Here we are, my tone-loving friends. 2016 is fading into our rear-view mirrors and we are preparing to gaze out upon the majesty of 2017. The general consensus is that 2016 sucked. I'm not going to try to argue. We lost Bowie. We lost Frey. We lost Prince! Hell, my dog even died. A dog who was arguably the greatest dog who ever lived. 2016—it really was kind of the worst.
Luckily, the world of guitar effects offered a shimmering ray of hope in the sad, tortured, what else could possibly go wrong existence of 2016. The following list could probably be 30 or 40 pedals deep, but I'm limited on time, you're probably limited on attention, and top 10 lists are clichés for a reason. So here goes, the top 10 pedals of 2016.
Electro Harmonix Mel 9
The Mel9 is the fourth entry in the Electro-Harmonix line of 9-series effects and it exists the recreate the sounds of a vintage Mellotron "synthesizer." It was preceded by the B9 Organ Machine, C9 Organ Machine, and Key9 Electric Piano Machine. Each of the pedals in the series offers controls for Guitar Volume and Effect Volume, and two additional controls for dialing in additional parameters (varying slightly from model to model). The "9" in the name of each pedal alludes to the nine presets available via a rotary selector. For the Mel9, the presets include: Orchestra, Cello, Strings, Flute, Clarinet, Saxophone, Brass, Low Choir and High Choir. I put the word synthesizer in quotes earlier, because the Mel9 was not an actual synthesizer. Instead, it consisted of an array of tape loops which were triggered when a key was depressed. And because tape stretches and degrades over time, Mellotrons can have individual personalities when it comes to vibrato and signal loss or distortion. The Mel9 nails these classic tones and can be used to instantly call up the sounds from classics by the Beatles, Bowie, Zep, and more. But it's all a wickedly creative tool and perfect for creating your own original sounds and songs. The Mel9 became a crucial piece of my guitar rig almost overnight and at this point, I would be lost without it.
Caroline Guitar Company Météore
The Météore from Caroline Guitar Company is the sort of the space-age reverb pedal you never knew you wanted, let alone needed. But in a sea of pristine hall, plate, and spring reverbs it's an original and wildly inspiring creation. Thankfully, “original and wildly inspiring” is pretty much what Philippe Herndon of Caroline Guitar Company does. The Météore is perfectly capable of doing "regular" reverb. And because it's well-designed and built like a fine automobile, I could understand if that's all you used it for, but you'd be missing two clever features that set it far apart from typical reverb pedals. First, you have a fun little preamp that allows you to boost the signal hitting the reverb engine. It can be subtle, or it can be extreme creating a fuzzy, thick wall of reverb. Second, there is the "Havoc" switch. Holding down the Havoc switch pushes the Météore into self-oscillation but in a more predictable and more subtle way than what happens with similarly equipped delay pedals. The only thing that could make the Météore better would be programmability, but then I'd just switch between a few settings and forget about the interactivity between the various knob settings. And that my friends, would be a tragedy.
Way Huge Camel Toe
Well kids, it happened. Jeorge Tripps over at Way Huge finally reissued the much loved (lusted after?) Way Huge Camel Toe. Sure, the name is unfortunate, as are many of the names in the Way Huge line of effects, but the tone and feature set are to die for. For those who haven't been waiting with baited breath, the Camel combines the Red Llama (modified Craig Anderton Tube Sound Fuzz) and the Green Rhino (modified Tube Screamer) into a single housing. The switching options in the Camel Toe are extremely versatile. You can select to run it in "series" or "switch." In Switch, you engage the pedal and then use the "Drive Select" to toggle between Llama and Rhino. In Series mode, the Rhino is on once you engage the Bypass switch and then the Drive Select toggles the Llama on for extra gain. Both options offer a wide array of classic dirty tones. It's no secret that most of the legend around the original Camel Toe came from its use by Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers fame. It doesn't matter that most sources claim that Campbell only uses the Rhino side. It does sort of matter that this is a limited-release pedal. I hate scarcity. Everyone should be free to enjoy this fun little dirt device. Here's to hoping you bought one of these already or that Way Huge will build more after this initial run sells out.
They did it again. Catalinbread built another delay pedal based on an old, esoteric delay machine none of us even knew we wanted. The Adineko is based on old "oil can" delay devices, but in the classic Catalinbread fashion, the re-created the tones of a classic device while adding extra features and modern dependability. The original oil can delays were made by Teisco, Gibson, and even Fender. They were definitely cool sounding. But they were also noisy, offered very little delay time, and sometimes broke and leaked their PCB-laden oil generating whole generations of mutant superheroes and Toxic Avengers. The Adineko is best described as a cross between reverb, delay, and vibrato. It can do all of these things and more at once. It doesn't do clean and precise echoes. It does vibe and serious mojo. The knob labeled Balance pans between two delay lines—one short and one long. The blend between the two and how they interact is where the magic of the Adineko lies. The Viscosity governs the vibrato and Reverb, and, oddly enough, is the feedback control. There are hundreds of sounds in the Adineko waiting to be unleashed. The only way to really grasp the Adineko is to spend a few hours, days, weeks, or more with it.
