Roundup: 21 Distortion Pedals

EVER SINCE SOMEONE CONCOCTED AN external device that could clip the waveform of a guitar signal on its way to the amp, distortion pedals have been an important ingredient in the guitarist’s tone recipe. More sophisticated than fuzzes or signal boosting overdrivers, distortion pedals feature circuitry that is designed to replicate the even-order harmonics that tubes generate when driven into distortion. In a guitar amplifier, this is accomplished by passing the audio signal through one, two, or up to four or more 12AX7 tubes, each of which contains two gain stages that sequentially increase the gain of the preamp stage. Some new distortion pedals do essentially the same thing by incorporating multiple ”soft clipping” stages that pump up the gain in similar fashion to provide very high amounts of distortion and sustain while maintaining the smooth tones and dynamic responsiveness of a good high-gain tube amp.

EVER SINCE SOMEONE CONCOCTED AN external device that could clip the waveform of a guitar signal on its way to the amp, distortion pedals have been an important ingredient in the guitarist’s tone recipe. More sophisticated than fuzzes or signal boosting overdrivers, distortion pedals feature circuitry that is designed to replicate the even-order harmonics that tubes generate when driven into distortion. In a guitar amplifier, this is accomplished by passing the audio signal through one, two, or up to four or more 12AX7 tubes, each of which contains two gain stages that sequentially increase the gain of the preamp stage. Some new distortion pedals do essentially the same thing by incorporating multiple ”soft clipping” stages that pump up the gain in similar fashion to provide very high amounts of distortion and sustain while maintaining the smooth tones and dynamic responsiveness of a good high-gain tube amp. Some pedals incorporate a tube to enhance the realism, although it’s arguable whether this is really worth the trouble considering how good a lot of modern distortion pedals sound that are 100 percent solid-state.

All of the pedals tested here are true distortion units, although some also pack enough output to qualify as signalboosting overdrivers—a feature some players take advantage of to get a combination of distortion from the pedal and frontend grind from the amp itself. We tested these pedals with a Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster, a Gibson Les Paul and SG, a PRS SC 245 and Modern Eagle II, a Trayser STD, and a Framus Mayfield Custom. Our test amps included a Dr. Z EZG 50-watt head, a Budda 10th Anniversary Twinmaster combo, and a Mesa/Boogie Stiletto Ace. —Art Thompson

Danelectro Cool Cat Distortion CD-1

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From its $20 FABs to its Mini Effects collection ranging from $29 to $49 to its new Cool Cats, Danelectro pedals certainly provide glitzy tonal options for cash-strapped guitarists. But while the FABs and Minis are obviously cut-rate wonder boxes, the Cool Cats are battle-hardened gig machines with metal casings and jacks, true bypass, flip-panel battery access, and a footswitch that operates with a confident and brutish click that sounds as if you just stepped on a landmine. Each Cool Cat is powered by a 9-volt battery or an optional AC adaptor, and offers three controls. On some pedals, the middle-position control is a dual-function concentric knob. On the Distortion ($49 retail/$39 street), that knob is Treble/Bass, and, like the EQ sections of recording consoles, it can boost or cut fixed treble and bass frequencies. As the controls are set on each pedal’s front panel—rather than on top of the box—it’s a bit counterintuitive making adjustments from directly above, as you must turn the Level and Gain knobs to the left for more juice.

The Distortion professes to emulate the sound of classic Britrock amps, and it definitely uncorks an early Who-like roar when the Gain knob is set between the 8 o’clock and noon positions. Crank that knob too high, though, and you get a gummy, indistinct saturation that sounds more Ozzy-speak than Townshend. Of course, you can always adjust the excellent Treble/Bass control to bring on everything from baritone-like lows to knife-hard mids—which definitely helps clarify the Distortion’s higher-gain tones—but the true glory lies in its crunchier settings. —Michael Molenda

KUDOS Great crunch. Good dynamics. Cool price.
CONCERNS Counter-intuitive controls from playing position. Those with stubby digits will find it difficult to turn concentric knobs separately.

