So a little over a year ago I wrote a piece entitled - ’12 Degrees of Saturation - Key Guitar Overdrive, Fuzz and Distortion Sounds’ - which has gone on to become my most popular guitar/pedal-related blog. It touched on my central premise of covering the major overdrive, fuzz and distortion types by degree or level of gain present for that pedal type. There are so many different flavours of saturated guitar tones, that I believed they had to be categorised in some comparable fashion so that people could easily understand where on the spectrum a certain pedal type ’lived’. Of course this exercise is slightly academic to a degree as even within particular pedal categories and families there can be vast differences and overlaps in degree and range of gain - and each player might set their pedal at a different level - which may be beyond my specific classification of gain position within the overall scale of placement. So think of this as a pretty rough guide to help you find your preferred tonal flavours of saturation.
I have very broad tastes in guitar-based music which pretty much cover the whole range of different overdrive and distortion levels. You can of course get away with using a lot fewer pedals than I do, but do note that within each pedal type / category, even individual device, you can have a vastly different textural and tonal profile / characteristics - and I like all those individual nuances - a classic example of this is people who have a preference for an Ibanez TS9 over a TS808 or vice versa - when those pedals are incredibly close in profile and component makeup - so it often is the tiny nuances that matter. All the key sounds I feature have distinct tonalities - but then some pedals bridge across families or introduce notable variations into their output.
I use this scale quite a lot myself to contrast and compare my different pedal options and to help decide which pedal to get next! Every player will have their own particular preference for pedal within a particular classification or family, and hopefully my roundup is broad enough in profile to help you pick out your favourites, as well as assist me with my ongoing Tone Quest.
On this occasion and continuing the pattern for 2018 - I have selected entirely compact enclosure pedals - not all of which I possess (yet) - as I already have preferred mini, medium or larger pedals assigned to those slots. I won’t go into as much detail as the original article, but will list my favourites and try to give you some very decent alternatives too.
Pedals are listed in order of gain level / saturation as I have it dialled in:
Currently the run-away leader here is the Jackson Audio Prism, which just does more than any other comparable Boost, and it does it all so well - the only improvement I can see here is the addition of a Mid Frequency dial - otherwise it's near perfect. Other alternatives and pedals of interest are listed alphabetically below:
Alternatives : Amptweaker Curveball Jr - £189 | Friedman Buxom Boost - £199 | Laney Black Country Customs TI-Boost - £129 | TC Electronic Spark Boosted - £99 | ThorpyFX Team Medic Boost, Buffer, Active EQ - £199 | Vemuram Budi Boost - £343 | Wren & Cuff Two-Five Drive/Boos - £225
I love the diminutive original Mini Tumnus and the new Deluxe model is even better. Still has that wonderful warm full-frequency range tone with enhanced lower frequencies, now just with more tone-shaping and extended gain-range via 'Hot' mode toggle - probably my favourite overdrive still.
Alternatives : Electro-Harmonix Soul Food JHS Mod - £105 | Foxpedal Kingdom Combo V2 - £223 | Greer Amps Lightspeed - £199 | J Rockett Rockaway Archer - £249 | Keeley Oxblood Germanium - £219 | Mythos Pedals Mjolnir King of Klones - £199
The new JHS Bonsai is a total no-brainer for Tubescreamer fans - 9 of the best loved Tubescreamers wholly recreated via 9 separate and exact analogue circuit reproductions - all within the same enclosure. No need to worry about whether the TS808 or TS9 circuit sounds better - here you have both and more in the same pedal. Note that I also love my Foxpedal The City V2 - with separate boost channel / footswitch - which gives you more tone-shaping controls, but less voicings overall obviously compared to the Bonsai - both are exceptional.
Alternatives : Bondi Effects Del Mar - c£200-£300 | Foxpedal The City V2 - £223 | Ibanez Nu Tube Screamer - £239 | Maxon OD-808 - £99 | Mythos Pedals Erlking Overdrive - £199 | Nobels ODR-1 - £85 | Seymour Duncan 805 - £169 | Wampler Clarksdale - £189
Of course the original Dumble was a hugely tonally complex amp with a myriad of tonal characteristics, and unless you're buying the Super-Size pedals - the full-size Custom Tones Ethos PreAmp Overdrive, or Van Weelden Royal Overdrive - you will only get a specific subset of those amp tones. The part I really like is the really smooth mid-gain overdrive with a slight hint of fuzz on the edges. Some of the Dumble-alikes are rather anaemic and flat in profile - I like mine with a little more character. My chosen pedal here the TWE-1 is actually modelled on a different amp - the very cultish Trainwreck Express, although it does put you in very similar territory - which is why I like it.
