Beautiful blues tones come from marginal gains. There are no magic guitars, amps or pedals out there that will transform your tone. To get a killer blues tone, you need to optimise every stage of your signal chain for maximum impact.
And today, we’ll be looking at how you can use a boost pedal for better blues tones.
If you haven’t yet got a boost pedal but want to add one to your rig, I would recommend starting with my last two articles. These cover the basics of boost pedals, the different types of boost pedal, and some of the best boost pedals out there:
Boost pedals are an amazing tool for blues players. But they are also underrated and under-utilised. In part this is because they are not as flashy as overdrive or fuzz pedals. Yet it is also because players don’t use their boost pedals properly. Often they don’t get the tones that they want from them, so they blame the pedal and leave it to gather dust on a shelf.
I hope to help you solve this problem here. In this article I will run through the different ways you can use a boost pedal. I will also explain how you can use it alongside other pedals in your setup, to maximise your rig and overall blues tone.
First, it is important to understand why players don’t get the tones that they want from their boost pedals. This will give you a greater understanding of how boost pedals work, and ensure that you don’t make the same mistakes.
The key factor you need to understand – and I am aware that this may sound painfully obvious – is that your success using a boost pedal is determined by the signal that you are boosting. Your boost pedal is not an amp in a box. It works in conjunction with the rest of your rig. So you have to be aware of where your boost sits in your signal chain and how it responds to the rest of your rig.
Not understanding this leads to a couple of key mistakes. Perhaps the most common of these is when players stick a boost in front of a totally clean amp with lots of headroom. They engage the pedal in the expectation that it will give them a warm and softly overdriven blues tone. What actually happens, is the volume of their amp increases dramatically and their tone doesn’t change very much.
When setting up your boost, you need to look at the type of amp you are using, as well as the other pedals on your board, and adjust accordingly. So with that in mind, think of the advice here as a blueprint. Your rig is particular to you and you will need to play around and tweak your set up to get the tones you want.
Having said that, there are some key principles you can follow that will set you up nicely. Here are the top 5 ways you can use a boost pedal for better blues tones:
1. To beef up your tone
The perennial challenge for most of us is getting a beautiful blues tone at a low volume. If you take a classic guitar amp – like a Fender Twin or Marshall Plexi – and you crank it, you will be able to get some killer blues tones. After all, this was the approach that countless blues players took to create their tone.
The problem is that if you are predominantly playing at home, cranking an 85 or 100 watt amp just isn’t an option.
And the alternative – of playing a tube amp at a low volume – can be totally uninspiring. Amps played at this level can sound thin and sharp. They often lack the warmth and the softly overdriven tones you hear on so many classic blues records.
And this is where a boost pedal can work wonders. All you need to do is place the pedal in front of your amp and dial the pedal in to your desired volume. Provided you aren’t running your boost in front of a totally clean amp with lots of headroom, you should find that the boost pedal adds warmth to your tone and makes your guitar sound bigger.
A lot of guitarists use preamp style boost pedals, like an Xotic EP Booster, Dunlop Echoplex Preamp or the Zvex Super Hard On Pre-amp Booster for their ‘always on’ pedal. These pedals ‘colour’ your sound and you can use them to get some beautiful vintage tones. Really though, the choice is up to you; a clean boost pedal with EQ controls would also work very well. This is particularly the case if you like the natural sound of your guitar and amp and want to preserve that tone.
2. In front of an overdrive pedal
A second very popular way to use a boost pedal, is to put it in front of an overdrive pedal in your signal chain. In this position in your signal chain, engaging your boost pedal will not increase your volume at all. Instead, it will increase the gain and compression in your overdrive pedal.
This is because when you engage your boost pedal, the signal amplifies. This amplified signal goes into your overdrive pedal – which, unlike an amp – has very little headroom to allow for an increase in volume. So it just causes more clipping and overdrive. This will beef your sound up and make your guitar sound thicker and bigger.
The benefit here is that you can change your tone and make it more overdriven, without having to increase your volume. So if you are switching songs in a set, or if you want more more gain for a particular riff or solo, setting your boost pedal up in this way works very well.
The second and less apparent benefit, is that in this position you can use your boost pedal to alter the sound of your overdrive pedal. If for example you have a treble boost or a boost pedal with any kind of EQ shaping, you can sculpt the sound of your overdrive pedal as you feel necessary. This helps you to get a lot more from your existing rig and gives you further tonal flexibility.
3. After an overdrive pedal
On the opposite side of the spectrum, if you place a boost pedal after an overdrive pedal in your signal chain, engaging the boost will cause your volume to increase. Placing your boost pedal in this part of your signal chain doesn’t cause any additional gain or compression in your overdrive pedal. It just makes your overdrive pedal sound louder.
