The Point: Distortion
The Cost: $99
The MXR Vintage Script Logo Distortion+ turned out to be a surprising pedal for me. Refreshing even. A distortion pedal with two knobs that’s been around since the ‘70s shouldn’t be much of a surprise by now. And yet it was. There’s a certain tone from this pedal that sort of straddles both the overdrive/distortion and fuzz spectrums in such a simple and effective way that you don’t see much of nowadays. In the pedal world there are many dirt pedals that have multiple tone controls, bias knobs, switches to choose between germanium or silicon chips, boost features, etc. Not the Distortion+. With just two controls, what you get is a pure tone that harkens back to the ‘70’s and ‘80s when distorted guitars ruled the world.
An original Distortion+ can go for a lot on eBay these days and arrive in sketchy condition. The updated MXR CSP104 Vintage Script Logo Distortion+ is a hand wired, accurate replica from the 1970’s version. I don’t have an original to compare, but I did enjoy my time with this one.
Out of the Box
The Distortion+ is about as opposite to today’s boutique pedals as can be. First of all, it’s not very attractive. It comes in a dull mustard- yellow, and is homely in that “only a mother could love” sort of way. And true to the original, the Distortion+ has no extra frills. There is no LED to tell you whether the pedal is on or off, no 9v power supply option (only a 9v battery will work - not provided), and you have to unscrew the back plate to insert a new battery. Personally, I’m not a fan of this back-to- basics approach. I realize this is a replica of the original, but I wonder if it possible to take the original design and upgrade it for today’s musician? I may be in the minority, but I have a hard time believing these “extra” features would alter the tone in any way. Maybe that’s not the point and I’m just missing it.
Overdrive, Distortion or Fuzz?
Frankly I wasn’t sure about this pedal when I first played it. I found the distortion to be somewhat fizzy and splatty. This is not a tight sounding, nu-metal type of distortion; not surprising given its lineage. Unlike most updated dirt pedals, the Distortion+ needs to have the volume turned up fairly high to come alive. If the distortion control is turned down, and the volume cranked fully, you get almost no overall boost in volume. Turning up the distortion to around 9 o’clock adds some grit, but it makes more of an impact closer to noon. At that point you get that gritty, heavier blues tone; sort of a Black Keys meet Black Sabbath.
With the gain cranked to around 3 o’clock, I backed off the volume knob and found a heavier tone I liked, but it’s a loose sounding distortion, almost moving into the fuzz face or muff realm. It doesn’t quite have the deep bottom end of a fuzz, but it has more midrange presence and lots of treble. For some, this might work better in a live setting and would probably cut through the mix pretty well.
My favorite settings had the volume around 3 o’clock with the distortion level between noon and 3. Another way to coax better tone out of this pedal is to roll back your guitar’s volume control. This pedal doesn’t clean up that well with humbuckers, but it did with my Telecaster. I also tended to prefer using the neck pickup with this pedal, especially with humbuckers. The brighter, snarling growl of the Distortion+ will make those darker neck pickups come alive. Conversely, bright bridge pickups can sound shrill quickly.
The Distortion+ is a throwback to a different era. Simple to use, yet you can achieve many different classic tones with it. It has some warts, like the original. But if you want to get your ‘70’s -‘80’s vibe on, this might be just the ticket.