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distortion, overdrive, fuzz.

what's the difference?

Posted: 4th May 2023

There is often confusion among guitarists about what distortion, overdrive and fuzz really are and how their sounds differ.

This article explains the main differences between the three tones as well as examples of where they can be heard in various songs. 

Read time: 3 mins

what is distortion?

To understand distortion, we need to look at what’s happening sonically. Distortion is when something is changed, twisted, or exaggerated. Musical distortion is the sound of an amplified instrument that is significantly altered, creating a fuzzy, overpowered sound after the original signal has been pushed to its limit.

In 1961 Country artist Marty Robbins had a track called ‘Don’t Worry’. During recording of the track the bassist was plugged directly into the mixing desk, however there was a problem with the channel which caused it to distort and create an intense, distorted fuzz effect. There are similar stories of experimentation with distorted sounds, and in 1964 Ray Davies of The Kinks supposedly took a knitting needle or razorblade to the speaker cone and cut it to get that distorted sound!

what is overdrive?

The term overdrive is referring to the sound that any valve amp makes when it’s pushed past its capabilities and is reactive to your playing. The harder you play the more it distorts. The simplest way to achieve an overdriven sound is by playing your valve amp to its absolute maximum. Obviously though, playing your amp at its maximum capabilities also means at its maximum volume and, as every guitar player knows,  this isn’t ideal for every situation. Luckily enough, technology has evolved enough over the years  to introduce pedals that can bring you the same effect at whatever power suits your situation.

what is fuzz?

Using fuzz in your playing will add a distorted, super gritty sound to your guitar playing. It does this through emphasising upper frequencies and occasionally cutting away the middle frequencies. Like overdrive, fuzz is another form of distortion, the earliest recorded use of fuzz can be traced back to Marty Robbins using a faulty preamp to record his song “Don’t Worry”. Fortunately,  technology has now progressed enough for players to stop relying on faulty amps and have developed pedals which will give the player control over the effect whilst still allowing them to add this kind of sound into their music.

In summary, all of these effects are types of distortion. Overdrive is a reactive effect that will replicate how the valves operate in an amp when distorting. Distortion simply takes your tone and pushes it harder, you’ll always get the same amount of distortion no matter how much you’re playing. And finally, fuzz is much more of a compressed distorted sound giving you a  dirty and gritty sound. 

If you’re trying to figure out what effects you should be using in your playing, we highly recommend giving them all a try and finding the one that suits your style best.