Guitar pedal preamps are ideal for guitarists who need a plug-n-play box to lay down tracks quickly in a studio. On stage, they allow you to dial in a consistent tone without the hassles of transporting or setting up heads, cabs, mics, and the paraphernalia associated with the task.
It saves you from the nightmarish situations that can arise from playing through rented amps or, worse yet, direct into the PA. As rigs shrink and portability becomes more relevant than ever, new technologies have elevated the modern guitar preamp pedals to an unprecedented level.
It has spawned a new breed of options ranging from economy friendly ‘tone + boost’ pedals to expertly rendered ‘rig-in-a-box’ preamps. The analog versions – a mainstay for decades – are facing a dual-threat from amp/cab simulation technology and digital circuits.
To help you stay updated with the latest developments, I’ve shortlisted seven exceptional preamp pedals for KGRs 2021 round-up. The selection was made based on the features, price, and tone sculpting capabilities of each pedal. I’ve tried to cover the whole spectrum of price with simple, one-click stomps to mammoth digital preamp motherships.
- Our Top 3 Picks:
- Top Guitar Preamp Pedals in 2021:
- #1 JHS Effects Colour Box V2 (KGR Editor’s Choice)
- #2 Xotic Effects BB Preamp V1.5 Pedal (Best Budget Option)
- #3 Two Notes Le Lead Dual-Channel Tube Preamp (Our Top Pick)
- #4 Catalinbread Epoch Pre EP3 Preamp Buffer
- #5 LR Baggs Venue DI – Best Acoustic Guitar Preamp Pedal
- #6 Strymon Iridium Amp & IR Cab Pedal
- #7 Mooer PreAMP Live – Best Digital Preamp
Our Top 3 Picks:
Two Notes Le Lead is our top pick for the best guitar preamp pedal. This feature-packed red stompbox is a tube-driven equivalent of moving your rig to the pedalboard. It features excellent engineering, impressive high-gain amp tones, and realistic speaker simulation. Between the two preamp channels, MIDI compatibility, onboard I/O, and Wall of Sound III, Le Lead is the ultimate preamp pedal, especially for rock and metal guitarists.
Xotic’s original BB Preamp/Drive pedal has been the ‘secret sauce’ of numerous guitar players over the years. The new v1.5 offers the same iconic tone with a new look and some additional features. From a tasty gain boost for a singing lead tone to a pristine and transparent clean tone, the BB Preamp v1.5 delivers a tone-juice that makes every guitar sound more musical.
Josh Scott has scored another win with the JHS Effects Colour Box V2. This funky stompbox sounds fantastic no matter what you throw at it. It handles boost, EQ, OD, and fuzz with unmatched flair, but it does an equally stellar job as a DI or a tone-shaping device for acoustic and electric guitars. With the innovation, warmth, and versatility that the Colour Box V2 brings to the table, it was a shoo-in for the KGR Editor’s Choice.
Top Guitar Preamp Pedals in 2021:
The massive fan following of JHS Effects pedal preamps indicates that the fans approve of the maverick approach. The highly successful flagship Colour Box (the predecessor) was a runaway hit for its distinct ability to emulate the NEVE 1073 preamp with two circuits in series.
The Colour Box V2 is a studio-grade preamp, EQ pedal that can be used on just about anything. Whether you use it on the acoustic guitar as a DI, or a vocal mic to fatten your tone – it colors the sound with an unmistakable richness. The V2 includes a new parametric EQ section and a Hi/Lo Gain mode that make it an absolute treat to use as a guitar preamp pedal.
With the five-step gain stages, you can go from pristine clean tones to console fuzz and a broad spectrum of drive and distortion tones. Armed with Lundahl transformers, it also doubles up as a top-shelf DI when the occasion calls for it.
There are three rows of three knobs (9 in total) on the stompbox front panel. Each band allows you to focus on a frequency band and gives you extreme control over the bass, treble, and mid frequencies. Subsequently, the tone sculpting possibilities are in a league of their own, especially if you dig a tone that emulates the ‘direct-in’ sound.
If you enjoy the guitar tones on The White Album by the Beatles or artists like Wilco, you’ll enjoy the JHS Effects Colour Box V2. Unlike its competitors, the V2 approximates the tones you get when you drive the preamp on the mixing desk by plugging the guitar directly into it i.e. without an amp. There is, no doubt, a slight learning curve to it, but once you get the hang of it, it sounds like nothing you’ve ever used and something that you could get used to.
The V 1.5 is an updated version of the popular Xotic Effects BB Preamp Pedal. Like its predecessor, the pedal has an adjustable 15dB boost and The BB utilizes a pre-gain stage that allows it to go from a very pristine clean to a very smooth, compressed, overdriven sound.
The flagship BB Preamp was created to approximate the ol’ Marshall Bluesbreaker tone that we briefly spoke about in our article about Eric Clapton and the Woman Tone. It is a fantastic pedal preamp with overdrive that is reminiscent of the subtle, distorted grit of early blues and rock music.
