Clean boosts are probably some of the more useful pedals that we as guitar players can own, however, finding a quality clean boost can be extremely challenging. Some clean boost pedals actually aren’t very clean at all and add too much distortion when you try to turn up the volume knob, and others are noisy, or boost unwanted frequencies. All of the pedals listed here are low noise, and do not boost harsh frequencies, or muddy your tone.
- Bottom Line:The boutique ZVex Super Hard On is a bit of the unconventional choice for a boost for adventurous guitarists. It's a transparent boost for the most part (adds a bit of richness & sparkle), crackles by design when you adjust it, and has a ton of gain on tap. Count on ZVex to make any pedalboard more interesting.
- Bottom Line:One of the cleanest clean boosts around. The Treble and Bass knobs give you an extra level of control as compared to other boosts. Superb Xotic quality, true bypass, perfect as a pristine clean boost or an "always on" pedal. This is a fantastic choice, provided you can swallow the slightly higher price tag.
- What Is a Clean Boost?
- What Else can a Clean Boost Do?
- Why Buy a Clean Boost Instead of an Overdrive?
- How Did We Come Up With This List?
- The 5 Best Clean Boosts
What Is a Clean Boost?
A clean boosts is a pedal that will boost the volume of your guitar signal, with little to no tone coloration, or adding much if any distortion from the pedal. The only distortion that you should get would be from the amp overdriving itself because the pedal is pushing it so hard. So, if you’re a country guitar player, or like to play blues, a clean boost is essential to getting a great, sustaining lead tone, while maintaining a clean sounding signal, or just to push your amp a little bit farther for a more full sounding clean/mid gain rhythm tone.
It is also important to understand that the pedal itself is not the most important thing that dictates how clean sounding your clean boost will be; it is the pickups in your guitar, and the amp that you use. If your amp has high clean headroom, meaning that the amp won’t normally distort on its own until it is turned up really loud, like a Fender Twin Reverb, then your clean boost will stay clean longer, as opposed to if you were using an amp with lower clean headroom, like a JCM 800. If you were using a low clean headroom amp, like a JCM 800, then you will still notice some added distortion when stepping on your clean boost, however, that distortion will be mostly from the amp, and will still be considerably less added distortion then if you used an overdrive pedal, which would also add distortion from the pedal itself. Also, if we use lower output pickups, then your clean boost will stay clean longer. Higher output pickups push the amp to distort more, so mixing higher output pickups with your clean boost will cause your clean boost to not be a pristine clean sound.
What Else can a Clean Boost Do?
It is important to realize though that your clean boost does not need to be perfectly pristinely clean. A perfectly clean and transparent boost pedal can be really useful for some sounds, like if you’re working on a country song with some chicken picking lead guitar. Sometimes though, the sound of a clean boost pushing an amp to distort with a guitar that has mid to high output pickups can give a very smooth, creamy sounding clean overdrive that is very hard to achieve with a standard overdrive pedal.
Why Buy a Clean Boost Instead of an Overdrive?
A clean boost has a bunch of benefits that are hard to get from your average overdrive pedal. First off, as said earlier, when a clean boost is pinned with a guitar that has medium to high output pickups, they can achieve a creamy sounding clean overdrive that is very hard to achieve with a standard overdrive pedal. Obviously there are some overdrives that can achieve this, but it is much easier to use a good clean boost. Also, a clean boost can allow you to get a clean sounding solo boost, which is very useful for blues, chicken picking country guitar, and many other genres/playing styles that is hard to get with an overdrive. Even with the gain knob really low, most overdrives still add a lot of color, and a bit of their own gain. Finally, clean boosts are great for when your amp is almost there in terms of tone. Overdrive pedals color your tone a lot, whereas good clean boosts are fairly transparent, and can be used to give your amp that little push to make your tone feel and sound better without coloring the tone too much.
