Uncommon touch-sensitivity and the ability to go beefy or splatty make this classic Sola Sound homage a fuzz buzz worth seeking out.
Clip 2 — Eastwood Baritone (neck, then middle, then bridge) - Level - 10 o'clock, Attack - 9 o'clock
Clip 3 — Eastwood Baritone (neck, then middle, then bridge) - Level and Attack max
Clip 4 — Eastwood Baritone (neck) - Level - 10 o'clock, Attack - Min.
Clip 5 — Eastwood Baritone (neck, then middle, then bridge) - Level - 10 o'clock, Attack - Min.
Toetags Electronics’ new Toe Bender MkII is a moderately priced homage to the legendary Sola Sound Tone Bender Professional MkII made from ’66 to ’68 and most famously associated with Jimmy Page’s reedy early Zep’ work.
Big Shoes, Medium-Sized Toes
From the MkI to the MkIV and beyond, original Tone Benders had folded-steel or sand-cast-aluminum enclosures approximately the size of an adult ape’s foot. Inside, they often featured now-rare Mullard OC75 or OC81D germanium transistors soldered to a spare circuit on a small stripboard. Toetags stays true to some of these hallmarks: The Toe Bender is about two-thirds the size of ’60s units—still gargantuan next to most modern pedals—and its tidy, point-to-point-wired circuit uses three new-old-stock germanium transistors (of Japanese and German origin), a new-old-stock Russian paper-in-oil tone capacitor, and about 10 other beefy analog components on a roughly 1 1/2" x 3" piece of fiberboard. Though it’s not visible in the company’s online photos, our review unit also sports an internal trimpot that Toetags’ J.C. Royer says adjusts the bias and gating characteristics of the attack control.
While testing the Toe Bender with a Les Paul Traditional with 57 Classics, an Eastwood Sidejack Baritone DLX with Manlius Goat Masters, and a Squier Vintage Modified Jazzmaster and Tele Custom (the former with Duncan Antiquity I pickups, the latter with Curtis Novaks), I found that unity gain is achieved with the pedal’s level knob set between 9 and 10 o’clock, depending on how much dirt you dial in with the attack knob. Past that, level gooses the openness and complexity of the fuzz effect, similar to hitting the front end of a cranked tube amp with a boosted signal.
Besides piling on gain, attack also functions as a tone control of sorts, producing a fairly saturated and full but not-too-tubby sound at minimum, and gradually adding more mids, treble, and nastiness as you turn it clockwise. The flattest mix is somewhere around noon. Past that point, the pedal seems to add more mids than treble and saturation becomes increasingly corpulent in a way that fans of classic-toned stoner metal will appreciate for its ability to cut and sound old-school. In fact, one of the Toe Bender’s greatest feats is how it can be beefy or thin and scuzzy (more on the latter in a sec’), yet it’s still hard to make the pedal sound harsh or ice-pick-y—even with a Tele or Jazzmaster bridge pickup.
As I expected, moderate to high knob settings conjured howling garage-rock leads, or haunting, sustaining David Torn-style soundscapes where feedback overtones float like wailing ghosts on the repeats of a cranked reverb or delay. But what elevates the Toe Bender above much of the fuzz field is its touch-responsiveness at lower settings. With level and attack below noon, you can lightly pick a power chord and get grinding lardaceousness that’s still very articulate, then, in the next breath, ham-fistedly attack a riff to get a compressed, gloriffically fizzy splatter. And the lower you set attack, the more contrast you’ll hear.
My favorite setting, level at 10 o’clock and attack at minimum, yielded full-spectrum meanness with medium pick attack, while a tight pick grip and relentlessly bludgeoning downstrokes resulted in squashed, snotty brashness that made riffs through my baritone’s neck pickup sound like a fantastically frazzled ol’ P bass. That’s something most fat-sounding fuzzes simply can’t generate—almost like a middle ground between an aggro Muff and a Fuzzrite. Some players might object to how heavy attack at lower knob settings can squish the signal to a lower volume than what you'd get with moderate or light attack. But as a reverb junkie I loved that I didn’t need to lower the super-spaced-out hall setting on my Subdecay Super Spring Theory in order to prevent soundscapes from being smudged into the incoherent mess that rabid pick attack would normally elicit.The Verdict
Plenty of fuzzes on the market serve up cascading waterfalls of doomy feedback, but if you prize picking nuance and a mix of burly and splatty, the Toetags Toe Bender MkII is a unique take on a classic recipe that’s worth checking out. Best of all, it’s more affordable than many of the most exacting Tone Bender replicas—and considerably less than vintage specimens.