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Hailing from the northern metropolis of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Heavy Electronics’ Sayer Payne is no stranger to great gear and tone. As an employee and manager of several guitar stores throughout the years, Payne was constantly around pedals that never seemed to completely live up to the standards he expected them to—be it reliability or availability issues, to the astronomical costs that some boutique pieces command. This frustration helped to form Heavy Electronics, a company that has made its mission to craft domestically handbuilt, high-quality analog effects that deliver great tone at reasonable prices. For bassists, Payne has constructed the El Oso (Spanish for “The Bear”) Bass Distortion, aimed at providing the grit and grind that rock bassists need to be heard and felt in the mix.
The El Oso is exceptionally simple to operate. Only three controls grace its front panel—which bares deliciously attractive graphics in an old Vegas motif—for Level (volume), Mix (wet/dry blending), and Gain. Having a wet/dry blending control is an essential tool for bassists who want to craft the perfect bass tone with just the right amount of cut and low-end grind. Hats off to Heavy Electronics for including this in the El Oso.
Top-notch best describes the El Oso’s construction. The pedal sports Neutrik jacks, sturdy and smooth Alpha potentiometers, and true-bypass switching. Inside the pedal’s housing is an expertly soldered PCB board, all-analog components, and a super-clean wiring job to the jacks, LED, and pots. The El Oso’s only PCB-mounted component attached to the housing is the footswitch, making it a simple operation to pull the guts out for any needed repairs or rewiring. That said, Heavy Electronics provides a lifetime warranty for the El Oso, as well as repair and modification services. Power is supplied via an external 9V wall-wart, or from an internal 9V battery.
Don’t Poke The Bear
Using a 1987 USA Kramer Striker bass into a Traynor YBA300 head and matching 8x10 cabinet, I set the pedal’s Mix and Gain controls at noon, and the Level at about 10:30. With the Clutch-esque riffing I was employing, the amount of low-end heft added to the signal was staggering, to say the least. The lows didn’t have a forceful, concrete quality to them. Instead, there was more of a soft, space-filling expansiveness that was warm and fuzzy. Likewise, the midrange stayed completely intact through the entire range of the Mix knob, and it seemed to gain in volume at higher settings of the Gain control.
Speaking of the Gain control, the El Oso’s strongest quality is how perfectly voiced the distortion tones are. At no point—while sweeping through the Gain knob’s entire spectrum—did any of the frequencies in the highs, mids, and lows seem overbearing or harsh. The smooth, rounded nature of the high end was particularly impressive, along with its solid interaction with the Mix control when using various settings in tandem. For example, when I set the Gain and Mix controls to 10:00 (the wet signal presents itself more as you turn the Mix control counterclockwise), the Kramer’s tone thickened up and softened with a warm array of texture in the mids and lows. Yet when I set both controls at 3:00, the lows dropped to their bypassed levels, but the gain transformed into a sharper-sounding beast, with a quicker attack. The highs were still soft and velvety no matter where the controls were set —so soft that some bassists who enjoy quick, crisp, upper mid and high-end snap in their fingerstyle playing might be turned off by its tone. With that in mind, the El Oso wasn’t developed for that brand of player. It’s true heart lies in dirty and fuzzy rock tones, à la Fu Manchu and Kyuss—and it hits those tones amazingly well.
Heavy Electronics is certainly on to something with the El Oso. The warm and vintage qualities of the distortion voicing are some of the most pleasing I’ve heard in a long time—along with being bonehead simple to dial in. The lack of immediate high-end cut may not satisfy bassists looking to slice through with slap and pop techniques, but rock bassists should be in hog heaven with its fuzzy, low-end onslaught.
you’re a bassist with a love for the fuzzy bass sounds of Fu Manchu and Clutch, and want that warm, distorted power in your bass lines.
you need a distortion that cuts with a sharper edge.