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9 of the Best Non-Marshall Generic Compact Amp-in-a-Box / Amp-style Pedals

Bearfoot FXBoost and OverdriveCatalinbreadCoda EffectsCustom TonesDemon PedalsDistortionDriveDumble Style OverdriveJHS PedalsOverdriveTrue North PedalsVox Style Distortion+-
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Marshall takes up a lot of bandwidth on the pedal overdrive and distortion spectrum, and I have a lot of articles dedicated to said genres including several recent ones. So this one covers those pedals which are of a somewhat rarer and different kind. I have chosen not to do specific PreAmp-style pedals or dedicated Amp and Channel pedals by the amp-makers themselves, but rather to feature more generic pedals which distinctly give you the flavour of the amp/s they intend to simulate.

 

Of the 9 featured, I already have 5 in my collection, and fully intend on getting the D-Style Kondo Skifuku at some stage this coming year - this I now consider the best of the compact Dumble-style pedals. The Sabbra Cadabra has been on and off my wishlist for a while, and the SFT and SuperBolt have their appeal too, but are somewhat new to me. It’s a lot like different flavours of ice cream - you can’t tackle everything at once, you need to approach each flavour systematically and see what emotions and playing styles are inspired. You know you’re onto a good thing when a particular flavour of pedal inspires you to do something different.

 

I already have 20 different drive pedals in my chain - which is half the number of slots, and even I cannot accommodate every single variety and flavour of drive - so you pick what you like and what goes together - and what you can stack and combine for instance too. As part of my pedal due diligence I am attempting to trial most every flavour of drive pedal available - to see just how each of those beds in and how much it appeals to me - not everything will stick, but you should give each pedal sufficient time to establish itself and ferment an impression.

 

Too many a player dismisses a pedal without proper due diligence - some of these are undoubtedly an acquired taste and require artful dialling in - you can’t just start all the dials at 12 o’clock and adjust from there - some pedals you need to start entirely from 0 and almost approach like an unknown black box - where you establish the range, timbre and impact of each parameter. For several pedals the parameters are finely interconnected and you must ’tune’ several values together rather than just keep all dials at a constant bar one - as is often the case.

 

In any case, hopefully this exercise might widen your pedal vocabulary and expose you to something new.

 

Pedals are listed alphabetical by source amp type:


Ampeg SVT ≈ Catalinbread SFT - £145

The legendary Ampeg SVT Amps were excellent at preserving the low-end frequencies and giving you a rather satisfyingly thumping lower end, which many guitar players have made great use of - including Dan Armstrong, Keith Richards and Jeff Beck. It has a very distinctive full-sounding medium-gain delivery which the SFT pedal delivers in spades. I do feel though that some of the Catalinbread pedals could do with a little more volume and gain.


Dumble Overdrive Special ≈ Demon Pedals Kondo Shifuku - €279/£250

I've long been a fan of the very slightly fuzz-edged tones of the Dumble Overdrive Special Amp, and have several pedals already which get me plenty close enough - the Mad Professor Simble, the Wampler Euphoria and one half of the Bearfoot FX Model Hs pedal. I had a mind to get the Mojo Hand FX Extra Special and possibly also the J Rockett Dude, while some have a preference for the slightly anaemic sounding (to me) Hermida/Lovepedal Zen Drive. In any case - this is the new champion in this enclosure size as far as I'm concerned! It is a touch pricey though...


Fender 5E3 Tweed Deluxe ≈ True North Pedals Tweed Drive - c£180

There's plenty of choice for Tweed style pedals - including Wampler's discontinued Tweed '57 and Crazy Tube Circuits' just released Falcon - also Mad Professor's Little Tweedy Drive and Zvex's Vertical 59 Sound. Of all of these I somewhat have a preference for Sheldon Ens' True North Tweed Drive - which should be arriving for me any day soon. I also fancy I will acquire the 59 sound too before long - I seem to have a thing for dual footswitch pedals with separate boosts! Which is why I also like the Zvex Vertical Box of Rocks and JHS @+.


Hiwatt Custom 100 DR103 ≈ Bearfoot FX Model Hs - £219

The 5 dial version of the Bearfoot Model H (Hs) introduces some additional Dumble flavours into the Hiwatt mix, this is a really potent and versatile amp-like drive/distortion - very much along similar lines to the Emerald Green Distortion Machine q.v. This pedal is frequently on rotation in my pedal-chain and often occupies the slot which is mostly about the Ethos TWE-1, but currently occupied by the Coda Effects Black Hole - also featured here!. In fact all these pedals in this listing compete for rotation in the same two or three slots - with Dr Scientist's The Elements more of an amp-like all-rounder!


Laney Supergroup (Treble Boosted) ≈ Catalinbread Sabbra Cadabra - £137

I've mentioned before that I've had this pedal on my wishlist on and off for years now - I'm a big fan of that early Black Sabbath sound - and the dynamic here is very similar to that of Brian May - in that both Brian and Tony Iommi use always-on Treble Boosters and their guitar volume dials to sculpt their distortion/drive tone. I know Alchemy Audio do a clone of this pedal - or at least they have done one to date - but there won't be a lot of difference in cost - I would make sure that the volume pot had a little extra range to it though - so the Alchemy Audio clone if ever officially comes out might be the preferred choice for some.


