An impressive collaboration that combines versatility with rich, tube-like breakup.
The engaging simplicity of a single-channel amp can be both immensely satisfying and somewhat limiting. For some, a powerful, loud box with decent headroom and a carefully curated pedalboard can serve nearly any musical situation. Dr. Z’s first step into the pedal market, the Z-Drive, is a powerful ally for expanding that plug-and-play simplicity without being paralyzed by choices. The good doctor has made a name on building rock-solid, no-frills amps that walk the line between Vox, Fender, and Marshall. It’s that approach—taking inspiration from a few different sources—that makes the Z-Drive an abnormally useful dirt box. In a fit of brilliance, Dr. Z realized that he needed some help in crafting the Z-Drive, so he reached out to Jamie Stillman and the crew at EarthQuaker Devices. The result is worthy of both brands and combines a few distinct distortion flavors with an easy-to-use setup.
Red Light, Green Light
The Z-Drive isn’t a full-on two-in-one pedal. Think of it as adding a pair of channels to your amp. Each channel has independent gain and level controls, along with a cut switch. They share a 3-band EQ. The EQ is a bit of the secret sauce—more on that in a bit. The overall layout of the pedal is tidy and clear. You have one footswitch to engage the pedal and the other moves between the green (germanium) and red (mosfet) modes. Speaking in general terms, the green channel gives you low-to-medium levels of breakup, and the red channel offers a thicker, classic rock-style flavor. Combine those with a clean amp and you’re able to cover some serious tonal basses.
The germanium channel is powered with some NOS diodes, so my expectations leaned toward a more vintage-sounding vibe. Armed with a Telecaster and a Les Paul, I found this side of the pedal to be crisp and airy with plenty of subtle nods to some classic blackface Fender tones. With the Tele, the fear of head-cutting treble was tamed with the EQ and I found the response to my picking style and volume changes actually felt like I was playing through an old, cranked-up tube amp. It was rather easy for me to move from Stones-y, edge-of-breakup stabs to a straight-up clean boost with surprisingly minimal tweaks to the pedal.
Big, Bold, and Bright?
One of the interesting wrinkles of the Z-Drive is that the signal passes through the EQ first, before splitting off into each channel’s gain and level controls. This allows the level of gain to change a bit with the EQ. It was especially notable when I plugged the Les Paul into my Fender Deluxe. If you’ve played any of EarthQuaker’s pedals, you are likely familiar with the myriad levels of dirt, grit, and sludge that the Akron shop can produce. To my ears, the red channel is classic EarthQuaker—full of life and harmonic richness. With the Les Paul, the red channel felt a bit dark, but had a rather defined and slightly compressed high end. Normally, I’m not a fan of bright switches, but each channel on the Z-Drive is armed with a rather smart variation. In the up position, you get a fuller, bass-heavy sound; the down position boosts the mid and treble frequencies. I found myself preferring the down position on both channels—especially with PAF-style humbuckers. It allowed the overtones to come through a bit more and gave my Deluxe some distinctly Marshall-like qualities. The nuanced interactions between the EQ and the gain stages are the real stars of the show and make me wonder how they would sound if they could be stacked.
If you’re running out the door to a gig or session, or even unsure about what backline you might be confronted with, the Z-Drive would be a trusty tool to have on your board. With two rather distinct channels, it was able to move from crunchy rhythms and modern alt-country dirt to bombastic ’70s leads that live just this side of being oversaturated. Add in a wonderfully thoughtful boost/cut toggle and you end up with quite a bit more than just a two-headed overdrive.