Danelectro Cool Cat Metal II CM-2

The Metal II ($39 retail/$29 street) is like some super-duper IKEA dinnerware special—you get a trunk load of metal for 30 bucks. This metal maniac packs a lot of gain, a lot of volume, and a tricky little tone switch that toggles between two flavors of midrange scoopage: Lo (moderate mid scoop) and Hi (extreme mid scoop). Like its Cool Cat siblings, the Metal II boasts metal casings and jacks, true bypass, 9-volt or optional AC adaptor power, and flip-panel battery access (no screwdriver required). It also suffers from the Cool Cat line’s daft “reverse” knob configuration when you adjust the front-panel controls as you’re looking down at the pedal.

While the Metal II’s forte is a biting, hopped-up midrange distortion reminiscent of Judas Priest and the Scorpions, its tone switch also lets you cop MTV-era hair metal tones (go Poison!) when set to Lo, as well as nu-metal colors (hooray Deftones!) when set to Hi. The flat setting (old-school metal) definitely leaps out of an amp with a snappy attack and enough buzz to complement shredding and sustained bends, and I found myself hanging there the most (am I betraying my age here?). My second fave was the Lo setting, which offered a good amount of articulation, a sexy blitzkrieg of distortion that didn’t overwhelm vocals or secondary guitar parts, and enough sustain to animate wah filtering and melodic forays. The Hi position offers a very subtle timbral shift in the mids, and it wasn’t enough of a difference to win me over. Still, there’s a lot of kerrang in this box, and, at $29, it’s almost a must-have for distortion freaks. —Michael Molenda

KUDOS Varied metal tones. Good dynamics. Fabulous value.
CONCERNS Counter-intuitive controls from playing position.

EBS MultiDrive

The Swedish-made MultiDrive ($249 retail/$199 street), part of EBS’ new Black Label series, is a compact pedal designed to produce tube-style overdrive with guitar and bass. Featuring a stout metal enclosure with recessed Drive and Volume controls, the MultiDrive has a 3-position Mode switch that selects between Flat (linear gain across the audio spectrum), Standard (a tube-sounding mode with low-end bypass), and Tubesim (activates a second tube-simulation stage for added compression, enhanced harmonics, and less high-end attack). The MultiDrive also has the unique ability to be powered via EBS’ Phantom Power system, a feature available on EBS amplifiers, in which a 9-volt supply is tapped at the amp’s input and fed back to the pedals though a stereo cable, thus eliminating the need for an external power supply or battery (either of which can also be used with EBS pedals).

The MultiDrive sounds best for guitar using the Standard or Tubesim modes, both of which sound similar, with just a touch more warmth on the Tubesim setting. With the Drive knob dimed, the MultiDrive delivers a good approximation of the distortion produced by a small tube amp. And while this amount of gain isn’t going to do it for players who want a lot of sustain, the touch responsiveness is great and the grind has a warm, enveloping feel. The MultiDrive also packs enough output to drive an amp solidly into distortion, even at quite low Gain settings. —Art Thompson

KUDOS Rich tube-like distortion. Lots of output. Unique phantom power capability. Good for classic blues and jazz.
CONCERNS Not suitable for high-gain applications.
CONTACT (011) 46 8 7350010;

Fuchs Plush Drive

Fuchs—the boutique amp company favored by Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jimmy Herring, and Joe Bonamassa, among others— has recently branched out into the pedal market with their line of Plush FX pedals. Touted as “Robben [Ford] in a box,” the Plush Drive ($229 retail/$225 street) is designed to emulate Fenderbased boutique amps based on (and including) the iconic Dumble Overdrive Special.

The pedal is housed in a solid, but lightweight, metal chassis painted a cool metal-flake green. It sports three knobs for Gain, Volume, and Tone, and a fourth control sets the Touch sensitivity— acting as a boost in front of the gain circuit. Setting the Touch low produced more finger sensitivity, but resulted in minimal drive, even at the highest gain settings. It also put a damper on the high end—even with the Tone control at its brightest setting. Turning the Touch knob clockwise compressed the dynamics and restored the highs. Higher Touch levels brought on singing sustain and significantly more distortion. With the Touch at noon or above, the Plush Drive was great fun to play: present, yet beefy and smooth, even on my Strat’s bridge pickup. This pedal probably won’t turn you into Robben Ford, though if you want that classic Dumble voicing—warm mids, smooth, tight break-up, and a Fender-on-steroids vibe—the Plush Drive definitely deserves your consideration. It won’t put you in the metal zone, but for roots-rock and fusion, the Plush is lush. —Michael Ross

