Guitar Pedals Explained (Part 2): Gain

Gain is defined as an increase (or reduction) in signal strength. Sometimes, gain-based guitar pedals do it with high fidelity regarding the input signal, meaning that the guitar tone remains unaltered but boosted.

But most of the time (yeah), they add some juice to the tone, creating amazing textures for your light, crunchy rhythms, thick power chords, or the dirtiest leads.

You can think of the electrical signal coming out of the guitar as a pure sine wave. That is not really true, as the real signal does include tons of sine waves at different frequencies that add up, which gives it its characteristic sound. However, it is a good and simple way you can visualize what occurs.

Now imagine you add some gain to this signal (you amplify it). You will have an exact copy of the input signal but increased in amplitude (i.e., strength). You have a boost pedal here.

What happens if you add more gain? It will be a certain point (called threshold) where the signal will start clipping. The amplitude of the output sine wave can’t be higher, so it gets saturated. And what’s that? Yes, distortion. You now have an overdrive pedal.

How about adding even more gain? Well, the signal clips more, and the resulting output sine wave starts looking very different from a pure sine wave. The amplitude gets more saturated, and you have more distortion. Here you have your distortion pedal.

Add more gain!! The output signal can get to a point where it gets so saturated that it can be seen as a square wave. Now you have something like a fuzz pedal.

Why can the sound of the pedal be so different from others from the same family? Why does an Ibanez Tube Screamer TS-808 sound differently from a Klon Centaur? Well, apart from the fact that the electronic circuits are different, the way that the clipped part of the waveform looks is different in both cases.

You may have symmetrical clipping (i.e., the signal gets saturated identically at both high and low peaks) or asymmetrical clipping. You can also change the shape of the saturated region in many different forms.

The elements in charge of making the signal clip in gain-based electronics circuits are Opamps (that include a few transistors) and diodes. Even with the same Opamp from different manufacturers, you will notice a difference in the sound. Change the type of clipping diodes, and you will definitely notice how the sound changes. Check out the youtube video of a Klon Centaur clone with a few different clipping diodes. Which one did you like the most?

There are different types of gain-based pedals, depending on both the amount of gain and tone (due to signal shaping) they give to the guitar’s signal:

  1. Compressor pedals boost (or reduce) both the attack and decay of the signal, compressing it.
  2. Boost pedals boost the signal, normally without distorting it.
  3. Overdrive pedals add more gain and add some distortion, just like a cranked tube amp does naturally.
  4. Distortion pedals add even more “natural” distortion, just like if you fully crank a stacked high-wattage tube amp.
  5. Fuzz pedals add extreme distortion and amp-broken-like sound.

Compressor Pedals

As their name indicates, compressor pedals compress the input signal by smoothing the attack of the note and sustaining its decay, reducing the dynamic range of the input signal. This way, the sound of the guitar becomes a little thicker. In addition, there is less variation from note-to-note (and from note-to-chord) volume, which makes the sound more even and tight.

MXR vintage Dyna Comp

Sometimes you won’t even notice the presence of a compressor pedal because you can’t hear any “artificial” boosting in the attack or in the decay of the sound, but you’d tell it’s there anyway. Stomp on the pedal, switch it off, and you will miss its presence.

A Little History About Compressor pedals

Desktop compressor units have been present in all racks of any recording studio. With the appearance of solid-state electronics, transistors substituted vacuum tubes and smaller versions of compressors as stompboxes emerged.

First compressor stompboxes were very simple devices, designed around a basic Opamp IC with a few transistors, resistors, and capacitors in there. However, compression circuits were a little more complex than other gain-based pedals, such as boosters and fuzzes.

Among the old pedals that started delighting guitarists with their compression effect in the sixties, you must credit the Ross CompressorMXR Dyna Comp, and Dan Armstrong Orange Squeezer. Today you can find modern (and vintage) reissues of old-school pedals or copies of them made by boutique brands.

Controls and Features

You can find hundreds of compressor pedals. Most of them are very simple devices and include just one or two controls. However, you can also see more complex devices, including a few more knobs that allow you to tweak the sound even further.

These are the typical features you may expect to control with the knobs of a compressor pedal:

  • Attack. Adjusts the strength of the picking attack. Increasing its value (usually turning the knob clockwise) will result in a sharper attack, creating a more clearly defined sound.
  • Sustain. Adjusts the strength of the decay of the sound. Turn the knob clockwise, and you will increase the sustain of your guitar.

Do I need a compressor guitar pedal?

If you like the kind of compression that tube amplifiers apply to the sound, you may like to use a compressor pedal to get a similar effect at lower volumes.

Compression comes very handily when playing in a band, so don’t hesitate to try one and bring it to your next rehearsal. You will notice the difference.

