Preamp pedals are ideal for guitarists who need a plug-and-play box to improve tone when laying down tracks quickly in a studio. Also for those needing to dial in a consistent tone on stage without the hassle of transporting and setting up heads, cabs, mics, or any of the traditional array of gear we’ve gotten used to lugging around with us in the past.
A preamp pedal can also save you from the nightmarish situations that can arise from playing through house amps or direct into an unknown PA or front-of-house setup. These handy boxes replicate the preamp section of a guitar amp, and adding one to your signal chain will allow you to boost and manipulate your signal in ways that are otherwise not possible.
In this KillerGuitarRigs Review, we’ll be taking a look at some of the best preamp pedals on the market to help you decide which is the right choice for your setup. We’ve included pedals to suit all budgets, and feature-sets to cover every imaginable scenario. When reviewing each unit, we considered price, build-quality, and of course tone.
So, if you’re looking to move away from standard overdrive pedals and boost units, and upgrade to a pedal that can handle all preamp needs, you’ll definitely want to keep on reading.
Features: Standalone Gain, EQ and Hi Pass sections, Combination XLR + 1/4" Jack input, Integrated Hi Lo switch for easy headroom adjustment
Benefits: Studio grade tones, Extreme control over full frequency band, Great for guitar, bass, and vocals
|Click For Best Price|
Features: All-analog studio-derived circuitry, 2 Modes for a cleaner or dirtier sound, 3 Voice controls
Benefits: Fantastic organic tone, Impressive high gain performance, Rock solid build quality
|Click For Best Price|
Features: Active 2 Band EQ, Up to 30dB clean boost, True bypass switching
Benefits: Incredible blues and classic rock tones, Smooth sweep on every knob, Great cleans and gritty distortion
|Click For Best Price|
- Our Top 3
- Individual Reviews
- Origin Effects DCX Boost Tone Shaper & Drive
- Xotic BB Preamp V 1.5 Pedal
- JHS Pedals Colour Box V2 Preamp Guitar Effects Pedal
- Catalinbread Epoch Boost EP-3 Preamp/Buffer Pedal
- LR Baggs Venue DI Acoustic Guitar DI, EQ, and Tuner
- Strymon Iridium Amp and IR Cab Simulator Pedal
- MOOER M999 Preamp Live Multi Effects Processor
- How to Choose the Right Pedal for You
- Final Thoughts
Our Top 3
Thanks to its blend of price and performance, we picked the Origin Effects DCX Boost Tone Shaper & Drive as our Top Pick. This pedal may be one of the latest on the market, but it’s quickly making waves thanks to its amazing build quality and incredibly versatile performance. In the clean mode, it delivers fat tone while retaining exceptional clarity. In OD mode, it offers a gorgeous vintage crunch to rival any overdrive pedal.
Our Best Budget choice was the Xotic BB Preamp v1.5. The original BB Preamp/Drive pedal has been the ‘secret sauce’ of numerous big-name guitarists over the years. Now, the new v1.5 offers the same iconic tone with a new look, plus some exciting additional features. It offers a hefty gain section for screaming lead tones and a substantial clean boost of up to 30 dB.
If you’re working with a bigger budget, you might want to check out our Editor’s Choice, the JHS Effects Colour Box V2. This fantastic stompbox sounds incredible in all situations. It handles boost, EQ, OD, and fuzz with unparalleled ease, and it does an equally stellar job as a DI or a tone-shaping device for acoustic and electric guitars. It’s super versatile, and like pretty much everything JHS makes, it looks the part as well.
A feature packed pedal that provides a true rig in a box.
If you're looking for high gain, authentic tube driven tones from your preamp, this is the model for you. It's brilliantly engineered, and is the go to choice in the rock and metal genres.
The Origin Effects DCX Boost Tone Shaper & Drive really is a game-changing pedal. This mid-priced unit hasn’t long been on the market, but it’s already garnering massive attention amongst guitarists of all abilities, and this really piqued our interest.