And speaking of overdrive, a question we frequently see is if a clean boost should be placed before or after dirt pedals. This is a great question, and there’s not a single correct answer; it depends on what you want to achieve. If you place your boost before your dirt pedal, it will increase the amount of distortion. Some distortion and overdrive pedals love having a boost in front of them, and respond really well to that. Another benefit is if you’re playing quietly, placing the boost before the dirt pedal will get you more dirt at a low setting. If you want the boost to provide an increase in volume but not necessarily the amount of distortion/saturation, place it after your dirt pedal.
How Did We Come Up With the Best Boost Pedals?
When reading a “best of” guide like this one, it’s important to keep a couple things in mind. First, “best” means different things to different people. Someone with an unlimited budget thinks of the “best” he or she can buy very differently than the guitarist or bassist on a budget. To that point, it’s important to know where we got our data from. Our process goes something like this: We hunt down as many “best boost pedal” forum threads and discussions as we can. We gather the individual opinions of guitarists and bassists, and keep a tally of each boost pedal that comes recommended by someone that owns (or has owned) it. As we gather more and more votes, a handful of pedals starts emerging as the most recommended. We take these pedals and read as many user reviews as we can get our hands on, and finally we go test the top 5 ourselves at our local music shop, so we can either verify or refute what our research shows. We’re proud of this process; it takes many days to compile the data, and even longer to get our hands on the pedals and write up our final reviews. However, we think the work is totally worthwhile, as we end up with a list of the best pedals for most people. We hope we can get you a few steps closer to selecting the best boost pedal for you.
The 5 Best Clean Boosts
MXR M-133 Micro Amp
If you’ve done any sort of prior research on the best guitar boost pedals, you’ll likely have seen two names make an appearance over and over. The MXR Micro Amp, and the Xotic Effects EP Booster. When tallying up the votes and seeing which pedals belong on our top 5 list, the MXR M-133 Micro Amp stole first place by a single vote! Its ease of use, build quality, low price tag, and its effect on your tone are just a few reasons why we completely agree with its first place finish. Let’s explore.
That first impression the MXR Micro Amp makes is how simple it is! As far as guitar and bass pedals go, this is one of the simplest you can buy. Don’t let its simplicity fool you, however! Depending on how you use it, this can be your best friend on your pedalboard. In fact, the MXR Micro Amp is regarded as an indispensable pedal by most guitarists that use it - both amateur and pro (read on, as we list a few pro guitarists that depend on the Micro Amp - we’re confident you’ll recognize a few of them).
Right out of the box, you notice how the MXR M-133 Micro Amp just feels like a workhorse. The MXR build quality is evident with its all-metal case. It might be cliché by now, but “built like a tank” definitely applies here. This pedal has been around for a while and has definitely proven it can stand a good bit of abuse. It has a single on/off footswitch same as other MXR pedals, and features true bypass so your tone won’t be affected when the pedal is off. It has a 1/4” input and output, and an input for a 9V DC power supply right next to the 1/4” input on the side of the pedal (you can also unscrew the bottom and power it with a 9V battery). The only way to tweak this pedal is the single large GAIN knob, which - you guessed it - adjusts the gain. MXR also includes a large rubber washer that goes over the knob, for better grip and easier operation in case you want to manipulate it with your foot while you’re playing. This is a nice little plus in our book.
The MXR Micro Amp is a transparent, simple, effective clean boost. The difficult thing about reviewing a boost pedal is that its effect on tone can vary greatly depending on your equipment, particularly your guitar pickups and amplifier. We think the most helpful thing we can talk about is how most guitarists perceive this pedal depending on where in the signal chain they place it. By most accounts, the Micro Amp fits the bill if you’re looking for a transparent boost; that is, a clean boost that doesn’t color your tone or particularly affect any frequencies. While most describe the MXR Micro Amp as “totally clean” and “totally transparent,” we tend to agree with a few owners that claim that even with the Gain knob all the way down, there’s an ever-so-slight increase in your high end frequencies. Fortunately, this is mostly a change for the better, as it just seems like you get a little more crispness and clarity when this pedal is on. Another way to think of it is that the Micro Amp adds just a bit of “brightness.”
