At its core, an overdrive pedal is pretty much rock and roll in a box. From that sweet bluesy growl to the howling lead lines of heavier genres, overdrive is a must have effect for the modern guitarist.
But the question is; what makes a good overdrive pedal? If you’re a beginner, choosing the best overdrive pedal for your needs can be a bit overwhelming. There are hundreds of models from dozens of manufacturers and price points all of which come with their own pros and cons.
So if you’ve always been curious as to which overdrive pedal will be the best fit for you rig you’ve come to the right place! This article will give you all the information that you need to make an informed decision.
- What Does An Overdrive Pedal Do?
- How Do I Choose An Overdrive Pedal?
- How Did We Choose The Winners?
- The Best Overdrive Pedals
So, What Does An Overdrive Pedal Do?
Assuming you have a tube amp, an overdrive pedal is used to increase the amount of gain (distortion) that you get from your tubes. A tube amp will distort at higher volume levels, and an overdrive pedal can assist in this process without coloring the tone overly much.
Generally, this type of distortion is described as sounding more “organic”. Think of your favorite blues guitarist, odds are they get their sound from a driven tube amp and an overdrive pedal.
However, there are a few uses outside of just driving an amplifier. For instance, a common use for overdrive pedals among guitarists who play heavier genres is to stick an overdrive pedal in front of a distortion pedal in the signal chain to increase the gain that they receive from the distortion pedal.
Another use of overdrive we’ve seen is using it like a subtle EQ for kicking up your guitar’s treble and mid-range response for solos. What’s great about this is that it allows you to have a lot more control over where you place your guitar in the mix.
How Do I Choose An Overdrive Pedal?
When looking for an overdrive pedal, the first thing you should try to consider is how it will work for your rig. Just to give an example, say you use a Peavey Classic 30 (which is voiced a bit darker than an average Fender Tube amp) and Fender guitars (which are generally pretty bright).
This type of rig would give you a pretty balanced frequency response. If you're playing lead you want something that’s voiced brightly because it will help your guitar cut through the mix a bit better. If you're playing rhythm on the other hand, you want a pedal that will help you blend into the mix and fill it out.
One of the most helpful things when choosing an overdrive pedal is hearing how it sounds. For every pedal on this list (and beyond) there are dozens of audio demos on YouTube. Whoever is doing the demo usually also talks about the guitar and amp they're using, so you can see how the overdrive pedal matches up with their rig.
Another way to narrow down your selection is to look at your favorite pro guitarists, and figure out what overdrive pedals they are using.
How Did We Choose The Winners?
Lucky for you, we've saved you a ton of time and heavily researched all the options. We hunted down different forums, demos, and reviews, and took note of which overdrive pedals were the most mentioned and most recommended. Fear not. we covered forum posts and recommendations for all playing styles, genres, and budgets - best overdrive pedal for blues, best overdrive pedal for metal, best overdrive pedal for humbuckers, best overdrive pedal on a budget, and so forth. We then tallied up all the recommendations, and came out with a master list. We took the top 5, and went to our local music store to spend some quality time with the best overdrive pedals.
It's worth mentioning that there will be budget and mid-range pedals on the list below as well as higher-end models. Sure, the high-end pedals might be the best for someone who can afford them, but they may not be the best option for someone who needs to be more frugal with the gear they purchase. The “best” pedal might be different depending what type of guitar player you are, and your budget.
And for those of you who are financially challenged, don’t think that you need to break the bank to sound good. Sure playing great gear is cool, but you can sound good with mid-range gear so long as you play well. Anyone who tells you otherwise does not have your best interest at heart.
The Best Overdrive Pedals
So without further ado, here are our selections for the best overdrive pedals.
Fulltone OCD Obsessive Compulsive Drive
As we were hunting down forum threads about the best overdrive pedals, it quickly became apparent the Fulltone OCD Obsessive Compulsive Drive pedal is one of the most loved and most recommended overdrive pedals in existence. Here at Equipboard, we love researching gear and making “best of” guides to help you buy gear you’ll love. As we do more of these, we’re noticing a pattern - the pedals with the most recommendations tend to be the most versatile ones. The Fulltone OCD is no exception!
Several factors of the OCD contribute to this versatility, but the main one is the two switchable modes it has. A small toggle switch at the top of the pedal lets you select between LP (Low Peak) mode, and HP (yep you guessed it, High Peak) mode.
