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How to use an overdrive pedal

In this article, we'll delve deep into the world of overdrive pedals and give tips on how to dial them in for the tones you’re looking for.

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In the vast world of guitar effects, the overdrive pedal holds a special place in the heart of guitarists.

It adds warmth, sustain, and that sought-after grit to your tone, and has become a cornerstone in the toolkit of countless guitarists.

Originating from the early days of guitar amplification, overdrive was first produced by pushing tube amps to their limits, resulting in a smooth, clipping sound that added character and depth to the tone. As the demand for this sound grew, the overdrive pedal was born. The pedal allowed guitarists to get this sought after saturated tone without cranking their amps to deafening volumes.

However, overdrive is more than just a means to achieve louder, grittier tones. It's a tool that, when used correctly, can breathe life into a simple chord progression or give a solo the extra punch it needs to stand out.

While it might share some similarities with distortion and fuzz - both in the realm of altering the guitar's signal to achieve a grittier sound - overdrive retains a more organic and dynamic feel that is more responsive to the player's touch.

In this article, we'll dive into the world of overdrive pedals and give tips on how to dial them in to get those lovely overdriven tones you’re looking for.

    What does an overdrive pedal do?

    Overdrive pedals simulate the natural sound of a tube amplifier being pushed to its limits. When a tube amp is cranked up, it produces a warm, crunchy, and slightly saturated sound due to the tubes being overloaded. Overdrive pedals replicate this effect without having to crank the amp up to high volumes.

    Because of their versatility, overdrive pedals are used for a number of different purposes.

    In blues and rock, they are often used to add a slight breakup or crunch to rhythm playing, giving the tone a warm and gritty edge. Overdrive pedals are also often used to boost the guitar signal during solos or lead sections to help make the guitar stand out in the mix and cut through more clearly.

    When using an overdrive pedal with an amp that's already distorted, you can push the amp into further saturation, leading to a thicker tone with more sustain. 

    You can also use an overdrive pedal to clean up or tighten the low end of an already distorted amp.

    Additionally, overdrives give a natural compression that helps smooth out the dynamics of an already distorted sound, making it sound more even and consistent.

    Overdrive pedals typically have three knobs

    Commonly, overdrive pedals have three main controls that are used to shape your sound: gain (or drive), tone, and level. While additional features may vary from one pedal to another, these three knobs remain consistent across the majority of overdrive pedals around.

    • Gain / drive: the gain / drive knob adjusts the intensity of the overdrive effect. A lower setting gives you a gentle, warm boost. Cranking it up saturates the tone and produces a grittier sound.

    • Tone: the tone knob adjusts the balance between the bass (low frequencies) and treble (high frequencies) in the pedal's output. Depending on the pedal, the frequencies that are affected can vary, but the principle remains the same across most pedals. Generally, as you turn the tone knob clockwise, your tone becomes brighter or sharper, emphasizing the treble frequencies. When turning the tone knob counter-clockwise, the the bass or mids are emphasized, resulting in a warmer, rounder, or muddier sound.

    • Level: the level knob (or volume / output on some pedals) controls the overall output volume of the pedal when it's engaged. It doesn't affect the amount of overdrive (that's the gain's job) but rather determines how loud the affected signal is once it leaves the pedal. If you're using the overdrive to boost your solos, you might crank this up a bit. If you just want to add some warmth to your rhythm playing, you might keep it on par with your bypassed signal.

    Although most overdrive pedals will typically have the controls mentioned above, some pedals feature additional controls for further tone shaping. This can range from additional EQ settings, presence controls, or even switches to select between different overdrive voicings.

    Overdrive pedals should be placed early in the signal chain

    The placement of your overdrive pedal within your signal chain (the order of your effects) has a significant effect on your tone. While there's no strict "right or wrong" order for your pedals, certain arrangements have become preferred due to the tonal qualities they produce.

    Traditionally, overdrive pedals are placed early in the signal chain, following tuners and dynamic pedals like compressors.

    By placing your overdrive early, you ensure that the raw, uncolored guitar signal is what's getting processed. This often results in a more transparent and organic overdriven sound, retaining the character of your guitar.

    Additionally, placing your overdrive before modulation effects (like chorus, phaser, or flanger) and time-based effects (like delay or reverb) ensures that these effects modulate or repeat the already overdriven sound. This creates a smoother, more cohesive tonal landscape.

    That said, experimenting with pedal placement can create interesting and sometimes unexpected results. For instance, placing a reverb before an overdrive can create a lush, atmospheric sound, as the overdrive then amplifies and crunches the reverberated signal.

