Overdrive. Dirt boxes. Drivers.
Whatever you call them, overdrive pedals (not to be confused with distortion or fuzz pedals) imitate the sounds of cranked tube amps and are some of the most important and useful effects that you’ll ever have.
They can be at the very heart of your tone, as an always on pedal.
They can kick your volume up for solos.
They can even help you sound substantially closer to the way your guitar heroes sound.
What if you’re just starting out and don’t know where to begin?
There are literally hundreds, even thousands of overdrive pedals out in the market today and that number is only going up.
In this article I’m going to give you some quick tips about picking out the best overdrive pedal for you, as well as my top picks for a number of different applications.
Snapshot: Top 7 Overdrive Pedals
- JHS Morning Glory V4 – Best for Tube Amps
- DOD Preamp/Overdrive 250 – Best for Metal
- Boss BD-W2 Blues Driver Wazacraft – Best for Blues
- Xotic SL Drive – Best Mini
- MXR M89 Bass Overdrive – Best for Bass
- NuX Horseman – Best Budget Option
- Origin Effects RevivalDRIVE Compact – Best High End & Best Overall
Picking the Right Overdrive Pedal for You
This is a topic worthy of its own full length article, but for now I’m going to hit the major points worth discussing.
Because there is so much tonal variety that overdrives can offer, a good question to ask yourself before picking out the right overdrive for you is:
How do you plan to use it?
Here are some common ways that guitarists use overdrives and some suggestions on how to pick a pedal for each.
To Boost Guitar Solos
One of the most common ways that overdrives are used is to help bump up the volume of your signal during a solo. Your big moment has to be heard, right? Overdrives can help your solos stick out in two ways:
- They bump the overall output, making your signal truly louder
- They shape the EQ, making your tone sound different
The first point is kind of a no-brainer. If your guitar is louder, people are going to notice. The second point is slightly more nuanced and is where I think overdrives can really help you shine. When playing in a band, the guitar can blend in easily with all the instruments playing at the same time.
There are lots of overlapping sound frequencies that cause each individual to sound cancelled out. Many overdrives boost the midrange and high-end frequencies that the guitar naturally sits in, so when you turn this on it pushes your guitar into the perfect EQ spot.
It also will cause a change in timbre, which will catch the attention of your listener.
Always On Core Tone
You want to change your overall tone, your musical voice, but you don’t have the funds to go buy a new guitar or amplifier. A good overdrive can be a cost-effective way of reshaping your core tone.
Just pick your favorite setting on the pedal and never look back. This is especially easy with clean amplifiers, which are often referred to as “pedal platforms”, because they allow the pedal to speak clearly.
The type of guitar and amplifier that you use with highly influence your overall sound, and overdrives respond to these pieces of gear differently from one rig to the next. Some of the pedals listed below were chosen for specific genres in mind.
Getting a Specific Tone
It’s happened to us all. You hear a new song, or maybe an old favorite, and you ask yourself: How do they get that sound?
So you do some digging on the internet and, based on a grainy picture from a live convert, you figure out exactly what kind of pedal your favorite guitarist was using and you buy it. This is a quick way to sound close to a specific sound that you have in your mind, whether you have an artist or a tone in mind.
It’s important to note here that while an overdrive will get you into the ballpark of your guitar heroes, there are a myriad of factors that make up a person’s tone. Can you guess the most important one? It’s not guitars, amplifiers, cables, picks, or any other piece of gear. It’s the guitarist’s hands and brain.
I bring this up not to burst anyone’s bubble, but rather to encourage you to find your own sound. That may be very close to another person’s tone (we all have your influences – it’s part of the fun), but nobody can sound quite like you.
That’s my main point: overdrives help you decide what your tone is going to be. Gain is at the core of guitarists’ sound and there is a lot to consider when picking one out. For my list, I picked out my favorite pedals for a wide array of uses and budgets.
Without further ado, here’s my top 7 overdrive pedals of 2021.
The Best Overdrive Pedals In 2021
1. JHS Morning Glory V4 – Best Overdrive Pedal for Tube Amps
- Designed to be one of the most transparent overdrives out there
- Adds mid to low level grit to Your crystal clean tone and tube like touch response to a less than ideal amp
Most overdrive pedals are going to work with a tube amp, but if you are looking to bump up the gain just a bit, while preserving the character of your tube amplifier, then you can’t go wrong with the JHS Morning Glory. In this review I’ll be looking at the newest version of the pedal, but even the earliest versions of it (if you can find one) are phenomenal.