This isn’t particularly relevant if you are playing alone. In that context, I would recommend placing your boost pedal before any overdrive pedals you are using. That will give you extra drive and help you shape your tone.
If you are playing in a band or in a live setting though – placing your boost pedal after your overdrive pedal works very well. You will be able to adjust your volume for those moments where you are playing lead and you want to cut through the mix. Crucially, you will be able to do this whilst preserving your tone. This might sound simplistic, but it is in fact almost impossible to do this effectively without a boost pedal. If you try and make volume changes using your amp or your guitar, your tone will always change in some way.
This doesn’t happen when you place a boost pedal in this part of your signal chain. So if you have dialled in the perfect tone and all you want is extra volume, this is the best way to use your boost.
4. To drive your amp
One of the most effective ways to use a boost pedal is to put it in front of a tube amp that is slightly overdriven. And the emphasis here is on the slightly overdriven part. As mentioned earlier, if you put a boost pedal in front of a clean amp with lots of headroom, you won’t add any gain to your sound. All you will get is a massive increase in volume.
The opposite happens though, when you put a boost in front of an amp that is already overdriven. Using a boost pedal in this way will kick things up a notch and add warmth and thickness to your tone.
The key to getting a great tone here is to make sure that your amp is set at that sweet point where it is just starting to break up. If it is set too clean, you will just get an increase in volume from your boost pedal. Conversely, if the amp is too overdriven and you hit it with your boost, you’ll create too much compression and your tone will become ‘muddy’.
Using a boost pedal in this way works very well if you have an amp with a gain channel, or a low wattage tube amp that starts to break up at low volumes. You can get your amp firing without cranking the volume too high, and then can get that extra warmth and drive from your boost pedal.
5. In your effects loop
One final and very effective way to use a boost pedal, is to put it in the effects loop of your amp. If you aren’t familiar with this section of your amp – it is an input and output that allows you to put effects between the pre and power sections of your amp. Typically, the effects loop is used for reverb, delay and modulation pedals. But you can get great results by placing a boost pedal here too.
When you engage a boost pedal in this position, the volume of your amp will increase. Crucially though, the sound of your amp will remain unchanged. You just get a pure boost of volume.
This works very well if you aren’t using overdrive pedals and you are happy with the tone of your amp. If you put the boost in front of the amp, it will create more compression. But in the effects loop, it will just increase the volume.
Well there we have it – 5 ways to get better blues tones with your boost pedal.
How do you set your boost pedal up? If you think I’ve missed anything, or if you have any tips, pop them in the comments below!
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Your articles on booster pedals are very interesting. Reading this one in conjunction with your booster pedals buyer’s guide, I was wondering if you have found that there are specific booster pedals or types of pedals in general that tend to work well in different roles or positions, i.e. before overdrives, after overdrives, in the FX loop etc.
Thank you so much for the kind words George, I really appreciate it. In my personal experience, when I’ve found that a boost works well in one position, I also find that it works well more broadly too. In other words, if the boost you are using is a high quality pedal then it should have a certain degree of versatility in each of the roles you’ve mentioned.
Having said that, I typically use my boost in front of my overdrives. I do most of my playing at lower volumes, and this allows me to stack pedals together and dial in a warm drive tone at lower levels. The specific pedals I use most frequently are a Marshall Bluesbreaker (or Bluesbreaker style pedal), a Klon style pedal and a Keeley Katana boost 😁 I usually stack the Bluesbreaker and Klon style pedals together on lower gain settings and then add a Tube Screamer style pedal into the mix when I want to increase the gain a bit.
I hope that helps, but please do let me know if you have any further questions. You can reach me on email@example.com and I am always around and happy to help!
Really great info Aidan, thanks. I hear that you can also use an EQ pedal as a boost pedal; what are your thoughts on that?
Thanks very much for the kind words John; I’m really glad you found the article useful. And yes, you can absolutely use an EQ pedal as a boost! If you want a transparent boost, you just need to leave all of the EQ levels on the pedal unchanged and increase the volume level of the pedal. Used in that way, the EQ pedal will work exactly the same way as a clean boost pedal. If you then decide that you want to shape the EQ of your boosted sound, you can do that easily by adjusting the levels on the pedal. Interestingly, you can also use an EQ pedal as a volume ‘cut’. So if you are playing in a band setting and want to reduce your volume without having to adjust the controls on your guitar, you can set your pedal so the volume is below unity gain. When you step on it, it will reduce the volume.
You can also use an EQ pedal to totally change the characteristics of your amp, as well as the overdrive and distortion pedals you have on your board. They are very underrated pedals that I will definitely be covering in more detail in a future article! 😁