Stacking drive pedals is an art unto itself. In this post I’ll demonstrate a couple of pedals that I use, and give you some ideas about what kind of sounds you can get with them in various combinations.
What’s the Point?
What’s the point of stacking drive pedals? Well, it could be to get more overdrive and/or distortion than you could easily obtain from just one pedal, or it could be to change the type of overdrive you get from your rig. For me, most pedals have enough gain so it’s not a question of the quantity of overdrive as much as it is the quality. Stacking pedals gives you the opportunity to change the flavour of dirt as well as the amount.
I’m using three different pedals – a Fuzz Face Mini, a Maxon OD-9, and an Xotic RC Booster. These are all quite different in terms of gain, tonality and dynamic response. I’m running them into a THD Flexi 50 set for some mild overdrive. I’m using a Fender Stratocaster with three single-coil pickups. To me, guitars with single-coils are the ones that have the most to gain (no pun intended) from stacking.
The Fuzz Face has a soft and squishy response with a huge and slightly unmanageable low end. It’s by far the most difficult to control of the pedals here, and requires judicious use of the volume control on your guitar. It’s also legendary for its pickiness when it comes to the type of signal it is fed. For these reasons you’d want to place it first in your signal chain.
As one of the many tubescreamer versions on the market, the Maxon OD-9 has the classic combination of medium gain, a significant mid-boost paired with a light bottom, and a somewhat compressed dynamic response. Compared to the Fuzz Face it’s a lot easier to control, feels a bit stiffer to play but cuts through a mix a lot better. It’s not as picky about its placement in the signal chain and has a more, well, tube-like sound than the typically transistorised rasp from the Fuzz Face.
Finally there’s the RC Booster – fittingly also the pedal that’s placed last in the signal chain. This is basically a clean boost, but with the added benefit of a two-band tone control along with the ability to add a tiny amount of overdrive. It’s not a pedal that attracts as much attention as the other two. It doesn’t have the extreme low end and crackling grittiness of the Fuzz Face, and it sounds a lot more open and neutral than the honky compressed midrange that the OD-9 serves up. If you turn the gain on this pedal all the way down and set the other dials at the twelve o’clock position, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell if it was on or not.
Playing Nice with Others
The exaggerated low end and spitty high end of the Fuzz Face complements the midrange bias of the Maxon OD-9. Tonally, they’re almost the inverse of each other. The RC Booster’s a blank canvas compared with the other two, and in that respect it could easily work well with either one, depending on how you set the controls. I have it set for a slight bass boost and treble cut, ideal for fattening up the strat’s bridge pickup. For total mayhem, all three can be combined for a super-saturated, endlessly sustaining, verging-on-uncontrollable-feedback-at-any-volume lead sound.
Don’t Overdo It
The one thing I’ve found to be vital is to be careful with the individual drive levels. All of the pedals give a volume boost when engaged, and this means that the overdrive from the amp will increase. If you add another pedal, let alone two, you’re really clobbering the amp’s input. Adding even more gain via each pedal’s drive knob therefore warrants a bit of restraint, as the whole thing can easily deteriorate into a wildly oscillating chaos that’s impossible to control.
The only pedal that’s usually set with a large amount of drive is the Fuzz Face, as it basically doesn’t sound very good unless both knobs are at four o’clock or more. The OD-9 and the RC Booster have their respective gain knobs set at around 9.30.
The Sound of the Ocean
Noise is – like death and taxes – inevitable. A guitar amp isn’t a noise-free device (whether or not there’s a guitarist connected to it) by any stretch of the imagination, and increasing gain levels in front of an already noisy thing, does not a quiet thing make. The best you can hope for is to control it, either by doing some fancy footwork and turn off the pedals at the end of the last note, or by having a volume pedal patched in at the end. Unfortunately, turning down the volume on your guitar isn’t effective as most of the noise is generated after the signal has left your guitar. The last resort may be to play for less discriminating audiences.
Pedal to the Metal
So, all this stacking overdrive pedals malarky – what’s it all for? Well, it gives you a lot of options when it comes to high gain sounds. For the music I play and the sounds I enjoy, a low-to-mid gain amp with pedals for extra gain and/or flavour is the way to go. I quite like the ones I have written about here, and they give me loads of options when it comes to gain levels, tonality and texture. Have a look at the video for some sound examples.
How about you – do you have any favourite combinations that you’d like to share? Or – even more entertaining – any proper disasters that you’d like to warn the rest of us against? Let me know, comment below (Ha!)