Get more from your pedalboard and learn to create a wide range of overdrive tones with gain stacking
In recent years, overdrive pedals have come to play an increasingly important role in the blues. Guitar pedal manufacturers have made huge developments in pedal production, which has increased the range of overdrive pedals out there. It has also made them both more readily available and also more affordable.
Largely because of this – as well as the rich history of overdriven tones in blues and blues rock – most guitarists looking to dial in killer blues tones use overdrive pedals. And a lot of players have multiple overdrive pedals in their set-up.
Yet despite the popularity and widespread use of overdrive pedals, the concept of stacking overdrives together does not appear to be so well established. This seems to be the case, even though ‘gain stacking’ or ‘stacking overdrives’ is one of the best ways to dial in a range of beautiful blues tones.
So to help provide a bit more information on the topic, here I have put together a guide covering the fundamentals of gain stacking and stacking overdrives. In this article I will cover:
- What ‘gain stacking’ is and how it works
- The main benefits of stacking overdrives, and how you can improve your tone and rig through gain stacking
- The most common ways of stacking overdrives and how these will help you to produce a variety of different tones
- Guidelines to follow when gain stacking, to get the most out of your set-up
So without further ado, let’s get into it. Here is everything you need to know about stacking overdrives:
What is gain stacking?
Before we dive into gain stacking in more depth and explore the various different ways that you can stack overdrives together; I think it is first worth establishing exactly what the terms ‘gain stacking’ and ‘stacking overdrives’ actually mean. For whilst these terms are often used interchangeably, they are not identical.
Let’s look first at gain stacking. This refers to a situation in which you have multiple gain ‘stages’ in your rig, and you ‘stack’ these gain stages on top of each other. The terminology used here is confusing, but it actually describes a common and simple set-up. For example, an overdrive pedal represents a gain stage. The overdrive channel on an amp also represents a gain stage. And you can ‘stack’ these two gain stages together by using them both at the same time. In other words, if your amp is overdriving, and you then step on an overdrive pedal, you are ‘gain stacking’.
You can gain stack with boost pedals, overdrive pedals and distortion pedals, as well as using your amplifier.
Stacking overdrives on the other hand, refers specifically to playing overdrive pedals at the same time. And this can be done alongside different gain stages. For example, you can stack an overdrive pedal alongside a boost pedal or an already overdriving amp. Having said that, the term ‘stacking overdrives’ tends to refer more to the effect of using multiple overdrive pedals at the same time, and the impact that this has on your tone.
In simple terms then, when you stack overdrive pedals together, you are gain stacking. However, not all gain stacking involves overdrive pedals.
For a variety of reasons which I will cover in more detail throughout, here I am going to focus primarily on stacking overdrives. However I will also be using the term ‘gain stacking’ to refer to the process of playing multiple overdrive pedals at the same time. I will also be looking at ways to gain stack that go beyond just using overdrive pedals.
The benefit of stacking overdrives
Broadly speaking, there are four main benefits of stacking overdrives. These are as follows:
1. ) Firstly, stacking overdrives gives you access to a very broad range of tones. Significantly, it helps you to create tones that you can’t create with a single pedal or guitar amp. You can blend the characteristics of multiple overdrive pedals together, and this helps you to create unique and interesting tones.
2.) Additionally, stacking overdrives provides you with almost endless options for tweaking and adjusting these tones. You can alter the settings across multiple pedals, as well as on your amp and guitar. And in this way, you can craft a wide range of varied tones.
3.) Stacking overdrives allows you to tightly control your tone, and the level of gain in your sound. This isn’t perhaps so relevant if you are playing alone. However if you are in a band or playing live, it is useful to be able to adjust the amount of gain in your tone easily and quickly. It is also useful to be able to do this in a subtle way. And stacking overdrives can help here. You can control your tone easily without using your hands. And you can set your pedals up so that your gain dials up in a subtle and musical way when you engage multiple pedals.
4.) Lastly, stacking overdrives helps you to create killer blues tones at lower volumes. This is significant if you are playing at home and have to be conscious of your playing volume. When you play at a low volume, it can be difficult to dial in a pleasing tone. Your tone can sound thin and strident. But when you stack overdrives, you can create a warm and thick blues tone, without having to really crank your amp.
