Preamp Pedal vs Distortion Pedal – What’s the Difference?

Electric guitars have their advantages and disadvantages. I think it’s somewhat subjective to say what the ‘best’ type of instrument is.

Nonetheless, electric guitars offer some expressive qualities when you compare them to other instruments. There is a downside, though. If you want to sound good, you’ll require a considerable amount of gear.

Fortunately, modern guitarists have access to a wide array of incredibly sophisticated equipment to choose from.

This has made crafting my favorite tones much easier. With the rise of guitar pedals, I choose to forgo the traditional valve amplifiers. I favor guitar pedals as they are more practical, versatile, and smaller substitutes.

Now, there are different types of guitar pedals. Among the most popular and widely used guitar pedals are preamp pedals and distortion pedals.

Below is a comprehensive preamp pedal vs. distortion pedal overview and comparison.

[amazon table=”7550″]

What is a Preamp Pedal, and How Does It Work?

Video: “Using A Preamp Pedal Before Your Amp”

The first section of an amplifier is referred to as the ‘preamp.’ It precedes both an amplifier’s effects loop section and power amp stage.

As such, the first part of the amp that your guitar interacts with is the preamp. A preamp pedal essentially emulates the preamp section of your guitar amplifier.

A preamp refers to an electronic amp in an audio system that converts electrical signals that are weak into a strong output signal.

The output signal is strong enough to be noise-tolerant and for processing further. Further processing means sending the output signal to your power amp and the loudspeaker.

Without a preamp, your final signal would be distorted or noisy. You use preamps to amplify signals from the analog sensors to line level. Your power amp is typically the second amplifier.

A preamp provides voltage gain but with minimal current gain. Your power amp provides the higher current gains you need to drive the loudspeakers.

Note that whatever the amp you’re playing, it’s the preamp part that’s performing most of the tone-shaping. Preamp pedals are designed specifically for pedalboards. They serve as ergonomic alternatives to the traditional amps.

[amazon box=”B07PR8N266″]

Most conventional preamps feature valve tubes. On the other hand, preamp pedals rely on solid-state circuitry.

The reason for this is that genuine valve tubes expire after a few years of use. They tend to heat up to high temps. They are also made out of glass and are thus brittle.

Preamp pedals use the solid-state formula to ensure longevity and reliability. The majority of preamp pedals don’t have valves.

However, the designers still need to offer you convincing sounds and a similar usability level as you would expect from a real amp.

For this reason, preamp pedals have ES controls. These controls allow you to shape your sounds familiarly. The controls may include bass, middle and treble, among others.

Note that many modern amps are designed to distort the preamp sections. Preamp pedals also boast several channels, similar to amps that allow you to switch between different sounds.

Some preamp pedal models feature comprehensive control sets. These controls allow you to dial in the perfect tones.

It would be best if you placed your [amazon link=”B07PR8N266″ title=”preamp pedal” link_icon=”amazon” /] early in your signal chain. This means before your power amp and cab simulator pedals.

It should be among the first stompboxes that the output signal of your guitar comes into contact with.

What is a Distortion Pedal and How Does it Work?

Video: “How to Use Distortion Pedals: 3 Easy Tips”

When I seek rough, heavily saturated tones, I use either distortion or overdrive. A distortion pedal falls into the category of effect pedals.

An effect pedal is a device that changes the sound of an audio source via audio signal processing.

Distortion is one of the most common effects used with electric guitars. You can also use it with bass guitars, Hammond organs, and bass guitars.

Distortion pedals help create warm, fuzzy, and gritty tones by “clipping” your guitar’s audio signal. Depending on the intensity and type of distortion you use, you can describe the compressed sound as either “warm” or “dirty.”

Clipping means pushing a sound signal past its maximum. Clipping shears the peaks and troughs of the wave signal. This effect distorts the shape of the waveform and introduces overtones.

[amazon box=”B00GRN1VNO”]

Sometimes, distortion effects are referred to as ‘gains’ effects. Distorted guitar sounds were achieved by increasing the power supply (gain) to tube amps. You use distortion pedals to produce flattened peaks or ‘hard’ clipping.

The perfectly flattened peaks create “warm” sounds. Distortion pedals also add inharmonic overtones to produce “gritty” sounds. A distortion pedal can either be digital or transistor-based.

The distinct “growling” tone of a distorted guitar is a crucial component of many music genres such as blues, punk rock, hard rock, heavy metal rock, acid rock, and hardcore punk. Distorted bass is essential in an alternative hip hop genre known as SoundCloud rap.

Note that a [amazon link=”B00GRN1VNO” title=”distortion pedal” link_icon=”amazon” /] is often confused with an overdrive pedal. Technically, overdrive is a type of distortion.

The difference here is that a distortion pedal produces a more extreme effect than an overdrive pedal. Fuzz is a perfect example of extreme distortion that an overdrive pedal cannot produce.

Preamp Pedal vs. Distortion Pedal: What Are the Differences?

The line between a preamp pedal vs. distortion pedal can be somewhat blurry. You can technically refer to distortion pedals as preamp pedals (they come before your amp in your signal chain). However, a preamp pedal serves to emulate the preamp section of your guitar amp.

A preamp pedal features a unique output that allows you to plug the device straight into your mixer while at the same time making it sound like you’re playing through a guitar amp.

It also features another output that allows you to connect straight into the power amp section of your regular guitar amp. This feature provides new possibilities in tone-shaping processes.

In many cases, a preamp pedal features two or more channels, similar to the preamp sections on your guitar amp. You have the choice of a clean or distorted tone, being able to switch between the two.

A distortion pedal utilizes audio signal processing to alter your audio source’s sound by clipping the signal from your guitar. Essentially, you cannot substitute a distortion pedal as a preamp pedal and expect great results.

You have to place a graphic EQ after the distortion pedal for a great sound. Distortion pedals tend towards a “darker” sound featuring more Mids. This bias is to compensate for running in front of a clean preamp.

[amazon table=”7550″]


Overall, there exists plenty of diversity with the electric guitar pedal market, as this preamp pedal vs. distortion pedal comparison shows.

You have simple and cost-efficient options tailored to budget-conscious musicians and more flexible and sophisticated guitar pedals.

While a distortion pedal is technically a preamp pedal, they serve fundamentally different purposes. Nonetheless, you can use these guitar pedals to dial in your tones and create unique

Juan Stansbury
Juan Stansbury

I'm Juan Stansbury, author and owner of Homerecordio – your ultimate destination for everything about homerecording. With hands-on experience, courses, workshops, and industry research, I offer tips on selecting the best equipment, and mixing and mastering your recordings to achieve professional-quality results at home. Join me on this journey to explore the world of homerecording and music production.

Home Recordio