Clean Blend Overdrives: The Unlikely Path to Tonal Nirvana

Are you ready for the biggest, thickest, meanest, yet still-articulate distortion tone you’ve ever created? Then keep reading.

The secret to reaching this tonal nirvana lies in the world of “clean-blend” overdrives. Your first question might be, “What is a “clean-blend” overdrive?” Simply stated, it’s an overdrive pedal that offers the ability to blend your clean signal from your guitar with the distorted tone of the pedal. If you’re new to this concept, your next question is probably “Why, after distorting my tone, would I want to add a clean tone back in?” The reasons for this are at least two-fold. First, by blending the clean sound of your guitar back into the mix, you can bring back the detail of your pick attack and some lower frequencies that can be diminished when your guitar signal is clipped.

The second (and my personal favorite) reason for blending a clean signal in with your dirty signal is that you can approximate the fullness and harmonic complexity of using a multi-amp rig. If you’ve had the pleasure of doubling your guitar parts in the studio (preferably with different guitars or amps) you’ve heard the magically huge guitar tone that results from such a process.

For many years, my main dirty rhythm tone came from a Voodoo Labs Sparkle Drive. It might not have been the first overdrive pedal to offer the clean blend functionality, but it was the first I ever found. And because the Sparkle Drive is based on the Ibanez Tube Screamer circuit, it makes a great jumping-off point for understanding the benefits of the clean-blend overdrive. Most guitarists have used a Tube Screamer; you well know that it cuts out low frequencies, boosts mid frequencies, and increases the focus of your guitar signal. This focusing of your guitar tone is great for lead playing, and not so much for rhythm guitar playing. The reason I loved the

Sparkle Drive

When blending the clean tone back in, I got a richer multi-amp tone at the stomp of a switch.

Over the years, I’ve continued to employ multiple clean-blend overdrive pedals. The following, while not a complete list, should serve as a primer should you want to venture into this worm hole.

Way Huge Pork Loin

The Way Huge Pork Loin is a hard dish to perfect. With seven controls and a generally darker tone, it’s tough to dial in (at least with my rig). However, once you get it set up, it really comes to life. Rather than just offering a blended clean signal, the Pork Loin runs your clean sound through a “British-voiced preamp” and blends that in with the overdrive. What you get is a thick and boosted clean sound paired with a natural tube-like overdrive. There is also enough volume on tap to work as a serious clean boost if you turn down the overdrive. The blend of the clean with the dirt is a little more cohesive than a lot of the other clean-blend OD pedals out there. I'm guessing this is because the "clean" is not just clean, but boosted and equalized. Still, it’s probably voiced a little too dark for some people, but it's great for me.

I started by dialing in a nice overdrive tone and then adding clean signal to thicken it up and round out the sound. The tone that came out reminded me of some of Rich Robinson’s sounds on the first Black Crowes record—distorted but still pretty clean. The Pork Loin works wonders with single coil pickups; it fattens them up without making them muddy. Pairing it with a bright Tele bridge pickup creates a tone that is both thick and cutting and cleans up nicely when you back up on your attack. With my dual-humbucker PRS Mira S2 semi-hollow, running the bridge pickup makes for a beefy tone that’s great for riffing, power chords, and leads alike. Still, the Pork Loin is voiced darkly. Pairing the middle combination or the neck pickup alone with the Pork Loin is likely to create a tone that is too dark for some guitar and amp combinations. That said, the Pork Loin excels at stacking. For example, I’m a big fan of putting a Rangemaster-type pedal (HBE Germania44) in front of the Pork Loin. Hitting the Pork Loin with the Rangemaster created a sound I can only call “the closest I have come to a Vox AC30 simulator in a pedal;” a sound that is rich, thick, and chimey. And thanks to the dynamics of both pedals, you can go from semi-clean to roaring with just picking and volume knob.

Truetone Route 66

The Truetone Route 66 is a pedal you used to know as the Visual Sound Route 66. The new version (V3 for those keeping score) represents a full-scale redesign of the Route 66. This new version of the Route 66 replaces a fairly traditional take on the classic 808 with the Reverend Drivetrain circuit, adding individual Bass and Treble controls to the mix. And for even more versatility (and as you can surely guess), Truetone added a clean blend control. Unlike most of the pedals in this list, the Route 66 clean blend is “wired in reverse.” With the knob turned all of the way to the left, you get only clean sounds, and turned all of the way to the right, it’s all distorted tones. The magic lies in the middle. The distorted tone heard is one you know well. The clean blend simply adds articulation and a little sonic complexity to the mix.

