Ultimate Guide to
Preamp Pedals

If you’re keen to downsize your rig and have all of your core tones available at your feet; preamp pedals allow you to do so.

Made specifically for pedalboards, these stompboxes function as ergonomic alternatives to traditional amplifiers. In this guide, we reveal what they can offer and also explain how well they work with other pedals.

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Written by

Elliot Stent

What Are Preamp Pedals?

Frankly, us modern guitarists are spoilt by the amount of incredible equipment that is available to us. It has never been easier for us to craft our favourite tones, and with the rise of digital modelling amps and guitar pedals in particular, many are deciding to forgo traditional valve amplifiers in favour of these smaller and more practical substitutes. They’re more versatile, reliable and portable.

Preamp pedals are a part of this trend. Seen as viable alternatives to conventional amps, these stompboxes can convincingly recreate their large sounds despite their small form-factors and relative affordability.

What Is A Preamp?

A ‘preamp’ is the first section of an amplifier, and it precedes both an amp’s power amp stage as well as its effects loop section (if it features one). The preamp is therefore the first part of an amp that your guitar actually interacts with. If you’re unsure of a preamp’s function, it essentially boosts a guitar’s output signal up to ‘line level’, to ensure that it’s more audible and dynamically consistent.

But perhaps more interestingly, a preamp is responsible for giving an amp its core “sound”. With valve amps, their preamp stages typically feature 12AX7 tubes, and preamps also encompass the EQ controls that you’d find on an amp’s front panel, such as ‘treble’, ‘middle’ and ‘bass’.

Most modern amplifiers are also designed to distort from their preamp sections, especially as 12AX7 tubes are made to a high-gain specification. This causes them to compress and break up more effectively than other tubes.

What Does A Preamp Pedal Do?

It’s all in the name - a preamp pedal can emulate the preamp section of a guitar amplifier. While the majority of real preamps feature tubes, as we explained above, most preamp pedals are built upon solid-state circuitry. This is because genuine tubes tend to expire after a couple of years, as they heat up to high temperatures and are constructed from glass; making them brittle. To therefore ensure better reliability and longevity, most preamp pedals adhere to a solid-state formula.

Although the bulk of preamp pedals don’t feature valves, manufacturers still want to provide players with convincing sounds, while offering the same level of usability that they’d expect from real amps. That’s why many examples feature EQ controls, so that users can shape their sounds in a familiar way. Preamp pedals also boast gain circuits in order to produce overdriven tones.

There’s plenty of diversity within the preamp pedal market, just like with all effect types. With simple and affordable options that cater for budget-conscious musicians, there are also more sophisticated and flexible preamp pedals. The latter can boast several channels, just like amplifiers that let you switch between different sounds. There are also models that come equipped with more comprehensive control-sets, enabling you to really dial in the perfect tones.

Can You Get Preamp Pedals With Valves?

Even though tubes can be unreliable and unpredictable as to when they go wrong, there are some preamp pedals that come fitted with valves. And as you’d expect, many consider valve-powered preamp pedals to sound more authentic; delivering that indescribable “feel” that you get only from tube amplifiers.

Victory’s V4 preamp pedals are great examples. With full-analogue circuitry, these high-quality stompboxes are powered by three CV4014 valves and single EC900s, which provide that unmistakable valve amp character. The Two Notes Le Clean and Le Lead preamp pedals are perhaps even more genuine, as they feature real 12AX7 tubes.

But some of you may be thinking - “is it a good idea to fit a pedal with valves if you’re going to repeatedly step on it?”. It’s a very good question, but in Victory’s case, they’ve constructed their pedal enclosures from steel to ensure that they are super-robust. They also feature ventilation holes to prevent their tubes from overheating.

Victory V4 Preamp Pedals on Andertons T.V.

Where Does A Preamp Pedal Go In My Signal Chain?

A preamp pedal should be placed quite early in your overall signal chain, and obviously before power amp or cab simulator pedals. As it’s a substitute for an amp’s preamp, it should therefore be one of the first stompboxes that your guitar’s output signal comes into contact with.

However, there are a few pedals that perhaps should be placed ahead of a preamp. A tuner pedal, for example, should almost always be the first thing in your signal chain. This is to make sure that the rawest amount of your guitar’s signal is being fed into the pedal’s input, giving it the best chance to process that signal and thus provide the most accurate tuning reading possible.

Some guitarists, especially metal players, use overdrive pedals into their distorted amps in order to achieve a tighter and more saturated sound. Tube Screamer-style pedals are most commonly employed, as they typically shelve some low-end and boost mid-range frequencies for extra clarity and definition. Using an overdrive pedal into a high-gain preamp pedal should create the same effect.

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