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3 Ways to Use a Preamp Pedal

3 Ways to Use a Preamp Pedal

I love preamp pedals. But, they get some bad press a large part of the time. And, undeservedly so.

Here’s the problem: many boosts, overdrives, and distortions call themselves preamp pedals, and they’re simply boost, overdrive, or distortion pedals, not preamp pedals. So, what’s the difference?

To understand the difference, we must first understand how an amp works.

An amp comprises two stages: a preamp stage and a power stage.

The preamp stage takes the tiny output from your guitar cable and slams it with some voltage gain and EQ. The voltage gain transforms the weak signal to line level. Once at line level, the power amp comes into play and flexes, moving the speaker coil allowing you to annoy the neighbors and scare the kids.

But, the preamp stage delivers the secret sauce that shapes the tone and dynamics of your sound. So, the secret to a preamp pedal being a preamp is that it boosts the guitar’s signal to line level. Many boost, overdrive, or distortion pedals boost the signal, but not to line level, yet they call themselves preamps.

These are still good pedals and, in some instances, great pedals. But, they are designed to work in front of an amp. Preamp pedals are more versatile.

I’m Ed from Guitar Space, and in this episode of Trade Secrets, we’re going to check out 3 ways to use a preamp pedal.

I’m with my buddy, John Bolaños, and he’s one of the local guitar players and tone hound. So, I asked him to help me as we check out 3 ways to use a preamp pedal.

1. As a Stomp Box with a Twist

First, we’ll use a preamp pedal as a stomp. Many players choose to put the preamp pedal early in the effects chain like you would an overdrive pedal. But, many preamp pedals work well at the end of the effects chain. Especially if you’re playing through a neutral-sounding amp.

Let’s try it first at the beginning of the signal chain.

Now, let’s try to at the end.

For the end-of-chain, this is a little trick that I use. I set the gain relatively low, resulting in a different type of amp-like compression and break-up crunch to my entire signal chain. Using it this way, I’d leave the preamp pedal always on and make it part of my core sound.

You can’t do this with regular drive pedals because they lack headroom. But, preamp pedals have a lot of headroom, and the natural compression will not kill the dynamics of the rest of the pedal chain. Regular distortion pedals dubbed preamp pedals won’t react well to the end-of-chain use we’re trying here.

Also, preamp pedals work well when you add another drive in front of it. In many cases, this will make the preamp pedal come alive and glue your overall sound together.

2. As a Cab Simulator

The amp-less rig. Years ago, guitarists wouldn’t even consider this, but nowadays, this is becoming more and more popular. Technology makes going ampless convenient, flexible, and consistent — most of my club-date work is ampless. And many pedal companies offer guitar cabinet simulators (called cab sims) that simulate a power amp and cabinet. 

You’ll notice (if you haven’t already) that a guitar directly into a cab sim is a pretty underwhelming experience since you’re lacking the secret sauce of the preamp section. 

We will use multiple preamp pedals to create a multi-channel amp setup. For example, a clean preamp and a dirty preamp. 

We can experiment with time-based and modulation effects. For example:

  1. Amp-Like or effects before the preamp pedal. This gives you the old-school amp experience of running your pedals directly into an amp.
  2. Loop-Like or effects between the preamp pedal and cab sim. This provides the effect of using an amp’s send-and-return section, placing the effects between the preamp and power amp stages.
  3. DAW-Like or effects after the cab sim. This emulates a recording setup where you’re adding the effects in post.

I made a video of the amp-less rig test.

3. Effects Loop Hack

As I mentioned above, and many of you already know this, amps with the send-and-return feature allow you to place effects between the preamp and power stages of the amp. This allows us to get more clarity and definition from our modulation, delay, and reverb effects.

By placing the preamp pedal in the effects loop section, we can replace the amp’s built-in preamp section with the preamp pedal and create a new tonal core from your amp.

Here’s how the loop section works:

  • The amp’s effects loop SEND is connected to the OUTPUT of the AMP’S PREAMP STAGE.
  • The amp’s effects loop RETURN is connected to the INPUT of AMP’S POWER STAGE.

Here’s how to do this:

  1. Plug your GUITAR to the PEDAL’S INPUT

You’re now playing through the pedal directly into the power amp.

Many players are surprised at how well the preamp pedal sounds through the loop section. In many cases, the preamp pedal sounded good in front of the amp but great through the loop section. To my ears, I’ve found that the pedal sounds bolder and more mid-focused.

I’ve had success in the recording studio using this method. So, here’s a bonus trick. Use the same amp with different preamp pedals using the “effects loop hack” and listen to your guitar parts come to life.


I hope you’ve gotten some new ideas on using preamp pedals and maybe have a new perspective. These articles are dangerous for me to write because I become infatuated with new gear as I dream up the perfect use of these experiments.

I enjoyed putting together this month’s Trade Secrets article and hope you’ve enjoyed reading the article and watching the video

Till next month. Practice smart and play from the heart.

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