Each of these benefits is significant. And many of them are specific to overdrive pedals. This is because of the way overdrive pedals respond to your playing – both individually and when they are stacked together.
As I wrote about in more detail here, overdrive pedals make a great choice for blues and blues rock guitarists, precisely because they are so responsive. You can adjust the way an overdrive pedal sounds by altering your pick attack or reducing the volume on your guitar. As such, when you stack multiple overdrives together, you end up with a very versatile, and also very responsive signal chain.
This isn’t true of all gain pedals. And it is why – at least in a blues and blues rock context – I think it is more useful to focus on stacking overdrives than it is to think about gain stacking more generally.
5 tips for stacking overdrives
When it comes to guitar tones, there are very few hard and fast rules. And the same is true of stacking overdrives. Everyone has a different approach, and a whole range of different approaches can work. Having said that, there are some general guidelines you can follow to ensure you get the most out of your pedalboard. These are as follows:
1.) The last pedal in your chain has the biggest impact on your tone. So if you have a favourite pedal that you want to shine through, put that pedal last in your signal chain.
2.) The more gain stages (pedals) you add to your signal chain, the more likely your tone will become ‘muddy’. So unless you are looking to create a heavily overdriven and quite unruly tone, I would recommend sticking to two or three overdrive pedals at most.
3.) For a similar reason, I would generally advise stacking low or medium gain overdrive pedals together. If you stack lots of high gain overdrive pedals together, you will produce a lot of gain. Yet because of the way the gain stages interact with one another, the high gain sound you create is likely to be washed out and muddy. It won’t be the tight and pleasing gain sound for which you are likely to be searching.
4.) Generally speaking, you want to stack your overdrive pedals in order from lowest gain to highest gain. This is because, as Daniel Steinhardt of ‘That Pedal Show‘ puts it so well:
If you take a really high-gain overdrive pedal and put a low-gain overdrive after it, you’ve got this huge amount of gain and nastiness with the first pedal, but that gets tamed down by the natural compression in the low-gain pedal. However, if (you) swap that around and take that little bit of clipping and warmness from the low-gain overdrive pedal and then (you) push that into the high-gain pedal, it embellishes and enlarges the harmonics and the compression (you’ve) already got going with the low-gain pedal.
I have quoted Steinhardt at length here, as I believe he very succinctly highlights the benefits of organising your pedalboard in this way. Of course it is not the only approach. There are numerous different ways to set up your pedalboard and organise your drive pedals. And there are also various schools of thought on which approach is best.
When it comes to the blues however, I would personally recommend stacking them as Steinhardt suggests. It will give you access to a range of different overdrive tones, and help you to extract as much as possible from all of the pedals on your pedalboard.
5.) My final piece of advice when stacking overdrives, is to stack pedals with different tonal characteristics. One of the most significant benefits of this approach, is that you can create unique tones by using multiple types of pedal at the same time. If you have two identical pedals on your board for example, playing them together will not fundamentally alter your tone compared with just playing one. Of course it will allow you to create different sounds by adjusting the settings on each pedal. Generally speaking though, I think stacking pedals with different characteristics works better. As I explain in more detail below, not only will it give you a more versatile tone, it will also give you more control over your tone.
Some practical recommendations
At this stage, you might be wondering how you can implement these ideas in your rig. Now as is always the case when it comes to guitar gear, you have an almost unlimited amount of choice here. And part of the fun is experimenting with a range of different options. This can help you to find your own sound and discover what works best for you. Having said that, there are a few common approaches which work very well and which can help to give you some initial ideas.
I have detailed these approaches below. First though, I think it is worth establishing the types of overdrive pedals that I talk about in more detail. For although it is not always the case, your success with stacking overdrives will be determined largely by the types of overdrive pedal you use in your set-up. As such, it is worth fully understanding the different types of overdrive that work best in different positions. Here are the main types of overdrive pedal I will be discussing here:
A transparent overdrive is one which causes your signal to overdrive, without ‘colouring’ your tone in any way. Transparent overdrive pedals add warmth and gain to your tone, whilst preserving the natural sound of your guitar and amp. This sets them aside from a lot of overdrive pedals – the majority of which alter your tone more significantly.
