Five Game-Changing Foundations for Stacking

Some of the most common tone questions we get here at the Tone Report Weekly headquarters are in regards to gain stacking, which, for the uninitiated, means using two or more dirt pedals at once. The reason we get so many questions about stacking is that it's truly something of a dark art. There is little rhyme or reason to why certain pedals sound good together while others do not, so making an informed prediction about which ones will stack well together is next to impossible without having a keen ear and some first-hand experience with the effects in question. Experimentation is the only way to sort it all out, which makes things difficult for those that do most of their pedal shopping online.

Searching YouTube and the various guitar forums can be helpful, as can contacting pedal professionals like ourselves for advice, but the best way to do it is to just get a big pile of drive pedals together and start plugging things into other things until you happen upon two pedals whose characteristics are complementary. There are worse ways to spend one's time, of course, but for those without the resources or spare hours in the day to engage in these kinds of sonic adventures, it can be nice to at least have in mind a dependable tonal base for stacking. With that in mind, I have compiled a list of some of our favorite overdrive pedals for stacking. These pedals have proven themselves over and over again to be very friendly with a wide selection of other dirt boxes, and any of them can serve as an excellent foundation on which to build a fortress of gain.

J. Rockett Archer

A Klon-style overdrive is an excellent platform for stacking. This is due in large part to transparency and headroom—the hallmarks of this legendary circuit, allowing it to function in a very amp-like fashion. Few players can afford to own an actual Klon Centaur, however, but with all of the excellent "klones" on the market, this should be an issue for no one. Perhaps the finest of the klones that I have sampled is the Archer, from J. Rockett Audio Designs. This company knows a thing or two about the Centaur circuit because, when Bill Finnegan released the Klon KTR, he enlisted J. Rockett to handle the manufacturing of the pedal's first run. That being said, though, the Archer is more like the original silver Centaur than the KTR, which was a slightly different design. In fact, in a blind test, no mortal guitarist that we have encountered would be able to tell the Archer and an O.G. Centaur apart with any consistency (trust us, we've tried it).

The Archer has all the rich boost and smooth gain capabilities of its predecessor, and it stacks at least as well. The circuit's high internal headroom and un-hyped tone allow it to work well with more obviously colored, mid-heavy dirt pedals, like Tube Screamer variants and British-voiced distortion boxes. It can also add girth and punch to the vicious sting of some old-school fuzz pedals. In short, the Archer is as ideal a "blank canvas" overdrive as one is likely to find, and thus, a natural for stacking.

Way Huge Saucy Box

The Saucy Box is a highly versatile overdrive that blends Klon-like transparent boosting and signal buffering capabilities with an equally compelling voice that is all its own. This higher gain, more compressed drive voicing becomes stronger as the pedal's gain knob rolls past the halfway point, which, interestingly, is right about where the Centaur's magic starts to crap out. Internally, the pedal's circuitry discretely splits the clean signal and the dirty, optimally blending them back into one at the output. This lends the Saucy Box a sparkling, open sound and a flexible personality that make it a great choice for the player looking for an all-around overdrive to build a castle of tone atop. It's superb with many Screamer-style overdrives and classically-voiced distortion pedals like the MXR Distortion+, and it's great for adding grit and punch to a thick, wooly sounding fuzz pedal.

Xotic RC Booster

The RC Booster is still one of the cleanest, most useful boost/overdrive pedals I've ever used. It truly seems to add nothing of its own character to the tone, just giving you more of what your amp is already providing. It has 20dB of clean boost, and is very low gain, so its main strength is adding extra girth, punch, and sweet, musical compression, while otherwise staying out of your way. Its other strength is its powerful two-band active equalization circuitry, which is perfect for adding a bit of extra sparkle to a somewhat dull guitar tone, or alternately, fattening up a single-coil bridge pickup (my favorite use for this pedal). The RC Booster's neutral character lends to its predisposition for stacking. It works best with more colorful complementary dirty tones, from fuzz and distortion, to amp-in-a-box pedals, to traditionally flavored overdrives. As with any pedal, placement matters, and in my experience, the RC Booster's preferred placement is usually after other dirt boxes.

Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret MKIII

The DLS MKIII is one of the most popular of the amp-in-a-box pedals, and for good reason, as it really does give one the impression that Catalinbread has stuffed a Marshall stack into a 4.5-inch by 2.5-inch box. It is likely that this amp-like response is also what makes it such a natural for gain stacking; fuzz and drive pedals placed in front of it tend to react with the DLS in much the same way as they would when placed in front of an actual Marshall. The DLS MKIII's dual independent circuits (internally switchable) mimic two classic Marshall amps, the widely renowned Super Lead, and the beefier sounding, and somewhat underappreciated, Super Bass. This functionality, along with its 3-band EQ, gives the player a lot of options when using this pedal for stacking. The DLS can also can operate at 18 volts for extra headroom, which can be really handy when putting a higher gain distortion or fuzz in front of it.

Wampler Clarksdale Delta Overdrive

Tube Screamer-based circuits can often work beautifully in stacking scenarios, especially when paired with pedals that have a flatter frequency response, or a scooped quality to them, like a Big Muff. The Screamer's mid-heavy honk can act like the yin to the Muff's scooped-out yang, melding into a new, multi-hued tone that isn't achievable any other way. One of our favorite TS-derived pedals for this purpose is the Wampler Clarksdale, which starts with the classic Tube Screamer voicing, improving upon it by engineering all the fizzy high end out, adding a powerful three-band EQ, and throwing in a Lift/Smooth toggle switch for selecting from a pair of clipping options. The Clarksdale's gain control is useful throughout its range, and its EQ can generate everything from a flat, natural sounding drive, to traditional TS honk, to singing, cocked-wah lead tones with the mid control cranked. This pedal is an ass-kicker when stacked with Muff-derived circuits, or just about any bass-heavy fuzz, and it also tends to be very complementary towards Klon clones and other, more transparent overdrives.

Any of these pedals can serve as an excellent starting point for a gain-stacking adventure, as they all are quite versatile and have proven track records of stacking success. Experimentation is crucial though, as all preconceived notions will likely fly out the window when you start piling gain stages atop one another. Remember to experiment with the order as well, as two pedals that don't sound good one way may sound holy when the order is swapped. Also, tone is entirely subjective, so two pedals that sound fabulous together to your ears may sound like absolute barf to someone else. Have fun, and get to stackin'.

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