A lot of ink has been spilled in the eternal quest to produce killer guitar tone. With all the stompboxes and multi-effects processors out there today, that quest has become both simpler and more complicated. Simpler in the sense there’s most likely an effects pedal that will help you achieve that holy-grail tone you hear in your head. More complicated because there are so many choices. What follows is a brief overview of the sonic differences between overdrive and distortion pedals that should help point you in the right direction.

Overdrive Pedals

Most overdrive pedals are designed to produce the sound of vintage tube amps played loudly and pushed to the edge. They create the musical-sounding harmonics and overtones that these amps generate when they’re overdriven. The development of overdrive pedals coincided with the introduction of solid-state and high-headroom tube guitar amps that, unlike their predecessors, lacked the tasty natural overdrive that guitarists lust after. One of the first mass-produced overdrive pedals was the BOSS OD-1, introduced in 1977. Good overdrive pedals offer a range of sounds from subtle tube breakup to a significant amount of crunch, while still being responsive to your playing technique and amp settings. 

Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer Overdrive Pedal

Perhaps the most revered overdrive pedal ever made, the Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer delivers classic OD tone.

Distortion Pedals

Generally speaking, distortion pedals generate much more gain and crunch than overdrives. They often have multiple gain stages with the stages producing the greatest gain delivering extreme breakup effects and huge amounts of sustain. They may also include a boost circuit allowing you to sonically step up when soloing.

Unlike overdrive pedals, which typically perserve or enhance the tone of a guitarist's rig, a distortion pedal will completely transform a player's sound, bringing it into a new tonal landscape. Where a blues guitarist might find the subtler impact of an overdrive a better fit, metal and hard-rock guitarists are more likely to gravitate to distortion pedals with their more extreme sounds. 

Walrus Audio Iron Horse V2 Distortion Pedal

The Walrus Audio Iron Horse V2 offers access to three distinct distortion sounds, selectable via a 3-way toggle switch.

Learn Much More About Guitar Effects

Our Guitar and Bass Effects Buying Guide walks you through the entire range of effects pedals that can help you shape a signature sound. And when you're ready to make a purchase, shop our collection of distortion and overdrive effects. From subtle to outrageous, you’ll find the right stomp box to match your music and budget.