Choosing an Overdrive: A Basic Guide to OD Options

When it comes to amps, overdrive is the warm, natural distortion that comes from pushing the tubes to break up with the gain and volume controls. Overdrive pedals make these rich sonic complexities and overtones available in other situations, like low-volume practicing and bedroom recording. OD pedals can be used to boost a solo or to push an amplifier into heavier saturation. As opposed to other dirt effects like distortion and fuzz, OD pedals do more to enhance the sound of your rig than color it with a new voice.

While the borders between overdrive and distortion are sometimes ambiguous, when you start talking about RATs or Octavias, you’re past overdrive and onto something else. There are plenty of great pedals that fall under the umbrella term of OD and this guide is intended to help you sort through all that’s out there.

Tried and True: Ibanez Tube Screamer and Fulltone OCD

Unlike some other pedals in this guide, the Ibanez Tube Screamer and the Fulltone OCD do not attempt to recreate the sound of any other specific equipment. These pedals have their own sounds are commonly used to drive the individual voice of a guitar/amplifier pairing into sweet, harmonic saturation.

The Ibanez Tube Screamer, in its many forms, has essentially defined the category of overdrive pedals as the quintessential pedal since the first TS808s arrived in the late '70s. Many players attribute the sound of the best Tube Screamer units to the JRC4558D IC operational amplifier (op-amp) chip used in some circuits. The JRC4558D was used in TS808s and also in some original TS9s, while the many Tube Screamers since have been built with other chips of varying quality. The variations have been well documented and Tube Screamers are often modded to include preferred chips. Since 1992, the standard new Tube Screamer is a TS9 reissue based on the models of the early 1980s.

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A warning to purists, TS9s are not true bypass. This means that when the pedal is not in use it is still coloring your signal chain to some degree (or worst case scenario, your guitar signal experiences a loss of volume or tone on its way to the amp). This may or may not matter to you, but if it does there are guides to true bypass mods available online. True bypass has been an obsession with guitarists in recent years, but keep in mind that Stevie Ray Vaughan did alright for himself with stock Tube Screamers.

There are also a ton of pedals based on the Tube Screamer to consider such as the recent Electro-Harmonix East River Drive. This pedal was a collaboration with Analogman and is a take on a JRC4558 IC chip-driven OD. The green coloring of the Manhattan skyline graphic is undoubtedly a not-so-subtle homage classic green TS boxes. At ~$62 new, it’s an inexpensive, true bypass alternative to the original.

The Fulltone Obsessive Compulsive Drive is a very popular overdrive now on its fourth incarnation (V4). With the OCD’s volume, tone and drive knobs you can dial in a range of drive from clean boost to high gain distortion. The OCD also has a high peak/low peak switch. HP mode boosts the volume, beefs up the low end and sharpens the frequency response, while LP mode is more of a transparent overdrive, keeping your original tone more purely intact.

The OCD, like all of Mike Fuller’s hand-built creations, is also true bypass. The OCD has loads of raw, organic gain and is often championed for its dynamics — its responsiveness to the guitar’s volume knob and the player’s picking. These subtleties are often lost with "distortion" pedals. The OCD differs from the Tube Screamer in that it retains a wider range of bass and higher frequencies, while the famous sound of the Tube Screamer “mid-hump” accentuates the mid frequencies.

New Boutiques: EQD Talons and Death by Audio Interstellar Overdriver Deluxe

Earthquaker Devices have developed their share of classic homages (Earthquaker Palisades = TS808, Monarch = input stage of a classic Orange amplifier, White Light = MXR Distortion +), but the Talons is something different. The Talons has more controls than are usually found on overdrive pedals, offering a 3-band EQ sector as well as level, presence and drive knobs. This kind of tonal flexibility in a handmade, pedalboard-friendly, true bypass box is typical from new boutique pedal makers. The Talons’ artwork, font, and burnt orange coloring also looks a bit more elegant than a plain Ibanez or Boss pedal.

