Less is More: 6 Sweet Low-Gain Overdrives

The battle over stage volume is an age-old and yet ever-present war that I wage with most of the sound guys in my life. But over time—though they seem inexplicably unable to comprehend that tube amps require a decent amount of volume to sound best—I have learned to compromise. And that compromise has led me to a deep and profound love for low-gain overdrive pedals.

In truth, I’ve had more low-gainers than any other kind of effect. And the longest tenured pedal in my humble collection? You guessed it—a low gain drive. There’s just something about a touch of grit that works really well with my style.

And thank goodness that so many great builders have caught on to the trend. One look at all the available options on the market today and it seems abundantly clear that modern players like me can’t seem to get enough of them—and why not? Low gain drive pedals can be versatile and valuable tools in almost any pedal arsenal.

With one stomp, you can add a bit of hair to your clean tone, or stack multiple low-gain drives together for increasing gain stages. If you’re lucky enough to get an amp dialed up to the point that the tubes are sweating a bit and still need some extra saturation, low gain is where it’s at.

But with all the various choices out there right now, finding just the right overdrive pedal for you can be an arduous task—so here’s a quick rundown on a few standouts.

Paul Cochrane Timmy

  • Perfect for stackers
  • Great price
  • Killer EQ section

The Timmy may be the “little brother” of creator Paul Cochrane’s original overdrive design, but its straightforward take on the innovative circuit has made it a stalwart of the low gain conversation. It actually has more gain than most people give it credit for, but as a low-gain stacker—it’s exceptional. Reason being, the Timmy features a unique pair of EQ controls that actually cut the bass and treble frequencies, allowing you to dial in the perfect amount of high and low end for your rig.

You can run it after a fuzz to cut the flub and add extra volume for leads. Or, put it before another drive or a dirty amp to drive the signal harder and tweak the tonal curve. Better yet, set the gain to taste and use it as a standalone drive pedal—that works really well, too.

As I mentioned, the Timmy has a surprising amount of gain, because most people describe it as a “transparent” overdrive, meaning it doesn’t impart a drastic EQ change when you turn it on. But a note from Paul Cochrane himself: “The Timmy only has that quality when it’s set to flat boosting. Turn the knobs and it’s no longer doing that. It’s meant to change things up some.”

Subdecay Liquid Sunshine MKIII

  • Warm tone
  • Flexible
  • Awesome new look

The Liquid Sunshine may be in its third iteration, but the idea is and has always been the same: to work with the gear you already use and make it sound more awesome. According to creator Brian Marshall, the Liquid Sunshine “won’t make your amplifier sound like something it’s not—it simply adds a little magic.”

Subdecay Liquid Sunshine MKIII

The newest version of the Liquid Sunshine pays homage to its predecessors, but was redesigned to add a bit more gain and better control. And extra control is always good, but what I love most is the range of sounds you can get out of it. At lower gain, the clarity of the notes is remarkable. But if you wind it up, you’ll get a hint of tweed-inspired bite that’s warm and really natural sounding. The Liquid Sunshine wasn’t designed to get that tone, but I hear it in there. And it’s always tasty.

Of course, being a low gainer, the Liquid Sunshine stacks well with your other pedals, too, either pushing other pedals or being pushed. This is also true for your amplifier. Whether you want to use the Liquid Sunshine as a standalone drive or to push your amp over the edge, it’ll shine in either application.

Emerson EM-Drive

  • Crazy simple
  • Transparent
  • Great aesthetics

If you’re looking for a simple overdrive pedal, it doesn’t get much simpler than the Emerson EM-Drive. With only two knobs—one for Volume and one for Gain—it delivers the most straightforward approach to low gain drive out there.

But don’t let the simplicity fool you, because the EM-Drive experience is innately satisfying—especially if you have a guitar and amp you already like. Why? Because this special little box from Emerson gives you the perfect amount of that “something extra” to take the sound you love and send it over the top. To get an idea of what it might sound like in your setup, imagine the best tone you’ve got and then add some extra body, volume, sustain and compression. Sounds pretty ideal, right? That’s the beauty of the EM-Drive. It’s transparent enough to let what’s already there come through, only with a little bit more.

On top of being a great tonal tool, the EM-Drive comes in a wide array of aesthetic options. You might have to hunt around for one that suits you just right, but the team at Emerson has dressed up the EM-Drive in some really great paintjobs that are sure to look sexy on your pedalboard.

Barber Gain Changer

  • Multiple voicings
  • Huge gain range
  • Great value

If you spend much time on internet guitar forums, it’s likely that you’ve heard about the Gain Changer. It’s been a massive hit in the online community since its late 2012 release—and if you’ve played one, it’s easy to understand why.

The Gain Changer looks simple enough with standard Gain, Tone and Volume controls, but it also features two switches that give way to an impressive array of tones inside just one box. One of the switches controls the gain range and the other tweaks the midrange profile. On one side of the gain switch, you get the delicious tones of Barber’s LTD overdrive and on the other, the unLimiTeD distortion pedal. This option gives the Gain Changer the widest gain range of any pedal on this list, but the low gain textures are so good it had to be included.

The other toggle gives you a trio of EQ options—one flat, one scooped and one with a midrange boost that’s sure to satisfy even the Tube Screamer lovers out there.

Top all that off with Barber’s legendary quality and a price that’s hard to beat in the category and you might start accidentally calling the Gain Changer the Game Changer.

MXR Il Torino

  • OD and Boost modes
  • 3-Band EQ
  • Great price

The great thing about the MXR Il Tornio isn’t just that it’s a fantastic low-gain overdrive pedal. Nor is it the fact that it’s only the push of a button away from turning into a killer clean boost. No—in truth, it’s the EQ section where the Il Tornio really shines.

In a world where most pedalboard-friendly overdrive pedals only offer a knob or two for users to tweak and adjust the tonal focus, this awesome collaboration between the MXR Custom Shop and Italian pedal stregone Carlo Sorasio serves up a full complement of Treble, Middle and Bass controls. And while this feature set may be lost on some players, others will find the Il Torino’s tone shaping capabilities absolutely invaluable. This doesn’t even take into account the deliciousness of the Il Torino’s tube-like MOSFET compression, because it really is a killer sounding drive that’s well suited to push a slightly driven amp with its tremendous volume output, or stack along with other pedals for more gain.

That said, it’s likely the most limited gain range of this bunch, but for those moments when you just want to add a hint of drive, the expanded tonal controls make the Il Tornio a real winner—and at a bargain price, too.

Mad Professor Sweet Honey Overdrive

  • Touch Sensitivity
  • Unique Focus control
  • Great for “always on”

There may not be an overdrive pedal on this list that feels more amp-like under your fingers than the Mad Professor Sweet Honey.

Similar to the other designs here, the SHOD was designed to push already driven amps to the breaking point or act as a dynamic standalone gain tone—but the sensitivity this thing has cannot be overstated. Much of it comes from the design of the Sweet Honey’s unique Focus control. The further you turn the knob to the right, the earlier the pedal distorts and the more treble you hear. But make no mistake—even with the gain and focus knobs nearly dimed, softer picking will yield a relatively mellower grind, where heavy downstrokes will be thoroughly distorted. So the amount of distortion, in a way, is still up to you and how much finesse you can play with. You’ll probably find this pedal to be one you can leave on all the time and use your pick attack and volume knob to adjust on the fly.

The Sweet Honey doesn’t have the same level of EQ control that some of these other contenders do, but it still stacks really well in front of other pedals—especially with another low gainer such as the Timmy.

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