Most guitarists would agree that an overdrive pedal is an essential part of any pedalboard, and for good reason. Whether you’re a metalhead looking to push the front end of a high-gain amp, a blues player who wants to add sustain to a solos or a jazz guitarist craving a slight boost, overdrive stompboxes will fit the bill.
Overdrive vs distortion: what’s the difference?
Bear in mind that overdrive and distortion are two sides of the same coin – and while some overdrive pedals could be used to push a guitar’s signal over the edge of breakup (and then some), they shouldn’t be expected to deliver the saturated aggression more commonly associated with their distortion counterparts.
What overdrives do excel at, in particular, is responsiveness – both to picking hand dynamics and to your guitar’s onboard potentiometers (i.e. your volume and control knobs).
Dialling in just the right amount of gain boost could give a flat-sounding lead line the bite and sustain that it needs in order to sing, or add colour to a bland rhythm tone. A good overdrive pedal can do all this, while still maintaining the nuances and dynamics of a player’s raw expression.
The best overdrive pedals in 2020 – at a glance:
- Hudson Electronics Broadcast-AP
- Analog Man King Of Tone
- EarthQuaker Devices Plumes
- Fulltone OCD V2
- Electro-Harmonix Soul Food
- JHS Pedals Morning Glory V4
- Boss JB-2 Angry Driver
- Keeley D&M Drive
- Ibanez TS808 40th Anniversary
- ThorpyFX Heavy Water
- Nobels ODR-Mini
- Chase Bliss Audio Brothers Analog Gainstage
- MXR Timmy
- King Tone The Duellist
- Mythos Mjolnir
- Strymon Sunset
- Walrus Audio Ages
- Jackson Audio Golden Boy
- Beetronics Fatbee
- Rodenberg TB Drive
Hudson Electronics Broadcast-AP
+ Wide gain gange
+ Refined sounding trebles
+ Effective tone shaper
– No battery power
Hand-built on stripboard using top-of-the-line components in Hudson Electronics’ Yorkshire workshop, the Broadcast might look like it’s come straight out of a 1960s recording studio, but the ideas displayed within are innovative and original.
Effectively a preamp based on the classic Neve recording consoles of the 1960s, the Broadcast can behave as both a tone-enhancing clean boost or a raucous overdrive pedal, depending on whether you choose the high- or low-gain option. At its most extreme, it’ll even sound a bit like an old fuzzbox, but without ever losing its refined sonic enhancement and superb touch dynamics.
Price: $285/£155 Description: Neve-inspired boost/overdrive pedal Controls: Low cut, low/high-gain switch, gain trim, level I/O: Input, output Bypass: True bypass Power: 9-24V mains
Analog Man King Of Tone
+ Beautiful drive tones
+ Customised to order
+ Flexible stacking options
– Years-long waiting list
The King Of Tone’s reputation is as much about its scarcity as it is the undeniable quality of the pedal itself. If you want one of Mike Piera’s creations, you’d better not be in a rush. The waiting list is approaching two years, and if you can find one secondhand, expect to pay at least double the price of a new example.
Why all the fuss? Well, the likes of Brad Whitford and Jimmy Herring have long prized the King Of Tone for its clear, uncoloured overdrive that enhances, rather than masks, the tone of your signal chain. The difference between the KOT and that other mythical transparent overdrive, the Klon Centaur, is you can still buy one, though that might not be the case for long. Piera admits once his stock of required diodes and capacitors are exhausted, he won’t be able to make any more.
Price: $265 Description: TS-inspired dual-overdrive pedal Controls: 2x level, 2x drive, 2x tone, 4x internal mode select dip switches (1 pair/channel; normal, clean, distortion Modes) I/O: Input, output Bypass: True bypass Power: ≤18V mains (new version)
Retails from $265. Read our interview with Mike Piera here.
EarthQuaker Devices Plumes
+ Strong midrange focus
+ Low noise floor
+ Bright and clear highs
– Not the most versatile
EarthQuaker Devices’ Plumes shouldn’t be written off as ‘just another Tube Screamer clone’. Granted it too sports a shade of green, but this device is very much its own dirtbox, and brings forth a refined core tone with a strong midrange emphasis.
Compared against other TS-types, we found that this one packed more chime, clarity and a lower noise floor – while still offering plenty of low/mid-gain distortion.
A three-way toggle switch positioned in the centre of the pedal lets you flip between clipping modes that range from Marshall-like symmetrical clipping, crystal-clear op-amp drive and soft-edged asymmetrical silicon diodes.
