ProGuitarShop

Origins of Overdrive

October 5, 2013

 Penicillin. Teflon. Corn flakes. Coca Cola. Distortion.

 

Some of our favorite things were discovered completely by accident.

 

 The origins of overdrive aren’t documented as well as, say, the discovery and development of pasteurization – but several accidents and simple technological limitations gave rise to the ubiquitous dirty tones we all know, love, and employ today. Dirt has become an essential part of modern music--it is arguably the most popular sonic effect in the world.

 

But it wasn’t by design.

 

The first instrument amplifiers of the 30s were somewhat lo-fi – they had simple tone circuitry and were very low wattage. When players tried to coax more volume out of these amps, it caused the amps to distort mildly. This result wasn’t a desired one until many years later.

 

Though jazz players like Charlie Christian started experimenting with distortion in the late 30s and 40s, as did country players like Junior Barnard and blues legends like T-Bone Walker, distortion didn’t really “arrive” until the 50s. As the legend goes, the distorted tone in Ike Turner’s 1951 song “Rocket 88” happened because guitarist Willie Kizart’s amplifier had been damaged during transport, resulting in one of the first recorded examples of distortion in rock n roll.

 

 

 

By the mid-50s, the tones produced by damaged amps, torn speakers, and weak low wattage amps had become seriously sought after and guitarists began altering their instruments to produce these tones on purpose. Link Wray famously poked holes in his speaker cones and tweaked his amps’ vacuum tubes to produce his signature sound captured on 1958’s “Rumble.”

 

 

In the sixties, the Kinks and the Who continued this tradition, slashing speaker cones with razor blades and screwdrivers. As distortion became the sound of the day, amp makers began to take notice and started to design with that goal in mind. In the meantime, other mad scientists were engineering stand-alone units to produce these fuzzy tones. The 1962 Maestro Fuzz Tone pedal is widely regarded to be the first transistorized guitar effect pedal to hit the market and has been immortalized in the intro to the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

 

 

 

I’d say it all went downhill from there, except that it went every which way. Circuit designers brought us distortion, they brought us fuzz, they brought us overdrive. Some of the most famous and legendary effects pedals in the admittedly short history of electric guitar are dirt pedals, notably:

 

Electro Harmonix Big Muff Pi

A legend then, a legend now—the Big Muff Pi is one of the original fuzz pedals and has stood the test of time thanks to its thick, sustainy fuzz. Here’s an un-cited quote (ahh, thanks, Wikipedia) from EHX founder/president/inventor/designer Mike Matthews:

 

"Back in 1969 I (Electro-Harmonix) was already selling the Muff Fuzz, which was a mild overdrive circuit in an LPB-1 box. I wanted to come out with a three knob distortion unit in a bigger box. I asked my buddy, Bell Labs designer, Bob Myer, to design a unit, one that would have a lot of sustain. When I got the prototype from Bob, I loved the long sustain. This was done by cascading the circuit into additional sections, each one clipped by twin diodes. However, when you clip, the tone can be a bit raspy. So, I spent a couple of days changing capacitors to roll off distortion in the highs, and eventually found that the best long sustaining tone that was a sweet violin like sound was done by having three capacitors in different parts of the circuit rolling off the rasp. We plunged into production and I brought the very first units up to Henry, the boss at Manny's Music Store on 48th Street, NYC. About a week later, I stopped by Manny's to buy some cables, and Henry yelled out to me, 'Hey Mike, I sold one of those new Big Muffs to Jimi Hendrix.' "

photo via kitrae.com

photo via kitrae.com

 

 

Ibanez TS-9/TS-808 Tube Screamer

 

Literally named after the concept of pushing a tube amp as far as it can go, the Ibanez Tubescreamer is THE overdrive pedal. When Ibanez was working on the Tubescreamer, Boss was already producing compact effects pedals like the OD-1. Boss had the wherewithal to get a patent on the asymmetrical clipping used in the OD-1, which left Ibanez to use symmetrical clipping in the Tubescreamer—a move that didn’t just work, it created the famous smooth overdrive that has been sought after since the 808’s introduction in 1979.

photo via analogman

photo via analogman.com

 

For effects companies, producing an overdrive pedal is essential and typically the first circuit that is produced. We sell almost 170 different overdrives alone, to say nothing of fuzz and distortion and to say nothing of all the pedals that are out there that we don’t carry. There are an unlimited number of overdrive tones out there to satisfy an unlimited number of dirt-loving musicians—three cheers to the happy accidents along the way that brought us THE DIRT.