We found ourselves instantly impressed by the clean boost capabilities of this pedal. We got a massive signal increase that remained transparent and added noticeable depth and clarity to our tone without masking the guitar or the amp’s inherent characteristics.
It was easily one of the most touch-sensitive pedals in the entire roundup, too. This is always a huge benefit if you’re a player who likes to blend into the mix during rhythm sections, but who needs to cut through for solos from time to time.
One of the primary reasons anybody buys a preamp pedal is for the tone-shaping, and we found that the DCX Boost did a great job with this. The low-frequency and high-frequency controls gave us the ability to highlight or cut certain elements of the tone, and the 3 voice modes (dark, flat, and med) provided even more versatility.
Switching between the clean boost and overdrive, like everything else on this pedal, was really straightforward. There was a toggle switch to move between the two modes. After switching into overdrive mode, we got a big serving of grit and gravel in the signal. It gave us beautifully organic and harmonically rich tones, from barely-present crunch to creamy breakup and searing leads.
The build quality of the DCX Boost was exceptional. Origin Effects’ pedals are well-known for how well their pedals are made, and this one was no exception. It had all metal construction and was definitely built to withstand the kind of abuse the average working musician is likely to throw at it. The controls and switches were sturdy and responsive, with no play or wobble, and were satisfyingly tactile.
Power was derived from a standard 9v AC adapter (not included). There was no battery option, but we didn’t find this to be too much of a detriment.
Verdict: The Origin Effects DCX Boost Tone Shaper & Drive is a fantastic pedal that delivers outstanding clean boost, easy tone shaping, and gorgeous vintage overdrive. The build quality, user-friendliness, and tonal range made it an extremely popular model amongst the KGR team during testing and, ultimately, very deserving of its Top Pick title.
A simple pedal with rock solid reliability and great tones.
This pedal may not be as feature rich as some others, but everything it does, it does well. The gain boost avoids muddiness, and it has some phenomenal clean tones too.
We’ve long been fans of the original Xotic BB Preamp pedal at KGR, and we were extremely excited to try out the latest version, the Xotic BB Preamp v1.5. This is an updated version of the popular original, which has been designed to replicate the tone of the original Marshall Bluesbreaker amp. We found that the new pedal offered even more clean boost, plus a pre-gain stage that gave us everything from shimmery cleans to a smooth, compressed, overdriven tone.
We were able to get an amazing, crystal-clear clean boost from the BB v1.5 with absolutely zero effort required. Just by turning up the volume, we got the full 30-dB increase while retaining clarity and without inducing any further breakup. This alone was worth the price of admission, in our opinion.
Of course, the second party piece was its overdrive abilities. When we turned up the gain, we were able to squeeze out some beautifully-saturated tones that, as advertised, sounded a lot like those of a vintage Marshall Bluesbreaker.
It featured a 2-band EQ that allowed us to sculpt our sound by boosting or cutting frequencies with extreme precision. Both the bass and treble controls were super responsive and made use of quality pots. This ensured that they avoided the kind of binary drop-off that often plagues cheaper pedals. Just with the bass and treble dials, we were able to dial in everything from warm, fat vintage sounds to crisp and biting modern tones.
As far as footprint was concerned, it was one of the smallest pedals in the lineup. So if space on the pedal board is at a premium for you, you might find this to be the perfect option. The build quality was great and we think it should be more than capable of standing up to some bumps and knocks.
It can be powered by either a 9V battery or a standard 9V AC power supply, so no matter how you power your board, you should be able to run this preamp unit without issues.
Verdict: The Xotic BB Preamp v1.5 is a genuinely great pedal that’s not only well-built and easy to use, but also serves up quality tones and a substantial boost. Despite being one of the more affordable options on test, we found that it was more than able to keep up with some of the bigger names in the roundup – a very impressive feat indeed.
Incredible fine control and heavy duty construction.
