Overdrive vs. Distortion… What’s the Difference!?

We’ve all been there, and some of you may be there now. You’re looking for the guitar effect pedal that’s going to make you sound like your favourite guitarist, but you have no idea where to start. You’ve heard the words overdrive and distortion, but don’t quite understand what they mean. You know that they sound different, but don’t quite know why.

If any of this sounds familiar, we’ve got the answers you need.

They’re both means of making your clean, crisp guitar, sound dirty… but how?


Let’s start where it all began, with Overdrive. When electric guitars were first invented, amplifiers were obviously needed to produce sound. And of course, as musicians do, players needed to be louder, so amps were pushed far beyond their capacity, causing them to, quite literally, overdrive the vacuum tubes that powered the amplifiers. This process of pushing amplifiers too far caused the sound to break up. Guitarists quickly realized this break-up actually sounded great. And thus, overdrive was born, with effects pedals soon being developed to create overdrive without pushing the amplifier to its limits.


Distortion was, in many ways, the evolution of overdrive. Pedal and amp manufacturers were looking for new ways to create that characteristic broken-up, dirty sound. This led to an entirely new approach; altering the guitar’s electrical signal directly. This came in the form of a rougher signal, more harmonic saturation, and more sustain. Put simply, distortion is a more intense version of overdrive, with a bit more control.

You may be thinking, “Surely this begs the question; which is best?” Well, the answer, as with most things regarding musical gear, is down to preference. If you’re looking to sound like Angus Young, with a raw, unruly, break-up, maybe an overdrive pedal is for you. If you’re looking to sound like Kurt Cobain, with and earth-shattering guitar sound, you might be after a distortion pedal.

But beyond any technical breakdowns, there’s only one way to find out what works for you, and that’s to experiment, so maybe the question is… why not both?

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