Low Peak is more of a transparent boost, meaning that rather than sounding like an overdriven monster, it maintains the tone that you have. Switching into High Peak mode delivers a more aggressive overdrive, and this is where you can really push this pedal. You’ll hear a definite jump in volume, along with a boost in the mids and a little bit of boost in the high frequencies. Several users of this pedal, as well as Fulltone themselves describe the Low Peak mode as a more Fender-like “cranked Blackface or Tweed-style,” whereas High Peak mode is for a more “British” vibe (ala Vox and Marshall). This comparison sounds pretty accurate to our ears as well. As you can see, lots of tonal versatility here.
The knobs are your disposal are Volume, Drive, and Tone, and they are very touch sensitive. So much so that between all of the fine tuning you’ll do on the pedal, along with the volume and tone controls of your guitar, you can spend hours and hours dialing in a wide array of overdrive tones. This all comes together to make the Fulltone OCD quite responsive to your playing dynamics. Play softly to keep the OCD at bay, and really dig in to unleash its power. We loved playing with the Tone knob, as it can really increase the brightness of a dark sounding amp, or conversely tame a bright amp. Here’s a great tip we found:
My favorite thing about the pedal is the way it cleans up when you turn down your guitar's volume knob. I use my OCD with gain at about 3pm so that I can access some killer solo tones and roll down the volume for rhythm playing. Excellent pedal. I leave it on all the time during gigs.
Bottom Line: With the Fulltone OCD Obsessive Compulsive Drive you get a lot of overdrive options for your money, from a boosted clean tone to an all-out overdriven-yet-still-defined tone. The pedal is very well built, true bypass, comes with a 9V battery, and carries a very attractive price tag. So, should you get it? The Fulltone OCD is very well-suited for most styles (though we noted mixed results for how well-suited it is for metal). It is perhaps best suited for blues and rock genres. We tried it with a bunch of different amps, from a Fender Bassman to a Vox AC15, and the OCD worked great with all of them. You can really crank the dirt on the Fulltone OCD, and despite how bass-y and fat the low end gets, you’ll love how the quality of your tone is still so good. We love it, and think it deserves a place on your pedalboard. Best of the Best.
Joyo JF-02 Ultimate Drive
In the world of guitar pedals, Joyo has garnered quite the reputation. It’s a Chinese company that essentially clones existing pedal designs, and offers them at a tremendous bargain. Their presentation might not always be the best, and the packaging is riddled with bad Chinese to English translations, but once you plug the pedals in and try them out, none of that seems to matter. The Joyo JF-02 Ultimate Drive is their clone of the Fulltone OCD that we just covered above... and it sounds amazing!
In terms of aesthetics, we’re not quite sure what’s with the Darth Maul type face on the pedal. Anyhow, let’s not judge a book by its cover. In terms of layout, you’ll notice the Joyo Ultimate Drive is remarkably similar to the pedal it’s meant to copy, the Fulltone OCD. Where the OCD has Volume, Drive, and Tone knobs as well as a toggle switch, the Joyo has Gain, Level, and Tone, and the same small toggle switch. Despite its low price, we’re happy to report its enclosure is all metal, and feels sturdy. It looks and feels a bit like an MXR pedal.
Getting down to business, the important question is how does the Joyo JF-02 sound? And equally as important, how good of a job does it do replicating the tone of the more expensive Fulltone OCD? The short answer is that the Joyo sounds great, and it’s almost shocking that it is offered at such a low price. It stays more or less stays faithful to the OCD, but there are some significant differences. Notably, at the exact same settings, the OCD is brighter. The Tone control on the Joyo Ultimate Drive gets darker much earlier when you rotate it to the left. Think of it like a treble control. In fact, we found it to almost be unusable below 1 o’clock (too much mud, we felt like we lost clarity). Past 1 o’clock however is where it starts to open up.
Switching the toggle switch from Low to High will brighten the tone up and give you more top end, which plays very nicely if your guitar has humbuckers. Even with the Gain knob all the way down, you get a nice clean boost that responds well to your playing dynamics. Just like the Drive knob on the OCD, the Gain is very responsive, and dialing it up from zero to 10 or 11 o’clock makes a tremendous difference. Owners of both the Joyo and OCD have actually pointed out that while the Joyo is not as bright, it has more gain on tap (i.e. you’ll need to turn the gain knob on the OCD up more to match the gain of the Joyo).