KUDOS Warm, smooth distortion. Solid construction.
CONCERNS Low Touch settings roll off highs.
CONTACT (973) 772-4420;

Fuchs Valve Job

The Fuchs Plush series Valve Job ($259 retail/$215 street) features a bi-fet integrated circuit matched to a 12AX7 tube, all housed in a black metal casing flashing red and green flakes. Four knobs handle Gain, Tone, Touch, and Level. As on Fuchs’ Plush Drive, Touch acts as a pre-Gain preamp, and has a tendency to roll off some highs in the lower settings. With the Touch set low, the Valve Job delivers a clean, warm tube sound, but virtually no distortion until the Gain passes 12 o’clock. Increasing the Touch level pushed the pedal into break-up territory, and the overdrive proved gloriously amp-like, cleaning up naturally when the guitar volume was backed off. The Valve Job is more of an overdriver than a gain, which means that Strat and Tele players may require some sort of boost in front of this pedal if they want more than blues-style grit. Guitars with humbuckers or P-90s roar without aid, however.

The Valve Job does not take batteries, requiring a 9-volt DC adaptor (included). The tube is not user serviceable (Fuchs will service it under warranty). Too bad, as single-coil axe-slingers might enjoy being be able to experiment with other 12AX7 variants, and even though the tube seems well protected, it might need replacing on the road (think beer and sawdust). Tube fanciers who wish to maintain the integrity of their vacuum voice will revel in the Valve Job’s natural tone. Those wishing to warm up the front end of a solid-state amp will also dig this device. —Michael Ross

KUDOS Very natural sounding tube distortion.
CONCERNS Tube is not user accessible.
CONTACT (973) 772-4420;

Fuchs Cream

The Fuchs Cream pedal ($199 retail/street price N/A) is the company’s Plush series’ entry into the Tube Screamer sweepstakes, which makes the pedal’s name an interesting choice. The TS-808 didn’t exist during Cream’s era, and its sound is not one normally associated with Eric Clapton. Nor is the adjective creamy the first word that comes to mind when plugging in to this sturdy blue box—more like edgy and raucous in the tradition of the best TS-808 clones. Stevie Ray fanciers will easily get their “Texas Flood” on with this baby. That said, by rolling off my guitar’s tone, I was indeed able to eek out a gorgeous “woman” tone, so maybe the name isn’t so far fetched.

The Cream features the classic three controls: Gain, Level, and Tone. With the Gain rolled all the way off, the Level offered just enough juice to push my clean-set Orange Tiny Terror into overdrive. With a little adjustment of the wide-ranging Tone knob, this boost became delightfully transparent. Gradually adding Gain took me from a slightly rootsy edge, to singing blues drive, to Hendrix meltdown, with all the stops in between. Screamer fans will find the beloved compression that makes notes sustain into the infinite, but might be surprised at the extra sparkle that the Cream retains even at the most compressed, higher gain settings. It takes up a little more real estate than your average Screamer, but the Plush Cream pedal isn’t average. In the Screamer-style sweepstakes, this one is a winner. —Michael Ross

KUDOS A-1 TS-808 type tone. Quiet operation.
CONTACT (973) 772-4420;

Guyatone Hot Drive HDm5

The Guyatone Micro series of pedals is one of the best-kept secrets of the stompbox world. These pocket-sized units have provided the familiar few with professional sound in a tiny footprint. They have some flaws however: The rubber ring that holds the bottom on must be removed to access the battery, and the knobs are perilously close to the footswitch, courting inadvertent re-adjustment and breakage. Enter the new, slightly larger Mighty Micro series, with two-screw battery access, a bar that prevents interference with the controls, and mechanical true-bypass switching. The HDm5 ($150 retail/$127 street), an upgrade of the Micro HD-3, features Level, Tone, and Drive controls; a 3-way Mode switch that adjusts the frequency of the High-Cut Tone filter; and a small Sensitivity knob for adjusting the gain for single-coil or humbucker usage. I found the variations of the Mode switch all but inaudible at lower gain settings, but useful for variations on a theme with the Gain maxed out. The Sensitivity control worked aces, allowing me to easily get identical results with single-coil and humbucking pickups.

