Five Distortion Boxes for 2017—Reviewed!

The distortion boxes in this small group all rate high on the versatility scale.
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So many pedals, so little time, and what better way to while away some winter days than trying out new distortion boxes? As we’ve discovered from the many stompbox roundups we’ve done over the years, there’s always something that can breathe new life into your sound, inspire you to play better, and just make it more fun to be a guitarist. A lot of modern pedals still have their roots in classic boxes from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, but many also have new features and evolved controls that allow the player do a lot more with what they have under their foot. The distortion boxes in this small group all rate high on the versatility scale and each has things to offer that you may find all too enticing to ignore. At the very least, they’ve all been a blast to play! —Art Thompson

Truetone Route 66 V3
Previously known as Visual Sound, this company’s new moniker comes with a revamp of several of its pedals, the long-running Route 66 ($179 street) among them, now billed as the V3 edition. This dual pedal started life as a TS-808 Tube Screamer-style overdrive on one side and a Ross-inspired comp on the other. The comp side retains the latter DNA (with perhaps a nod to MXR’s Dyna Comp too), although its functionality is now hugely expanded here, most notably by a Clean Mix knob that allows full compression, no compression (for a clean boost), or anything in between, as well as a defeatable noise gate. The overdrive side, however, is a completely different beast: Now based on the Drivetrain OD that Visual Sound founder Bob Weil designed for Reverend in 2000, it has a dual-mode Voice switch, a similar Clean Mix knob, and a Bass knob, in addition to its Drive, Treble, and Vol knobs. Each side also has its own internal switch to set its individual True Tone buffer to on or off, for buffered or true-bypass operation. In addition, each side has independent in and outs so they can be individually routed on your board, although they are internally linked as comp-into-OD.

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Tested with a Telecaster and a Les Paul into JTM45-style and tweed Deluxe-style amps—and focusing mainly on the overdrive for our purposes here—the Route 66 sounded utterly superb in both of its voices, albeit with A being more punchy, clear, and open, and B warmer, smoother, and a little squishier. The unit runs from smoother-than to rawer-than the familiar Tube Screamer template, with far broader EQ control and notably more gain and output. Superbly versatile, extremely playable, it’s rock ’n’ roll in a box all day long. And the comp is darn good too—making this a great grab-and-go gain machine for a variety of gigs.—Dave Hunter

KUDOS Great-sounding OD and comp in a hugely flexible dual-pedal box that represents good value for all that it includes.
CONCERNS Requires attentive footwork to avoid stomping both buttons when you just want one.

BMF El Jefe
California pedal maker BMF has been laboring away under the radar for about a decade now, but plenty of players in recent years have discovered the gainy goodness of the El Jefe pedal ($189 street). It’s a medium-gain overdrive, yet one with a broader gain range and a more versatile palette than that tag usually implies. The semi-compact, true-bypass pedal has Gain and Volume on standard-sized knobs, with a mini-knob for Tone in-between them. There’s also an internal trim-pot enabling adjustment of the relative “openness” or “bite” of the overdrive sound (set at the factory for a 50/50 blend between the two). The circuit inside is tidily put together and housed in a rugged folded-steel box with two knurled thumb-bolts per side to open it up for battery and trim-pot access.

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It’s a simple recipe, but an overdrive doesn’t necessarily need a lot of bells and whistles to be a success; rather, it really just needs a compelling, tactile, dynamic sound that draws you in, makes you want to riff away all day, and helps those riffs get heard in a band mix. The El Jefe does that with aplomb. Tested between a Les Paul and a Telecaster and JTM45-style and tweed Deluxe-style amps, the El Jefe proved a rich, musical overdrive with a natural feel, great clarity and note definition amid chords, and good cutting power without ever being strident or sharp. It can be dialed for raw and nasty when you want it (the internal trimmer ups the versatility considerably), or musical and subtle as well. All in all, it’s a great everyman’s OD that is different from the omnipresent TS archetype, and extremely likeable as a result.—Dave Hunter

KUDOS Juicy, musical and dynamic, while extremely articulate. Good versatility for such a simple layout.
CONCERNS A white line or dot on the mini Tone knob would help to visualize settings.

