Overdrive may be the most fundamental sound of rock’n’roll. There’s just something about the sound of an overworked tube amp that hit the sweet spot of a clean tone breaking up into a warm distortion. Giants of rock guitar would simply crank their Fenders or Marshalls until the tubes glowed, revelling in whatever kind of natural grit came out of them. But if you want the organic sound of tube overdrive at lower volumes, with a solid state amp, or as a selective effect, you’ll need a pedal.
Specific overdrive pedals were actually predated by higher-distortion fuzz boxes of the ‘60s, simply because most tube amps were already capable of overdrive. It was only with the advent of cleaner solid state amps in the mid-to-late ’70s that overdrive pedals like the iconic BOSS OD-1 or Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer made their debuts. Teens in their bedrooms with small combo amps could now sound like a wall of Marshalls at Woodstock.
Today there are dozens of overdrive pedals on the market, including various classic tube amp reproductions and descendents of those early BOSS’s or Tube Screamers. You can keep your drive on all the time for gritty Classic Rock, dial back the gain and turn up the level for subtle on-demand boost, or even put it just ahead or behind higher gain distortion or fuzz devices to make your searing metal even crunchier. Check out all the best of 2019’s overdrive pedals to find which one’s right for your sound.
Aclam Dr. Robert
Overdrive and tube amp aficionados often distinguish between American and British drive sounds. The former tends to emphasize smoother and warmer lows and highs, whereas the latter is a more aggressive boost to mids. With the Dr. Robert, Aclam produced a British-style overdrive pedal that emulates the incredibly rare Vox UL730, a tube/solid state combo amp that the Beatles used on Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Aclam even went so far as to commission artwork on the pedal by Revolver cover artist Klaus Voorman.
The controls on this pedal are minimal and elegant. True to the British sound, the only tone knob focuses on the mid-range scoops or boosts; the other controls are for gain and pre-amp/master knobs. Players switching from rhythm to more driven lead sounds will love the Mach Schau! (German for “More Show!”) button. This pedal fills a very specific niche of overdrive beautifully, but we’re still wondering, who on earth is Dr. Robert?
Earthquaker Devices Plumes
Although Earthquaker Devices already produces a Tube Screamer-influenced device (the Palisades), this year they’ve released the more minimalist Plumes. A classic TS-style unit right down to the green color, the Plumes has the same circuitry as the Palisades but at less than half the price.
In addition to the standard Tone/Level/Gain knob trifecta, the Plumes features a switch for selecting three different clipping modes: a crunchy, dirty mode, a clean boost, and an “asymmetrical transparent” clipping that Earthquaker describes as a blend between a clean boost and overdrive. The Plumes also utilizes Earthquaker’s Flexi-Switch™ switching, which gives players the ability to simply hold down the on-off footswitch for momentary operation and then release it to return back to clean mode.
The OCD-GE is a limited edition custom shop update to Fulltone’s flagship OCD overdrive pedal. In case you’re wondering what the “GE” stands for, Fulltone has loaded these pedals with Germanium diodes, as well as MOSFET transistors. These hard-to-find components produce very defined “clipping”—the crunch that makes the best overdriven and distorted sounds.
What this means for the OCD-GE is greater tube sound, more sustain, and more dynamics than other pedals in the OCD lineup. If you’re psyched on this, make sure to grab the GE now. As soon as Fulltone has used all those Germanium diodes, this pedal is history.
Ibanez TSV808 Vemuram Tube Screamer
Ibanez has released, re-released, and tweaked many variations in its iconic TS series, but the TSV808 is a unique rarity. In collaborating with high-end pedal manufacturer Vemuram, they’ve created a hybrid of that company’s Jan Ray overdrive pedal and their own classic TS808. The TSV808 retains the distinctive mid-boost that has defined the 808’s sound for decades, and it adds the wider dynamic range of the Jan Ray. It’s also a good 7db louder than most TS units, giving your sound a true boost over other drive pedals.
This three-knob beauty is simple, elegant, made from the best components and all-brass fittings, and is already on its way to being a collector’s item. Ibanez only released 400 in the US, hence the hefty price. If you want a top-tier collaborative pedal with a flawless pedigree, you better jump on the TSV808 now.
LPD Seventy 4 Preamp/Overdrive
Lawrence Petross Designs has captured the crunch of classic Marshall Plexis with the Seventy 4. With a three-band EQ as well as controls for Level, Presence, and Gain, this unit will let you dial in almost any over-the-top ‘70s guitar scream that you desire, from crunchy rhythm to blistering leads.
