Updated by Bobby
Updated on February 14th, 2022
Switched the BBE Acoustimax (no longer available) with the the Fender Smolder acoustic overdrive.
There's a lot of uncertainty about using acoustic guitar distortion.
Does it work? Will it mess up my amp? What pickup or pedal should I use? Should I use an amp or go straight through a PA system? Before answering these questions, I should point out that results are always going to be somewhat contextual. Since the main issue is eliminating feedback, the success you have, in that regard, can change based on a number of variables.
Thus, it's often a difficult puzzle to solve.
But, we can still offer conventional wisdom and best practices that will allow you to do one or more of the following:
- Add a slight boost to your acoustic signal
- Use a moderate amount of distortion with an acoustic guitar
- Move back and forth between a clean and "dirty" sound on your acoustic guitar
- Avoid feedback when adding gain to your acoustic guitar's signal
There are a lot of questions to answer before we get to "declare" the best overdrive pedal for acoustic guitar, so let's cover those first.
Read more: Best guitar effects resource page
Best Overdrive Pedals for Acoustic Guitars (top two picks)
Use the compare buttons to see specs and pricing for each pedal side by side.
Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive
Fender Smolder Acoustic Guitar Overdrive
Does it matter whether I run my signal to an amp or PA system?
In most cases it's better to run a distorted acoustic guitar through an amplifier, as opposed to going straight into a PA system.
Part of this is because feedback typically stems from a PA system monitor that is facing your guitar sending the source signal (your guitar) back into the acoustic pickup. While it's not always a problem, it's a safe bet you'll have better luck getting your signal into an amp, distorting it via a pedal and then sending it to a PA system by putting a microphone on your amp or using a balanced output.
Note however, that there are certain pedals and systems that can be setup to allow you to send an acoustic signal straight to your PA system, regardless.
Using a PA system with a distorted acoustic guitar doesn't automatically mean you'll be dealing with feedback issues. Once again, experiences will vary, so there are a few different options you can try.
Is an acoustic amp necessary?
You don't need an acoustic amp to play a distorted acoustic guitar.
Aside from going straight into a PA system, some electric guitar amps, particularly warm-sounding tube amplifiers, can also work well. The one caveat is that you'll tame feedback more easily if you get your distortion from a pedal and not from the amp itself.
Use a clean and balanced EQ on your amp as a base, then use a distortion pedal to add the higher gain setting.
The Four Options for Amplifying an Acoustic Guitar
- Dedicated acoustic amplifier
- Clean, low-feedback electric guitar amp
- Pedal-based acoustic preamp
- Direct to a PA system with a DI box
What kind of acoustic pickup should I use?
Note that if your acoustic guitar already has a pickup and preamp installed, this section is not a concern for you.
Read more: Acoustic guitars with pickups
If your acoustic guitar does not have its own pickup and preamp, you'll need to use some kind of soundhole pickup that you can install as needed. You would then have the option of adding an external preamp, which might be necessary if you don't have an acoustic amp to make EQ adjustements to the pickup's raw tone.
For improved odds of staying feedback-free, use a pickup that covers the entire soundhole, like the Fishman Neo-Buster.
Here are a few additional options, if you don't have one already:
How important is a soundhole cover?
A soundhole cover, while you can get them in a pickup form, are more commonly found as standalone feedback reducers that are meant to work in conjunction with the pickup that's already installed inside the body of your guitar.
For example, if you had the Taylor 114ce and wanted to add distortion to it, you could reduce feedback by simply using the preamp that's already installed and adding a soundhole cover.
They're a nice solution to try first (if you already have the pickup in your guitar) because they're really cheap. In a lot of cases, they'll solve feedback issues entirely.
Planet Waves makes a soft rubber version that fits most acoustics.
Which overdrive pedal for acoustic guitar works best?
Now that we've burned through some of the technicalities and peripheral issues, what distortion or overdrive pedal for acoustic guitar will work best? Before getting into specifics, let's cover some general best practices.
1: Your distortion should not be heavy or overly saturating.
Overdrive for acoustic guitars should not be heavy or laden with a ton of gain. If it's too distorted, you'll have feedback problems no matter what kind of pickup arrangement you've pulled together. Think smooth, simple overdrive.
For example, a lot of players use the Boss BD-2 Blues Driver in this capacity. Hardly aggressive.
2: Volume levels between pedal and amp should match up
You don't want a huge jump in output when switching between your pedal and amplifier. Since most distortion pedals have a level knob, which acts as the pedal's master output, make sure that this is set to roughly the same as the master volume on your amplifier.
