The best overdrive pedals for electric guitarThe gritty details on our five favorite overdrive pedals
With over 100 overdrive pedals listed on just one gear-shopping website, how does one choose the top five? The first order of business is to define the terms: An overdrive pedal should have enough volume to distort a clean amplifier before adding gain from the pedal. It should also have enough gain to provide a dirty sound on its own, though anything over a mild distortion is gravy...
Most important: the grit should be amp-like and adjustable through guitar volume level and pick or finger attack. Of course, the choices are subjective, but they should provide a good place to start.
Alairex H.A.L.O. ($399)
The H.A.L.O. embodies all the qualities listed above in spades, while offering two drives in one package, and a host of carefully designed sound-shaping options. The left channel offers a milder gain voicing that’s great for clean boost and/or slight American-style grit. The right channel offers a range of gain from blues to metal with a slightly more aggressive voice. Two mini-toggles let you adjust the dynamic response of each channel from tight-fast attack, to softer sag. A single large master tone knob and three small Bass, Mid, and Treble knobs are perfectly voiced to sculpt both channels simultaneously. Expensive but worth it.
Listen to the H.A.L.O:
This dual pedal contains a compressor and overdrive that operate separately or together. It’s a great compressor, but let’s just concentrate on the overdrive. The overdrive side is based on the original Reverend Drivetrain pedal. Though in the Tube Screamer arena, it offers a much more amp-like sound and feel, as well as extras like a Voice control that adjusts the dynamic response, a Clean Mix knob that lets you add some unaffected signal for a sharper attack, and a bass boost. At this price, you can think of it as a great sounding overdrive with a compressor thrown in for free.
Listen to the V3 Route 66 American Overdrive:
Jetter Gear Jetdrive ($259)
The Jetdrive is also a dual pedal, but without the extra touch and tone modifiers available in the H.A.L.O and Route 66. Still, I found the sound and feel fit my amp emulation criteria enough to put it on my pedalboard. To me, the Blue side sounds American voiced, with a low-mid bump, while the Green side sounds more British. You can cascade them and sculpt the sound with their relative volume and contour-shifting tone controls. What I love most about this pedal is how well it reacts to my Trombetta Feederbone dual fuzz, together giving me seven fabulous flavors of filth.
Listen to the Jetdrive:
Keeley Katana Blues Drive ($199)
Robert Keeley is the guy players send their Tube Screamers to for mods, so why not just skip the middleman. The Katana can be perfectly transparent, or you can modify your tone with well-voiced Bass and Treble controls. This baby has plenty of boost on tap, boutique amp-quality grit, and a wide range of response to your fingers and your guitar’s volume knob. If you don’t have room for a dual pedal on your board, and want a terrific, basic boost/ overdrive this is the one to pick.
Listen to the Katana Blues Drive:
JHS Twin Twelve ($199)
Sometimes, rather than transparency, you want a pedal that colors your sound. The Twin Twelve offers the flavor of the 1963 Silvertone 1484 amplifier, employed by the likes of Jack White and Beck. I was blown away by how JHS’s SuperBolt turned my Fender Blues Junior or Little Walter into a Supro amp, and am likewise stunned how this pedal turns those amps into Silvertones. It serves up the sound and subtle picking response of the original pawnshop—now collectable—prize, without the attendant cost and upkeep. From Chess Records blues tones to personality-drenched, garage-band grime, this pedal is for those who favor character over conformity.
Listen to the Twin Twelve: