As much as we love the sound of a vintage guitar going direct into a hand-wired tube amp, there’s something magical about placing one of the best overdrive pedals for blues in the middle of that chain for a bit of extra push.
The good news is the selection of available overdrive pedals has never been greater than it is at this moment – each with its own unique twist on how it can spice up your riffs and leads.
The most popular circuit of them all would be that of the soft-clipping Tube Screamer, which has been copied and cloned countless times, and – despite being deeply rooted in the blues – has also been adopted by players from pretty much every genre, including higher-gain metal maniacs.
When it comes to blues, however, less is more – and you’ll probably notice that an over-whelming majority of players actually have very little gain dialed in on their pedals, instead using them more as a low-gain boost to help those leads jump out and cut through. Some overdrives will reshape your EQ in order to facilitate this, often tightening the lows and boosting the higher mids, while others are known for being “natural” or “transparent,” simply giving you more of the tone you already have.
Each player will have his or her own preferences; some might want to stick to the classic three-knob designs, while others might prefer units with an abundance of modes, dials and switches. In this list, we look at 10 of our favorite overdrives for blues – from the most simple and affordable to the absolute top-of-the-line boutique options available today.
1. Ibanez TS808HWB Hand-wired Tube Screamer
It’s no secret that Stevie Ray Vaughan used various Tube Screamers over his career, from the TS808 original that was launched in the late-'70s to the TS9 and TS10 models that arrived the following decade.
And while you can’t really go wrong with any of the models still in production, such as the four-mode TS9DX or the pedalboard-friendly mini, it’s this hand-wired reissue of the classic 808 that will most likely get you closest to SRV’s game-changing tones.
Being the most expensive Tube Screamer Ibanez has ever made, it’s worth noting there is no circuit board – instead its parts are hand-soldered onto a strip board like the fuzz pedals of old.
The TS808HWB is also true bypass and uses the same JRC4558D chip as the smoother- and warmer-sounding originals, wired with high-quality Mogami OFC cables. All in all, whether you’re using it as a rich-sounding boost or thrillingly musical overdrive, this is as deluxe as a Tube Screamer can get.
2. Vemuram Jan Ray
With endorsees such as Josh Smith, Kirk Fletcher, Wayne Krantz and Richie Sambora, Vemuram has become one of the most admired boutique pedal producers of the modern age.
Their most popular offering, the Jan Ray, is their take on the famous “Fender Magic 6” sound, recreating the punch and clarity of Fender’s Blackface amps of the '60s. Unlike Tube Screamer-style overdrives, the Jan Ray doesn’t overly color or compress your sound, instead pushing the front end of your amp for more sustain and boost across the entire sonic spectrum, rather than emphasizing the mids.
As well as controls for Volume, Gain, Bass and Treble, there’s also a saturation trimmer knob at the top, allowing users to fine-tune their gain range and stay in control of how the pedal reacts in between a guitar and an amp. And don’t even get us started on that vintage-style brass casing.
3. Electro-Harmonix Soul Food
The Klon Centaur has become one of the most cult-inspiring pedals of all time, especially in recent years. Earlier this year, JHS owner Josh Scott listed his Centaur – the first to ever have been built and sold by developer Bill Finnegan – on Reverb for half-a-million dollars.
Though it was arguably more of a publicity stunt than a genuine listing, it’s not uncommon for originals to part hands for $5,000, which is pretty mind-blowing considering how much they cost to produce.
But fret not, for those of us wanting that world-famous transparent overdrive at a fraction of the price, Electro-Harmonix has you covered with their super-popular Soul Food.
Though it runs on 9 volts – as opposed to the high-headroom 18 volts of the Centaur – internally they’ve included boosted power rails to bring more definition and response. There are also options to run in true bypass or buffered bypass modes, which is handy, but in all honesty what impresses us most is just how much tone you get for such little money.
4. Boss BD-2W Blues Driver Waza Craft
The Boss Blues Driver could very well be one of the most underrated overdrives of all time. Unlike soft-clipping favorites like the Tube Screamer or Marshall Bluesbreaker, or hard-clipping pedals such as the Centaur, it’s a transistor-based overdrive that runs without an op amp, working internally more like a tube amp than your typical overdrive.
And for this reason alone, the Blues Driver is an incredibly responsive pedal, allowing you to control how much the signal breaks up by your pick attack – ultimately offering more touch dynamics to bring out the nuances in your playing, which is very handy for those bluesy bends.
The classic BD-2 has been spotted on the ’boards of many a rock legend, including Prince, Andy Timmons and Johnny Hiland, and in 2014 the Waza Craft version took that famous drive to new heights, thanks to its all-discrete analog circuitry and a new Custom mode for more body and sustain.
