Guide to Preamp Pedals – What Are They and Do You Need One?

The longer you spend in guitar circles, the more gear you start to learn about. In the beginning, our primary concerns are guitars, amps, and the occasional effects pedal, but as your skills improve, the quest for a signature sound begins.

One of the pedals that tends to be overlooked until the point in a guitarist’s life where tone becomes a priority is the preamp pedal. The term preamp pedal is often misused, and even more misunderstood. So what exactly is a preamp pedal? Why are they useful?

In this Killer Guitar Rigs Guide, we’ll be learning all about preamp pedals and why you should be using one!

What Are Preamp Pedals?

Before going into detail on preamp pedals, it’s important to understand the fundamentals of preamps in general. The job of the preamp is to amplify the signal from your guitar to ‘line level’ so it can be shaped by any EQ before being sent to the power amp, and finally to the speaker. Along with the speaker, the preamp has the biggest overall impact on how an amplifier actually sounds.

A preamp pedal squeezes the preamp into a stomp box or other pedal format, but in essence it’s the exact same thing as the preamp on your amplifier. With a preamp pedal, you avoid the need to use bulky combo amps or heads. Instead, you can plug directly into a powered PA.

Are Preamp Pedals Necessary?

Deciding whether a preamp is necessary really depends on your use case. Are you playing through a combo amp in your bedroom? If yes, then you most likely don’t need a preamp pedal. However, if you’re playing gigs or you’re a recording artist, it’s highly recommended to have one in your rig.

How Do You Use a Preamp Pedal?

The beauty of the preamp pedal, much like the preamp in your combo or amp head, is that the signal stays clean. This lets you crank the volume and shape the EQ, but still send out a clean tone to the rest of the signal chain. This is especially effective when using just a preamp direct into a combo amp, or head and cab. Some players do this to get a more British tone from their ultra clean American-style amps without the need for digital intervention.

Traditionally, the preamp is placed at the very beginning of the signal chain, providing a clean, full signal for subsequent pedals such as distortion, overdrive, or modulation effects. This allows the preamp to shape the guitar’s tone and dynamic response before any other effects are applied, giving a clearer and more precise tone.

Alternatively, placing the preamp after gain-based effects like fuzz or overdrive allows these pedals to color the raw guitar signal first. The preamp then can amplify and further shape this modified tone. This can provide a more saturated, full-bodied tone.

Preamps are also great when used just before delay and reverb pedals. Especially when the reverb or delay pedals are being used heavily, the tone can get dark and sloppy. By cleaning up those dirtier frequencies prior to the signal hitting the delay or reverb pedals, you’ll sound clearer and get much more out of those effects.

Some guitarists also experiment with putting the preamp in the effects loop of their amplifier, if one is available. This setup tends to provide greater tonal control and consistency when switching between clean and distorted channels on the amp.

Ultimately, there are tons of different ways to incorporate a preamp pedal into your signal chain. The best thing to do is to experiment with using it before and after certain FX to see if you like the resulting tone.

How Much Do Preamp Pedals Cost?

Preamp pedals, much like any amps, vary wildly when it comes to price and quality. At the low end, you can find preamp pedals for as little as $35. If the sky’s the limit, preamp pedals can sell for as much as $2,000.

Of course, you should set your budget based upon the feature set you need. If you’re experimenting with preamps for the first time, it’s advisable to shop at the lower end to make sure it’s going to at least get you into the ballpark of the sound you’re after. If you’re a working musician and you need quality, then go ahead and buy a quality unit. Cheaper pedals are perfectly functional, but more premium models will have noticeably better clarity.

Is a Boost Pedal the Same as a Preamp Pedal?

In most cases, no. A boost pedal and preamp pedal are not the same. A preamp pedal, as we’ve learned, features a preamp that can plug straight into a powered PA. A boost pedal cannot do the same. The intent of a boost pedal is to have a similar tonal effect as a preamp when plugging into a combo or head and cab. It increases the input signal, which acts in a similar fashion to increasing gain.

Does a Preamp Improve Sound?

Many pieces of guitar equipment tend to have subjective results based on preferences, but few would question a preamp’s positive effect on sound. They produce a cleaner input signal, which allows for much more accurate tone shaping across the EQ band.

These differences might not be so noticeable in a crowded gig with a low-end PA system, but in the studio where crystal-clear recordings matter, a preamp pedal can make a world of difference.

Is a Distortion Pedal a Preamp?

In the sense that a distortion pedal goes before the amp in a signal chain, yes, but this is where much of the confusion lies. It is not a preamp in the sense that it features preamp circuitry. This does mean, however, that you can pair a preamp pedal together with something like a Boss OD-1 or an Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer and the results will be fantastic.

Final Thoughts on Preamp Pedals

Investing in a good preamp pedal (check out our favorites here) is a step that many guitarists don’t make either through lack of understanding, or because the perceived benefits don’t line up with what they’re looking for.

But believe us when we say that preamp pedals are something 99% of guitarists will never stop using once they’ve tried one. They offer significantly expanded tonal possibilities, excellent sound consistency, without having to lug around combos, cabs, heads and mics around to gigs.

  • Simon Morgan

    Simon is an Orlando based musician, but originally hails from Newcastle, England. He started playing bass and guitar in 1998, and played the local scene throughout his teen years before running away to work on ships. These days his passion is budget guitars, amps and pedals - though he's not afraid of the finer things.