The Hot Drive does not trade in natural amp tone, and the sound is a bit generic, but the breakup proves very smooth and articulate, even at the highest gain levels. More of a distortion than an overdrive, the HDm5 served me gobs of gain, from basic hard rock grind to near Mufflike fuzz. And when it comes to maintaining girth even at low amp volumes, this Micro proves mighty indeed. —Michael Ross

KUDOS Tons of articulate gain. Solid construction in a small package.
CONCERNS Sound is a little generic.
CONTACT (866) 246-3595;

HAO Sole Pressure

Hailing from the Land of the Rising Sun, the Sole Pressure ($200 retail/$149 street) aims to add warmth and grind in an old-school, tweed Fender vein. It sports a tough die-cast metal housing, true-bypass mechanical switching, and a small LED status indicator that’s adjacent to the footswitch. Equipped with Level and Drive controls, as well as a 3-position EQ switch (Warm, Bright, Normal), the Sole Pressure is a no-brainer to dial in. With a Fender Tele through a Reverend Goblin 5-15, the Sole Pressure imparts a strong tweed whiff with goosed mids, a softened treble response and a tactile sponginess. These tones carried over when I ran the Sole Pressure between a Fender Deluxe Reverb and a Gibson SG. Very satisfying and dynamic for sure, as the Sole Pressure reacted wonderfully with my playing dynamics. However, the Sole Pressure’s output leaves a lot to be desired, providing barely any clean boost capabilities. In fact, the Level control needs to be dimed to get the Sole Pressure’s rolled-off, burnished tones up and over a bandstand. The EQ switch is also very subtle and imparts little effect. Overall, the Sole Pressure yields some nice sounds; they’re just very polite. —Darrin Fox

KUDOS Adds a harmonically rich, old-school grind.
CONCERNS Not enough output.
CONTACT (866) 246-3595;

HardWire TL-2 Metal Distortion

DigiTech’s new line of stompboxes boasts rock-solid construction and space-age aluminum knobs, some of which have pro-feeling clicks as you turn them, making for precise adjustments. Speaking of precision, all HardWire effects come with a Stomplock—a rubber knob condom that fits over the controls so that an errant foot or a drunk patron can’t alter your settings. (If any gigging guitarist still has their Stomplock after a year, there’s a prize.)

The controls on the TL-2 will be very familiar to any Boss Metal Zone user. You get Level, High, Low, semi-parametric Mid/Freq, and Gain. Given the name of the pedal, it’s pretty clear what its money shot is, so we dialed up max Gain, full Highs, beefy Lows, and Mids that were completely notched, and blasted it with a PRS SC 245 through a Dr. Z EZG 50. This produced a vicious, slicing metal tone that had a ton of grind. The tone wouldn’t really clean up, but who cares? At higher volumes it had a boatload of sustain, but single notes wouldn’t truly sing until I brought back in some of the midrange. Squealing, Zakk Wylde-approved harmonics were a breeze and power chords sounded, well, powerful—especially in dropped-D. The overall character of the TL-2 was a tad synthetic, which makes it a great choice for more aggro, Slipknot-style metal. The dirt this pedal dishes is not pretty, and that’s exactly what makes it cool. —Matt Blackett

KUDOS Tons of distortion. Powerful EQ.
CONCERNS Character of distortion might not work for non-metal styles.
CONTACT (801) 566-8800;

HardWire SC-2 Valve Distortion

When DigiTech’s Rob Urry excitedly outlined his company’s new “boutique” HardWire line at NAMM, I couldn’t stop myself from channeling his enthusiasm. However, I could also hear the voices of pedal forums across the Web whispering that it would be near impossible for a mass-consumer oriented, production-line process to really deliver on the nuances and idiosyncratic timbres of small-shop boutique builders. Well, individual prejudices aside, there are obviously a lot of “big” pedal manufacturers who produce astounding effects boxes, and DigiTech’s fastidious development of its HardWire models has yielded a series of truly amazing tone machines.

