When I was younger, I absolutely refused to play with pedals: stompboxes, distortions, overdrives, boosters: anything that would make your amp go to ’11.’ I simply didn’t want to understand why you should or would use them. “I always chose my amps based on their ability to crunch and the voice of the overdrive, so why bother,” I thought. “Wanna have more distortion? Crank up the gain pot of your amp. Not enough gain? Wrong amp!” It was that simple for me. My turn-around point came somewhere last year. I saw more players use the backline of a venue or the house PA with a bunch of pedals in front of them, and sometimes with a tiny 15 watt tube amp with a nice clean sound. I couldn’t see why that approach had benefits until I borrowed a few pedals to see how that worked. So, let’s take a look at how stompboxes worked for me.
Stompboxes to add flavor to an amp
An amp can often have a great tone by itself but sometimes could use just a little extra. Maybe the tone is too bland or needs a bit more ‘oomph,’ and one or two well-picked pedals can make a huge difference. Sometimes your amp is super-well suited for rhythm: it’s chunky, it’s powerful and it’s tight but the lead channel is too gritty. A traditional overdrive pedal can make all the difference. It gives my rhythm tone a bit of a power boost without a bunch of gain or without changing my base tone too much. And sometimes it’s the other way around: the lead tone can be a little sloppy, chunky and woofy in the lows or just too saggy in general, but add an overdrive for rhythm and Shazam! My rhythm sound is tighter with more punch and much more articulation. I turn it off for my lead tones, since I like it a bit more chewy in the lead. It’s exactly the other way around but hey: whatever works.
Pedals to create more flavors of overdrive
Another way of using pedals is to get more ‘flavors’ of crunch, overdrive or distortion from one amp. You could use one basic tone and use pedals that create a boosted signal that only needs to be amplified on a base overdrive. For example, the Seymour Duncan Dirty Deed Distortion Pedal. That pedal’s got so many options and possibilities to tweak your tone. It creates a boosted signal that works with an already dirty tone very well. You can also use it to boost a tube amp’s clean tone to the max and get a great overdriven sound out of that.
If you’re using a clean amp that needs to be overdriven you could also do it another way: a preamp pedal. A preamp pedal often uses a tube in its preamp circuit to distort the tone and is often a bit larger than a stompbox. Guthrie Govan is a major fan of this method: he uses several boosts and preamp pedals to get his tone. He sets his Victory V10 ‘The Baron’ amp up for a clean tone and gets his overdrive, distortion, lead and effects from pedals. He seems to be the king of getting a huge tone out of a small rig. He wants to be able pack his ‘tone’ in a suitcase, hop on a plane and be done with it!
Wether you want to add a bit of flavor to your amp or simply run an amp clean and get your overdrives from pedals, I learned that pedals can add so much more to your tonal palette and can go perfectly well next to my favorite amps, the amps I’ve been using for so long.