Sunn Model T ≈ Coda Effects Black Hole - €182/£165

Benoit Meijer of Coda Effects is one of the nicest guys in the industry - publishing his schematics for free and helping enthusiasts gain easy access to components and assemblies - so that they can exactly replicate his 3 main pedals - this Black Hole Distortion, his Dolmen Fuzz (Green Russian Big Muff) and Montagne tap-tempo Tremolo - all excellent. There aren't that many official clones around of this particular amp type - with only the Black Hole and EQD's single-dial Acapulco Gold commonly available. The Black Hole's twin drive circuits give you very much a sort of fuzzy distortion sound - which benefits greatly from the 3-band EQ. It does take a little patience to dial things in to perfection - and you will get areas of the spectrum which don't sound perfectly harmonic - but a little due diligence will pay off. The Acapulco Gold is therefore probably an easier proposition for this type of pedal for many while the Black Hole is far more tweakable and has more range overall.


Supro Thunderbolt ≈ JHS SuperBolt - £195

Supro has its own Supro Drive pedal which does a fairly similar thing, but I deliberately decided to side with the more generic pedals for this feature - so the JHS SuperBolt is the choice. It's one that Josh Scott has demo'd quite a bit recently on his own YouTube Channel, and it was also featured on a fairly recent That Pedal Show episode as one of Dan Steinhardt's favourite JHS choices. The JHS version is slightly looser, more open and more fuzz-like, while the Supro Drive is rather more focused and punchy. In fact and slightly ironically in doing this research I have decided that I probably slightly prefer the actual Supro Drive and will likely be getting that - they're not exactly the same thing though - so it depends which tone-profile and texture appeals more to you. I really like this SuperBolt too, but do have a few fuzzy-drive pedals that I probably slightly prefer overall.


Trainwreck Express ≈ Custom Tones Ethos TWE-1 - $225 + Delivery/c£205

I ordered this pedal from Custom Tones at the start of 2018, it took until April to arrive, but remained pride of place in the pedal-chain for the rest of the year. Its slot is currently being occupied by the Coda Effects Black Hole, and featured the Bearfoot FX Model Hs before the TWE-1 arrived. This one totally lives up to its 'Clean to Scream' billing and is superbly dynamic and harmonically rich and wonderfully controlled by your guitar volume knob. The pedal control topology is a touch unusual - as it's a sort of 3-band EQ by totally different means. Once you get the hang of it though this pedal is just fantastic - still one of my favourite drives and great for searing Coheed and Cambria style tones (for me at least).


Vox AC30 (Treble Boosted) ≈ Bearfoot FX Emerald Green Distortion Machine - £210

Bearfoot FX and Björn Juhl really make some beautifully articulate and amp-like pedals and the Emerald Green Distortion Machine is one of the very best. The 'Voice' dial takes you from a sort of Plexi type distortion to a full-throated Top-boosted Vox Style Distortion which is where I have it set. This is my treble-boosted Vox style pedal of choice - the Catalinbread Galileo (also have) is pretty good too, but does not go quite loud enough or saturated enough for my liking, while the Emerald Green has plenty more on tap. I understand it's one of Brett Kingman's all-time favourite drive pedals too - this pedal really seems to be one of my unassailables with very little rotation on its chosen slot. I have 3 core drive pedals which are pretty much my perennial all-time favourites, and that includes this one, Dr Scientist's The Element and MI Effects Super Crunch Box. Each has some alternatives for its slot, but maintains occupation for near 99% of the calendar.


Final Thoughts

Drive and Fuzz Pedals are like Ice Cream Flavours or Jelly Beans really - there are literally dozens of varieties, but not all of them will mix well together, and you cannot possibly fit them all on your pedalboard or pedal-chain. I have 20 different drive slots in my pedal-chain which share around 150+ different pedals on rotation, and I still can only feature a fairly slim selection of voicings. Each of the 9 flavours above is suitably differentiated and distinct, yet you are unlikely to find all appealing - in fact like I do.

 

A great part of this appreciation is about taking time to get to properly know your pedal - try it on its own with various different settings - extreme and nuanced, and then try combining with pre- or post- boost and stacking with other lower-gain pedals. Some pedals are more immediate while others may take a while to crack, but may end up being more satisfactory in the end. I see all kinds of negative reviews about certain pedals where reviewers / users have singularly failed to get on with a pedal and proclaimed it toothless or uninspiring where they really just did not get it. I've seen a number of scathing reviews of some of my very favourite pedals - and I really just don't get the strength of the dislike. I can prefer one flavour of ice cream to another, but I don't hate or despise one of my lesser favourite ones. Tone is a mix of harmonics and texture, and I feel most types have a use within the proper context.

 

All of the above 9 are pretty vanilla in their appeal - the Black Hole and TWE-1 are a little more tricky to dial in, but all produce very satisfactory tones relatively easily. It's up to you to decide what works for you, but don't condemn other players choices. Most players out there are still largely just copyists - trying to replicate the key tone/s of their favourite artists, while I am more of an experimentalist trying to find more idiosyncratic tones, and eventually my own particular signature tone or tones. I'm the kind of person that really puts in the leg-work to check out as much as I can of what is out there. I know I'm still just scratching the surface, but every day I'm getting one step closer to where I want to / need to be... hopefully this helps some of you too.

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