The Morning Glory is JHS’ attempt to clone/improve the classic Marshall Blues Breaker circuit. Blues Breaker amps and pedals have been heard on famous recordings from the likes of Eric Clapton and John Mayer.
Version 4 of this pedal comes with some new features, including a never before featured Gain switch that allows for more crunch, as well as a jack for the JHS exclusive Red Box that allows you to switch between these gain stages remotely. It has nearly twice the headroom as previous versions and includes an updated Drive control.
The controls are similar to the ones you will find on most overdrive pedals. Volume controls the overall output. Drive controls the amount of dirt/distortion. Tone brightens or darkens the sound (you can also think of this as an EQ).
There is a Hi Cut switch along the side of the pedal that cuts down on high end frequencies if you have a particularly bright guitar or amplifier, and the Gain Toggle lets you switch between a Hight/Low gain setting, which can also be remotely controlled from the Red Box (sold separately).
Transparent is a trendy adjective in the guitar community that you may hear/read from time to time, especially with this pedal. I think this pedal could have invented or brought on the search for transparent overdrives. While many overdrives color your tone, the JHS Morning Glory does an exceptional job of preserving your guitar/amp tone, while adding beautiful shimmering highs.
It’s like taking a photo and adding a gloss finish to it. My bandmate, Eric Berliner, uses this pedal almost all the time for this function. The cool thing about V4 is that if you want higher gain tones that color your sound, you can access those tones as well in the High Gain setting, bringing on small Marshall combo goodness at the flip of a switch.
My band Lumet’s guitarist/singer, Eric Berliner, uses this pedal almost all the time.
- Effect Type: Bluesbreaker Overdrive
- Signal: Analog
- Power Source: 9V
- Dimensions: 6 x 3 x 3”
- Features: Red Remote, Gain Toggle, 2x Headroom, Hi Cut, True Bypass
Final Thoughts on the JHS Morning Glory V4
The Morning Glory is a modern day classic and is one of the best low gain overdrives available on the market. If you love your amp/guitar tone, but want to boost it for solos, or shape your tone effectively, you can’t go wrong with this one. I would recommend it even to those who own too many overdrives as it is. If you want to learn more about how the pedal, check out this video telling the story of the Morning Glory’s creation.
2. DOD Overdrive/Preamp 250 – Best Overdrive Pedal for Metal
Now if you play metal, I know what you are thinking. The DOD 250 isn’t heavy enough for metal! On its own, you’re right, but in general overdrives are not very appropriate for metal. High gain Distortion pedals are normally better suited for taking a clean amp and turning it into a monstrous distortion machine. That being said, the DOD 250 is the perfect overdrive for taking an already dirty amp and pushing it into high gain heaven.
The DOD 250 is a bit of an enigma, because while it is advertised as an Overdrive/Preamp, it is technically an Op-Amp distortion circuit. I know, it’s a bit confusing. Personally, when it comes to classifying drive pedals, I use my ear, rather than going off the circuitry, but that’s because I’m a guitarist and not a pedal manufacturer.
The fact is the DOD 250 is a very versatile pedal and has become a classic for that very reason. This new version of the pedal comes in a lightweight aluminum chassis, features, sparkling paint and uses True Bypass.
This is a very simple and easy to use pedal, because there are only two controls: Gain and Level. I think you can figure out what those controls do. Some might be worried that the DOD 250 doesn’t have a Tone or EQ control, but I honestly don’t think it needs one.
Because of the way it is designed, it preserves your tone extremely well, so it’s the perfect pedal if you want to keep your heavy metal tone, just with some added grit. This means you have more time for playing, and less time spent adjusting knobs.
You can get levels of overdrive anywhere from a good clean boost to a pristinely saturated distortion pedal from this effect. The Gain knob is really sensitive. For metal, I would recommend throwing this in front of an already dirty amp at a low
Gain setting, making it a great way to add clarity to your sound. It also adds just a little bit of low end to your signal, making your guitar sound fat and round. If you switch from a high gain channel to a clean channel on a two channel amp, keeping this pedal on will give you clean tones an appropriate shimmer that’s fantastic for clean parts on a metal song.
