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Distortion and Overdrive and Boost .... oh my !!!

Posted by on 20 October 2009



:: “Distortion” and “Overdrive” and “Boost”…..oh my!!! ::


I’m quite excited about this post – I reckon 30% of people reading it will be like “yeah, I knew that” but the other 70% will (hopefully) have a real lightbulb moment. In my years in this industry I have seen SO much misunderstanding regarding the subject of Overdrive and Boost pedals that I am very much looking forward to setting the record somewhat straight….

Terminology: Overdrive vs Distortion– what’s the difference?
The two terms “overdrive” and “distortion” can get quite confusing. They are sometimes used interchangeably, and sometimes used for separate meanings.
The reality is that they both refer to pretty much exactly the same thing (the sound of an overloaded audio device) – however in guitar terms, we tend to use “Overdrive” to describe lightly distorted sounds, and “Distortion” to describe harder-edged high-gain sounds. Really, it’s all the same thing though…

Using OD/Distortion pedals in front of a clean amp.
This is how most of us are very familiar with using OD/Dist pedals. It’s pretty simple – you plug a pedal into a amp set “clean”, turn on the pedal and you get an overdriven effect. Simple huh? You select a pedal based on the sort of tone you are after and the amount of distortion that you want: Some examples ... click image for larger picture.



BOSS DS-1 – The biggest selling pedal on the planet. Still sounds good after all these years – can provide medium to semi-high gain tones and gives a good solid classic-rock tone.


VISUAL SOUND Open Road Overdrive – A wonderful sounding pedal that does low-gain sounds with zero tone coloration. Just sounds like YOUR guitar into YOUR amp – but overdriven. Awesome stuff.


CROWTHER Hot Cake – A NZ-made pedal that has become a worldwide classic. If you have never experienced the wonderful gritty yet smooth grind that this pedal conjures up, then you really need to hear one soon. The better the amp you plug it into, the better it sounds!


BOSS ML-2 Metal Core – From the people that brought you the insane MT-2 Metal Zone comes the ML-2 Metal Core. Has the same ridiculous levels of gain – for the dedicated Metal player, but has a much more natural, amp like response than the razor-sharp MT-2. METAL LIVES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Boss SD-1 Super Overdrive/ IBANEZ TubeScreamer – These are the pedals which cause much MUCH misunderstanding and lead me to write this article. I will talk about the Tube Screamer (TS) and the SD-1 together because they are both classic pedals with similar uses and in fact share an almost identical circuit.

These 2 pedals are probably the most legendary pedals of all time. Almost every pro guitarist on the planet either owns or has owned one of these pedals. We’ve all heard stories about how indispensable these pedals are to such influential and diverse players as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Zakk Wylde, George Lynch, Kirk Hammett and countless others. I can’t tell you though, just how often I have seen people buy one of these pedals after hearing that their idol uses one, plug it into a clean amp and be utterly disappointed by the mid-rangey, low-gain tone that comes out of them. What most people are not realising though is that the players above did not use their Overdrive pedals in the way you might expect…..

Using OD/Dist pedals into an already overdriven amp.
So you like the way your amp sounds, but can’t get enough gain from it? Well it’s simple really – you just need to give it a good old kick in the front end with an Overdrive pedal…….but perhaps a little differently than you might think.

So here is a pic showing how most people would normally use on Overdrive pedal – as in the earlier scenarios - running it into a clean amp:

line6g30relay.jpgFIG 1

In Fig 1 The DRIVE knob has been set to sound like an overdriving amp, and the LEVEL knob has been set to taste – usually to around the same volume, or slightly louder than the clean sound.

However, if you’re going to use your Overdrive pedal to boost your already-distorting amp into sonic meltdown – then you want to set it like below in Fig 2:


line6g30relay.jpgFIG 2

In Fig 2 the DRIVE knob is nearly all the way down so the impact it is having on your guitar’s tone is only slight – but the LEVEL knob is all the way up!! What you are doing with this setting is slamming the front end of your amp with a LOT more signal – which causes the amp to distort more heavily – whilst the pedal gives your tone only slight colouration. In other words – it’s just your amp sound with more GAIN.


This is where SD-1’s and TS-type pedals really made their mark on the world – as players like Zakk Wylde, Warren Dimartini, Stevie Ray Vaughan and a thousand other players in the early 80’s discovered – using an Overdrive pedal to “boost” the front end of your amp could deliver previously unheard of levels of distortion and led to the high-gain revolution we’re still in today….   

Here are some Overdrive pedals that work great as boosts:



Visual Sound Route 808
Although Ibanez have recently reissued their TubeScreamer pedals, it is fairly well accepted that they “don’t make ‘em like they used to” – hence the proliferation of boutique pedal builders who will build (or convert) a pedal to the “original” Tube Screamer specs. Most of these pedals will cost you a small fortune, but one company – VISUAL SOUND has delivered a TS-clone which stays true to the original Tube Screamer circuit, but with high quality componentry and the added feature of a BASS BOOST switch to restore the bass that is lost in the TubeScreamer circuit ... all at a very reasonable price.


