Tone Talk: Stacking Overdrives vs. The Volume Knob

One of the most frequently addressed elements of tone construction is the interplay between overdriven and clean tones. This is no surprise, as many musical contexts call for both clean and dirty tones, often within the same song, making the ability to transition between great sounding tones of varying saturation into a performing necessity.  

Many players have adopted the practice of using a separate overdrive pedal for each flavor of dirt that a particular gig calls for, and this practice has become so common that the use of multiple dirt pedals is starting to be viewed as more of a necessity than a preference. Tutorial videos instruct the viewer to “turn on your second stage overdrive” for a particular section of a song, and pedal manufacturers rave about how well their new overdrive “stacks” with others.

There’s no denying that the practice of stacking overdrives is a valid preference for a player to hold, but in the current gear-focused environment, it may be helpful to remind players that it isn’t law, and to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of stacking overdrives versus the predominant alternative: modulating between clean and overdriven tones by using your guitar’s volume knob.

Before going any further, I want to expose my own biases on this subject, as I prefer the volume knob method to stacking overdrives. However, while I do intend to advocate for knob-based gain modulation, I hope that I can present both strategies justly, and leave each player with room to make their own choices.

Let’s examine each practice in more detail:

Stacking Overdrives

This practice usually involves a clean-set amp and the implementation of two or more overdrive pedals. These pedals are run in series to achieve varying dynamic “stages”, and their controls are typically set to blend into one another. When a part of a song calls for more or less gain, the player turns one of their dirt pedals on or off to change the level of saturation in their tone accordingly.

A typical arrangement of pedals for this practice will be a low gain overdrive that is set to create an “edge of breakup” tone and often left on, another overdrive to create a “crunch” tone, and a third drive to obtain a “lead” sound.

Using The Volume Knob

This practice involves either an amp or always-on pedal that is set to achieve the maximum amount of saturation or gain that a player would need for a particular gig. To achieve varying levels of overdrive, the player turns their guitar volume knob down, thereby decreasing the input to the pedal or amp, and causing less clipping or overdrive. Using my own rig as an example, I typically set my overdrive pedal for maximum gain when my guitar's volume is full, which gives me clean tones when my guitars volume is around 60-75%. 

(It may be important to note that this practice will work less effectively with volume knobs that cut treble as the volume is decreased, an unfortunate characteristic of the electronics in many guitars.) 

Again, both of these practices are valid, but they have important differences that might shape which one a player chooses to employ. Here are some advantages an disadvantages of each practice: 

Stacking Overdrives

Advantages

  1. Having your hands free to play instead of working the volume knob
  2. The ability to switch between very dissimilar levels of saturation quickly

Disadvantages

  1. Less precise control over saturation level 
  2. Having to worry about how a bunch of different pedals interact 

Using Your Volume Knob 

Advantages

  1. Very precise control over saturation level
  2. No need to shoegaze every time you need a different sound

Disadvantages

  1. Having to work the manipulation of your volume knob into your playing
  2. Less potential range of sounds, especially for quick changes

Again, I can't stress enough that both of these practices are equally valid, and that its up to the player to decide which one is most comfortable and useful for them. You don't have to stack overdrives because everyone else in your band or worship team does, and you don't have to use your volume knob because the old-school purists say so. Simply do what's most intuitive, and let your playing speak for itself. 

How do you prefer to manipulate overdrive in your own rig? Let me know in a comment! 

In the name of Tacos, Trampolines, and Telecasters,

Ian