We researched all the different places owners of the Micro Amp place it in their signal chain, and tested all the positions ourselves so we could hear the results - at the start of the chain, before and after dirt pedals, at the end of the chain, and in the effects loop. When placed at the front of the chain, it is indeed very transparent. It tends to show its character a little more when placed around your distortion and overdrive pedals. In short, you’ll definitely want to experiment with placement. One thing is for sure - no matter where in the chain you place it, the MXR Micro Amp is easy to use and very effective. Whether you play just lead or both rhythm and lead, this boost pedal is extremely useful, as this user puts it:
“It fattens my lead tone nicely though when paired with a Tube Screamer or something with a big volume boost, and in that sense it's great for lead guitarists.”
We tried the Micro Amp with both a Fender Strat and a Gibson Les Paul, and found it’s very successful at compensating for the difference in pickups, providing more “bite” when you need it, resulting in a stronger, fatter tone. After testing out its range, we found ourselves loving the Micro Amp’s effect on our tone with the Gain knob set just a hair over 12 o’clock.
Bottom Line: If you only paid attention to the MXR M-133 Micro Amp when shopping for a boost pedal, rest assured you’re looking at a great one. Judging by the number of people recommending it in our research, and the amount of pro guitarists that depend on it, we’re very confident in saying this is the most popular boost. Speaking of the pros, here are several that consider the MXR Micro Amp very important to their sound: Alex Turner, John Frusciante, Flea (who uses it when he needs that little “extra bit” when slapping or doing a lead part on the bass), Jack White (not only does Jack White have one on his pedalboard, but has rigged up a couple guitars to have a Micro Amp inside of them), Kings of Leon’s Matthew and Caleb Followill, Nick Valensi, Paul Banks of Interpol fame... and that’s only to name a small fraction.
Hopefully you can see how the MXR Micro Amp is so versatile despite being so simple to operate. It can be transparent, but one of the best features is that when the Micro Amp is turned up high and adding a bit of overdrive, it adds a very pleasant tone, as opposed to sounding harsh or muddy. You might simply find the Micro Amp fun, or you might find it absolutely crucial to your tone - either way, you’ll appreciate how MXR has priced it quite affordably. All in all, as far as the best boost pedals go, this is the Best of the Best.
Xotic Effects EP Booster
The chief rival to the MXR Micro Amp is the Xotic Effects EP Booster, coming in a single vote shy of equalling the Micro Amp for first place in our tally. Now, it’s important to know that pitting the MXR Micro Amp against the Xotic EP is not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. Yes, they are both boost pedals, but the Xotic EP is a slightly different beast, which becomes evident when you see how people describe its effect on their tone. It’s also a bit more expensive than the MXR Micro Amp. Let’s get on with the review, which will hopefully help you select which is the best boost pedal for you.
As far as the way it looks, feels, and functions, it’s actually fairly similar to the MXR. The Xotic EP Booster is slimmer, which is something to consider if you’re very tight on space on your pedalboard. The build quality is second to none; this little box feels like it could withstand lots of use and abuse. Like the Micro Amp, its appearance on so many pedalboards of the pros is a testament to its tour-worthiness. Functionally, you’ve got an on/off footswitch (true bypass), 1/4” input and output, an input for a power supply on the back of the pedal (it can be powered with 9V DC or 18V DC, which actually slightly affects the tone), and a single big boost knob atop the pedal with 20dB of gain on tap. Again, dead simple operation. Removing the panel on the underside of the EP Booster reveals a slot for a 9V battery, and two small DIP switches, which affect the character of the pedal (more on these shortly).
