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Playing a tube amp is sort of like listening to your favorite album on vinyl, or driving a 1966 Mustang to work. It’s not the simple way, or the cheap way. It’s probably not the most efficient or even effective way. But it’s the classy way. Certain things are timeless- even if they are messy or imperfect. All those characteristics- imperfection, fussiness, depth, individuality- combine to create beauty, pure and simple.
Fender makes solid-state amps that sound nearly indistinguishable from their classic tube models. Solid-state amps make so much sense in so many ways. Cheaper, more durable, more flexible, louder. But still, musicians fall over themselves to pay 5-10x as much to buy a reissue Fender Deluxe, or an original 1960s Fender Deluxe, rather than a solid state amp. Even if they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference in a blind listening test. Even though they are committing to a relatively high-maintenance and delicate amp.
When it comes down to it, nothing compares with that beautiful, rich, organic tone of a tube amp. And the “imperfections” and limitations are all part of the musicality. A tube amp doesn’t just make your guitar louder, even if that is the task it was designed to accomplish. A tube amp must be “played” as an extension of your instrument. Depending on the exact combination of settings, and the way you play into it, the tone will vary infinitely. A solid state amp shouts, a tube amp sings.
Tube Amp Overdrive
Taming a tube amp’s tone is a bit like riding a wild horse. Sometimes you want to get lost in the moment and let the amp take you along. But if you are trying to make some damn music, sometimes you want to take control. Overdrive pedals are a great attribute for tube amp players for this reason.
Overdriven tones from tube amps are really a happy accident- one of the happiest in history. A guitar amplifier was designed to do just that- take a clean guitar tone, and make it louder. Don’t forget, they were designed with swing and country bands in mind, predating rock and roll by a decade or two. But rock and roll history could arguably begin with the first person to turn up a tube amp “too far.” You know, far enough to get distortion, a brand new, exciting, rebellious tone.
But that’s just it- natural overdrive in tube amps is relatively uncontrolled and unpredictable. In terms of gain, early tube amps only had a single master volume knob. So the only way to crank the overdrive tone, was to crank the overall volume. Many modern tube amps provide much greater flexibility with separate gain and master volume knobs- so you can play loudly and cleanly, or quietly and fuzzy.
Overdrive Pedals with Tube Amps
Enter the overdrive pedal. Combined with a tube amp, an overdrive pedal allows you to boost your gain and enhance your tone, separately from the amp’s output level. The overdrive pedal is probably the most basic and essential pedal to pair with a tube amp, allowing you to craft your tone with intention, to deepen it. If playing a tube amp is like showing up to work in a first-gen Mustang, then adding an overdrive pedal is like tuning up the Mustang and giving it a new coat of paint. Every ounce of class and style, but immaculately presented.
Overdrive, Distortion, and Fuzz
These terms bear untangling. Musicians could be forgiven for confounding them. But all three are actually distinct, and worth being able to distinguish. Overdrive, distortion, and fuzz pedals basically form a continuum of mellow to harsh, subtle to extreme.
Overdrive pedals are meant to create, or imitate, the sound of a cranked tube amp. It’s a soft clip distortion. When used on lower settings, it’s barely distinguishable form bumping the gain. Pushed higher, overdrive adds layers of harmonic distortion. The original tone of the amp and guitar is preserved, but enhanced. It adds to your tone without replacing it. And much like playing through a tube amp sans pedals, the tone varies as you play harder or softer. Overdrive pedals are melodic and dynamic. They are most associated with blues, rock, country, and similar aesthetics. Though they are incredibly versatile, and can add depth in just about any context.
Fuzz and distortion, on the other hand, create a harder clip. They alter your original tone, distort it and make it noisier. These pedals have a more aggressive, less subtle tone. Dynamic expression is lost to brute power. Think more hardcore punk, metal, wailing solos, you know the sound.
Great Overdrive Pedals to Pair with Tube Amps
So if you’re a tube fanatic and you are looking for the right overdrive pedal to introduce into your chain, here are some of your best options- from the famous to the obscure, mass-produced to artisanal.
Ibanez Tube Screamer
I can’t help but begin with the Tube Screamer, the essential overdrive pedal (also available in an appealing mini-me version now!)l. First of all, I love its look, which is dripping with the 70s techno aesthetic that is, in this case, totally authentic. Beyond that, this pedal has achieved a similar level of importance as an overdrive pedal as the Telecaster for rhythm country guitar, or Neumann U87 for vocal mics. The word “ubiquitous” or “essential” comes to mind.
