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The gain or voltage gain measures how much a gain stage amplifies a signal without changing its tone.

Meanwhile, the overdrive pedal focuses on manipulating how the unit overdrives your signal to create a particular sound. 

On the other hand, distortion pedals focus on changing the sound as much as possible with little regard for the original sound.

Playing and learning the electric guitar is quite an exciting hobby, especially when you understand the existence of effects that you can apply.

You may have heard of the terms Gain, Distortion, and Overdrive, and where you may know that these terms mean different stuff, you might not exactly know what they mean.

Firstly, although the names are often used together and are similar to each other even technology-wise, these 3 things are different. Most people get confused and interchange the use of these terms because of a few similarities, but there are a few important distinctions to be made and known here. 

Let’s start nice and easy. The Gain simply makes the sound louder and more prominent for you, like a volume knob on a speaker, and is used widely by almost every guitarist playing on an amplifier.

Overdrive (OD) and distortion are where the actual confusion is, but lucky for you, I got all the answers right here!

This article will answer all the main questions regarding the three pedals in the following order:

  1. When to use these pedals?
  2. When do you use a gain pedal?
  3. When do you use the Distortion pedal?
  4. When do you use Overdrive?
  5. Do you need all three Pedals?
  6. What do these Pedals do to the Amp
  7. And recommendations

Gain Vs Distortion Vs Overdrive: Summary

Here’s a summary table to compare gain vs distortion vs overdrive. I will talk more about when to use each one later.

Pedal Tone Level of tone altering Responds to volume controls Level of distortion Clipping method


Harsh/Aggressive High No High Hard-clipping
Overdrive pedal Soft/Subtle Low Yes Depends on setting Soft-clipping
Gain pedal High- more distortion

Low-Clean Sound

Low Yes Depends on the level of gain N/A


When To Use Gain?

You use gain to determine how much of the sound signal emanating from your guitar reaches the amplifier.

It does not alter the guitar’s original sound much but instead focuses more on factors like the loudness and tone of the guitar when plugged into an amp.

Gain determines how hard you’re driving the preamp section of your guitar. It sets the level of distortion in your tone regardless of the final volume set.

It adjusts the speakers’ sensitivity picking up your sound and how loud the speakers are while you’re playing the guitar live.

Gain is usually given on amplifiers and other effect pedals as it compliments almost everything that is played.

Since the original sound is unaltered, players and even myself couple other effect pedals with it and vary the gain from high to low to open up a wide array of different, attractive sounds to the performance.


When To Use Distortion?

Use distortion pedal when playing metal/rock music that requires the distorted sound effect. Every time a rock guitarist plays solo, it’s most likely running a distortion pedal.

The distortion pedal is perhaps the most common sound effect available in the market.

A distortion pedal is a hard-clipping device that gives your guitar sound a heavy tone and also darkens the output, giving your guitar a very fuzzy sound. Depending on the settings, it can also boost the sound signal coming from your amp.

Distortion is the “fuzzy” sound you sometimes hear when playing a very loud sound on a small speaker. This is because the sound signal from the song is larger than the speaker’s capacity.

Distortion is used and appreciated by musicians worldwide as it adds harmonics and character to a sound that wasn’t there initially. The guitar sound is ‘thick’ but does not irritate the ears as it may be if another instrument, like when a violin is distorted.

The volume of the strums and notes sounds closer together, and the notes can ring out for longer before the volume falls, making it a powerful tool for soloing and chords.

Moreover, genres like Rock, Alternative, Pop, and Heavy metal are so intrinsically linked with distorted sounds that they have become a trademark sound for songs in these genres. Our ears are hard-wired to expect and enjoy the effect created by a distortion in the songs.


When To Use Overdrive?

Musicians often use an overdrive pedal to enhance or complement an already overdriven amp. It can also be used when a song requires a bigger and more intense sound.

Overdrive pedals and processors drive an amp into natural and vigorous grittiness or, in simpler words, emulate the interaction of a guitar plugged into an amplifier. The tone remains clean primarily with just a slight bit of color to lighten up the sound.

A variation of the Overdrive pedal known as the ‘double-double’ has more tweakable settings and gives you significantly more options regarding the guitar’s tone.