The Xotic EP Booster is in actuality NOT designed to be fully transparent, and this is largely due to it being based on the preamp section of a vintage EP-3 Echoplex (made famous by Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, and many more). While the MXR Micro Amp can be considered more of a utilitarian, straightforward clean boost, the Xotic EP Booster is sought after more because of a certain extra “sparkle” it adds to your tone. It’s actually quite entertaining to see all the superlatives people use when attempting to describe this pedal - warming, thickening, punch, creamy, shimmering, bigger, stronger. Lots of owners of the Xotic EP simply call it magic:
“...you may be led to believe that if you peeked inside the pedal, you'd find transistors made from unicorn horn in there. Well, maybe they are. This pedal is that good... even if you turn the knob all the way down, you still get the magic”
In our play testing, we can attest to the fact that there’s a very subtle yet pleasant coloration to your tone. But make no mistake; you can absolutely use this pedal as a transparent-ish clean boost. The 20dB of gain are just enough, whether you’re running the EP Booster before your overdrive/distortion to push them, or after to “enlarge” your sound. The two available DIP switches give this boost pedal a leg up in the customizability department. One switch is a Bass Boost, and the other is a Bright switch. Both of them set to off is known as the Vintage setting, which brings out the mellower side of the EP Booster. Just the Bright switch on is the default setting, and the extra boost it provides in the high end of the spectrum definitely helps if your guitar and amp combo is “darker.” Flipping on the Bass Boost DIP switch helps fatten up single coils. Your milage may vary, and part of the fun is discovering how the EP Booster will work best within your setup.
Bottom Line: It’s difficult to say anything bad about this boost pedal. In fact, the consensus is that no matter what your existing gear is, the Xotic EP Booster will improve your tone in some way. We love this quote from a review we tend to agree with, from a user using the EP Booster just before their overdrive pedal:
“The result is an overdrive tone that is much thicker, creamier and has more "punch" than what is produced without the booster in front.”
This might not be the best pedal for you if you’re looking for the most transparent clean boost money can buy. However, it can actually be very complementary to a cleaner boost like the MXR Micro Amp. We would recommend using the Micro Amp as the clean boost for lead playing, and have the Xotic EP Booster on your board as an always-on pedal to add that extra sparkle and sweetness (a.k.a. the magic) to your tone. One downside is that it’s pricier than an MXR Micro Amp, but given that it’s an instant “tone improver” and can make a lifeless amp sound immediately better, its price tag might be justified. Famous users include Josh Klinghoffer, Mike McCready, Paul Banks, John Butler, Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett, and many many more.
The Electro-Harmonix LPB-1 (Linear Power Booster) slots in third place in our list of the top 5 boost pedals. Like the MXR Micro amp and the Xotic EP Booster, the LPB-1 is extremely simple - one switch, and one Boost knob. If you’re after a boost pedal from a very reputable manufacturer and don’t want to break the bank, the EHX LPB-1 is an outstanding value for the money.
What’s great about the LPB-1 is that despite this being the budget option, you’re getting Electro-Harmonix quality and reliability. This is a solidly built little metal box, made in the U.S.A., it’s true bypass, and comes with a 9V battery included (if you use a power supply it requires your standard 9V DC). Being a “Nano” pedal, its small footprint means you won’t be giving up a bunch of pedalboard real estate.
If you’re just getting into the world of boost guitar pedals, you could stop reading here and go order one of these for as little as they cost, and you would be making a good decision. Is the LPB-1 a completely transparent boost? No. Is it perfect? Well, that’s subjective, but we’ll err on the side of no. However given its price tag, you could easily test it out with your guitar(s), amp(s), and other pedals, and see how it plays with your setup. Remember, whether you’re getting a noisy budget boost pedal or a pristine high-end boutique boost, how you incorporate it into your rig will make a significant difference on your final tonal result. The point is, this is a great intro boost pedal, if you’re trying one out for the first time.
