How to Use a Distortion Guitar Pedal vs. Overdrive Pedal

Learn about the uses of a distortion pedal vs. an overdrive pedal from musician Michael Aarons in this Howcast video about guitar pedal effects.


So I just played some metal and I'm going to talk about distortion now. I went straight to metal because there is no metal without distortion. But I wanted to talk about distortion and exactly how to use it to get a sound that ranges anywhere from classic rock to heavy metal. What I have here is I have two very different kinds of distortion pedals. The one I was just playing through is the Metal Zone pedal. It's made by Boss. They used to make a pedal called the Heavy Metal Pedal back in the '80's and I don't know if they make it anymore, but this one is the closest thing that I could find to that pedal that they still make.

You have some very basic settings on here. Same as all the other Boss pedals or overdrive pedals that we were talking about before, you have an overall effect level. All the way on the right we have the distortion, which is the amount of distortion, minimum to maximum, and the EQ settings are in the middle, different frequencies. The gray area about overdrive versus distortion is that really to me, the simplest way to describe it is whereas overdrive is trying to achieve the sound of a cranked amp. And it works with the clean, transparent sound of your guitar signal to sometimes color it, but mostly it's trying to emulate the sound of the pre-amp tubes or power tubes in your amp naturally distorting.

It's an organic, natural way that amps used to work to achieve the first early distortion in the '50's and '60's. What distortion is is when you finally cross the line of where the gain is colored or intense enough it becomes distortion. The total sound and saturation and compression and the distortion sound that is coming from the box itself and not the amp. That to me is where overdrive crosses the line to distortion zone, where you're really just coloring the sound so much and getting it so saturated that at the lowest volume you can sound like Metallica or Slayer or any of your favorite bands, even as intense as some of the Def Metal bands out there. Where it's just a really, really heavy saturated distortion.

So the second pedal I have here is this Zvex Box of Rock. It is a distortion pedal. What's great about it is it has a boost feature built-in, so when you take a solo or if you want to boost the signal, it has a separate button for boost. It also has a boost knob, which can boost pretty substantially the level. These are two very different distortions, the Metal Zone by Boss and the Box of Rock by Zvex. It gives you a wide range of different kinds of distortion. This Box of Rock is a little bit more of a natural distortion sound. It's a very warm sound. It's a very natural sound, but it definitely is coloring the tone. This is without it... so the amp is completely clean.

So all of the distortion is coming from the pedal itself. You have a drive setting here, volume and tone, and then the boost. Boost again, is pretty substantial. And one thing I really like about this pedal is that it breaks up and starts to sound almost like the speaker's failing. The Zvex pedal's are pretty crazy in the sense that they go to extremes and this is definitely no exception. You can really go crazy with this pedal, and really get it to sound like the amp is trashed, and some people really like that effect. You can do some really cool things with it.

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