Can you Use Overdrive and Distortion Together?


The world of guitar pedals can be pretty confusing. There are so many different types, brands and models which makes it difficult to know which to go for. 

One of the big questions that new pedal enthusiasts tend to stumble across, is about using overdrive and distortion pedals together. What will it sound like? Is it a waste of time? 

In this post I’ll go through exactly what you need to know about distortion and overdrive pedals, and using them together. So let’s get started!

What is a Distortion Pedal?

Before we talk about using distortion and overdrive together, it’s important to be clear about exactly what each pedal does and the effect it has on your tone, so let’s start with distortion.

You’ll probably know already, but distortion pedals offer a heavier tone than overdrive pedals, and are primarily used by hard rock and metal guitarists who need a lot of high quality gain. 

Distortion pedals change the sound of your guitar by creating an enharmonic tone. This basically just means that it interferes with the fundamental note that you are playing to make it thicker, fuzzier and gives it more sustain. They essential reduce the clarity of the note to give it more punch.

With distortion pedals, is doesn’t matter if you play softly or batter your strings, you’ll get the same distorted tone either way (unlike with overdrive pedals). 

What is an Overdrive Pedal?

Overdrive and distortion pedals are quite different in they way they work and the sound they produce.

Overdrive pedals are less aggressive and are better suited to rock ‘n’ roll, blues and indie music. Unlike distortion pedals, where to get the same effect no matter how hard to play, overdrive pedals are more receptive. 

If you play lightly, you’ll get less overdrive. But if you play more aggressively, the overdrive tone will be more prominent. 

Overdrive essentially mimics the kind of tone you get if you drive a valve (or tube) amp. When you crank up the volume on a clean valve amp, the signal will start to break up. This adds grit and crunch to your tone, as opposed to distortion which is a lot more aggressive. 

Why do They Sound Different?

The tones that overdrive and distortion pedals produce are quite different. This is to do with the way the pedals affect the signal produced that’s fed into your amplifier. Distortion pedals are hard-clipping devices, whereas overdrive pedals are soft-clipping. 

Clipping is a form of compression which limits the signal above the threshold level. In a normal signal, the sound is smooth because the sound waves are naturally curved. 

With overdrive, the soft-clipping effect compresses the signal, but does not completely cut it off above the threshold abruptly. Distortion on the other hand, is hard-clipping so it makes the sound waves less curved and by cutting into them, resulting in a more aggressive tone. 

Can Overdrive and Distortion be Used Together?

So this leads us to the big question, can you use overdrive and distortion together, and what happens to the sound when you do?

Yes, overdrive and distortion can be used together, this is known as gain-stacking (adding more than one pedal that adds gain). However, you need to properly dial in your controls to make the tone actually sound different. If you use both together and have your distortion too high, it’ll usually just mask the overdrive effect. 

Different overdrive and distortion pedals affect the tone in different ways. They are well known for doing the following:

  • Increasing the level of gain
  • Adding compression
  • Altering the EQ

The first one is obvious. If you add both a distortion and overdrive pedal, then you’ll increase the amount of gain. You can alter the level of each pedal to get a mix between the distortion and overdrive. This is good if you’re using a particularly heavy distortion pedal and a fairly subtle overdrive pedal, as combining the two will give you more versatility in the amount of gain you’ll get.

Secondly, both pedals will add compression. As I mentioned, distortion and overdrive both have different effects on how clipped your signal is. Again, using both together will affect how clipped the sound is and give you more versatility.

It’s also really important to remember that distortion and overdrive pedals don’t just alter the level of gain and compression, but they also affect the EQ (equaliser). 

This refers to the balance of treble, bass and mid frequencies you’ll hear. Treble increases the clarity and adds a sharpness. Mid frequencies are vital at making sure your sound carries (super important if you play in a band). Bass frequencies will give your tone more warm and depth.

Depending on exactly which pedals you’re using, the EQ will also be altered. Using both pedals will again give you more tonal possibilities. 

What's the Best Pedal Order?

The order you put your pedals in is really important in dictating what kind of sound you get. So should you overdrive the distortion, or distort the overdrive?

Generally, most people prefer the sound when you put the overdrive pedal first. Overdrive is a different effect to distortion, but it can be classed as a type of distortion, just a more subtle one. If you put the distortion pedal first, then the chances are that you won’t hear the impact of the overdrive. 

Here’s where a lot of guitarists like the stack the rest of their rig:

  • Guitar
  • Wah pedals
  • Compressor pedal
  • Distortion or overdrive pedal
  • Volume pedal
  • Modulation pedals e.g. phaser, tremelo or chorus
  • Reverb pedal
  • Delay pedal
  • Amplifier 

All-In-One Overdrive and Distortion Pedals

Now, if you don’t want to purchase two seperate pedals, but you still want a mix of the distorted and overdriven tones, then your best bet is to go for an all-in-one pedal. 

I have recently purchased a Boss OS-2 pedal and absolutely love it. It’s great because you can get entirely separate overdrive and distortion effects, or blend them both together. It gives me loads of versatility without having to buy multiple pedals. 

It has four controls:

  • Level: pretty explanatory, just affects how much overdrive/distortion you hear.
  • Tone: this gives you plenty of choice to shape the EQ to your taste.
  • Drive: again this affects how much grit you get.
  • Colour: this allows you to switch from overdrive to distortion or blend the two tones together. 

Another great thing about boss pedals, is that they are very robust and have excellent build quality. Which definitely helps, if you’re like me and manage to drop it on your first day!

I was surprised at just how cheap I could find it on Guitar Center. So if you don’t want to fork out for two separate pedals, but want both effects, it’s definitely worth a look. 

Boss OS-2 Pedal
Boss OS-2 Pedal

 

So there you go! That’s how to use overdrive and distortion pedals together! I hope you’ve found this article helpful, thanks for reading. Here are some other posts you might find useful:

Heather

Hey, I'm Heather. I started playing an electric guitar when I was given a Squier Strat for my birthday around 15 years ago. I now own an acoustic guitar and several electric guitars including my personal favourite, a PRS SE Custom 24.

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