 

How many dirt boxes do you own? More importantly which one(s) can you NOT live without?!!! 

 

Thanks for reading!

Comments

  1. Doug McElfresh says:

    My ‘71 Twin is notoriously persnickety about dirt boxes, but I finally found a few that do the trick.  For a nice transparent grit right up to a singing lead tone, I have a Zvex Box of Rock stacked with a Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive.  The Sparkle drive comes first in the chain and is kicked in for the singing lead tone.  I like the fact that I can blend it’s TS9 circuit with a clean bypass signal.  Works nicely with the BOR.  For a more dense (without being compressed) higher gain metal tone I have an Emma Reezafratzitz.  These all work well with single coil guitar (G&L SC-2) and the old Twin.  Always looking for the perfect G&L S-500 if anyone has any leads….. what can I say, I like MFDs.

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 9:03 am
  2. Steev says:

    Interesting article, but I didn’t take to kindly to having to sign up (which I didn’t) with spotify to listen to the samples

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 9:04 am
  3. Masonian says:

    When I can, I push the amp to overdrive. But when that means angry sound guys, I rely on my Fulltone OCD as my go-to overdrive.

    I have a simple yet versatile pedalboard (tuner—>Comp—>Fuzz—>OD—>delay)
    Nothing ever stays exactly the same. I’m always swapping out OD and fuzz.

    Other fav OD’s: BYOC TubeScreamer, Menatone Howie, ProCo RAT (I know, I know… but I run it as an overdrive with low drive high output gain)

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 9:08 am
  4. Isaac says:

    Nice article. I enjoyed the reading. I didn’t use spotify to listen. I just looked them up otherwise (youtube).

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 9:13 am
  5. Tim says:

    Not to be picky here - but you skipped over the Fuzz Face and the Tone Bender to promote the Big Muff Pi?  If you are going to give a history of Fuzz - do it right! :-)

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 9:16 am
  6. Syrjosh says:

    That’s funny: two of my three favorite dirt pedals are pictured in this simple but well-oriented article.

    Ibanez Overdrive II OD-855 v1.1 (small, unmatched knobs)—I have two on my boards and they work so wonderfully well together that I am now considering to get a third one to try that out :)  The true classic overdrive for those in the know :)

    EHX Big Muff triangle v 1.2 (never got to try any v1.1 yet)—to my ears, there is a small issue with this pedal because the mids get a bit lost but otherwise you get wonderful sustain, thickness, richness, sensitiveness, responsiveness (and an incredible amount of volume).

    Catalinbread RAH is my third favorite—sounds slightly better, thicker and “darker” than the WIIO to my ears—to get a nasty classic British rock sound.

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 9:19 am
  7. Syrjosh says:

    Tim: I never really liked the Big Muff until I hear the early 70’s “triangle” original version.  I owned three tone benders and two fuzz faces, and in my ears and honest opinion, the Big Muff blows them out of the water. Any Big Muff that is not a “triangle” one does not sound half as good as the original though.

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 9:32 am
  8. Brook Finlayson says:

    I can’t hear the samples even with Spotify. If you are going to imbed music, do something else.

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 9:38 am
  9. Javier says:

    Agree with Steev and others about signing with spotify or anything else. Soundcloud would do the job if you don’t want to have the MP3 files onboard…

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 9:46 am
  10. William says:

    Agreed re Spotify - rendered the sound clips useless for me.

