Before I get properly started on this post I want to dampen down the emotions of some of the gainsayers who actively contend that the King of Tone is not a Blues Breaker style pedal. In Mike Piera’s own words he describes how the King of Tone pedal evolved, and yes the initial inspiration and starting block was the MK1 Marshall Blues Breaker pedal, even though of course Mike’s final circuit is significantly enhanced and eventually highly differentiated from that it is still an evolution of the Blues Breaker Style. Indeed in terms of Taxonomical genus, all the pictured pedals should live within the branches of the Blues Breaker family tree.
One of my favourite mini pedals for the longest time was the Mooer Blues Mood - i.e. their take on the Keeley Fat mod of the Boss Blues Driver BD-2. Almost as good as that is their Blue Breaker replica equivalent - the Blues Crab which though lacks a clipping option. Up one size we have the quite superb Wampler Pantheon which I have waxed lyrical about many times fairly recently - and until a few days ago though what the be-all and end-all of Blues Breaker Style pedals.
Next there is the often overlooked Tech 21 NYC British pedal - based very much on that original Marshall pedal too and pleasingly with 3-band EQ plus additional ’Character’ control. Alas Tech 21 is not much in circulation on this side of the pond so these are not widely available, and I still feel that the Pantheon has a much to offer if not slightly more in a more compact form factor.
Finally we have the legendary King of Tone which I always believed to be somewhat over-hyped because too many of the demos I’ve seen don’t ever really get to grips with the full range potential of this pedal. In fact an opportunity presented itself very recently on Reverb.com where I was able to get hold of a JHS 4-Star Mod of this celebrated pedal for pretty reasonable money really. All the JHS modded version does is to externalise the 4 internal dip-switches and 2 Tremble trim-pots - so you can easily manipulate these on the surface of the pedal rather than having to keep screwing off the base-plate. A total win-win for me, and the reason why I also acquired the Alchemy Audio modified mini Xotic pedals back in the day.
I’m totally mystified why certain factions criticise JHS for this very useful endeavour where Josh is really just making the pedal more usable and more easily versatile - which is why I am such a big fan of JHS mods. In any case the hype is wholly justified and the King of Tone is an incredible pedal in any guise - and with those surface-mounted switches and dials it gives you so much more flexibility and versatility.
I reckon I would take the Pantheon in preference to the Analog.Man Prince of Tone, while the JHS-modded King of Tone offers quite a bit more than the Pantheon, and in fact has a slightly different mid-focused frequency character - so I really like both of these, and right at this very minute have both actually in my pedal-chain - although that is highly unlikely to last long-term. I think each has its merits.
Pedals are listed by enclosure size from small to large.
I've already reported numerous times on just how good the Mooer minis can be, and there are a number which really are upper echelon - including this Blues Breaker clone. Of course the overall quality / parts are nowhere near the level of boutique pedals - say in particular the Decibelics Golden Horse, but they can sound indistinguishable in the mix from the real thing, and all the ones I have, have proved to be sufficiently robust and reliable. This is a great sounding low-cost and minimalist alternative which is especially useful for where space is tight. I think it is also much more likely to be used as an additional flavour or flavouring agent rather than the actual core overdrive sound itself. In any case really useful and really good value.
I guess some people are starting to get bored by the mention of this recent Wampler addition. I do though feel it is Brian's most accomplished pedal to date - simply in the range of tones and degrees of gain it delivers on. I thought it might be a strange choice to have Bass, Treble and Presence over a more classic 3-band EQ, but actually it really works and I can get all the tones I would want out of it. It is one of the most immediately satisfying pedals I have ever acquired, and most should experience equivalent Euphoria upon their first encounter. Those Gain and Voicing switches are genius too in the range they cover - I really have nothing bad to say about this pedal and fully recommend all should acquire. As I said in the intro I had though this would make the King of Tone a touch surplus to requirements, but that proved to be far from the truth!
I only have one Tech 21 NYC pedal to my name - the really rather excellent and woefully overlooked Roto Choir stereo rotary pedal. Where this pedal brand seems to be in rather scant distribution in the UK, and very infrequently advertised these days. In any case this medium enclosure overdrive is another excellent Blues Breaker clone in amongst other key Marshall amp flavours, albeit significantly overshadowed nowadays by the King of Tone and Pantheon. It's one critical advantage here is in providing full 3-band EQ for unparalleled tone-sculpting of this type - while the Pantheon and KOT rely on different settings to give them equivalent range. I feel that a number of the Tech 21 pedals need modernising and compacting, and that in the face of something like the Pantheon is likely to come off second-best even with the advantage in price. Nevertheless a really versatile and great sounding multi-Marshall style pedal with really decent Blues Breaker coverage.
I only realised a few months ago that there existed a JHS mod for the King of Tone which externalised the internal dip-switches and trim-pots - reason enough for me to get onboard. So that when the opportunity presented itself I jumped on it and am now the proud owner of one such pictured above. The vast majority of demos I've seen use this as a fairly soft pedal - more as a high-headroom boost or low-gain overdrive than anything mid-range or more. While the Pantheon demos included the full spectrum of that pedal's capabilities. I can now gladly say that the King of Tone's reputation is full deserved, and this is understandably a classic of its kind with an understandably long waiting list. I thought the Pantheon might throw a spanner in the works on that, but these pedals are to my ears sufficiently different to warrant separate consideration. They each have a slightly different mid-range characteristic and slightly different timbre - with the Pantheon somewhat more elastic, and the KOT tighter and somehow more defined. I have to say I love both really, and even with a huge degree of overlap - each inspires somewhat different playing in me. I think the combination of 2 channels with selectable gain level and tonal tweaking gives you excellent flexibility options in routing and combination, and that with the two channels stacked on just boost mode, give you an incredibly characterful yet unadulterated core tone. I can find no demos of the JHS modded pedal, so I've made do with my favourite KOT vs Prince of Tone comparison demo.
I feel that there is a real skew here towards the Pantheon and the King of Tone, and they pretty much overshadow everything else in this category, including other highly competent Blues Breaker clones in my collection - like the Modified Snouse BlackBox Overdrive V2 with external switches. Neither of the other options here can really hold a light to the two main contenders.
I am so glad I came across this modified KOT as otherwise I might have continued to believe that the Pantheon was a fully fledged KOT-killer. I had in fact always intended to get the Prince of Tone pedal - i.e. the 'Half-King' with its much more usable external 3-way Boost / Overdrive / Distortion voicing switch. But when the Pantheon came around I thought that surely that was a more complete / versatile version than the Prince.
Yet the King of Tone really reigns supreme still - yes the Pantheon is superb at what it does, but the King of Tone offers a little more as well as something a little more different. I truly understand why so many players have such a pedal as their core drive tone on their pedalboards - so it depends really on how much you wish to spend, how long you want to wait, and how much space you have to allocate. And while I consider the Pantheon the King of the Wampler Drives, I still think that overall the King of Tone, and particularly in my JHS edition, still holds claim to the King of Drives.