The SC-2 ($139 retail/$99 street) boasts a tank-like metal casing, batteneddown metal knobs that turn as sure as those on an expensive studio console, true bypass, high-voltage operation (which automatically adjusts to different input levels to increase headroom), a glow-in-the-dark label, a rubber “Stomplock” that protects control knobs from being knocked around, and no-screwdriver- required battery access. (The pedals can also be powered with an optional AC adaptor.) With its Crunch/Saturated switch, formidable EQ, and Gain and Level controls, the SC-2 is like a distortion plant that can rapidly fire off varied tonal colors. The basic Crunch sound is rooted in glam-y, classicrock flavors that can spit out anything from Bad Company to Mott the Hoople to .38 Special. The Saturated tones are more creamy and scooped in the mids. The studio-like EQ can dial in near endless variations of Crunch and Saturated sounds—anything from searing mids to lo-fi gronks to earthquake lows—while maintaining a smooth, analog-style thickness and edge. There’s not a bad tone in the box. —Michael Molenda

KUDOS Great distortion and overdrive sounds. Diverse tones. Excellent construction. Brilliant EQ. Fabulous knobs.
CONCERNS Tends to eat batteries pretty fast.
CONTACT (801) 566-8800;

Hermida Audio Mosferatu Overdrive/Distortion

As its name implies, this elegant little sucker utilizes a metal oxide semiconductor field-effect transistor (MOSFET) in its distortion circuitry, which, combined with an ingenious tone stack, results in an impressively broad selection of killer tones. The key to the Mosferatu’s ($199 direct) sonic flexibility is the way in which the Tone and Voice controls interact to emphasize particular aspects of the midrange frequencies. Tone sweeps a sweet yet modest range, while Voice essentially alters the throatiness of the midrange—but changing the setting of one affects the response of the other, expanding the total combined possibilities exponentially. The Mosferatu’s Gain control is similarly flexible—covering a range from pleasingly gritty to super saturated—and the Volume control provides plenty of level. The pedal is exceptionally quiet, though the Voice control adds noticeable hiss when cranked.

When I tested the Mosferatu using a PRS Brazilian Custom 24 through the clean channel of a Rivera Venus 6 at moderate volume, the pedal dished up very tube-amp-like tones, similar to those obtainable from the Rivera’s distortion channel. Using the bridge pickup and lower-gain settings, I got crisp, glassy-edged crunch rhythm sounds with lots of bite. Switching to the neck pickup and cranking the Gain control yielded fat yet silky sustain, particularly with the guitar’s Tone control rolled back a bit. Single-note articulation was excellent, as was responsiveness to playing dynamics. I got similar results from a Trayser STD with single-coils, though the overall sound was slightly airier and the lows not quite as full and focused. —Barry Cleveland

KUDOS Exceptionally versatile tone-shaping circuitry. Quiet. Dynamically responsive.

Hermida Audio Zendrive 2 Tube Overdrive/ Distortion

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The original solid-state Zendrive was inspired by Robben Ford’s overdrive preferences, and the guitarist has been using one exclusively for a while now. The Zendrive 2 ($270 direct) is quite similar to the original, but its circuitry sports a Groove Tubes GT12AX7M tube—along with a MOSFET—for those who value valves. The tube may be replaced with any 9-pin preamp tube should you wish to explore the numerous alternatives (12AY7, 12AT7, etc.). The Zendrive 2’s controls are identical to those found on the Mosferatu (see above) and respond in essentially the same way, though there is a tad less gain on tap. In fact, depending on which guitar and amp you use, the two pedals even sound nearly identical on most settings, particularly when playing humbucker-equipped guitars. The main difference is that the Zendrive 2 is slightly more responsive to playing dynamics due to its less-compressed overdrive—but we’re talking subtleties here. The good news, of course, is that both pedals sound fantastic, are equally versatile, and boast outstanding dynamic response and single-note articulation. Given a choice, I’d probably opt for the Mosferatu simply because it is smaller and less expensive, though they are both exemplary devices. —Barry Cleveland

KUDOS Exceptionally versatile tone-shaping circuitry. Quiet. Dynamically responsive.

HFx Hussey Tonal Overdrive

A common definition of the word “hussy” is “a lewd or brazen woman,” which, in many ways, describes the ballsy lows, beefy gain, and aggressive highs that pour out of the Hussey Tonal Overdrive ($199 retail/$159 street). But the name is actually derived from that of its designer, Phil Hussey, who developed it with input from guitarist Mike Randle. Available in black or white, and featuring true-bypass switching, the HTO employs a quartet of junction gate field-effect transistors (JFETs) to generate distortion, resulting in a smoother sound than you get from many overdrives. The Level control provides massive amounts of boost if needed, and the Drive control runs the gamut from subtle crunchiness to highly compressed sustain. The Presence control is nicely voiced, adding a crisp sizzle at the upper end of its range, and the Bass Contour control really fattens up the bottom when cranked.

