10 Best Overdrive Pedals for Blues
Every blues guitarist needs an overdrive pedal. Since the early 1960s, the electric blues sound has been dominated by the sound of overdriven guitar.
Several of the iconic, vintage sounds are now out of reach for most guitarists. However, there are many options available today that recreate the classic circuits of the past.
Check out this review of the 10 best overdrive pedals for blues.
- Ibanez Tube Screamer
- Boss BD-2 Blues Driver
- Klon Centaur
- Fulltone OCD
- Analog Man King of Tone
- JHS Angry Charlie
- Wampler Pantheon
- Electro-Harmonix Big Muff
- Hermida Audio Zendrive
- Xotic BB Preamp
Ibanez Tube Screamer
The Ibanez Tube Screamer is the original choice for blues overdrive pedal. The pedal offers a distinct mid-boosted tone that is popular among blues, rock, and metal musicians.
Many guitarists have utilized the Tube Screamer to create their unique sound, and it is one of the most successful, frequently copied, and custom-modified overdrive pedals in the history of the electric guitar, according to various reviews. Notable users include Eric Johnson, Kirk Hammett, and Carlos Santana.
How Does it Work?
There are three knobs on the Tube Screamer: a drive knob, a tone knob, and a level knob. The drive knob controls gain or the degree of distortion, the tone knob controls treble, and the level knob controls the pedal's output volume.
The pedal attempts to replicate the sound of a vintage tube amplifier. A "mid-hump" is present in the classic Tube Screamer sound, which means that the circuit emphasizes frequencies between the bass and treble registers (mid-frequencies).
This type of equalization is preferred by some guitarists because it keeps their sound from getting lost in the band's overall audio mix.
Variations on a Theme
Ibanez has produced many variations on the original Tube Screamer design, with aesthetic changes marking the different iterations. However, the consensus remains that the older editions of the Tube Screamer are the superior pedals. These pedals regularly fetch prices above $1000, however. Fortunately, you can find new, reissue Tube Screamers for quite affordable prices.
The BD-2 Blues Driver produces a creamy, yet gritty sound that is characteristic of superb blues guitar. This popular pedal gives you fast access to the kind of warm overdrive and expressive distortion that 30-year-old tube amps are known for.
Notable users of the Boss BD-2 pedal include Robert Smith of The Cure, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, Prince, and Kevin Parker of Tame Impala.
How Does it Work?
The Boss BD-2 Blues Driver is a low gain overdrive pedal. This means it produces a more tame and moderate level of gain that will respond more dynamically to the nuances of your playing.
If you play with a lighter touch, the pedal will not break up as much. But, if you dig in with the pick, you will find a warm break-up starts to emerge that matches your expression.
The pedal is relatively simple. Three self-explanatory knobs control your basic functions: Gain, Level, and Tone.
Boss pedals are known for their rugged and durable design and the BD-2 is no exception. You can kick a Boss pedal around all day and it will work the same every time. The BD-2 is relatively affordable as far as basic stompbox pedals go.
One of the most sought after pedals of the last 2 decades, the Klon Centaur is prized as a ‘transparent’ overdrive pedal. Original Klon Centaur pedals are becoming exceedingly rare and will set you back more than you make on a few gigs.
But, this is not without reason. The Klon Centaur is one of the greatest circuit designs in overdrive history.
Notable users of the Klon Centaur include John Mayer, Warren Hayes of Gov’t Mule, Kevin Eubanks, Nels Cline, and Jeff Beck.
How Does it Work?
The Klon Centaur was originally designed by guitarist Bill Finnegan. Finnegan was an active gigging musician in Boston in the 1980’s and noticed that he would lose a lot of the harmonic character of his amplifier at lower volume gigs.
In order to remedy this, he set out to design an overdrive pedal that would emulate the harmonic richness of a cranked tube amp, but at a lower volume that would be suitable for smaller venues.
Finnegan collaborated with MIT engineer Fred Fenning and after several prototypes, the pedal was released, becoming an instant hit on the market.
The Klon Centaur is unique in many ways. First, it features germanium diodes as opposed to the less expensive and more common silicon diodes. Germanium is known for its more harmonically rich distortion.
