Updated: Jun 30
Good question, but first you must explore the different types of gain pedals available on the market today, the tonal qualities of each and what they are designed to give. Once you understand the differences between them, you can really start to hone in on that style and tone that you've been searching for.
What causes Distortion?
To gain an understanding of the suitable pedal for your needs, it's beneficial to grasp the mechanics of distortion. When you play your guitar and strum its strings, the pickups capture the vibrations in the form of waveforms, which are then transmitted to your amplifier. However, there comes a point where the amplifier cannot increase its volume further as the waveforms grow larger. Once these waveforms surpass this threshold, known as the "headroom" of the amp, the wave peaks begin to compress or get squashed down.
This compression process is what leads to distortion, and the specific way in which these waveforms are compressed affects the nature of your sound distortion. However, achieving natural distortion from the amplifier while maintaining a clean signal might necessitate turning the volume up to an unreasonable level. Distortion pedals address this issue by utilizing amplification and "clipping" circuits to emulate this distortion effect at more reasonable levels.
What is Clipping?
In gain pedals, the circuits employed induce waveform clipping similar to an amplifier reaching its headroom. Two primary forms of clipping exist: "soft-clipping" and "hard-clipping." These terms describe the compression of waveform peaks, which directly impact the character of distortion. Soft-clipping emulates the peak compression of a cranked valve amplifier, while hard-clipping abruptly cuts off the signal once it surpasses the headroom, resulting in a more aggressive and edgy tone.
Typically, overdrive pedals utilize soft-clipping to generate a dynamic and responsive distortion reminiscent of an amplifier. The level of distortion increases as you strike the strings harder, and it cleans up when you play with a lighter touch. Conversely, distortion pedals primarily rely on hard-clipping to produce a more intense and rugged sound. Fuzz pedals, on the other hand, amplify and clip the signal to such extremes that the waveform transforms into a square-wave. This extreme clipping effect can yield a fuzzy, woolly, or spitty and nasty sound - in the best way possible. Moreover, it has the potential to become wild and uncontrollable, making it a thrilling effect to experiment with.
The Best Boost Pedals
Boost pedals, unlike other pedal types mentioned in this compilation, lack clipping. The primary function of a boost pedal is to amplify the volume of your guitar signal before it reaches the amplifier. However, its interaction with valve amps and other gain pedals is noteworthy. When a boost pedal is employed with a valve amp, it can generate a volume increase that surpasses the valves' headroom, resulting in overdrive and the creation of pleasing, gritty classic rock tones. Conversely, when used with a solid-state amp, it merely amplifies the volume without introducing a significant amount of additional gain. This attribute proves beneficial for boosting solos and providing the necessary volume to cut through the band mix.
One popular boost pedal that really stands out form the crowd is the Stone Deaf Effects QBoost offering a dual-circuit design, allowing you to switch between vintage and modern voices to achieve your desired sound. You'll have access to an incredible range of sonic possibilities, from pristine cleans to creamy saturation and everything in between. The QBoost also boasts a built-in frequency booster that lets you emphasize specific frequencies, from the lows to the highs. With its natural Q factor, this pedal allows you to tailor your sound to suit any musical situation.
Nevertheless, boost pedals also possess the capability to be combined with other types of gain pedals, enabling the creation of various gain levels. This technique, known as gain stacking, enhances sound diversity. Placing a boost pedal prior to another gain pedal, such as an overdrive or distortion pedal, will generate increased gain with minimal impact on volume. On the other hand, positioning the boost pedal after another gain pedal will amplify the volume without significantly altering the amount of gain. To determine your preference, experiment with both configurations and assess the results.
The Best Overdrive Pedals
Overdrive pedals encompass a diverse range of shapes and sizes, boasting a greater variety compared to other gain pedals. This means that even if you've had a negative experience with one, there's likely a suitable alternative for you. Generally, overdrive pedals strive to emulate the natural overdriven tone of an amplifier, offering less gain and a less aggressive sound compared to distortion or fuzz pedals. They are commonly used to achieve low to mid gain sounds, such as those found in blues and rock genres.