    How to dial in an overdrive pedal

    When dialing in an overdrive pedal, start by setting the gain / drive knob to its lowest setting. Set the level knob to match the volume of your input signal - in other words set it to a level that doesn’t change your volume when the overdrive pedal is turned on and off. This is referred to as “unity gain” and is a good starting point when dialing in your pedal.

    Set the tone knob to the middle position (in most cases at 12 o’clock).

    Then, start raising the level knob and listen to how it affects your tone. As you increase the level, you might notice a richer, fuller tone, even if the gain is at its lowest setting. This is because the increased level can push the input stage of your amplifier harder, creating a natural overdrive from the amp itself.

    When you find the sound you’re looking for, slowly start turning up the gain / drive knob. This will introduce the overdrive from the pedal itself. The gain knob determines the intensity of this effect. Higher settings will produce a more saturated and heavier overdrive sound, while lower settings will give a more subtle touch, often referred to as a "breakup".

    As you increase the gain, you may want to decrease the level knob to maintain a consistent volume when the pedal is turned off.

    Once you have your gain and level dialed in, give the tone knob a sweep to see how it affects your tone. Adjust it to taste.

    Remember, every overdrive pedal will have its own unique characteristics. Your guitar and amp will also significantly affect your final sound. There's no one-size-fits-all setting. The best approach is to experiment, build an understanding of how your equipment works, and most importantly, trust your ears.

    Using an overdrive pedal to boost an already distorted tone

    When boosting an already distorted tone from a high-gain amp, keep the gain / drive knob on your overdrive pedal low or even at zero. The aim isn't to add more distortion but to shape and tighten the existing distortion.

    Turn the level up to push your amplifier or distortion pedal harder.

    Use the tone control to shape the boosted signal. Turning it up can add clarity and brightness, making lead lines stand out. Dialing it back can warm up the tone and thicken the sound.

    Stacking overdrive pedals

    It’s not uncommon to stack multiple overdrives in a signal chain. Stacking allows for a richer and more nuanced sound.

    For example, you can use one of the pedals for a smooth, low-gain warmth, and another for a biting mid-range push. Together, they can produce a sound neither could produce on its own.

    By having multiple overdrive pedals, you can also switch between different gain stages mid-performance. This is especially useful for songs that require dynamic changes, like transitions from subtle verses to more intense choruses for example.

    Stacking overdrives can also increase sustain and introduce pleasant harmonic overtones, particularly when the gain stages of both pedals interact.

    Generally, placing a lower gain overdrive before a higher gain one can provide clarity while still benefiting from the added saturation of the second pedal. However, reversing this can result in a more compressed and sustaining sound.

    When stacking, it's essential to consider the EQ settings on each pedal. If both pedals boost the same frequencies, it might result in a muddy sound. Tweak the tone knobs to ensure a balanced and complementary EQ curve.

    Additionally, ensure that the level settings on the pedals are balanced. You don’t want sudden jumps or dips in volume when engaging either one of the pedals.

    Like all things related to guitar tone, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to do things, so experiment with different overdrive combinations and settings to discover what resonates with your musical taste.

    There are two overdrive pedals in the pre-effects section of the Mesa Boogie Mark IIC+ Suite. Additionally, Tone King Imperial MKII Suite, Soldano SLO-100, and Archetype: Nolly also feature two stackable overdrive pedals.

    Using an overdrive pedal with a distortion pedal

    By pairing an overdrive pedal with a distortion pedal, you can create some truly dynamic and robust tones.

    The order in which you place the pedals in your signal chain significantly affects how the pedals interact with each other. 

    Running an overdrive into a distortion can smooth out the distortion's edge, adding warmth, sustain, and creating a dynamic and responsive tone. If you place the distortion pedal before the overdrive you can create highly saturated tones.

    Play around with different settings, orders, and pedal combinations.

    Remember, the goal isn't just to make things louder or more distorted, but to craft a unique tone that serves the music you play.

    Try stacking an overdrive pedal with a distortion pedal for some truly crushing tones in Archetype: Gojira.

    Next steps

    Now that you have a basic understanding of overdrive pedals, it’s time to start playing around with them. Try out the vast array of overdrive pedals in Neural DSP guitar plugins. All of our plugins have a fully featured 14-day free trial, so try them out risk free!

    While exploring, remember that your ears are your most trusted companions. If a tone resonates with you and aligns with your musical vision, you're on the right trajectory. 

    Embrace the process, continue learning, and most importantly, have fun and enjoy the beautiful tones you create.

    Make sure you read our article on some of the best metal amps ever built and check out the list of over 70 high-quality guitar effects that are found in our comprehensive catalog of guitar plugins.

    If you're new to plugins, our getting started guides are there to assist you every step of the way.

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