The Difference Between Fuzz, Overdrive, and Distortion

The emergence of amplified rock ‘n’ roll at the beginning of the ‘50s brought forth a wave of innovations and new musical technologies. Amplifiers grew and evolved, and guitarists could finally be heard just by plugging their instrument into their amps.

Maestro - Fuzz-Tone - FZ-1
The first commercialised fuzz from 1962.

As volume increased, musicians began to celebrate the particular crunch and "break-up" produced by pushing amps and their tubes to their fullest capabilities. Amp builders experimented with new circuits to achieve that high-powered, tube-saturating signal, and the first mass-produced fuzz pedals — meant to instantly replicate those crunchy tones — began to hit the market in the '60s.

Since then, three primary classes of drive effects have developed and grown to include thousands of different pedals: fuzz, overdrive and distortion.

Today we're taking a quick look at the origins and workings of these distinct effect classes, and exploring how they differ and where they overlap.

Fuzz

Dunlop - Fuzz Face - JH2

What would the Rolling Stones classic “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” be without that fuzzed-out intro?

Fuzz was the first effect born out of the search for that classic high-gain amp sound, and there is certainly not a lack of stories surrounding its beginnings. The two most common tales are that it was discovered either after a mixer breakdown during a ‘60s country-bass recording, or thanks to a technician’s DIY solution made in one of Lee Hazelwood’s recording studios.

The circuit is typically made of two or three transistors capable of boosting the signal to a high level before capping it off, causing it to become more square instead of curved. The resulting twang comes out especially in medium and high frequencies.

Output signal from the guitar

Output signal from the Dunlop - Fuzz Face - JH2

In general, fuzz produces different levels of output depending on the circuits, but these frequencies are always particularly sensitive, and it’s not uncommon to get radio reception or or catch some weird wobbly tones by playing with the knobs of the guitar hooked up to the pedal.

If you’re looking for an unapologetic and in-your-face sound, then fuzz is your best bet. It’s a simple and easy-to-use effect endowed with only the essential knobs: volume and a level setter for the amount of fuzz. Fuzz pairs well with rock in general, so if you’re looking for something to experiment with for hours without tearing your eardrums out, look no further.

Fuzz Pedals Shop on Reverb

Overdrive

Boss - Overdrive - OD-3

A classic pedalboard staple, this effect is directly inspired by the sound of an overworked tube amp.

Overdrive is typically built around one circuit that amplifies your signal and another that (with the help of diodes) cuts off the signal to create a distorted but still organic sound.

The goal is to produce a tone that mimics that of a tube amp’s natural response to being cranked up to its limits: a too-powerful signal hits the tubes to the point where they can’t handle anymore, and the resulting sound is warm, but more compressed in medium and low frequencies.

Output signal from the guitar

Output signal from a Boss - Overdrive - OD-3

Overdrives often have fairly high output levels and can act as a replacement boost by setting the gain to minimum and then fiddling with the volume knob.

For something a little softer and less untameable, overdrive puts some muscle behind your signal without changing anything else about your sound. It’s the go-to effect for everything rock or blues. Imagine a fireplace, an old Fender amp and a guitar with a warm and full-bodied tone. If this is the last thing you think about before you fall asleep, then overdrive is the pedal for you.

Overdrive Pedals Shop now on Reverb

Distortion

Boss - Distortion - DS-1

Distortion is just a souped-up version of overdrive.

Well, okay — it’s based on the same function, but made much more aggressive and precise by a softer cap to the signa

Like fuzz, distortion shares characteristics with semiconductors, like transistors or integrated circuits. Just like tubes, these components have a range of functionality, and exceeding that range results in a very pronounced cap-off effect.

While overdrive tends to sound like a tube amp pushed to its very last limits, distortion sounds more organic and comes through more easily in mixes.

Output signal of the guitar

Output signal from a Boss - Distortion - DS-1

It’s also often more precise in terms of controls and sculpting a quick and cutting sound.

Do you like to push the limits of your sound, to literally attack your signal from every angle? You’re a high-gain amateur, and distortion pedals work especially well with heavy rock and metal music. If you’ve got an appetite for destruction and you love to blast your riffs, then it’s distortion that suits you best.

Distortion Pedals Shop now on Reverb

Learn more about effects pedals on our Effects Pedals: What Do They Do? | The Basics homepage.


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