The preamp section of your amp is where the magic happens: it shapes your tone and can add gain or overdrive before sending that polished, finished sound off to the power amp, which adds wattage to speaker-ready levels. To state the obvious, most of us believe that vacuum tube-driven preamps (sometimes called valve amps) are the holy grail of warm tone and overdrive. Guitarists without tube amps often search for pedals that emulate tube sounds, whether digital or analog, but there is no substitute for real, glowing, hot-smelling vacuum tubes.
If you want more than an imitation tube-sounding stompbox, but are not quite ready to run out and buy a Plexi head, fear not! You can buy honest-to-goodness vacuum tube-driven preamps that are in pedal form, plugging them into your solid-state amp’s power section or directly into a mixer or console. The result is real tube sound, at a fraction of the cost and weight of a tube amp. Check out our picks for 5 of the best tube preamp pedals.
Blackbird Vacuum Tube Preamp ($469)
Blackbird describes their preamp pedal and its 12AX7 tube as a “Tube Tone Engine” with “bourbon & honey tone,” giving you beautifully vintage clean and gain sounds in a small pedal. Its clean channel emulates the glassy shimmer of a Fender Blackface, with just a touch of pick-responsive grit. The gain channel ranges from bluesy overdrive to the rich, harmonic overtones of classic rock—you’ll swear you’ve got a wall of classic Dumbles at your command.
On top of this, independent bass/mid/treble controls for each channel let you fine-tune your tone, and adjustable bias lets you really heat up or cool down the tube. The tube is easily accessible, and Blackbird encourages users to experiment with whatever vintage 12A tubes they wish.
AMT Electronics SS-20 Tube Guitar Preamp ($350)
Russian company AMT released a great preamp with the SS-20, based on a single 12AX7 tube. Boasting clean and drive channels, the drive/gain channel also gives you the option of a lower sensitivity “crunch” section, or a more responsive, searing “lead” gain sound. The end result is tube distortion that is particularly suited for high gain, hard-clipped metal sounds.
The SS-20 is equally adept plugged directly into a mixer or recording console via a cab emulator output, or into a power amp/cab combo via its normal output. The effect loop is useful for DI use, too. Just put all your modulation effects into the loop, rather than behind the preamp. The SS-20 is a real gem for the tight crunch of modern metal, and it’s way less money than a Dual Rectifier.
Behringer VT999 Vintage Tube Monster Overdrive ($120)
Behringer has really been shaking up the industry lately with affordably-priced effects, and it seems like their quality only keeps improving. The VT999 is about one third of the price of its peers listed here, and it’s a great bare-bones preamp with no extra features beyond gain, tone knobs, and a simple noise gate that reduces hiss.
The VT999 is more of an on-demand effects pedal than a comprehensive, always-on micro-head. It does not have separate clean/gain channels. When you switch off its single footswitch, there is no tube-driven clean signal going to your power amp at all. But if you stack it with other fuzz or distortion units into your solid-state amp, you’ll have an overdriven warmth that excels beyond what any Tube Screamer stompbox will ever do. This is by far the most affordable way to get real tube sound.
Carvin X1 All Tube Preamp Pedal ($449)
The X1 attempts to fit all the sounds and features of Carvin’s flagship X100b tube head into a pedal, with two 4-stage 12AX7s in the tube department. With a five-band graphic equalizer in addition to bass/mid/treble knobs, and separate rhythm (clean) and lead (gain) channels, the X1 is a versatile tube preamp.
But it goes further with features that almost push the X1 in micro-head territory. You can switch the voice emulator from a 2×12 cab sound to a 4×12, there’s a separate effects loop, and you get a Fender-style bright switch. What’s particularly cool here is the fact that the X1 has one watt of power. You can plug it directly into a small speaker cabinet or headphones without any sort of additional power amp. Whether you’re wanting beautiful tube sound for a live show or a little home-practice module, the X1 is excellent.
Kingsley Juggler ($390)
Like the Blackbird, Kingsley’s Juggler is a versatile multistage preamp with ‘60s vibes, only it uses two 12AX7s. That’s an impressive feat given the stompbox’s small footprint (5.25” x 5”). The clean channel is equally smooth whether playing country twang or jazz thickness, and you can use it as a clean boost into your existing amp. The overdrive channel actually adds two more stages to the clean settings. It doesn’t reach the metal mayhem of the AMT, but it gives you all the classic bluesy gain of a breaking up Fender.
In addition to the basic level controls for each channel and bass/mid/treble controls, the Juggler also has separate 3-way switches for each channel. The clean channel’s switch is a sort of treble boost that also thickens the sound, while the gain channel’s switch adds progressively more presence.
There is simply no substitute for real tube sound, and these pedals give you tons of options with their tubes. But what exactly are you looking for?
- If you love the warmth of 1960s combo amps for blues, jazz, country, or classic rock, check out the Blackbird or the Juggler.
- Do you want heavier metal and crunch? Go Russian-made with the AMT.
- If you want a tube sound with the added benefits of a small practice head, check out the Carvin.
- Do you want to bring on-demand, real tube drive into your solid-state amp, for about the same price as a Tube Screamer? Go with the Behringer.