The six circles of overdrive hell. Of course, your favorite pedal sounds better than all of these!
Illustration by Philippe Herndon
Sometimes when I’m around a non-guitar playing person who is politely feigning interest in our work for small talk purposes, I compare our niche to products they may know better. But could you imagine walking down your grocery aisle and seeing hundreds of different bottles of chardonnay? Or hundreds of different six-packs of IPAs? As adventurous and curious as we consider ourselves, imagine having to choose from hundreds of cordless screwdrivers, food processors, or spatulas the next time you need one. A massive amount of published psychological research, particularly Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice, is beginning to show how too many choices actually increase consumer indecisiveness and lessen satisfaction with choices made.
For my own amusement, I decided to see how many different models of overdrive pedals were offered by one of our larger online retailers. The total? Three-hundred-and-ninety-six.
Let that number sink in. This is not the total of all pedal models offered—just different “overdrive” models. And all for a pretty specific device and purpose: pushing an audio amplifier into clip or recreating that kind of clipped output flavor with a clean amplifier.
Meanwhile, as someone who has owned, played, and used well into the triple digits of overdrive pedals, I can count on one hand the number of drives that were truly exceptional in terms of design. The rest can usually be discerned into one of five categories (single transistor Electra, Klon Klone, feedback loop soft clipper, hard clipper to ground, amp-in-a-box) without even looking at the guts. And yes, that likely includes whatever your current favorite is that you’re about to angrily tell us about in the comments section or Feedback Loop. That doesn’t mean they can’t sound great or special. They can offer different features or work perfectly for your rig and purposes. That doesn’t change the fact we’re seeing real redundancy here—almost 400 models from just one retailer alone.
So why are there so many overdrive pedals, why do they sound pretty much alike (for the most part), and why do people still make and buy them? Well, it’s our fault. I’m not just speaking for me and my company, or for us as builders, but to the collective “we” as consumers as well.
Imagine creating your dream automobile, just like Homer Simpson did. Unless you’re an early Google founder, you probably don’t have money for all that welding, metal forming, engine manufacturing, and sourcing for everything from tires to cup holders. Then you have to account for all the safety, emissions, and regulation compliance necessary for your car to be on the road with everyone else’s. I’m leaving out about a thousand more steps, but you get it: Launching a car company is a big, expensive endeavor that most of us can’t do.
Meanwhile, starting a pedal company in the 21st century is easy and inexpensive. A single-owner business license is cheap. A drilled and powder-coated enclosure is less than $20. A year’s worth of a web domain is even less. Schematics, DIY tips, layouts, mods, and even full build guides are a free web search away. The same soldering iron I’ve seen in the biggest manufacturer’s workspace is less than $100. In no time, you can announce your new pedal company. My friend Bart Provoost from Effects Database told me he sees five new ones announced every week.
Now, with so few barriers to entry, we could presume a steady stream of people bringing novel and different products into our industry. But we have to remember, this is the guitar industry. This is where people covered in all kinds of employment-compromising body paint would pursue performance opportunities on a venue built with rusty tetanus nails on a brownfield site, consume all manner of illicit substances in the name of pursuing their art, welcome casual sexual contact with any passable stranger who says “I love your band,” and, perhaps most high-risk of all, agree to onerous pay-to-play advance ticket arrangements with said venue—but wouldn’t dare consider performing with a guitar or amp design younger than their parents.So given that marketplace, a new pedal company is going to play it safe and offer an overdrive they’re confident you’ll like based on something you’ve liked before. I among others stand guilty as charged, because that’s what you and I keep buying. We keep thinking this one is gonna be the one. We tell ourselves that the latest TS copy will really be the one that helps us nail “Scuttle Buttin’” when, really, a solid hour of listening and practicing would go much further. Each new company is counting on your hope that someone else’s pedal you bought before feels a bit less shiny and special with each new one that comes out after it, and soon you’ll feel compelled to take that jump. After all, with so many other choices out there, surely that vague sense of dissatisfaction with your current tone can’t be your fault. It’s gotta be your drive pedal. With so many out there, there surely has to be something better. And, oh look, have you seen this new one?