Second, the Centaur includes a ‘hard clipping’ circuit as opposed to a ‘soft clipping’ circuit. For example, pedals like the Tube Screamer and Boss BD-2 are soft clipping pedals, as are most other overdrive pedals.
Hard clipping is usually reserved for high-gain pedals like the ProCo Rat.
Because of this, the Centaur has the ability to push out huge amounts of gain, but because of a special design feature that blends in the guitar’s clean tone, the pedal does not get out of control.
Cloning the Klon
The Klon Centaur is regarded as one of the most expensive guitar pedals in history. You can often find them for sale online for upwards of $3000. Needless to say, that is far outside the budget of the average guitarist!
Fortunately for all of us, there are many high-quality clones of the famous Klon Centaur available on the market. Solid examples include the JRAD ‘Archer’, The Way Huge ‘Conspiracy Theory’, the Ceriatone ‘Centura’, and the Mythos ‘Mjolnir’.
These pedals are all well-known amongst fans of the original Klon Centaur for the authentic replication and quality builds.
The Fulltone OCD overdrive pedal originally debuted in 2004 and has since become one of the go-to overdrive pedals for a wide range of guitarists. The pedal is the brainchild of pedal designer Mike Fuller and features a number of interesting innovations.
Notable users of the Fulltone OCD overdrive pedal include country star Keith Urban, Don Felder of the Eagles, and Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago.
How Does it Work?
The Fulltone OCD features three standard knobs: volume, drive, and tone. As we have seen, these parameters are the standard for overdrive pedals.
The Fulltone OCD was the first overdrive pedal to incorporate the use of MOSFETs (aka metal–oxide–semiconductor field-effect transistors) in their pedals.
These MOSFETs act as hard clippers, delivering huge amounts of gain with minimal signal loss.
The Fulltone OCD also includes an internal switch between true bypass and a unique ‘enhanced’ bypass which further ensures a cohesive and strong signal throughout your pedal chain.
The Bottom Line
The Fulltone OCD is one of the best overdrive pedals to emerge in the last 20 years. It offers a different take on the traditional Tube Screamer and includes some important tone-preserving features.
Accordingly, the OCD is priced slightly higher than the Tube Screamer or BD-2.
However, if you are looking for a solid overdrive pedal with plenty of headroom and tone-shaping possibilities without sacrificing any signal loss, then the OCD may be just the overdrive pedal for you.
Analog Man King of Tone
The Analog Man King of Tone overdrive pedal is one of the most popular pedals. There is currently a waiting list of about three years to get your hands on a new one. However, you can find them circulating on Ebay and Reverb, albeit for sky-high prices.
The King of Tone is legendary for a reason. Notable users of the pedal include Noel Gallagher of Oasis, Brad Whitford of Aerosmith, Marc Ribot, Eric Krasno of Soulive and Lettuce, and the legendary Uli John Roth.
How Does it Work?
Every King of Tone pedal is hand-made. This is the reason behind the ridiculous waitlist.
The pedal has been in production since about 2003, but because of this production practice, demand for the pedal has always exceeded supply.
This level of scarcity is part of what has made the pedal so famous.
The King of Tone is prized for its transparency - that is the pedal does not ‘color’ the tone in the way that other overdrives will. Additionally, the King of Tone is really two overdrive pedals in one.
The pedal features two identical circuits each with a 4 position internal switch. You can stack these circuits in any number of combinations to produce unique results.
Finally, the King of Tone includes a hidden treble boost on the inside, which can add further clarity and definition to darker amplifiers.
Is It Worth It?
The waitlist for the King of Tone pedal is long and prices on the second-hand market are quite high, although not as high as those of the Klon Centaur.
Still, what do you have to lose? You might as well get yourself on the waiting list and in three years receive one of the most sought after overdrive pedals on the market!
JHS Angry Charlie
The JHS Angry Charlie is a prime example of an amp-in-box pedal. The Angry Charlie is designed to recreate the sound of a classic Marshall JCM800 half-stack, one of the most powerful and iconic high-gain amplifiers in history.
The JHS Angry Charlie is a newer pedal. As such, it is difficult to find information on what well-known guitarists incorporate the pedal in their setups.
However, if you are interested in a well-designed, British-style distortion pedal, the JHS Angry Charlie is a great choice.
How it Works
The JHS Angry Charlie features 5 knobs: one volume and one drive and a three band EQ of treble, middle, and bass.
