Cause & Effects: what turns a good overdrive pedal into a great one?

Cause & Effects: what turns a good overdrive pedal into a great one?

Let’s be honest we all love overdrive, it’s like pouring the proverbial honey over your guitar tone. Everything sounds better with a good overdrive, even sloppy playing sounds tighter and a multitude of sins are covered up nicely. But not all overdrives are made equal and despite being a firm believer that even the most tonally compromised pedal has its place in the world, there’s nothing quite like a great overdrive.

READ MORE: The Gear Used on Rage Against The Machine’s debut album

Putting aside hype and rarity because these factors can skew the way we feel (more about that later) about a pedal, I think it’s possible to accurately define what makes a great overdrive.
Maxon and Ibanez Tubescreamers
What elements make up a great overdrive?
During this discussion I’ll try and remain genre-agnostic because certain genres prefer certain sounds – that’s a whole other can of worms that I don’t want to get into, and anyway, I believe that all overdrives have character traits common to each other that make them so good.
Clarity and Definition:
For me, this is the number one trait that makes a good overdrive great. When using an overdrive pedal (or amp for that matter) It’s vital that the character of your guitar shines through. If the overdrive is uncongested and open the clarity and note separation can be heard. This then makes chords more open and even minor changes in chording can then be heard. In some styles this won’t always be vital but that is a rarity.
Not all players play with great dynamic range and it’s certainly a characteristic required by some genres more than others. However, the way an overdrive responds to the minute picking pressure changes a guitarist makes adds complexity to the passage and gives the overdrive a more natural, amp like sound.
Image: Cristian Storto Fotografia/Getty Images
It allows saturation to be metred in in an expressive manner to accentuate certain notes or phrases. Sometimes it’s the lower volume parts of a picking run or chord sequence that add contrast to the musical message you want to convey, an overdrive pedal that can work with you to achieve this goal becomes an asset and accentuates the task in hand.
It’s a strange trick to achieve, you want you overdrive to retain pick attack and allow the initial note attack to shine through, but only when you dictate it should. In other scenarios you almost need the attack to be muted and smoother. In other words you want an overdrive to do everything, you want/need the “moon on a stick”.
Does it play well with others?
No piece of gear operates in isolation, even the most stripped-down rigs have several elements that must work well with each other to achieve a great sound. Add a pedalboard to the mix and you have three, five, 12, or more other pedals to work with. Therefore, it’s important that your overdrive pedal sits amongst your other choices and doesn’t cause issues in the first instance. Thereafter a great overdrive pedal will ‘stack’ well with others, with the results sound being greater than a sum of the two or three stacked pedals. Often a great overdrive pedal in combination with a mediocre pedal can elevate the mediocre pedal into greatness.
How is It EQ’d?
A powerful integrated EQ is vital for an overdrive to sound its best. If the pedal fails in terms of its tonal voicing, then it can sound congested, harmonics can fail to ring out, or it can slice your head off like a scythe made of treble. Great overdrives should focus on working with the natural midrange of the guitar to accentuate its space in the band or mix. Anything that is counter to that can mean your guitar sound disappears. It’s worth bearing in mind also that the position of the overdrives EQ in the circuit can affect how the pedal sounds.
Image: georgeclerk/Getty Images
This is probably the most controversial of the characteristics, but really it ought not be.
‘Feel’ is subjective, nonconstant and as such it can’t be defined. It’s also further complicated as it varies person to person but ultimately you probably know what I mean when I mention how a pedal feels.
For instance, I personally feel that a good overdrive works with my playing and allows me to enjoy myself more, allows me to get in the zone and feel like I am making progress. If it makes me smile when I turn it on, then to me it ‘feels’ good.
If a pedal lacks in this department, then I just won’t play it and therefore a pedal stays graded as ‘good’ rather than being elevated to great. If all this sounds a little flowery and non-scientific then you are correct, but it’s the same reason we gravitate towards particular guitars over other equally great options.
Image: Cristian Storto Fotografia/Getty Images
How to help your current overdrive be better
The obvious answer here is to play more dynamically, but assuming you have this part nailed down then there are a few little tricks to help you set up your drive for your guitar and amp. Firstly, make sure your amps gain is straddling the land between clean and slightly dirty. This gives your overdrive the best platform to integrate with.
Secondly ensure your pedals EQ is set to work with your amplifier and guitar, an excess of any frequency is hard to compensate against. Thirdly, set the pedals gain in a place where it is the maximum gain you could want from it.
Once the pedal is set up to work with your rig as above, roll your guitars volume down to put you in the dynamic zone. This makes it easy for your picking changes to have a bigger impact on the overdrive and makes the overdrive more versatile for a variety of playing requirements.
You’ve now maximised what you have so the only other thing to do is to get to know it. Before long, your good overdrive will become great. Magic.
The post Cause & Effects: what turns a good overdrive pedal into a great one? appeared first on | All Things Guitar.

read more