With this preamp pedal it's like you have a full desk at your feet. There are 10 control knobs giving you precision control over your sound, whether you play electric or acoustic.
The JHS Pedals Color Box V2 Preamp Pedal is the latest iteration of the Color Box series, delivering a fantastic array of console-quality vintage tones with the convenience of a pedal form factor.
The Color Box V2 dished out some amazing vintage preamp tones with all the warmth and character we could ever ask for. We were able to get everything from early Beatles-esque cleans, gritty Rolling Stones-type overdrive, and screaming Led Zeppelin lead tones.
It had the most comprehensive EQ controls in the entire roundup – so much so that we spent entirely too much time on this one pedal. We found it easy to get carried away with fine-tuning and lose all track of time. It had full 3-band EQ and a wide-ranging variable, low-cut filter that did a great job of cutting out any muddiness.
We absolutely loved how organic the resulting tones from this pedal were. It offers an entirely analog signal path, which results in a really natural sound, reminiscent of the old-school methods of running a guitar directly into a microphone preamp.
Versatility was really at the core of this pedal. Not only were we able to use it for guitars, but we were able to run mics and bass guitars through it, too. While we didn’t test this specific functionality, it does also have the capability to run line-level instruments like keyboards.
In terms of build quality, it doesn’t really get much better. It was clearly built to last and, like pretty much all JHS pedals, looked absolutely fantastic. Despite a variety of dials and switchgear, we still found it to be straightforward to use. Everything was well-marked and left us with no confusion as to what we were adjusting.
Verdict: It’s hard to describe just how good the JHS Effects Colour Box V2 really is. While a lot of manufacturers might try to claim their pedals are like a rack unit in a pedal format, JHS really did manage to squeeze an entire console down into a user-friendly stomp box. So, while the sticker shock of the price tag might get you at first, you’re still getting a lot for your money. If you really need studio-grade tones from your board, there’s no better choice than this.
The perfect solution for bigger, fuller tones.
This pedal is a great way to get tone bigger than any EQ or compression could make it. It has huge headroom thanks to its internal power shifting, and the results are stunning.
The Catalinbread Epoch EP3 is a legendary preamp circuit housed conveniently within a robust metal enclosure. It recreates the magic of the EP-3 Echoplex with the JFET preamp and buffer – all in a compact two-knob boost pedal designed to make your guitar sound better.
We thought this pedal was an incredibly easy way to transform our clean or overdriven tones. While it was capable of being a simple plug-and-play preamp running from our guitar direct into the amp, we found it to be even more capable when placed at the end of the rig as a mastering processor.
We got big tone with a distinct fullness and richness that very few other pedals were able to deliver. It wasn’t all about adding “zing,” though. The Epoch EP3 was able to shift from 9V to 22V when the need arose, adding a new facet to our dynamics and creating even greater headroom.
While the intent of this pedal (and others like it) isn’t to provide a range of EQ adjustments and simply boost our guitar’s signal, we think it might have been nice to have had some additional features, especially considering the price. Having said that, if a boost is all you need, this offers the most direct signal path possible, which really became apparent in the tone.
The Epoch Boost did a great job of adding a creaminess to the overdrive and some subtle texture to our clean tones. The boost covered everything from focused low-end to punchy midrange. It had an uncanny ability to add definition that was able to improve the character of even the dullest amps. We think it’s the kind of pedal you’re going to want to leave on all the time.
Verdict: The Catalinbread Epoch EP3 is a quick and dirty way to boost your guitar’s signal without actually making it dirty. It’s beautifully made, just like all Catalinbread products, and it’s just so easy to use. If you’re looking for tone-shaping and high gain, this might not be the best pedal for you, but if you’re looking for more of your guitar’s authentic tone, this is a great choice.
The ultimate acoustic guitar preamp setup.
Acoustic players have very different preamp needs to electric players, and with this LR Baggs model, you're getting one of the best. It features industry leading feedback protection, volume boost, and 4 band EQ for fine control over your tone.