The Tube Screamer is known for its warm mid-boost and distinct yet familiar tone. Mr Ray Vaughn was on the forefront of popularizing it, but now its list of fans reads like a who’s-who of guitarists. With the Tube Screamer’s history, respectability, and friendly price-point, it makes an ideal first overdrive pedal to pair with your tube amp. I listened to some demos of this pedal played through tube amps, and was impressed. When the pedal is activated, the tone remains recognizable, but its character changes. It’s like changing the guitar’s tone from a mild-mannered suggestion to an assertive command. The Tube Screamer gives that tube amp sound serious presence, but maintains that gorgeous tube quality.
Contrasting with the warm, traditional tone of the Tube Screamer, maybe you want something a little more modern. More bite, more power. If you’re playing through a tube amp, this kind of context is not really where the amps shine- it’s more a task for a hefty solid-state amp, usually. But if you pair your tube amp with a Fulltone OCD, prepare to be pleasantly surprised. This pedal has a character that borders between overdrive and distortion.
Played through a tube amp, the tone maintains the characteristic warmth and depth, but with the tone knob cranked, the pedal adds a deliciously aggressive edge. The result is a deep, powerful tone that would sound particularly at home in alt rock. Great for marrying a trad and modern approach. And with the separate volume and drive knobs, you can get lost in the tone possibilities. Note: the pedal is indeed labeled with comic sans font. Try to ignore it, or find the humor in it.
The beauty of the modern music gear scene is that you can go as corporate or as artisanal as you please. For every behemoth like Fender and Gibson are dozens of one- or two-person operations, making tiny runs of carefully-crafted and unique gear. In particular, boutique makers flock to guitar pedals.
The Klon Centaur is an odd story. It’s probably the other most famous overdrive pedal, alongside the Tube Screamer, but in a vastly different way. The Centaur was known for a gorgeous “transparent” overdrive tone, meaning it preserved the original tone contour while magically enhancing it. But only about eight thousand were made before it was discontinued, and its cult status has only intensified since. Go on Reverb and wonder how any pedal could be worth over $1500. Or, thank your diety of choice that boutique makers exist to fill the gap.
RYRA, or Rock Your Repaired Amplifier, is a husband-and-wife team working out of a barn-workshop deep in Texas. With the obligatorily-named Klone they have crafted an impeccable Klon imitator for a fraction of the price.
Listen for yourself. Adding the Klone is like adding salt to food. It’s like turning on a light in a dim room. All of a sudden, the entire experience is just more vibrant. An excellent pedal to unlock the musicality of your tube amp!
Xotic SL Drive
Back to the aggressive end of the spectrum, but a different approach from the Fulltone OCD. The Xotic SL Drive is somehow very aggressive and very musical. Its tone reminds me of Woodstock and late-60s fuzz players. It’s big, saturated, in-your-face. Yet it has these surprisingly subtle warbling undertones, and still carries your tone’s initial character beneath all that saturation. If you’re after a hard-rock or blues-rock tone, with one foot in the delta and the other in the stadium, check out the SL Drive!
TC Electronics MojoMojo
My main motivation to include the MojoMojo, is that I can’t believe how good it sounds for such an affordable pedal. This list is populated with alternatives at 3-4x the price of the humble MojoMojo. I won’t pretend this pedal is quite as brilliant, or versatile, or distinct as the others on this list. But it sounds great, and really shines on a tube amp. The MojoMojo has a delicious mid-60s tone that seems to sing with your playing. It’s particularly rich and full, particularly if you dial the bass knob all the way up.
When you marry an overdrive pedal to your tube amp, you’ll probably never divorce them! You’ll wonder how you got by before. With the right overdrive to complement your style, prepare to get lost in the world of shaping your tone to perfection. Like a perfectly seasoned broth, your new rig will spice up anything you play through it. So don’t be afraid to put the time and money into finding your pedal, because the payoff is so worth it! Keep working, and feel the joy of the music!
Robert is a freelance audio engineer and the lead writer for Range of Sounds. Robert has had a lifelong obsession with dissecting and understanding music and is a self-taught composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and recording engineer.