Price: $99/£105 Description: Overdrive pedal Controls: Level, tone, gain, three-way clipping mode switch I/O: Input, output Bypass: True bypass Power: 9V mains
Fulltone OCD V2
+ Killer tones aplenty
+ Great dynamic response
+ Switchable bypass
– Highest gain settings can get fizzy
Michael Fuller debuted the Obsessive Compulsive Drive all the way back in 1994. It’s since gone on to become one of the biggest-selling boutique overdrives on the planet, and a go-to for professional players of every stripe.
Its party trick is to essentially recreate the sound and (importantly) the feel and response of a cranked amplifier in a pedal. The OCD has a large dynamic range and offers a continuum of usable sounds – from clean boost to gritty, harmonic-laden fuzzy distortion. The clarity of the OCD has seen players as varied as Robin Trower, Keith Urban, Joey Santiago and Paul Gilbert attracted to its addictive charm and crunch. We’re pretty sure you will be too.
Price: $159/£145 Description: Overdrive pedal Controls: Volume, drive, tone, HP/LP switch I/O: Input, output Bypass: Switchable (true/buffered) Power: 9-18V mains, 9V battery
Electro-Harmonix Soul Food
+ Affordable Klone pedal
+ Wonderfully transparent
+ Great as an always-on device
– Stuck in low-gain territory
Cooked up as a means to deliver Klon Centaur-like tones to the masses, the Soul Food from EHX is an affordable transparent overdrive that equips the same TL072 op-amp that drove the mythical overdrive that inspired it.
Great as an always-on device, or to provide boost with a mid to high-range bite, the Soul Food manages to push tube amplifiers to the point of breakup efficiently – while still maintaining core amplifier characteristics. Boosted power rails also means an increase in headroom, which helps this pedal play extra nicely with others on your ‘board.
Price: $104/£76 Description: Centaur-inspired overdrive pedal Controls: Volume, drive, treble I/O: Input, output Bypass: True bypass Power: 9V power supply, 9V battery
JHS Pedals Morning Glory V4
+ Crystal clear driven tones
+ More clean headroom than ever
– Some may find it pricey
The Morning Glory is JHS Pedals’ most popular pedal, and the one that made Josh Scott’s name as a boutique builder to watch when it was created all the way back in 2009.
It’s since won Scott a bucketload of awards on the back of its wonderfully transparent quality, which adds everything you’d want to your amp’s sound – sweet overdrive, improved tonal nuance and responsiveness – while retaining the fundamental character of the amp that made you buy it in the first place.
The current fourth edition adds a gain-boost toggle to ramp up your solos and lead parts, which can be independently switched with the addition of JHS’ Red Remote.
Price: $199/£195 Description: Overdrive/boost pedal Controls: Volume, drive, tone, high-cut switch, 2-way gain structure switch (tied to Red Remote Input) Bypass: True bypass I/O: Input, output, red remote input
Boss JB-2 Angry Driver
+ Large tone palette
+ Plenty of stacking modes
+ Wide gain range
– Boutique price
Boss has been making compact effects pedals for 40 years now, and while the company’s iconic stompboxes continue to be a staple of ’boards the world over, the rise of the boutique builder has made the compact pedal seem a little bland by comparison.
In 2018, the Japanese giant decided to capture a bit of boutique kudos itself by teaming up with Josh Scott of JHS Pedals to create the Angry Driver. Effectively a hybrid of Scott’s Angry Charlie and the iconic Boss Blues Driver, the JB-2 is a dual-mode drive pedal that offers a huge palette of overdrive sounds thanks to independent tone-shaping controls for both voices, and the ability to run them independently, in series or parallel.
Price: $199.99/£149 Description: Dual overdrive Controls: Level, tone, drive, six-way mode selector (JHS, Boss, JHS/Boss, J>B, B>J, parallel) I/O: Input, output, red remote input Bypass: Buffered bypass Power: 9V mains, 9V battery
Keeley D&M Drive
+ Versatile gain range
+ Both voices are distinct
+ Touch sensitive
– Presence control would be nice
Created with the input of That Pedal Show hosts Mick Taylor and Daniel Steinhardt, the D&M Drive is a twin-voiced overdrive and boost that offers remarkable tonal versatility in a relatively compact two-switch pedal.
The boost side of things offers everything from a rich, midrange bluesy boost all the way to a dynamic overdrive with wonderful touch sensitivity, while the drive side of the equation runs the gamut from valve-like overdrive to searing rock leads. With the ability to alter their signal order as you run them together, the D&M Drive could replace two or even three pedals on your board.
