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In the Overdriver’s Seat
The next step up in the saturation chain is the overdrive pedal. As previously mentioned, with overdrives there can be considerable overlap with boost pedals. Many overdrives are used for boosting the amount of amp overdrive as well as adjusting the tone and adding extra dirt to the signal.
The Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer (street $99, ibanez.com) and TS808 Tube Screamer (street $179) are touchstones of overdrive in that most other overdrive effects are compared to and/or contrasted with them. While TS9-style overdrives can impart enough distortion for lead work at unity gain, quite often they are employed as boost pedals with some added grit. By keeping the overdrive low, the level high, and using them with an amp that’s slightly distorted, you can preserve more of your amp’s tone and hear less of the pedal’s.
Overdrive users fall largely into two camps: those who want the pedal to be as transparent as possible so the resulting sound is close to the sound of their amp—the Klon Centaur (currently out of production, though reissues are reportedly in the works) and Menatone Red Snapper (street $179, menatone.com) are popular choices for this camp—and those who like the coloration offered by a pedal like a Tube Screamer or the Dumble-esque Hermida Zendrive (street $199, hermidaaudio.com).
How can you tell if you’re dealing with an overdrive or a distortion pedal? With an overdrive pedal engaged, it will be easier to clean up your sound by backing off your guitar volume than it will be with a distortion pedal. The maximum gain you get should be nowhere near metal-appropriate levels when played through a clean amp. An overdrive pedal’s drive usually attempts to sound like the power tubes of an amp pushed into distortion, while a distortion pedal sounds more like . . . well, a pedal.
Some overdrive pedals, such as the classic BK Butler Tube Driver used by Eric Johnson, incorporate an actual tube in their circuitry. While using a tube to approximate tube distortion might seem like a no-brainer, glass tubes are fragile. Most guitarists find that smaller, tubeless pedals can get them close enough to an amp-like sound.
If your music tends towards lighter pop, basic blues, or jazz-fusion, an overdrive pedal should be where you start looking— though metal players are known to use an overdrive to boost a solo over the top.