Gain Stacking Part II:

Gain Stacking Part II:

High’s & Lows, Rig Combos and Dirty Amps


The goal of these posts is to help you get the most out of your effects pedals. In many ways, they are equally instruments as your guitar or amp is; you have to learn how to get the most out of it. The team here at Matthews Effects wants to help you and we hope these posts increase your music knowledge and enjoyment!


In a previous post about stacking gain pedals together, we addressed how gain can come from other places besides our distortions and overdrives. We talked about picking the right gain pedal for the right job, and how the last EQ in your chain will dominate the ones that came before it. But we got some questions about things we didn’t cover that we hope to address now.


Gain is one of those “tone words” that is so ubiquitous that we take it for granted that everyone knows what it is. But lets definite it so we can all be on the same page, not because you don’t know it, because of course you do… this is for the other guy… yeah, that’s right, that’s what it is…

Audio Gain is the input while Audio Volume is the output. The legendary Klon Centaur could be relabeled Input and Volume instead of Gain and Output, but it’s all the same thing. Gain is how hard I hit the circuit and volume is how loud a signal we send out. To use other ‘tone words’, Volume is clean and gain gets dirty.


The question is often asked: Which pedal should I put first, the Hi or Low gain one? There are several schools of thought on this subject and we are not going to tell you which one is right. We will hopefully give you a starting point for your own experiments.

One school of thought is the ABC drive section, A being lowest gain going to C as the high gain option. The thinking here is that you have three levels of dirty available to you as you need them. Basically, you would have an Architect, a Cartographer and a Harbinger in your One, Two and Three spots.

Now, you can certainly see how an ABC approach makes organizational sense. But on a practical level you can run into problems. As we addressed in our previous post, the last drive pedal’s EQ will dominate the EQ of the pedals before it. So if you stacked a Cartographer into a Harbinger, you could loose a lot of what you love about the tone stock on the Cartographer. Beyond this, if a pedal is designed to take a guitars signal and overdrive or distort via assorted clipping methods, it won’t react the same if you are hitting the Input (gain) with more Input (gain) than it was meant to take.

Of course, one only needs to use dual drive pedals like the JHS Kilt or ChaseBliss Brothers that have toggles to change which channel goes first to see that you can get some great sounds by having a boost or OD in front of a distortion or fuzz, but not all pedals do well with this. You might find that you love the sound of a Pocket Drive pushing into your EQD Park Fuzz Sound, but you might also find that running a boost into your distortion pedal turns it muddy or causes it to loose that special something. Trial, error and experimentation are your friends here; make use of them.


A while back we saw a YouTube demo of a certain, non-Matthews Overdrive pedal that is a classic circuit that holds a place with the Tube Screamer or Klon. It is also very (VERY) bright. Unfortunately the YouTuber was using a bright guitar/amp combination to demonstrate the pedal, some might describe the result as being unpleasant. At the very least, it didn’t play to the strengths of either the pedal or the guitar/amp combo.

In the same way, the MXR Carbon Copy is very popular among players in certain genre’s because it’s a darky, murky analog delay that tames the bright tones of a Telecaster or Gretsch into a Vox amp. But it didn’t work well for players using a Les Paul into a darker amp, so a few years ago MXR released the Carbon Copy Bright.

Guitar, Pedals, and Amp are all connected. You might find that one gain pedal works great with your Strat but not as well with your hollowbody. Each guitar and amp is different. Add to that the way that different Tubes and Pickup configurations get into the mix and you’ll see that one size doesn’t fit all. It could be that your Tele loves the Architect and your Jazzmaster does better with the Whaler Fuzz.

It could also be that you need to change your settings depending on your amp/guitar combo. Matthews Effects artist Dustin Kensrue famously runs two MojoHand FX Rooks, one set specifically for either his neck or bridge pickup. One setting that works great with your Fender Hot Rod Deluxe but not your Vox AC15, which leads us to our final section: Amps.


Pete Thorn has an excellent video about using OD’s and Distortions with amps that’s worth your time. In it, Pete states his preferences regarding the Tube Screamer, specifically using it with an already slight driven amp instead of a very clean one.
There seems to be two very different schools of thought with guitarists in regards to amps. The first is what we might call “the classic rock” view that says “who needs pedals? I’ll just crank my amp and ride the volume knob.” The second view might be called “The Modern School of Thought” which looks for the cleanest, most pedal friendly amp platform and you get your gain from your pedals.

Let us advocate a third view: play to your amps strengths. If you have a high gain amp like a Marshall or Hiwatt, you can use gain pedals to boost or focus your amp’s tone. This way, you’re letting your amp do the heavy lifting; it already has the gain, you’re just using the pedals EQ to tighten up the low end or focus the mids, or boost it a bit. Practically speaking, with a pedal like the Matthews Effects Harbinger on a dirty or hi-gain amp, I would keep the pedal’s distortion knob set low and really work the Freq and Cut/Boost controls to work with the amplifier.

On a clean amp, the temptation is to use gain pedals to make the amp “dirty”, but is that playing to your amps strengths? For example, a Vox AC15 tends to break up fairly quickly (break up is the point where the amp goes into natural compression and overdrive), so a gain pedal will play to the amp’s strengths by boosting or pushing the amp into natural break up instead of causing that break up itself. Practically on an amp like the AC15, we would keep the gain low using the Architect or Pocket Drive, and the output volume to taste, as with the Harbinger on the Hi-Gain amp. However, for amps like the Fender Hot Rod Deluxe that don’t break up quickly, we would suggest adding gain into the mix to help the process.

Now, of course, one of the great things about guitar is breaking the rules. You can take all the stuff I just said and throw it out the window. You can take the Whaler Fuzz and get some great dirty tones on a clean amp. Some of our favorite fuzz tones have been created through very clean amp platforms like the Fender HRD or Bassman; and how many legendary lead tones involve a fuzz through a hi-gain amp?


These tone tips are meant to be a starting point. How many great moments in music have been created by using gear in “the wrong way”? So we aren’t telling you “this is how you must use these pedals”. What we hope to do is give you a starting point for you to launch off from; a home base you can leave or return to as you wish.

Written by Adam Dolhanyk