How to Set an Overdrive Pedal Properly

How to Set an Overdrive Pedal Properly

In this guide, I will share with you various ways to set up and use your overdrive pedals properly. This guide will cover three main aspects of use.

  1. Rhythm Tones
  2. Lead Tones
  3. Overdrive Pedal Stacking

This guide will help you understand different ways you can use your pedals as well as how to get the best results.  One thing to remember is this is a guide based on my experience and will not reflect all pedals and amplifiers combinations.

Start with Your Amplifier

Turn all of your pedals off and try and find a clean tone that you love.  Adjust the volume of the amplifier up until it’s loud enough for your gig (or at home). Set all of the EQ how you like it irrespective if your pedal has EQ controls.

Getting a great clean tone you love is half of the battle.  If you don’t have a good clean tone, the pedals will not shine.


How to Set up an Overdrive Pedal for Rhythm Tones

Setting a rhythm tone with an overdrive pedal is actually pretty easy. Once you have your amplifier at the correct volume for the room switch the overdrive pedal on.

Once the pedal is on, turn everything to midday which is dead centre/12 O’Clock.

Start adjusting the volume control until you are at the same volume of the amplifier with the pedal off.  setting up the pedal at unity will give you no surprises.  You can, of course, turn the pedal up louder or softer but your best results come from having the amp up louder.

Once the pedal is at the same volume of the amplifier my suggestion is to turn the gain down to 9 O’Clock.  This is only a starting point but you’ll quickly realize if you want more or less depending on your taste.

If you are going for an off-clean tone then adjust it accordingly.  If you are going for more of a rock rhythm sound add more gain.

Setting an Overdrive up for Rhythm Guitar Tones
Setting an Overdrive up for Rhythm Guitar Tones.
Please Note:

Adding gain can make your overall volume louder too so be careful of this.  Adjust the volume down if need be but don’t turn it down too far.  Something great happens with a pedal when you keep the volume of it at the unity level of above.

After setting the volume and gain adjust the treble.  I usually aim for a sound that is similar to the amp tone I set up before I switched the pedal is on.  Some pedals like a Tube Screamer may require adding more top end to match the amp sound.

Not all pedals are great for Rhythm Guitar

Some pedals are designed for a lead boost and they don’t sound great as rhythm guitar sounds.  One example of a pedal I would never use for rhythm is a Klon Centaur pedal.  These are amazing lead pedals but not great as a rhythm sound.


Lead Guitar Overdrive Pedal Set Up

Once you have the foundation of the amplifier established as mentioned earlier setting a good lead tone is very similar.

I need to make mention of the variables here because everyone will be playing at different volumes with different amplifiers.

If you are using a Tube amplifier your best bet for great lead tones with an overdrive pedal is to make sure the amp is up loud.  Having the amplifier up at gig volume will give you a vastly different experience to using it quietly.

If you are playing at gig volume on your clean or off-clean amp channels then this will work great.

Crank up the pedal volume but start with the gain down on the pedal.  Using your overdrive pedal like this will allow it to hit the front-end or “preamp” section of the amp and push it over the edge into natural breakup.

This exact thing can be accomplished by using a volume boost pedal as well for those wondering.

Setting an Overdrive up for Lead Guitar Tones
Setting an Overdrive up for Lead Guitar Tones

Setting an overdrive pedal on a dirty channel amplifier

If your amp is already dirty and you want a bump in volume then crank up the volume pot and keep the gain down.  In this situation, you may require more treble in your sound.  You can achieve this by turning up the tone control.


Playing at this volume isn’t always easy!

I get it. While I am a gigging musician I can’t always be really loud.  In these sort of situations, I would opt for more gain than less.  Getting the sweet overdrive tones out of pedals is what they were designed for so there’s nothing wrong with this approach.

Set the maximum solo volume and gain structure using your ears and also by using more gain then less.  This method allows you to control the gain of the pedal with your guitars volume control.

In some situations where I am using a Fender amplifier. I will set my overdrive pedal up in a way where I can “set and forget it”.  I then use the guitar volume to control my overall volume and how much gain I have at any point.

This set and forget method is popular for blues players in particular and it’s how I’ve got through many gigs and jam nights over the years.

Overdrive Pedal Stacking

For overdrive pedal stacking I still start with the amplifier.  Set up your amplifier up until it sounds good as mentioned earlier.

Some people prefer to set the amplifier controls all to 12 O’Clock and then use their pedals to shape the sound.  The problem with this method is not all effects pedals have bass and treble controls.

Either way, I think the pedal EQ controls should be used as a last resort to “fix” an amplifier that doesn’t sound great, to begin with.

In terms of the rhythm guitar pedal, set it with the gain to your liking. Once you have it set up as mentioned at the top of this article you can then start working with your second lead overdrive pedal.

Because you are stacking a pedal into another pedal there are a few things to remember.

  • If your lead pedal is before the rhythm pedal it will increase the gain
  • When your lead pedal is after the rhythm pedal it will increase the volume

If you want a louder solo with a similar tone that you have for your rhythm guitar put the lead overdrive pedal after the rhythm pedal and turn the gain down and volume up to your liking.

When you want a fatter and more sustaining lead tone, then use the lead pedal in front of the overdrive.  The lead pedal volume output will need to be higher to compensate for the pedal it’s going through which is set to your desired volume.

You will still get a boost in volume but it will not be as prominent as with the lead boost after the overdrive.

Stacking Overdrive Pedals
Stacking Overdrive Pedals.  Maxon (rhythm) and Ponyboy (lead). The Ponyboy is before the Maxon for increased gain.

Which way is best when stacking an Overdrive pedal?

Only you can answer this question.  See what you like the tone of the best as well.  Using a pedal like a Klon before a Tubescreamer will sound great and give you way more sustain and saturation.

Using a Klon after the rhythm pedal will make a lot louder but it will also drastically change your tone.

How you choose to set up an overdrive pedal comes down to what you like the best.  I have experimented with both of these ways with many overdrive pedals and some work better with others.


What about the EQ Controls

If you have a very uninspiring amplifier then feel free to experiment with the EQ controls.  A good overdrive should sound great irrespective of having EQ controls.

Don’t go too heavy with the bass control either.  This will add too much mud to your sound.  The Mids and Tops are what will cut the mix in a live situation best so aim to train your ear to hear these mid frequencies.

Like anything guitar related. There isn’t a right or wrong way to really to run anything when it comes down to it.  How to set an overdrive pedal up properly is all a matter of taste.  What I have found though is using these methods will be the easiest way to get the tone you have in your head out of the guitar.


What are the best pedals?

There is no best.  You can generally make almost any pedals work to some extent. A rule of Thumb is if you want a rhythm pedal then get one that has a “transparent” sound.  This means it will not add too much in the way of color to the original amplifier tone.  I actually find this a bit boring, but a lot of people love this approach.  There’s nothing to stop you using two Tube Screamers for example with the settings I have mentioned above.

Having a pedal with a mid-bump will actually sound way better in the live mix as it will jump out in a more 3D way.  Check out my guide for Tube Screamers here.  If you’re looking for a great lead boost pedal check out my article on Klon pedals.