Price: $/£229 Description: Dual overdrive/distortion/boost pedal Controls: 2x Level, 2x gain, 2x tone, two-way pedal order switch Bypass: 2x True I/O: Input, output Power: 9V mains
Ibanez TS808 40th Anniversary
+ Strong midrange focus
+ Classic overdriven tones
+ Simple operation
– Not everyone enjoys the mid-hump
We’d be remiss not to include this here. The Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer has earned itself a congregation of devotees since its debut in the late 1970s, and four decades later, not much has changed. Ibanez’s 40th-anniversary reissue of the icon isn’t a little green box but a sparkling ruby one – but within its chassis, you’ll find the same all-analogue circuitry and the fabled JRC4558D IC chip.
Originally designed to mimic the growl of overdriven tubes, the TS808 offers a flattering compressed, sweet and full overdrive tone that many rockers and bluesmen simply can’t do without. The circuit, although mid-boosted, doesn’t colour the original tone of your guitar too much but it tightens the bottom-end nicely and its charms really come to the fore in a band mix.
The TS808’s three knobs – overdrive, tone and level – make it as beginner-friendly as it is essential. Part of the Tube Screamer’s beauty lies in pairing it with other gain pedals, or letting it gently drive the front-end of your amp. You’ll find that it elevates the performance of your other stompboxes, which is perhaps one good reason why almost every single guitarist has bought, borrowed or stolen a Tube Screamer-style pedal in their playing lifetimes.
Price: $/£199 Description: Overdrive pedal Controls: Overdrive, tone, level I/O: Input, output Bypass: Buffered bypass Power: 9V
ThorpyFX Heavy Water
+ Distinct sounding boosts
+ Can easily send a tube amp over the edge
– Limited controls
Faced with requests to turn the high-headroom boost circuit of the ThorpyFX Dane into a standalone pedal, Adrian Thorpe could have simply whipped out his hacksaw and created a two-knob tone machine. Instead, he came up with the Heavy Water, a compact dual-booster that offers a whole range of level-lifting options.
The pedal’s right-side booster derives from the Dane’s clean boost circuit, employing a ‘lows’ knob for thinning or fattening up signals as needed. This all functions the same on the left side booster, with the only exception being that the left boost equips germanium diodes for added grit.
Playing with the Heavy Water’s two distinct boosts against a tube amp makes for the most of its fun factor. Running it into a 30-watt tweed combo, we found it only took the lightest push from the clean boost circuit to tip the amp into full-on overdrive – and with the lows control at midday, it sounded every bit as pure and transparent as we remembered from the right-hand side of The Dane.
Price: £189/$195* Description: Dual boost pedal Controls: 2x Level, 2x lows I/O: Input, output Bypass: True bypass Power: 9V mains
+ Warm and organic drive tones
+ Versatile spectrum control
+ Affordable price tag
– Doesn’t quite do clean boost
Nobels has slipped its iconic ODR-1 – a beloved secret weapon among Nashville session players – into a scaled-down enclosure. These natural-sounding dirt boxes have long been lauded for their warm and organic sounding drive tones, and the ODR-mini is no exception.
Mild crunch tones, all the way up to roaring hard rock are well within reach of this little stomper. With the Spectrum control just as easily adding top-end brightness and gain, as dialling in richer, darker tones.
Price: £95/$79* Description: Overdrive pedal Controls: Drive, level, spectrum (tone) I/O: Input, Output Bypass: True Power: 9V mains
Chase Bliss Audio Brothers Analog Gainstage
+ Incredibly versatile
+ Encourages experimentation
+ Tone options for days
– Doesn’t come cheap
It’s a boost, it’s an overdrive, it’s a fuzz. The Chase Bliss Audio Brothers does it all – and exponentially more, thanks to the unique design of this slim stompbox. If you love experimenting with your gear to coax off-kilter sounds from your guitar, the Brothers offers a complex and interactive puzzle to solve.
The pedal warrants its steep price tag for the sheer amount of thought and technical expertise that Chase Bliss Audio put into it. The Brothers has two significantly distinct channels, each with three modes, that you can route in series or parallel to unlock dozens of tones. The downside? It isn’t exactly the most straightforward pedal to use.
