Back in the day, if a guitarist was looking to add a little extra dirt to their tone, especially at low volumes, there was only a small selection of pedals to reach for in order to get the job done—maybe a Boss OD-1 or, depending on how far back we’re going, a Tone Bender fuzz.
Nowadays, of course, guitarists are treated to almost limitless options. Which is why Guitar World has scoured the market to source the best drive pedals currently available. The 10 units we've rounded-up here run the gamut from pared-down mini pedals and simple three-knob designs to dual-channel, compound effects.
Dirt-wise, these pedals span from boost and fuzz to overdrive circuits, without delving into the high-gain distortion realm, which is a jam-packed field all its own. If you’re looking to add some grit to your tone though, here are ten top pedals that will get the job done, with satisfying results.
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The EarthQuaker Devices Westwood Translucent Drive Manipulator combines true clean boost functions with a two-band active EQ to provide a wider range of musically useful tones and more sonic flexibility.
The Westwood differs from most other transparent boost pedals by providing more gain boost that pushes overdrive to the edge of distortion, and includes an active EQ section that delivers up to 20dB of boost or cut to frequencies around 2kHz (treble) and 80Hz (bass). The pots for the bass and treble knobs have center-detents at 0dB, making it easy to dial in true transparent tone. The circuit has an all-analog signal path, and the true bypass switch is relay-based to provide silent, click-free on and off switching.
If you want true transparent overdrive with a wider range of gain as well as flexible EQ for refining your amp or guitar’s tone, the Westwood will truly rock your world.
Sure, the Sugar Drive delivers the trademark Klon transparent drive sound, but the pedal seems to have more in common with vintage JMP Marshalls in its natural overdriven breakup, not to mention a firm low end with cutting midrange. What makes the Sugar fascinatingly unique is its voltage-doubler circuit—found when the drive control is turned up—which essentially offers the high-ceiling headroom and dynamic response of an 18-volt pedal at 9-volt operation.
Rolled counterclockwise, the pedal offers a stout clean tone; as drive is increased, the circuit kicks in to blend organic overdrive that has a classic broken-in crunchiness reminiscent of vintage AC/DC. For those who need it, the pedal has a side-mounted toggle switch for buffered or true-bypass operation.
No doubt, the Sugar Drive is smooth in its overdriven and boosted tones, but what’s just as important is that it sounds fantastic when stacked or paired with just about any other overdrive or distortion pedal. Kind of like adding more sugar to your coffee.
The OCD V2 sounds like finding the “sweet spot” on your favorite amp. It produces overdriven tones that sound warm and full, with genuine tube-like response. There’s no shortage of usable drive, meaning it dynamically ramps up overdriven grit from dirty overtones to saturated distortion in the smooth range of its drive control.
A new output buffer allows your sound to remain consistent no matter where you put the OCD in the signal chain and also reduces loading in its hard-clipping stage for more sustain. A new Class A-configured 2N5457 JFET input section raises the previous input impedance from 330K to one mega ohm, which results in smoother response when switching between single coils and humbuckers. Other new features include a selectable true bypass and “Enhanced Bypass” switch, which returns dynamics and tone loss from multiple cables and effects, along with pop-free switching.
Depending upon your pick attack, the tone control works best between noon and fully clockwise, allowing for more edge or clarity. The HP/LP switch is useful in sculpting your tone. In HP, the guitar has more distortion and presence, with pointed midrange that cuts like a knife. LP is subtler and retains a lot of your amp’s character. If you’re obsessive over your tone, look no further.
A Seventies-style circuit with symmetrical hard-clipping, the Flatiron Fuzz features controls for drive, filter (low pass) and volume, and is powered by a 9-volt battery or 9V DC power supply. EHX is upfront about the fact that it's the company's take on a Rat 2 distortion pedal, and while you can hear the inspiration in the Flatiron’s gnarliness, the Rat 2 has a range of distorted textures that approaches fuzz, while the Flatiron is more focused in its fuzzy gain structure, blending Big Muff Pi fatness to notes with a granular, upper-mid distorted grind.
The Flatiron works best when you find its sweet spots. Setting the filter between 11 and 2 o’clock is ideal, but anywhere outside of that, it’s either sharply bright or too dark. There’s a Ted Nugent “Cat Scratch Fever” chug from noon to 3 o’clock, and anywhere clockwise from there is a full-on melange of fuzz and saturation that sounds glorious. A pedal that sits at the crossroad of fuzz and distortion—and combines both in a very natural and musical way.
Fender has been a music industry leader in the worlds of guitars, basses and amplifiers since the early Fifties. But one significantly related category that the company hasn’t pursued quite as extensively over the last six or seven decades is pedals. That all changed in 2018 with a rollout of a variety of effects pedals, including the thoughtfully-designed Santa Ana Overdrive.
The Santa Ana offers a range of tones, from fat lead sounds to distinctive hard rock rhythm crunch, and a switchable boost function that's perfect for punching a solo above the mix (level setting) or adding extra creamy compression and sustain (gain setting).