As mentioned earlier, overdrive pedals normally employ a soft-clipping circuit to replicate the characteristics of a slightly overdriven amplifier. Soft-clipping occurs when the signal surpasses the clean headroom, resulting in waveform compression and a smoother type of gain. This differs from more aggressive distortion pedals that often utilize hard-clipping techniques (but we'll delve into that later). While the market boasts countless variations of overdrive pedals, lets take a quick look at some of the most popular styles: Tube Screamer, Stone Deaf PDF2, and Klon.
Tube Screamer Style Overdrive
Look no further than the Tube Screamer if you're seeking the renowned Stevie Ray Vaughan raunchy blues sound or aiming to tighten your high-gain tone. The Tube Screamer, the most well-known type of overdrive pedal, features a distinct EQ curve. Pedals in this overdrive style typically employ soft-clipping and tend to reduce bass while emphasizing mid-range frequencies, resulting in added thickness to a clean-ish tone or a more defined high-gain sound. These pedals excel at boosting frequencies in the range of approximately 700-1K Hz, allowing your sound to cut through any mix.
Stone Deaf PDF2 Overdrive
This pedal has an incredible heritage, building on the success of the PDF-1 (Parametric Distortion Filter). With fans like Josh Homme of Queens Of The Stone Age and Nick Valensi of The Strokes, it has a lower noise floor, adjustable gain control, and dual footswitches that make it incredibly easy to switch between clean and dirty channels hands-free. And while it's difficult to categorize, that's part of what makes it so special. It offers everything from parametric EQ to overdrive, distortion, and fuzz - and it works with everything from guitars and basses to drums, synths, and electric pianos.
With the PDF-2, you'll have endless opportunities for sonic exploration and experimentation. And you won't have to worry about its durability - it's rugged enough to withstand even the toughest touring schedules. Plus, when you pair it with our EP-1 Expression Pedal, you can manually sweep the frequency of the parametric EQ to create analog wah and phaser sounds, unlocking a whole new spectrum of sonic versatility.
Klon Style Overdrive
Unlike the majority of overdrive circuits, the Klon Centaur employs a hard-clipping mechanism. However, this doesn't result in a harsh or distorted sound, thanks to its integration with a clean boost circuit that remains devoid of clipping. As a result, the original guitar signal remains audible, preserving the instrument's dynamics and preserving its distinctive "amp-like" tone.
While Klon-style pedals are often labeled as "transparent," they do exhibit a subtle upper-mid-boost in the EQ spectrum. Unlike Tube Screamers, they do not compromise the bass frequencies, enabling the sound to cut through the band mix without substantial alteration. The hard-clipping nature of Klon-style overdrives makes them an excellent choice for achieving a crunchy rock rhythm sound. However, they are commonly utilized with the gain dialed back, serving as a clean boost to infuse brightness and clarity into the tone. This versatility makes these pedals highly sought-after by players who traverse a range of styles, from clean playing to the realm of crunchy classic rock.
The Best Distortion Pedals
If the intention of overdrive pedals is to replicate the sound of amplifiers pushed just within the amps available headroom, then distortion pedals aim to emulate an amp cranked way beyond. While certain overdrive pedals maintain a "transparent" quality, preserving your original tone, the best distortion pedals fundamentally transform your sound to achieve the harmonic, gritty sustain frequently heard in numerous rock and metal songs. If your goal is to master Metallica riffs or Satriani solos, distortion is the way to go. Distortion increases the level (volume) of the signal and generally utilizes hard-clipping, lacking the dynamics of an overdrive. Consequently, it compresses your signal to a consistent level, ensuring that your playing, whether it involves chugging or tapping, will always be audible.
Distortion comes in various forms, but there are some industry-standard staples. These include the Stone Deaf Warp Drive, Boss DS-1, and ProCo RAT. These classic designs have been extensively employed in rock music since the late 70s. The WARP DRIVE black edition uses symmetrical LED clipping for a more saturated and harmonically rich amp like sound and feel by increasing the amount of opportunities for pinched even harmonics. It also has a built in studio quality noise gate and tightend up bass response compared to the original Warp Drive Pedal. The Boss DS-1 provides the guitar hero-esque harmonic sustain and The ProCo RAT offers a distortion control in which you can transition from light, crunchy overdrive to heavy distortion, and even venture into fuzz territory. Speaking of which, let's now delve into fuzz.