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 10:37 am
  11. Abbacus says:

    The Klon Centaur, King Of Tone, Fulltone OCD, Catlinbread RAH & DLS 3, DOD YM308, MI Audio Boost n Buff,  is all I really need (for overdrive-ish pedals) for what I do, along with several different amp flavors, of course!  Really like everything Wampler makes: except for the Leviathan Fuzz. His new Velvet Fuzz is superb though. There are so many excellent dirt pedals available now. Surprisingly, there is a ton of bad sounding stuff still being made when everyone should know better by now. When I bought my first Strat, back in 1973, there was little to choose from in stomp boxes really but we had our overpowered stadium amps to use at sock hops and dance halls and plenty of blown, or blowing out speakers to provide drama!

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 10:57 am
  12. guitard says:

    boss blues driver with the keeley mod.  takes the brittle out of the stock pedal and with a slight voltage sag, it gives a great ron wood circa earl rod stewart tone.  voodoo lab sparkle drive.  the clean blend keeps your guitar sound in the distortion rather than typical boxes that make all guitars sound the same.

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 12:37 pm
  13. Dave says:

    Seymour Duncan Lava Box. Put that together with the Seymour Duncan Double Back Compressor and…Wow!

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 12:50 pm
  14. James says:

    Wish there was more info/more boutiquers interested in the original Ibanez Overdrive and the OD-1 while I haven’t played an OD-1 a do prefer asymmetrical clipping to the symmetrical of a TS and the original Ibanez Overdrive sounds cool in its own right

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 1:40 pm
  15. Atomic says:

    I used an A/B box to directly compare the Ibanez Tubescreamer to the Fulltone OCD.  The former sounds very compressed compared to the latter, so I switched to the OCD.  Then I discovered the Mad Professor Sweet Honey Overdrive.  Versatile and great sounding at all volumes.  Really “sweetens” my tone.

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 1:42 pm
  16. Scorpion1211 says:

    What about Treble Boosters? I think we can say that these are the ancestors of overdrive, isn’t it?

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 2:03 pm
  17. Steve Adkins says:

    The Fuzz Face should have been included in your article. You also didn’t mention the Fender Blender, which nails the 60’s Big Brother and The Holding Company / Blue Cheer sounds. James Gurley of Big Brother probably used the Fender unit, as Big Brother was given a “truckload of gear” by CBS Records, who owned Fender at the time. If you want a rude, old school FUZZ box, try the Fender Blender, but bear in mind, it’s about as subtle as a nail bomb.

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 3:28 pm
  18. ubiquitoid says:

    I guess I’ve owned 20+ different dirt pedals over the years, but I’ve settled on the (pre-MOSFET) Fulltone Fulldrive 2 as my personal holy grail of overdrive in conjunction with a Strat and a Mesa Boogie Subway Blues. Spotify? Uh, no thanks.

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 3:38 pm
  19. Bill says:

    Lost interest in reading this when I found I had to sign up for that stupid audio player.

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 3:49 pm
  20. Sean says:

    Can’t live without?
    Civil War Big Muff and a Red Llama, both built from kits. The first is dark with infinite sustain and the second is bright but great for soulfully digging into the strings. Cmatmods Signa Drive is on the way too and I can’t wait to try it out.
    The spotify thing doesn’t work for Canada.

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 4:40 pm
  21. Alan Day says:

    Spotify isn’t “available in your country yet” is the message I got - link to an mp3 not simple enough for PGS?
    Fuzz Face, Colorsound Overdriver, Blackstone

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 5:18 pm
  22. Mtn Tree says:

    Must include: 1960, “Don’t Worry,” Marty Robbins. Broken channel the bass was going into

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 6:37 pm
  23. Kevin Maxfield says:

    Spotify isn’t even available in my area, so I couldn’t listen to the clips even if I wanted to sign up.

