Distortion and overdrive are used in loads of different music styles, but does it sound best when it comes from an amplifier or an effects pedal? In this article, I’ll be comparing pedal and amp gain so you can decide if you need both, or just one option.
The Quick Answer
Distortion and overdrive pedals are usually more versatile than tube amplifiers but typically do not sound as natural and authentic. However, these pedals often sound better than cheaper solid-state amps. Pedals can offer more versatility and are easier to operate quickly compared to amplifiers.
Amplifier Gain Overview
There are two types of amplifier: tube (valve) and solid state. They both derive amplification in different ways and produce different sounds.
- Solid state amplifiers: these use electronic transistors (digital technology) which sound more artificial.
- Tube (valve) amplifiers: these use vacuum tubes and sound smoother and more responsive.
Tube amps are more expensive than solid state amplifiers and a lot of players prefer the rich and natural tone offered when a tube amp is “cranked” meaning it is pushed to the point of breakup. The downside, is that each valve amp produces a specific distorted/ overdriven tone and there isn’t much you can adjust to make it sound any different.
Solid state amps are more versatile in terms of the distortion and overdrive they offer since it is produced digitally. This makes it possible to get very different types of gain with the same amplifier by selecting one of the different “modes”.
Make sure you check my in-depth guide comparing solid state and tube amplifiers for more information.
Gain Pedal Overview
Distortion and overdrive pedals use digital modelling to produce gain, similarly to a solid state amplifier. Some can use valve technology, but it is much rarer to see.
They usually have three main controls:
- Volume (or level)
- Drive (to adjust the amount of gain)
- Tone (to adjust how warm/ bright the tone is)
Some pedals also have different “channels” or “modes” allowing you to change the voicing of the pedal to produce different types of gain.
The exact tone and amount of drive that can be produced depends on the specific pedal and it is also possible to use multiple overdrive and distortion pedals together to achieve different effects.
You can use a gain pedal in two main ways:
- Always on: this way it will be used to create your distorted/ overdrive tone. It can be used through a clean or distorted amplifier.
- Sometimes on: this way you can switch the pedal on to give you extra gain when you need it, without having to adjust your amplifier.
Comparing the Tone
Overdrive and distortion pedals usually do not sound as organic and smooth as the gain produced by a true tube amplifier, however pedals often sound better than lower-end solid state amplifiers.
For example, I use a Boss OS-2 through my Blackstar ID Core (solid state) amp when practicing at low volumes. This is because the gain produced by the Boss pedal sounds better quality than the gain produced by the amplifier. However, it is all personal preference.
On the other hand, I prefer the tone of cranked Marshall tube amp compared to the Boss OS-2 pedal.
If you are using a solid state amp and are unhappy with the driven tones, then purchasing an overdrive or distortion pedal may be a good investment.
Check out this video to hear pedal and amp distortion played back to back. All the amps here are tube amps.
- Tone 1: pedal
- Tone 2: amp
- Tone 3: pedal
- Tone 4: amp
- Tone 5: amp
- Tone 6: pedal
Comparing the Functionality
As well as looking at the tones, it’s important to look at the functionality and versatility of these two sources of gain. There are three things to consider here:
- How many tones you can create
- Activation and deactivation
- Playability at different volumes
How Many Tones You Can Create
Distortion and overdrive pedals are more versatile than tube amps because tube amplifiers produce fewer and more specific tones. However, solid state amps can offer similar or more versatility than gain pedals because these amps often have multiple different channels.
It also depends on the pedal in question. Some pedals are very versatile and others produce quite a specific and narrow set of tones.
Activation and Deactivation
Many players like distortion and overdrive pedals because they can be turned on and off simply by tapping your foot on the pedal, making the transition between a clean and dirty tone instantly.
With amplifiers, you can get a footswitch to switch between a clean and dirty channel (if the amp has multiple channels), otherwise you will need to go to the amp itself and adjust the settings – not something you can do mid-song.
Playability at Different Volumes
In order to achieve the desired level of distortion on a tube amp you will need to crank it to a certain volume, which in some cases may be too loud for the area you’re playing in. You can get an amp attenuator to make the amp playable at certain volumes but it’s more complicated than when using a solid state amp or a pedal.
With solid state amplifiers and distortion/ overdrive pedals, you can adjust the gain control to make them playable at lower volumes, so they will be suitable for at-home practice as well as gigging.
Which is Best?
This really does depend on what you’re after, but it’s clear that one may be a better option than the other in specific circumstances. Here is a table to compare them.
|Tone||Gain pedal tones are often good quality but sound less authentic than tube amps||Tube amps often sound the best to most players, whilst solid state amps sound more artificial||Tube Amp > Pedal > Solid State Amp (but it is all personal preference!|
|Versatility||Pedals have plenty of controls to allow you to shape the tone||Solid state amps offer excellent versatility but tube amps are limited||Pedal > Solid State Amp > Tube Amp|
|Functionality||Can be switched on and off instantly||Need to be adjusted using the controls on the amp unless you use a footswitch||Pedal > Amp|
|Low Volume Usage||Can be played at any volume||Tube amps can only be played at certain volumes (without an attenuator) but solid state amps can be played at low volume||Pedals and Solid State Amps > Tube Amp|
You don’t have to pick just one option though! Combining pedals with your amplifiers natural overdrive and distortion is very popular, so let’s take a look at this method in more detail.
Using Pedal and Amp Gain Together
If you want to use your pedal and amplifier together for gain, then there are a couple of different options.
- You can have both the pedal and amplifier gain on all the time.
- You can activate the pedal at certain points during a song.
The first option is likely to take some trial and error. You will need to fine tune both the pedal and amplifier settings to create a very specific tone. Although this may seem a little tricky, it’s actually quite a popular technique. However, it can often lead to a lot of background noise, so using a noise gate pedal may be a good idea.
I’ve written a full article on noise gate pedals if you want to learn more.
Perhaps the most popular option, is to activate the pedal at certain points during the song. This is a technique I use quite often with my Ibanez Tube Screamer. I like to use the amplifier’s natural low-level overdrive during rhythm sections, then boost it with the overdrive pedal (Tube Screamer) when soloing.
Some metal players also use a tube screamer to “tighten” the tone by cutting the low-end as opposed to using it for the primarily gain source. Although, this is more popularly used after a distortion pedal, or you could place the pedal in the effects loop so it comes after the amplifier’s distortion in the signal chain.
Best Overdrive and Distortion Pedals
Here are some Amazon links to my favourite overdrive and distortion pedals so you can check the current prices (images also link to Amazon)
Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer
Unsure which pedals you really need? Check out my complete guide to the different types of pedals and the order of priority they should be considered in .