5 Ways To Find The Right Drive Pedal For You

January 24, 2017

Written by PGS Staff

I’ve spent a fair amount of time on guitar forums over the years and the one topic I’ve seen brought up more than any other is “Suggest an overdrive/distortion pedal for my rig,” or something along those lines. And with more options on the market today than ever before—I get it. There are lots and lots and lots of great pedals out there, and finding one that hits your ears just the right way every time can be a daunting task. In an effort to help you find your way, here’s a quick checklist of things to consider.

How much gain do you need?
For some players, there’s no such thing as too much gain—and that’s awesome. For them. But for others, a simple boost or low-gain overdrive may often fit the need perfectly, where a medium- to high-gain pedal will be complete overkill. Think and play through what you’ve got and figure out what kinds of tones and gain levels you can and can’t cover, then buy accordingly to give your pedalboard some versatility and variety.

How much EQ control do you want?
There are plenty of overdrive and distortion pedals on the market right now that feature a full complement of EQ controls. These are perfect for getting your drive tone to sit exactly where you want in the mix, but may require some tweaking to get just right. If that doesn’t sound like something you’d be into, a standard single tone control will probably work fine—but there are options out there if you need them.

What’s the intention of the design you’re looking at?
Take it from the guy who once tried (and failed) to coax passable low gain tones out of a “metal” pedal—some boxes are designed to do one trick and do that trick very well. And that’s okay. If you’ve got too much midrange, a Tube Screamer variant probably isn’t the right option. And if you’re going for a classic tone, start checking out amp-in-a-box pedals. It sounds basic, but sometimes we forget this stuff.

How much room do you have?
Size isn’t an issue for everyone. But for some—it’s everything. And lucky us, there’s something for players with pedalboards of all shapes and sizes. From micro-sized overdrives to big-box distortion pedals with built-in boosts, options abound. Do yourself a favor and think about how much room you have available before buying a new drive. In other words—if there’s only a single space available, don’t start looking at double pedals. You’ve been warned. 

Have you considered stacking? 
If you’re struggling to get the tones you’re looking for out of one pedal, it may be time to start looking for two. For instance, a low-gain drive into a medium-gain distortion can offer three distinct levels of gain for maximum versatility; even two low-gain drives can be paired together for bigger, fatter, gainier tones. It often takes patience and a little experimenting, but the results are quite pleasing when you get it right. 


  1. Michael H. says:

    To be fair and add another suggestion (especially for beginners):

    I would also try and not be swayed by “cool names” and the like, such as anything named with “metal”, “death”, and other keywords that will make teenagers go “Awesooome, dude!”.
    The problem with those is that they often lack good mid-tones, and worse, come with an abundance of high-end sizzle or fizz. (whatever you want to call it). This might also sound “cool” on its own and you could get half-decent sounds out of those things, but they usually end up to be a one-trick-pony, and a cripple one at that. - Seriously, you’ll end up just replacing it eventually anyway.

    Similarly for digital pedals. They get better and better, but most of them still don’t do drive-sounds that well. Again, there are decent ones, but analogue circuits are recommended.
    That doesn’t mean “expensive”. There are different companies that do great analog drives and are pretty competitively priced.

    posted on January 24, 2017 at 9:54 am
  2. Frank Lee says:

    Excellent questions. In line with how much gain do you need and what’s your intention, I’d also ask: what sorts of music are you planning on playing? And, do you need to sit in the mix; do you need to jump out of the mix; or do you find yourself playing both roles?

    Are you playing “never-too-much” death metal? Or are you going down light and gritty alt-country roads? Is your bag all kaleidoscopically psychedelic, or is it airy, synthy and indie? Are you a dyed-in-the-wool blues or classic-rock player, or are you all about the 80s party band nostalgia (more B52s or more Van Halen)?

    Does the guitar play a support role in the band or does it play a starring role? Does your guitar do both? (If the guitar does a bit of starring, a mid-range bump or a treble boost might be wise. If the guitar adds texture, atmosphere and support, a mid-range smiley face might be your huckleberry.)

