Mesa/Boogie’s unveiling of its four new overdrive and distortion pedals marks a unique point in the company’s storied history. In terms of tone and construction, they are decidedly different from Mesa’s previous forays into stompbox territory—the V-1 Bottle Rocket and the Dual Rectifier-inspired V-Twin. Those pedals had cool qualities, but the compact design, solid-state circuitry, and versatile tonality of these new pedals suggest Mesa has learned a lot about pedal-based overdrive and distortion units since. Rather than trying to stuff too much in a single unit, the company has designed pedals that serve up specific flavors of overdrive. But for all that focus, they often excel at delivering tones beyond the expected.
An Army of Four
Mesa built these pedals to withstand abuse. Each one weighs in at nearly a pound and is built around a 2 mm-thick aluminum enclosure. I’ve never been challenged to test a pedal’s durability by dropping it off of a building, but if I were, I would happily put my money on any one of these stomps.
Each pedal sports bright status LEDs and true-bypass switching, and they can all be powered by either a 9V battery or a Boss-style adapter. And they’re all completely handbuilt in Mesa’s Petaluma, California, factory.
The Tone-Burst has the distinction of being the most transparent-sounding pedal in the bunch. It’s remarkable just how evenly it boosts clean tones whether you’re using single-coils or humbuckers. The pedal puts an extra 20 dB of boost at your toe tips, which yields plenty of headroom for country fingerpicking, arpeggiated chording, and aggressive garage-rock rhythms. Most players will immediately notice the pedal’s fidelity and relatively neutral color, and it does little to mess with a guitar’s basic voice save for some hot, bordering-on-spiky overtones in the high end at more extreme gain settings. Even then, though, you can tune most of it out by working with the pedal’s treble knob.
While the purpose of most boost pedals is to add volume without adding much color, the Tone-Burst gives you the ability to tailor the tone with +12 dB of bass and treble—all without the hiss or noise you tend to hear from an EQ pedal you might use for the same purpose. These controls come in handy when you’re tackling a potentially unruly equation, like a Stratocaster and a Twin Reverb. And though metal players may think a boost/overdrive is beneath them, if they give the Tone-Burst a chance they’ll find that it’s a knockout for tightening up low end to make fast riffing through high-gain amps more taut and powerful. For instance, when I set the Tone-Burst up for neutral treble, a slight cut in the bass, and moderately high volume, and then ran it into a Mesa Dual Rectifier, the Rec kicked out low-end that rivaled Mesa’s Mark IV and V amps.
The Tone-Burst’s gain control can add a lot of warmth and fullness, too—it comes in handy when the boosted tone is a little too raw. Twist it to 1 o’clock and beyond, and it’ll add sustain without adding icepick-y overtones to the pick attack. There isn’t a ton of overdrive on tap—about what you’d find in an Ibanez Tubescreamer or Boss SD-1 Super Overdrive—but there’s more than enough for gritty blues leads and classic-rock riffing. Thankfully, it’s also very responsive to picking dynamics—coaxing a little more drive is as simple has hitting the strings with more force.
For heavier tones that run the gamut from razor-edged leads to brain-rattling rhythms, there’s no better choice in this lineup than the Throttle Box. The pedal features switchable low- and high-gain modes, along with controls for gain, tone, volume, and midrange cut—the latter serving up the sort of scooped tones that put Mesa on the metal head map. Additionally, there’s a tiny switch inside that functions as an EQ boost. It’s a great feature that we really wish was accessible externally so it could be engaged on the fly.
Tested with a Les Paul Standard and a Marshall JCM800, the Throttle Box dished out an impressive array of low- to mid-gain rock and blues tones in its lower gain mode. Single notes have a very even midrange presence, and raising the mid cut knob to the 2 o'clock range results in a thick, raucous punch that you can use for Santana-inspired, smooth-but-heavy lead work. Pulling mid cut to about 9 o'clock and digging into the neck position of a Strat conjures tasty blues tones with a fierce edge. Bringing up the gain control doesn't really change the tone's overall EQ shape, either—which is wonderful for players who simply want to add more saturation without mucking up their signal. The pedal cleans up really nicely when rolling down the guitar's volume pot, too.
As you'd expect, the pedal's hi-gain mode serves up plenty of the liquid grind that players have come to expect from the house of Mesa. The amount of gain on tap borders on menacing, but output stays very focused, even when using hotter, fatter-sounding humbuckers. Hi-gain mode also makes the Throttle Box’s controls very sensitive, with even small changes to the mid cut and tone knobs effecting drastic tonal shifts—from classic, scooped Metallica tones to modern, mid-heavy Southern metal or the super-tight industrial grind of Meshuggah.