The V1.5 excels as a guitar preamp pedal and can also be used for that extra kick when you run it into an overdriven amplifier. If the size is of any concern, the v1.5 has the smallest footprint among the pedals we’ve listed. It can also be fully operated without a power supply (using only the 9V battery). Despite that, it can add some serious volume and fullness to your tone.
Most of the tone-sculpting is aided by the 4-knob control panel that includes Volume, Gain, Treble, and Bass. From delivering a touch of grit to gnarly hot-rod distortion tones, the BB Preamp is a flexible resource that can feature as a preamp, clean drive, or post-dirt volume boost in any signal chain.
From the crunch on tap to a 30dB boost, Xotic’s BB Preamp v1.5 is an ‘easy button’ for a great tone. From clean transparent tones to beefy overdrive, the BB Pre can fit into many roles, which makes it a truly versatile pedal. Our ‘Budget Pick’ is usually a simpler and more affordable option compared to the rest. This one, despite the modest price tag, is as much of a real deal as the others.
Two Notes Le Lead, at heart, is a dual-channel tube-driven pedal preamp that is as close as you’ll get to shifting your rig to the floor. This feature-packed, dual-channel pedal is best known for two fully switchable independent preamps and a plethora of modern high-gain amp tones. Le Clean boasts of analog circuitry with powerful onboard I/O capabilities that can integrate with any thinkable electric guitar rig.
The two modes are Preamp A and Preamp B. The A & B channels are completely independent with their own voicing and EQ. Channel A is voiced for clean tones and touch-responsive playing that approximates the feel of a guitar interacting with a real tube amp. The B-mode is tight, gritty with focused lows, and a post-EQ w/ mid-sweep. Djent and metal players will enjoy the fuzz, feisty distortion, and high-gain tones it can create.
Besides that, Le Lead has three other applications a) direct to an amp using the ‘Thru Jack’, b) direct to the board, and c) the MIDI in/out to control external devices. The versatility of the pedal is augmented by the Wall of Sound III speaker simulation VST plugin. The free version includes 16 cabinets that include some famous British and American brands.
You can buy additional cabs via the in-app purchase after auditioning them. Though the free amps offer sufficient options for killer computer and studio recordings. Regardless of the function or configuration, Le Lead is a highly capable floor-rig that doesn’t infringe on your playing habits.
If you want a high-gain tube preamp in a cutting edge pedal, Two Tone’s Le Lead is a beast in a box. This 2-channel pedal is versatile, sturdy, and impressive in all its stage and studio applications. The Cab simulation and headphone out make it ideal for practice sessions. We recommend it for anyone who wants to emulate cab tones, use it as an ‘amp backup’, or massively expand your tone-shaping possibilities via an intuitive, fantastic-sounding preamp pedal.
The Epoch EP3, at heart, is a legendary preamp circuit within a metal enclosure. Unlike the other pedals in this roundup, it recreates the magic of the EP-3 Echoplex with the JFET preamp, and buffer – all in a compact two knobs unit. Unlike other pedal preamps, the EP3 isn’t made for tone sculpting.
It is about the big, vibrant EP-3 Echoplex tone that enthralled the likes of Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, Duane Allman, and a laundry list of guitar royalty. Catalinbread has spared no detail when it set out to replicate the original EP3 preamp.
This stompbox is one of the easiest ways to transform your clean or overdrive tones. While it is capable of serving as a plug-n-play preamp, it is twice as capable when placed at the end of your rig as a mastering processor.
You can expect a big tone with a distinct fullness and richness that very few other pedals could help you achieve. However, it isn’t just about adding zing. The Epoch EP3 can shift from 9V to 22V when the needs arise to enliven your dynamics and create greater headroom.
The preamp is suited for adding creaminess to the overdrive and subtle animation to clean tones. The boost covers everything from focused low-end to snarky midrange. Its penchant for tone-definition can sparkle-up the dullest of amps, making it a serious contender for your favorite always-on boost.
If you are enamored by the Echoplex tone color, the Catalinbread Epoch EP3 is the simplest way to achieve it. If you are not enamored by it, this pedal will give you every imaginable reason to start. The EP3, however, isn’t about versatility. It is a simple-to-use stompbox that has only one motive – to juice up your tone as nothing else would. And, it does that in the most enthralling fashion.
The Venue DI has been the reigning champion in every acoustic musician’s rig (or the lack of it) for the better part of the last decade. It may not be cheap, but the functionality and invaluable features vindicate the price tag. It gives you every reason to get rid of the individual stompboxes, patch cables, and the hassles that plague every gigging musician.
The LR Baggs Venue DI is a compact, well-designed preamp unit with a DI and all the toys that gigging demands. Despite the small footprint, it features a chromatic tuner, full isolation DI, and a responsive 5-band EQ panel with a 12dB cut/boost and sweepable mid-range.
