5 High Gain Pedals for Regular Amps, Part 2

In Part 1, I reviewed five high gain distortion pedals under the $200 level. We had the ubiquitous and still relevant ProCo Rat and a boutique version of it from ARC Effects. We also had the affordable and easy to find MXR Super Badass with a versatile EQ section, and the Rottweiler from TC Electronic was a modern metal high gain offering. Finally the Keeley Stahlhammer produced convincing amp like tones.

Up the next rung on the ladder are high gain pedals from $249 to $299. At this price point, I expect more—more features for sculpting my tone, more of an amp-like feel overall, and less noise. I also want the ability to dial in some of the tones from bands that have been particularly influential to me. Is this a realistic expectation from a pedal?

Wren & Cuff Hangman 2D - $249

The Hangman is based on the Heavy Metal HM-2, an old Boss design. Back in the ‘80s when the original came out, those tones were definitely different than what you expect from a lot of today’s heavy metal. I don’t think I have ever played this classic pedal, so I was excited to see what it would sound like coming from a builder like Wren and Cuff, as I am absolute fan of the company’s Big Muff variants. The Hangman 2D quite frankly wasn’t what I was expecting, but that’s not a put down. In fact, after a while I really came to enjoy it. The Hangman has pretty traditional controls—Volume, Gain, Bass and Treble, plus a two-way toggle for Vintage (the original HM-2 tone), and a Modern tone. I’m not sure which I preferred, both were different enough that I liked them equally for different reasons. The Hangman has an almost-fuzzy, hard rock, punk-like tone to it. It’s not going to work for modern metal on its own, no palm muting here. Still, it has enough gain and volume to rock your amp at stadium levels.

What we like: Great for hard rock; it’s possible to dial in sort of a Queens of the Stone Age tone, of which I’m a big fan. Beautiful design and graphics, very nice build quality. Easy to power unlike the original.

Concerns: A little noisy with gain past noon. Doesn’t have the deep low end of more modern types of distortion, and there is no separate midrange control.

Wampler Triple Wreck - $269

Wampler makes a lot of great dirt pedals, none better than the Triple Wreck. This is the only one of the group that offers a separate boost function, which I found very useful. The Triple Wreck offers an all-important three-band EQ so you can sculpt the midrange giving you a variety of different tones, plus there’s great control over bass and treble. There’s a two-position toggle for choosing either Hard or Brutal settings, the latter of which I preferred. Then, there’s the footswitchable Boost option, with a separate Boost control knob that gives your bottom end more thrust and more heft. The Triple Wreck is one of the few high-gain pedals that can straddle the hard rock and metal genres, and do both well. It’s more in the Mesa Rectifier camp than, say, a Mark V; it doesn’t give you that very tight, heavy percussive tone, but what it is warm and brutal at the same time. This pedal made my amp come alive.

What we like: Great variety of tones, the footswitchable Boost really adds some meat to the overall tone for a thick, heavy, palm muting type tone, and it does the chugga-chugga thing fairly well.

Concerns: Not much. No noise gate is included, but if the gain control is left around noon (which is still a lot), it is fairly noise free. If you like to ride your guitar’s volume control to give you a little less gain, I found it impacted the overall tone too much too quickly, leaving you without much sustain.

WMD Acoustic Trauma - $299

If you’re looking for the most unique pedal in the bunch—and a real tweaker’s paradise—this is the one. The Trauma does not follow convention; it has some 17 different knobs on it of various sizes. The input and output jacks are close together on the same side, and it uses a (supplied) positive tip 18-volt adapter. It was the only pedal in the group where I had to glance at the manual to make sure I knew what I was doing. And apparently, is possible to ruin your amp if you feed it too much volume, as there is a total of five (!) Gain controls, plus a Master Volume. The Trauma—once you get a feel for how it operates—is actually really cool, and like nothing I’ve used before. You can play with the EQ, using nine different knobs, and there are two preamps to give you either a little or a lot of gain, and a very important Blend control, which I seemed to like turned up all the way. However if you turn down the Blend, you can get some very interesting tones, not typical of any “normal” metal or hard rock tone. Plus there’s a separate Noise Gate and Threshold controls for dialing out the noise.

