Overdrive, Distortion, and Fuzz - What are the differences?

Going into the world of guitar might get confusing at times. This is not much of a surprise since there are so many different pedals and other effects out there. Oftentimes, there will even be items you won't know whether you really need. However, it is of essential importance that you educate yourself about these things as much as you can. It's the only way you'll be able to implement all the effects the proper way.

What we're going to discussing here are the key technical and performance differences between the three types of "dirt" pedals - overdrive, distortion, and fuzz. It's one of the most common discussions in the world of guitar and many are not completely familiar with how these three effects actually work. So it is up to us to get things straight and help you understand the main differences.

The basic stuff you need to know first

Technically, all three of these effects are types of distortion. What we commercially know as "distortion" pedals, like the Boss DS-1 for instance, is just one type of distortion. It's a bit confusing but we'll clear things up.

First, we have a clean signal that can be represented as one long continuous smooth sine curve. The distortion occurs when the signal is clipped. This way, the curve gets distorted and, as a result, the tone we hear changes. There are a few ways to achieve the effect and its three basic types. The difference comes due to the type of clipping, but we'll get to that soon.

The clipping occurs when the signal is amplified to that point where it reaches the limitations of the amp or the pedal that you're playing through. In modern pedals and amps, the signal is amplified and clipped on purpose to create distortion. Amplification of the signal is achieved through operational amplifiers while clipping is done using diodes or transistors.

Back in the old days, the late 1940s and the early 1950s, audio engineers looked down upon clipping and distortion as errors. It was after guitar players realized they could get that "dirt" in their tone by pushing their tube amplifiers over the limits that it became more popular even among music listeners.

We should also know about the headroom, which is the "space" between the peak of the original signal and amplifier's or pedal's threshold.

Overdrive

So now we get into the distortion types and the "mildest" one - overdrive. While many think that overdrive is just weaker distortion, this is not exactly the case. What makes overdrive distinctive is soft clipping. This means that the waveform of the amplified clean signal has no rough edges and the clipping process is more "evenly distributed" over time.

As a result, the distorted tone sounds a bit smoother, even if you turn up the gain knob up high. It's somewhat similar to the tone of old clean tube amplifiers pushed over their limits. A great example here is the legendary Ibanez Tube Screamer, along with all of its different versions and clones.

Clipping in overdrive pedals is usually achieved using diodes in the circuit rather than transistors. In some cases, overdrives will also use two different kinds of diodes to create the so-called "asymmetrical" clipping where the wave has an unevenly cut shape on top and bottom waves.

Distortion

The classic distortion is a bit different though. We know it by the "fried" tone that it produces. The secret behind such a tone is in harder clipping, in most cases achieved using transistors. Of course, just like with overdrives, distortion pedals boost the signal using operational amplifiers and then cut it on purpose.

Even when you turn their gain knobs down, distortion pedals still have that distinct metallic harsh tone due to harder clipping. This is the case with basically any popular distortion pedal. However, some pieces let you choose between the type of clipping, either by a switch or through a knob that allows you to gradually blend these two types of clipping.

Fuzz

And then we have fuzz. There's one simple thing that makes it stand out compared to overdrive and classic distortion, and that's the extreme form of clipping. The clipping is so hard that the entire waveform takes the square shape. The resulting tone has a very rich harmonic content and an overall "wooly" feel to it.

In most of the cases, fuzz is achieved using transistors only, without the addition of operational amplifiers. One of the oldest and most famous examples of fuzz pedals is Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face, popularized by Jimi Hendrix. These days, fuzz is not as widely spread as classic distortion and overdrive and is loved by those with very specific tastes. In some cases, it's so fuzzy that it doesn't sound so well if you play simple power chords or any two notes at the same time, but rather note by note.

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