- Effect Type: Op-Amp Overdrive
- Signal: Analog
- Power Source: 9V
- Dimensions: 4.88 x 2.61 x 3.25
- Features: True Bypass
Final Thoughts on the DOD Overdrive/Preamp 250
Selecting an overdrive for Metal can be a challenge, because more gain is not always more metal, if the pedal sounds like garbage. Paired with a good amplifier, the DOD 250 is a versatile overdrive that preserves your tone and gives it a really satisfying grit. It’s also simple to use, giving it all the qualities of a good overdrive.
3. Boss BD-2w Blues Driver Wazacraft – Best Overdrive Pedal for Blues
- Special edition Waza Craft pedal delivers the ultimate BOSS tone experiencePremium sound based on the classic BD-2 Blues DriverNewly revised, all-analog discrete amplifier circuitStandard and Custom...
It’s in the name, so it has to be true: the Blues Driver is meant for blues players. However, the Wazacraft edition of this Boss classic has some added features that make it a versatile overdrive even for those who aren’t playing the Blues.
While most of you are probably familiar with Boss, not everyone knows about the Wazacraft (WC) line, which take classic Boss pedals and redesign them for the modern day. The WC Blues Driver has been updated to have a lower noise floor, while keeping its amplike sound.
It also comes with a newly added Custom Voice, which adds more low end, sustain, and gain to the original circuit. If you want the original Blues Driver sound, not to worry; the Wazacraft Blues Driver has the original voice as well.
The controls on the BD-2w are essentially the same as the original Blues Driver. There are controls for Level (controls volume), Tone (counterclockwise for darker tones, clockwise for brighter tones), and Gain. You can think of the Gain as an overdrive/distortion mix.
There is an added switch in the middle, which lets you choose between S (Standard) and C (Custom) Boss Blues Driver voices. It’s a simple to use and effective pedal in terms of its layout.
The Blues Driver is one of those pedals that sounds good at just about any setting. In the original voice, I find that the pedal is meant more for low gain tones. By backing off on the gain, you get a little extra punch in the EQ, without losing any highs, and you keep your amps core tone present.
This makes it a great “desert island” pedal, where with just an amp, guitar, and this pedal you could get through most blues gigs. However, if you’re looking for more gain, switch over to the Custom voice. With the added gain and low end you can tackle 70’s and even 80’s classic rock territory.
The noise floor is low, so it plays well with most amps and it remains clear where most overdrives get muddy. It’s a great pedal to use to help your guitar stand out in a band mix.
- Effect Type: Overdrive
- Signal: Analog
- Power Source: 9V
- Dimensions: 2.32 x 2.87 x 5.08 inches
- Features: Buffered Bypass, Custom Voice, discrete amplifier circuit
Final Thoughts on the Boss BD-2w Blues Driver Wazacraft
The Blues Driver is a fantastic pedal on its own and delivers where most overdrives fail. That being said, many have modified this pedal to add more gain and low end. Now, Boss has given you both voices under one enclosure at an extremely affordable price. Even though it’s called a Blues Driver, this is a great pedal to use in just about any genre.
4. Xotic SL Drive – Best Mini Overdrive Pedal
- Faithfully delivers the legendary sounds of the Super Lead and Super Bass British amplifiers Two settings provide a ton of versatile tones Amp-like response that interacts nicely with your guitar's...
- Famous for its woody, organic and beautiful sounds of saturation, these legendary British amplifiers, the Super Lead & Super Bass, have been delivering one of the all-time classic sounds for almost 50...
The pedals I’ve addressed so far aim to work with your amp, but what if you don’t like the sound of your amp? What if you want your overdrive to make your amp sound like another? The Exotic SL Drive is an excellent example of an “amp in a box” overdrive… or would it be more appropriate to say, “amp in a mini box”?
The SL Drive is based on both the vintage Marshall Super Lead and Super Bass amplifiers, while keeping everything in a miniature pedal enclosure. I personally own and use this pedal regularly, and the thing that surprised me most about its build is how sturdy and heavy it is.
You could drop this pedal down a flight of stairs, and it will still work. It also has the option to be powered by an 18V adaptor, which gives you more headroom and, to my ear, makes the pedal even more like an amplifier.
The controls are squeezed in tight with this pedal, but they feel sturdy and of a high quality. The Drive and Tone knobs are very touch sensitive, with each small twist making a drastic change in the tone. The Volume control is a miniature knob, which actually helps to prevent from accidental toe bumps on stage.
To switch between Super Lead and Super Bass voices, you have to open the pedal up and adjust the internal dip switches (diagram below). These allow you to cut certain frequencies and lets the pedal work well with any amp to give you that signature Marshall tone.
