You feel a surge of motivation to play guitar again. So you plug in to your amp, crank up the volume and gain and start noodling away. Strumming and picking along to a background track, you move fluently through the rhythm and sections of the song, hit a solo lick or two expecting to scrunch up your eyes sub-consciously to the feels that your tone will evoke.... but NO you frowned instead! :/ Something sounds... lacking? There's a teeny weeny bit too much gain! You twiddle around with the equalizer knobs on your amp and guitar and turn down the gain just a little bit... Urgh, that's too little gain. Turn it back slightly up..damn, that's too much gain! You just can't hit that sweet spot! This process repeats for the next 30 minutes or so until you lose all that motivation in the beginning and in retrospect, you end up spending more time fiddling with knobs than you did with your fretboard.
Enter the Low Gain Overdrive
The Low-Gain OD is an invaluable component of any pedal arsenal and tone workshop. Looking to add more grit to your clean tone? Check. Need to find a good "stackable" pedal for different gain stages? Check. Want a boost for your clean tone? Check. Whether its a base tone, or a solo line, the Low-Gain OD gives you that "MMPF!" that you are desperately looking for!
One of its best functions is getting that "edge of breakup" sound, where your tone achieves that slight crunch without getting in that gnarly zone. Perfect for pop/rock/blues/jazz (maybe anything except metal), it can, and should be a staple on any pedal board. With the myriad of options available out there, we've filtered out 5 all time reliable and best "MMPF" low-gain overdrive pedals to help you scope down your selection:
1. Greer Amps Lightspeed Overdrive
Well known and well loved by many, the Lightspeed is usually one of first the pedals that spring to mind when the word "low-gain" is mentioned. The Lightspeed's tonal qualities are well complimented with its simple and pleasing aesthetic layout. It is the epitome of clear and transparent gain with rich harmonics and smooth clipping. The loudness knob controls the volume, while the drive knob offers a wide sweep of sounds from clean and crisp to a glassy growl. Tweaking the Frequency knobs allows you to compliment your pickups be it single-coil or humbuckers, to ensure that you are able to sit in well or cut through the mix as you desire. You simply cannot go wrong with this beauty of a pedal over here, and its sweet tone and versatility is akin to finding the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow (not literally, but you get the drift).
2. Walrus Audio Messner
The first thing that you probably thought after seeing this pedal was : "Who's that funky looking dude?". The artwork depicts Reinhold Messner, the first mountaineer to make an ascent up Mount Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen. And that is the story behind the Messner: Clean, and as clear as the air you would expect up at high altitudes. This pedal is LOUD, really loud, and functions perfectly as a clean boost or a slightly trebly-sounding drive. Adjusting the Color knob controls the tone, from warm to bright and jangly, whilst delivering pure crisp gain that stacks extremely well with other overdrives and retaining your original tone. It includes an additional open/close switch for the clipping diodes to deliver a slightly more aggressive tone (open), or a more compressed punchy sound (closed).
3. Wampler Black '65
A great and versatile amp-in-a-box pedal that is designed to respond like a Fender Blackface amp. It is also able to serve as tone shaper for your board, with the EQ knobs allowing you to dial in the specific tone you require for your setup. It functions extremely well as a base tone, delivering those Fender cleans (or slightly more grit if you dial in more gain), and functions even better when stacked, complimenting the second/third stage drives. Think of it as a transparent overdrive that offers a multitude of tweaking capabilities to give you a plethora of great tones. Apart from that, it includes an additional gain switch which transforms the Black '65 to a gnarly biting overdrive that is great for heavier rhythm playing.
4. Emerson Em Drive
Simplicity is key here, with just two knobs on the Emerson Em Drive. Don't let its simplicity mask its versatility though. It offers a slightly warmer sounding low-gain overdrive that serves to fatten up your tone nicely, without delving too much into the breakup territory. Think of it as adding "more of your tone" , to your original tone! Sounds like tone-ception doesn't it? Alternatively, it also serves as a great clean boost to either give more volume, or push your other overdrives/amp for more saturation.
5. Cmats mods Butah
Eyebrows raised as you hear the name "Butah", but don't let its exterior fool you. The Butah is able to deliver an extremely clean and quiet sound even with the Level knob being dialed all the way up. It delivers a variety of drive sounds, from a light and glassy to a grittier crunch, without pushing the mid frequencies over the top, giving you a nice colour to your tone. It functions well as an "always on" pedal, give you a great base tone to work around with.
And that's a wrap! There's a gazillion more transparent light overdrives out there that's about as good as these 5. But in our EchOpinion, these are the 5 that hits the sweet spot for us! Versatile and fits any pedalboard, it'll definitely bring your tone to the next level. Try it to believe it!
Let us know what you think! Which other noteworthy low-gain drives deserve to be on the list?