If you are into funk and/or soul music, you NEED a compressor pedal. There is no way you can get those funky guitars without one of those.

Boost Pedals

Boost pedals simply increase the strength of the input signal. They are normally transparent, meaning that they boost the signal strength without distorting it.

They are great as a kind of High Fidelity preamps, providing the signal with a level ready to rock when driving a tube amp. Sometimes they are used to simply increase the volume without coloring the sound of the guitar.

However, some booster models can add a little distortion when turned all the way up. They can even fatten the sound, adding more presence to your solo.

A Little History about Boost Pedals

In the mid-sixties, when fuzz pedals were rocking on every stage, some guitarists started asking for some means of boosting the signal in order to drive the tube amplifiers harder at higher volumes, with no change in the sound (like fuzz did).

It was Electro Harmonix and its LPB1 booster, with its simple circuit based on a single transistor, the first one available on the market. It was a huge success, which contributed to other brands starting to start producing similar stompboxes.

In the seventies, other pedals appeared, too, such as the MXR Micro Amp and Dan Armstrong’s Red Ranger, contributing to the popularity of boosters among guitarists.

From there on, other brands started producing boosters. Today, there are lots of boost pedals on the market. Some of them are very transparent, others tend to color the sound, making it a little thicker or brighter, and others add a little distortion. Plenty of options for your particular taste.

Controls and Features

Some models have controls for changing the tone of the sound (bass, treble, etc.), but you can expect boost pedals to be very simple stompboxes:

  • Boost. Boost, level, volume, you name it. The main knob of any boost pedal controls the level of the boost in the signal strength. Turn it clockwise, and the volume of your guitar will rise.

Do I need a boost pedal?

Well, I would say that a boost pedal fits in any pedalboard. If you are a jazz player, you may need some extra volume in your clean tone for soloing. On the other hand, you are looking for a warmer and crunchy tone in your overdrive or distortions. Add a boost pedal to your tube amp or overdrive pedal, and you’ll definitely find the difference.

In addition to that, it can result in a versatile and handy choice within large pedalboards, as the effect of boosting the signal also copes with signal (i.e., level and tone) loss due to long signal chains, similar to a buffer does.

Due to their simplicity, boost pedals are usually cheaper than other stompboxes (within the $100 price range) and fit any music style, so get one of those!

By the way, the answer is yes. You DO need a boost pedal!

Overdrive Pedals

Overdrive pedals are, by no means, the most popular of guitar pedals. They provide a higher gain than boosters, usually emulating the effect of a semi-cranked (or even fully-cranked) vintage tube amp.

There is a huge variety of different models that give infinite flavors to the guitar tone, as they don’t simply increase the gain of the signal but introduce sweet different harmonic distortion into it.

They are great to use with clean amplifiers to add a little crunchy bright tone, but you can get most of them by driving a cranked tube amplifier even harder. Just like tube amps be like!

A Little History About Overdrive Pedals

Overdrive pedals were born to emulate the sound of a cranked tube amplifier. For this reason, they appear later than other gain-based pedals.

The godfather of overdrive pedals is, without any doubt, the Ibanez Tube Screamer TS-808. Most of the overdrives you can find now in the market are either copy of the pedal or modified circuits based on the original model.

Other vintage overdrives have (and still are) very popular, too, like the MXR distortion + or the Klon Centaur. This one uses a very different circuit and is considered the holy grail of overdrive pedals. It was discontinued a long time ago, and you will need $2.000+ on eBay to get one.

The mystery of this pedal is that the circuitry was covered with black epoxy to prevent it from being copied. However, you can find a few models that claim to be exact clones of the Klone made by both mainstream and boutique manufacturers.

You might think that vintage overdrives do not have enough drive or add a little (but holy sweet) distortion. Actual overdrives can be very dirty and can also be seen as distortion pedals. You can even find models with more than one channel, including different levels of drive, which makes them very convenient when playing live.

Controls and Features

As overdrive pedals are the most popular (by no means) guitar pedals, the are tons of brands and millions of different models. Some of them may be populated with lots of features and different channels, but any of them includes the following controls:

  • Volume. This knob sets the volume of the effect, as simple as that.
  • Drive. Here comes the juice of its sound. This knob controls the amount of gain applied to the signal so that it starts clipping and gets a little distorted. Turn it all the way up, and you will rock with the sound of an overdriven tube amplifier.
  • Tone. This knob changes the tone of the sound, usually equalizing mid frequencies. You can go from low-mid heavier sounds to a high-mid warmer bluesy character with this control.

Do I need an overdrive pedal?

YES. Lots of them. No doubt here!

Distortion Pedals

Add more gain into the equation, and you will get more distortion. The range of distortion obtained with these pedals goes from the one you can get from a fully-cranked tube amp to very extreme metal-like thick sounds.