Black Cat Stereo Vibe
The original Black Cat Vibe has been one of the best Uni-Vibes on the market for quite a few years now. Sure, it was big and required AC power, but it sounded great and was built like a tank. Seriously, I hadn't played a better Uni-Vibe type pedal ever—at least not until Black Cat released the new Stereo Vibe. Black Cat took everything great about the original and added a second output jack for stereo and updated the power requirements to operate as 12 volts AC or DC. The Black Cat Stereo Vibe sounds like Hendrix and Gilmour. It's watery, majestic, and it breathes. It feels alive under your fingers and is practically an instrument in and of itself.
Kneel before the King in Yellow and file this one under "didn't see it coming." The Carcosa arrived out of the blue at NAMM with a name reminiscent of True Detective but culled from a book of short stories by Robert Chambers—not that any of that matters when you plug into the Carcosa and start twisting the knobs. It’s an absurdly versatile pedal running from thunderous Big Muff style fuzz to razor sharp Tone Bender sounds, and everything in between. The Demhe-Hali switch alternates between boosted lows and mids and cut lows offering a wide array of base tones. Pair this with the After control which adjusts bias from long sustain to splattery decay and the options are limitless. Finally, the Carcosa offers a Hi-Cut control for taming (if that’s your thing) the fizz that can occur with a gated fuzz. There’s a whole lot of fuzz in this little box.
MXR Phase 95
The MXR Phase 45 and Phase 90 have each earned their place in the pantheon of guitar effects. From script logo, to block logo, and every iteration in between, these two little orange boxes have been on more records and more tours than any other phaser out there. And now, you can get both circuits in a single (and smaller) box along with the ability to toggle between its “script” and “block” logo variations. In short, the script logo version had less feedback in the circuit resulting in a slightly less-intense effect. Believe it or not, the Phase 90 came before the Phase 45. The 90 is a four-stage phaser while the 45 is a two-stage phaser. It doesn't really matter anymore though because they are both in one pedalboard friendly enclosure now. I've always been partial to the more subtle ways of the 45; I love the Uni-Vibe-like throb and the way it sounds like a fast vibrato when you crank the speed. On the other hand, the Phase 90 is mandatory for recreating early EVH tones and is key for so many ‘90s alternative jams. With this feature set, size, and price point, the Phase 95 was an easy pick for this list.
SiB Mr Echo
It’s not really a "new" pedal—it's sort of a reissue and a return to production—but the SiB Mr. Echo Plus has been on my dream list for years. When it was re-released, I was quick to track one down. At face value, the Mr. Echo Plus is just another pedal that emulates tape delay. Sure, it comes in a beautiful, red, heavy-duty enclosure, and it’s made in the US. But its 550 milliseconds of delay, nine-volt power supply, and controls for Delay, Repeat, Mix, and Volume are relatively standard. What sets it (and its little brother, the Mr. Echo), apart from other delays is the Slam feature. The Slam drops the delay time down to 30 milliseconds and extends the feedback, creating a wash of runaway oscillation. The Mr. Echo Plus has an extra knob which controls feedback from very few repeats to infinite. The standard version of the pedal is great, but the selling point of this pedal is the Slam feature and for my money it pays to buy the Deluxe and have the added flexibility. It’s worth adding that the Mr. Echo Deluxe can serve as an “echo booster” with up to 20 decibels of gain on tap and it can also do 100 percent wet. But trust me, you want this pedal for the Slam mode.
Sweet Honey Overdrive Deluxe
The original Mad Professor Sweet Honey Overdrive (SHOD) has been a cult overdrive for years. It's also been a mainstay on my pedalboard—it comes and goes depending on my mood and the various guitars and amps I'm using. Thanks to the golden ears of Bjorn Juhl, the SHOD runs the gamut from low- to mid-gain tones and has a voicing that can suit a wide range of guitars and amps. It has just enough mids and highs to cut through, but it never sounds harsh or nasally. Mad Professor has released an updated version of the SHOD offering the user much greater control over the frequency response of the pedal. The classic Focus knob remains and governs the midrange frequencies of the pedal but also how quickly the pedal distorts when you dig into the strings. It's now accompanied by controls for Bass and Treble. These controls make it easier for mating the SHOD to a wider range of guitars and amps. Running a humbucker-equipped guitar into a Vibro Champ? You can dial out some of the low end to keep from overwhelming the amp. Playing a Strat into a Twin Reverb? Dial back the highs and avoid the proverbial icepick in the ear. The SHOD Deluxe offers all of the vibe of the original with an added dose of flexibility.
This pedal was a real sleeper for me. I’ve never been a heavy Whammy user and wasn’t really paying attention when it was released. I was much more focused on the Luxe, Mosaic, and Drop—other pedals that take the power and features of the Whammy and drop them into smaller, more affordable, pedalboard-friendly packages. But then I started working on a feature about Polyphonic Octave Boxes and I was turned on to the Ricochet. Imagine everything awesome about the Whammy minus the rocker treadle; instead you get a switch that can be adjusted for on and off or momentary functionality with programmable rise and fall times. Or, you can use it as a fixed pitch shifter with options for 2nd, 4th, 5th, 7th, Octave, or Two Octaves Up or Down, and Octave Up or Down Plus Dry. With that said, there are a ton of features in a small package and no doubt one of the best effects of 2016.
Sure, 2016 was kind of a downer and 2017 can only get better. To be fair, I seem to recall thinking “well, this year can’t get any worse” sometime in September. Buckle up, build your doomsday survival kit, and stock up on a few great pedals. Look on the bright side, dark days usually lead to superior art.