I know I sound like a broken record at this point, but I’m going to say it again—we’re living in a golden age of guitar effects. Looking at the awesome crop of effects that were released in 2015, I’m not sure we’ve seen this much innovation since Les Paul and Ray Butts were pioneering multi-track recording and tape echo. From dynamic fuzz-tremolo, to pitch shifters, to pitch shifting delay, and on to double tracking effects, it’s a great time to be a guitarist. The following effects are ranked in no specific order; each one is simply a sparkling example of the originality and creative thinking at play in the world of guitar effects.
Let’s be honest, most of us love Catalinbread for their “foundation" overdrives likes the Formula 5F6 and Dirty Little Secret (which gives your amp the vibe of a vintage Bassman or Marshall Superlead, respectively) and its spot on emulations of classic tape delay and reverb like the Belle Epoch, Echorec, and Topanga. But Catalinbread has plenty of wild and original creations as well. This year, they brought us the Antichthon. What is it? Well, sort of a combination fuzz, tremolo, and extreme noise-maker. At its mildest settings, it’s a beautiful combination of fuzz and tremolo. And one that cleans up and slows down with a soft touch and gets seriously gritty and choppy when you dig in. At its craziest, it sounds like a robotic dolphin trapped inside an avian mental ward.
Dwarfcraft Devices Wizard of Pitch
The folks at Dwarfcraft Devices will never be accused of being unoriginal. While other effects makers are building Tube Screamer clones and things that sound “pretty,” Dwarfcraft is busy soldering up sonic abominations like the Great Destroyer and the Eau Claire Thunder. So it should be no surprise that their new Wizard of Pitch has landed on our Most Original Effects of 2015 list. What started as a “stripped-down” version of the Pitch Grinder morphed into a pedal that defies classification. Sure, it’s capable of simple pitch shifting. And it does this well with a voice that is softer and warmer than many pitch shifters. But it can also dial in glitchy lo-fi tones, wild sweeps from dry signal to wet, and gently warbling clouds of chords. With the “Steps” toggle, you can switch between gentle slides from note to note and hard snaps from one pitch to another. There’s a whole lot of sounds in this box. Be careful and don’t get lost.
Dr. Scientist BitQuest
I thought about how to describe the Dr. Scientist BitQuest. The name makes it sound like another bit-reducer pedal. It’s not. It can do that, but it can do so much more. Really, it’s a combination digital fuzz and multi-effect pedal. You read that correctly—digital fuzz. The BitQuest has two modes of operation—clean and dirty. And it offers eight effect patches: Flanger, High Pass Filter, Low Pass Filters, Bit Crusher with Sample Rate Reducer, Infinite Reverb, Notch Filter, Ring Modulator, Octave Pitch Shifter/Harmonizer, and Digital Delay. Each of these eight patches can then be run in either Clean or Dirty mode. In Clean mode, the effects behave as you would expect and remain generally well-behaved. In Dirty mode, all hell breaks loose. If you’re looking for meat-and-potatoes multi-effect sounds, steer clear of the BitQuest. Bring this thing to the weekly blues jam and you will be banned for life (assuming you make it out alive). But, if you’re ready to craft new sounds and block out a few hours (or weeks) on your calendar and prepare to embark on a BitQuest.
I’m not that old, but I remember when guitar synthesizers were huge, required a special pickup, and cost an arm and a leg. This year, Boss flipped that concept on its head and introduced the SY-300 Guitar Synthesizer. Boss’s parent company, Roland, has long been the king of guitar synthesis, so it’s not a huge surprise to see Boss enter the fray. What is surprising is the bang-for-buck factor of the SY-300. You get near flawless polyphonic tracking, 70 factory presets, and 99 user-assignable presets. The tones range from pretty standard amp modelling, to ‘80s-style synth patches, and on to some pretty extreme pitch shifting, filtering, and slicing effects. To have this much firepower at your feet and to be able to use it with every guitar you own (not just one equipped with a special pickup) is pretty amazing.
Remember when digital distortion was a bad word? When your hair metal loving friends called the guitar tones on Pretty Hate Machine and Loveless disgusting? Remember when you slammed the input of your crappy little USB interface and made a noise that sounded like sandpaper and razor blades? Well guess what? You were right to love those sounds. Sure, they were kind of gross but they served the song. And now you can recreate all of them with a pedal. Enter the Malekko Scrutator. It will do some really gnarly, bit-crushed, nasty distortion tones, but it’s got a few more crazier tricks up its sleeve as well. You see, with the Scrutator, you can use an expression pedal to control Sample, Bit, Filter and/or Q. You can control any combination of these parameters simultaneously and you can even select (individually) the direction each knob will sweep. The possibilities are close to endless, as are the available tones.
