Boost, Overdrive, Distortion and Fuzz: A Beginner’s Guide to Gain Pedals

Boost, overdrive, distortion, fuzz. What are they? What's the difference? And what should you buy? Read Here to find out!

James Hurman

James Hurman

What is distortion? You may have heard a lot of jargon surrounding distortion: like “gain” or “drive”. Technically speaking, distortion is a type of gain, and gain pedals can generally be categorised into 4 different types: Boost, Overdrive, Distortion and Fuzz. I will explain the differences, and characteristics of each so by the end of this guide, you’ll have a better understanding of which type of pedal to go for.

What causes Distortion?

To understand what type of pedal is right for you, it’s helpful to have some understanding of how distortion works. When you strum your guitar, the string vibrations are captured as waveforms by the pickups, which are sent to your amp. However, beyond a certain point, an amp can no longer get louder as the waveforms get bigger. Once the waves exceed this point (known as the “headroom” of the amp), the peaks of the waves begin to get squashed down, or “compress”. It is this compression that causes distortion, how these waveforms are compressed will influence how your sound distorts. However, to get your clean signal to distort naturally from the amp may require you to turn the volume up far beyond a reasonable level. Distortion pedals can simulate this distortion at far more reasonable levels by using amplification and “clipping” circuits.

What is Clipping?

Within gain pedals, the circuits will clip the waveform as an amp would past its headroom. There are essentially 2 types of clipping: “soft-clipping” and “hard-clipping”. This refers to how the peaks of the waveform are compressed, with affects how the distortion sounds. Soft-clipping will squash the peaks just as a cranked valve amp would, whilst hard-clipping will simply cut off the signal as it exceeds the headroom, which produces a more aggressive, edgier sound. Generally speaking, overdrive pedals use soft-clipping to get an “amp-like” distortion that is dynamic and responsive; it will generally distort more the harder you strike the strings, and get cleaner the softer you pick. Whereas distortion pedals mostly use hard-clipping to achieve a gnarlier sound. Fuzz pedals amplify and clip the signal to such extremes that the waveform becomes a “square-wave”, which can sound fuzzy and woolly, or spitty and nasty (but in a cool way), and can get wild and uncontrollable – it’s a very fun effect to try and tame.

Boost Pedals

Unlike the other types of pedals on this list, boost pedals don’t contain any clipping. As the name suggests, it simply boosts the volume of your guitar going into your amplifier. But the way it interacts with valve amps or other types of gain pedals is interesting. Using a boost pedal into a valve amp can provide enough volume boost to exceed the headroom of the valves, causing them to overdrive, creating those sweet, crunchy classic rock tones. Into a solid state amp, it will simply boost the volume without adding any appreciable amount of gain; this can be useful for a solo boost if you just need that extra volume to cut through the band mix. But boost pedals can also be used in combination with other types of gain pedals to produce different gain levels – this is known as gain stacking, and is a great way to add more variation to your sound! Adding a boost pedal before another gain pedal such as an overdrive or distortion, will produce more gain without much more volume, while putting it after another gain pedal will produce more volume without much increase in gain. So try out both and see what you like!

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Overdrive Pedals

Overdrive pedals come in all different shapes and sizes, and there are probably more different types of overdrive pedals than any other gain pedals out there, so even if you’ve tried one and didn’t like it, there’s something out there for you! Generally, the characteristics of overdrive are that they aim to sound like an amp that is naturally overdriving, so produce less gain and sound less aggressive than distortion or fuzz pedals, most overdrive pedals are used for low to mid gain sounds, like blues and rock. Usually (but not always), this effect is achieved by using a soft-clipping circuit, which mimics the characteristics of a slightly overdriving amp. Soft-clipping occurs when the signal exceeds the clean headroom, and compresses the waveform, which produces a smoother type of gain than more aggressive distortion pedals, which generally use hard-clipping (but we’ll get to that later.) Although there are countless different types of overdrive pedals, I will cover 3 of the most popular styles: Tube Screamer, Bluesbreaker, and Klon.

Tube Screamer Style Overdrive

The Tube Screamer is the most famous category of overdrive pedal and is characterised by its distinctive EQ curve. Most pedals based on this style of overdrive will be soft-clipping and generally will cut bass and add lots of mid-range, which can add thickness to a cleanish sound, or tighten up a high gain sound. It boosts the perfect frequencies (right around 700-1K Hz) to cut through any mix. So whether you play hi-gain and you’re looking to tighten your sound, or you want that infamous Stevie-Ray Vaughan raunchy blues sound, look no further than the Tube Screamer!

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Bluesbreaker Style Overdrive

Like the Tube Screamer style circuit, bluesbreaker style overdrives also use soft-clipping to create a smooth, compressed style of overdrive, perfect for adding a little bit of extra dirt, or stacking with other pedals. But unlike a Tube Screamer, it is will not impart its own character onto your tone. It is designed to be “transparent”, meaning that it has a balanced frequency range, so you can keep the core tone of your guitar and amp, and just add gain. The bluesbreaker type pedal is a great option for blues and blues rock tones, as it is a low to medium gain overdrive that will add smooth sustain as you increase the gain, unlike a distortion which will make the sound more gritty and saturated. Made famous by John Mayer, this type of pedal is perfect for someone who likes their current sound but is just looking to push it with a bit more gain.