From my experience, the pedal sounds amazing even in its default settings when paired with a good Fender tube amp.
The words that are often associated with this pedal’s sound are “woody” and “organic”, which are often associated with the best of Marshall amplifiers, and I have to agree. This pedal sounds like a great amp, plain and simple.
I use it in conjunction with a Suhr Bella amp, which is a great, clean pedal platform. The SL Drive effectively gives me an A/B amp setup, without having to lug around two amplifiers. I treat this like an amplifier, as opposed to an overdrive pedal, because it responds to your touch and volume controls like an amp would.
The Super Lead voicing is a bit brighter sounding and has more gain on tap, whereas the Super Bass voicing has less gain and more bottom end.
- Effect Type: Super Lead Overdrive
- Signal: Analog
- Power Source: 9 or 18V
- Dimensions: 3.5 x 1.5 x 1.5
- Features: 6db boost, true bypass, optional 18V power
Final Thoughts on the Xotic SL Drive
I have to admit that I am slightly biased in reviewing this pedal; it’s one of my all-time favorites. Many have tried to get Marshall tones into a stomp box, but I think this one does it the absolute best.
It blows my mind that Xotic was able to get the sound of these British amplifiers into the smallest possible footprint and at a very tempting price point. One day I’ll get a Marshall amp, but until then this pedal will work just fine.
5. MXR M89 Bass Overdrive – Best Overdrive Pedal for Bass
Overdrive for Bass can be a tricky field to navigate. Most guitar overdrives suck out too much low end to make them practical options, so I suggest going for products that have bass specifically in mind. One option that does overdrive tones particularly well for bass is the M89 from MXR.
As I mentioned before, the MXR M89 Bass Overdrive is an overdrive pedal that was specifically designed for the bass guitar. The circuitry was made in such a way to retain the low end and full sound of your bass, even to the point of including a Clean blend function so that you can blend in your original sound.
This pedal features True Bypass switching and runs on a standard 9V adaptor.
The MXR M89 has four parameters that you can control. The pedal has separate controls for your clean and dirty tones. The Clean knob controls the amount of your original signal that passes through, while the Drive knob controls the amount of gain or overdrive that is added.
There is a control for Tone that allows you to tame the EQ of the effect and can be used to help you punch through the mix. Finally, there is a control for Volume.
This pedal had some serious character to it and can make your bass sound super burly and gritty with the right settings. I hear the likes of Tim Commerford (Rage Against the Machine) or Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers) circa “Around the World”. The most important aspect of the sound of this pedal is that your low end is fully retained, while adding some presence and grit.
I also find that the attack of your fingers or pick is accentuated when this pedal is on, adding to its aggressive nature, and making your dynamics that much more valuable. In short, it sounds like a high quality, cranked bass amp.
- Effect Type: Bass Overdrive
- Signal: Analog
- Power Source: 9V
- Dimensions: 4.5 x 5.5 x 2.5”
- Features: True Bypass, Clean blend
Final Thoughts on the MXR M89 Bass Overdrive
I think that the MXR M89 hits the sweet spot for bass overdrive. It doesn’t completely take over your signal, yet it adds something that your bass might be missing harmonically and dynamically. It is a flexible pedal without getting too confusing in its controls, and the price point is hard to beat.
Exploring guitar overdrives for bass is a fun venture, but if you want a sure fire solution to the bass overdrive problem, start here.
6. NuX Horseman – Best Budget Overdrive Pedal
- Gold and Silver modes,2 independent pedal sound in one mini stomp box
- Gain, Treble and Output Controls
One of the most legendary overdrives ever (if not the most iconic ever) is the Klon Centaur. Known for adding gain without coloring your tone, the Klong gained massive popularity in the early 90’s, until developer Bill Finnegan ceased production in 1994.
Now, if you want the sound of the Klon Centaur, you can either spend a fortune, or you can get the NuX Horseman for under $70!
The NuX Horseman is a Klon clone that is housed in a mini pedal enclosure and won’t break the bank. It has settings for both Gold and Silver modes (the two most famous versions of the original Klon), making it a very versatile effect.
While the Horseman is based on the sounds of a converter circuit, it achieves its great sound by using Op-Amp tech similar to the DOD 250 above. It also has a voltage converter circuit for higher headroom.
What this means is that the pedal is super transparent. Another added feature is that the pedal can function as either true or buffered bypass, making it a great buffer if you need to combat long cable runs.