BOSS SD-1 Super Overdrive
As mentioned before – this pedal shares an almost identical circuit to the TubeScreamer, but with a slight change in the circuit to include Boss’s patented “assymetrical clipping”. The overall effect is a tone that is very similar to a TubeScreamer, but with noticeably more attack and bite to create a slightly more aggressive sound and enhance harmonics. This is the pedal favoured by Zakk Wylde for boosting his Marshall JCM800’s since his career started.


BOSS OD-3 Overdrive
Boss’s newest Overdrive pedal has been making waves as a pedal that puts many boutique pedals to shame with it’s complex overtones and natural feel. Currently sitting on my own pedalboard – this is an EXCELLENT pedal.


Few “new” pedals have created as many waves in the guitar community in the last 5-10 years as this one. This puppy delivers tone that is equally as good as the reissue TubeScreamers, with MUCH more versatility (from the 2-band EQ) and a meagre price tag.

Other types of Boost pedals.
Since the key factor to boosting the front end of an amp is to overload the amp’s input, you can pretty much use ANYTHING that pumps out a hot output……and many people do. Here are some more pedals commonly used for boosting amps….


A 7-Band Graphic EQ pedal that can not only boost individual frequencies (to tailor your tone) but has a master volume boost as well that can really slam the front end of an amp hard. U2’s THE EDGE makes good use of a GE-7 to boost his Vox AC30’s into overdrive.


MXR 10-Band EQ
Same deal as the Boss GE-7 – but with more frequencies and more boost. Kerry King of Slayer famously uses this pedal to slam his Marshall amps with.


Blackstar HT-BOOST
For those who like to keep their signal path pure, the Blackstar HT-BOOST is the newcomer on the scene which is getting rave reviews worldwide. It uses a 12AX7 tube running at almost 300volts to produce some exquisite sounding clean boost. Absolutely sublime for creating more “modern” boosted tones… 


Can I use some of the “Distortion” pedals mentioned earlier as boosts?
Yup sure can! Joe Satriani and Steve Vai have both been users of Boss DS-1’s for creating their boosted tones for years.

There’s something about a Crowther Hot Cake boosting an already overdriven Vox amp that is just spine-tingling and must be experienced…

Just remember – DRIVE down, LEVEL up!!!!

Can I boost any amp?
Yes of course! Any amp that is already overdriving (whether by being turned up loud or on it’s “OVERDRIVE” channel) can benefit from being boosted by a pedal. I do have a few pointers however….

- The whole “boosting” phenomena started with Marshall amps in the late 70’s and has continued ever since. For some reason, Marshall amps LOVE to be boosted and are a great place to start experimenting with. While many amps (such as Fender or MESA) can be tricky to find the right boost for, Marshall amps will happily take pretty much anything you throw at it and deliver a great tone…

- Watch out for the BASS control on your amp. When boosting your amp – the bass can easily get out of control, creating not-too-pleasant farty, flubby noises. You may have to start experimenting with your BASS control on your amplifier set much lower than you are used to.

…….and that’s it.

Can I boost an OD/Dist pedal with another OD/Dist pedal?
Yes indeed you can – and this is where things can get REALLY fun. This is known as “stacking pedals” and is a great way to create a variety of fantastic tones from an amp that only has a clean sound.

If you have one pedal set for a nice mild overdrive sound (as in the earlier Fig 1), you can boost it with another pedal placed before it in the signal chain, set up as in Fig 2 to boost the original pedal into high-gain heaven. Some pedals (such as the Visual Sound Jekyll & Hyde) actually have 2 separate OD/Dist pedals in one box and are set up so that you can boost one with the other…

If you haven’t already discovered the joys of “boosting” your amp, then you owe it to yourself to blow a few bucks on a inexpensive Overdrive pedal and spark some new life into your rig.

Coolness ...
There’s so much fun to be had, and so much that I haven’t covered. If you have any questions, then you are welcome to contact us on the email address above.

Hopefully that has enlightened you a little and gives you some inspiration to go down to your local Rockshop and try some of this stuff out. You may find your own “signature tone” just hiding away waiting to be discovered.

Most importantly though – have fun with it and remember that although the suggestions I have made above are all tried and tested to sound great – the key to finding your tone is experimentation. The rules are: there are no rules. Go nuts!!!!

Till next time……

Boss DS-1 Distortion = $99
Visual Sound Open Road = $279
Crowther Hot Cake = $269
Boss ML-2 Metal Core = $189
Boss SD1 Super Overdrive = $109
Visual Sound Route 808 = $239
Boss OD-3 Overdrive = $149
Digitech Bad Monkey = $139
Boss GE-7 = $149
MXR 10-Band EQ = $399
Blackstar HT-Boost = $329
Visual Sound V2 Jekyll & Hyde - $379