Overdriven words, fuzzy descriptions, and distorted pedals

Keith Richards and John Mayer in front of Mayer’s pedal board w/ Katana Boost (image from pedalmaniacs.com)

Whether your favorite pedal is labeled fuzz, overdrive, boost, or distortion— the tone you achieve will vary wildly depending on your taste, genre considerations, the type of guitar and pickups you use, how hard you actually play and, ultimately, the amp you plug everything into at the end of the chain. Historically, distorted guitar comes out of a confluence of different factors, some technological (tubes amps were initially fairly low wattage) and other more purely aesthetic ones like Dave Davies taking a razor to his speakers or Keith Richards using a fuzz pedal on “Satisfaction”.

The popular terms that have gained acceptance for describing these various sounds can be a bit murky at times since, to some extent, they’re just marketing terms cooked up by manufacturers several decades ago. For instance, when Maestro came up with the term “Fuzz” they’re vision for the effect was more faux orchestral than rock and roll:

We’re not so sure there really is one accepted definition of what overdrive really is. Instead, we’d suggest that overdrive pedals attempt to more faithfully replicate the kind of distortions produced by tubes. But that’s only part of the story, since there are all kinds of ways to get distortion out of a tube amp; you can simply turn everything up to ten, or you can use a “starved-plate” design that runs a preamp tube on extremely low voltage, thus making it distort, or you can bridge separate preamp channels together, so that that output of channel 1 drives the input of channel 2… and so on.

“There is also a whole world of how a pedal is voiced or EQ’d that contributes to its classification. For example, overdrive pedals have a softer, rounder EQ, many times with a mid boost. Heavy metal distortions can often be scooped or have enormous bass boosting. Fuzz Pedals often have a big wooly bass response.” – Robert Keeley


Some folks describe that last method as overdrive, since your using one channel to ‘drive’ another into distortion. But preamp distortion alone doesn’t account for the classic tones we all love, many of which were made by turning a tube amp up loud enough for the output section to start to distort (or should that be overdrive). In fact, we’d suggest that is at least part of the sound that overdrive pedals are trying to, if not imitate, at least compliment. But then, the problem with cranking your amp up is, well, now you’re really loud. If your band mates aren’t giving you stink eye, the sound guy definitely is.

Overdrive pedals give you something akin to that tube distortion sound, but with quite a bit more control of the overall level, and the ability to keep your clean tone as a basis to build on (if you’re amp is dimed, it may well sound great, but there’s almost nowhere else to go from there.) Eventually, overdrive pedals became a subset of distortion pedals that appeal to a particular aesthetic. A Keeley Red Dirt Overdrive, for instance, has a very different sound from a Keeley modded Boss Metal Zone, which is more obviously a distortion pedal. But then, a Metal Zone sounds completely different from an MXR Distortion+, and really, distortion is just a broader term than fuzz or overdrive, both of which also produce distortion in the technical sense. “Fuzz” and “overdrive” are just more nuanced descriptive terms, addressing different distortion styles.


John Mayer’s board, sporting two Katana Boosts!! (image from pedalmaniacs.com)

Lastly, the Keeley Katana Boost offers different take on producing distortion (or not) depending on your set up. The push/pull pot on the Katana adds a little more distortion to the sound when the boost is engaged, which is handy, since different amps, amp settings, and pickups will react differently to the boost. For instance, with the push/pull pot set to clean, a Katana Boost run into a solid state amp like a JC120, will basically just give you a clean boost— the same tone but louder (unless you dime the pedal, which might be enough to clip the preamp in the JC120, which is, er, an acquired taste.) Now, put that same pedal and guitar (pickup output also play a large role here) in front of a Twin Reverb on low to moderate volume, and the result is similar; you get a clean boost in level, without much distortion (or overdrive, if you prefer). Crank the Twin up a good bit, and the response of the boost changes— depending on your pickups, you may get more of an overdriven sound, or you may get a cleaner, more saturated and compressed sound that just verges on distorting when you dig in. It really depends on the whole rig, but both Keeley boost pedals (let’s not forget the Java Treble Boost, or the Time Machine Boost) can be used to push a tube amp into distortion— or not, depending on what you’re going for. With the Katana, the extra distortion afforded by the push/pull pot can wring a bit more cutting tone out of low output single coil pickups, or even produce almost fuzz like tones with a high output pickup like a P90. The thing to remember about boost pedals is that, while they can be used to produce distortion/overdrive, they don’t necessarily have to be used as distortion at all.

John Mayer and his two Keeley Katanas

Check out this video of John Mayer playing his new track, Olivia, on the Ellen Show. Lead break at 1:22!

“Also worth mentioning is even though we call the pedal the FUZZ HEAD, it is just moderately fuzzy to many. It was chosen because we just kinda dug the name!  It clearly wasn’t just a clean boost, nor a fuzz face clone!” – Robert Keeley