The Three Types of Distortion Pedals

Guitar Lessons Effects

Overdrive vs. Distortion vs. Fuzz 

When you first start getting into electric guitar tone, all the various terms for gain-based effects can be quite confusing.  What is overdrive?  How is it different from distortion?  What the heck is fuzz?  Aren’t these all distortion?  What do all of these do and how are they different? And really, what do they all sound like?  You don’t want to invest your money in a pedal that doesn’t get you the tone you want simply based on a term.

Technically speaking, all of these effects are different types of distortion, which is what occurs when the amplitude of a waveform exceeds the capacity of its components of production.  When this happens, the waveform starts to clip at its peaks, and overdrive, distortion and fuzz refer to three degrees of clipping produced in different ways.  When a sound wave is clipped, it alters the overtones (frequencies above the fundamental a.k.a the given pitch) of the original wave creating even and odd-order harmonics.  The even-order harmonics do not alter the original wave as strongly as odd-order harmonics.  Therefore, the harder a wave clips, the more the odd-order harmonics are boosted, the more the wave is altered and the more dissonant a signal is produced.

Overdrive

Overdrive is the type of distortion produced when a tube amplifier is pushed beyond its production limits.  It clips softer with rounded peaks produced by stronger even-order harmonics. Thus tube overdrive is often described as “warmer.” The harder the valve is pushed, the more the odd-order harmonics are accentuated.  Therefore, overdrive is more responsive to dynamics, meaning the harder you attack the guitar, the harder the clipping is produced.  Overdrive is most associated with blues and rock genre.

While a tube amplifier can generate overdrive independently, there are a variety of pedals on the market to produce their own overdrive sound through a clean amp or further overdrive an already-clipping tube amp.  The industry standard is the Ibanez TS-9 Tubescreamer, which is used by artists such as Stevie Ray Vaughan and John Mayer.

Distortion

While all three of effects listed here are technically distortion, when guitar players refer to distortion they are referring to the harder clipping sound produced by a solid-state transistor.  Solid-state transistors produce more odd-order and higher-order (higher above the fundamental) harmonics, which clips the waveform harder.  Since every note fed through distortion creates a large amount of dissonant harmonics which can clash with other frequencies, it works best for styles of music that rely heavily on single-note riffs and power chords such as rock, punk and metal.

The most common, versatile and recommended first purchase for a distortion pedal is the Boss DS-1.  It is simple, with only three knobs, and affordable, despite being used by such virtuosic players as Joe Satriani and Steve Vai.

Fuzz

While fuzz is the hardest clipping form of distortion, it is also the oldest, pioneered in the 1960s with the Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face.  Fuzz clips the waveform into an almost square configuration, producing significant odd and high-order harmonics.  This biases its use towards single-note riffs, power chords and octaves.  Popular in 60s garage and psychedelic rock, fuzz made a resurgence in use during the grunge era of the early 90s where it was used by bands like Smashing Pumpkins. 

The most popular modern fuzz pedal is the Big Muff Pi by Electro-Harmonix.  It has four transistor stages to produce heavily squared clipping and can be found on the pedalboards of J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins and Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys.

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