Now, for you players that are more familiar with boost pedals and need to know all the nuances of your gear, it’s important to know that the Electro-Harmonix LPB-1 does color your tone a bit. Whereas the MXR Micro Amp can be considered ever so slightly bright and adds a bit of sparkle, the LPB-1 is more on the “dark” side of the tone spectrum. Users describe hearing a “slight mid-hump.” From a user review:
“It does add a little bit of mid-range bump which I really like - not much but if you really listen you can hear it happening.”
But as this user illustrates, who’s to say that’s a bad thing? What one guitarist calls undesired tone coloration, another could call warmth and fullness. For comparison, here’s the perspective of another guitarist:
“I also think it adds too much character to your tone...I would say spend the extra cash and get an MXR Micro Amp. The MXR is more transparent and gives ya just a boost for those louder moments.”
We were lucky to try this pedal side by side with the MXR Micro Amp, and when A/B testing our tone between the two pedals, we definitely heard the difference. It should also be noted that the MXR has a bit more gain on tap than the EHX. You might find the tone coloration of the LPB-1 works well if your amp is naturally brighter.
Bottom Line: If you’re a guitarist in search of an inexpensive boost pedal, you’re lucky - it’s not often the budget option is of this caliber. For the budget-priced option to make it to third place based on overall number of recommendations is impressive, and speaks to the quality of this pedal. It’s tried and true, and while it colors your sound by slightly boosting the mids and perhaps even taking off a little bit of the high end, it has the potential to work great within your setup. It’s widely agreed upon that the MXR Micro Amp is cleaner and more transparent, but at this price point give the Electro-Harmonix LPB-1 a try. Don’t like it? Gift it to a friend in need of a boost! Best Bang for your Buck.
ZVex Super Hard On
You can always count on ZVex to inject some serious character in even the most basic guitar effects pedals. The ZVex Super Hard On pedal (or SHO for short) is quite a unique boost pedal, and comes recommended as boost pedal of choice from many guitarists, earning it the number four spot on the list.
There are two versions of the ZVex Super Hard On. The hand painted version of the SHO is the more expensive of the two, and the Vexter Series version uses silk-screened graphics and is significantly cheaper. Still not cheap by any means, but you can save a lot of cash going with the Vexter Series. Functionally, they are exactly the same.
This is a boutique pedal through and through. Build quality is top notch, and both the hand painted and silk-screened graphics look great and will inject some personality into your pedal setup. Like the other boost pedals we cover in this guide, operation of the ZVex Super Hard On is very simple. The footswitch in the middle switches the effect on and off, and like any good boutique pedal this one is True Bypass. A single large knob is responsible for the amount of boost, and its CRACKLE OKAY label is quite unique. This boost pedal is based on the input of a classic 1960’s recording console, which crackled when you adjusted it. The SHO mimics this, and crackles when the knob is turned. It has a single 1/4” input, and dual outputs (useful if you want to send the outputs to two separate amps, or split your signal some other way).
Sound-wise, the ZVex Super Hard On is a transparent clean boost, but can drive the front-end of your tube amp quite hard when you crank it. It feels like it has more gain on tap than the MXR Micro amp and Xotic EP Booster. Like the EP Booster, this is a great “always on” pedal, as on the lower settings it adds a sort of subtle richness and sparkle to your tone. Turning the Crackle Okay knob to anything past halfway will really punish your amp, and result in a thick overdriven tone. As we were testing it we dialed it to about 30% and found that provided the ideal amount of boost.
Bottom Line: So, should you choose the ZVez SHO over the Xotic EP Booster? What about the MXR M-133 Micro Amp? This is a difficult question, since all of these are great boost pedals and have their place on the pedalboard. The ZVex SHO is more transparent than the EP Booster. The Xotic is known to affect your tone and thicken things up a bit, whereas the Super Hard On introduces some sparkle on the high end at best, but overall does not really mess with your tone. Versus the MXR Micro Amp, it’s almost too close to call. Both are excellent boosters, and it will come down to price, brand preference, and if you’re drawn to more unique boutique pedals or not. The ZVex Super Hard On is oozing with personality, from its hand-painted looks to the crackling of the knob when you turn it. It’s transparent, and does the job it’s supposed to do very, very well. Despite its high price tag, we can see why it earns its well-deserved spot on the top 5 list.