    Your answer to what you want is usually right in front of you. And, of course, there are options that come very close to doing it all. And if a Swiss-Army knife approach doesn’t appeal, putting more than one dirt box (or more than one dual dirt box) on your board, without the intention of stacking (or with) can always be fun, too.

    Personally, I find dirt and delay are the meat and potatoes (or broccoli) bit of most pedal boards. On those boards, everything else is just dessert.

    posted on January 24, 2017 at 10:02 am
  3. Steve Agosto says:

    I have found a boost, a mid gain, hi gain distortion, and then a fuzz pedal covers everything.  Now which of each is the question… took me years to settle on the four pedals that I have now.  But with these I can do anything.

    posted on January 24, 2017 at 10:58 am
  4. Lito Rodriguez says:

    I think it’s also to point out that everything that sits before and after your drive pedal(s) is critically important.  Whenever you hear a great tone on YouTube or in person we have to pay close attention to the rest of the rig.  Just because a pedal sounds great or awful coming from one style of guitar/amp set up doesn’t mean it will sound the same coming out of a totally different one.

    I think the key words were in the last paragraph of this article.  Experimentation and patience.  Heavy on the patience.

    posted on January 24, 2017 at 11:47 am
  5. Ricardo Moraes says:

    At the end of the day It all depends on three variables: (1) the musicstyle you intend to play; (2) the venue that you choose to play: and (3) your ability (or not) to tweak and find “your” sound. In my case, a good booster (Xotic RC, for example) and a good tube amp (a Swart or a Serrano, for example) that can open under control would sufice for playing in a small-medium size club,

    Nonetheless, I found the article very good from a practical viewpoint. And I have always something to learn or confirm from the comments to this session.


    posted on January 24, 2017 at 2:58 pm
  6. David Fisher says:

    Something I realized about tone a long time ago; a “good sounding” guitar by itself often doesn’t cut through the mix, or gets muddy quickly. This is even more true if there’s keyboards, and two other guitarists in the band. That neck pickup, or ‘thinner’ sounds are sometimes actually really great for cutting through the mix without blowing up the volume of the overall mix. Do you really need a huge bassy tone, when your bass player has a 5-string and your drummer is using a 24” kick? Probably not.

    Listening for the ‘biggest’ sounding tone is often a mistake in my experience. You’ve gotta put it in context.

    posted on January 25, 2017 at 3:47 am
  7. David Fisher says:

    Also, the differences between OD pedals is way overblown. I’ve had probably 60 OD pedals. I’ve made videos of dozens of them. After a while they all blurred together. I got rid of all but 3 of them, and made sure those ones actually sounded different from each other. Even so, any of them would work for 90% of purposes. They are all ‘high end’ pedals, but I’d be damned if I could tell you which I used even a week after doing a recording.

    posted on January 25, 2017 at 3:52 am
  8. Curt Mathers says:

    The hardest part for the uninitiated is figuring out which overdrive pedals will work best with your amp.  Matching analog or digital pedals to analog or digital amplifiers is not as straight forward as you would think.

    The analog and digital pedals I was using successfully with both a Fender 1966 Bassman and a Vox ADVT30 (digital) refused to work with a Vox AC15CC1 reissue amp.

    I spent an afternoon with the AC15CC1 amp in my local music store trying out various preamp, overdrive and distortion pedals, including a very expensive boutique pedal.  The winner hands down: the inexpensive Ibanez Tone Lok series distortion, tube screamer and high gain pedals.  Three pedals for less than the price of one.

    posted on January 25, 2017 at 7:47 am
  9. Alex Fever says:

    You forgot to mention something crucial for finding the right pedal.
    What kind of pick-ups your guitar has.
    Every pedal reacts very differently going from various inputs…from having vintage low gain single coils to modern high gain humbuckers… with fat P-90s right in between.
    Basically, a fizzy-thin sounding overdrive will not sound that great with a single coil, and vice versa..

    posted on January 27, 2017 at 12:23 am

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