Overdrive and distortion are the most commonly used guitar effects, but what’s the difference?
There are several electric guitar tones that are held as being ‘typical’ or ‘classic’, but nearly all are based on overdrive and distortion effects.
The history of guitar overdrive and distortion use is, like many aspects of musical development, littered with stories of accidental use and abuse. Early guitar amps were fairly lo-fi when they first started to appear in the ‘50s. When these amplifiers were pushed to their limits, the signal would start to ‘clip’, causing the gritty, distorted sound.
This was an unwanted effect on the tone of a guitar, as the Jazz and big band styles popular at the time demanded clean guitar tones. However, musical styles changed, distortion began to creep into more music.
Famously, Ike Turner’s guitarist Willie Kizart’s amp sustained some damage whilst being transported to record Rocket 88.
It was perhaps Link Wray’s ‘Rumble’ that was the watershed track, bringing distortion to the wider world. After this, players employed many methods to achieve the effect, including ripping speaker cloth.
Essentially, the effect takes a smooth, clean signal, and creates an uneven break-up to varying degrees ranging from ‘crunch’ to full-on distortion, with everything between. As the Overdrive and Distortion effects are now available in huge varieties, but what are the differences between them? Here’s a guide to the main ‘families’ of these effects…
Overdrive is perhaps the effect most closely associated with true amp distortion: it literally aims to mimic the effect of amp tubes being overdriven by high gain.
Put simply, overdrive tends to be a milder, less linear distortion, with a more dynamic response. So, when you play more quietly, the tone will be less saturated, distorting more when played louder/ harder, and also applying a mild compression to the tone. In effect, the signal is soft-clipped when it starts to overdrive, so the signal is distorted and compressed smoothly and gradually according to much it has crossed this threshold by.
Tonally, overdrive tends to be ‘crunchy’.
Whereas overdrive in is mild, and tends to apply a mild ‘crunch’ to the tone, distortion is far more dramatic effect. Distortion tends to saturate the signal far more, such that the ‘whole’ signal is distorted, regardless of level. Clipping is hard rather than the soft-clipping in overdrive. This means that when it reaches the maximum dynamic range, the effect flattens the peaks of the wave, creating a far harsher sound.
As a result, the tone is far more compressed, and generally results in far greater sustain. So, for screaming leads, and powerful chords in heavy rock, distortion is the classic option. The Boss DS-1 is a great example of this
Fuzz is a particular type of distortion, perhaps most famous as the tone employed by Jimi Hendrix. Like a typical distortion, it heavily saturates the signal. A fuzz clips the signal even harder, to the point that it practically becomes a square wave- think of those synth-like Hendrix lead tones.
In addition, a frequency multiplier introduces complex harmonics, giving the signal a harsher, fuzzier tone.
Good example: EHX Big Muff
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Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.