The HTO responded a lot like a good tube amp, and the sound cleaned up well when the guitar’s volume was rolled back, even on high-gain settings. The extra headroom provided by the Level control made it easy to match the pedal with both humbucker- and single-coil-equipped guitars, and, while it sounded great with either, I got truly magnificent tones out of a PRS SC 245. And, not surprisingly, the Hussey nailed that classic Clapton “woman” tone. The only thing about the HTO that I didn’t care for was a slight fritziness at the end of decaying notes on some settings. That’s just a quibble, however, and to be fair some tube amps make similar sounds. —Barry Cleveland

KUDOS Massive gain and sustain. Highly responsive. Versatile tone controls.
CONCERNS Slight fritziness on decaying notes on some settings.
CONTACT(310) 801-3722;

Ibanez Jemini Distortion

Designed by longtime Ibanez icon Steve Vai, the Jemini Distortion ($285 retail/$199 street) is an easy to use and rather flamboyant looking box that offers two independent distortion circuits, with each side sporting Drive, Tone, and Level controls. There’s also a flimsy switch labeled Bright/Save, which doesn’t brighten your tone or save a preset—it simply increases or decreases the glow of the pedal’s bright green and red LEDs. A hip feature only if you’re dead set on squeezing every last ounce of voltage from the Jemini’s single 9-volt battery.

Sonically, the left side of the Jemini is designed to be a tad smoother, while the right side is gnarlier, with a skosh more gain and treble sizzle. The differences aren’t super huge, however, and you can’t turn the two circuits on at the same time. With a Gibson SG through a Fender Deluxe Reverb, I set the left side of the Jemini with the Drive off, the Tone halfway up, and the Level cranked, while setting the other side for some modern shred tones by cranking the Drive and Volume controls. This allowed me to toggle between grainy, low-gain blues textures with a singing midrange, to searing, molten metal distortion with an extended treble response. Both sides even yield a nice boost to your amp thanks to the Jemini’s better than average output— always a welcome feature. The Jemini seemed to react more favorably with humbuckers rather than single-coils, especially when piling on the gain, but my Telecaster fared well after a few adjustments to the pedal’s EQ. The Jemini is a simple meat-andpotatoes distortion. It will satisfy players craving saturated, modern shred tones, but, with its two-in-one design, will also let them dial in more subtle textures as well. —Darrin Fox

KUDOS A flashy-looking dual distortion with musical-sounding modern distortion tones.
CONCERNS Big footprint.
CONTACT (800) 669-4226;

Ibanez TK999HT Tube King

Originally introduced in the mid ’90s, the new Tube King ($249 retail/$149 street) features a stronger cast-metal housing and a 200- volt AC supply to feed its single 12AX7 tube. Those who recall the earlier 9-volt versions of the Tube King will appreciate this latter feature, as it gives the TK999HT a tighter, more dynamic response and more of the feel of playing a high-gain tube amp. Pumped through our very clean Dr. Z EZG head, the TK999HT demonstrated its ability to deliver everything from mild, overdriven amp-style distortion to huge amounts of creamy sustain. The tones have excellent touch sensitivity, allowing me to dial in exactly the right amount of distortion by either lightening/strengthening my picking or rolling back my guitar’s volume. High Drive settings can elicit nearly endless sustain with single-coil guitars, and the Level control delivers a massive signal boost if needed to push a cleaner amp into the grind zone. The Presence switch offers a subtle high-end emphasis, but the Lo, Mid, and Hi controls are powerful tone shapers that make it easy to get the right sounds for blues, classic rock, and virtually any era of metal. The bypassable Void control is a variable gate that can be adjusted to smoothly attenuate the sound as the signal fades, or, at the opposite extreme, produce a hard cutoff to create those strobelike stutters that nu-metalers crave. —Art Thompson

KUDOS Excellent EQ. Great dynamic response. Delivers a vast spectrum of tube-style distortion.
CONTACT(800) 669-4226;

