Along with fuzz and delay, overdrive is the essential guitar effect. While overdrive pedals tend to have a smaller range of gain than, say, distortion or fuzz pedals, their ability to interact with a tube amp and tap into tube saturation means that, in practice, an overdrive with a decent volume boost available will have as much gain as you'll ever need – depending, of course, on your choice of amp.
As such, they're as versatile as they are varied, with an endless number of different options with different EQ, voicing and playing dynamics.
If you've been considering investing in a new drive pedal, we've rounded up the best overdrive pedals available today to help you decide.
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What is the best overdrive pedal right now?
If you're on a budget, then the new MXR Timmy is the way to go. Paul Cochrane's design offers an amp-like transparent tone, stacks well, has good EQ options and provides a huge range of gain. Not only that, it's got more than enough volume on tap to bring the best qualities of your amp to the fore. It's sometimes a bit noisy at higher gain levels, but if that's the trade-off for its uncompressed, open voicing, then we'll take it.
If you want the best of the best, then you might want to consider either a Hamstead Odyssey or an Amptweaker Tight Rock Jr. The trade-offs between the two are availability, compression and gating. The Tight Rock is easier to find if you want to try it, and is very low-noise thanks to its built-in gate. It's got a variety of EQ and voicing options, and a decent gain range. Its only downside is that it's a relatively compressed-sounding pedal, especially when using the gate.
The Hamstead has an even greater gain range, a more 'open' general voicing and more EQ options – although, provided you have your amp dialed in right, you may not need that extra tweakability.
How to choose the best overdrive pedal for you
Generally created using an op-amp amplification stage and so-called 'soft clipping', overdrives shape your tone in three main ways. First, they add distortion and extra harmonic content by amplifying and then clipping your signal.
Second, they change the EQ profile of your signal; most overdrives also sport a tone control to allow for further tweaking beyond the essential 'character' that the drive delivers.
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Finally, as mentioned before, the fact that they amplify the input signal means that any pedals or amplifier after the overdrive in your signal chain will react to it.
In particular, most overdrives that greatly increase the volume of the input signal can be used to drive tube amps into saturation. Indeed, this property is so desirable for some guitarists that they will use an overdrive with the volume all the way up, and clipping all the way down, to try to get the maximum possible saturation from their amp - as Stevie Ray Vaughan used to do with a Tube Screamer back in the day.
Within this broad camp of effects, though, there's a lot of variation – so without further ado, here are a few of our favorites.
The best overdrive pedals available today
The original, and in many ways still the best overdrive pedal. With the gain up, the volume up and the tone pulled back, the Tube Screamer is pure blues heaven. But open up the tone, push the volume and you'll find that it's more than capable of delivering modern rock tones.
Dime the volume with the gain pulled back a bit, and in front of a tube amp you'll be in metal territory. A classic modern metal 'djent' tone can be achieved with a TS set up as a boost; that is, gain down, volume way up, tone up, in front of a Peavey 5150 or similar high-gain amp. Bring down the bass at the amp and get chugging.
The Timmy is the classic 'transparent' overdrive. Based on the Tube Screamer, but without the same compression and without its trademark 'mid-hump' EQ profile, the Timmy is much more versatile as a drive.
All of your favorite tricks with a Tube Screamer can be achieved, with the added bonus that the Timmy stacks incredibly well with other boosts and overdrives. Funnily enough, it even stacks well with, you guessed it, a Tube Screamer.
In addition to its flatter and more 'open' EQ profile, the Timmy boasts arguably more powerful user controls, with a bass cut and a treble cut control. Particularly for heavier rock sounds, being able to remove bass is what allows you to dial in a drive tone that's not heavily compressed, but is also not 'woofy' and loose.
The original Klon Centaur is right in the middle of the Venn diagram overlap for 'rare' and 'expensive', but luckily there are a number of high-quality clones on the market, of which the Tumnus is one of the better units.
Not only is it a great-sounding, faithful reproduction of the most unobtainium overdrive in the business, it's also housed in a small-form-factor, 1590A-sized enclosure, meaning it doesn't take up much pedalboard real estate at all.
In terms of sounds, the Klon is often described as 'transparent', but we've always found it to be distinctly colored, chewy in its drive tone at lower gain settings, and crunchy and dry with the gain up – these qualities are also true of the Tumnus.
Although it may not be transparent, it can still be used as a slightly colorful boost in front of a tube amp with the gain down and volume up. And while it would be mad to pay for an original unit for this kind of use, employing the more affordable Tumnus to smash a tube amp into saturation isn't sacrilege.