One channel is based on a JFET-based drive circuit, while the other uses a series of integrated circuits. Each has boost, overdrive and fuzz modes, selectable via a three-way mini toggle. You can cascade the channels either way or blend them in parallel with a mix knob right in the middle of the enclosure. Thankfully, you’ll only have gain and tone knobs per channel – and a master volume dial – to contend with.
The OD on Channel A emphasises transparency while giving your tone a bit of a kick in the midrange. It’s a meaty, asymmetrically clipped and harmonics-rich overdrive that’s better for the raucous side of blues. Responsive and nuanced too, the drive at low-gain settings sounds just as musical. Channel B’s overdrive, on the other hand, is the more aggressive sibling: modern, high-heavy and able to scythe through the mix.
You can then stack ’em together. This is the real triumph of the Brothers, as you can use one side to boost a drive on the other channel, or smash two fuzzes together. The collisions and clashes you’ll encounter will keep you twisting knobs for hours on end – and for those who welcome that challenge, Brothers is a beauty.
Price: $/£349 Description: Boost/overdrive/fuzz pedal Controls: 2x Gain, 2x Tone, 2x three-way mode switch (boost, drive, fuzz), master, mix, three-way circuit order switch (parallel, A>B, B>A), 16x expression parameters (internal dip switches) I/O: Input, output, CV/expression, EXT(A)/MIDI Bypass: True Power: 9V
+ Preserves amplifier tones
+ Versatile gain range
+ Simple operation
– Not quite as full-sounding as the original
The Timmy has been hyped by guitarists ever since its introduction in the early noughties. Now, a collaboration between device maker Paul Cochrane and MXR’s Custom Shop has led to this scaled-down version of the celebrated stompbox.
Hailed for its transparency, the Timmy comes highly deployable as a clean boost to push your amplifier, an edge-of-breakup OD or as a singing overdrive with ample amounts of sustain, responsiveness and harmonics to boot.
Add to that a three-way voice switch with three distinct clipping modes, and you’ve got all the makings of a truly versatile dirtbox.
Price: $129.99/£139.99 Description: Overdrive pedal Controls: Gain, volume, bass, treble, 3-way clip mode switch I/O: Input, Output Bypass: True Power: 9V
King Tone The Duellist
+ Versatile tone options
+ Smooth overdrive
+ Voices compliment each other well
– Premium price
The Duellist combines two markedly different overdrive circuits: on one side, the String-Slinger is a refined take on the Tube Screamer, and on the other, the Heavy-Handed is inspired by a 90s Marshall Bluesbreaker pedal.
The former is rich, thick and oozes classy harmonic content, with loads of responsiveness. The tone knob has a sensibly voiced range: instant closed-back heft or Blackface glassiness awaits at the flick of the three-way pre-clipping EQ switch.
The Heavy-Handed circuit adds a far superior range of volume, tonal control and gain to the Marshall unit it’s based on. It has a more neutral EQ-curve than the String-Singer and an arguably more versatile voice that can take you from Clapton’s Blues Breakers days to Kossoff to Young. Stack both together and you’ll be rewarded with a soaring solo tone.
Price: $349 Description: Dual overdrive pedal Controls: 2x Volume, 2x Tone and 2x three-way tone switch, internal dip-switches (String-Singer: modern/vintage, symmetrical/asymmetrical; Heavy-Hand: symmetrical/asymmetrical, distortion mode) I/O: Input, Output Bypass: True Power: 9V
+ Great low-gain tones
+ Sensitive response
+ Simple operation
– Pricier than similar offerings
With the Mjolnir, pedal maker Zach Broyles made it a point to add to, rather than subtract from, the guitar rig’s core tone. It takes inspiration from the fabled Klon Centaur as a jumping-off point, making changes to the transparent drive circuit that according to its creator, offers “a slight boost in clarity” and improves on the device’s smoother overdrive sounds.
The Mjolnir concerns itself in the realms of low-gain drive, adding just enough upper-midrange bite to help a guitar’s signal really punch through a mix. As a boost pedal, the Mjolnir delivers clean decibels in volumes, and even more so than in previous iterations, as the gain control has been tweaked to have even more headroom.
Price: $/£199 Description: Overdrive Pedal Controls: Gain, Output, Tone I/O: Input, Output Bypass: Buffered Power: 9V
+ Truly versatile
+ Channel stacking options
+ Quality construction
– Premium pedals don’t come cheap
Like most Strymon products, the Sunset is a versatile and deeply configurable device. There are six overdrive circuits crammed into the red box, two of which can be engaged simultaneously and routed any way you want. You can stack both channels in series (either direction), run them in parallel or activate one at a time.
