The first effect pedal beginner guitarists generally buy is some form of distortion. Overdrive, distortion, and fuzz are commonly confused for the same thing, but they are, in fact, very different effects. It is essential to use the correct type of distortion. Otherwise, your tone won’t be what you are looking for.
In this article, I will walk you through the difference between overdrive, distortion, and fuzz. I will also introduce you to some of my favorite pedals of each effect.
What is overdrive?
In its purest form, overdrive comes from tubes in a tube amp being pushed to the max. When you turn the volume up on a tube amp, the sound boosts and distorts in a distinct way to push to higher volumes. Many guitarists use overdrive pedals that synthetically emulate this iconic tube amp sound. Overdrive increases the harder you pick or strum your guitar and is less intense the more gently you play. Overdrive still maintains the authentic tone of your guitar but adds a layer of “oomph” to it.
What is distortion?
Distortion completely changes your guitar’s sound. Compared to a clean guitar, a guitar with a distortion pedal has an unrecognizable tone. Overdrive pedals create some distortion, but distortion pedals add an overwhelming amount of sustain, saturation, and intense crunch to your guitar’s sound. This effect has a lot of crunch sounds and makes your guitar sound gritty. While overdrive pedals are used for rock guitarists of all genres, distortion is most commonly found in heavy metal, hard rock, and grunge. Most guitarists who use distortion pedals pair them with the cleanest-sounding amps.
What is fuzz?
Fuzz is the most intense of these three effects. It has a powerful amount of compressed distortion that adds an almost white noise-like effect to the guitar. Fuzz pedals have extremely synthetic sounding distortion that makes your guitar sound… well, fuzzy. Fuzz pedals distort sounds so much that they open the door for many experimental riffs and sounds. Although fuzz is in the same family as distortion and overdrive, it has an entirely different effect on your tone.
Key differences between distortion, overdrive, and fuzz
|Boosts your sound and gets more distorted the louder and harder you play||Stays the same no matter how hard or soft you play||Adds a huge amount of sustain and cuts out mid-range frequencies entirely|
|Mimics the sound of a tube amp that is being pushed to its limit||Entirely alters the sound of your guitar||Makes your amp sound like it is broken or shorting out|
|Less intense, and the authentic sound of the guitar is retained||Much more dramatic effect||Extremely harsh compressed distortion|
My pick: overdrive pedal
Ibanez Tube Screamer
This overdrive pedal has a fantastic natural effect on your sound. The Ibanez Tube Screamer is the pedal for you if you want to retain your clean tone while adding a hint of grit and power. This is a great all-around overdrive pedal that is perfect for blues guitarists and rock guitarists alike.
My pick: distortion pedal
Pro Co RAT 2
This is an absolute classic distortion pedal and one of the first pedals I ever added to my pedalboard. The Pro Co RAT 2 has a well-rounded distortion sound that works for guitarists in many genres. This powerful distortion pedal is also very affordable, so it is popular for guitarists who want a reliable distortion pedal that “does the trick”. However, heavy metal and punk guitarists may want something with a bit more grit.
My pick: fuzz pedal
Electro-Harmonix Little Big Muff
Artists such as The Smashing Pumpkins, Pink Floyd, and Jack White have all used a Big Muff fuzz pedal in some of their recordings. These pedals are a household name for fuzz pedals and an absolute must-have for guitarists who want a classic-sounding fuzz effect.
When to use overdrive, distortion, and fuzz?
So, now we know the difference between these three effects. But which one is best for you and your playing style?
Overdrive is best for a guitarist who prefers a clean tone but wants the option to kick things up a notch. Overdrive pedals are popular for blues guitarists and rock guitarists. Some hard rock and metal guitarists will even have these on their pedalboard when they want a cleaner sound than distortion.
Distortion is a very popular effect that many different guitarists use. There is a wide range in intensity when it comes to distortion effects, so everyone from blues guitarists to death metal guitarists are likely to have distortion pedals on their board. I recommend overdrive over distortion if you don’t want a synthetic distorted sound and prefer cleaner tones.
Fuzz has a similar function to distortion but is heavily compressed and cuts out the tone much more. Alternative guitarists who want to experiment with their sound, and rock guitarists who want more intense distortion choose fuzz pedals.
In reality, many guitarists will have all three pedals on their pedalboard in order to have the highest versatility in tone. Personally, I use all three effects because they all come in handy and have different uses.
Boosting your guitar’s sound with overdrive, distortion, or fuzz can drastically change your tone and open the door for many creative opportunities. Although all three of these are similar, they function very differently. Learning how to use these effects and which one is best for your style of music will assist you in taking control over your playing and sound.
Want to learn more about the different types of effects pedals and how to use them? Check out my full guide to effects pedals.