The origin of guitar distortion goes back to the earliest electrified blues guitarists.
They didn’t care that their primitive tube amps were breaking up and distorting, as long as they were loud. Soon, blues guitarists grew quite fond of those nasty, gnarly distorted tones, and they sought to replicate them by any means necessary.
Enter the overdrive pedal. Designed to push an amp to the brink, the overdrive pedal allows players to summon singing sustain, compelling crunch, and glorious grit at any volume level, giving guitarists the bite and balls they need for genuine blues-approved tone.
While a handful of purists prefer to plug a guitar straight into an amp, most blues guitarists these days have a handful of overdrive, distortion and even fuzz boxes in their rigs.
Thanks to the proliferation of boutique pedal builders over the past 20 years, there are easily more than a thousand distortion devices available to help guitarists find their signature blues sound.
The following pedals are the top 10 classics and modern marvels that get our mojo working when we spank that plank and crank up the volume.
10. Way Huge Pork Loin
By blending modern soft-clipping BiFET overdrive and classic clean “British” preamp tone pathways, the Pork Loin allows players to dial in raw, raunchy tones that never lose bottom-end clarity or definition. The Pork Loin plays a massive role in Joe Bonamassa’s bigger-than-life modern blues sound.
9. Klon Centaur
The Klon Centaur’s legendary clean boost transforms a guitar’s natural tone the same way a livestock farmer turns a piglet into a prize-winning porker—by making it bigger, fatter, juicier, meatier and more muscular.
Centaur designer Bill Finnegan discontinued production several years ago, driving prices for used Klons well above $1,000, but he’s trying to bring a similar pedal to the market again with the same hand-selected parts, attention to detail and signature sound that the numerous “klones” have failed to match.
8. PaulC Audio Tim
Thanks to its impressive tonal range and expressive touch sensitivity, the Tim is a favorite of tube amp aficionados who don’t want to sacrifice the dynamic response of their favorite amps but need more gain and tonal-shaping capabilities. With the EQ controls set at 12 o’clock, it provides some of the most transparent clean boost and overdrive tones available.
7. Fulltone Full-Drive 2
Fulltone makes an impressive variety of incredible overdrive, distortion and fuzz pedals, including the OCD, PlimSoul and Fat-Boost FB-3, but when it comes to the blues, most guitarists choose the Fulltone Full-Drive 2.
With separate overdrive and boost footswitches and mini toggle switches for selecting clean boost, midrange emphasis, MOSFET clipping and more, the Full-Drive 2 is a versatile overdrive pedal that makes it easy to dial in your own signature blues tones.
6. Ibanez TS-808 Tube Screamer
Thanks to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s use of an Ibanez Tube Screamer (he replaced the TS-808 with a TS-9 and TS-10 later in his career), this pedal has gone on to become the best-selling and most copied overdrive pedal of all time.
The Tube Screamer’s output boost and signature midrange hump, along with a characteristic warmth that the TS-808’s successors lack, make it ideal for playing fat, aggressive solos that destroy everything else in its path.
5. Electro-Harmonix Big Muff π
Most staunch traditionalists think that the raunchy fuzz tones of a Big Muff π are a little too furry and furious for the blues, but that hasn’t stopped a new generation of blues-inspired players from using one. The Big Muff is a key element of 21st century blues as envisioned by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and Jack White of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather.
4. Dallas-Arbiter Rangemaster Treble Booster
Eric Clapton’s alleged use of a Dallas-Arbiter Rangemaster Treble Booster on John Mayall’s legendary Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton album remains the source of much controversy, but the Rangemaster was also a key element of Rory Gallagher’s late-Sixties rig that similarly redefined blues guitar tone during the British blues revival, thanks to its marvelous midrange and gritty germanium transistor grind.
Numerous clones are available today, including the Analog Man Beano Boost and Keeley Java Boost.
3. Boss BD-2 Blues Driver
Not since the late Seventies, when the Ibanez Tube Screamer and Boss OD-1 made their debut, 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.
2. Blackstone Appliances MOSFET Overdrive
This pedal’s nameplate and crinkle finish may have the retro-cool vibe of a Thirties toaster, but underneath the hood lies a modern circuit that uses small-signal MOSFETs and an unconventional input stage to cook up distortion and overdrive with rich harmonic overtones that will melt your face off like a million-watt microwave.
“It’s heavy stuff, not the sound of a popcorn machine,” says Billy Gibbons, who used the Blackstone in tasteful excess on several new ZZ Top tunes.
Blackstone photo by William Baeck, williambaeck.com
1. Analog Man King of Tone
With a two-year waiting list, the Analog Man King of Tone is one of the most sought-after overdrive pedals, and for a very good reason: it provides a clean boost that preserves a guitar’s tone, making it sound bigger, badder and more bodacious, with just the right amount of natural-sounding distortion.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Gary Clark Jr. and Buddy Miller are just a handful of the pros who have discovered that the King of Tone truly rules.