The LR Baggs Venue DI has long been the go-to preamp pedal for acoustic players looking for a high-end, all-in-one solution. We loved that it gave us such a wide range of features in a single pedal. No need for a board, multiple power supplies, patch cables, and all the other accessories required to run multiple pedals.
We thought it was really well-designed, and considering the number of features, it was really compact. It was absolutely packed with features, including a chromatic tuner, 5-band EQ panel, 12dB cut/boost, and full isolation DI.
One of our favorite features on this pedal was the proprietary Garrett Null notch filter. It did a fantastic job at eliminating feedback, which anyone who plays an amplified acoustic knows all too well is a huge problem.
Tonally, the EQ sounded natural and clean, even when using the boost. The 4-segment clip meter was another useful addition that allowed us to visually monitor our gain and input levels. There aren’t many acoustic pedals on the market full stop, so finding one with such a wide range of features was priceless.
The cut/boost was able to be activated via the footswitch, as was the tuner/mute function. We did find that the tuner was a little too sensitive, but it was considerably more accurate than a clip-on.
We were able to power it with either an AC adapter (not included) or a 9V battery. Due to the extreme range of features on this pedal, battery life does suffer a little, so we’d definitely suggest running it from the adapter when possible. To combat the inconvenience of batteries dying on stage, however, it did feature a 4-bar battery-life display, so we were able to see when it was getting a little low.
Verdict: The LR Baggs Venue DI really packed in every feature a gigging musician could need, all in a sleek, acoustic form factor. The design and technology were miles ahead of anything else on the market, but that should be expected at this price point. If you’re looking for this level of functionality, though, it could be an extremely-appealing option.
A powerful preamp with hundreds of presets.
With this pedal, you'll have easy access to over 300 presets, 9 speaker cabs, and you'll never have to lug around an amp again thanks to its incredible IRs and models.
It wouldn’t be fair to categorize the Strymon Iridium as a typical preamp pedal, because it really does offer so much more. The pedal gives you the option to run the pedal from guitar direct into an amp, directly into a PA system, or using it as an amp/cab modeler for recording.
The Iridium featured three modeled amps with a choice of three cabs for each amp. Each amp had its own drive, optional reverb, and a 3-band EQ to sculpt the tone further. If that wasn’t enough, we were also able to replace all the onboard cabs with several impulse-response cabinet options using the included Impulse Manager software.
The three modes were based on classic amps and included the Round amp (Fender Deluxe), Chime (Vox AC30), and Punch (100W Marshall Super Lead). We’ve played all of these amps for real at one point or another, and we thought it actually did a really good job of replicating them out of the box.
This guitar preamp unit was able to accommodate an external expression pedal, and we were able to tweak the parameters with the MIDI remote control. It even had a headphone out, which allows for onstage monitoring without the use of in-ears.
Verdict: The Strymon Iridium lives up to the brand’s legacy of creating game-changing stompboxes. It’s a handsome, easy-to-use unit that combines the kind of features found on traditional preamp pedals with some high-end modeling functionality. It’s not the most affordable option, but if you’ve got the budget, it’s definitely worth your consideration.
Solid construction and excellent sonic performance.
This preamp pedal is an excellent choice for anybody who has joined the digital revolution. It offers a huge range of amps, cabs, features, and settings at much lower price than you'd expect.
Mooer has dominated the budget pedal market with awesome micro-pedal clones for years. With the Mooer PreAMP Live, they offer an amazing digital preamp pedal that far surpasses the competition. We loved pretty much everything about this unit. It featured a 3-band EQ and 12-channel workflow with MIDI compatibility, true bypass, USB cable connectivity for PC, and Bluetooth connectivity via the Mooer app.
It boasted a huge range of amps, cabs, features, and settings, which really sets it apart from the vast majority of the competition. The M999 had 50 replicas of tube amps, 30 cab simulations with third-party IRs, and a preamp App + software.
