How to find the right overdrive pedal?

Ask the DudeTo many guitarists the chase for the perfect overdrive pedal is a never ending story.
And not only because of different ideas of sound, have other guitarist’s recommendations leaded to disappointment as not every overdrive pedal is suitable for all kind of sounds.

Clean or distort amp?

One of the most important aspects with regard to the choice of the right overdrive pedal is the adjustment of your amplifier.
For a totally clean amp, used as a platform to create varying kinds of sound, some overdrive pedals are inappropriate:

Midrange emphasizing overdrives

Overdrive pedals that push the midrange like for example the Tubescreamer, the Klon Centaur or similar ones may create a nasal sound in front of a clean amp.
With fuzz effects like Fuzz Face, Tonebender and Big Muff the sound soon becomes some kind of harsh.
And it is best not to try treble booster in front of a clean amp because they will – as the name already suggests – only emphasize treble. Combined with a clean amp this will lead to a sound that is too bright and weak.

All this types of overdrive pedals are more suitable to be used in front of a lightly distort amplifier.
They will boost the tubes by pushed mids or treble and therefore provide a punchy sound that cuts through the mix.

“Amp in a box” pedals

For clean amps the manufacturers invented overdrive pedals that emulate the distortion of a certain amplifier.
These “amp in a box” pedals (like for example the Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret, ZVEX Box of Rock, Catalinbread 5f6) would lose their character when you use them in front of an overdriven amp.

Humbucker or Single Coil?

The type of the pickups of your guitar also matters. Humbucker pickups provide more output and thereby allow more distortion and in addition their sound is less bright than the sound of a single coil which makes some pedals sound quite punchier.

However the lower output of a single coil is able to clear up an overdrive pedal which’s sound before seemed some kind of undifferentiated or muffled.

Volume and Tone

Another question that is important is if you always leave the volume and the tone pot of your guitar in full clockwise position or if you experiment with the adjustments of volume and tone to find out how your overdrive pedal sounds best.

Full-Stack or Combo?

Apart from the (mostly low) possibilities to adjust the sound of your amplifier it may be relevant if you use a full-stack or a small combo.
When you use a full-stack to play in a great hall it makes sense to choose another overdrive pedal as if you are playing a small club.


I think that it is impossible to make a decision just because of the recommendation of somebody else. Even if a review describes the sound of a new overdrive pedal as creamy and punchy it may sound – objectively – totally different with your own setup.