Of all of the different guitar pedals out there, the humble boost pedal is one of the most underrated. A lot of blues guitarists add overdrive, fuzz and wah-wah pedals to their boards before they even consider using a boost. And many guitarists neglect boost pedals altogether. Yet adding a boost pedal to your rig will work wonders for your tone. It will also give you flexibility and control over your volume. And this is valuable, regardless of the context in which you are playing.
It isn’t a surprise though that so few guitarists use boost pedals.
There are so many different guitar pedals out there to choose from. It is difficult to know which pedals will work for you and even more difficult to understand exactly what each pedal does. You can end up with lots of different pedals on your board, without knowing exactly why they are there, or how they all fit together.
To help with this, I wanted to put together a ‘Bluesman’s Guide’ to some of the most common guitar pedals. And I wanted to start with the boost pedal. So today I’ll cover the different types of boost pedal out there and the key things you need to know about them. In my next article I’ll run through some of the best boost pedals on the market, in a range of different budgets and styles. Finally, I’ll cover your pedalboard, where you should place a boost pedal in your signal chain and how to maximise your set up.
So sit back, relax, and prepare to immerse yourself in the beautiful world of blues tone. Without further ado, here is everything you need to know about the different types of boost pedal out there:
The Basics Of Boost Pedals
Before we look at the different types of boost pedal, it is important to have a basic understanding of how they work.
In essence, boost pedals all perform the same primary function. They take the signal from your guitar and intensify it, before the signal reaches your amp.
Whilst this sounds simple, in the context of your rig, it isn’t quite so straightforward. The function that a boost pedal performs and how it shapes your tone depends on a whole range of different factors. Some of the most important of these are:
- The type of boost pedal you are using
- The guitar and amp you are using
- Where you place the boost pedal in your signal chain
If you want to get the most out of your boost pedal, or if you want to figure out which type of boost pedal is right for you, these factors all need to be considered. And the best place to start, is by looking at the different types of boost available.
There are innumerable different types of boost pedal on the market, each with their own features and quirks. But having said that, there are 5 broad categories of boost pedal. These are as follows:
This is the original form of the boost pedal and the simplest in its design. All of the other categories of pedal listed here either expand upon the circuitry of this pedal, or adapt it to fulfil slightly different needs. So it is worth understanding how a clean boost works, and why you might want to add it to your rig. We can then look at the other types of boost in comparison to a clean boost pedal.
A clean boost pedal amplifies the signal from your guitar, but does so without clipping your signal. This means that the basic tone of your guitar and amp are preserved.
There are a vast number of ways to use this type of boost pedal. But 4 of the main ways are as follows:
1.) To increase your volume. If you are playing in a live setting, it is imperative that the audience can hear you. And using a clean boost for solos or lead work can really help. When you step on the boost, it will amplify your signal and you will cut right through the mix.
2.) To push your amp. If you have set your guitar amp up so that it’s on the edge of breakup, then a clean boost will drive that signal harder, creating more overdrive. If you use this with the right amp and guitar, this will produce a beautiful and warm blues tone.
3.) To boost the volume of an overdrive or distortion pedal. You can use a clean boost if you have used an overdrive or distortion pedal to shape your base tone. Especially in a live setting, there will be times where you want to cut through the mix, whilst preserving your tone. When you step on the boost, it will amplify your signal, without altering your tone.
4.) To push your overdrive pedal. You can use a clean boost to drive the signal of your overdrive or distortion pedal harder, without adding any extra volume. This works very well if you have used an overdrive or distortion pedal for your base tone, but you want more overdrive for a particular section in a song. When you step on the boost it will push the pedal, without changing your volume.
I will run through the specifics on how you can use your boost pedal in these different ways in my next article. For now though, it is just important to understand that a clean boost pedal has these different functions. And hopefully you can see that despite their simplicity – clean boost pedals can do a lot, both for your tone and for the versatility and function of your rig.
Having said that, depending on what you are looking for, a clean boost might not be the best option. And this is where it is worth looking at the other categories of boost pedal listed here.
