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Maximum overdrive: six stompboxes go for the gain

A survey of six top rated overdrive pedals. Some have tubes, others are solid-state, but all aim to replicate the organic-sounding burn of hard-working tube amp.

With all due respect to the “Fuzzbox Revival,” there’s still a place on the pedalboard for boxes that sound more like the smooth overdrive of a tube amp than a swarm of killer bees pollinating a Skilsaw. The half-dozen contenders surveyed here go for the sort of real-life distortion that, at its best, adds girth without compromising the innate color of your guitar or amp.

Budda Amplification Phatman

With its dual 12AX7 preamp tubes, it’s no surprise that the Phatman Pure Vacuum Tube Overdrive offers convincing, tube-flavored gain. More remarkable are its beautifully tuned tone pots and the subtle shadings of its supersensitive gain control. Warm and musical, the Phatman is a tone-fiend’s dream. There are no midrange or presence knobs, but the wide-ranging treble and bass controls cover that ground just fine. Cranking the treble adds articulate bite, and rolling back the bass clarifies the lower midst It’s almost impossible to find a bad tone–even extreme settings are usable. Treble up/gain down yields a clean solo boost; the opposite configuration provides tubby-in-a-good-way blues tones. All settings are extremely responsive to playing dynamics and volume-pot manipulations.

Thanks to a light (but sturdy) brushed-aluminum housing, the Phatman’s big, 8″ x 7″ enclosure is not as cumbersome as it looks. The plate that protects the tubes pops off in seconds for easy re-tubing. The interior work is tidy, with all components mounted on a single PC board. A 12-volt, wall-wart adapter is included.

CTech Sonny Boy

An asymmetrical housing is only one of the offbeat features of the Sonny Boy. Like a SansAmp, this pedal aspires to work as both an overdrive stompbox and a direct-recording tool. The solid-state device delivers detailed tones that imitate not only tube-preamp overdrive, but also power-amp thump and the tonal contours of a miked speaker. Marketed as a blues pedal, the Sonny Boy offers 10 presets with evocative names like “Texas Flood” and “Boogie Chillen.” While the settings don’t necessarily sound like their namesakes (don’t expect instant SRV or John Lee Hooker), the box offers an impressive array of blues-approved colors.

“Stone Crazy,” for example, has a peaky, notched-wah quality; “Back Scratcher” is dark and swampy; and “Chicken Shack” is pointy and aggressive. Separate gain and presence controls let you draw tonal variations from each preset, while a “’50s/’60s” switch kicks in a harsher distortion sound. There are a lot more than ten sounds here, and you don’t have to be a blues player to appreciate them.

The Sonny Boy works best straight into a mixing board. Its sounds are so strongly flavored that they tend to clash with those of a strongly flavored, vintage-style amp. And, unlike a SansAmp, the Sonny Boy is not very dynamically responsive–it refuses to clean up as you back off your volume pot. The presets aren’t arranged in any particular order, and because the selector knob and its detents are rather small, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the settings before you attempt to dial in tones on the fly. The pedal requires a 9-volt battery or AC adapter (not included). Battery changes are quick, but the detachable compartment cover is easy to lose.

DOD Mystic Blues Overdrive

Housed in the company’s standard box (which has been upgraded with a hinged battery-compartment cover and a sturdier footswitch), the FX102 Mystic Blues Overdrive is a straightforward overdriver with simple drive, level, high, and low controls. The Mystic Blues offers a relatively subtle overdrive from somewhere in the Tube Screamer quadrant, but with a sharper treble attack. It can generate plenty of high-end sizzle, but while preserving lows, it doesn’t much augment them. At lower settings, the pedal adds subtle bulk, but overall, it emphasizes bite over wallop. Requires a 9-volt battery or adapter (not included).

Dredge-Tone Audio Dredge Overdrive

You’ve got to love the simplicity of the Dredge Overdrive–its only controls are an on/offswitch and a “more” knob. Despite the absence of tone pots, the Dredge delivers the sort of overdrive sought by many ’90s rock players, adding pumped-up lows and a high-end fuzziness that manages to sound raucous without overshadowing your sound. It offers convincingly tubelike response, especially at lower settings. In fact, you might even leave the Dredge permanently engaged in order to add girth to a guitar with less-than-studly pickups. The lack of separate level and gain controls means you can’t really get a semi-clean solo boost, but you may be surprised by how this seemingly inflexible pedal administers precisely the jolt you seek. Requires a 9-volt battery or adapter (not included).

Menatone Blue Collar

The Blue Collar makes good on its promise of capturing the sound of a vintage plexi Marshall. Like the amp whose gain stage it imitates, the Blue Collar is less about overall tonal range than delivering one very particular type of crunch. Plexi fans adore the way their amps ease into buttery overdrive without losing their bell-like highs, and the Blue Collar nails that basic quality. Single tone and presence pots offer gorgeous flavors throughout their ranges. Tone down/presence up yields a smoky blues vibe, while the opposite setting crackles with ’70s-glam-rock fizz. Lower the drive and raise the output for a lovely, semi-clean solo boost, or floor the gain and thrill to the way the tones swell without becoming raspy. Even at full distortion, major and minor chords played across all six strings sing sweetly. I was amazed by the extent to which the Blue Collar made a super-clean blackface Fender Showman sound like an old 50-watt Marshall. Requires a 9-volt battery or AC adapter (not included).

Overdrive Electronics Valve Grinder

The Valve Grinder is big in every sense. The 7″ x 4’/2″ X 3″ die-cast box weighs almost four pounds, and a peek inside reveals why: It’s full of hefty, hand-wired components–including a large transformer, dual 12AX7 tubes, and an internal power supply connected to an 8′ appliance grade power cable. There’s even an external fuse socket. In addition to its bass, mid, and treble knobs, the Grinder employs separate “fuzz” and “crunch” controls to evoke the overdrive of an amp’s preamp and output stages. Cranking the fuzz adds bright, fizzy distortion. Raising the crunch knob introduces a deeper, sweatier grind. The pedal’s gain knobs act like additional tone controls. There are many timbres in the Valve Grinder, and they are uniformly big and aggressive. It’s the 18-wheeler of gain pedals.

The Valve Grinder’s interior has a home-workbench look, complete with gloppy soldering. But despite the less-than-stellar wiring, the unit feels genuinely roadworthy. Be warned, however, of certain tonal eccentricities, such as the ranges of the tone pots. Below two o’clock, the treble control drastically siphons off highs. Cranking the bass knob unleashes major low-end mass, but the relatively mild mid control is pitched unusually low. Another quirk: the input and output jacks are arranged in reverse order.

Buzz Factor

Depending on your needs and tastes, most of these pedals do a good job of delivering warm, smooth distortion colors. In particular, the tube-powered Budda Phatman is a great choice for grind gourmets who want to preserve the flavor of a great guitar/amp combo, while the Overdrive Electronics Valve Grinder offers myriad shades of aggressive crunch. Both units consume large amounts of pedalboard space–their only downfall.

Each of the solid-state boxes does its dirty deed in a unique manner. The CTech Sonny Boy is a cool direct-recording tool, but listen before you leap if you plan on using it with an amp. The DOD Mystic Blues sounded overly edgy when used with a single-coil guitar, but it might be just the thing for adding crisp attack to a humbucker-equipped ax. The Dredge-Tone Audio Dredge Overdrive is a great-sounding distortion booster for those who like to keep it simple. And if ’70s British rock tones suit you, you’ll love the vintage-Marshall vibe of the Menatone Blue Collar.


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