    I’ve enjoyed amassing a bit of a dirt box collection over the years.  The overdrive pedals I currently use the most are a TC Electronic MojoMojo overdrive and EWS Fuzzy Drive (overdrive/fuzz) on my “workhorse” rhythm/songwriting board, an Xotic BB+ (and a Catalinbread DLS and WIIO) on my lead board, and a combination of a VFE Scream and EarthQuaker Devices White Light in my “other” rig.  That’s just the overdrives; distortion and fuzz (other than the Fuzzy Drive) are another story…

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 7:06 pm
  24. Frank Konopski says:

    30-something years ago, I got a beautiful, singing overdrive by running my guitar through a home stereo cassette deck, in the record mode, with the input volume maxed.  The sound was somewhere in the range of Guess Who’s “American Woman” and Davie Allen and the Arrows’ “Blues Theme”, “Devil’s Angels”, etc.

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 7:27 pm
  25. frumptious says:

    Does anyone remember the “Zonk Machine”?

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 10:52 pm
  26. David says:

    My Lovepedal Englishman and my Empress Multidrive.

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 11:24 pm
  27. Pete says:

    I absolutely love overdrive pedals.  My collection includes an Ibanez TS808 (Keeley), vintage Ibanez TS10, Fulltone Fulldrive MOSFET, Boss Blues Driver (Keeley), Way Huge Pork Loin, Fulltone OCD. The Pork Loin, OCD, and TS10 are probably my favorites..although each of these ODs are incredible in their own ways.

    Btw, Spotify worked fine for me in iOS…

    posted on October 5, 2013 at 11:37 pm
  28. Larry Hollowell says:

    Nice story. Really enjoyed it. My favorite peddle is The Rat. Wonder what ever happened to them.

    posted on October 6, 2013 at 2:38 am
  29. SpiroGiro says:

    to sound dirty I just swear and cuss alot when I’m playing ....

    posted on October 6, 2013 at 2:42 am
  30. Larry Hollowell says:

    A pedal or two never hurt a jazz cat’s sound one bit.

    posted on October 6, 2013 at 2:53 am
  31. Cliff Lang says:

    Marshall DriveMaster- found it in a pawn shop like new in the box for, oh probably $40 years ago. It’s discontinued, they don’t make them any more. Great pedal, natural sounding and very versatile. I can get just about any overdrive sound including great vintage-style tones using this and any one of several small amps. I’ve used it for everything from old fashioned tube radio tone on a country blues slide guitar to face melting postmodern gain overkill. It has a Gain (input) control,  Bass Middle and High tone controls and a Volume (output) control which all work really well and give the pedal its wide range. It’s an odd size box and won’t fit in my BOSS pedal board, but that is the onliest thing I don’t like about it.
    I also have a couple of TubeScreamers, one of which is always in my live rig pedal board.

    posted on October 6, 2013 at 4:25 am
  32. Murry Witzel says:

    After three days of struggle, I have failed to wring a single note of music from the Spotify links that you have included with this article. Perhaps you just did not wish a certain percentage of the public to hear your offerings. I will no longer attempt to read this article. I rate your use of Spotify to provide links to music to be a massive FAIL.

    posted on October 6, 2013 at 5:14 am
  33. Jimbo says:

    1970. Bought an original Dallas-Arbiter Fuxx box (don’t remember it sayinf “Fuzz Face” on it anywhere-it was among the first commercially available) Originally played it with a Teisco strat copy through a Sears Silvertone Twin Twelve. Very quickly replaced that Teisco with a 1971 Gibson SG (10th Anniversary Edition). Beautiful combination. Sold the whole set-up in 1983 for $300.00 due to financial difficulties. Wordt decision that I ever had to make. Can only imagine what those three pieces would be worth today-especially that original Dallas Arbiter?

    posted on October 6, 2013 at 5:21 am
  34. Larry Hollowell says:

    @Jimbo: yeah, man. the one that got away. everyone on this link has one of those stories, and they are tragic. You can bet that want my 1959 Les Paul special back. I still can’t sleep over it. I had the twin 12 Silvertone amp, and it sounded cool. I wish I still had that one too. Since my Rat went south, I’ve been using the Dano Daddy-o, and it’s ok, but not what I want, so I’m thinking of trying the MXR distortion pedal, cuz I can get one on sale.

    posted on October 6, 2013 at 6:01 am
  35. Steve Dallman says:

    Distortion started when garage rock bands had amplifiers that had no headroom, pushed to breakup trying to get volume from them.

