To All The Dirt Pedals I've Loved Before

No, this is not mine. The sickness hasn't
progressed to that point. Yet.
I have a friend who's a wicked guitar player who likes to say, "You can never own too many distortion pedals." There's some truth to that! Distortion is often the primary color of your tone and having a lot of colors available is handy. Dirt pedals are also a lot cheaper than amps so it's possible to buy and trade them without breaking the bank. Lower-gain pedals are very useful for The Nudge. As a result, I have bought, sold, traded, and retained quite a few distortion/overdrive pedals over the years. I decided to write down my impressions of all the ones I can remember. As you'll see, I'm more into "overdrive" pedals than distortion or fuzz pedals. My holy grail for dirt pedals is the one that sounds like an old cranked-up tube amp, or one that can push said amp into a warm singing lead tone.
  • MXR Distortion+ –  I bought a Distortion+ very early in my playing life, probably 1980 or so. At that time at my local music store, your only choices were the Electro-Harmonix Little Big Muff and the MXR Distortion+. The Muff was cheaper and looked it. It was also loose and fuzzy sounding. So in my mind as a 15 year old, the D+ was the pedal to have! At the time, I really liked it. The sound was a lot tighter, less bassy, and more cohesive than the Muff, and it sounded good with chords. And, hey, Randy Rhoads used one! Based on the videos I've watched I'm not sure I would care for the D+ much nowadays, but it was the shiznit back then. Unfortunately I no longer have my Distortion+. I sold it to a friend several years after I got into Tube Screamers.
  • Ibanez TS-9 Tube Screamer – I bought an original TS-9 Tube Screamer in 1983 or '84. I used the TS-9 in combination with a Boss CS-2 compressor. I would keep the CS-2 on all the time but dialed for fairly moderate compression. The output of the CS-2 would run into the TS-9, on which I would dime the drive knob and set the level knob to just above unity gain. That combination sounded terrific and some variation of it was the core of my sound for the rest of the '80s. Unlike with the D+, hindsight hasn't changed my mind about the TS-9 – I still think highly of that pedal. It had less gain than the D+, but it was smoother, tighter, and more amp-like. Of course it had that characteristic midrange boost and attenuated low-end that defines the Tube Screamer sound. All-in-all one of the most satisfying overdrive pedals I've owned. Unfortunately sometime in the late '80s, the footswitch on mine went out. I didn't know of any place that could fix it, so I bought a a cheap switch from Radio Shack along with a cheap plastic chassis box, which I needed because the new switch was incompatible with the original TS-9 box. Then I installed the Tube Screamer guts into the plastic box along with the new switch. I limped along with that for about a year until that switch gave out too. At that point I threw the TS-8 in the garbage(!) and went to the music store to buy a replacement. Of course, nobody had any clue back then that ten years later vintage Tube Screamers would be selling for $300 or more, and I kick myself when I think about it.
  • Ibanez STL Super Tube – Unfortunately, Tube Screamers were no longer made at the time I needed to replace mine. So the music store sold me the Super Tube pedal as the nearest equivalent. The Super Tube was only manufactured in 1985 (and I I bought mine in about '87 or '88, so it had to be NOS). It was housed in a plastic box with cheap jacks and pots. Construction-wise it was a pretty crummy pedal, although mine worked fine for at least 10 years. Tone-wise, it was similar to the Tube Screamer, but a little smaller-sounding, less ballsy. I distinctly remember not liking it as much. It had two tone knobs labeled "bright" and "bite". The bright knob worked like a regular tone knob, and the bite knob was an upper-mid knob. I played with the Super Tube (and the CS-2) until about 1990 when I abandoned overdrive pedals altogether and started playing through rack systems. I sold the pedal to some collector in the '90s. Being a vintage pedal that was a direct descendant of the Tube Screamer, they were going for they were going for pretty decent money. I've read folks on the Internet praising the Super Tube, even preferring it over the Tube Screamer. But that's not what my ears heard.