The pedal boasts three-band EQ, plus presence and two different voice modes. The A mode (American) is brighter, with a sharper attack, while B (British) is darker and somewhat warmer. And for a company so steeped in tradition, Fender also found some spots to innovate; of particular note is the magnetic battery access compartment at the front of the pedal. Furthermore, the LEDs that illuminate the knob settings look awesome, but even better is the ability to turn them on or off with the flick of a switch on the rear panel. All in all, a well-laid out and incredibly versatile foray into the overdrive pedal market.
Truetone’s Jekyll & Hyde V3 Overdrive Distortion is a complete redesign of the company’s (formerly known as Visual Sound) flagship dual effect pedal that offers even more versatility, combined with stellar overdrive crunch and focused hi-gain tones. In addition to a more compact shape, the V3’s two-pedals-in-one design features an all-new overdrive circuit and rebuilt distortion channel, each with their own set of controls.
Overdrive (Jekyll) has drive, tone and volume, as well as bass and clean mix knobs. On the Distortion (Hyde) side, there are hi-gain, treble, volume, bass and mid knobs, along with bright and voice A-B switches. The overdrive and distortion have separate on/off footswitches and their own set of inputs and outputs, which allow you to change their order in the signal chain, loop other effects in between them or use the overdrive and distortion separately. In addition, there is an internal Pure Tone buffer on/off switch and a built-in noise gate for the distortion.
The overdrive side is incredibly transparent and fluid in response to touch, while the Hyde side requires more finesse to get the perfect balance of harmonics and fire-breathing distortion. Without a doubt, the V3 is unlike its previous versions, having a more open amp-like overdrive and a beefy distortion with plenty of bottom end that can get downright aggressive when pushed to its maximum limit.
Not since the late Seventies, when the Ibanez Tube Screamer and Boss OD-1 made their respective debuts, has a mass-produced overdrive pedal won over the great unwashed and cork-sniffing tone snobs alike. The BD-2 delivers a wide variety of overdrive tones, from creamy to crunchy, with personality that ranges from retro smooth to modern blues-rock raunch.
The BD-2 is subtle enough to function as a boost, but make no mistake—this is an overdrive pedal for sure, with warm and natural tones that add just the right amount of gain, edge and bite to emulate a fired-up tube amp. A classic that never goes out of style.
To say the MXR EVH 5150 Overdrive is a phenomenally dynamic, super-charged overdrive pedal is no exaggeration—it uncannily nails both early and current EVH amp tones in convincingly enhanced detail. Word on the street is that even the man himself was unable to discern the difference between the pedal and his signature 5150 III head.
The pedal features true-bypass switching and five controls for output, three-band EQ (bass, mid and treble) and gain. It also includes a mini gate control (based on the MXR Smart Gate Noise Gate circuit) that lights up yellow when noise reduction is engaged. There’s also a boost switch, which is key for transitioning into harmonically rich hi-gain tones with a dose of compression but without changing the overall volume. A 9V battery or AC adapter powers the pedal.
The 5150’s bold overdrive is definitely on the red-hot side, with searing crunch that teeters on the edge of distortion, even when the gain is set low and without the boost switch activated. A few twists will get users near to the famed “brown” sound (think Van Halen’s “Unchained”), with a cutting midrange and hot-rodded crunch that warms up as the guitar’s volume is goosed. Engaging the boost switch, meanwhile, will provide more roundness and saturated crunch.
Ibanez’s TS Mini is a downsized version of its iconic Tube Screamer, which—since its debut in 1979—has been one of the most recognizable, respected and employed overdrive pedals on the market. True to its name, the Mini measures roughly 1 1/2–inches wide and 3 1/2–inches long. Ibanez pulled out all the stops to create this solidly built, all-analog stompbox in a compact design, while retaining the sonic integrity of its acclaimed TS808 Reissue. To accommodate its diminutive size, it features an internal surface mount JRC4558M chip, which is similar to the beloved JRC4558D chip found in the full-sized TS808 pedal. The TS Mini requires an external nine-volt adapter for power, and also features true-bypass switching and controls for Level, Tone and Overdrive.
Performance-wise, the TS Mini sounds so superb you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between it and its full-sized counterpart in a blindfold test. It works best in front of a tube amp—making single notes sound fatter while softening your low-end register with warmth and clarity—all the while preserving the tonal nature of your amp. Pushing the Overdrive past 12 o’clock adds wicked squeal to pinch harmonics and lets you coax out some righteous musical feedback. All the warmth and punch of Ibanez’s classic TS808 overdrive in a pedal board–friendly size.
The Aria is quite literally two pedals in one—users can freely adjust the signal chain order of the effects (overdrive before compression and vice versa) or even use TRS cables to insert a different pedal effect in between the two. The overdrive section’s controls consist of level, drive and tone knobs along with a low/high mini toggle switch for selecting low or high gain. The compressor section has its own level, blend and sustain controls plus a mini rotary tone knob for dialing in brightness. Each section has its own on/off footswitch, and the pedal features a mini FX Order toggle for placing one effect or the other first in the signal chain.
The design is flat-out awesome. You get a pro-quality compressor that completely preserves attack and adds impressive body and sustain without changing the guitar’s tonal character. Add to that an overdrive that’s worth the entire price of admission thanks to its rich harmonics, crisp definition and a tone profile that makes any guitar sound its best. By placing compression before overdrive, users can make every note clear as a bell and dial in pro studio quality tones for live performance.