The pedal is designed to turn any amp into a powerful, Marshall-esque monster. The drive and volume knobs are designed to act in a similar manner as an amplifier's master volume.
Should You Buy It?
If you are looking for a high-gain overdrive pedal designed to mimic a classic British style Marshall half-stack, then the JHS Angry Charlie would be a solid choice.
Certainly for the price, it beats shelling out the money for a vintage JCM800 head!
However, if you are interested in some more nuanced and adaptable tones, you might find a better choice in the BD-2 or Tube Screamer.
The Wampler Pantheon is another amp-in-box style pedal again designed to mimic the classic Marshall Bluesbreaker sound.
The Pantheon has taken the long-discontinued but highly-revered circuit and added a few tweaks and upgrades for the 21st century.
The Wampler family of artists includes many high-profile guitarists such as Brad Paisley, Adrian Legg, Neil Schon of Journey, Rick Neilson of Cheap Trick, and Corey Wong of Vulfpeck.
Under the Hood
The Wampler Pantheon is designed after the classic Marshall Bluesbreaker amp.
Similar to the JHS Angry Charlie, it features 5 parameter control knobs: drive, volume, and a three band EQ of treble, middle, and bass for added tone sculpting features.
The Pantheon also includes an active Baxandall bass control so you can adjust the low end frequencies to match any room, in addition to an adaptable presence control.
The Pantheon also features two adjustable gain switches. A three-way gain level switch toggles between different amounts of gain, from gentle overdrive to thick and rich distortion.
The second switch toggles between soft or hard clipping or a combination of the two, making for a huge array of tonal possibilities.
The Wampler Pantheon is a versatile and powerful amp-in-box overdrive pedal that faithfully recreates the classic sounds of the Marshall Bluesbreaker amplifier.
If you are searching for that kind of tone, the Pantheon is certainly a more versatile pedal than the JHS Angry Charlie.
Electro-Harmonix Big Muff
The Electro-Harmonix Big Muff is one of the most iconic pedals of the last 3 decades. A true fuzz pedal, the Big Muff has undergone countless iterations, yet remained one of the most important and relevant pedals in guitar history.
Just about everyone has used an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff at some point in their career.
Carlos Santana, Brian May of Queen, Robert Fripp of King Crimson, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, Jack White, The Edge, the list goes on and on. You can’t go wrong with this pedal.
What Does it Do?
As opposed to the other overdrive pedals in this review, the Big Muff is a fuzz pedal. Traditional overdrive pedals mimic the sound of an overdriven tube amp.
When a tube amp is cranked, it begins to break-up and produce a more saturated and distorted tone. This tone is what overdrive pedals try to recreate, albeit at lower volumes.
On the other hand, a fuzz pedal is a special type of distortion pedal with an enhanced harmonic richness that dominates the sound.
A fuzz pedal tends to emphasize the higher frequency range and scoop out the middle register, occasionally making a fuzzed-out guitar tone more difficult to hear in a mix.
The Big Muff was one of the first and most successful fuzz pedals. The Big Muff originally debuted around 1970 and quickly became a hit.
It features three simple knobs: volume, tone, and sustain.
Should You Get It?
The short answer is yes, you should get a Big Muff. Along with the Ibanez Tube Screamer, the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff is one of the tried and true pedals of the electric guitar.
You can hear it across countless recordings and eras of music.
However, be aware that it is a fuzz pedal and not an overdrive pedal. This means it will have a more saturated tone with a bigger frequency response.
It will not sound as sharp and well-defined as the Tube Screamer, Fulltone OCD, or Boss BD-2.
Hermida Audio Zendrive
The Hermida Audio Zendrive is another one of those exceedingly rare and iconic overdrive pedals that collectors and performers alike fawn over.
Originally produced in 2004 by pedal designer Alfonso Hermida, the Zendrive had a short production run and now originals go for top prices.
However, Lovepedal has begun to produce an affordable remake of the Zendrive.
The Zendrive is something of a mythic pedal favored by those that seek a smoother overdrive tone. Guitarists in this vein include Robben Ford and Larry Carlton.
What Makes it so Special?
The initial inspiration behind the Zendrive was to capture the sound of a Dumble hand-wired amplifier in a compact, stompbox guitar pedal.