Bottom Line: We’re truly impressed by what Joyo has done here. The JF-02 Ultimate Drive is widely known as one of the best pedals in the Joyo lineup, due to how good it sounds and how inexpensive it is. To most users, it sound virtually indistinguishable from the Fulltone OCD. It’s a fantastic overdrive pedal for most genres, though just like the OCD we might go with something else for all-out metal. We personally would go with the Fulltone OCD because we like the idea of owning the original, but the Joyo Ultimate Drive goes to show that just because you don’t want to spend $100+ on a pedal doesn’t mean you can’t get something pretty impressive. Without question, this is the Best Bang for your Buck.
Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer
It’s difficult to wander around in the world of guitar pedals without ever coming across the Tube Screamer. This iconic overdrive pedal has seen various incarnations since the late 70s, and continues to evolve. The Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer is a reissue of the 1980s original, and is the most popular of the Tube Screamers. It even took the #1 spot in Guitar World’s The Top 50 Stomp Boxes, Devices and Processors of All Time. But enough with the trivia. Let’s talk about why the Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer deserves a spot on your pedalboard.
For being so popular, the TS9 Tube Screamer is actually not very versatile. It does one thing, and it does it well. We’ll borrow this line from a review we really liked:
What it DOES do ... is to boost the signal at the front end, which essentially results in a more dynamic tone with additional gain.
This is not a modern, high-gain sort of pedal. This is more of a vintage tube sounding boost that responds to your playing dynamics, and can provide extra bite no matter what genre you’re playing. Dig into your strings harder, and you’ll hear its character come through, depending on where you’ve set the Drive knob. Speaking of dials, you get three of them: Drive, Tone, and Level. Getting the hang of the Tube Screamer’s operation could not be simpler. The format of the pedal is a stompbox, with a footswitch reminiscent of Boss pedals, although in our testing the Tube Screamer felt heftier than your average Boss pedal.
With the Drive knob all the way down, the Ibanez TS9 will give you a good clean boost. There’s just a little bit of grit, with the mid bump that this unit is very well-known for. As you turn the Drive up, the TS9 really starts to shine. One thing we love is how touch-sensitive the knobs are. It’s a simple pedal, but it has a lot of range. The TS9 retains a bit of your original signal, which explains why it responds so well to your playing dynamics. One of the best practical applications for it is to use it as an extra channel. You can use your amp’s clean channel by itself, clean channel with Tube Screamer, distortion channel by itself, and distortion channel with Tube Screamer. The TS9 plays very well with an already distorted amp, and alongside other distortion pedals, letting you get that little extra something and really cut through the mix.
Bottom Line: For most guitarists, buying a Tube Screamer is more of a matter of when, not if. It’s an iconic pedal for a reason - it has been used on stages around the world and countless recordings. Whether you should spring for one or not kind of depends on your existing "dirt" section of your pedalboard. If you don’t already have any overdrive or distortion pedals, we hesitate recommending the Tube Screamer as your first one. For that, we prefer the versatility of a Fulltone OCD. If you’re a classic rock or blues player, and you either have a good distortion channel on your amp, or you already own an overdrive pedal, then we cannot recommend the Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer enough.
Boss BD-2 Blues Driver
Despite its name, the Boss BD-2 Blues Driver works for far more than just blues. When tallying up people’s recommendations for the best overdrive pedal, the BD-2 came in just a few votes behind the Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer. Considering how legendary the Tube Screamer is and how close this came to it, that's pretty high praise. Artists like John Mayer, Kelly Jones of Stereophonics, and Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day have used this pedal in their live setups (John Mayer used one that was Keeley-modded, which we'll cover below). Let’s find out why.
We say this every time we review a Boss stompbox, but the build quality is great. Boss pedals are notorious for being able to take a beating over many years and continue to perform perfectly. Pedal aesthetics are of course very subjective, but we have to mention the Blues Driver is a very good looking pedal, with its blue color and yellow lettering. If you’ve been looking at other overdrive pedals, the knobs on this one won’t surprise you: Level, Gain, and Tone. The Gain knob lets you dial in the desired amount of overdrive. Setting the Gain at about 30% gives you that crunchy Hendrix-like tone. The interplay between your guitar’s volume knob and the BD-2’s tone leaves you with a ton of fine-grained control over the amount of crunch and break-up. Roll the gain knob to between 60% and 70% to get a nice big blues solo tone, but one that still lets you articulate chords. The Tone knob, just like the previous pedals we’ve covered, let you span between very dark to extremely bright and treble-y, and you’ll want to adjust this depending what guitar and amp combo you have.