Bondi Sick As
Australian maker Bondi Effects is likely best known for the Sick As overdrive ($199)—to be clear, that’s As with one “s”—and for good reasons: Where so many makers have lately sought to clone the legendary Klon as closely as budget or space will allow, Bondi’s designer Jon Ashley figured he might as well build a better mousetrap while he was at it. To the already mythical formula he added a full active Treble and Bass tone stack where the original has just a single Treble control, a mini toggle switch offering two different clipping options (and therefore two OD voices), and, most recently, an improved buffered-bypass switching system. Power from a standard external 9-volt adaptor is internally boosted to 18 volts for maximum headroom. A Gain control determines your juice level, from clean boost to medium-gain overdrive, and a Level determines overall volume.

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Patched alternately between a Les Paul and a Telecaster—and either a JTM45-style or tweed Deluxe-style amplifier—the Sick As took me exactly where I’d expect to go with a modified-Klon, and very ably so. Played after other rounder sounding overdrives with more hyped mids, the crispness, clarity and articulation in this circuit takes a little getting used to. However, once you’re attuned to it, other traditional OD pedals tend to sound a little squishy and muddy in comparison. This is a great unit for players seeking dynamically sensitive expression from their overdrive tones, and those not afraid of having every nuance heard, too. The toggle does offer a slightly more sedate breed of clipping in the up position—sweeter, rounder, and more compressed, yet still extremely articulate—and I might personally have enjoyed that voice a little more. However you set it, though, it’s a great-sounding and impressively touch-sensitive overdrive that beautifully enhances your guitar and amp rather than dominating them. Its versatility makes it a must-try for any Klon-curious player. —Dave Hunter

KUDOS Dynamic and extremely articulate overdrive tones, in a versatile take on the mythical classic.

Rat Distortion Fat Rat
Sharing the heavy-duty steel enclosure and glow-in-the-dark graphics of its siblings, this latest addition to the Rat nest packs Stock/Fat and Stock/Mosfet switches that allow you to choose between ’80s Rat tone (Stock settings), or a mild midrange scoop and a more amp-like dynamic response by activating Mosfet mode. Additionally, the Fat setting boosts bass and rolls off the highs a bit for use with low tunings and/or bass guitars. The true-bypass Fat Rat ($199 street) also has Distortion, Filter, and Volume controls, a bypass LED, and a jack for an optional power supply (9-18 volts). There’s even a socket inside for those who want to swap in the classic LM308 op-amp—no soldering required.

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Tested with a Telecaster and a Gibson/Memphis Historic ES-335—both through a reissue Fender Deluxe Reverb with circuitry by George Alessandro—the Fat Rat gave up a very rich distortion tone with Mosfet on and the Fat switch in Stock position. By dialing the Distortion knob to two ’o clock, Filter to 3 ’o clock, and the Volume a little past halfway, the OD had a nice tube-y thickness and the dynamic response was excellent—allowing for easy transitions between lead and rhythm by working the guitar’s volume or adjusting my picking. The Filter control is very effective—making it easy to get just what you need from single-coils or humbuckers—and there’s plenty of output to give a good smack to the amp’s front end. The Fat Rat delivers an edgier, classic Rat tone with Mosfet switched off, and using the Fat mode here gives more girth to the tones, which can be handy when playing with lesser amounts of gain. —Art Thompson

KUDOS Tube-sounding overdrive tones with good dynamic feel. Mode switches increase versatility.

Joe Gore Filth Fuzz
Armed with enough controllability to provide a spectrum of distortion and fuzz tones, the Filth ($199 street) has Drive and Level controls along with a pair of smooth-working slider pots that adjust the voltage to the transistors in order to alter the character of the fuzz. Housed in brushed-aluminum enclosure, the components are mostly arranged on PC boards, with the Drive/Level pots secured directly to the housing. A jack for external power is included, and if you do run it on battery juice, the bottom plate has to come off to change the 9-volt cell.

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The Filth certainly scores in the versatility department. Its fattest grind is attained by putting the sliders at or near the top of their travel (i.e., full right on the top slider and full top on side one), and simply adjusting the Drive and Level knobs to suit. It was no sweat to get rich sounding OD tones with a Tele and an ES-355, both driving into a reissue Fender Deluxe Reverb, and plenty of output was available to give a good boost to the amp. Pull the sliders all the way back, and the Filth reverts to classic fuzz territory, delivering harder, buzzier tones with good sustain when Drive is maxed. The in-between positions of the sliders can yield all sorts of cool sounding distortion-meets-fuzz effects, including some subtle harmonic doubling with the sliders closer to their middle ranges, so explore away! All in all, this versatile pedal warrants a close look if you like the idea of having two great flavors of dirt under one tent. —Art Thompson

KUDOS Sweet overdrive to buzzy fuzz, all in one in a flexible and fun-to-use pedal.