The circuits include the usual suspects alongside quirkier offerings. There’s a treble boost, a JFET-based clean boost and a smooth, mid-humped overdrive, as well as a two-stage OD that sends a soft-clipping stage into a hard-clipping one. All these options don’t make the Sunset a difficult beast to tame. Each channel only has three controls – level, tone and drive – and a three-position switch to add or reduce brightness to the global mix.
Price: $/£349.99 Description: Dual overdrive pedal Controls: 2x level, 2x drive, 2x tone, A switch, B switch, bright switch, configuration switch I/O: Input, Output, Favourite, Expression Bypass: True/Buffered Power: 9V
Walrus Audio Ages
+ Five uniquely voiced clipping options
+ Refined attack via wet/dry control
+ Usable even at extreme settings
– More complexity than some players need
Undaunted by the glut of overdriven offerings demanding buyers’ attention, Walrus Audio launched the Ages five-stage overdrive – with versatility being the operative word. This versatile stompbox offers five separate voices, each a unique combination of internal gain and clipping style, a dual-band EQ, and a wet/dry control to ensure a clear attack at all times.
If you’ve never used an overdrive with a wet/dry control, you may be surprised at the difference it can make when sculpting your tone. Ages also gives you the power to finesse both the treble and bass ends of your sound and, even at extreme settings, we found the sounds usable across a variety of musical contexts.
Price: $199/£179 Description: 5-mode overdrive pedal Controls: Volume, bass, treble, gain, wet/dry, 5-way mode rotary switch I/O: Input, Output Bypass: True bypass Power: 9V mains
Jackson Audio Golden Boy
+ Very versatile overdrive
+ Four distinct clipping options
+ Easy controls
– Limited to 500 units
Texas-based Jackson Audio developed this premium overdrive in a collaboration with slide-guitar golden boy, Joey Landreth. It swaps out the brand’s own Broken Arrow’s TS808-style chip for something more akin to a Bluesbreaker.
The result is a seriously versatile dirtbox, that could be the ultimate pedal-salute to the Bluesbreaker. The Golden Boy’s four clipping options pay homage to four eras of Marshall’s iconic amplifier – even replicating the more esoteric purple Blues Breaker, which has its own club of devotees. These voices can be cycled through and locked in by simply holding down on the soft-touch footswitch.
Price: $299 Description: Bluesbreaker/KOT-inspired overdrive pedal Controls: Volume, boost, gain, bass, middle, treble, cycling foot switch (4x clipping diode options) I/O: Input, output, MIDI Bypass: True Power: 9V
+ Warm drive tones
+ Wide tone controls
+ Quirky design
While JFET overdrives are known for organic, amp-like tones; Beetronics pedals are known for sounding fat and gurgling. Can the Fatbee be both at once? Yes it can.
While the basic voice of the Fatbee is more or less transparent; cranking its honey (gain) dial brings out the device’s warmer and ‘stickier’ tonality. Like a bathtub full of treacle, if that makes sense.
While the drive doesn’t quite reach crazy splat-fuzz levels, there’s still plenty of midrange bark to be found – especially as tones can be further spiked or smoothened with the presence-like tone control.
Like other Beetronics’ devices, this little stomper comes decorated in the company’s quirky design sensibilities – extending to an anthropomorphized bee with the likeness of BB King being printed on its circuit board.
Price: £199 Description: Overdrive pedal Controls: Weight (level), flavor (tone), honey (gain) I/O: Input, output Bypass: True Power: 9V mains
Rodenberg TB Drive
+ Punchy drive tones
+ Ample amounts of sustain
+ 909 mode
– More ferocious than some
Tyler Bryant’s signature drive pedal stacks two of the German device makers’ revered GAS-808 overdrives into a dual-channel unit. Its core tone is wonderfully reminiscent of a great old TS808, married with the top-end punch of a TS9 – which is ideal for dialling in soaring leads and rhythm tones alike.
The ace up the TB’s sleeve can be found by switching the left-hand circuit to 909 mode – which introduces the high-gain tendencies of a GAS-909 overdrive to the TB drive. This all behaves like running a couple dimed overdrive pedals in series, with tonnes of liquid sustain and squealing harmonics – hours of fun are guaranteed!
Price: €199 Description: Dual overdrive pedal Controls: 2x drive, 2x volume, 2x tone, 2x toggle-switch (bass boost), toggle-switch (909 mode, left side only) I/O: Input, Output Bypass: True Power: 9-18V mains