Alternatives : J Rockett The Dude - £199 | Lovepedal Hermida Zendrive 2 - £195 | Mad Professor Simble - £149 | Mojo Hand FX Extra Special - £179 | MXR Shin-Juku Drive - £99 | Tanabe Zenkudo - c$310 | Wampler Euphoria - £189
A touch of a strange choice to a degree as the Angry Driver is actually overall more of a distortion pedal - featuring the additional Angry Charlie voicing as it does, but you do get the full-frequency Blues Driver voicing too, and you can blend those two voicings any which way, including at low gain - which gives you the most versatile Blues Driver pedal currently available. There's some degree of overlap here also with the Marshall Bluesbreaker pedal voicing, so a few of those types are include also.
Alternatives : Bondi Effects Del Mar - c£200-£300 | Boss BD-2w Blues Driver Waza Craft - £126 | Boss BD-2 Blues Driver JHS Mod - $165 | Analog.Man Prince of Tones - £138 | CMATMods Signa Drive - c£170 | Keeley Super Phat Mod - £139 | MI Audio Super Blues Pro - £137 | Mojo Hand FX Bluebonnet - £159 | Rockbox Baby Blues - c£100
The Fulltone OCD has long been my favourite harmonically rich crunchy overdrive - that was until the Hamstead Odyssey arrived shortly before Christmas last year. I had heard some demos and loved its range, but had no idea really where it would fit in my pedal chain until I started tweaking its dials, and arrived very quickly and serendipitously at a classic OCD kind of tone. The Odyssey (ODC?) of course does a lot more than the OCD - but it's a great substitute for that too.
Alternatives : Crowther Audio HotCake - £175 | DOD Overdrive Preamp 250 - £89 new | Electro-Harmonix OD Glove - £64 | Fulltone OCD - £149 | Fulltone Plimsoul - £159 | Joyo Ultimate Drive - £33 | Mojo Hand FX Rook - £179 | MXR Custom Badass '78 Distortion - £96 | Vick Audio Tree of Life - £110
This is yet another fairly unusual pedal choice, as it's a dual-channel multi-drive / dual-drive at its heart, but with significant Fuzz voicings - which you can use independently or stacked, and in combination with secondary boost and overdrive - both in parallel and 2-way series - so a huge range of Fuzz tones in one compact pedal enclosure, possibly not the single favourite fuzz tone overall, but certainly in the ball-park, and easily the most versatile. Note that I currently have 18 compact size fuzz pedals in the collection - so lots of choice really. Note also that there are a vast number of varieties - so for the 2 Fuzz pedal placements, I will assign Fuzz Face / Tone Bender / Big Muff to this slot - even though Big Muffs can straddle both really - while the Fuzzy-Drive side will be more heavy-duty.
Alternatives : Amptweaker TightFuzz Jr - £169 | Basic Audio Scarab Deluxe - £199 | Catalinbread Moseley Fuzzrite - £125 | Crazy Tube Circuits Constellation Fuzz - €267 | Dr Scientist BitQuest - £219 | Foxpedal Defector - £188 | JHS Muffuletta - £209 | Magnetic Effects White Atom - £109 | Matthews Effects The Whaler Fuzz - £159 | Monsterpiece MKI Fuzz - $200 | ProAnalog Devices MKIV Fuzz - $299 | SolidGoldFX 76 Fuzz - £150 | Skreddy Pedals BC109 Fuzz - £199 | ThorpyFX Fallout Cloud - £185
So Fuzzy-Drive is where Fuzz meets Overdrive and Distortion - meaning we are pretty squarely in 'Rat' territory. Having just two Fuzz Categories makes it hard to accommodate some of the more experimental fuzz pedals - so some may be left out on this occasion, while there may also be some slightly odd fits. My Frazz Dazzler is a perennial favourite - think of it as a supercharged 'Rat' with seriously amped up electrostatic crackle and heavyweight distortion - a little too much for some, but glorious for me - some more conventional choices listed also below:
Alternatives : Boss FZ-2 Hyper Fuzz - c£150 | Catalinbread Katzenkonig - £137 | Foxpedal Wrath V2 - £145 | Jam Pedals Rattler - £169 | Old Blood Noise Endeavours Haunt - £179 | Retro-Sonic Distortion - $150 | Side Effects Woolly Mammoth 7 Clone - £145 | Skreddy Hybrid Fuzz Driver - £249 | Subdecay Harmonic Antagonizer- £169 | VFE Alpha Dog V2 - $179 new | Zvex Fuzz Factory Vertical - £180 | Walrus Audio Iron Horse Distortion V2 - £179
There are lots of excellent alternatives for this slot - I myself keep alternating between the Dirty Shirley and the Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret for the top slot - both have their advantages - I eventually gave it to the Dirty Shirley as it has all its key controls on the exterior, while for the DLS you need to pop open the enclosure to access the mode switch and brightness trim-pot. Both pedals sound excellent though.