In other words, when you turn on your distortion pedal, volume either stays the same or only increases slightly. This will help keep feedback at bay. With that out of the way, let's get into some pedal recommendations.
Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive Mod
The Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive MOD is the same pedal as the original Sparkle Drive, but with a few extra settings that allow you to choose from different distortion flavors based on EQ variance. For example, you can dial in more of a bluesy midrange grind or opt for a thicker bass-heavy tone. It's helpful to have the variety, as certain MOD settings might be more accommodating to your acoustic guitar.
The "CLEAN" knob
While the extra MOD settings are nice to have, the single most helpful feature for acoustic players is the knob labeled CLEAN. This basically allows you to dial in a blend between your original clean signal (with a slight boost) and the distorted signal, which is an incredibly helpful tool for when you're using the pedal to distort an acoustic.
The benefit is two-fold:
- You can dial back in the natural tone of the acoustic guitar's clean signal and avoid losing its raw sound.
- Feedback reduction becomes much easier by simply changing the clean/distortion blend.
Check the following demo video around 45 seconds in.
He boosts the clean knob to about halfway which brings his guitar's clean signal back into the mix.
This is one of the few distortion pedals providing this luxury (the Fender Smolder that we discuss below provides this as well).
Pedals like the Boss Blues Driver and DS-1 distortion don't have that feature, and instead only allow you to control level (labeled VOLUME on the Sparkle Drive) and gain. Other notable and acoustic-friendly features of the Sparkle Drive include the following:
- True bypass wiring
- Vintage mode with a tube-style drive (good for smooth acoustic distortion)
- 100% clean boost circuit
While distortion pedals without the blend control can still work, it's hard to recommend anything other than the Sparkle Drive Mod since it has both the smoothness and versatility we're looking for, in addition to this hallmark feature.
IDEAL FOR: Basic acoustic guitar distortion
Fender Smolder Acoustic Overdrive
Fender's Smolder acoustic overdrive is one of the first overdrive pedals designed expressly for acoustic guitars. As such, it's one of the few overdrives we've tested on an acoustic that doesn't just cover over the natural resonance of an acoustic tone.
This pedal pushes more midrange into your acoustic signal to help balance out the typically heavy low-end of an acoustic guitar.
The "thud" sound.
Though if you're using a brighter acoustic, like the Taylor 114e or ce, you can use the treble and tone controls to dials those mids back and let the heavier bass in the low-end push through.
Once you've set your EQ, the Blend control let's you adjust the balance between your wet and dry signal.
Having a blend knob in an overdrive pedal is fairly uncommon (as we mentioned conerning the Sparkle above), but definitely helpful in this context.
With this control alone, I was able to make the distortion as heavy or subtle as needed.
While the Smolder is probably less versatile than the Sparkle Drive, we liked the way the Smolder handled an acoustic tone better, especially if you're working with a Piezo pickup. The Smolder is an easy choice for us, given the narrow job description and the extensive thought/work that went into making this pedal acoustic-friendly.
IDEAL FOR: Subtle acoustic guitar overdrive, performing and recording
A Few Honorable Mentions
As with most guitar gear questions, answers are always going to be somewhat subjective.
The two distortion pedals highlighted are what we believe will be the most optimal solutions for the largest number of people. What it doesn't mean is that they're the only solutions or that other options don't exist.
A lot of what works for you is contingent upon your rig, how you play, where you play and how you have everything setup.
Thus, there are a few honorable mentions that could serve as working distortion pedals for acoustic guitar rigs.
What You Should Avoid
If you don't go with either of the pedals recommended:
You should avoid any kind of distortion labeled "metal" or "heavy," opting instead for lighter distortions and overdrives.
As we've mentioned before, too much gain or saturating distortions will overshadow your acoustic guitar's natural tone and make feedback an almost constant problem.
Keep this in mind as you pick out an acoustic guitar distortion.
There's a balance to be struck between adding a little bit of gain that enhances your signal or drowning out your acoustic guitar behind a wall of fuzz and feedback.
Hearing from You
Particularly if you've used the Sparkle Drive or Fender Smolder with an acoustic guitar and have a war story to share, we'd love to hear about it. Leave such stories in the comments section.
Most questions about the pedals or the setup should be shared in the comments section so others can benefit as well.
If you just want to drop a line about your acoustic rig or the pedal you've used successfully for acoustic distortion, we'd love to hear about that as well.
Keep the fire alive.