Posted by: worshipguitarguy | September 15, 2006

Understanding Effects Part 1: Overdrive

While it may be called the most common of all effects used by electric players, the truth is it’s hard to call overdrive an effect.  This is because overdrive’s really the result of pushing a strong signal through your preamp… a signal powerful enough that it changes the tone coming out of the amp’s speaker.  

The simplest definition I know of for overdrive is it’s what happens when a guitar amplifier’s sound distorts or starts clipping, especially with a tube amp.  Overdriven sounds range from a slightly “warmer” tone with increased sustain, to a “fuzzy” signal where individual notes lose their clarity.  The phenomena of overdriven sounds are generally divided into three loose categories: vintage overdrive, distortion, and fuzz.  When I refer to overdrive or OD in this post, I’m referring to a vintage overdrive sound, the effect made popular in 1960’s rock.

Vintage overdrive’s generally the lightest of the three categories… it’s characterized by an increase of volume, sustain, and warmth of the preamp signal which happens when harmonics are introduced.  The effect originally came from guitarists in the 1950’s who changed the tone of their signal by driving their preamps fairly hard.  Although clipping or distortion is a bad with most sound reinforcement gear, guitar players felt otherwise, and the concept of overdriving amps stuck.  (Especially with blues musicians of the period.) Vintage overdrive doesn’t completely clip the signal, (as opposed to distortion), instead it compresses the top of the waveform, giving the effect a “smoother” sound.

The two most common ways to generate overdrive are to increase the preamp volume on a tube amp, or to drive the preamp section with an external effect pedal, (like the Boss OD series, Ibanez Tubescreamer, or the Fulltone Fulldrive 2)  Solid state (and modeling amps) can simulate the sound of an overdriven tube amp, but many guitarists feel that those amps lack the warmth and character of tubes.  They feel a good overdriven sound comes from pushing both the preamp and power amp sections. 

Overdrive’s currently used in many types of music such as rock, hip hop, R&B, country, blues, jazz, hard rock, and alternative rock. 

For many years, using overdrive’s been taboo in many churches, (particularly conservative ones.)  However, it’s growing popularity in more “middle of the road” music, which has changed many congregations attitudes towards it.


I want to share a personal pet peeve.  I’ve seen alot of young guitarists pull out their acoustic guitars and run them through overdriven Marshall stacks.  Now I know some pretty creative guitarists have used acoustics with overdrive/distortion… but generally it’s a terrible idea.  Distorted acoustics do NOT sound good…  [end rant] 🙂


Clean, Overdrive, Distortion, and Fuzz Demo

The link above contains samples recorded on a Line 6 Guitar Port set on a Fender Blackface Deluxe model.  The first sample is the amp clean, the second is using an Ibanez Tubescreamer style OD, the third uses a ProCo Rat style Distortion, and the fourth uses a Electro Harmonix style Big Muff Fuzz.  Notice how the warmth an clarity of each sample changes between the individual notes and the strummed chord.  The samples were recorded with a Fender Tele with the pickup selector switch in the “neck” position.  (Forgive the slightly out of tune strings on a couple samples, my strings are starting to go…  Also forgive the changing eq between the samples, I’m still getting this Guitar Port thing down.  😉  )



  1. I agree with the no acoustic overdriven guitar. Generally sounds horrible.

    We are just getting into light distortion at our church. Yea, we are one of the conservative ones. 🙂 But we are getting there.

  2. Love the sound demos Gerry good idea! Quick question… What are you using to record?

  3. Hey Bill, I’m right there with ya on the “conservative” side. I have a post coming up next week just for us who are plugged into churches that don’t share our musical preferences… 😉

    Hey Cheemz, just used a Line 6 Guitar Port, which is basically just a direct box/POD that plugs right into the USB port on my laptop. It’s really cool, because it comes with a program called Sonoma Riff Tracker which lets you record guitar and bass parts super easily. Ya just mix your tones in a program called “Gear Box”, hit record, then rip out your riff!

    I’m thinking of experimenting with the Guitar Port and a Toneport (with Ableton Live) to do some demo recordings later this year with the band… we’ll see how it works out!

    Hey, looking forward to playing with ya tomorrow afternoon. 😉

  4. you raise a great point. i think oftentimes in churches an overdriven sound is mistaken for volume. some older generations have a difficult time differenciating between the two. so they’ll say “my goodness! it’s much too loud!” when in reality it could be 10db softer than if it were an acoustic guitar.

    the latest versions of the vox ac30 and ac15 do a great job of delivering preamp overdrive at any volume (and they place the master after the pre & power tubes so you can saturate them to achieve those upper-order harmonics). i picked one up recently and love it to death…wish i would have gotten the ac15 though…at least my back does!

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