Just like overdrives, distortion pedals are very popular among guitarists, and there is no reason at all not to have a couple of distortion pedals on your pedalboard.

A Little History on Distortion Pedals

Like overdrive pedals, distortion stompboxes were created to emulate higher levels of distortion generated naturally by high wattage tube amplifiers.

The ProCo Rat can be considered the first distortion pedal, which took the level of distortion of vintage overdrives (like the Tube Screamer TS-808 and MXR Distortion +) way up dirtier.

With the evolution of heavier sounds starting from the late seventies, some distortion pedals go beyond standard distortion sounds. Modifying the contour and reducing mids while increasing the brightness of the tone, you will get into metal.

From classic rock to death metal, the variety of distortions you can generate with distortion pedals is infinite.

Controls and Features

Distortion pedals contain very similar features and controls to overdrives, so you may expect to see similar controls here.

  • Volume. This knob sets the volume of the effect, as simple as that.
  • Distortion. Similar to the drive knob of overdrive pedals, this knob controls the amount of gain applied to the signal so that it clips and gets distorted. Turn it all the way up, and you will rock with the sound of a (fully) cranked tube amplifier.
  • Tone. This knob changes the tone of the sound, usually equalizing mid frequencies. You can go from low-mid heavier sounds to a high-mid warmer bluesy character with this control.

Do I need a distortion pedal?

You may think that you don’t need a distortion pedal because you are very happy with the distortion you get from the dirty channel of your tube amp.

Well, that might be ok, but you do love guitar pedals, don’t you? You can get many different distortions sounds with different pedals. You can even obtain the typical distortion of your favorite amplifier, so there is plenty of versatility here. Get a few.

If you like distortion and you like rock or heavier sounds, add a few distortion pedals to your collection!

Fuzz Pedals

A fuzzed tone can be way different from other classic distorted sounds. It gives a very thick, compressed saturated sound with endless sustain. Fuzz really changes the shape of the input signal, producing a sound that is similar to a broken amp.

Turn up the volume of a tube amplifier, and you will hear a sweet overdrive when it starts to break up. Turn it all the way up, and you will have distortion.

Now remove one of the paired output tubes, bias the preamp tubes with the wrong values, and make a hole in the cone of the loudspeaker with a screwdriver. Crank your amp all the way up. That is fuzz.

Dunlop JDF2 Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face

You have to notice, though, that you may find some fuzz pedals that are, in reality, distortion pedals. Fuzz is more than distortion; it goes a step further in the level of “dirtiness.”

A Little History on Fuzz Pedals

Fuzz pedals are “the godfather” of guitar pedals. It was the early sixties, and solid-state electronics were taking over traditional vacuum tube-based circuits. Put one or two transistors with a few resistors and capacitors into a stompbox, and you got a fuzz.

Early fuzz models include Maestro Fuzz ToneSola Sound Tone Blender, and Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face. Even though the last one came later, it can be considered a pure myth. Why? Because of him: Jimmy Hendrix.

This model has been widely cloned (in both circuitry and shape), and it is sold by many different brands. You can distinguish it not just by its tone but also because of its smiley face and fuzzy face.

They have initially used in their circuits Germanium transistors, which made them poorly reliable. There was a huge dispersion between transistors, which made different exact pedals sound different. It even happens today with fuzz faces.

Modern fuzzes use Silicon transistors, whose sound is considered to be harsher, to experiment with newer sound.

But the majority of manufacturers still dig on the old school Germanium transistors, not only to recreate vintage-style fuzz tones but to experiment with new kinds of fuzzy sounds.

Controls and Features

As with previous gain-based pedals, you may expect to be able to control how the effect blends with the original sound (or any other means to vary the volume of the effect) and the amount of fuzz. These are the most common knobs included in the majority of fuzz pedals:

  • Volume. This knob sets the level (volume) of the effect, as simple as that. In some cases, you may find a blend knob to control how the fuzzed sound mix with the original.
  • Fuzz. This knob controls the amount of gain applied to the signal. In this case, the signal doesn’t just clip; it gets a squared-like shape instead. Turn it all the way up, and you will hear a broken (but sweet) amplifier.
  • Tone. This knob changes the tone of the sound, usually equalizing mid frequencies.

Do I need a fuzz pedal?

No, you don’t need a fuzz pedal. But, when you play guitar, and you like Jimi Hendrix, don’t you? If you want to emulate his sound or just love dirty thick fuzzy sounds, try one and play the guitar intro of “Satisfaction” by Rolling Stones. Did you enjoy it? Buy it!

jimi hendrix

Here is the complete list of posts of this “guitar pedals explained” series:

I always loved guitar effects and music. My effort is constantly directed towards new and innovative products that will make your job easier, help you develop your skills further and spark your creativity, while trying to keep the cost within reasonable bounds.