Guitar Pedal Strategies for High Gain Amps

As Dan introduced the show, he noted a lingering question on many episodes from viewers who gravitate towards heavier sounds. “We tend to use lovely high headroom amplifiers, but there’s always a few questions from people saying, ‘I use dirty amplifiers, what about me?’” This week, Dan & Mick tackled the question and offered up a series of tips and tricks for how to strategically use pedals to get more (or less!) out of your high gain amps.

Since it doesn’t get any more deliciously gritty than the Victory VX Super Kraken, this angry amp head filled the role of the high gain loud maker in the experiment. It goes without saying, this amp held its own. As Mick described at the outset, the challenge ahead was seeing how the Kraken behaved when hit with a series of common effect categories, such as boost, fuzz, and echo/reverb. 

If your gigs, gear, and genres of music are all in the high gain world, here’s a rundown of three strategies for optimizing pedals in your rig.

Use a Boost Pedal to Sculpt the EQ of Your High Gain Amp

Traditional wisdom would say that a boost pedal nudges an already gainy sound into crunchier territory. But what about when the base sound is already as gritty as it gets in a heavily overdriven amp?

As Dan noted, “the Victory already has no more headroom left, everything is absolutely gained to the hilt. That means, every bit of signal it gets is already clipped in a square wave.” At this point, the amp either can’t handle any more gain, or in the case of the Victory, simply doesn’t need any more than what’s pouring out on tap. 

The strategy here, then, is to use a boost pedal to provide a new set of EQ parameters to sculpt the shape and scope of the overdriven sound. As Mick noted, “what we’re trying to do into the Victory is drive the frequencies you enjoy hearing, which are generally the treble and upper-mids.”

In this way, tossing a boost pedal in front of an amp that’s already caving in resulted in a more defined and focused sound and enabled instant control over parameters to dial in a signature sonic architecture. 

Dialing in the Right Dose of Fuzz on Your Guitar’s Volume Pot

Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? When Mick first played the Analog Man Sun Face fuzz into the piping hot Victory, the sound collided into almost bit crusher territory. So, maybe. Thankfully, there is a way of getting fuzzy without fizzing out when using a fuzz pedal with a high gain amplifier. 

What’s important to remember here is, as Dan noted, “it’s that thing with fuzzes where they work so much off your volume pot, otherwise it’s absolutely caving in on the gained up amplifier.” If you’re playing an amp that’s crunchy be sure to strategically tame your fuzz not by toying with it on the floor, but by rolling back a bit of the input signal from your guitar. Even a few notches back can bring  your sound from nearly impossible to impeccable. 

Simple tricks for understanding the reactivity of gear are all the more important with high gain amps because pedals respond differently when hitting a crunchy sound. In the words of Dan, “as soon as you change any part of that gain structure on the amplifier, everything else is going to react differently.” 

The lesson? Know your gear, never get stuck on a single setting, and adapt and evolve your approach when playing in high gain amps.  

Run Ambient or Modulation Pedals in the Effects Loop

It’s no surprise, Dan & Mick generally aren’t fans of effects loops. The main reason is their “go-to” amps have soaring ceilings of headroom to readily accommodate loads of effects before clipping. Things, however, are very different with high gain amps. With the crunch and drive hitting hard at the outset, it’s easy for your effects to get lost, muddied, or confused. 

As Dan described, the challenge here is that “all the gain in the Victory is after the delay and reverb… so when they hit the amplifier it all sounds mushy, they’ve got nowhere to go.” What an effects loop does to alleviate this problem is split the signal after the preamp, part of which is sent out to your effects in the loop before it circles back and is rejoined to its other half before hitting the power amp. This means your effects are effective but after the main gain source of the preamp. 

While no two effects loops are created equal, if you’re hammering hard into a high gain amp, avoid muddying your modulation and ambient sounds by experimenting with them in the effects loop.

If you’re a high gain player looking for a new amp, be sure to check out our full array of selections from Victory, Mesa Boogie, Marshall, Blackstar and more. And, as always, no matter your pedal needs, stop in to see us at Riff City so we can help build your best board! 

TPS Rig Rundown: 

Guitars:PRS S2 Singlecut Standard, Fender American Vintage ’62 Stratocaster, Fender Custom Shop ’63 Telecaster, Ibanez JEM Jr., Paul Reed Smith DGT

Pedals: Sonic Research ST-300 Turbo Tuner Mini, Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer, Xotic Effects RC Booster SH, Analog Man Sun Face NKT Red Dot, Keeley Filaments, Dunlop EP-103 Echoplex, Lovepedal Hall Mod Reverb, Empress Echo System, Empress Reverb.

Amps: 1973 Hiwatt DR-103 and Two-Rock 212 with Two-Rock TR 1265B speakers, Victory VX The Super Kraken and Victory V212VG cabinet with Celestion Vintage 30 speakers.

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