    One BIG contribution was when Paul Burlison showed up at the last minute to play at a radio show. In transit, one power tube in his 5E3 tweed Fender Deluxe came loose. When they played he got big time distortion.

    He found the loose tube after the show, but at a recording session, they wanted the same tone, so he reached back and loosened that tube and recorded “Train Kept a Rollin’” with that distortion. He and Link Ray started it.

    The Dallas Treble booster, which added a boost and stripped low end, into a pushed Marshall combo was Clapton’s early tone. The unit added it’s own germanium breakup. Tony Iommi did similar. Ritchie Blackmore used the front end of an Akai reel to reel tape recorder.

    EH came out with their one transistor booster, the LPB-1 and 2 which pushed the front end of a tube amp into breakup. These worked well to get decent distortion out of a Fender silverface with that nearly useless pre phase inverter master volume.

    We all came up with methods of pushing a tube amp, or even the crude transistor amps of the day.

    The venerable Pignose practice amp was used to distort a tube amp. Terry Kath got his tone with a big Fender, his humbucker equipped Telecaster and a Pignose.

    Or basically we just turned it UP.

    posted on October 6, 2013 at 6:41 am
  36. Joel Dark says:

    So glad someone finally mentioned Paul Burlison and got the story right for that matter.I’ve tried lots of overdrives, nothing compares to the amp cranked.Nothing.Settled on a SparkleDrive for years till I traded for a Fryette SAS with an ef86 tube, which was in my Bad Cat Black Cat.That amp gave me the best tone ever and this pedal puts me in the ballpark running into my ‘64 Bassman.Suggest trying one out if you get the chance.

    posted on October 6, 2013 at 7:11 am
  37. gabe says:

    I have a DOD supra distortion, BBE Green Screamer, BBE American Metal, Fulltone Distortion pro, Ibanez TS-9…........none of those currently on my board.

    My board currently has a Fulltone OCD- Lovelpedal Kanji 9- Cmat Mods Brownie - Way Huge Swollen Pickle.

    Cant do without the OCD- Kanji9 for sure.

    posted on October 6, 2013 at 7:38 am
  38. Roger says:

    Tried Rats, etc., but ever quite found the sound, until I saw Pete Townshend using an OD-1 - a real monster sound, but certainly not a wall of fuzz. After much searching I eventually found a mint 1st series OD-1 for very little money and grabbed it. It’s actually a lot more versatile than I expected; definitely not a one-trick pony. Works in all kinds of situations and styles, and stays in my pedal-box.
    That said, one of the best sounds I ever heard was a guy using a Tele straight into a cranked Fender Deluxe. Sound isn’t all about pedals (but versatility is, if you only have one amp).

    posted on October 6, 2013 at 6:59 pm
  39. Scotty Martin says:

    Keeping it simple with a Barber 1/2 Gainer…just enough to be dangerous, for more I push the amp.

    posted on October 6, 2013 at 10:06 pm
  40. J says:

    This would be a more interesting article if the sound links actually worked. in South africa, the linksays they are not available in my country..

    posted on October 7, 2013 at 1:02 am
  41. William Baker says:

    I’m not going to be made to sigh up for some crap that I want nothing to do with to listen to a couple of examples .

    posted on October 7, 2013 at 2:00 am
  42. J Spencer says:

    I had a Maestro Fuzz Tone in the late ‘60s..  They were very inconsistent in their sound which I heard was due to the use of germanium transistors.  One day the settings would sound great.  A few days later in a different venue the same settings sounded like poop.

    During the same era I had a lot better sound from a home brew distortion that a friend and I concocted from a stereo magnetic phono cartridge preamp.  One preamp contained two circuits—one for each channel.  The RIAA preamp curve for mag catridges produced heavy thick low distortion with slightly distorted highs—a nice sound.