Alternatives : Amptweaker TightDrive Jr - £149 | Carl Martin PlexiTone Single - £119 | Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret - £137 | Greer Amps Little Samson - £199 } JHS Charlie Brown - £195 | J Rockett 45 Caliber - £189 | J Rockett Animal Pro - £189 | Lovepedal Purple Plexi - £169 | OKKO King Krunch - £179 | PettyJohn Gold Pedal 'Plexi' - $249 | Ramble FX Marvel Drive 3 - £171 | TC Electronic Dark Matter - £41 | Wampler Plexi Drive - £189 | Zvex Vertical Box of Rock - £219
This is of course that famous variac-saturated and scooped-mids sound which totally revolutionised rock guitar at the tail end of the 70's and is probably the most universally well-known signature guitar sound. My two favourite pedals for this slot are the latest MI Audio Super Crunch Box and the original Surh Riot Distortion. The former just pips it by virtue of its greater tweakability, if you want less dials - then go with the Riot - both pedals are superb.
Alternatives : Amptweaker TightRock Jr - £149 | CMATMods Brownie - $135 | Dawner Prince RedRox Distortion - £179 | JHS @ Andy Timmons+ - £219 | JHS Angry Charlie V3 - £195 | Mad Professor '1' - £149 | SolidGoldFX SuperDrive - $175 new | Suhr Riot - £199 | Wampler Pinnacle Standard - £189
This is sort of your Harder Rock and lower end of Metal - with substantial high gain, but not necessarily that full on really tight and percussive Djent Heavy Metal sound - which is more for the next level up. The Friedman BE-OD is a pretty high JCM800-type distortion which sounds a touch scooped, and is quite tight in texture and tends toward the darker spectrum of tonality, but with both Treble and Presence dials to pull it back the other way. Lots of 'Metalheads' really love this pedal, although I don't classify it really as a proper heavy metal pedal per se. Lots of decent alternatives at this slot too of course.
Alternatives : Boss MD-2 Mega Distortion - £69 | Catalinbread Sabbra Cadabra - £137 | Dr Scientist The Elements - £209 | Keeley Filaments - £189 | Mad Professor Mighty Red Distortion - £119 | Mad Professor Stone Grey Distortion - £139 | Matthews Effects Harbinger - £169 | MESA/Boogie Throttle Box - £195 | MXR M75 Super Badass - £115 | OKKO Rectoplexxx - £179 | VS Audio Operation Trinity - £179 | Wampler CataPulp - £189 | Wampler Sovereign - £189
At the highest gain level - proper speaker blaster saturated metal, there aren't that many pedals at this form factor, all my really heavy pedals in my chain are medium to large enclosure. I've scoured around looking for decent examples, but really struggled to find more than this selection. Much in demand though long discontinued is Boss's HM-2 MIJ Heavy Metal pedal which does though seem to be in plentiful second-hand supply - the tricky thing is finding the right one at a good price - brand new ones go for around £250, while 'excellent' and 'mint' versions can be found for around £150-£200. There's obviously a gap in the market here - and I'm sure there will be more compact mayhem pedals within the next year or two!
