- Understand the differences between tonal modifiers for your guitar or other signals
- Learn how these different effects operate as a single effect, and as a piece of your overall signal chain
- See some creative uses for each effect that you can try out
We live in a golden age for guitar pedals. As the cost of creating music and recording has gone down, the door has opened for many people to get into making their own guitar pedals for use.
While there have always been people who tinkered with circuits to make their own effects and creative sounds, today there are thousands of boutique pedal companies across the globe making their own pedals and effects.
With all of these different pedals on the market today, it can get confusing to even figure out what any given pedal does, let alone why one manufacturer might be better than another for your application.
And while there aren’t really “standards” that pedal makers follow for what any given effect can be called, there are plenty of guidelines and limitations based on the electrical circuit that any given pedal has going on inside of it.
We’re going to discuss the pedals that affect the tonal aspect of your instrument: boosts, overdrive, distortion, and fuzz.
Understanding “Tonal Modifiers”
At their core, all of these pedals are tonal modifiers. What that means is that they fundamentally change the sound wave of your signal, usually by clipping the signal (boosts are excluded from this, somewhat).
All overdrive, distortions, and fuzz pedals clip your signal and add harmonics to varying degrees.
Boosts, as well as the other pedals, change your signal by increasing the amplitude* (or gain) of the signal. Boosts can clip your signal, though they are generally designed to make other sources (like your guitar amp) reach their own saturation threshold.
Most examples of these effects feature a solid-state, or transistor/op-amp based design. This means that the electrical circuit in the effect’s pedal uses electrical transistors or op-amps to amplify and modify the signal.
For further clarification, check out this article on the different types of harmonic distortion.
Boost pedals are sorta the odd man out of this group because they are essentially one part of what happens in any sort of overdrive, distortion, or fuzz circuit. They’re mostly utility pedals that aren’t necessarily envisioned to be used by themselves.
Boost pedals are miniaturized amplifiers that are designed to add more gain to your signal. That sounds like boosts are simply a way to get more volume out of your amplifier because it’s like turning the amp up, right?
Gain is not the same as overall volume.
Any given amplifier only has so much headroom in it before it exceeds it’s electrical capacity and starts to clip, or distort, the signal. Using a boost will allow you to reach that distortion point quicker in a high headroom amp without adding lots of overall volume, and can be used with a lower headroom amp to add extra distortion to the signal.
What Do Boost Pedals Do?
Boost pedals are typically designed to be used in conjunction with an overdrive or distortion (in pedal form or within your amp) to help send your signal “over the edge” into full harmonic saturation/distortion.
You’re probably thinking, if all a boost does is increase the amplitude of a signal, why are there so many options on the market for boost pedals? (and why do so many of them cost so much money!)
While most boost circuits are in fact a very simple operation, there are a variety of things that change the sound of a boost circuit.
The most common and noticeable difference is in the transistors that are used in the circuit.
Different boosts may have differing types and amounts of transistors in the amplifier circuit, which will in turn affect the overall sound of the boost effect. Other boost effects (such as the Xotic EP booster,) are designed to replicate the tonal qualities of a certain type of preamp/amplifier, which adds more components to the circuit.
Ways To Use a Boost Pedal
One thing to keep in mind with boost pedals is that they are inherently transparent sounding effects. Even though they do impart some character to your tone from the transistors inside the pedal, they don’t really fundamentally change any part of your incoming guitar signal (aside from increasing the gain).
This means that you’ll still have the sound of your guitar ringing through your amp loud (er) and clear when you use a boost pedal.
There are two very common uses for boost pedals in most guitar pedalboards.
The first is useful for when you need to give your guitar a volume boost over other instruments when you take a solo or otherwise become the “lead” instrument in a crowded mix. If you place your boost at the end of your pedalboard (right before you hit the amp) it will give you a nice little volume boost (and some extra saturation if you’re playing with an overdriven amp or pedals) to help you cut through the mix.
With that being said, this same goal can be achieved by a sound engineer at FOH (if you’re playing somewhere with a dedicated sound person). If you’re a gigging musician who plays a lot of bars/venues where there isn’t a dedicated sound person, this is the perfect application for a boost pedal, but if you frequently play clubs with dedicated sound people, it could be a better idea to let them handle it.