The Horseman has controls for Treble (adjusts high end), Output (master volume), and Gain (overdrive/distortion). In order to switch between the Silver and Gold modes, simply hold down the footswitch for one second. This pedal functions essentially the same as any other Klon clone out on the market.
Like the original Klon Centaur, the Horseman works well in front of just about any amp. It can take a clean amp and push it to the edge of breakup, or it can take an already dirty amp and send it into overdrive. If you prefer an overdrive that has more harmonics and gain, then the Silver setting is definitely the one for you.
Most use the Klon as a clean boost, but it can also be set to really great heavy gain settings too.
- Effect Type: Klon Clone overdrive
- Signal: Analog
- Power Source: 9V
- Dimensions: 2.56 x 2.60 x 4.61:
- Features: Switchable True/Buffered bypass, Silver/Gold modes
Final Thoughts on the NuX Horseman
Of all the effect types out there, overdrive has the greatest abundance of budget options worth considering. I mainly chose the NuX Horseman for the savings you get compared to the pedal it was modeled after. While the Klon can cost literally thousands, the Horseman sounds close enough to justify its insanely low price tag.
7. Origin Effects RevivalDrive Compact – Best High End & Best Overall Overdrive Pedal
- OUTPUT overall output level
- GAIN adjusts input level for amount of overdrive
I’m sorry to say it, but the most expensive option is the best option on this list. The compact version of the Origin Effects RevivalDrive is a revolutionary overdrive circuit that acts more like its own unique amplifier than an overdrive circuit.
The RevivalDrive Compact from Origin Effects is essentially a slimmed down version of the original RevivalDrive that came out a couple years ago. This version features only one channel, but it retains all the rich harmonics and touch sensitivity of its original design.
Whereas most overdrives work as a secondary preamp to your amplifier, the RevivalDrive works to capture the entire circuit response of an amp through its valve amp circuit path. It works like a British or American, non-master volume amp.
All of this means that it will work in front of literally any amplifier. This can almost be thought of as an amp simulator that you place in front of you own amp.
There are a lot of controls squeezed into this small pedal, so let’s just list out their functions here:
- Output: Overall volume
- Gain: amount of overdrive
- Highs/Lows: EQ controls. Usable at all settings
- Blend: This powerful control lets you blend in your clean tone. This is great for bass tones.
- More/Presence: This adjusts the amount of presence and negative feedback the pedal creates. This really allows you to make the pedal sound like any amp you can think of. For example, rolling off all the negative feedback will make it sound like a VOX AC30.
- Post Drive EQ: use to tune the pedal to your amp
These controls are all very powerful and can help you shape your sound in incredible ways. For more information on the controls, or for suggested settings, check out the pedal’s manual here.
It’s worth mentioning that this is not a super high gain pedal. At its highest settings it can sound like a cranked Marshall Plexi. The reason I consider this to be the best overdrive is because it doesn’t sound like any other overdrive. It sounds and behaves like an amplifier.
This gives you all the touch sensitivity and clarity that you are looking for in your signal. It’s hard to describe exactly how the pedal sounds, because it is a chameleon of sorts, molding into whatever form you want it to be. Yet no matter what setting you put it in, it sounds organic and rich.
Even the high/low controls are usable at literally any setting. Don’t ignore the extreme settings with this pedal.
- Effect Type: Overdrive
- Signal: Analog
- Power Source: 9V
- Dimensions: 5.6 x 2.6 x 2.56
- Features: True Bypass, Post Drive EQ, Clean Blend
Final Thoughts on the Origin RevivalDrive Compact
While the price tag may offend some, this could very well be the last overdrive pedal you ever need to buy. It is that flexible. It even works well with bass guitars. If you can’t settle on a single sound or if you want to explore a wide array of overdrive tones, then this is the best option you can go for.
Crank It Up
Ever since guitar players first turned tube amplifiers up to the point of tube saturation, they have been looking for ways to replicate that sound at lower volumes.
It started with fuzz pedals, then got more nuanced with overdrives, yet guitarists’ ears are never satisfied. This is why there are so many excellent overdrive pedal options available in 2021.
The good news is that no matter what budget or style you are looking for, there is likely a good solution out there for you.
You just have to find it.
I hope this article gave you a good jumping off point!
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Davis Wilton Bader is a professional guitarist/writer based out of St. Louis, MO. He plays in the bands Lumet and The Outskirts.