ISP Technologies Fetish

Sporting a gleaming chrome-plated enclosure, the Fetish ($149 retail/$123 street) is a combination distortion/overdriver that offers Gain, Tone, Level, and Fat controls. At first inspection, the knobs felt like they were sticking when rotated, but then I realized that it wasn’t the pots themselves—it was the skirts of the knobs rubbing against the securing nuts. A little re-engineering is in order here, though a quick fix is to simply slide the knobs up a bit on their shafts until they clear the sticking points. The Fetish uses FET technology (hence the name, get it?) to create dynamic, soft clipping of the signal before it hits the actual distortion stage. This helps to give the pedal a lot of extra gain, which is something you can appreciate when you want good sustain with lower-output single-coil guitars. With a Stratocaster and a Trayser STD, I could conjure a singing tone with the Gain control about three-quarters up, and the touch-sensitive pedal readily cleaned up when the guitars were turned down. The Fat control is also a handy function when using single-coils, as you can significantly bolster the low end without it sounding artificial. The Fetish’s distortion cuts well though a mix, but there’s also a frazzy harshness that is noticeable mostly when playing intervals or arpeggiated parts. At lower Gain settings this is less apparent, and the Fetish can deliver a lot of output even when the Gain is turned down. Also, if your tonal fantasies require a Tone control with enough range to put some sheen on humbucker tones or butter-up singlecoils, the Fetish delivers the voodoo. —Art Thompson

KUDOS Effective Fat control. High output.
CONCERNS Somewhat harsh distortion.
CONTACT (248) 673-7790;

Lovepedal Provalve

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From the makers of the COT (reviewed in the July ’08 GP) comes the Provalve. This cool little box sports knobs straight off of a brownface Fender amp. The amp-like vibe definitely continues when you plug in and fire this pedal up, because it has a bunch of the magic—and the magical quirks—of a great tube amp. The four controls, Volume, Tone, Gain A, and Gain B, pretty much tell you everything you need to know about how the Provalve works. To hear how it sounds, we plugged in a PRS SC 245, a Trayser STD, a Fender Strat, and a PRS McCarty Soapbar and ran them into a Dr. Z EZG 50 and a Fender Princeton Reverb reissue.

Let’s cut to the chase: This pedal sounds great. It sounds and feels like an amp. It cleans up when you turn down and it responds to every picking nuance. You know how a cranked Fender or Vox amp will make those weird little growling noises when the note is trailing off? Don’t ask me how, but the Provalve does that. With Gain A set at minimum and Volume and Tone at high noon, the tone is barky and crunchy—awesome for classic rock riffing. I set Gain B at maximum, hit the A/B switch, and got a ballsy, powerful sound that was drenched in harmonics and saturation and could feed back at almost any volume. Yum! The only thing I would ask for is a separate Volume control for Gain B. Otherwise, the Provalve is amazing. —Matt Blackett

KUDOS Sweet, amp-like distortion. Great Dynamics. Musical EQ. Ability to toggle between two distorted sounds.
CONCERNS No separate Volume control for Gain B.

South Wave Audio Imagine Overdrive DD-1

Sporting roll bars to protect a set of color-coded knobs, the Imagine Overdrive DD-1 ($279 retail/street price N/A) is a hefty, all-metal unit with a slide-out battery holder and the rather unusual feature of a 3-way power switch that you set to the DC position for battery use, the middle to turn it off, and the AC setting for use with an external adapter (not included). Along with Gain, Bass, Treble, and Level knobs is a Cut control, which allows you to fine tune the high-frequency response for your particular rig. Using it in conjunction with the Treble control, I was able to dial in a lead sound that had just the right amount of top-end slice with a Les Paul or PRS, and then, when I switched to a Strat, all it took was a quick adjustment to the Cut knob to reign in the highs and obtain the same meaty tone I was getting with humbuckers.

The Imagine’s distortion has a fuzzy edge that makes it sound a bit more vintage in some respects than pedals that aim to dupe the characteristics of tube amps. The Bass control is voiced a little strangely, though, as you have to turn it nearly full up to hear much effect, and then the voicing is so low that it sounds somewhat detached from the core tone of the pedal. It’s not a huge deal, because the low-end balance is still good at lower Bass settings, but with no means of tweaking the mids on the Imagine, you can’t get those eviscerated midrange metal tones that would benefit from having an EQ that dives this deep. The Imagine also delivers a lot of output when you crank up the Level—enough to clobber an amp’s front end, even when using low gain settings. —Art Thompson

KUDOS Stout construction. High output. Effective Cut control.
CONCERNS No adjustment for midrange frequencies.
CONTACT(888) 681-8931;

Visual Sound Route 808

While the Ibanez TS-808 has long been the touchstone for numerous tube-style distortion pedals, it’s fair to say that many of these revisionist ’808s have been tweaked to improve on the original’s design. That’s certainly true of the Route 808 ($163 retail/$109 street), which, along with a complement of Drive, Tone, and Volume controls, features a Bass Boost switch and a circuit that delivers more output than a stock TS-808. Visual’s arrow-shaped metal housing looks sharp, and there’s a convenient battery bay on the bottom with a hinged cover. A 2.1mm adapter jack is also provided.