Transparently Add Gain
The other common use for a boost pedal is to transparently add more gain to an amplifier (or another pedal) to help it overdrive. In an amp, you can use this to reach a saturation point much more quickly without making your ears bleed (as long as your amp has a master volume at least) because you are effectively adding a second gain knob to your amp.
You can also use this same method to set two different gain flavors to your amp. You can have your “clean” sound without the boost be the tone of your amp for rhythm, and have your boost give your amp extra saturation for your “lead” tone. This is a great application for one channel amplifiers.
One somewhat unconventional use of a boost pedal (and what I actually do in my own rig!) is to (almost) always leave the boost pedal on as a part of your fundamental tone. This works best with a preamp with a little bit of its own “flavor,” because you can use the subtle coloration of the boost to become a part of the clean tone.
If you place overdrive/distortion pedals after your boost in the chain, the boosted signal will react to the pedal differently than it would without the extra gain.
This can help bring some new tones out of your other pedals since you are effectively giving them an extra boost of gain before going into it (try it with a fuzz like a big muff, it’ll help bring back the mid scoop and give you a great usable tone!).
Warming Up Other Sounds
One great use for a booster pedal in a studio setting is with a synthesizer, especially a digital one. If you think the overall sound is just a little bit “lifeless,” try running it into a boost pedal before you hit your preamp (this is especially useful if you’ve got a console or other “analog” preamp that can distort musically). You can add some extra grit and a little bit of harmonic distortion to your signal before recording and it can help breathe new life into your keyboard parts.
A lot of vintage organs/keyboards/electric pianos were designed to run into tube amps, which would inherently add some distortion of their own as you cranked them up, so this is something of a modern application of the same concept.
Boost pedals are a great utility pedal that every musician can find a use for. Due to their overall design simplicity, most of these pedals are mini-sized so you can always squeeze one (or two!) onto a crowded pedalboard.
Due to their overall transparent nature, they are a great way to just give your tone a little extra power without changing your overall sound. Boosts are great “helper” pedals that can give your sound a little bit more spice transparently. It’s like adding a pinch of salt to your already great guitar tone.
Overdrive pedals are probably the most common guitar effect on the market today. With so many varieties of pedals, it’s easy to get lost or confused in how they sound and why they’re useful for your guitar tone.
As mentioned in the introduction, overdrive pedals are another type of tonal modifier for your guitar tone. They are designed to emulate the sound of a guitar amp when you crank up the volume and it overdrives, or distorts the preamp of the amplifier. This results in some soft clipping of your signal and the addition of some ear-pleasing even order harmonics.
A Brief History
The advent of overdrive pedals resulted from the desire of guitarists to have an overdriven sound, but recognizing the unrealistic nature of achieving an overdriven sound from a guitar amp naturally.
This led to the creation of the first “distortion” pedals, which were designed to give you the sound of the amp when you cranked it without doing so by clipping the signal before it hit the amp.
Pedals such as the Fuzz Face, Treble Booster, and Rangemaster were all designed to give your sound extra sustain and emulate the overdriven sound of your tube amp. But these designs were somewhat crude and are described as fuzz or distortion effects by today’s standards.
Throughout the 1970s you would find pedals that were labeled as “overdrives” that really sounded like a fuzz (for example, the Ibanez 850) and there really weren’t any rules as to what designated a different dirt box from another aside from trying one out.
This began to change with the creation of op-amps to use instead of transistors in pedal circuits. Op-amps are essentially a boost circuit in a micro-sized package, about the same size as transistors used in pedal circuits. You can use these op-amps to boost the signal by a massive amount compared to a transistor, then use a separate clipping diode to clip the signal.
What did this mean? More gain in pedals, and more refined gain since you could control how much clipping is added in a refined way, from soft to hard, with different diode designs.