The pedal features four knobs: volume, tone, gain, and voice.
The voice knob is the differentiating factor in the Zendrive. It primarily adjusts the low-end frequency response of the pedal, but it also affects the maximum amount of gain the pedal can push.
When the voice knob is turned to the left, it increases the bass response and cuts the gain. When the voice knob is turned to the right, the gain is increased and the low-end is slightly cut.
But is it for Me?
Are you searching for a more singing, violin-type tone as opposed to a dirty, raunchy tone? If so, then the Zendrive may be just the pedal for you.
However, even the reissue pedals by Lovepedal are not cheap.
Xotic BB Preamp
The Xotic BB Preamp is a Swiss Army knife guitar pedal. It can serve many different functions from clean boost to scorching overdrive and everything in between.
Notable users of the Xotic BB Preamp include Andy Timmons, Keith Urban, Ben Gibbard, and Adam Rogers.
What Does it Do?
The Xotic BB Preamp offers many different tonal possibilities. It features a +30dB clean boost option with an adjustable +/-15dB two band EQ.
The BB Preamp also features a pre-gain stage which allows the pedal to shift into a smooth and compressed overdrive sound that will tighten up your attack.
The BB Preamp features four knobs: gain, volume, treble, and bass. The BB Preamp will make your guitar sound better in just about any situation.
Is it Worth it?
Out of the pedals listed in this review, the BB Preamp is probably the best clean boost type pedal.
It is certainly capable of delivering solid overdrive, but its true strength lies in its boosting capabilities.
That being said, it would be worth your time to try to pair the BB Preamp with a more traditional overdrive pedal like the Tube Screamer or Fulltone OCD and see what sort of sonic wizardry you can cook up.
How to Achieve a Good Blues Tone
Choice of Amp and Setting
There are a handful of factors important in achieving a good blues guitar tone. One important factor is your choice of amp.
Traditionally, blues guitarists prefer tube amps. A solid tube amp can be your best friend as a blues guitarist.
Search for an amp that has both a channel volume and master volume. By cranking the channel volume and lowering the master volume, you will be able to drive the tubes in the amp and produce a natural distorted tone.
This is the sound that inspired most every one of the overdrive pedals on this list.
Choice of Guitar
The other most important factor in a solid blues guitar tone is your choice of guitar.
The traditional choice for blues guitarists is a single coil setup, usually a Fender Stratocaster style guitar, with lighter gauge strings.
Lighter gauge strings are easier to play and will give you the flexibility you will need for those whole step bends and beyond.
The traditional 3 single-coil stratocaster set-up gives you a wide range of tonal options that you can explore for both lead and rhythm playing in the blues.
Usually these guitars come with a 5-way toggle switch, meaning you select between 5 different pickup combinations.
When you incorporate variations in volume via the volume knobs, you begin to develop a huge palette of tones you can use for blues playing and beyond.
How to Choose the Best Overdrive for You
The simplest way to choose the best overdrive pedal for you playing is to look to your heroes. Which guitarists do you admire the most? Which guitar tones do you want to emulate?
Are you more drawn to the dirty and raw sound of a guitarist like Stevie Ray Vaughn? SRV was a prolific user of the Ibanez Tube Screamer, so you should look there.
Are you more inclined towards the smooth and round sound of Allen Hinds or Robben Ford? Then perhaps the Zendrive is your beast.
What about the raucous shredding of Prince or Tom Morello? Both these guitarists use the Boss BD-2, so perhaps you should try one of these out.
Do as much research as you can before you buy. There is no shortage of recordings of these pedals available on the internet to check out. And of course, look out for the best deal you can find on some of these more expensive pedals!
Every blues guitarist needs an overdrive pedal in their arsenal. Overdrive pedals allow us to dish out the dirty, gritty sound without having to crank up an amplifier and blow out a room.
With this list of the top 10 overdrive pedals for blues guitar, you will be well prepared to go out and find the overdriven sound of your dreams!
Do test out these pedals and find out which pedal gives you the tonal quality you need.
If you’re a beginner then, keep in mind to always good to do some testing and research before getting anything.
Choosing the right guitar and accessories can be an overwhelming process, but it's crucial and you need to put in the time to see what works for you – make a mistake here and your guitar learning will be set back by many months.
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