30 Essential New Dirt Boxes: From Fuzz and Distortion to Boost and Overdrive

December 2, 2015

It’s insane how many of these wonder boxes are released each year. We can’t keep up! We’re more than happy to go where no other guitar or gear magazine is crazy enough to tread by doing these massive pedal roundups annually—because, hey, our readers are the winners, right? But the frustrating part is that there are so many pedals we weren’t able to include here due to manufacturers’ release dates not making our deadline, our needing to limit research and acquisition time in order to make our print date, or pure exhaustion on the part of the reviewers. Don’t worry, though, we’ll catch up with the pedals that didn’t make these pages with gear reviews throughout the rest of the year. Got any suggestions? Email them to me at mmolenda@musicplayer.com, with the subject line, “Pedals.”

Obviously, the staff needs a lot of help to make these annuals happen, and, for 2015, we enlisted the following additional contributors: Michael Ross, Jude Gold, Jimmy Leslie, Dave Hunter, Paul “TFO” Allen, Sam Haun, Joyce Kuo, Bryan Turner, and Robert Alan Witmeyer. Thanks to all.

The pedals were tested with myriad guitars and amps, as all the players brought their own gear to the pedal party. Suffice to say, all manner of humbucker and single-coil guitars and tube combos and half-stacks were in the mix. (The GP office “benchmark amp” was a Mesa/Boogie Mini Mark Five:25 head and a Boogie 1x12 cabinet.) All the prices listed are street prices, unless otherwise noted.

Abominable Electronics Hellmouth
An impressive take on the Tube Screamer, this devilish monster features a switch that toggles between the TS9 and 808 versions of that classic distortion, and adds another switch for increased gain. There are a variety of mid-rich tones here that don’t deprive you of precious low end. With my amp cranked, I was able to get plenty of growl and bite, while the LED eyes of the beast lit up at every strike of my pick, growing brighter with added aggression. The fun factor with this pedal is that it makes you want to explore your dynamic range with a creature who shares your enthusiasm. —Joyce Kuo

Amptweaker FatMetal
Designed to be a warmer-sounding version of the previous TightMetal pedal, the FatMetal delivers gobs of thick distortion (especially with the Black switch activated), and has a switchable noise gate, as well as a Thrash switch that re-voices the Mid control for heavier tones. The pedal’s thick, tactile distortion is a blast to play with, and, thanks to the massive sustain it delivers (even through my Fender Deluxe Reverb set clean), the FatMetal is a great choice for hard rock, metal, and other styles where ballsy, dynamic grind is the call. And with its bodacious output, the FatMetal is guaranteed to cut through—no matter how loud your band is pounding. Features include a bypassable noise gate, an FX loop that can bring in outboard effects when the pedal is on, and a SideTrak loop that activates other outboard effects when the pedal is switched off. For all it does, this over-achiever of a stompbox receives an Editors’ Pick Award. —Art Thompson

Analog Man Sunbender MK1.5
Based on the 1966 Sola Sound Tonebender MKI1.5 circuit, and featuring a pair of new-old-stock British-made Mullard germanium transistors, the Sunbender MK1.5 has been updated for more volume and also gets a variable Bias control. Powered by battery only, the MK1.5 delivers an impressive range of fuzz textures. With Bias turned up, I could get excellent dirty-clean tones at very low settings of the Fuzz control, while turning the Fuzz up to halfway and beyond unleashed progressively more sustain for heavier rhythms and solos. Lower Bias settings make the Fuzz softer and more classic sounding (though not as loud). The MK1.5’s dynamic response allowed me to leave it on and morph between crunch and lead tones by altering my picking attack and/or guitar volume, and the muscular output—especially with Bias up—ensured a strong signal was always hitting the front of my amp. Well done! analogman.com —Art Thompson

Bigfoot Engineering King Fuzz
Rhys Stubbs formed Bigfoot in 2009, after working as an audio designer for Britain’s Vortexion—a studio-gear maker favored by the late sonic iconoclast Joe Meek. Some of the Meek mystique must have rubbed off, because these vibey, English-made pedals—all with buffered bypass (to best accommodate different pickup varieties and retain high-frequency content when inactive)—are ferociously unafraid of making one hell of a magnificent racket. The King Fuzz is a good soldier for the cause, because it serves up a roaring, sustaining blast of buzz when the Gain is cranked up. However, the King’s dynamic sensitivity to pick attack, guitar volume, and its own knob settings makes it capable of so much more than just inspired rage. This rowdy royal can also deliver demented grit, smooth distortion, fractured fizz, AC30-esque chime, and a lot of timbres in between. One box. Two knobs. Super versatile. Wow. —Michael Molenda