The Blues Driver is compared a lot to a Tube Screamer. In terms of purpose, neither of those pedals are meant to be used for all-out high-gain distortion. The Boss BD-2 excels if used to boost your clean tone, all the way to a very broken-up, crunchy sound. Reviewers of these two pedals agree that right out of the box, the BD-2 offers a little bit more of that familiar overdriven sound, while the Tube Screamer is a little more particular. You can definitely get a pretty thick hardcore growl out of the Blues Driver with all knobs turned to the right.
Bottom Line: Between the Boss BD-2 Blues Driver and a Tube Screamer, it truly comes down to subtleties in tone. Perhaps surprisingly, a lot of the head-to-head comparisons tended to favor the Blues Driver, saying that the pedal responds better to picking dynamics, and has more “dirt” available than the TS9. Check out some YouTube videos of both and see which is better suited to your playing style (although we gotta admit when we did that, it was difficult for us to even tell the difference). Sight unseen, we’d got for the Boss BD-2, and get it modded by Keeley Electronics with the Phat Mod. This mod introduces a switch that when engaged introduces more low end, as well as reduces the noise of the pedal to lower than stock levels.
Fulltone Full-Drive2 Mofset
The second offering from Fulltone on our best overdrive pedals list, the Fulltone Full-Drive 2 Mofset is a very nice pedal that can do a little bit of everything. It has a smooth sounding overdrive, responds well to your playing dynamics, and most importantly it’s extremely versatile.
One of the marquee features of the Full-Drive2 is that it has two primary modes: Overdrive mode is the default, and then Boost mode, which you engage with the lower-right footswitch. To borrow words from the owner's manual, Boost mode “transforms the pedal into a medium to higher-Gained distortion with a nice midrange growl and lots of sustain.” You get 4 knobs to adjust Volume, Tone, Overdrive, and the amount of Boost (only when Boost is engaged). The first of the two small toggle switches is what gives this overdrive pedal so much versatility, letting you switch between three different modes:
- CompCut: CompCut is a clean boost to basically beef up your existing clean sound.
- FM (Flat Mids): Think of FM mode a little like a Tube Screamer mode, but without the signature Tube Screamer mid-hump. When in Overdrive mode, Fulltone describes this as a more transparent overdrive (we suppose it’s about as transparent as overdrive can get).
- Vintage: Vintage mode is like FM, except more midrange-heavy (more Tube Screamer-like).
The other small toggle switch lets you choose between Standard mode, and Mofset, which generally sounds richer, with more bass and growl. Just as you would with the other overdrive pedals on this list, use the Tone knob to affect how dark or bright your tone is.
We spent a lot of time playing with the Fulltone Full-Drive2, and gathering up other users’ reviews. The thing about this pedal is that with so many controls and settings, it can do a lot! Depending if you’re in Standard or Mofset mode, Boost on or off, and any of the three primary modes, every control affects the tone a little differently. It’ll take you some time to get to know it, but you can pretty much dial in any dirty tone you can imagine, from subtle break-up to full-on growl.
Bottom Line: The Fulltone Full-Drive 2 Mofset is used by pro guitarists like Kings of Leon lead singer Caleb Followill (whose guitar tech calls the Full-Drive2 “real beefy and crunchy”), Mike Campbell, Keith Urban, and many others. We personally found the simplicity of the Fulltone OCD a little more appealing, but the Full-Drive2 has become one of those legendary pedals for good reason. Few overdrive pedals can match the number of tone options that it provides. It has the solid build quality, true bypass, and tonal versatility, not to mention the price on Amazon is an absolute steal (at least $10 less than anywhere else we saw). For these reasons, the Full-Drive2 is a very worthy entry in our top 5 overdrive pedals.
So how do you feel about our overdrive article? If you have any thoughts or experiences you’d like to share, feel free to do so in the comments section below!