This concept was most famously applied in the now legendary Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer pedal, which was originally released in the late 1970s. The rest, as they say, is history, as the Tube Screamer and it’s later TS9 sibling have become not only some of the most popular guitar pedals of all time, but also one of the most modded, which ultimately led us to the thousands of boutique pedal builders we have today.
Some other “classic” overdrive designs include the ProCo Rat, Klon Centaur, and Boss Blues Driver, and most boutique pedal companies usually refer to these designs in their own products, directly or indirectly, when describing their products.
What Do Overdrive Pedals Do?
Overdrive pedals, much like fuzz and distortion pedals, typically consist of at minimum these three controls: Gain/Drive, Tone control, and output level.
The gain control, while described in the same way as a boost pedal works, typically controls how much the incoming signal is distorted when you increase its value.
This is because while the circuit inside is the same as a boost, it’s connected to clipping diodes or transistors which distort the circuit afterwards. They are definitely similar in their overall design conceptually, but their application in each pedal is different.
The tone control (or controls in pedals with multiple) will essentially act as an EQ of some sorts, usually a shelving EQ based around a chosen frequency.
This means that as you turn the pedal from left to right it will usually always be increasing whatever frequency band the tone is selecting.
It’s important to note though that almost every pedal features a different EQ design, so it is important to read what the tone or EQ knobs do on any individual pedal and not take this as a catch-all by any means.
The volume (or sometimes called output) control controls the overall output level of the pedal. These are placed into the circuit to make up for the volume drop that occurs when you clip the signal and are essentially a boost circuit built into the end of the overdrive pedal design. In most OD pedals you can use them as a boost pedal if you turn the gain knob all the way off so the pedal is no longer clipping. In this method, you will still go through the tone control though, so you’ll still likely inject the overall flavor of the pedal into your boosted tone.
While the tone stacks and clipping methods are inherently going to change your overall tone somewhat, they do so in such a way that your guitar playing dynamics and overall playing style still shine through to your amp. This makes overdrive pedals very desirable for expressive styles of guitar playing, but not a hard and fast rule.
Ways To Use An Overdrive Pedal
While this seems somewhat explanatory, overdrive pedals are generally used to distort your guitar (and usually your amp!) while still retaining your dynamics with pick attack and overall style of playing.
They can also help you push an amp into its own natural overdrive or kick and already overdriven amp over the edge into more saturation.
Recreate Classic Amp Sounds
While many overdrives on the market are various takes on classic designs, there has been a surge in recent years for “amp in a box” style pedals, that aim to recreate the overdrive sounds of classic amps in pedal form.
This can be useful if you really need to emulate the style of a certain player or amp for a sound, or if you are looking for a way to make your fender amp sound more like a marshall (and vice versa).
With that being said, know that these pedals will not be nearly as accurate as modern amp modeling technology can get you with overall sound, but that’s also not always the point. For example, the JHS Superbolt is designed to be a model of the Supro Thunderbolt, an old amp from the 1960s that was famously used by Jimmy Page on Led Zeppelin I.
While the pedal isn’t going to give you an exact replica of a 60s Supro Amp, it does give you the character of overdrive that those amps provided with your own setup, which makes getting those sounds a lot more attainable than an amp model or a vintage tube amp.
Another common use of overdrive pedals is to stack multiple drives together. This can either be done with multiples of the same pedal, or with different pedals.
With two of the same pedal, you can essentially set your tone to be “the same” and use different gain settings to give you a rhythm tone and lead tone, or use them both together for a huge saturated sound. It is also important to note that sonically, using two pedals together with the gain set lower will sound different than if you’d just used one pedal with a higher gain setting.
Why that is I’m not exactly an expert on, but it’s likely because analog components have some amount of variability to them. Experimentation is key, and remembering that there aren’t really any rules when it comes to how you use an overdrive pedal as long as it sounds good.
Another use for an overdrive pedal in conjunction with other effects. The most common example of this is running your overdrive pedal before a wah pedal to make your wah sound more aggressive and sharp, but you can also try putting an overdrive pedal before a tape delay to saturate the delay sound, or get some extra grit from the repeats. You can also add it after a delay to give your overall delay some compression and boosted sound. Again, experimentation is key!