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Klon Style Overdrive

Probably the most revered pedal of all-time, when the Klon Centaur was invented in 1994 its design was unlike any previous overdrive. Unlike the majority of overdrive circuits, it uses hard-clipping. However, it doesn’t sound harsh like a distortion because it is blended with a clean boost circuit which has no clipping, so you can still hear your clean guitar signal. Because of this the guitar retains its dynamics and “amp-like” sound. Although Klon style pedals are often described as “transparent”, they actually impart a subtle upper-mid-boost to the EQ and doesn’t cut bass like a Tube Screamer, which helps push your sound through the band mix without completely altering it. Because of the hard-clipping style, a Klon style overdrive is a great option for a getting a crunchy rock rhythm sound, but it is more commonly used with the gain turned down as a clean boost to add a bit of sparkle and clarity to your sound. This type of pedal is very versatile, and great for players who play anywhere from clean to crunchy classic rock.

For more on the Klon, and Andertons’ recommendation on the best Klon style overdrives read here.

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Distortion Pedals

If overdrive pedals are meant to sound like amp turned up to 9 or 10, then distortion pedals are meant to sound like an amp cranked to 11 and injected with steroids. While some overdrive pedals are “transparent”, keeping your original tone intact, distortion pedals fundamentally alter your sound to get that harmonic, gritty sustain that you’ve heard on countless rock and metal songs. If you’re looking to master your Metallica riffs or Satriani solos, then distortion is for you. Because distortion adds more level (volume) to the signal and generally uses hard-clipping, it doesn’t have the dynamics or an overdrive, so compresses your signal to an even level, ensuring that whether you’re chugging or tapping, you’ll always be heard. Distortion comes in all forms, but some of the industry standard staples include: the MXR Distortion +, Boss DS-1 and ProCo RAT. All of these are classic designs that have been used widely in rock music since the late 70s. The MXR offers that vintage gritty distortion, while the DS-1 provides that guitar hero-esque harmonic sustain. The ProCo RAT is perhaps the most versatile of these distortion pedals. By adjusting the distortion control, you can go from light, crunchy overdrive to heavy distortion, all the way to fuzz. And on that note, lets explore fuzz!

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Fuzz Pedals

There is literally no analogy I can think of for fuzz, it just sounds broken but in the best way possible. In the words of the great Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), the job of a fuzz pedal is “overdrive the sound, and make it sound pretty rude.” Fuzz has been an integral part of many great guitarists’ sounds; from Jimi Hendrix and Eric Johnson with the Fuzz Face, to Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins) with the Big Muff to Jimmy Page with the Tone Bender. Fuzz is the most extreme style of gain pedal, and can sound wild, but when properly tamed, can be an inspirational tool to break any guitarist out of a creative rut. Much like the other types of pedals mentioned today, there are many variations of fuzz pedals, but the three pillars of fuzz are the Tone Bender, the Fuzz Face and the Big Muff.

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Tone Bender Style Pedals

Tone Bender style pedals have a really aggressive distortion characteristic, but remain clear even at high gain because the Bass is cut in the EQ so the sound doesn’t get muddy and sloppy. This type of fuzz pedal is perfect for chunky power chords and driving hard rock riffs. It also pairs especially well with humbucker guitars as they will fatten the bass end without getting bloated. The most famous user of the Tone Bender is Jimmy Page, and without it, Led Zeppelin would never have had their legendary sound! A classic Style Tone Bender is very easy to use with just 2 controls, level / volume, and attack / fuzz. Some versions will also have a tone control to tweak your sound to your exact liking.

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Fuzz Face Style Pedals

Most famously used by Jimi Hendrix, the Fuzz Face is one of the quintessential sounds of early psychedelic rock, but it does so much more. Fuzz Face Style pedals are unique in how they react with the volume pot on your guitar. At full volume it can produce a thick, hair-raising rumble for mighty lead playing, but roll the volume back to 6 or 7 for a smooth, warm overdrive, perfect for chords. Or knock the volume back again to 3 or 4 for sparkly crystal cleans. In fact, the fuzz face was not only responsible for Hendrix’s monstrous lead tones on the likes of the Purple Haze intro and All Along the Watchtower, but it was also at the core of his beautiful chimey clean tones on Wind Cries Mary. Because of the thick bass and soft attack of the fuzz face, it pairs especially well with Strat style single coil guitars, which remain more percussive and dynamic than higher powered humbucker guitars. So, whether you’re looking for that Hendrix sound or just something new, for my money there are few pedals out there more fun than the Fuzz Face.

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Big Muff Style Pedals

Perhaps the most controllable of the three fuzzes, and most distortion-like in sound, the Big Muff is a bit like if you could keep turning up the gain on a distortion pedal. Because of the huge amount of bass and mid-scooped characteristic, it will happily sit in a mix without jumping out. This is great for creating a really thick and heavy rock rhythm sound! And more so than the Tone Bender or Fuzz Face, it pairs well with other gain pedals. If you want to bring the guitar to the front of the band mix, try stacking a Tube Screamer after it to bring the mids forward. Additionally, most Big Muff style pedals include a tone control, unlike its fuzzy counterparts, allowing for additional tweakability.

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Side Note: As a general rule, if you’re using multiple pedals, always put your fuzz first because a lot of fuzzes don’t play well with others. Read more about this here.

Conclusion

Now that you have a better understanding of how gain pedals work, hopefully you can narrow down your choices to find the perfect one for you and your style. But why only choose one? Try experimenting with different combinations to find a sound that is truly unique to you!

If you enjoyed this read, check out more of our learn articles!

Check out our list of the Best Guitar Pedals of 2021 here.

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James Hurman
James Hurman

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2 responses to “Boost, Overdrive, Distortion and Fuzz: A Beginner’s Guide to Gain Pedals”

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