There are a number of different transparent overdrives out there, many of which I detail in this article: ‘7 Types Of Overdrive Pedal For Killer Blues Tones‘. The most famous transparent overdrive however, is the Klon Centaur. Original Klons have now become collectors items. As such, they are prohibitively expensive and start from prices around $5500/£4000 on sites like Reverb.
The good news though, is that there are a variety of Klon style pedals (often called Klones) which are available in a lower price range. And these pedals will help to add warmth and grit to you tone, whilst preserving the core tone of your guitar and amp.
I cover all of the Klon clones in more detail in this article here. However some of my top recommendations for transparent drives, are as follows:
The J.Rockett Archer and Electro-Harmonix Soul Food are both based on the Klon Centaur. Conversely, the JHS Morning Glory and Mooer Blues Crab are based on the Marshall Bluesbreaker pedal – another famous transparent drive pedal. These are just a few notable examples. There are a huge variety of these types of pedals, available in different price ranges.
A mid-hump overdrive behaves quite differently to one that is transparent. Mid-hump overdrives ‘colour’ your tone. They do not boost all parts of your signal equally. Specifically, they disproportionately boost the mid-range frequencies of your signal.
As such, they don’t greatly alter the bottom or top end of your sound. They won’t give your tone a fat bottom end, nor will they make the top end of your tone sharp or strident. They just make the mid-range really punch through.
The most famous and popular mid-hump overdrive pedal is the Ibanez Tube Screamer. It was a key part of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s set-up, and crucial in helping him craft his tone. The pedal has also been used by countless other blues and blues rock guitarists. This includes Gary Moore, John Mayer and Philip Sayce, amongst others.
If you are looking for a Tube Screamer or a Tube Screamer style pedal, then I cover some of the best options available here, as well as some of the most notable Tube Screamer clones and alternatives in this article here.
Mid-hump overdrive pedals are important for three main reasons, which are as follows:
Firstly, they can help you to ‘cut through the mix’ if you are playing in a live setting. The boost that this kind of pedal will give to your mids will help your guitar punch through. And this will stop you from getting drowned out by the bassist, another guitarist or a keyboardist. The last thing you want is to step on an overdrive pedal, ready to hit your big solo, only to find you get totally lost in the mix. And mid-hump overdrive pedals can really help here.
Secondly and significantly, mid-hump overdrives can help to compensate for any mids that might be lacking in your tone. For example, both Fender Stratocasters and Fender amps are renowned for lacking in the mids. Their tones are tight and well defined at the bottom end and bright and sparkly at the top. But in the middle they aren’t so well defined. So you end up with somewhat of a ‘scooped’ tone. Using a mid-hump overdrive pedal puts all of those mids back into the mix. This makes the sound of the Fender guitar and amp combination significantly warmer and fatter. It is a killer tone that is perfect for the blues.
Lastly, and significantly – using a mid-hump overdrive can help with gain stacking. This is because if you are not careful, stacking overdrives can leave you with an unfocused, muddy tone. This is a particular problem if you are playing in a band setting. Using a pedal with a pronounced mid-hump can add focus to a heavily overdriven sound. It is for this reason that in more recent years, pedals like the Tube Screamer have also become popular amongst heavy metal guitarists. These players use a lot of distortion, but they don’t want that distortion to sound mushy. So they place a mid-hump overdrive pedal in front of a high output amp to tighten up their sound.
This final category of overdrive pedal is a little less tightly defined than either of those above. This is partly because overdrive pedals are typically categorised by the type of tone they produce, rather than how many options they give you for sculpting that tone. It is also partly because most overdrive pedals – whether they give you a lot of options for changing your tone or not – are based on the circuitry of classic overdrive pedals like the Ibanez Tube Screamer, Klon Centaur and Marshall Bluesbreaker.
However despite that, I think it is worth including it as a separate category here. Most overdrive pedals have fairly basic EQ shaping controls. Yet there are those that come with options to shape the bass, treble and presence. And some pedals provide further options to alter the amount of gain in the signal and adjust the type of clipping the pedal produces.
