Distortion? Fuzz? Overdrive? What’s the Difference?

Ibanez Tube Screamer Boss DS-1 Overdrive and Distortion Electric Guitar Effect Pedals

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Because We’ve All Wondered What The Difference Is Between Distortions

Distortion is among the most celebrated effects used to get specific tones and sounds out of the guitar and without pursuing facts to corroborate my comments I think it’s safe to assume of all the effects out there none rival distortion both in the styles the effect has been developed and just how much it’s been used. But that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone understands just what distortion is or when what we’re hearing isn’t even distortion, but rather overdrive or even fuzz. That brings us to the here and now where the ambitious conquest of clarifying what one form of distortion apart from another.

The Similarities

Ibanez Tube Screamer Boss DS-1 Overdrive and Distortion Electric Guitar Effect Pedals
Overdrive and Distortion

Before getting too far into the real meat of this article let’s eat our vegetables first and see just what these types of pedals have in common. Just what is distortion? The grit in the signal signal is caused by clipping that can be introduced through a variety of means and with that overtones come in and add extra, more subtle frequencies and harmonics to the signal.

To narrow the gap on what overtones are, when you play a clean guitar you hear two things. The dominating pitch of the vibrating string and subtle overtones that colorize the instrument. Each instrument has its own overtones and these play a pivotal roll in determining an instrument’s timbre. For the guitar when the distortion is kicked on these overtones become more pronounced and simple intervals like octaves and the infamous power chord take on a new life when they can be rather stale without the alteration. It’s also because of these overtones that more complex chords like 13ths and 11ths are tougher to use with a lot of distortion. Having five different tones play at the same time is a complex sound, let alone with the competing overtones, though it’s all proportionate to how much clipping your signal is saturated with.

Now onward to the differences.


Overtone Diagram

In the case of overdrive the clipping comes as a side effect the output source is pushed beyond its designed limits. In this case we’re talking about the amp. Amps and speakers are designed to be able to pump out sound with only so much power and when you boldly cross that line of power via increased gain that is when the signal begins to break up. Because of this the amount of actual distortion that comes through the signal varies at different volumes.

Gain can be kind of a funny thing to understand on its own. When you turn up the gain you often get an increase in volume as well, but it’s not really a volume control by specific design. Gain simply pushes more power, more energy through the speaker and volume can increase quite easily. That would be why a lot of overdrive pedals get used as a boost. Not to be the primary source of grit, but to push the signal a bit further.


Distortion is an effect that aspires to produce clipping for the specific purpose of having it there. With distortion pedals the signal is loaded with clipping and compressed to control what would otherwise be an erratic volume problem. Unlike overdrive which varies at different volumes, distortion is much more consistent through various volumes.


A brief History Of Fuzzboxes

Fuzz pedals are easily the dirtiest of the bunch and by design turn the guitar’s waveform into a square wave which gives the guitar almost a more synthesis type sound. The overtones in this case are supplied by what’s called a frequency multiplier.

Defining what a frequency multiplier is is about as easy as playing pin the tail on the donkey without a blindfold. It does exactly what it’s called. It’s an electronic circuit that produces frequencies at a harmonic multiple of the frequency going in. It’s for that reason actually that you see a lot of interval-based fuzz pedals like Slash’s Dunlop or Fender’s octave fuzz pedals, or EHX’s Graphic Fuzz which is a fuzz and equalizer in one.

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Kyle Smitchens

Kyle Smitchens is the Guitar-Muse Managing Editor, super hero extraordinaire, and all around great guy. He has been playing guitar since his late teens and writing personal biographies almost as long. An appreciator of all music, his biggest influences include Tchaikovsky, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Steve Vai, Therion, and Jon Levasseur of Cryptopsy.

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