What we like: The Trauma was a really fun and unique pedal that had me discovering completely different types of distortion. You won’t get quite the typical high gain tones that you get from the Wampler or Empress, but you get something else, a tone unique to you. There’s just a ton of undiscovered tones within this little box.

Concerns: Not a set and forget type pedal. You may wish it had the ability to store presets so you can recall some of the many cool tones you’ll discover. Some of the secondary controls are quite small too, which could prove to be a challenge to use on a dark stage. Dialing back your guitar’s volume control did little to change the tone overall.

Z. Vex Box of Metal (USA Vexter) - $299

It seems like the Z. Vex Box of Rock or the Fuzz Factory get all of the attention, but the Box of Metal is praiseworthy as well. Set up in the same horizontal layout as most of their other pedals, the BoM has Volume, Gain, a three band EQ, and a knob for a footswitchable noise gate, a handy feature unique to only this pedal. The tone of the BoM was great, I really enjoyed it, probably because it wasn’t like any of the others. It has a fuzz-like feel to it, maybe not surprisingly. The BoM has a spongier feel overall, but still very heavy and ultimately more in the distortion camp than fuzz. This one will really appeal to the sludge or doom players out there. I couldn’t really do convincing palm muting with it, but close. It got me sort of near a Mastodon type sound, akin perhaps to when they were using Orange amps.

What we like: Lots of gain, great for stoner or doom rock/metal. Not a very tight type of distortion overall, but very amp like and natural. The noise gate, and its ability to be dialed in for a little or a lot was very useful.

Concerns: Not for modern type of metal, that’s about it. Dialing back your guitar volume’s control seemed to cut the sustain quickly.

Empress Heavy - $299

The Empress Heavy is aptly named. It’s the only pedal in this roundup with two discrete channels, Heavy and Heavier. And boy is it apt. The Heavier side is the one you want for that tight, percussive type of metal. It can absolutely slay anything. The Heavy side is pretty damn heavy too, but if you dial back the Gain a lot and add some mids, you can get into more of a traditional type hard rock mode. The Heavy doesn’t do the stoner/sludge thing like the Z. Vex, but having two footswitchable channels is great. Set one side for a hard rock, rhythm type tone, and set the Heavier side for pure leads that will slice through anything. The layout is great and easy to master quickly; each channel has its own Gain, Volume, Mids and a Weight control for giving the sound more thickness and heft. Both channels share a High and Low EQ, although I never moved them too much from the center position. Two other great features for both channels are a three way option for a noise gate that worked beautifully, and a three way toggle for how you want the midrange frequency to be effected, either at 250k, 500k or 3k.

What we like: Everything. Achieves very high gain tones yet is still very musical. I quickly forgot I was playing a 15-watt combo, and not a half-stack beast. The pedal provides extremely realistic, but decidedly modern tones. Palm muting chugga-chugga stuff, even on my low output Telecaster was a breeze. One other bonus: Turning down my guitar’s volume took away some of the gain, but kept the overall tone nice and tight, just not as heavy. Great for both rhythm and lead tones.

Concerns: Not much. If you’re after something more vintage oriented, this won’t be the one, as it name conveys, it brings the heavies, and a whole lot of them. It is a bit of a power hog, and requires 200mA from your power supply.

All five high gain pedals in this group, like the first group, had pretty unique tones. If you want old-school metal sounds, the Hangman 2D is the one. The Triple Wreck has hard rock to metal tones in spades. If you want something completely different yet musical, the Acoustic Trauma is a great piece of gear. And for hard rock fuzz to metal tones, the Box of Metal is a great, yet often overlooked piece. For the ultimate two-channel modern high-gain tones, not much can beat the Heavy. Who says you have to have a high gain amp to get these tones? Choose your poison among these fine entries, then get ready to rock!

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