While the Throttle Box delivers Mesa's signature high gain tones like few other stompboxes can, it’s obviously not going to make your Strat-and-Twin setup sound like a Les Paul and a Triple Rectifier. It's transparent enough that your tones will retain the natural color of your amp, no matter how hot you run the pedal—and that’s a really cool thing: It’s sweet to hear Mesa-style richness combined with a Twin’s glassiness, a JCM800’s midrange bump, or the trademark tones of any other great-sounding amp you might throw into the equation.
With its volume, tone, and gain knobs, the Grid Slammer overdrive is easily the most intuitive of the series—it’s a layout anyone with a Tube Screamer will feel right at home with. Just like Ibanez's classic, the Grid Slammer has a strong midrange bump that makes it ideal for low-gain blues, classic rock, and any situation where you can use a little more presence. Unlike the little green classic, you get a lot more focus in the upper midrange—which can help you really cut through a crowded live mix.
The dynamic responsiveness of the Grid Slammer is pronounced when playing simple blues progressions through single-coils and a clean Fender amp. The pedal has a very natural response to picking dynamics, and you can ease up on picking intensity without losing any crispness or sustain. Volume-knob jockeys will rejoice at its ability to go from snarling to a quiet purr by simply backing off the volume and letting up on string attack and vice versa.
Though it doesn’t serve up heaps of gain for, say, the heaviest late-’70s and ’80s rock, the Grid Slammer does move from the brash tones of classic AC/DC to bigger-than-Texas blues-lead tones with ease. And though it doesn’t have a ton of gain on tap, fans of heavier music shouldn’t dismiss Grid Slammer too hastily, because it’s a very powerful tool for giving your tone a much more focused punch and tightening up high-gain amps that are a little flabby in the low end.
Strong upper-mid focus is another one of the Grid Slammer’s defining traits. If you want it to, it can even be a very British-sounding voice that could initially throw Mesa fanatics for a loop. The Brit emphasis becomes stronger as you turn up the gain control, and with a little high-end roll off, it starts to take on the muscular characteristics of a JTM45. But with its trademark Mesa crispness and clarity, the Grid Slammer delivers an articulate-but-edgy, Brit-meets-American tone that will intrigue any rock-oriented tone hound.
The Flux-Drive picks up where the Grid Slammer leaves off—emphasizing focused mids, but with considerably more gain on tap. It also trades the Grid Slammer’s single tone control for a pair of cut/boost bass and treble controls. In many ways, the Flux-Drive’s controls react more like an amplifier’s: Lower reaches of the gain control have a much clearer treble response, and turning up the control rolls off the highs while warming up the midrange and slightly softening the lows. Setting the gain between 8:30 and 10 o’clock highlights the snappier qualities of a Stratocaster’s bridge pickup, while taking the control up to 2 o’clock adds a warm, thick layer of gain on top of plump midrange and darker tonalities reminiscent of Ritchie Blackmore’s leads.
The Flux-Drive excels with low- and high-output humbuckers. Both a Les Paul Standard with ’57 Classics and a Les Paul Custom with hot Tom Anderson humbuckers pushed the upper midrange to the forefront, with Flux-Drive’s gain control lending lots of aggression without sacrificing detail. Taking the gain past 3 o’clock won’t add much more to hard-rock rhythms—you can lose a lot of definition in the highs and mids—but it will avail you of syrupy gain for smooth, sustaining licks. That said, there’s plenty of gain on tap before you hit that mark, and using the pedal’s extremely sensitive bass and treble controls more aggressively gives you access to the harder rock tones of early Guns N’ Roses, Mötley Crüe, and Skid Row. The key is to tailor the pedal’s gain and EQ controls to your guitar’s output level and give the tone room to breathe.
Rather than trying to be everything to everyone, Mesa/Boogie’s new overdrive and distortion pedals target very specific needs and missions. Each pedal has its own strengths and tonal limitations, but the design focus behind them also makes each pedal easier to control—no small consideration for professionals and anyone with very specific sound-palette needs. Smartly, each pedal inhabits a very distinct piece of the overdrive and distortion tonescape—the upper midrange grind of the Grid Slammer and Flux-Drive, in particular, are powerful voices that can expand a player’s options in big ways. At their core, however, each pedal has some measure of that quintessentially Mesa voice and at least a hint of the fast, glassy attack and dark, complex drive that are the company’s long-heralded sonic fingerprint. For tone mixologists who like to experiment and expand their horizons from a classic foundation, the Mesa pedals can serve as foundations for very intriguing new soundscapes.