T-Rex Crunchy Frog

The Crunchy Frog were part of a series of T-Rex pedals that were made for and sold exclusively by Guitar Center and Musicians Friend. I say “were,” because it appears the pedals have been discontinued. I haven’t looked at the circuit, but based on sound alone, I’d guess that the Crunchy Frog is yet another TS-based overdrive. The Crunchy Frog has plenty of gain and brightness on tap. With mine, I almost always keep the Tone knob below 10 o’clock. Edging the tone beyond noon, things get a little ice-picky. Likewise, edging the gain beyond 1 o’clock is when things start to lose definition. It should be noted though: I’m not a high-gain kind of guy. The Frog excels for lead work and the independent boost is a great feature. The Boost function on the Crunchy Frog comes after the dirt and works with or without the dirt engaged. Rather than just adding gain and thickening the tone, this boost can increase your volume and will even work as a clean boost.

The Frog doesn’t respond especially well to rolling off your guitar’s volume knob, but it lightens up a little if you back off on your pick attack. The clean blend is the real star on this pedal. Blending your clean signal into the overdrive makes for great definition and thickness. With just the overdrive, the Crunchy Frog is fine for lead but a little thin for rhythm work. With the clean added, you can dial in a great rhythm tone with just enough dirt and grit. If you are looking for a TS-style pedal or a good lead boost, the Crunchy Frog is a great choice.

Way Huge Saucy Box

The Saucy Box is the second entry (the first being the Pork Loin) in this list from Jeorge Tripps, the mad scientist and mastermind at Way Huge. And it sounds and behaves almost like a streamlined and simplified version of the Pork Loin. That said, it’s the lone pedal in this list that does not allow the user to control the amount of clean signal blended into the signal. Rather, the Saucy Box “automatically balances the optimum ratio” between the clean tone and the distorted tone. What this means in practice, is that by the time you get the gain cranked up beyond 1 or 2 o’clock, you will be hard pressed to hear any of the clean tone. The positive side of this design: The Saucy Box is extremely easy to dial in. The negative: You lose the multi-amp effects as you crank the Gain. For me, the sweet spot of the Gain control is between 7 and 10 o’clock. As I noted when I previously reviewed the Saucy Box (, “it has a combination of sparkle and grit that’s perfect for rhythm playing.” It’s a description that still holds.

VFE Merman

For those that don’t already know, the VFE Merman is based on the Klon Centaur, but gives the user control of the various signal paths that make up the circuit. Like the Saucy Box mentioned above, the Centaur uses a dual-ganged pot to control the blend of a clean signal and a distorted one. With the Centaur, the presence of the clean tone is extremely subtle. Thanks to VFE, the user may now adjust the blend of clean and dirty tones via the Warm and Bottom controls on the Merman. This pedal behaves a little differently than some of the other “true clean blend” overdrives in the pack; rather than having a single knob for blending in the clean tone, there is one labeled Warm that adds in an accurately-described warm and clean tone, and one labeled Bottom that cuts bass frequencies as one turns it to the right. Hpwever, with the Merman, the Treble control adjusts the treble frequencies of both the clean and the dirty tones. What this means is that while you have control over a wide range of frequencies, the resulting tone tends to come across as a single cohesive sound rather than two layered signals.

The Path to Sonic Enlightenment Revealed

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably thinking I pulled the old bait-and-switch, talking about the “beauty” of blending your clean signal in with your dirty signal. And guess what: you’re right. By leaving that pretty clean tone partially intact, you’ve never fully clipped your waveform. What this means is that you can stack two (or even three or four) clean-blend overdrives into one another without turning your guitar signal into a gummy, ill-defined glob of sonic goo. And when you do so, you get the harmonic complexities of all of those overdrive tones blended with a rich, full, and most importantly, articulate clean tone. The end result is not unlike the sound a killer riff double (or triple) tracked through multiple amps. Boom! This is the recipe for massive tone.

Now Blow it Up!

But wait, there’s more. Thanks to our good friends at Electro-Harmonix, there’s a classic fuzz pedal that we can add to our stew of sonic mayhem. The Bass Big Muff is based on the venerable “Green Russian” Big Muff but includes a Dry switch for adding clean low-end back into the signal. When you hit the Bass Big Muff with one or more of the overdrives listed above you now have the biggest clean-overdrive-fuzz tone the world has ever known—the best of all options. From the precise attack of the clean tone, the warmth of a good overdrive, and the searing edge of the Muff, you really can have it all.

But of course, with great power comes great responsibility. A tone like this can level entire apartment buildings and easily anger bandmates. Your new and improved guitar tone will take up a large swath of sonic real estate, so please use it sparingly. But most importantly, pick up a few of these wonder pedals and experiment—my personal favorite recently has been Merman, into Bass Big Muff, into Pork Loin.

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