When it comes to stacking overdrives, these features can all prove very helpful. As noted above, stacking overdrives is a brilliant way of creating a range of different tones. But it is not without its challenges. If you stack the wrong types of pedal into one another, or if you dial in too much gain on the pedals, you can end up with an unfocused and muddy tone.
Having the option to control and tweak your EQ helps to reduce this risk. You can increase the treble, reduce the bass and tighten up the mids etc. This gives you more control over your tone, and stops it from becoming too unruly, even as you increase the gain.
There are a huge range of ‘tweakable’ overdrives out there. And as noted above, these tweakable overdrives generally fall into one of the categories of overdrive pedal outlined in this article here. However some great options to consider if you are looking for this type of overdrive pedal are as follows:
- Wampler Pantheon Overdrive
- Mad Professor Sweet Honey Overdrive
- Friedman Golden Pearl Overdrive
- Origin Effects RevivalDRIVE
These are just some of the many different options out there. And in fact many of the overdrives out there that have a lot of options for tone tweaking, are dual overdrive pedals. These are a different category – and one which I cover in more detail below.
Transparent overdrive | Mid-hump overdrive
Now that we have established the broad categories of overdrive pedal that you might use when gain stacking, we can look in more detail at the order in which you can stack them.
The first and very effective approach when stacking overdrives, is to place a transparent overdrive first in the chain, followed by a mid-hump overdrive.
The transparent overdrive pedal helps you to sculpt your base tone. You can use it to add warmth and a bit of grit to your tone. And you can do this without fundamentally changing the sound of your guitar and amp.
When you then engage the mid-hump overdrive pedal after the transparent overdrive, you will add more gain and overdrive to your sound. The mid-hump will keep your tone focused, and stop it from becoming muddy. If you are playing in a live setting, that mid-hump will help your guitar punch through and ensure that you don’t get lost in the mix.
Transparent overdrive | Tweakable overdrive
Replacing the mid-hump overdrive with one that has more options for tonal tweaking can also work very well. This option makes a great choice for a number of reasons:
The first is if you want to cut through the mix and add focus to your tone, but you do not want such a pronounced mid-boost. As mentioned above, when played together – Fender Stratocasters and Fender amps can produce quite a ‘scooped’ tone, which is lacking in the mids. As such, mid-hump overdrives can help to put all of the mids that are missing, back into the mix.
If you are using a different set-up though, then that mid-boost might be more than you need or want. And so opting for a tweakable overdrive can work well here. You can still adjust the EQ to add focus to your tone, without it sounding so strong in the mids.
Using a tweakable overdrive in this position also gives you the option to sculpt and adjust your tone in different situations. For example, you might dial up the gain on the first overdrive pedal in your chain. And that in turn is likely to alter the balance in your sound. Alternatively, you might be playing using different guitars, pedals or even amps. As such, having a tweakable pedal allows you to adjust your EQ and give balance to your tone, even if you are altering or adjusting different elements of your set-up.
Adding extra gain stages
Up until this point, I have spoken only about stacking overdrive pedals. As mentioned earlier though, you can gain stack using different types of pedals, as well as by creating overdrive in your amp. Players like Gary Clark Jr. and Billy Gibbons for example, have both been known to stack fuzz pedals together to create some of their unruly fuzz tones.
To fully explore the many different ways you can ‘gain stack’ is beyond the scope of this article. However there are a couple of options that I am going to cover here. This is partly because they are simple to execute. It is also because they work very well within a blues and blues rock context.
The first of these, is by using your amp. If you have an amp with an overdrive channel – or if you can ‘push’ your amp into overdrive by cranking the volume, then you can create even more varied tones. You can use this as an extra gain stage, to add more drive and gain to your sound alongside overdrive pedals. Alternatively, you can keep your amp set to a clean tone, and have your drive sound coming from your pedals.
The second way of adding an extra gain stage to your signal chain, is by using a boost pedal. In my opinion, boost pedals are often overlooked by guitarists that are looking to dial in killer blues tones. Yet in the right context, they can not only enhance your tone, but also provide you with a further range of tone tweaking possibilities.
