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A Blue Dog is a fiscally conservative Democratic member of Congress. It’s also the new overdrive pedal from Laffing Dog Musical Entertainment. But if you’ll indulge us in some metaphorical tomfoolery, the pedal and the politicians have more in common than just a name. The Blue Dog pedal leans conservative when it comes to sonics, delivering old-fashioned tube-y warmth rather than radical distortion. But it also offers a liberal amount of tone-shaping options, including a novel parallel signal path that includes an impressive, blend-ready clean boost for when you want to shout down your colleagues in the hall.
Indeed, the Blue Dog’s clean boost is the wild card in a pedal that might otherwise be another button-down candidate in a crowded field of tube-style overdrives. And it will make the Blue Dog a rig-transforming element for a lot of players.
New Dog, New Tricks
Housed in a rugged, fairly innocuous looking aluminum chassis, the Blue Dog is reasonably light, with a modest footprint, a removable back plate for battery access (one 9V), a 9V adapter jack, and a front panel with five knobs for gain, tone, volume, clean, and drive—all of which interact in interesting ways.
The gain control determines the amount of overdrive, while the tone cuts or boosts high-end in the overdriven signal. Drive sets the level of the overdriven signal in relation to the amount of clean boost. The clean knob controls the level of the clean boosted signal while attenuating low-end content and subtly boosting the highs as it’s increased. Volume sets the overall output level of the summed signal. Together, they make the Blue Dog a powerful overdrive sculpting machine.
Home on the Range
A lot of players fight to preserve clarity, detail, and timbral nuance as saturation and sustain increases. Typically though, the compression that comes with saturation of the signal begins to squash much of the detail and dynamic range of the signal. One of the greatest best-of-both-worlds tones is the beady, full-bodied, and gorgeously sustained tone that Ritchie Blackmore gets on Deep Purple’s classic Made In Japan LP. Blackmore is clearly running his amps very hot, but his tone is never swamped by gain, and you can hear every nuance of pick attack and loads of harmonics—even in his fastest lead lines. (For the record, Blackmore ran his guitar through an Akai reel-to-reel machine, which acted as a compressor.) The manner in which Blackmore maintains both clarity and grit in equal measure is remarkable. And set up right, the Blue Dog does a marvelous job of striking that same balance.
The key to getting there is dialing in the Blue Dog’s clean boost along with some gain and drive. Alone, the Blue Dog’s gain voice, while appealing, isn’t astounding. But bring up the clean boost—especially when rocking the neck pickup of a Stratocaster—and you start to enter the tone zone that Hendrix, Blackmore, and Robin Trower inhabited with such force and style—the sound of a single-channel Marshall head pushed to its limits, with loads of overtones that never sap that punchy and round initial attack of individual notes. If you use the Blue Dog with an already overdriven amp, you may find that you can keep the gain control all the way down. And even with a clean-amp setting, the clean control will add a lot of crunch all by itself. In these instances, you can rely on the clean knob and the master volume to add punch to your solos and lend crispness and clarity.
While there’s no denying that the gain and drive will push things over the top, it’s hard to imagine why you wouldn’t want to keep the clean boost engaged—except perhaps for especially thick, muted, stoner-rock distortions. I especially liked the sound produced by turning the drive level all the way, the gain at a low setting, the clean boost up around 1 o’clock, and the tone kicked up to 3 o’clock to add a bit more bite. It’s about as good a basic, crunch rhythm-tone recipe as I’ve heard, and it can bring out characteristics in your amplifier that you may not have noticed before. And as with many of the better pedals of this type, there are tasty cleaner tones to be had just by rolling off your guitar’s volume pot.
The Blue Dog deserves big thumbs-up for its clean boost capabilities alone, but the presence of the overdrive circuit—and the very effective and powerful ways that the two circuits interact—make it a virtual command center for gain staging. That’s a good weapon to have if you’re a gigging guitarist. And for 140 bucks, it’s a pretty great value.
If I had my druthers, the Blue Dog would include another footswitch to increase the clean boost by, say, an extra 20 dB. Still, it’s hard to argue with a pedal that so resoundingly delivers on its promises. Maybe there’s a real lesson in this sweet-sounding box for those politicians after all.