  • Fulltone Full-Drive II – Around 1997, I started simplifying my rig and going back to amps and pedals. My reentry into overdrive pedals was with the FDII. My FDII is a relatively early model before Fulltone had introduced the flat-mids and MOSFET features that are on the current Full-Drive. Mine is also hand-wired (current Full-Drives have PCBs). Anyway, I felt right at home on the FDII. It is very similar to a Tube Screamer, but even smoother. It has a wonderful, footswitchable boost feature which gives you a small increase in volume and saturation, the latter of which is adjustable. I played a lot of gigs with the FDII and I still own and use the pedal fairly regularly. It also makes a good clean boost pedal if you're okay with that Tube Screamer-esque midrange hump. For overdrive duties though, my preference has evolved to pedals that are a bit less smooth and little more raw-sounding.
  • Marshall GV-2 Guv'nor Plus – I bought this pedal in the early 2000s. I wanted to have a pedal with a bit more gain on tap than the FDII, but wasn't an all-out metal machine. The Guv'nor+ does that. Overall, it's pretty good pedal for rock, although I find it a little bit compressed and congested for my tastes. It's one of those pedals that doesn't sound bad, but isn't particularly inspiring either. One thing it has that I do like is a very flexible EQ with controls for Treble, Mid, Bass, and Deep, which is sub-bass. I still have this pedal but it doesn't get used very often.
  • Voodoo Lab Superfuzz – I've only owned two fuzz pedals! The Superfuzz is modeled on the Jordan Boss Tone, rather than the Arbiter Fuzz Face like most other fuzz pedals. I think that's what appealed to me, on paper anyway, about this pedal. It's cool to go a different direction than the crowd. I don't know what Paul McCartney used on the solo for Taxman, but the Superfuzz could nail that tone. But as is often the case, people love the Fuzz Face and the Boss Tone is comparatively obscure for good reasons. The Superfuzz is hard in the upper-mids and kind of harsh-sounding, as opposed to fat and corpulent like a Fuzz Face. I never really bonded with this pedal and sold it a few years later. I realize now that I'd probably like a Fuzz Face clone more, but even then, I'm not a fuzz guy. I love what I hear other people doing with fuzz, but whenever I plug into one it's never quite the same.
  • Prescription Electronics Experience – The Experience was the other fuzz pedal that I've owned. As fuzz pedals go, I gotta say the Experience was really cool. It was fat and nasty. And it nailed that octave fuzz sound on Purple Haze (which Hendrix did with an Octavia pedal). It also had this interesting, but highly temperamental, control called "swell", which if you set it just right, and played around the 12th fret, using the neck pickup, gave you a backwards-sounding guitar! Very '60s psychedelic. I have a recording I did using that sound, which impressed one of my friends because I was able to control that function well enough to actually record it – it was that touchy. I don't think they make Experience pedals anymore and the they're pretty desirable now on the used market. As cool as it was though, I ended up selling that pedal (for more than I paid for it) since as I said, fuzz just isn't my thing.
  • Boss SD-1 Super Over-Drive – The SD-1 was a complete impulse buy, which can happen when pedals only cost $50. If I were stuck on a desert island, I wouldn't necessarily pick the SD-1 myself, but I wouldn't be crushed if it were picked for me. It's similar to a Tube Screamer with about the same gain range, but it's not as midrangey, and the overdrive character is a little more aggressive-sounding. To my ears, it's more amp-like. The downsides are that it's a little bass deficient, and it doesn't clean up as well when you pick lighter or roll back the guitar's volume. But other than that, it's a very good-sounding overdrive and a no-brainer at $50. I still own my SD-1 and it gets used a fair amount, especially with my Marshall as the two really like each other.
  • Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive – The Sparkle Drive is supposed to be a Tube Screamer-like overdrive, but to my ears the overdrive is actually a little anemic, especially when you turn up the gain to get more grind out of it. It's just not very ballsy sounding, even more so than the Super Tube. But the Sparkle Drive has one neat trick that keeps it in my collection. It has a "clean" control that mixes back in the unaffected signal with the distorted one. So you get a layering of clean and dirty tones, which is really quite nice. I find it very useful for lower-gain, open chord arpeggios, or blues tones. Mixed with the clean sound, the tepid sounding overdrive isn't objectionable. The clean control can also be maxed out, turning the pedal into a pure clean boost which is handy. But mixing in a little bit of dirt works really well for boost too and is one of my favorite ways to do The Nudge. I've always thought that if Voodoo Lab improved the overdrive side and made it bolder and more open and aggressive sounding (I'm talking more about the overall tone here, not necessarily the amount of gain), they'd have a devastating pedal. Based on what I've heard in YouTube demos, the updated Sparkle Drive MOD might be that pedal, so one day I'll probably upgrade. But for now, the original Sparkle Drive is still in my collection and gets used for boost or when I need its special trick.
  • Electro-Harmonix English Muff'n – This pedal uses actual 12AY7 tubes to do its business and purports to be a Marshall-in-a-box. It does that trick pretty well actually, but you have to know the secret. The EQ on the Muff'n is capable of extremes that will produce pretty terrible sounds. If you try to dial in a scooped-mid tone on this pedal, you'll hate it. The secret for getting vintage Marshall-esque tones out of the English Muff'n is to crank the mids (2:00 or higher) and turn down the highs (well below noon). The mid knob is really voiced in the high-mids, and the high is voiced at a frequency higher than you'd expect and adds a lot of buzziness to the overdrive. So cranking the mids and dialing back the highs will result in a bright-but-not-buzzy tone that is passably old school Marshall. The English Muff'n is also wonderfully touch-sensitive. In fact, it cleans up with light picking better than any overdrive pedal I've tried. The biggest downsides to the Muff'n have nothing to do with tone: it takes up a lot of real estate on a pedalboard, and it won't run on batteries and uses an oddball power adapter. I still have this pedal because I think it works really well, but I don't gig with it much due to the those two issues.
  • Fulltone OCD  – All things considered, this is the pedal I'd choose as my desert island pedal. You have to turn up your amp volume a bit to really bring out the best in the OCD, but when you do it's a thumpin' good pedal. It has more gain on tap than a Tube Screamer. There's no midrange hump and it retains a fair amount of low-end. The character of the distortion is tight, cohesive, and decidedly Brit-sounding. It has excellent touch-responsiveness (although not as good as the English Muff'n). And it works well with a wide variety of amps. The one dig I have on the OCD is that it's a bit mid-scooped and maybe a little too refined sounding (as opposed to being raw and slightly out-of-control like an actual cranked amp). By the way, I have version 3 of the OCD, which is "the one to get" according to my knowledgeable friends. But I've never personally compared the various OCD versions (this guy did, however). In any case, the OCD is my current favorite overdrive pedal and the one that I use the most.
  • Barber Electronics Small Fry – The Small Fry is also really nice. It has a lot of controls (both external and internal) that give it a tremendous amount of flexibility. It has a similar gain range to the OCD, but it has a fat, smooth, and singing voice, with a little more midrange (not overemphasized like a Tube Screamer though). Plugging in to this pedal makes me want to play lead, as opposed to the OCD which makes me want to play chords. It has a unique and very useful knob labeled "dynamics" that adjusts its touch sensitivity and gain range. It can do a passable, but not exact, Dumble impression. (If you need that, you want the Hermida Zendrive.) It's a bit noisy and for some reason at higher gain settings it can send my rig into squealing feedback more easily than other pedals. But for lead tones, I like it best of all the pedals I own.
  • [Added on 1/26/2016. J. Rockett Animal – I just posted a review of the Animal. Let's just say there's a new sheriff in town.]