Overdrive, Fuzz, Distortion: What’s The Difference?

Whether you’ve got pedals in your chain providing the power or you’re relying on your amp’s natural distortion, everybody loves how guitars break up in a song. For decades, distortion of some type has been commonplace in music. Depending on the genre, the amount and types of distortion vary widely though.

When it comes to mixing the three main types (overdrive, fuzz & distortion), is one inherently easier to work with than another? After all, the dynamic characteristics change alongside the tonal differences we hear between each pedal. It only makes sense that the way we work with each type of distortion changes too.

Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of working with each type of distortion:

Overdriven and Undercooked

Overdrive is one of the most interesting types of distortion simply based on how wide of a range is covered in the one category. Guitarists can use overdrives as a simple boost to their clean tone. They can naturally overdrive a low gain tube amp by turning up the gain a bit. With such a wide variety of sounds, it may come as a shock that overdriven guitars are some of the most time consuming to mix.

Because these tend to be the least altered sounds out of the three options we’re discussing, overdriven guitars often demand additional compression in the mix to help level things out still. This isn’t always the case, but it makes sense when you look at how clean guitars suffer from the same issues. By effectively clipping your peaks with an overdrive pedal, there’s still a lot of dynamics to an overdriven guitar tone.

Another way to look at it is from the EQ side of things. Outside of a basic tone control, most overdrives won’t color your sound as much as our other options. This means additional tweaks to get the guitar to sit right.

Don’t get me wrong – overdriven guitars sound great and can sit well in a mix without almost any post-processing. They’re just the most likely category to require additional “massaging” to fit right in.

Socially-Accepted Distortion

In metal and hard rock genres, distortion has 100% become the standard for guitar tone. It has the most aggressive (and most compressed) tone, meaning leads and rhythms can sound relatively similar without huge variations in dynamics. A great, distorted tone can let a player switch from riffing to chords seamlessly. So what does this mean for the mix?

In the mix, this kind of tone can be extremely easy to work with if it was captured properly. Some common obstacles will be finding width without overpowering other elements of the mix and avoiding any masking of bass or vocals. There are plenty of resources available for mixing guitars in these situations, and wide EQ adjustments can easily balance those issues out.

The emphasis for heavily distorted guitars shifts from mixing to tracking. An amp with scooped mids is going to be difficult to get to cut through the mix. Fizzy amps are going to be noisy and hard to work with. Poor mic placement can decimate guitar tracks.

For these reasons and more, many engineers are opting to record clean DI tracks and using virtual guitar rigs in-the-box for additional control, both during tracking and mixing.

Fussing With Fuzz

Fuzz tones are probably one of the most distinctive sounds in music. Hearing them instantly brings to mind guitar hero tones of the 60s and 70s, but that doesn’t mean they’re lacking for modern applications. Fuzz continues to be used on pop, funk, hip-hop, and so many other genres. It’s even found a home in the bass rigs of hundreds of doom metal bands.

Getting a good fuzz tone isn’t exactly difficult, and it finds itself somewhere between overdrive and distortion for many players. Mixing it can be easy because it shares characteristic of each. It’s flexible like an overdrive but compressed enough to treat like a heavy distortion. They tend to have a lot of mid-range and attack, making it easy for them to cut through the mix when needed.

Like distortion, many guitarists and bassists are turning to in-the-box solutions for fuzz. Check out our guide on getting great fuzz tones using Bassforge Hellraiser in your DAW below:

The truth about mixing different kinds of distortion is that it’s all going to come down to what you’re the most comfortable with. Mixers with a background in metal and hard rock are going to be more apt to mix a hi-gain distortion in a way that sounds like what they like hearing. The same goes for mixers that predominantly work on tracks using fuzz and overdrives.

If you’re really interested in getting the best experience that can be applied to all three, focus more on the recording techniques that can be applied to all three. Focus on compression and EQ moves that would apply to specific situations rather than specific tones. Doing so will ensure you’re ready for the challenge, regardless of the type of distortion you’re faced with.

For more on great guitar tone, be sure to check out the resources offered in the Joey Sturgis Tones VIP section. There, you’ll get access to tutorials, reference sheets & complete guides to getting the best guitar recordings possible. From there, you can even send me a mix to critique!

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