Big Joe Empire
A comprehensive distortion box that Big Joe developed with Nashville guitarist Paul “TFO” Allen, the Empire has two preamp sections that can be combined via footswitch for near unlimited gain, boost, and EQ options. There’s a ton to take in here, but, for this review, I set it up for two flavors of distortion by configuring Preamp A with Drive set around three o’ clock, Output at two o’ clock, and the Body, Attack, and Presence knobs up a little more than halfway. I also had Preamp A’s Firm/Sponge switch on “Firm” for a slightly tighter response through my Fender Deluxe Reverb. This gave me a good OD range—from dirty clean to stoutly grinding—with my G&L ASAT Classic equipped with a Duncan Pearly Gates Esquire pickup in the bridge. Then, to activate a more nuclear OD tone via the “B” footswitch, I set Preamp B’s Gain at two o’clock, Output at 11 o’ clock, Tone at one o’ clock, and its Firm/Sponge switch to “Sponge.” With Preamp A driving into B (you can reverse the order if desired), the distortion instantly became louder, gutsier, and more sustaining. Using the Empire’s two channels is almost like switching between lower- and higher-gain amplifiers, as the pedal is touch-responsive and tube-like. Obviously, there are myriad ways to configure the Empire to suit your needs, and this advanced distorter also includes a Buffer/True Bypass switch and a global Level control. —Art Thompson

Carl Martin Dual Injection
Designed to give players the option of putting a clean boost just about anywhere in the signal path, the Dual Injection has footswitchable Boost 1 and Boost 2 circuits (each with its own Level control), as well as a switch that puts the boosts in series or parallel. In Serial mode, you can use Boost 1 in a conventional manner to increase the signal level (up to 12dB) in order to drive an amp or OD pedal harder, switch to Boost 2 for a different gain level, and get a third gain option by using both boost channels together. Another scenario would be to run the Dual Injection in Parallel, and use Boost 1 to hit the front end of an amp or pedal, and Boost 2 (which has a separate input and output) to restore level at the end of chain of pedals. As the Dual Injection is true-bypass, you’d likely keep Boost 2 on full-time to maintain a buffered output. Placed in an amp’s effects loop, Boost 2 could also be used to push the output tubes harder, or give some lift to a level-challenged modulation or delay effect. Lots of possibilities here thanks to the Dual Injection’s connectivity options and series or parallel operation. —Art Thompson

Catalinbread Galileo
I have been an obsessive fan of Brian May ever since I heard my first Queen record, so you can imagine my delight when I was introduced to the Galileo pedal, which claims to offer “Queen in a Box.” Galileo combines a Rangemaster-style treble booster with Vox AC30-style preamp circuitry, and the result is a majestic array of May-approved overdrive effects, as well as providing chime and sparkle when I turn my guitar volume down for a cleaner sound. It also does a fantastic job of honoring May’s distinctively dynamic playing style, as it is wonderfully responsive to pick attack. I use Galileo with an AC30, my own Red Special guitar, and a sixpence as a pick (like May), and I can create luxurious harmonics with a lively top end. Everything this pedal does is reminiscent of the grandeur that keeps Queen’s legendary sound timeless. Magnifico! —Joyce Kuo

Crazy Tube Circuits Vyagra
Even young guitarists need a little performance enhancement every now and then, and the Vyagra comes to the rescue in a number of ways. The right channel offers plenty of transparent clean boost, and the left channel provides multiple methods of modifying the tone. With the Sensitivity off, I was able to dial in everything from cocked wah to scooped-metal tones. Dialing the Sensitivity up turned Vyagra into one of the best-sounding envelope filters I have played, while plugging in an expression pedal gave me an extremely adjustable wah. I could add extra boost to any of these left-channel sounds by adding the right channel, or, with an interior adjustment, make the right footswitch a master that engages both boost and filtering sides simultaneously. Vyagra offers three versatile signal modifiers in a small package for the price of one pedal. —Michael Ross

Daredevil Knuckle Duster
The Knuckleduster yields gobs of clean boost, ripping overdrive, and killer distortion. And, let’s face it, that much tonal variety is just plain fun to play with. In tamer settings, with the Pre control set left of 12 o’clock, it subtly enhances your tone, making everything you play sound a little bit better. Twist the Pre control a little more towards the 3 o’clock to 5 o’clock positions, and things start to get wilder. As the ’duster heats up, a hint of natural compression is added to the mix, which evens out your pick attack without tanking low-end girth—essentially flattering any player who uses it. —Sam Haun

Diamond Nine Zero Two
If you’re into mysteries about unique pedal names, here’s a spoiler alert about the Nine Zero Two—it’s the area code for Diamond in Nova Scotia. However, there’s not even a hint of mystery about the organic, natural, and dynamic amp overdrive tones produced by this pedal. You get a fat roar that can get even chunkier when you knock back the Tone knob, and guitar-volume and pick-attack changes are tracked with excellent sensitivity. This is a fabulous three-knob rock box. —Michael Molenda

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