This tutorial aims to give guitar players a little guide on the different distortion, overdrive, and fuzz pedals out there...
The first thing to keep in mind when choosing a distortion, overdrive, or fuzz pedal is that you have options! More than any other type pedal, there are hundreds and hundreds of different models of distortion pedals, each with their own sound and features. Of course there are many tried and true models which are very popular, but there are also some great lesser known pedals as well. As always, knowing what type of sound you want is the most important aspect of choosing the pedal. Since there are so many options out there, having some focus can make all the difference!
There are three major types of distortion pedals: true distortion, overdrive, and fuzz. All three are slightly different falling under the category of distortion. Recognizing the difference isn't hard, but needs to certainly be taken into consideration here. Distortion is usually the heaviest of the three, but this can vary from model to model a great deal. Some popular examples of distortion pedals include the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff
(in all its carnations), the Boss DS-1, and the MXR Distortion. Of course these are only a few example, and the ones I have mentioned are also quite different sounding, so you should definitely be trying out as many as possible to get a true idea of what will work for you.
Overdrive pedals are personally my favorite type when it comes to pedals of this nature. Overdrives are usually more transparent than distortion pedals, and are often lighter in terms of the distortion. I like to use them more than distortion pedals because they are often more subtle and not as overwhelming, which works better for me for what I'm trying to do. Probably the most popular overdrive model is the Ibanez Tube Screamer, which is also my overdrive of choice. Of course there are endless amounts of overdrive pedals made by the likes of Boss, Fulltone, MXR, and T-Rex...
The last major group of distortion pedals are fuzz. These are probably the least used, but offer up a great deal of tone to the table. Fuzz is usually a lot heavier and muddier than most of the other types of pedals, and can be characterized just by what the name states. One of the most popular fuzz pedals around is the class Dallas Fuzz Face, which is now out under the Dunlop name. For a truly thick fuzz, there is no better pedal that I've used. However, again there are all sorts of options out there to choose from and knowing what you're looking for will make the search all that easier...
Don't get me wrong, most pedals are not as cut and dry as being only a distortion, overdrive, or fuzz. Many pedals cross over quite a bit depending on how you set the parameters. However, it is true that many of them generally fall into one category or another. Another thing to consider is that many amplifiers have built in distortion, which can often be better than the sound that you could get from a pedal. For example, newer Fender amps have a great built in overdrive, while Orange amps have some of the best built in distortion out there. If you have an amp with some nice built in distortion, it may or may not be necessary to look elsewhere...
It is certainly hard to recommend certain pedals without knowing what you purpose is, but hopefully this little overview can help to steer you in the right direction!