Let’s look at a couple of different ways that you can use a boost pedal – alongside your overdrive pedals – to add more gain to your sound, and also give you greater control over your tone.
Boost | Transparent overdrive | Mid-hump / Tweakable overdrive
The first way that I would recommend using a boost is at the front of your signal chain. There are a number of notable benefits of this approach. And these are as follows:
When you place a boost pedal in front of an overdrive pedal in your signal chain, you can create a more overdriven tone. And you can do this, without boosting your volume. 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. In other words, you can change your tone and make it more overdriven, without having to increase your volume. And this is significant, regardless of whether you are playing at home or in a live setting. If you stack multiple overdrives and a boost together, you can create some heavily overdriven and fairly unruly guitar tones. In fact, if you really crank the gain on your overdrive pedals, you can create a fuzz type guitar tone. You can see this being very effectively demonstrated from the 10.20 mark on this video here.
The second benefit, is that when you place a boost pedal in this position, you can use it to alter the sound of your overdrive pedal. For example, if you have a treble booster 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.
Lastly, adding a boost in this position gives you the option to create a range of beautiful and dynamic, low gain blues tones. You can use your boost pedal to create your core guitar tone. If you then engage your transparent overdrive, you will thicken up your tone, without colouring it too much.
Transparent overdrive | Mid-hump / Tweakable overdrive | Boost
Conversely, you can place a boost pedal last in your signal chain. In this position, engaging your boost will cause your volume to increase. It won’t cause any additional gain or compression in your overdrive pedals. It will just make your overdrive pedals 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 a boost pedal after the overdrive pedals in your chain can work 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.
If you enjoy looking for and researching new guitar pedals, constantly tweaking your tone and adjusting your pedalboard in search of new tones, then I hope the different configurations and suggestions above help give you ideas on how to construct your set-up.
However if you are looking to take a simpler approach, then the thought of having to spend so much time experimenting with different pedals and adjusting your pedalboard might put you off the idea of stacking overdrives.
If that is the case, then I would recommend looking at dual overdrive pedals.
Dual overdrive pedals take some of the guess work out of gain stacking for you. They do this by combining two different circuits in a single pedal enclosure. There are a lot of variations of dual overdrives. As such, it it is always worth looking at these pedals in depth before you buy one. Broadly speaking though, dual overdrives tend to be comprised of either two complimentary overdrive pedals, or an overdrive pedal and a boost pedal. Often, when these pedals combine two different overdrive pedal circuits, they are based on ‘classic’ pedal circuits.
So, instead of having to worry about which types of pedal will be best suited to the different configurations listed above – you just need to decide whether you want two overdrive circuits, or an overdrive pedal and a boost pedal. And then you can buy a dual overdrive pedal.
There are a large number of these types of pedal out there. But some of my top recommendations are as follows:
- JHS Double Barrel V4 Dual Overdrive
- Strymon Sunset Dual Overdrive
- Analog Man King Of Tone
- The King Tone Duellist
- ZVEX Box Of Rock
It is worth noting that these pedals are not only suitable for players who favour simplicity. As noted above, these pedals often have a wide range of different tone tweaking switches and options. So if you are looking for a lot of control over your sound and you want that to come from a single pedal, then one of these dual overdrive pedals could make a great addition to your rig.
Some closing thoughts…
Well there we have it, the fundamentals of stacking overdrives, and some practical recommendations to help you get started.
I hope that this article has helped to illustrate the multitude of benefits offered by gain stacking. It really is one of the best ways to craft a range of beautiful and dynamic blues guitar tones. It gives you a lot of control over your tone, and endless possibilities of adjusting that tone.
As such, it is worth pointing out that the information outlined above is intended as a guide. Use it to get started and to give focus – either to your search for new pedals, or to the configuration of your existing pedals on your pedalboard.
Beyond that though, experiment and have fun!
Stacking overdrives provides almost endless options for altering and crafting your tone. And this is particularly the case if you add a boost pedal into the mix, and alter the settings on your guitar and amp. So don’t be afraid to try out a variety of different configurations and settings. It could help you create the tone for which you have been searching.
Good luck! And if you have any questions at all I can help with, just pop them in the comments below or send them over to [email protected] I’d love to help.
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