The Best Fuzz Pedals
There is no real comparison when it comes to fuzz; it possesses a distinctive broken quality that sounds fantastic and just simply “works”. Fuzz has played a vital role in shaping the signature sounds of numerous acclaimed guitarists throughout history. From Hendrix using the Fuzz Face, to Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins wielding the Big Muff, and Jimmy Page relying on the Tone Bender.
Fuzz represents the utmost extreme in the realm of gain pedals, capable of producing wild and untamed tones. However, when skillfully harnessed, it becomes an inspiring tool that can liberate any guitarist from a creative slump. Much like the aforementioned pedal types, there exist numerous variations of fuzz pedals, yet the fundamental foundations of fuzz are embodied by the Tone Bender, the Fuzz Face, and Big Muff style Fuzz.
Tone Bender Style Pedals
When it comes to Tone Bender style pedals, they exhibit an incredibly aggressive distortion characteristic while maintaining clarity even at high gain levels. This is achieved by cutting the bass in the EQ, preventing the sound from becoming muddy or sloppy. These specific fuzz pedals are particularly suitable for producing chunky power chords and driving hard rock riffs. Moreover, they complement humbucker-equipped guitars exceptionally well as they enhance the bass-end without causing bloating. The renowned Tone Bender user, Jimmy Page, played a vital role in establishing Led Zeppelin's legendary sound with the help of this pedal. To make things easier, a classic-style Tone Bender pedal typically features only two controls: "level/volume" and "attack/fuzz". Some variations may also include a tone control to fine-tune your desired sound.
Fuzz Face Style Pedals
The Fuzz Face, famously used by Jimi Hendrix, is an iconic element of early psychedelic rock, offering a multitude of sonic possibilities. Fuzz Face-style pedals possess a distinct interaction with the volume pot of your guitar. When cranked to full volume, they generate a thick and exhilarating rumble, ideal for powerful lead playing. However, dialing the volume back to around 6 or 7 results in a smooth, warm overdrive that perfectly complements chord progressions. For sparkling crystal cleans, simply reduce the volume to 3 or 4.
Notably, the Fuzz Face played a pivotal role not only in Hendrix's explosive lead tones in tracks like "Purple Haze" and "All Along the Watchtower," but it also formed the core of his exquisite chiming clean tones in "Wind Cries Mary." Due to its thick bass response and gentle attack, the Fuzz Face pairs exceptionally well with Strat-style single-coil guitars, preserving their percussiveness and dynamic character compared to higher-output humbucker guitars. Whether you seek to replicate the Hendrix sound or explore new sonic realms, the Fuzz Face stands as one of the most enjoyable pedals available today.
Big Muff Style Pedals
The FIG FUMB (anagram of Big Muff!), one of the three fuzzes, offers excellent controllability and produces a sounds ranging from Hendrix Style Lead tones to rumbling Grunge Fuzz Distortion tones. This updated circuit compared to the original classic Fig Fumb has resulted in a muff style fuzz with a different bark, a tighter bass response, an altered noise gate with a smoother feel and a wider usability in all extreme settings of the EQ. Its more refined going from distortion to fuzz while still retaining all the dynamics and wide frequency band range that we are known for with the aid of the bill in 5 band parametric EQ control. If you like your different flavours of muff style fuzz, for blues, doom, metal or grunge then this is the fuzz for you. Single coils, Humbuckers, Bass, Synth and even processing Kick and Snare through this unit will pay dividends on your creativity. Moreover, compared to the Tone Bender or Fuzz Face, it harmonizes effectively with other gain pedals.
You’ve now got a more rounded understanding of the function of distortion, boost, overdrive and fuzz pedals, you can limit your options to discover the ideal pedal suitable for your style. However, do you need to limit yourself to just one? Explore all the available tones to uncover a distinctive sound that reflects your individuality!
Have a listen to the Stone Deaf Black Edition range demo videos here. They beautifully demonstrate the versatility that Stone Deaf Effects are renowned for with soundbites of Metallica, Rammstein, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd to name a few... and that's JUST the Warp Drive demo!