Tone You Can Feel: 6 Dynamic Drives

There are a lot of overdrive pedals that purport to recreate the tone of a well-known tube amp. Surprisingly enough, quite a few of them succeed brilliantly, seeming to capture every nuance of the amp's signature sound. There are many more pedals that don't quite nail every detail of the tone, but probably get close enough for most of us. This phenomenon is fairly remarkable, when one really considers it, making it possible for a guitarist to show up to a gig or studio session armed with a complete arsenal of very convincing amp tones at his or her feet.

As impressive as it is to capture the essence of a tube amplifier's sound in a small, solid-state stompbox, it’s more impressive when the stompbox in question can realistically recreate the feel and dynamic response of a tube amp, such that the player forgets they are even playing through a pedal. This is a much rarer quality to be found in an overdrive, but there is a handful of pedals that manage to do it very well. Many of these pedals aren't seeking to replicate the tone of a specific tube amp, as much as they are just emulating the way in which tubes break up and respond to picking input from the player. Here are a few of our favorites for achieving tube-like feel and dynamic range in an overdrive pedal.

Bearfoot FX Honey Bee and Mad Professor Sweet Honey

Okay, so these are actually two different pedals from two different brands, but they are very similar, and both originate from circuitry designed by legendary Swedish pedal sage Bjorn Juhl of BJFe. Currently, the Honey Bee is produced by Bearfoot FX, which is a collaboration between Juhl and Donner Rusk, and it is essentially identical to the original BJFe Honey Bee. The Sweet Honey, on the other hand, is a different, but very closely related circuit, produced by Juhl's other, other, pedal company, Mad Professor.

Both pedals are highly touted for their amp-like response and the incredible range of tones one can achieve simply by varying pick attack. Pick lightly, and the tone is clean and rich. Pick a little harder to churn up some grit, or dig in authoritatively for a grunting, ballsy tube crunch. Both the Honey Bee and Sweet Honey are impressive tone generators with unprecedented dynamic range. The sonic differences between them are minor, with the Honey Bee feeling slightly softer and saggier, like an old Fender Tweed, while the Sweet Honey exhibits a tighter, faster response with a harder-edged breakup. Ideally, one might want both. They are also superb choices for stacking.

Skreddy Screw Driver

Skreddy says its Screw Driver is "one of the most touch-sensitive pedals ever," and I'm not inclined to argue with that statement. Visit any gear forum thread discussing dynamic overdrives, and the Screw Driver's name is sure to be dropped in three posts or less. It really does respond in a remarkable way to picking dynamics, easily achieving a hundred subtle shades of dirt and crunch between a gentle tickle and a ham-fisted windmill. Adjusting the guitar's volume knob isn't even necessary most of the time, as it can all be done with the picking hand. Adding to its flexibility are the unique trim pots on the side, which can vary the brilliance and input gain for a surprising breadth of distinctive voices. The Screw Driver can do clean boost and singing drive, as well as thick fuzz and heavier chunk tones, making it one of the most flexible and amp-like pedals available. If you can only have one dirt box, the Skreddy Screw Driver should probably be it.

Jetter Helium

Jetter's Helium Overdrive is no longer available on its own, though it is available as part of Jetter's Gold Standard and Red Square dual-channel overdrives, and of course used models are fairly common and affordable. It's a pedal well worth investigating for fans of low-gain, dynamic overdrives that meld seamlessly with a wide range of tube amps. It's often mentioned in the same breath as the Bearfoot Honey Bee and Skreddy Screw Driver whenever touch-sensitive overdrive pedals are discussed, though the Helium is a distinctly different animal. Its most pleasing qualities are its neutrally-voiced, yet very amp-like character and the way it manages to achieve sustain and punch while remaining dynamic and uncompressed. The Jetter Helium is also ideal for stacking, and pairs very nicely with a wide range of higher gain drive and fuzz pedals.

Rockett Blue Note

The Blue Note is one of the least pedal-like overdrive pedals on the scene, with a big, open feel and dynamic articulation that lets you completely forget that you've got anything between you and the amp. It enhances the mid-range of the guitar signal nicely when run in the "Hot" mode, but without the overbearing honk exhibited my many overdrives of the Tube Screamer lineage. The Blue Note's gain range is also much wider than the average OD's, going from nearly clean to a thick, old-school roar. The EQ section is very useable throughout its range, as the Tone knob tends to sound quite musical no matter where it's set, while the Fat control is great for subtly reining in low-end when rocking humbuckers. For players that value amp-like picking dynamics and drive tones, the Blue Note is tough to beat.

Spaceman Aphelion

Few pedals are as universally acclaimed for their addictive dynamic qualities than Spaceman Effects' Aphelion overdrive. The Aphelion will produce a huge variety of gritty sounds from very minimal variations in picking strength and dynamics, not unlike a good vintage tube amp. Its gain range is varied enough to handle most any dirty job you might throw at it, and it has an uncommonly rich high-end, further lending to its unique personality. Fans of "smooth" overdrive pedals should seek their fortunes elsewhere, however, as the Aphelion is all about the sparkling upper harmonics and glistening treble sheen. Unfortunately, as with all Spaceman Effects pedals, the Aphelion is strictly limited edition, so finding one could prove troublesome and expensive. Good luck. Whatever you end up paying will probably be worth it, though.

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