If there is one thing nearly all guitarists are borderline obsessed with, it's the quest for that perfect overdrive tone. Whether it's a creamy lead sound, or an "in-yer-face" crunch, everyone has their own idea of a 'Holy Grail' tone.
To help you on your search for overdrive glory, I've put together a guide to 'gain staging'. Essentially, this describes how one stage of your signal chain interacts with and drives the next part. When we apply this to stacking overdrive pedals on top of each other, the result is a cascading series of dirty tones that can take you all the way from a mild crunch to a buzzsaw fuzz with just a couple of stomps.
For a great introduction to gain staging, try setting your amp to a clean tone and kicking on a mild overdrive for a fat rhythm guitar sound. When it's time to step it up a notch for a solo, you can then stomp on to a second overdrive pedal to push your tone over the edge into a saturated lead sound. With the pedals working together, you will end up with buckets of organic sounding sustain on tap.
If you want to push things even further (and let's be honest, it's in a guitarist's DNA to want to), you can even bring a third pedal into the mix. Piling up three stages of gain, you will find your amp pumping out a huge fuzz tone that will be rattling the bones of everyone close to the stage.
No Need To Crank Your Amp
Gain staging can become a lifesaver at smaller gigs or for at home use. In these situations, cranking your amp to eleven to get that rich saturation you're after just isn't an option. That is, unless you are out to annoy your neighbours, in which case - go ahead. With a few strategically stacked overdrives, you will be able to achieve that sweet, cranked amp sound you're after at a much more manageable volume.
Mix & Match
Another great thing about stacked overdrives is the way their tonal characteristics combine with and colour each other. Try running a classic overdrive with a mid range hump like a JHS Moonshine into a more transparent pedal such as a Greer Amps Lightspeed. You'll find the two will balance each other out, creating a tone that will both cut through a mix as well retain a nice bottom end.
Some other great combinations include an Emerson Paramount into a Bondi Effects Sick As or Emerson Em-Drive for a really lush tone. In this instance, the Paramount is actually designed to stack perfectly with other pedals. If it's diversity you're after, try running something like a lower gain Walrus Audio Voyager into a high gain JHS Angry Charlie. Between them, you'll have a full spectrum of drive sounds to play with. Personally, I like to run a Paul Cochrane Timmy into a Keeley Katana for the perfect combination of sweetness and bite.
Find Your Tone
Ultimately, the key here is experimentation as like most things in The Pursuit of Tone, your perfect tone is not necessarily someone else's. The possibilities become almost limitless when you consider how many combinations are out there, all with their own completely unique sounds that are waiting to be discovered. So go ahead and create your own!
The hunt for the Holy Grail of overdrive tones is a rewarding challenge that faces all guitarists at one time or another, myself included. Armed with a small collection of drives to stack and experiment with, you might just find yourself closer to finding it than ever before.
What combinations have you tried and what really works for you?
Written by James Di Fabrizio for Signal Chain
James is a Melbourne based musician and writer