Alexander Pedals Radical Delay
2015 has been a pretty cool year for Alexander Pedals. Springing from the same brain as Disaster Area Designs, Alexander has brought some pretty amazing pedals to the market. My favorite of this bunch is the Radical Delay. I wouldn’t blame you for wanting this pedal simply because of its Miami Vice meets Tron visuals. I mean come on, it screams “circa 1985 Trapper Keeper.” It’s pretty awesome. The 80’s visuals are no coincidence. This thing is all about 1980’s digital delay tones. It does clean, clear repeats. It does subtle modulation. Great tones no doubt, but not truly the reason I’m calling it one of the most original effects of 2015. The Radical earns its originality points when switch into the Glitch and Bend modes. Bend literally bends the pitch of the repeats up or down based on where the Tweak knob is set. It’s a total Twilight Zone vibe—freaky but musical. And great for generating the spark of creativity. Glitch takes the pristine digital delay and drops it into 8-bit video game territory with gritty and glitchy repeats. It’s an incredible palette of sounds from just four knobs and a three-way switch.
Pigtronix Echolution 2 UltraPro
Welcome aboard the Mothership my friends. Sure, I realize that Pigtronix has another pedal that’s actually called the Mothership. Maybe we should call this one the “mother church.” Because if delay is your religion, the Echolution 2 UltraPro is where you come to pray. It. Does. Everything! But the pitch shifted and filtered delay options are out of this world. With the pitch shifted delays, you can do a cool trick where it shifts the first repeat up a fifth and the second one up an octave. With this, you can play shockingly quick power chord figures. At extreme settings, you can make your guitar sound like a steel drum. Combining the pitch shift functions with the reverse delay takes things to an even crazier place. And then there’s the filter effects. While it’s easy to operate the Echolution 2 Ultra Pro from the front of the pedal, it’s also programmable via PC and Mac. I’m sure someone somewhere (maybe even the folks at Pigtronix) is dreaming up a more powerful delay. But for now, this one is pretty much the state-of-the-art.
So yes, Catalinbread made this list twice. What can I say, it’s been on a roll. To be fair, the two pedals of theirs I chose to illustrate the dual strengths of the company. While the Antichthon highlights Catalinbread’s willingness to start from a blank sheet of paper and design an original “mechanism of music,” the Katzenkönig proves its ability to take a design that no one knew was broken and then fix it. In this case, Howard Gee had the brilliant idea of pairing a Tone Bender with a “Rat’s ass,” i.e. the clipping section, Filter control, and output buffer of a Rat. It’s a pretty crazy idea, but one that works well. You get the best of two classic circuits creating a tight yet huge fuzz-tortion. The Katzenkönig offers plenty of gain, plays well with just about any guitar and amp combination, and has the great little Filter control for taming the extreme high frequencies that come from both the Rat and Tone Bender circuits. Here’s to more “crazy” ideas from Howard and the rest of the Catalinbread crew.
JHS Colour Box
In a list of relatively high tech and for lack of a better word, cutting-edge effects, the JHS Colour Box is a bit of a throwback jam. It’s 100 percent analog, it covers only gain and EQ, and it’s designed to emulate a preamp strip on a Neve console. But when you start to think about the vast list of artists who have recorded through Neve consoles and the depth and breadth of sounds they’ve created, you begin to understand why the Colour Box is on this list. And while the others in this list are most suited for use with the guitar, the Colour Box is equally at home with bass, vocals, keys, horns, even drums. But since this is a guitar publication, we’ll stick to that front. With guitar, the Colour Box is adept as a recording tool or a stompbox. It’s perfect for heating up an acoustic guitar or creating “direct to board” fuzz tones à la “Revolution” by the Beatles. But it’s awesome as a floor-based preamp to drive your amp or other pedals. And with a three-band EQ and a high pass filter, it’s great for bringing out the best in every guitar you own.
Keeley 30MS Double Tracker
Robert Keeley: maybe you know him from his outstanding mods to Boss, Ibanez, and other pedals from the major makers. Or maybe you know him as the king of compression. It doesn’t matter—throw out whatever you think you know about Keeley, because 2015 was the year in which he blew up! It seemed like he was releasing a new pedal every other week. From the Caverns reverb and delay, to the Son of Fuzz Head, to the 1962 British Overdrive, I had the pleasure of playing a ton of new Keeley creations this year. The most innovative of the bunch may just be the 30ms Automatic Double Tracker. It’s a basically a pedal for recreating some classic, studio-style guitar (or whatever else you might want to plug into it) doubling effects. It does slapback echo, it does synced tape machine flange/chorus effects, and it even has a built in reverb tuned to sound like the echo chamber in Studio Two at Abbey Road. If you elect not to use the reverb, you have the ability to split your instrument into two distinct voices that can be tuned within 30 cents and delayed by up to 30ms (thus the name). In short, there’s something in the way it alters my signal that attracts me like no other pedal.
2015—it’s been a fantastic year for guitar effects. I’ve had so much fun exploring each of these pedals, I can’t wait to see what the future holds.