    I still have a few distortion pedals.  My favorite is the DigiTech Bad Monkey, my #2 is a Boss Metal Distortion

    posted on October 7, 2013 at 6:30 am
  43. Bob says:

    Using my Xotic AC Plus to push my amp a little harder (Channel A for rhythm, Channel B as a lead boost). Dunlop FFM2 Mini Fuzz Face (mini fuzz face with germanium transistors) for leads with or sometimes without my AC Plus kicked in…. sweet baby Mary, what a wonderfully rich tone.

    posted on October 7, 2013 at 11:02 am
  44. Peyton Love says:

    I have many dirt pedals recently I bought a THD Hot Box and now can crank my 50 watt Mesa its the best over dive straight from the amp I flavor it with a Tad off fuzz from Keeley Fuz Head and compressor

    posted on October 8, 2013 at 12:56 am
  45. Tim Spillane says:

    I have a Akai Pro Drive 3 set in the “warm” mode with the super hot chip installed…it pushes the crap out of my ‘98 Hot Rod Deville, and gives me a huge dose of super warm, nasty grindage with more than enough boost without going totally overboard.  For *that*, I have a reissue Big Muff pi…yep, I went the Muff route for uberfuzz!  And, I seriously dig the natural dirt I get from all three channels of my killer 410 Fender Hot Rod…after I tamed the volume surge of the dirt channel by swapping an audio taper pot for the master volume instead of the linear taper thing Fender put in there for some ungodly reason (no more full volume blast when it’s cranked over 3).  While I really dig the layers of nasty grit I get from my different sources of overdrive/fuzz, nothing beats true, pushed to the brink of destruction power tube generated DIRT!

    posted on October 8, 2013 at 2:09 am
  46. Roger Moss says:

    Well, well.. I have an early-series Hotrod Deville, too - mine being the 2x12. Interesting mod (and there are others out there), which I might try. It’s a great amp, which I’ve had for around 15 years!

    posted on October 8, 2013 at 5:57 am
  47. Meat says:

    I’ve been absolutely stuck on P90s through a Catalinbread SFT into a Classic 30 or a Deluxe Reverb for about 3 or 4 years. Killer giggin tone - especially when trying to contrast with another slinger.

    posted on October 8, 2013 at 6:41 am
  48. jake says:

    absofrutely can not survive without my marshall guv’nor. period.

    posted on October 8, 2013 at 7:27 am
  49. Paul says:

    JHS Superbolt, love that pedal.

    posted on October 9, 2013 at 1:40 am
  50. Deeznuts says:

    I LOVE EarthQuaker Devices OD & Fuzz pedals!!! I have the ‘White Light’, ‘Monarch’, & ‘Speaker Cranker’ on my current board for my band Mister Vertigo which covers all my OD needs. Then for fuzz you CANNOT beat the ‘Hoof Reaper’, It literally get’s you almost every Big Muff and Tone Bender sound from every era and the analog octave up is RAD! Not only with the HR but with all my other efffects…!!!
    When it comes to the vintage stuff…In the studio I’ve used an 89’ Turbo Rat, OCD v1, early 70’s Russian Muff, 80’s TS10, 70’s Dallas-Arbiter, Klon, and a 90’s Sans-Amp Tech 21…But as of late my EQD pedals have even replaced the vintage stuff for recording…they are SO much quieter and never lose low end!!! Jamie at EQD is a pedal GENIUS!!!

    posted on October 11, 2013 at 9:32 am
  51. Tom Taucher says:

    I have 6 dirt boxes, however i just use three at the moment; Wampler velvet fuzz(perfect), TC Dark Matter Distortion(Perfect too) and the MXR Blue Box(used right this thing sounds amazing).

    posted on October 21, 2013 at 7:32 am
  52. Tom Tobin says:

    Before all that, all amps were made with vacuum tubes and to get that clipping tone,they just turned the volume up.

    posted on October 22, 2013 at 4:16 am
  53. David Burlison says:

    Paul Burlison 1956..May have been first to intentionally create the sound..See him here in 2000 playin his original licks on “TRain Kept Rollin”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yh9V2F6cxmU

    posted on October 30, 2014 at 8:15 am

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