From the Klon Centaur to the Tube Screamer to the Maxon TOD-9 and all of the clones and reissues, there are hundreds of options for the guitar player who wants to explore the wonderful world of overdrive. Most of the OD pedals out there are solid state devices that use clipping diodes or cascading gain through multiple transistor stages. There are, however, an increasing number of overdrive and distortion pedals using vacuum tubes in the signal path.
The first thing to understand about overdrive is that it’s not just the pedal that matters. You’ve got to start with a good tone from the guitar and amp. If you have the amp set to where it’s just on the edge of breaking up, almost any good boost pedal will send you into a nice, organic sounding overdrive.
With tube overdrive pedals, it’s important to understand that most of them run the tubes at a much lower plate voltage than they are designed for. The tube pedal is often just a marketing gimmick because pedal manufacturers know that if they drop a tube in there, we are all going to go ga-ga and buy the shiny new tube box. There are some products out there that run at higher plate voltages. The Blackstar HT-DRIVE and the new version of the Ibanez Tube King, as well as the Surprise Sound Lab Rock Block. Maxon also makes some great new tube based OD/Distortion pedals.
If you are playing through a solid state amp or a very clean amp, some of these tube based pedals may be a good bet. You can get plenty of tubey gain and overdrive and then send that sound on to your amp. If, on the other hand, you already play through a tube amp and get at least some of your gain from its preamp stage, these expensive tube overdrives might not be the best way to spend your cash. A good quality solid state boost or overdrive might be the way to go.
There are different philosophies of tone out there. I usually don’t like to change my sound drastically when I stomp on a pedal. I want my overdrive to sound like my clean tone, but slightly more distorted. Most guitarists use the word “transparent” to describe this. More gain but without a drastic change in the EQ. This is why I shy away from high gain pedals. It’s also why I usually use the volume knob on my guitar to get cleaner tones, rather than turning a pedal on mid-song. I have found that some overdrives respond better than others to the volume trick. Usually those are the pedals that don’t feature diode clipping. Most of the tube based OD pedals running at high plate voltages are using cascading gain stages and should respond well to the volume knob.
The boutique pedal market has a glut of great sounding gain pedals and the right one for you is out there. Fortunately, the process of finding the exact right dirt box is really fun! The pedals that I have loved most over the years are the TS-808 and its many clones, the Fuzz Face (great overdrive when you back off your volume slightly), the Brown Sound In A Box, the Rangemaster clones, the Marshall Guv’nor (original circuit), the Fulldrive 2 (similar to the TS), BK Butler Tube Driver, Blackstar HT-Drive, and of course just plugging a guitar into a good tube amp and turning everything up all the way!
Alex’s Bio: Alex Anest has been performing, recording and teaching music in the Southeast Michigan area since 1996. He was a founding member of the Jericho Guitar Trio, Never Nebula, and Delta 88. With Delta 88 Alex performed across the Midwest and played at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival in 2004. Since then he has toured Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Italy with songwriter Kevin Meisel. Alex currently performs with Ryan Racine and Gas for Less and the electric anti-jazz ensemble Giraffe. Giraffe is a chance for Alex to bring his many musical influences together – a very enjoyable, though sometimes difficult task for a musician who finds inspiration from artists as varied as Paco de Lucia, George Harrison, Thelonious Monk, and Jimi Hendrix. The common thread among these giants (and the goal to which Alex aspires) is the ability to transcend stylistic boundaries while keeping their own unique musical voice intact.