The spicier and more aggressive cousin of overdrive is the distortion pedal. Technically overdrives, distortions, and fuzz pedals are all distortion pedals, because they all fundamentally change and distort your sound by clipping the signal.
But it’s important to note that an overdrive will react in a much more well-mannered behavior than a distortion or fuzz pedal.
Distortions feature a much higher rate of gain than most overdrives, and will use harder clipping of the signal to create a more aggressive sound.
What Do Distortion Pedals Do?
Operationally most overdrives and distortions work in basically the same way, with many pedals easily being able to fall into both categories based on how you set it.
Distortion pedals almost always feature the same three controls for gain, tone, and volume that you’ll find on an overdrive pedal. The biggest difference is that distortion pedals will be much more aggressive and will compress the sound more, usually to the point that playing dynamics are not as easily heard.
It is also more common to see distortion pedals that use a transistor-based design, as opposed to the op-amp design of most overdrive pedals.
Since you want a more aggressive clipping style to get the sound associated with distortion pedals, you don’t necessarily need to use an op-amp design like overdrives.
With that being said, most modern-sounding distortions still use op-amps because you simply can’t add enough gain using just transistors, and you can create a much tighter sounding distortion with op-amps. Many transistor distortions tend to fall into the fuzz category, which we’ll cover later.
Like the overdrive pedal, there are a few “holy grail” designs that pedal-makers base their designs off of, such as the Boss DS-1 Distortion, ProCo Rat*, and MXR Distortion+. There are also plenty of “amp in a box” pedals that can be considered distortions as well, depending on what amp they are modeling.
One important note when it comes to distortion pedals is that they are much more commanding effects than an overdrive. This means that you need to keep your amp set pretty much clean in order for them to operate correctly.
Running a distortion pedal into an already distorted/overdriven amp typically results in a mushy and oversaturated sound, but with that being said there are always exceptions.
Really it depends on how you have the pedal set and what your application is for, but generally, when using distortion you want to keep the amp clean and use the pedal for its own distortion character, not the character of your amp.
Ways To Use Distortion Pedals
While again pretty self-explanatory, most guitarists use a distortion pedal to get the most rock out of their amplifier without turning it up so much that your grandma’s glass vase falls off the wall.
Since they are more aggressive and in your face sounding than overdrive, it’s common to see a distortion pedal used for lead sounds and an overdrive for rhythm parts.
You can also use a distortion pedal to send an already distorted amp into extra saturation, but you have to be careful with your choice of pedal and your settings so that you don’t oversaturate your sound.
Using It In Conjunction With Boosts
One interesting use of a distortion pedal is to use a boost in conjunction with distortion. You can use a boost to basically add an extra gain knob and setting to your distortion, allowing you to have two different sounds within the one pedal. Many pedals have this feature built-in, such as the ZVex Box of Rock, which features a built-in boost circuit, or the Fender Full Moon.
One somewhat unconventional use of a distortion pedal, and what some actually claim the Metal Zone is best at, is to actually not use the distortion in the pedal and instead use the tone-shaping on board to affect an already saturated amp sound, leaving the gain knob all the way down (or almost). Note that for some distortion pedals turning down the gain all the way will actually bypass the signal, so this won’t work in all cases.
Last but certainly not least is the biggest and baddest of all distortion effects: fuzz. Fuzz pedals were actually some of the first distortion devices ever created, with some of the earliest designs being created in the 1960s.
Fuzz pedals are still in the same tonal modifier wheelhouse as boost, overdrive, and distortion, and most fuzz pedals feature the same set of controls for gain (or Fuzz/distortion), a tone stack, and output volume.
What Do Fuzz Pedals Do?
Fuzz pedals feature the most aggressive and almost complete hard clipping of the signal, creating a buzzy, almost broken toned sound at extreme settings.
These pedals are almost always transistor-based as opposed to the op-amps found in most modern drives and distortion pedals. This is partially because of the vintage designs most fuzz pedals are still based off of, and partially due to the fact that transistors allow you to clip the signal in a much more aggressive way more efficiently than modern diodes.