It is important to know that your tone does not fully depend upon the pedal and settings you are using.

Pickups and amplifiers are also big contributors to making the guitar sound exactly how you want it to, so it is advised to consider options available in these departments if the required sound is not achieved just by exploring around with the pedal.

Gain Vs Distortion Vs Overdrive: Do You Need All 3?

Whether you need all three pedals (gain, distortion, overdrive) depends solely upon what you want to do with your guitar. The pedals have different functions and add different effects to the guitar.

Depending on the genre you’re interested in, you may need all three pedals for playing, and it is also possible that you can get the work done with 1 pedal or maybe even none at all!

Overdrive pedals are soft-clipping devices, while distortion pedals focus more on hard-clipping. If you want a thick, crunchy sound, a distortion pedal is what you go for, but if a loud and clean tone is required, overdrive is the right way to go.

Are They Interchangeable: Gain Vs Distortion Vs Overdrive

Gain, distortion and overdrive pedals are not interchangeable – they are not the same and run on different concepts and will produce different output.

Gain, distortion and overdrive pedals can all be used together in a concept known as ‘staking’ to create more fun tones. They cannot be interchanged and used as a replacement for each other.

Overdrive pedals use soft-clipping, which means that a more gentle and subtle tone will be produced. The guitar’s original sound is not altered much and is still recognizable.

Hard-clipping, on the other hand, gives us a harsh and more aggressive tone. The original guitar signal is significantly distorted and the tone is fundamentally distorted. 

This all may seem a bit confusing to you right now, but I can tell you from personal experience that things make much more sense once you start experimenting and playing around with different settings, as I’ve done countless times now.

I wouldn’t recommend a distortion pedal to get into more detail if you want to dial in some blues, where clean and distinct note sounds are required. Instead, an overdrive pedal with some gain is recommended when playing blues. 

Whereas in the rock genre, where you have to carry the whole song with heavy strumming, a distortion pedal with the correct settings will do you wonders.

What Do They Do to the Amp: Gain Vs Distortion Vs Overdrive

All effect pedals like gain, distortion and overdrive are connected to both the guitar and amp – where they act as a center point and modify the sounds to your requirement before it is sent to the amp and played through the speakers.

An effect pedal will alter the sound signal which is sent from your guitar to the amp. It may add crunch, or fuzz to the sound or sometimes even a bit of reverb or a chorus effect to it. This is all done to give a more complete and full effect to a singular instrument.

While the sound signal can be altered completely in ways that make it unrecognizable, a pedal will not affect the technology of an amp. Both devices work separately on the same sound signal and process it to produce the final sound and are connected to each other via wires.


Depending on the musical genre that you play, many different versions of both effect pedals and amplifiers will be recommended to you by fellow and senior musicians throughout your musical journey.

For beginner guitarists who have just set foot in the effects world, I’d recommend investing in a good quality amplifier that will have virtually all your requirements already built in, saving you time, money, and most importantly the extra work required to plug in and set up multiple pedals for just one tone

However if you have decided to purchase an effect pedal to enhance your musical gear arsenal, pedals from companies like Ibanez ( Tube Screamer TS9) or the ProCo Rat distortion pedal are recommended as they provide quality, durability, and good quality sound.

I would also recommend purchasing a pedalboard to go along with your pedals. This will prevent your pedals, which are small in size, from moving around and staying organized.

You will be able to use them with confidence, knowing exactly where each kind of pedal is whenever required. For more than 5 pedals, in my opinion, a pedalboard becomes a necessity. 

Final Thoughts

For a musician, skills, and gear go side by side in any successful performance. Your skill is complemented and highlighted by the gear you use as it plays a significant role in making the instrument sound exactly how you envisioned it. 

Distortion and Overdrive pedals are the most common pedals in the musical world, and virtually every guitarist needs them sooner or later in their musical journey if they choose to pursue them seriously.

In the end, I would advise you to do thorough research on the internet and the market to understand better what gear is available and what suits you best before deciding to purchase an effect pedal.

Ifandi S.

About Ifandi S.

Ifandi started Strumming Bars to answer all the questions of a guitarist. As a self-learned guitarist, he remembered how frustrating it was to not find answers to his many questions in the journey. With Strumming Bars, that's no longer the case!

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