The Route 808 antes up smooth, rich distortion sounds over quite a wide range of gain. Set low, the Drive knob lets you cop the soulful textures of a tube amp being pushed into overdrive. The tones are dynamically responsive and, due to the Route 808’s having less midrange coloration than a stock TS-808, they allowed the distinctly different timbres of a PRS SC 245 and a Fender Stratocaster to shine though. The Route 808 pours on substantial grind as you turn up the Drive knob, and while the unit can deliver more output than is typical for this type of device, you don’t get much signal boost unless the Drive is turned up past halfway. At higher Drive settings, though, the Route 808 delivered a very distorted signal that made our pristine Dr. Z EZG sound thick and sustaining while providing excellent definition and string-to-string clarity. In this mode, however, the Route 808 has less ability to clean up when you lighten your attack or turn down your guitar. The Bass Boost switch does exactly what it’s supposed to, and the result is lots of low-end enhancement that sounds great on power chords and rock riffs. It’s particularly handy for beefing up your sound at lower volume levels, and is definitely a welcome update for this new take on the old classic. —Art Thompson

KUDOS More gain and output than a stock TS-808. Handy Bass Boost function. Doesn’t overly color the sound.
CONCERNS Volume boost is weak at lower Drive settings.
CONTACT(931) 487-9001;

Xotic Effects AC+

Evolved from Xotic’s original AC pedal, the AC+ ($280 retail/$249 street) features Gain and Volume controls for its two footswitchable channels. Three small knobs adjust Bass, Mid, and Treble boost/cut for the B channel, while a fourth knob adjusts Tone on channel A. There’s a small button labeled Comp on the B channel that switches between hard and soft clipping, while a similar button on the A channel adjusts upper-midrange volume boost on the AC+. The middle button offers a choice of chain order. When pushed in, channel A drives channel B, and vice versa with the button out.

Tested with a Danelectro Pro and a Fernandes S-type guitar equipped with DiMarzio Virtual Vintage pickups and a Reverend Hellhound 1x12 combo (set to its U.S. voicing mode), the AC+ exhibited the distinctly American tone of the original AC pedal—think Fender, Boogie, and Dumble. The Reverend is a good sounding amp, but, with just a slight clean boost from the B channel on the AC+, it plumbed new depths of tone and response. The pedal’s A channel alone added a creamy breakup that was more Zen Drive/Dumble than Tube Screamer. Combining the two channels, I scored some massive crunch, and a singing Robben Ford-esque lead tone with gobs of low end. Even when set for soft clipping, the AC+ remained articulate whether playing chords or rapid-fire jazz lines. The hard clipping setting lent itself to heavily distorted double-stops played with the fingers à la David Grissom. —Michael Ross

KUDOS Solid consctruction. A wealth of classic overdrive and distortion sounds.
CONTACT (818) 367-9593;

Xotic Effects BB+

The BB+ ($280 retail/$249 street) reveals the same British sound as the previous BB—think Marshall or Vox—and it offers much the same controls and features. Given the BB+’s English personality, I tested it with my Danelectro Pro and Fernandes S-type plugged into an Orange Tiny Terror head driving a single Eminence 12" Texas Heat speaker. In this configuration, the BB+ came alive, conjuring up stacks and AC30s with an edgier voicing and less compressed tone than its sibling, the AC+. With channel A running into B, my Fernandes’ bridge pickup easily aped Eric Johnson’s huge violin-like tone. Both pedals sounded tighter with channel B driving channel A, and more open with A feeding B, but both directions were musical. In fact, you could sum up this pair of pedals by saying it is hard to get an unmusical sound out of either of them. Each offers a wide-ranging palette of breakup, from near clean to extremely raucous, with the AC+ covering the American classics, and the BB+ handling those from the other side of the pond. —Michael Ross

KUDOS Solid construction. A wealth of classic overdrive and distortion sounds.
CONTACT (818) 367-9593;