5. Nobels ODR-1
Commonly referred to as “the other green overdrive,” this highly affordable stompbox from German manufacturers Nobels has become surprisingly popular among Nashville session aces, as well as guitarists like Jerry Donahue from the Hellecasters and Supertramp legend Carl Verheyen.
Where it differs from the Tube Screamer, however, is in the midrange – giving players a more natural and rounded crunch that keeps all the low-end frequencies without over-emphasizing the upper mids.
That said, the latest version also includes a bass cut – which can really help cover more tonal ground when needed – and there’s also a mini-sized option for those struggling with space on the board. Other than a digital plug-in, that’s the extent of the Nobels line. Clearly, they don’t do much, but what they do, they do very well indeed.
6. Analogman King of Tone
We’re not sure if overdrive pedals can get any more boutique than the appropriately named King of Tone.
First of all, there’s a bit of a wait involved if you’re hoping to buy one – three years, to be precise – which certainly gives it one of the most fascinating supply-and-demand curves in the history of guitar products.
Built and designed by Mike Peira in Bethel, Connecticut, the two-stage overdrive is based around the topology of the 1991 Marshall Black Box Bluesbreaker, with some high-end mods and tweaks.
Inside, there’s a four-position configuration DIP switch that allows you to choose different modes for each side, so it’s plenty versatile and can take you well beyond the blues, if required. Adopted by the likes of John Mayer, Gary Clark Jr., Samantha Fish, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Uli Jon Roth to name but a few, the purple pedal’s legend looks set to only grow and grow.
7. Ceriatone Centura
Welsh blues ace Chris Buck loves his “always-on” Centura so much, he once said it sounded better than the Bill Finnegan classic it’s so clearly inspired by.
The recreation by Malaysian manufacturers Ceriatone is quite possibly the ultimate Klone of them all, built to the exact specs of the originals, in the same oversized housing and with options for matte and raw finishes in gold or silver, with or without the mythical man-horse graphic.
But more importantly, it’s an incredibly musical overdrive – keep the gain down and you have the kind of boost pedal that will turn virtually any amp into a boutique hand-wired affair, but as you crank it to halfway and beyond, the tones feel more rounded and full-fat than pretty much any other overdrive out there.
As well as an extensive amp line, the company also produces the Horse Breaker – a twin overdrive that features the Centaur circuit on one side and a Bluesbreaker on the other – and is also set to release its own Horse Screamer later in the year.
8. MXR Timmy
Collaborations between independent boutique builders and larger mass-market producers have become increasingly common in recent years – and the MXR Timmy, based on Paul Cochrane’s Tim and Timmy overdrives, could very well be the best of the bunch.
Launched last year as part of their Custom Shop range, this version rehouses the legendary open-sounding and uncompressed drive into a more user-friendly mini enclosure, offering three different clipping modes for tonal shaping.
Considering how much more Cochrane’s hand-made units sell for – and how hard they are to find, his company having no website or online presence whatsoever – the MXR version succeeds in its quest to meet demand and expectation while also keeping costs relatively low. From a consumer perspective, that’s a big win-win.
9. JHS Bonsai
What’s better than one Tube Screamer? Well, how about nine in one box? The Bonsai might not sit well with some purists because it offers so many of the famous twists on the Ibanez overdrive, but for those of us wanting to flick through the decades – and even explore famous mods such as Robert Keeley’s – this will certainly cover all the bases.
There’s even an option for the orange-colored 1977 Ibanez OD, which famously preceded the Tube Screamer range and worked more like a distortion than the green overdrive we all know and love. Which is precisely why it’s the most multifaceted and all-encompassing TS-style overdrive out there.
John Mayer was so impressed he posted a shot of the Bonsai on his Instagram, boldly declaring that “every household should have one” – which, to be fair, is the mother of all endorsements.
10. Origin Effects RevivalDrive
Some players might look at the RevivalDrive and be put off by the sheer amount of control it offers. To be perfectly honest, it’s hard to think of any other overdrive pedals that go this in-depth – though, as we all know, there are definitely tonehounds out there who will appreciate the sonic versatility.
In that sense, the RevivalDrive works more like an amp than a pedal, with two channels covering American and British voicings, assignable mid-boosts, controls for the “ghost note” effect of cranking vintage gear and a high-impedance buffered bypass with silent switching.
On their website, the British manufacturers describe the Revival Drive as “the last overdrive pedal you will ever need” and – provided you’re able to navigate its numerous switches and dials – that could very well be the case.