A Working Guitarist’s Guide to Cheap Overdrives

For most of us, budget concerns play a very real and often very sobering role in our musical lives. In the case of the typical gear-obsessed musician with a day gig, budget may indeed be the most influential factor when it comes down to making gear buying decisions. In my own experience, I have found that severe attacks of gear mania can usually be ameliorated by simply pulling up a recent bank statement. The smartphone revolution has made doing this easier than ever before, letting me access my banking information from anywhere in mere seconds. One look at my sad little checking account is usually all it takes to stop a sudden attack of gear lust in its tracks. Unless you're a well-off blues lawyer or are given to throwing financial concerns to the wind, then you've probably had similar experiences.

The good news is that it's never been a better time to be a musician on a tight budget. Those of us that jam econo have more good options than ever before, and best of all, we no longer need to sacrifice tonal glory to keep from going broke. Not so long ago, playing cheap gear meant that one was usually forced to make do with ugly, or just rather uninspiring, sounds. These days are gone, my friends. For instance, any guitarist that's not too hung up on boutique labels and hand-wired artisan circuitry can easily put together a very functional and great sounding pedalboard for comparative pocket change. This leaves a lot more money in one's wallet for things like beer, band t-shirts, limited edition 7-inches, automotive insurance, food for hungry children, and other minor concerns.

When putting together a budget board, most of us would be inclined to start with an overdrive pedal. It is usually the bedrock of the whole operation, and a good one can do many jobs, functioning as a clean boost, solo boost, rhythm crunch, or as an always-on sonic foundation around which every other sound is built. This makes it a very important pedal, perhaps the most important pedal on the board. Clearly, the overdrive is not a place we would want to cut corners for the sake of saving a few bucks. That being said, however, there are a number of excellent overdrives on the market these days that are extraordinarily budget-friendly, yet sacrifice nothing in terms of tone, functionality, or overall quality. If you've been playing a little while, you've probably comes across a few of them. Here are a few of our favorite overdrive pedals for rock-n-rollers that have been cursed with champagne tastes and PBR budgets.

Boss SD-1 Super OverDrive

The classic Boss SD-1 has been in production since 1981. It regularly ranks near the top of all-time-favorite-overdrive lists, and can be found on the pedalboards of countless musicians who actually making a living playing music professionally. With a trio of basic controls, the SD-1 can summon a surprising range of velvety low-to-medium gain tones, especially when run straight in the front of an amp that already has a little dirt happening. It can crunch authoritatively, it can goose the front end of the amp with clean, transparent gain, it can boost the mids for a solo tone that is both rich and cutting, and more. A brand new Boss SD-1 is astonishingly affordable, and due to its legacy, popularity, and basic circuit design, there are many, many options for modifying it for even greater performance. Everyone should have one, especially since it sells new for 49 bucks.

Joyo JF-36 Sweet Baby

Joyo is a company well-known among cheap pedal enthusiasts, and it has developed a reputation for boutique-level tones and very respectable build quality, in addition to remarkable affordability. One of the company's finest offerings of late is the JF-36 Sweet Baby overdrive. This creamsicle-colored three-knobber appears to be a not terribly subtle, but very well done, clone of Mad Professor's Sweet Honey Overdrive. In a blind test, few players would be able to tell the difference between them. Like the Sweet Honey, it is super dynamic and very open sounding, with a neutral voice that melds beautifully with the voice of any amp, or any other dirt box one might stack it with. The Sweet Baby is a low-to-medium gain overdrive, and as such it is at its best when pushing an amp that is near or at the breakup point. Prices can vary quite a bit from online retailers, but they typically hover around 36 dollars.

Hotone Grass

Hotone Audio's marketing copy for the diminutive Grass overdrive pedal says it will provide your guitar with an "artistic overdrive sound," a statement I both agree with and snicker at. Despite the awkward ad copy, the Grass is genuinely an excellent and affordable pedal that seeks to emulate the sound of a cranked “D-style” amplifier. I can't say how accurately it pulls this feat off, as I have never played one of these, nor have I heard one in person, but it sounds at least as good as any of the much more expensive “humble” clone pedals I have played. It can do clean-ish boosting, mild, sparkly drive sounds, and ballsy crunch and lead tones with equal aplomb, and its thoughtful layout fits a lot of function in a very compact form. The top-mounted gain control and glow-in-the-dark knobs are especially cool features. The Hotone Grass can be acquired new for under 70 bucks from various online retailers.

Donner Blues Drive

Another tiny, inexpensive overdriver with unintentionally hilarious marketing copy is the Donner Blue Drive. Donner describes this pedal as "small and exquisite," with a "plump, warm and sweet" sound. I cannot disagree with any of those statements. The Blues Drive is a very well made Tube Screamer variant that handily bests a stock, off-the-shelf Screamer, and will easily compete head-to-head with most boutique clones of this classic OD circuit. With knobs for tone, level, and gain, it does the usual TS stuff in a very satisfying fashion. Where things get interesting, though, is the Mode toggle, which has settings for "Warm" and "Hot." The Warm mode is standard, but Hot transforms the pedal, bringing back the bottom end and kicking up the gain for a fatter, ballsier tone that is all rock. At around 30 bucks, the Blues Drive is perfect for blues lawyers that do a lot of pro bono work.

Mooer The Juicer

The Juicer is the signature overdrive of neoclassical instrumentalist Neil Zaza. It is a very well done miniature rendition of the DOD FX-51 Juice Box, a short-lived pedal from the old DOD lineup that has been extinct since approximately 1998. Like the Juice Box before it, the Juicer is a mild-mannered overdrive/boost pedal that will not force itself upon your amp, so much as it will just gently coax it into sweet, rich saturation and ringing sustain. It's kind of magical in front of an amp that's already cookin' a little, and it is also marvelous for stacking. It really blends nicely with a wide range of other overdrive, distortion, and fuzz pedals, seemingly having the potential to add punch and shine to just about anything you might want to pair it with. Mooer's Juicer is an excellent dirt generator that can bring your overdrive game to the next level, and it sells new for around 55 dollars. Buy it!

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