Overdrive pedal

An overdrive pedal is probably the first pedal a guitar player would grab (besides a tuner). Just like the choice of amplifier and guitar, the overdrive pedal has a major influence in the base sound of the guitar player. That is probably the reason why so many guitar players keep on hunting for new overdrive pedals all the time.

There are many kinds of overdrive pedals and they have many applications. In this article, we’ll talk about how to use an overdrive, the functions of the overdrive pedal and the controls of a typical overdrive.

What does an overdrive pedal do?

An overdrive pedal is basically meant to make your sound dirtier. Either by boosting the pre-amp section of your tube amp or by adding gain within the circuit. An overdrive pedal is used to stand out in the mix during a solo part. Most overdrive pedals color the sound when they are engaged. This means that they emphasize or de-emphasize either low, mid or high frequencies. The term ‘transparent’ is used if the overdrive doesn’t color the tone of the guitar signal.

Overdrive pedal controls

A typical overdrive pedal has three knobs: ‘Gain (or ‘Drive’), ‘Volume’ and ‘Tone’. Some overdrive pedals just have ‘Gain’ and ‘Volume’, for example the DOD250 or the Way Huge Red Llama. Some overdrive pedals have two tone controls and therefore four knobs, for example the Timmy by Paul Cochrane or the Spark Booster by TC Electronics.  Here is a description of how each knob works:

  1. Gain (or Drive) – This is the amount of dirt added to the signal. If the gain is set higher, the output volume of the pedal becomes louder and the signal usually becomes brighter. Therefore if the gain is set higher, you usually need to turn down the volume and turn the tone knobs to a darker setting. If the gain is set lower, you usually need to compensate that with a higher volume and a brighter tone.
  2. Tone – With the tone control, the sound can be adjusted to fit the guitar and amplifier. Usually there is just one tone control. If you turn it up, the sound becomes brighter. If you turn it down, the sound becomes darker. Sometimes the tone control is reversed. In this case the tone becomes darker if you turn it up.
  3. Volume – This is the output volume of the pedal. It can be used to compensate the volume boost of higher gain settings.

Unity gain

An important term in using overdrive pedals is ‘unity gain’. It means that the output volume of the pedal engaged is the same as the output volume of the bypass signal (when the pedals is off). When the volume is set above unity gain, it means that the pedal will boost the volume whenever it is engaged.

Functions of the overdrive pedal

In this section we’ll go through the three most common applications for overdrive pedals.

Driving the tube amp

The first application is driving the tube amp section of the amplifier. In this application the tube amp and the overdrive pedal work together to achieve an overdriven sound. This application works best if the tube amp is set on the verge of breakup, right between clean and dirty. The output volume of the overdrive pedal is set above unity gain, so it boosts the pre-amp into overdrive. Often a small amount of gain is added on the overdrive pedal (around 10 ‘o clock) to add a little gain to the overdriven sound of the amplifier. This gives a very rich and full sound.

Boosting the high frequencies

An overdrive pedal can also be used to boost the high frequencies in certain parts of a song. This application is ideal for a live situation with a loud band. The volume and tone are set to a higher setting, so that the guitar player can cut through the mix during a solo.

Simulating a tube amp

Another function of the overdrive pedal is to simulate a tube amplifier. Amplifiers are expensive and heavy. There are many guitar players who invest in a great overdrive pedal to get their base sound. This enables them to just use whatever amp the venue or practice facility has to offer and still get their own sound from the overdrive pedal.  Some guitar players have their overdrive pedal on all the time.

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