you boil down analyzing overdrive pedals to simply those three factors (gain, compression and EQ) it will make your preferences much easier to identify. For those of you who do engineering, work compression and EQ will be familiar to you. To those who are not familiar, I encourage you to do some basic research on what those concepts are as it will help you in the long run.

Types of Overdrives

There are really only a few basic types of overdrives. Some people will get deep in the weeds talking about more nuances of some pedals, but I like to keep it simple. It is better for your wallet – trust me. My logic has always been that if someone can’t pick it out as a different type in a blind test, then it’s best not to worry about it.

I like to categorize them as Tube Screamer, Klon, Boost, hard clipping/distortion/Rat, and transparent/neutral/Timmy. These types all have different frequency responses, compression and gain.

Most pedals are simply clones of all these types. The Tube Screamer is easily the most popular. For more education on the different types I recommend checking out the Strymon Sunset and the documentation they provide. It is a pedal that tries to cover 6 main types of drives in one.

Selection Process

I recently made a decision to swap out my Strymon Sunset for my OD820 and vintage Rat. The reason for this was simply that I liked the way my Rat was EQ’d more than Strymon’s version of the Rat. I felt like their version lost some of the midrange frequencies I liked.

On a broader note, most overdrives that I get frustrated with tend to have a flabby or overemphasized low-end. I generally prefer note clarity over beef and want things to feel tight and compressed. Some people like having tons of low end, but I don’t feel like that’s my area in the mix to fill up.

I cannot emphasize enough that you simply have to try things to understand what they are like. You cannot just look at someone else’s pedalboard on Instagram and assume that what they are using will make you happy.

I have tried countless Tube screamer type pedals and they all sound different. You will not know what you prefer until you expand your palette. Borrowing your friend’s pedals is a great start.

The Importance of Your Rig

The sound of an overdrive pedal is highly dependent on the rest of your rig – your pedals, amp, guitar, and playing style. Video demos can pretty deceptive because the person’s preferences for how they setup their gear, such as amp EQ, can be vastly different than yours. You could perceive the pedal to be higher-gain than others, but it could just be that they have hotter pickups than you or push their amps.

One of your friends may love a pedal and sound great with it, but when you play it you are less than enthused. This is because there are hundreds of factors adding up to how that pedal responds in his rig verses yours. Remember this.

So What About Compression Pedals?

I love compression. I run a compression pedal on all the time. Compression really helps clean tones sit in the mix, sound great, and feel great. With drive it adds some nice sustain.

The tricky thing is that it is easy to be over compressed and in turn sound smaller if you are not careful. Pushing the gain on an amp compresses your signal more as well as turning on more overdrive or boosting before a drive.

One way I avoid over compression is to use an optical compressor, which is less aggressive. Others accomplish a similar goal through aggressive compressors that have a blend control to balance it.

How Much is Too Much?

The amount of drive you use is really personal preference. Some popular guys in the industry are known for pretty much always having a hairy driven tone. Their “clean” tone is really just crunchy. I like to have the option of being completely clean and being able to play hard and not have breakup.

With that said, a big identifier of less-experienced players is using too much gain. There is a misconception that as a song builds you have to make your tone “bigger” and in turn stack more drives. This is not necessarily true. You may find that if you try to use less drive sometimes you will hold more definition, sound less fizzy, and sit in the mix better.

When it comes to levels, I prefer to set my levels and tone to roughly match my clean tone. I trust the FOH engineer to mix levels properly. I don’t want to give them anything that radically changes. There’s also nothing worse to me than playing with another guitarist who hits a loud bright drive pedal and my right ear is ringing for the rest of the day. Making your guitar less dynamic forces you to make tonal judgements, such as wet effect level or less drive, to help you sit in the mix better.

To boost or not to boost?

I have never been a big fan of boost pedals because I try to stay generally the same volume to make front of house’s job easier. I rely on them to mix me because I trust them.

However, I did buy a guitar recently that has a built in active boost into the guitar and use it frequently to bring my clean tone up when needed and hit my compressor harder. I run my amps super clean so this works great for me. Some of you may find you like pushing an overdrive with something in front. Give it a shot.

Amp Breakup

A common practice in the church music has been to push an amp’s volume to the edge of breakup. Some find this creates a fatter and more harmonically rich tone. To me, it compresses and distorts wet effects too much and boxes things in a bit. Again, this is personal preference. Try running a slightly dirty amp with less gain on your pedals or vice versa and see what works. If you push your amp more you will have to turn your delays and verbs down to compensate.

There you have it. There are many more technical resources out there, but you don’t need them to sound great. My hope is that this blog helped simplify some of the mystical aspect of overdrive pedals to help your search progress a bit quicker. Let us know if you have any questions in the comments below.

You may also be interested in these resources!


Ready to give it a try?

Get instant access to instrument and vocal tutorials for over 450 of today’s top worship songs!
Send this to a friend