The Essential Rules of Gain Stacking

Overdrive pedals
(Image credit: Future)

Knowing how effects relate to one another in a gain stack is vital, as it’s different from how they usually work independently. The payoff is massive. Plus, it gives you an excuse to dust off your old, unused dirt pedals.

1. Think Volume

In a gain-stack scenario, your pedals’ level controls produce different results. Turning up the volume in the first pedal won’t actually increase it, but it will affect the second pedal’s gain. The second pedal dictates the stack’s volume. That considered, you may want to treat the second pedal as a boost and bring it in for certain parts, like solos.

Pro tip: Start from your loudest sound and work backwards because beyond a certain signal level, your amp is likely to just distort and compress rather than actually get louder.

Keeley D&M Drive Pedal

The Keeley D&M Drive combines independent boost and drive circuits for some flexible gain stacking options (Image credit: Future)

Analog Man Sunlion

Another 2-in-1 pedal, this Analog Man Sunlion utilizes NOS NKT-275 germanium transistors for Dallas Rangemaster-style boost and Arbiter Fuzz Face-flavor fuzz (Image credit: Future)

2. Compliment Your Tone

Observe the golden rule of stacking: The second pedal in the stack dictates the tone. Thus, the settings on that second pedal will affect the way the first one sounds with it. Think of the stack as a system. Try moving each element in it until you find the best arrangement. Use your ears, not your eyes.

Look for pedals that add to the tone you already have. If your existing overdrive is dark, consider adding a boost to bring out the high end. If you like the overdriven tone you have, try adding a low-gain dirt box to the equation to provide subtle enhancement of the grit.

Nobels ODR-1

The Nobels ODR-1 circuit is prized for its low-gain drive and is an ideal candidate for gain stacking (Image credit: Future)

3. Consider Your Amp

You can also perform tone stacking using one pedal and your amp’s drive. Many famous guitarists have done this (often with a Tube Screamer and a Fender or Marshall amp involved) to raise the tonal stakes for a solo. A tube amp on the edge of breakup is a great sound to add a drive to.

Maxon and Ibanez 9-series Tube Screamers

Analog Man-modded Maxon OD-9 Overdrive and Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer (Image credit: Future)

Get inspired and take a browse through this huge selection of gain pedals

Guitar Player Staff

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