Xotic Effects RC Booster
Xotic makes some of the best overdrive/boost pedals out there today, and it’s no surprise that a second pedal from them rounds out our best boost pedals list. The Xotic Effects RC Booster is one pedal that is on almost every Nashville Session Guitarist’s pedal board. Guys like Brent Mason, and Kenny Greenberg both use them, and there’s a good reason for that. The RC Booster is probably the cleanest clean boost that you will come across, and it hardly colors the tone at all (the RC actually stands for “Real Clean”).
Immediately you’ll notice the RC Booster is not a simple one-knob-and-done pedal like the other boost pedals on our list. The RC has four knobs to shape your tone with - Gain, Volume, and two controls for EQ, Treble and Bass. We’ll get to the operation of those shortly. In terms of build quality, Xotic makes some tough pedals. The RC Booster looks and feels rugged; it’s absolutely a tour-worthy pedal. You have a 1/4“ input and output, and the pedal can be easily powered by either a 9V battery (which you can access by removing four screws from the bottom plate), or a 9V DC power supply. As you can see by the label underneath the footswitch, this is a True Bypass pedal so it won’t interfere with your signal when switched off. It’s not as narrow and compact as the Xotic EP Booster, measuring about 4.4” wide.
Alright, so what does the Xotic RC Booster sound like? A more appropriate question would be what doesn’t it sound like! Its claim to fame is being one of the most - if not the most - transparent boost pedals money can buy. What this means in practical terms is that while using it to boost the level of your signal, it doesn’t introduce any of its own character or coloration. In our research, we found the majority of owners can attest to the fact that this is one of the cleanest clean boosts around. In our play testing, we started with all the knobs at noon and the Gain all the way down, and the RC Booster was nearly imperceptible. If you listen very closely you can discern a tiny amount of brightness/sparkle added, but for the most part it’s completely transparent at these settings. Dialed up to a subtle level (volume around unity, gain very low and the EQ flat), this is a great candidate for one of those pedals you always leave on in your setup, as it’s all but guaranteed to sweeten your tone. As one reviewer puts it:
“Originally purchased the RC to use as a solo boost. This pedal sounds so incredible I now leave it on all the time.”
The Treble and Bass EQ controls make this one of the most versatile boost pedals - certainly the most versatile of the five on our list. While not as granular as a dedicated EQ guitar pedal, the Treble and Bass are the icing on the boost cake, and help make the RC Booster a very functional multi-purpose tool. The Treble knob responds nicely, and can be used to brighten up a dull tone. The Bass knob is almost too responsive, as it makes your tone too boomy when cranked up past 2 o’clock. We suppose it’s better to have too much bass on tap, as opposed to too little. All in all, the EQ controls are very musical, and allow you to make micro-adjustments to really bring out the best of your guitar, amp, and other pedals. If you don’t have a separate EQ pedal, the RC Booster makes a great stopgap.
Bottom Line: The Xotic RC Booster should not be directly compared to the EP Booster. As we discussed, the EB Booster has a reputation for coloring your tone, whereas the RC is much more about transparency. For the control freaks, the Treble and Bass controls will allow you to sculpt your tone even further, and make a fantastic complement to the Gain and Volume knobs. By including four knobs, the RC Booster wins when it comes to versatility. If you value a super transparent boost pedal with added EQ controls, provided you can swing the relatively high price, you will not be disappointed adding this to your pedalboard. In terms of pro users, the RC is used by Two Door Cinema Club’s Alex Trimble, Billie Joe Armstrong, Doyle Bramhall II, Paul Gilbert, John Fogerty (he actually uses three of these), and more. Whether you use it as an “always on” pedal, or engage it just when you need a boost for solos, you’ll love how the Xotic RC Booster brings out the best of your amp.