Most fuzz pedals are classified as being either germanium or silicon-based, which refers to the type of transistor used in the effect. Some classic fuzz pedal designs, like the Fuzz Face, were made with both types of transistors depending on the year of production, which is reflected in modern reissues `of those same designs today.
Silicon Vs Germanium
One of the biggest components that affect the tone of a fuzz pedal is the makeup of the clipping transistors. Germanium transistors were featured in the earliest fuzz pedals and were widely used in both guitar effects and general electronics throughout the 1960s. But germanium had a couple of issues that directly affected the tone of the pedals they were used in. Germanium is fairly temperature-sensitive, which would mean that the effect would sound different if you were outside on a hot day (such as on a festival stage) than it would inside at the recording studio. They were also not the most reliable transistor, which both led to effects breaking relatively often, and that no two effects ever sounded exactly the same.
Ultimately this led to the market shifting to using the more reliable, consistent, and cheaper silicon transistor in the late 60s and 1970s. While this made effects sound more consistent and more reliable, Silicon has a noticeably different tone to germanium. Silicon is both higher gain and has a more harsh/high-frequency tone, which musicians picked up on relatively quickly. This led some to specifically look for germanium based fuzz pedals because they preferred the tone of those pedals over silicon transistor pedals.
Today, with modern design techniques many of the initial “issues” with germanium have been overcome, and many fuzz pedal designs continue to use germanium transistors. Some pedals even have options for both types, such as the Fuzz Face, to please users who liked both versions of the pedal, and other modern creations use both types of transistors (such as the Earthquaker Hoof or Keeley Fuzz Bender) to create an even more unique tone and combine the best elements of both transistor types.
Ways To Use Fuzz Pedals
Fuzz pedals are definitely a sound that takes center stage when you use them. Whether you want to use it to make big chord walls of sound or use a fuzz to give your guitar leads extra grit, fuzz is always a good choice.
With Simple Chords
Due to the aggressive natures of some fuzz pedals they aren’t always great for complicated chords, and can kind of make your sound disintegrate into distorted mush, so typically fuzz works best on single notes and two or three note chords (though this is largely dependent on the fuzz you are using).
Stacking With Overdrive
One other interesting thing you can do with a fuzz is to run an overdrive pedal on a lower gain setting before the fuzz. Stacking the two together can help give your fuzz some more definition, since you’ll already have a somewhat compressed and sustained signal from the overdrive sound.
You can also use the overdrive’s tone shaping to change how your fuzzed-out tone sounds. David Gilmour (of Pink Floyd) famously did this by running a tube screamer, which is known for adding midrange, into a big muff, which famously has a mid-scoop, together to create his saturated but still musical lead guitar sound on “The Wall.”
In Conjunction With EQ
Fuzz pedals have a tendency to sound great on their own when you play them, but sometimes have a hard time getting through the mix once the whole band is playing. If you’re in love with the tone of your fuzz but can’t get it to cut through, try using an EQ pedal (or on your amp) to boost some midrange back into your tone. Fuzz designs generally are known for having some midrange scoop, so adding some of that back into your tone can help you still cut through a crowded band mix.
On Other Instruments
If you think fuzz is simply an effect to use on a guitar or bass, check out some of the vintage keyboard styles employed by bands like Deep Purple from the 1970s.
While many of these tones were initially created using a guitar amplifier cranked up to add distortion, you can achieve the same types of sounds using a fuzz pedal. Again, the name of the game is aggressive, so these sounds typically sound better on leads and organ tones. You can also use fuzz sounds to liven up a boring sounding keyboard patch by keeping the fuzz at a lower setting to add some extra edge and sustain to your original sound.
Be aware that the way your favorite fuzz pedal sounds on guitar might be very different on a keyboard, so feel free to experiment with different sounds.
With all of these different guitar pedals the key is to feel free to experiment and know that there are no hard and fast “rules” for their use. Trust your ears, and don’t let any one review affect what you think if you think a pedal sounds cool. While this article is not designed to be a comprehensive statement on every use of boost, overdrive, distortion, and fuzz pedals, I hope it’s given some insight to how these pedals work and some creative uses for them in your music.