One of the highlights of this unit is the proprietary Garrett Null notch filter. It does a fantastic job at eliminating feedback. Tone-wise, the EQ sounds natural and clean even when you use the boost. The 4 segment clip meter is a useful addition that allows you to visually monitor your gain and input levels.
It also features an adjustable volume boost and mute/tune footswitch. The tuner is a tad sensitive, but it gets the job done. The Venue DI can be powered by an adapter (not included) or a 9V battery. I’d pick the former as the battery life is not the best in the category. Either way, there is a 4-tiered battery-status LED, so it won’t pose any problems on stage.
LR Baggs Venue DI packs every possible need of a gigging musician in a sleek acoustic preamp box. The design and technology are miles ahead of its competitors. The price isn’t. For under $300, it is an EQ, DI, and Preamp pedal rolled into a well-designed unit. If the functionality appeals to you, it could become the only pedal between your guitar and the sound system.
It would not be fair to categorize (or water down) Strymon’s Iridium to a mere pedal preamp because it is so much more. You can use it as a ‘before-amp’ pedal to feed the cabs or use it directly to a PA system for gigs or use it as an Amp/cab modeler for studio recordings. It is, in a nutshell, versatility, convenience, power, and expertly rendered tones is a compact stompbox.
Iridium delivers three modeled amps with a choice of three cabs-on-call for each amp. Each amp has its own drive, optional reverb, and a 3-band EQ to sculpt the tone further. If that wasn’t enough, you can replace all onboard cabs with several Impulse Response cabinet options using Strymon’s Impulse Manager software.
The three modes are based on classic amps. They include the Round amp (Fender Deluxe), Chime (Vox AC30), and Punch (100W Marshall Super Lead). Lugging any one of those is significantly more work. The Iridium, on the other hand, is a belt-and-braces pedal that does a fantastic job of approximating their iconic sounds.
You can use an assignable expression pedal and tweak the parameters with the MIDI remote control. With a headphone, you can practice while enjoying the luxury of a full rig in a few square inches of your pedalboard. Store it in your accessory bag and you are ready to gig direct into the mixer at live venues or studios.
Iridium lives up to Strymon’s legacy of creating game-changing stompboxes. It is classy, easy to use, and gives you a plethora of realistic amp and cabinet choices by way of cutting edge simulation. The price may deter a few, as may the need for 500mA power. Nevertheless, if you integrate the Strymon Iridium into your pedalboard, it promises a lot of flavor with very little fuss.
Mooer has shaken up the pedal market with kickass micro-sized clones for many years. With the PreAMP Live, they offer a ‘game-changing’ digital preamp that has gone beast-mode on the competition. It features a 3-band and 12 channel workflow with MIDI compatibility, true bypass, USB cable connectivity for PC, and Bluetooth connectivity via the Mooer app.
With a humongous range of amps, cabs, features, and settings– Mooer leaves nothing to the imagination. The M999 offers 50 replicas of tube amps, 30 cab simulations with third-party IRs, and a preamp App + software. It is designed to satisfy all the needs of a gigging musician.
The 12 fully customizable amps replicating famous tube amps to a T. You can tap your way through clean Fender tones to Brit-grit to Mesa and pair them with equally dynamic cabs. The M999 is great for high-gain tones, especially with the pre/post noise gate to eliminate the hiss.
You can open the tone flood gates by pairing any amp to the independent speaker cab sims. The tone capture and press-down pre/post-boost are other noteworthy features in a unit that is packed to the hilt with innovation and possibilities.
It is, after all, a new-age preamp for the tech-savvy and tone-hungry modern guitarist. Although, at 230 x130 x46mm (L x W x H), the dimensions are quite beefy. As is the 600mA power consumption. Nevertheless, it offers a truckload of features per square inch. If you can’t relegate such space on your pedalboard, you can still consider the M999 as a viable backup for a Kemper-style rig while touring.
With the PreAMP Live, Mooer manages to create a massive pedal with more models and effects than any of its competitors. This is a comprehensive pedal a simple panel that masks the endless tweaking capabilities via the accompanying software. It does, however, come with a steep learning curve. If you enjoy the variety, it offers the requisite quality at a reasonable price. If you want something simpler, you can check out the Mooer Gas Station Micro Preamp or the accompanying range of micro preamp pedals.
On one hand, manufacturers like Strymon have taken the simulation of amp/cab models to a whole new level. On the other hand, JHS Effects continues to raise the bar with novelty and inimitability. And, Mooer stands somewhere in between, hoping to pull the rug out from under them both.
The new decade promises to be a no holds barred contest between simplicity and versatility, technology and tone color, and creativity and classics. Regardless of the side you pick, we’ve shared the best in each category to help you find the best guitar preamp pedal in 2021.