Overdrive vs Distortion vs Fuzz: How to Know the Difference

I know when I started getting into the world of guitar effects pedals, I had no idea about the differences between overdrive, distortion, and fuzz. I remember walking into my local music store one day to buy my first guitar pedal. The store owner recommended I check out an Ibanez Tube Screamer since it would be a get starting point. He mentioned how I would get great overdrive tones from it and that it would also be perfect for serving as a boost or getting distorted sounds if I needed that as well. My eyes just about glazed over. Overdrive, distortion, boost...all in one pedal. I was so confused. I thought there were differences yet this pedal appeared to do it all.

Well, if this story is relatable, I want to end that confusion for you as well. There is a difference and I want to clarify that for you now.

As a musician, you are basically creating an audio signal every time you play a note on your guitar. This audio signal is generally what we would call clean and general has a ceiling as you will see here. We'll call this headroom which is the "space" between the peak of the signal and your amplifier's threshold.

The moment this clean signal reaches hits the top and bottom, it begins to get distorted or what you can call clipping. This was considered an error by audio engineers in the 1940's and 1950's and has now evolved into a "dirt" tone most of us love.

This "dirt" tone can be categorized into three main buckets which are overdrive, distortion, and fuzz. That order is from mildest to harshest. Let's walk through them now.

Overdrive
Overdrive is definitely the softest of the batch. It is achieved through soft clipping where that clean signal we discussed earlier is rounded out as you can see here. A great example of a legendary overdrive pedal would be the Ibanez Tube Screamer I mentioned earlier or our very own Juneau pedal.

Distortion
Distortion is where you start to get into hard clipping as you will see in this illustration. Instead of the rounded edge that comes with overdrive tones, you get a hard clip where it is a lot more abrupt. Even things are turned down, you'll still get that metallic harsh tone. A great example of this type of sound is something like the Pro Co RAT or our Airavata which was inspired by this legendary circuit.

Fuzz
Fuzz is all about extreme clipping as you will see. It's definitely not subtle as you can see how the entire waveform takes on a square shape. The resulting tone is very "wooly" and those who love it, really love it.

There are many legendary fuzz circuits from the Dallas Arbiter which Jimi Hendrix loved to different variations of the Big Muff which has utilized from everyone from the Smashing Pumpkins to David Gilmour to the Black Keys. We utilize our Midnight Train which was inspired by the Civil War Muff to showcase what fuzz is really all about in the video above.

So, there you have it. Overdrive, Distortion, and Fuzz. All are truly unique and different. Each camp has their own set of fans and admirers. The next step for you is figure out which one is your favorite.

Keep exploring.

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