Running an overdrive pedal in front of an amp is designed to push its tubes into breakup for some sweet, sweet crunch or distortion. It's an ideal technique for those of you who can't or won't turn the volume of your amp up to 11.
By combining these gain stages - firstly the pedal circuit, secondly the pre-amp tubes, and finally the power tubes - you are able to push the amp in such a way that you achieve overdrive without it sounding harsh, fizzy, or nothing like your original signal.
A variation on the basic gain-staging technique above is to combine multiple pedals to achieve a more nuanced and richer tone than a single pedal can produce. Rather than cranking the volume knob on a single pedal, you can carefully manage the volume and drive of each pedal in your chain - this is known pedal stacking.
One key benefit is that you can extract masses of distortion from stacked pedals without anything sounding woolly, and using pedals with particular EQ profiles (or with very tweakable EQ sections) can help to sculpt your sound to fit what you are aiming for.
Additionally, by switching certain pedals in the chain on or off, you'll also be able to cover far more tonal ground than with a single pedal.
It's in a pedal-stacking scenario that the mythical transparency of the Klon Centaur and Timmy Overdrive shine, adding gain to the sum of parts without colouring the sound too much.
Watch the gain
When pedal stacking, the key is to keep the gain produced by each pedal much lower than if you were just running one overdrive or distortion. Don't forget, the gain is added to with each additional pedal, and overdoing it can negatively affect your tone.
Best pedal stacking combinations
You'll quickly find some pedal stacking combinations work better than others, especially if you have a range of different pedal types. Below are some common combinations and suggested stacking orders:
Clean boost -> Klon-style mild overdrive
Running hot into a 'transparent' Klon-style overdrive drives the input for extra 'chew' and texture. Great for raunchy blues or classic rock tones.
Klon-style mild overdrive -> Distortion
Run fairly low, the Klon-style pedal adds some extra girth and grit to your favourite distortion pedal, while helping to tidy up the bottom end and increasing sustain too.
Tubescreamer-style overdrive -> Clean boost
Placing the clean boost after the mid-humped overdrive will add volume and preserve the gain level without over-saturating things, retaining clarity and making the most of the Tubescreamer's identifiable EQ.
Fuzz -> Tubescreamer-style overdrive
The accentuated mid-hump of a Tubescreamer-style pedal placed after a fuzz will open up the sound, adding punch and clarity to your tone, as well as additional volume.
Delay -> Distortion
Running a distortion after a delay is similar to running the delay into the front end of your amp - the repeats will be distorted. This can work really well if you're looking for a particularly grimy, gritty texture, and allows you to use the distortion pedal to dial in a specific character. But beware - it definitely won't give you a clean delay sound! Run this pedal stacking combo in the effects loop of your amp to avoid distorting the already distorted signal.
Tip: Increase the volume/gain of the delay to drive the distortion pedal harder to further increase the grunge factor.
Originally published 14th Jan 2020. Updated on 29th Dec 2020