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For even more uncommon options, the Interstellar Overdriver Deluxe by Death by Audio features a six position switch with the following settings: thin drive, Interstellar Overdriver (just like their non-deluxe version of the pedal), bass overdrive, octafuzz, oscillating fuzz, voltage controlled tremolo/fuzz. DBA has some truly eccentric pedals to their name and this pedal is no exception. The Interstellar Overdriver Deluxe is used by Annie Clark (St. Vincent) to drive her frenetic-yet-composed guitar work.

Amplifier Emulators: JHS Twin Twelve and Superbolt, Wampler Black ‘65 and Tweed ‘57 Original Tone

Since overdrive is all about amplifiers, it should come as no surprise that some pedals directly emulate the sounds of specific amps being driven by their built-in controls. JHS has been successful in recreating the overdrives of some '60s amps beyond the usual Fender/Marshall/Vox suspects. Last year’s Twin Twelve Overdrive replicates the drive channel of the 60 watt Silvertone 1484. The Superbolt is an amalgam of various Supro/Valco amps including Vega, Airline, Gretsch and National lines. These amplifiers have become coveted and increasingly hard to find collectors' items, but many players prefer to keep these sounds in the form of a stomp box instead of a full-time workhorse amp.

JHS cites Vampire Weekend as Silvertone revivalists, but VW guitarist Rostam Batmanglij says their first album was all Fender Deluxe amplifier, and on Contra (2010), the guitar sounds are a mix of Fender Deluxe and Silvertone 1484. Jimmy Page recorded a Supro amp in the studio on Led Zeppelin I (1969), but relied on Marshall stacks for touring.

For players looking for a more traditional Fender overdrive sound, Wampler Pedals offers the Black ‘65 and Tweed ‘57 Original Tone pedals which take on the more pervasive sounds of classic Fender “Blackface” and Tweed amps. The amp-like characteristics of these pedals make them especially fun in combination with other effects, and combining them with a pedal friendly amp, like a Dr. Z or Fender Hot Rod model, opens a wide range of flexible sounds to explore.

Pre-Amps and Boosters: Xotic EP Booster and Electro-Harmonix Soul Food

The idea of a using boost as a type of overdrive is that you can add brightness and a bit of extra body or grit to your clean tone. The Xotic EP Booster and the Electro-Harmonix Soul Food are based on two mythical pieces of the equipment, the Echoplex tape delay and the Klon Centaur. Whether or not the Soul Food lives up to the legend of the Klon is a different discussion, but the Soul Food is a celebrated clean boost in its own right. Still, for only 60 bucks, many players in 2014 took a chance on the Soul Food’s Klon imitation instead of dropping $2-3k on an authentic Centaur.

The pre-amps on the original Echoplex tape delay units gave an added sonic bonus to their renowned delay. The EP Booster has no delay function but adds up to 20dB of volume to your signal, as well as a couple of EQ setting options (“vintage” and “flat”) to shape the tone of that volume boost. Pedals like the Soul Food and EP Boost pair well with other drives or distortion if you’re trying to fatten up the sound of low-output pickups, drive a fuzz pedal into new territory or just supplement your rig with additional volume.

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There's also a growing category of boutique transparent overdrives that merit mention. These pedals are celebrated for not getting in the way of the existing tone of your rig and include such contemporary favorites as the Paul Cochrane Timmy and the Emerson EM Drive.

Capable Outsiders: The Devi Ever Karaoke Party and Wren and Cuff Mercy Phuk

Pedalboards the world over are littered with Ibanez’s green boxes and every version of the OCD. But there are plenty of great alternatives out there for the more adventurous tone hounds looking for something different.

The Karaoke Party from the ever-daring Devi Ever is a silicon-based overdrive pedal that delivers its own dirty drive from simple “volume” and “pregain” controls. The Wren and Cuff Mercy Phuk picks up where their Phat Phuk booster left off and takes it down to just one knob and a “girth” switch for a rude, aggressive overdrive suitable for bass or guitar.

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