These boutique pedals are handmade in the USA and signed/dated by Petross, and they produce a beautiful drive that’s as golden as the case of the pedal. They’re also a significant step up from basic BOSS or TS-style overdrives.
Mad Professor Supreme
Developed in collaboration with British Blues virtuoso Matt Schofield, the Mad Professor Supreme is a comprehensive two-channel Drive/Boost/Tone shaper. The Supreme’s A-side features the same circuitry as Mad Professor’s venerated Royal Blue Overdrive, and it excels at a sort of low-gain drive that jives with the warm sounds of a Strat’s neck pickup. The B-side is a bit higher gain, beefier, and intended for sharp lead tones out of a bridge pickup.
This is basically two drive pedals in one, and in A/B mode it is incredibly easy to switch from one to the other. You can also switch to A+B mode, which stacks your two drives together with all the precision that two separate Bass/Treble EQs can provide. If you’ve got a single channel amp and would like the dual-channel versatility, the Supreme will be a dream.
Effects history buffs are well aware that the Maxon OD808 is certainly not new for 2019. This pedal has been around since 1979, when it was first designed by Susumu Tamura. It was then quickly bought by Ibanez and repackaged as the TS808. It has since become one of the most copied pedals of all time.
New for 2019, the 40th anniversary reissue is very similar to the original OD/TS808 and all their descendents, but it has a modified “Max Gain” feature designed in collaboration with master pedal maker Robert Keeley. It’s not the only OD808 reissue that Maxon has released. In February they produced a very limited run of 40 pedals that had an added switch to turn on the Max Gain, each personally signed by Keeley. If you prefer the original unit without the Max Gain, you can also get an OD808-40 reissue for the same price.
MXR Dookie Drive
The 25th anniversary of the release of Green Day’s major-label debut Dookie not only makes some of us feel really old, but it also prompted the release of MXR’s Dookie Drive. The raw, breakup-ridden overdrive of Billie Joe Armstrong’s guitar sound was punk rock power chord aggression defined. He achieved it by playing through two amps: one with a midrange-scoop, and the other with the mids boosted.
MXR has meticulously packaged this two-amp sound into one small stompbox with simple controls, and a specific button to engage the mid scoop. It’s even decorated with the original album art from Dookie! If you want your sound as dirty as mid-’90s Green Day, this is the pedal for you.
Skreddy Pedals Rubber Soul
The Aclam isn’t the only Beatles-inspired drive pedal that focuses on recreating the sounds of small British combo amps from the ‘60s, because Skreddy Pedals’ Rubber Soul is at it as well. This pedal excels at that bright “jangle” that defined ‘60s British Invasion bands (as well as later alternative acts like REM), which originally came from blending the bright and normal channels in Vox-style combos.
In addition to Drive controls and a Bass/Treble EQ, the Rubber Soul also features Sag control that comes from an optical circuit that reproduces the compressed sagging sound that only tubes can get. This pedal delivers a very unique, brightly-colored drive that stands in contrast to standard TS-style pedals.
Spiral Electric FX Yellow Spiral Drive
Based on the much-loved DOD 250 Overdrive (which was also designed by Spiral Electric’s Tom Cram), the Yellow Spiral Drive can go from light drive to crunchy mayhem, and everything in between. This all-analog pedal is handmade in the U.S. and has some interesting controls: Gain, Output, and instead of a tone/EQ, a Girth knob that controls the amount of low end you add to the drive.
Like the Earthquaker, the Yellow Spiral has a three-way clipping mode switch that selects between LED and silicon diodes. In non-technical jargon, this means you can switch from a light, transparent boost to other variations that are a bit more compressed and distorted. Depending on your desired sound, this boutique pedal could be the only drive/distortion unit you need on your board.
Choosing an overdrive pedal is incredibly subjective. A sound that one player hates with a passion may be the holy grail for another. Fortunately, there is such a huge number of overdrive pedals on the market that you can pick from, and you can even go with several. Here are a few jumping-off points if you’re not completely sure what you’re looking for.
For versatility and the greatest variety in overdriven sounds, the Mad Professor is the clear winner.
For classic British amp tones check out the Aclam or Skreddy if you’re into the Beatles, or the LPD if your taste is more toward Cream and Led Zeppelin.
If you love that Tube Screamer boost but in a new package, check out the Fulltone, Maxon, or Ibanez for reissued nostalgic glory.
If you wish your basic drive pedal could do a bit more in terms of tone or clipping, the Spiral Electric, Earthquaker, or MXR give you a few more options in addition to Tone/Level/Drive Controls.