Alternatives : Blackstar LT Metal - £59 | Boss HM-2 Heavy Metal c£150-£200 | Boss ML-2 Metal Core - £100 | Boss MT-2 Metal Zone- £75 | DOD Boneshaker £129 | Wampler Dracarys £189
I have the Burnley in its wooden cover-plate edition, as I feel that so aptly reflects the tone of the pedal - incredibly harmonically rich while warm and sort of smooth at the same time - no other distortion pedal comes that close to that timbre really. The Fulltone Plimsoul is a smooth distortion to a degree, as can the Bearfoot FX Model Hs be in its Dumble/Sparkle mode. Although neither pedal really matches the complex harmonic profile of the Burnley - I really rather quite like it, it's great for home playing and probably isolated solos, but is possibly not quite piercing enough for a full on distortion band kind of environment.
Alternatives : Bearfoot FX Model Hs - £210 | Fulltone Plimsoul - £159
This is a really clever pedal which reminds me a touch of how some of the MI Audio pedals are laid out to a degree - two large dials and a myriad of smaller ones with additional voicing toggles. On this current version you have a huge range of gain, mid frequency band manipulation along with full 3-band EQ and Presence dial, as well as a picking sensitivity toggle which also seems to add some more edge into the tone. So you have a vast range of tonal possibilities with an even more clever toggle which allows you to add an extra gain, boost or gain+boost stage which is activated with a second press of the footswitch so the footswitch goes from off to low gain, to boosted / high gain and back to off. I've not seen its like before and it's really quite ingenious. There is no other pedal that functions exactly like this - in fact you would probably need a twin footswitch variety to match it in some way - something like the new JHS Andy Timmons+ or forthcoming Zvex Vertical Box of Rock.
Alternatives : JHS @ Andy Timmons+ - £219 | Zvex Vertical Box of Rock - £219
This is actually also mentioned under Heavy Distortion, but runs much broader than that - it marginally edges the Sinvertek in terms of tone-shaping ability, while the Sinvertek has a couple of clever Gain + Boost footswitch features which make that overall the most versatile. However The Elements is the only pedal here fully adept at doing warm and organic low-end overdrive through to blistering distortion, and with some fuzz flavours inbetween. The only other pedals that I can think reach nearly this degree of range are the Hamstead Odyssey and Skreddy Screwdriver Mini Deluxe.
Alternatives : Hamstead Odyssey Intergalactic Driver - £219 | Skreddy Screwdriver Mini Deluxe - £249
For most categories there is plenty of choice and plenty of decent alternatives - until you really get to the very highest level of gain - where most of those stomp boxes tend to be larger enclosure format - in fact most of those more modern Metal pedal-makers almost all user larger boxes - OKKO for instance has only just very recently introduce a few compact versions into its range.
Within this listing there are also some really clever and incredibly versatile pedals - I would like to see more within twin footswitches though - something that Chase Bliss does so well, and that others - like JHS and Zvex are starting to pick up on. Zvex in fact has only recently introduced standard compact vertical pedals into its range - hopefully we'll eventually get pedalboard-friendly versions of all their classics. There is definitely a tren at the moment towards pedal miniaturisation - both to compact and mini size even particularly after the success of Wampler's Mini Ego and Mini Tumnus - which have both been runaway successes. You can see that brands like Way Huge have started 'compacting' their pedals as such. The prevailing trend is more effects pedals on a pedalboard - and hence they need to be more compact to fit in!
I feel I've put together a pretty commendable selection of pedals above, no doubt I have inadvertently forgotten about and overlooked some, and possibly included others which some may find questionable. But remember that none of this is an exact science. As many people hate the Zvex Fuzz Factory as love it, the same is the case for the Boss Metal Zone and probably a few more here. In every case all that matters is what you do with it and how you make best use of it - I have heard musicians do the most fantastic things with Fuzz Factories and Metal Zones - so part of this experience is learning how to use these pedals and how to get the most out of them. There is a vast palette of tones, textures, harmonics and timbres here - and many player say they're just about overdrives, or only like distortions, or don't particularly care for fuzzes, but there is truly ample room for all of them - your tastes will not align exactly, no two are alike!
The key purpose in all these articles is to aid you in discovering new tones and textures and being exposed to something you weren't aware of or had forgotten about. I will always try to give you options and alternatives - as there is never really a best pedal as such, just one that is your own personal preference or favourite - and tastes really to differ. So read, digest, experiment and have some fun with all of this. My favourites might very well not be yours - there's plenty a pedal which clashes with a Vox amp or MESA/Boogie or whatever you happen to be rocking - this is all just a line of best fit really ...