The first and arguably most popular alternative to the clean boost is the treble boost. Treble boost pedals first came into prominence in England in the mid 1960s. Guitarists were predominantly using Vox and Marshall amps, which were naturally quite ‘dark’ sounding. When they added a boost pedal it amplified all of the frequencies of their rig, including the bass. This gave them a muddy sound that didn’t really cut through the mix.
Treble boost pedals were created to solve this problem. Like clean boost pedals, treble boosts amplify the overall signal from your guitar. The difference is that they roll off the lower frequencies and disproportionately amplify the mids and top end frequencies.
So they do a brilliant job of cutting through the mix. This is especially true if you are using an amp that doesn’t have a bright top end. They also help to sculpt your tone. Rory Gallagher famously used a Dallas Rangemaster treble booster to attain his fiery blues tones. And a number of other British guitarists – including Eric Clapton and Brian May – have used treble boost pedals to great effect. So if you are looking for a more overdriven, British blues sound, a treble boost pedal could be a great addition to your rig.
Just check first that it makes sense within the context of your set up. If you have a naturally bright sounding guitar like a Fender Strat, and you pair that with a naturally bright sounding amp – like a Fender – you could end up creating a very sharp and piercing tone. But pair a treble booster with the right amp and guitar, and you’ll get some killer vintage blues tones.
As technology and guitar gear has advanced, so has our desire for shaping our tone. And this is why EQ boost pedals were created. In essence, an EQ boost pedal expands on the technology used in treble boosters. The key difference is that here you have the option to shape all of the different frequencies of your signal.
The extent to which you can shape your EQ varies between pedals. But generally speaking these boost pedals give you the option to adjust the bass, mids and treble in your signal.
As a result, this type of boost pedal gives you more tonal flexibility. So if you enjoy constantly tweaking and playing around with your tone, this could be a great addition to your rig.
Conversely, if you favour simplicity, I would suggest that you would be better suited to one of the other styles of boost pedal listed here.
So far, the boost pedals listed here have been quite subtle in the way they shape your tone. None of the pedals fundamentally change the sound of either your guitar or amp. They boost your guitar’s signal, and allow you to sculpt your tone through adjustments to your EQ.
This is not the case with pre-amp boost pedals. These pedals boost your signal, but they also ‘colour‘ your sound at the same time. This is because they introduce an altogether different circuit into your signal chain. Depending on which pedal you opt for, this can result in anything from a light compression to a total change in your guitar’s voicing.
As a result, these pedals are often used slightly differently. Many guitarists will have a pre-amp boost as an ‘always on’ pedal. They use it to beef their sound up and get a soft, slightly overdriven blues tone. They use this as as their base tone. Then, if they want to boost their signal further, they ‘stack’ their pre-amp with an additional clean or treble boost pedal.
If you currently feel that your tone is a little thin, then a pre-amp pedal could be a brilliant addition to your rig.
Last but certainly not least, we have ‘dirty’ boost pedals. Whilst I am not sure that is the technical name – it best describes their function. These are boost pedals that behave in a way that is more similar to overdrive or distortion pedals.
Typically they are made using a greater number of transistors than a clean boost pedal, and so they can be pushed harder.
Set on a low gain, these pedals act and sound like a clean boost. In the middle gain stages, you end up with a great sounding ‘always on’ pedal. Then on the higher gain settings, you can achieve some very heavy and overdriven tones with these pedals.
The more simplistic dirty boost pedals, amplify all of the frequencies in your signal equally. So depending on your set up, these pedals can make your tone a little unruly. To counter that, a lot of pedal designers have produced dirty boost pedals that also have EQ shaping controls. These offer a lot of flexibility and would make a great addition to your rig if you want more control over your tone, and you also favour a slightly heavier blues tone.
Well there we have it, the main categories of boost pedal that you need to know about. Adding one of these to your rig will be a great way to improve your tone. And I hope that the advice here helps you to pick the specific type of pedal that will work best for you.
Good luck – and keep an eye out for my next article, where I will cover all of the ways to get killer tones out of your boost pedal 🙂