For some, the guitar and amp are all they need. “Pedals? Who needs ‘em!?” they might proudly proclaim as they hook up their axe, certain that they’ll be able to achieve their perfect sound without the use of any additional effects. For others, though, the addition of some fuzz or overdrive can serve as a welcome complement to their tone.
I want to talk about the latter, highlighting the subtle distinction between three common pedal types (overdrive, distortion, and fuzz), and got some feedback from producer (and owner of Mixtape Studios) Jarrett Nicolay on some of the most trusted effects pedals from his personal collection.
To some, the most popular guitar effects — overdrive, distortion, and fuzz — are nigh-indistinguishable and their names are used interchangeably. This is understandable, as there’s overlap in the sound that many pedals are capable of achieving. There are some differences that are worth pointing out however.
Overdrive pedals provide the warmest and mildest of the three sounds, and are designed to mimic the sound of cranked-up, vintage tube amps (think good old-fashioned blues). Distortion, on the other hand, provides a greater level of gain and crunch, resulting in a more intense alteration of sound and the “meaner” tone often associated with heavier rock and metal.
As for fuzz, you can think of it as the fun, yet unrefined, cousin of the sound produced by overdrive pedals. It was one of the first among the guitar effects that musicians began to experiment back in the 1960s, and the tone is unmistakable — warm, well-rounded, and, to sum it up in a word, fuzzy.
Which specific pedals get the nod when it comes to these categories? Every guitarist has their preferences, and at my behest, Jarrett chimed in with a few of his all-time favorites:
- A longtime pedal in the arsenal is the Boss OS-2 (yellow overdrive/distortion). I've had it since high school and it has been lost and found more times than I can count. It's got a really cool Beatles dry distortion when you go direct with it.
- More recently I've been really into the more boutique fuzz pedals. A client of mine left a few at my studio awhile ago and I've had a lot of fun using them on various projects. The Analogman Peppermint Fuzz is a favorite — really vintage fuzz tone.
- I have a Big Muff (Vintage Black) that is great for bass fuzz/distortion. It really preserves the low end while still having a cutting distortion.
- Regarding studio stuff, I'm a big fan of a slap delay. I probably use it too much but I feel like it's too much of a good thing most of the time.
In the end, however, find what you like, use what you feel suits you best, and have fun. If you’re interested in delving deeper into the topic of various guitar effects, I highly recommend checking out Gibson’s classic article, Effects Explained: Overdrive, Distortion, and Fuzz. It explains more history/technical details, and provides a few examples of standout effects pedals that have earned their place in many a guitarist’s collection.