Another drive in the extended TS family, the OCD goes from light drive and light compression to almost fuzz-like territory, depending on the model. It's got quite a distinctive sound, which tends to overtake the tone of your amp a little – but in that respect, it's really no different from the TS itself or the Klon, both of which have a very recognisable tone.
The OCD is sometimes marketed under the 'transparent' overdrive umbrella, but that's not how we would describe it, as in almost all configurations it colors your tone in a very noticeable way.
The Santa Ana produces fat lead tones as well as distinctive hard rock rhythm crunch, and the switchable boost function is great for punching a solo above the mix (level setting) or adding extra creamy compression and sustain (gain setting).
The Santa Ana overdrive also includes a true bypass/buffer switch and a boost function switch for selecting level or gain boost, in addition to three-band EQ, plus presence and two different voice modes.
Other cool features include the magnetic battery access compartment at the front of the pedal and the LEDs that illuminate the knob settings. What's even cooler is you can control these lights with the flick of a switch on the rear panel.
The Sunset is an oddity in this list. Although it has an analog JFET gain stage, the heavy lifting is actually done digitally, allowing it to have a much wider range of potential tones inside the unit.
It has two independent drives with independent controls, easily accessible via the front panel. The left-hand side sports a germanium diode-based drive, which is similar to some models of the OCD; a Tube Screamer-style drive and a treble boost, while the right side has a more complex two-stage drive, a hard-clipping distortion that's somewhat akin to a ProCo RAT, and the analog JFET boost.
These options alone offer a huge spread of versatility, but when you consider that you can also stack the sides to create even more complex drive tones, the true power of the Sunset is revealed. From Queen-style treble boosting to modern metal, this pedal really can do it all, and without breaking a sweat.
Perhaps the most gratifying thing about the Sunset is that, with a lot of volume boost on tap - despite being a digital pedal - it can actually push a tube amp into saturation just as convincingly as an analog drive or boost.
Not only that, but the combination of treble boost and the JFET analog boost option mean that, tone-wise, you can craft unique boost timbres for complementing your valve amp's tone.
Designed by James Brown (no, not that one – the chap who came up with the Peavey 5150), the Amptweaker core line mainly comprises 'amp in a box'-style overdrives that go from light drive (Tight Drive) all the way to aggressive modern metal (Tight Metal).
The Tight Rock JR is, to our minds, the best all-rounder of the bunch, streamlining the options of the larger boxes while still offering a very good noise gate. With the gain down and volume up, you start off in grunge-ish territory; it can clean up further, but it begins to feel like you're not playing to the pedal's strengths if you get any less hairy than Pearl Jam.
At the other end of its range, you can pretty much get all the way to tech metal territory; and although it doesn't handle 7-strings and extended range guitars quite as well as the higher-gain Tight Metal, it can just about keep up.
Paired with a decent tube amp, it's responsive enough that bringing the gain down and volume up will result in a more dynamic playing experience. However, this is at the more compressed end of the gain spectrum, and it's making no claims about 'transparency' – as the name suggests, this is an overdrive for the rockers.
The brainchild of Peter Hamstead, the Odyssey - like the Tight Rock - is a drive built by an audio engineer who's primarily an amp designer. And like the Tight Rock, it feels more like an 'amp in a box' design than the lower-gain overdrive options out there.
Unlike the Tight Rock, however, the Odyssey, with its multitude of clipping options and broader range of gain on tap, can actually get convincingly into low-gain and boost territory, although it's at mild hair and above settings that the pedal shines.
With the gain at the higher end of its range, it can get the kind of drive tones that Billy Howerdel coerces out of his hot-rodded Marshalls in A Perfect Circle. But it's by no means a one-trick pony, and responds surprisingly well to a range of different amps.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the pedal is its powerful EQ options, which allow you to dial in and refine a drive tone that works, and then make informed adjustments to that if you, say, have to change amps because you're borrowing backline at a gig.
Rare mainly because they're still produced by hand and have a waiting list that runs to several years, the KOT is a fusion of a TS-style drive and a Marshall Bluesbreaker pedal, with a variety of clipping and tone options to allow players to customise it to their liking.
Each unit has two independent drives, each of which can be tweaked to deliver different voices. It's very common to see players set up one side for a mid-level drive and then the other side as a dramatic boost, allowing them to effectively move into high-gain territory and smash a tube amp into saturation, as well as having a more sedate rhythm drive option.
Despite its rarity, there aren't many KOT clones in the market, as the original uses some relatively rare diodes for its clipping, meaning that emulating the unique character of this pedal is easier said than done.
Set up as a boost or with the drive pulled back, it gets pretty well into 'transparent' drive territory. That said, the EQ options are more limited compared to something like the Timmy, unless you mod it to have the presence controls accessible via pots on the front panel.