Distortion and overdrive pedals are both sometimes referred to as gain pedals, or perhaps dirt or crunch pedals. These types of pedals add extra grit to your guitar tone, and in the process they can also boost the volume a bit, if so required. Whether it's called gain, dirt or grit - the idea is the same. There is another type of gain pedal that should be mentioned here as well - the fuzz pedal, as it also belongs to this family of pedals. However, I'm leaving fuzz pedals out of the discussion for the rest of this article.
Depending on who you ask, you might get slightly difference answers to this question about the difference between distortion and overdrive. I find it is hard to describe in words the difference between the two. The easiest way to get an idea would be to start by having a listen yourself. Here is a video clip the demonstrates each type of pedal:
If you still insist on a description, I would say think of Distortion as a crunchy, edgy type of gritty sound with plenty of sustain. It is the basic sound of the classic rock bands as well as heavy rock bands all the way to metal bands. Many guitar amps can create a fat, rich distortion by themselves, and then a distortion pedal is often not needed. However, there are also many amps that don't produce much distortion, so adding a distortion pedal can then give a player a lot of versatility by transforming the clean sound to a fat rocking tone.
Overdrive, to my ears, has a more hollow sound, usually less sustain and a more "bluesy" sound. There are many overdrive pedals out there, but the one with the most fame attached to it would probably be the Tube Screamer, by Ibanez. There are nowadays many companies making tube screamer type of pedals. Stevie Ray Vaughan used Tube Screamers throughout his career, and partly because of the huge influence he continues to have on so many people, you often find a Tube Screamer of some variation or another on most guitar players' pedalboards.
The difference in sound between distortion pedals and overdrive pedals can sometimes be very subtle. I find I can set my distortion pedals to sound very much like an overdrive pedal, by turning down the gain a bit, while also turning back the tone knob somewhat. Turning those knobs in the opposite direction however, would create a more typical high gain distortion sound on most distortion pedals.
Getting an overdrive pedal to sound like a distortion pedal is harder though. I find they sound best on medium gain settings through a clean or semi-clean amp. Again, have a listen to almost any bluesier or rockier Stevie Ray Vaughan song, and you can often hear how he kicks in a Tubescreamer when he takes a solo. The tone gets louder, and changes from semi-clean to rich, dirty and gritty.
A gain pedal can be used in several ways. You can use it with a medium gain setting through a clean amp tone in order to get a good gritty rhythm guitar sound. You can use it as a boost, with a low gain setting but the volume turned up through an already semi-dirty amp. This will make the signal into the preamp a little "hotter", which will lead to increased sustain and fatter tone. Maybe you have good amp distortion already, but you want more crunch - kick in a distortion pedal of your choice and you're rocking! Experiment - try different variations and combinations to see what interesting tones you can get. There are no rules for how to use pedals - as long as it sounds good, your're on the right track.
Here's a little trick you should try if you haven't: using two gain pedals together. It's an interesting way to get versatile tones, and I often do this. I may use my Maxon SD-9 for distortion, then add my Boss Blues Driver for additional gain and volume. Perfect for plaing lead stuff. Again, there are no rules - try both overdrive and distortion pedals together and see what you come up with. You can for example have them both set up low amounts of gain, but together they deliver lots of gain. Or, you can have one set up with a fair amount of gain and the other with just a touch of dirt and perhaps slight volume boost. This way, you have the perfect setup for playing solos and leads.
If you are thinking about getting a gain pedal and don't have much experience with these, I would recommend you got to a well equipped music store and ask to try a decent overdrive pedal, as well as a decent distortion pedal. Have both of them hooked up together and try all combinations and settings. See what tones YOU like out this gear.
Here are some recommendations for pedals - just remember that there are so many people making great pedals today, and these recommendations are by no means meant to represent the best pedals available - they are just some examples that came to mind as I am writing this up.
My personal favorites for distortion - the Maxon SD-9, because it sounds very organic and fat. The tone knob is extremely powerful, so you can go from a mild overdrive to high gain lead tones. Highly recommended.
Overdrive from pedal or amp - it all depends... it's really a preference thing. I prefer to have a little bit of overdrive on the amp, and then add more when need with a good pedal. It's very important you start with a good amp tone. If you have a great pedal but crappy sounding amp, you're never gonna be happy.Comment added on June 15, 2012
which is better :
overdrive from the real tube amp, or from a pedal
what kind of distortion and overdrive are the best to team up??Comment added on April 28, 2012
Ejoy, ignore the comments from those people. I believe you get the BEST tone if you use a distortion into an amp that has a bit of gain/distortion in it already. I use my amps that way - set them to produce a small amount of gain/distortion, and then I add an overdrive or distortion pedal between amp and guitar. That's in fact a very common scenario among guitar players.
If you use a quality tube amp and pedal, you will be able to clean up the tone by rolling down your guitar's volume control about half way.
Thank you for these tips. Very helpfull for a new guitar player like me. I have another question though. I have an overdrive pedal, as well as a guitar effects processor, and a Marshall JCM2000 TSL Marshall Amp. You said you can throw your pedals in any combo and try stuff out. But I have been told by some people I should not use my overdrive pedal if im using any of the distortion settings on my amp, or if im running it on a clean channel and using a distortion preset on my effects rack. Is there a way to use my overdrive pedal in any combo with them? I just plug in directly to the front of the amp, not using any effects loop channels because they seem weak on this amp. Thanks for any advice people!Comment added on November 02, 2011
hello need a help here.. what is the most suitable pedal for sounds like grunge with a little more heavy sounds.. i use a epiphone guitar, can u decide to me?Comment added on August 23, 2011
Nick, tough question. Those are all good, but I would probably go with the DS2 Turbo for that kind of tone. Perhaps the Digitech Hot Head? It's cool for that type of tone as well.Comment added on August 25, 2010
i cant decide between the boss DS-1, the boss DS-2 turbo and the ibanez tube screamer TS9DX pedals. im going for the 80s rock/metal tone and so far im leaning towards the ibanez. which would you reccomend?Comment added on August 24, 2010
Great Jules, let me know how you like that T-Rex Moller.Comment added on April 15, 2010
Thanks a lot. Really cleared things up. So I just ordered a T-Rex Moller. Thanks dude.Comment added on April 15, 2010
which one i should buy for play blues and rock n roll(Eric clapton,bb king,zz top,rainbow(dio times),led zeppelin,Jimi hendrix,steve ray vaugan etc etc,)Comment added on March 27, 2010
Thanks, I was just jamming something out of the blue...Comment added on January 15, 2010
That was some fantastic playing in the first vid, were you playing anything in particular or just jamming?Comment added on January 15, 2010
thanx a lot sir, i was really finding it hard to select he accurate pedal, you made my selection easyComment added on November 18, 2009
Great post and thanks for sharing your expertise.Comment added on October 27, 2008