Updated by Bobby
Updated on December 1st, 2022
Added the Brass Knuckle all tube overdrive by Electron Brothers. Hat tip to Mick in the comments.
There's a lot of confusing language when it comes to tube distortion. Unfortunately, what most manufacturers mean when they throw the term "tube" around is a tube-style distortion, which is not the same as a distortion pedal that's run by a physical vacuum tube.
In this article, we're looking at only distortion pedals where one of the following scenarios are true:
- Specifically includes 12AX7 tubes
- Includes NuTube technology (more on this later)
- Includes a vacuum tube that is visible from the outside of the pedal
These are not just distortion pedals that have a tube style or "vibe" to them. Rather they're distortion pedals with actual vacuum tubes that function more as preamps than stompboxes. We'll tell you what to look for, then go through our list before answering more specific questions at the end of the pedal list.
Read more: Guitar Pedals with Tubes
What to look for
How do you identify distortion pedals that have tubes and aren't just using "tube" as a tone descriptor?
As we previously mentioned, some of these pedals will mention the type of tube used which is often 12AX7s or NuTubes. Some will also make the tube visible from the outside of the pedal, like we see with most of the Two Notes distortion pedals:
Companies that use the term tube in their tone description aren't necessarily trying to be deceptive, but it is a little hard to tell - especially when it comes to distortion - which pedals actually include real tubes. Instead, look at product photos closely and search for terms like 12AX7 or NuTube.
Distortion Pedals with Tubes: Our List
This is the list we've come up with by focusing on those terms. Note that where possible, we've listed the type of tube used in the pedal. The Two Notes pedal series uses a tube that's easy to see, though the spec sheet doesn't tell you what kind of tube it is. Our best guess is a 12AX7.
- Behringer VT999 Vintage Tube Monster Overdrive: 12AX7
- Vox Mystic Edge AC30-style Overdrive: NuTube
- Vox Silk Drive Overdrive: NuTube
- Two Notes Le Lead 2-channel Hi-Gain Tube Preamp
- Vox Copperhead Overdrive: NuTube
- Two Notes Le Clean 2-channel US Tones Tube Preamp
- TC Electronic Tube Pilot Overdrive: 12AX7 tubes
- Vox Cutting Edge High-gain Overdrive: NuTube
- Two Notes Le Crunch 2-channel British Tones Tube Preamp
- Electron Brothers Brass Knuckle
Do you know of a distortion pedal with tube circuits that we should add to this list? If so, drop it in the comments section below and we'll check it out.
Companies that Typically Make Distortion Pedals with Tubes
What are the companies that most often make distortion pedals with internal tube circuits? As you can tell from our list, there are two predominant brands to focus on:
- Two Notes
Other brands include Behringer and TC Electronic, as well as some boutique guitar pedal brands that are sure to get pointed out in the comments section.
What is a NuTube?
NuTube is a technology developed by Korg that has an anode grid filament structure, as opposed to the triode grid of vacuum tubes. They're made much smaller, though sound extremely similar to vacuum tubes, creating a similarly warm and overdriven tone quality.
This has led to their inclusion in a number of tube-driven guitar pedals, as their small size makes them easier for fitting into stompboxes.
You can read more about NuTube technology here.
Tube "style" or physical tubes?
We mentioned the issue with companies using tube as a tone descriptor and not a physical feature. For example, if you look at the Boss BD-2 Blues Driver on Sweetwater, you'll notice they call it "tube amplifier simulation" which means it's a digital model.
The Boss BD-2 Blues Driver is a great pedal, but it definitely does not have any kind of vacuum tube - triode or otherwise - inside it. Keep an eye out for these descriptors and read them carefully to avoid glossing over the tube terminology, only to find the pedal doesn't have tubes at all.
Preamp or distortion pedal?
What about the difference between pedal preamps and distortion pedals?
Technically, every distortion pedal is a type of preamp. But particularly when there are tubes involved, your pedal is serving as a functional preamp with control over your gain and overall tone quality.
We'd characterize the Two Notes series as more strictly preamps while the other pedals in this list are simpler distortion pedals.
But again, the terms can be used somewhat interchangeably.
Getting a distortion pedal with tubes is a worthwhile pursuit. They sound great, while giving you a higher level of control over your gain and "preamped" tone profile. The problem is that they're not super common and searching for them can be a bit tricky.
If you don't go with one of the options we've listed, check around some of the boutique pedal brands to see if they've got something similar.
Maybe you have a tube-driven distortion pedal in mind that would be a good addition to this list?
Let us know about it in the comments section below.
We'll check those, update the list, and give you a credit at the top of the page.
See you there.