We were quite impressed with the quality of the amp replications, although we did find that the majority of the amps on offer were skewing towards high-gain models. Having said that, the M999 did a great job in handling high-gain tones, especially with the pre/post noise-gate activated. Like most modelers, it did allow us to mix and match amp and cab sims, too.
Build quality on this pedal was great, although those needing something compact might want to look elsewhere. This is a fairly hefty unit, both in terms of dimensions and weight. If that isn’t too much of a concern for you, you’ll be rewarded (as we were) with a ton of great features.
In fact, it’s the kind of pedal that could be a good starting point into the world of digital modeling for those who aren’t quite ready to commit to investing in a Kemper or Quad Cortex. If you’re not quite ready to give up your tube amp entirely, however, it still offers great preamp functionality.
Verdict: With the Mooer PreAMP Live, we managed to create some massive tones, thanks to the quality preamp tone-shaping, plus the substantial range of models and effects. It does come with a steep learning curve, but if you enjoy using a pedal with a ton of features, this one offers superb sound quality at a reasonable price.
How to Choose the Right Pedal for You
Preamp pedals are something practically every guitarist can stand to benefit from, and yet, they’re one of the more misunderstood and frankly underused pedal types on the market. Below, we’ll go in-depth on these pedals and explain the key factors to consider when choosing a pedal to enhance your guitar sound.
What Are Preamp Pedals?
Preamp pedals are designed to replicate the preamp section of a guitar amplifier. They provide the initial gain and tone-shaping capabilities to shape the guitar signal before it reaches the power-amp stage. These pedals often feature EQ controls such as bass, mid, and treble knobs, allowing you to fine-tune your guitar’s frequencies. The pedal can then be plugged into your amp, or you can run it into an interface or direct to front of house, making it one of the easiest ways to play guitar without an amp.
Clean Tones and Overdrive
The most commonly-used features of any preamp pedal are clean boost and overdrive. When you’re shopping, consider the pedal’s ability to deliver clean tones as well as overdriven sounds.
The key difference between a typical preamp pedal and a traditional overdrive pedal is that the preamp actually increases the guitar’s signal to line level. Standard overdrive pedals on the other hand, may boost the signal, but not to line level, which is why they aren’t considered true preamp pedals. Some preamp pedals do a better job when it comes to providing a transparent, clean sound, while others offer a more aggressive, overdriven tone. If you’re seeking versatility, choose a preamp pedal that can produce both pristine cleans and high-gain overdrive.
EQ Controls and Tone Shaping
Pay attention to the available EQ controls – like the EQ section on your guitar amplifier, many preamp pedals feature bass, mid, and treble knobs that allow you to further adjust the frequencies before the signal hits your amp. A more advanced guitar preamp may even feature additional EQ bands, including lower mids and upper mids. This provides ample opportunities for tone shaping and can enable you to tailor your guitar sound precisely to your liking.
Gain and Boost Options
Many pedals include gain knobs or boost pedals to add extra drive and saturation to your sound. These features can be useful for creating crunchier tones or boosting solos without muddying your tone.
While high-end pedals can offer exceptional sound quality and tone-shaping possibilities, there are also many affordable options available that can deliver great results. Determine your budget and explore both budget-friendly and high-end models.
If we learned anything while reviewing the pedals in this roundup, it’s that there is vast variety in the features available on preamp pedals, from simple features like EQ knobs and clean boost to more advanced functionality like amp modeling and cab sims.
To recap our favorites from this roundup, we thought that our Top Pick, the Origin Effects DCX Boost Tone Shaper & Drive, delivered big on performance while remaining reasonably priced. Our Best Budget choice, the Xotic BB Preamp V 1.5, gave us surprisingly high-quality tones and was priced to suit all budgets. If price isn’t a concern for you and you’re simply looking for the best, then we think you’ll agree that the JHS Color Box V2 is just about the best preamp unit on the market.