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Overdrive pedal vs Amp overdrive vs Distortion pedal

Overdrive and distortion. When you think of these two words, what do you think about? The sound of a guitar screaming, roaring! These two concepts may seem identical, but in fact they are not.

First of all, it's important to explain the anatomy of an amplifier. It basically consists of a pre-amp and a power-amp. The pre-amp section receives the signal from the guitar and processes it with the effects built in the amp (if existing e.g. reverb, distortion...). The power-amp section is responsible for amplifying the signal it receives from the pre-amp in order to make it audible (putting it simply, it's basically the speakers). That being said...

First, overdrive. Amp overdrive is what happens (namely on tube amps) when the sound intensity reaches the power amp's "clean-sound-limit". It's like when you scream yourself: there is a volume at which you can't keep your voice completely clean - it "overdrives" :P. It's not like you're making that on purpose, right? Well, in amps, overdrive is also called soft-clipping. It gives the sound a "mild sense of distortion" (ok, maybe unlike your voice ;)). It's the unique overdrive sound of a tube amp that has kept this type of amplifiers so many years on the market. Solid state amps have come arguably close to clone that tone, but enough people disagree with this statement for the tube amps to still be profitable for their manufacturers.

Now, distortion. Distortion simply makes your tone sound like a scream from the top of your lungs, even if it's a "low" scream. The tone is different from overdrive, and it does allow to have the "guitar roaring" at lower volumes. Distortion is also called hard-clipping, and unlike overdrive it's created by the pre-amp distortion channel (or eventually by a pedal. Let's stick for the pre + power-amp scheme for now, to keep it simple).

But what are the differences between overdrive and distortion sound after all? Well, think of overdrive as a mild bluesy hollower sound, and distortion as the typical rock guitar sound (pushed to extreme levels on heavy metal). You can hear a good side-by-side comparison of the two kinds here: http://www.dolphinstreet.com/blog/distortion-overdrive.php

Now that you understand the concepts of overdrive and distortion, their pedals effects are quite intuitive. The overdrive pedal pushes the power-amp a little further or tries to simulate the sound you'd hear if that happened (e.g. when you're still not satisfied with the overdrive when you've maxed your amp volume knob); the distortion pedal is like an "extra" distortion channel on your amp.  ;)