If there’s one single type of effect that the stompbox industry loves to churn out more than anything else, it’s most definitely the distortion pedal. It seems like we can’t go two weeks before another contender enters the ring! Not that it’s a bad thing, we’re all for choice and competition, but with so many boxes out there it can get a bit hectic trying to decide on which of the many oh-so-slightly different flavors of distortion is the right one for you. Sure, there are certain clear standouts like with every other type of effect that are more or less safe picks, such as the Pro Co RAT or the Boss DS-1, but what’s the fun in going the same route as most everyone else, especially with all those new pedals out there? That’s why I’m always excited when something new and unique comes around, even if it is a distortion pedal (as I’m perfectly happy with my Way Huge Fat Sandwich, for now at least). A couple of months back, BBE announced the Blacksmith Distortion – a distortion pedal which is said to be deeply inspired by the hand-made stomboxes crafted by Paul Gagon in the ‘80s for the who’s who of hard rock. It's finally out, but does it have what it takes to knock down that old DS-1 from your board?
Capturing the Sound
A little bit of background might be needed in order to truly appreciate the sound this pedal is aiming for and it starts with the aforementioned Paul Gagon. For those of you unfamiliar with Gagon, he was well known for designing pickups and amps for Grover Jackson (of Jackson Guitar fame) and worked with plenty of A-list artists from Jeff Beck to Steve Vai, along with plenty more. He found that many artists loved the tone of Marshalls(I know, shocking, right?) but wanted a bit more grind than the legendary amps could offer. Though these amps could definitely go to the venerable “11,” these rockers told Paul they wanted to push it closer to “15 or 20.” That’s when Gagon designed his innovative LED-based distortion circuit which fed a 3-band passive PLEX-EQ on a classic Plexi tone stack. The end result added up to a creamy smooth hi-gain experience that stays true to that signature tone. If that sounds salivating to you, then the Blacksmith might be right up your alley.
As far as the actual pedal goes, the 3 Band EQ – represented with the knobs Bass, Middle and Treble, naturally – is where you’ll be dialing in most of your distortion variations. Seeing as how it was inspired by the same circuitry as the ’69 Plexi, those familiar with that legendary Marashall will feel right at home. I first tried out the Blacksmith with all its settings on their12 o’clock/neutral position. It definitely had some spunk in its delivery even then, and a good amount of warmth, but there was still something missing. I quickly tried my go-to settings for optimal shredage – scooped mids and cranked up lows and highs – and was pleasantly surprised! It definitely had the feel of a true tube amp, even more amazing considering I was plugged into a Line 6 solid state. After about 15 or so minutes of messing around with just the three main EQ knobs, I was thoroughly impressed with just how easy it was to dial in all sorts of classic tones, but what was even more impressive was how simple it was to take a certain well known sound – let’s say early GNR rhythm guitar – and make it my own by just dialing back the gain a bit and adding some bass. It honestly became rather hard to find a “bad” setting on this pedal so long as the knobs weren’t all on their max positions. There’s also enough sensitivity in the way the knobs shape the tone that you can keep this bad boy as your main distortion pedal – so long as metal and hard rock are your staples. So as far as sound goes, this distortion pedal expertly recreates the experience of Gagon’s early hand-made boxes and thanks to the miracle of modern technological progression, it delivers even greater consistency and durability! Now let’s take a look at the box itself.
Blacksmith features 1% metal-film resistors, high-voltage poly caps, big, fat signal traces on a mil-spec circuit board and 1 MEG Ohm input which as many of you audiophiles will know is just like the input on a classic Marshall. As far as build goes, this box is as tough as it looks and as sturdy as they come. And with the included five year warranty, it’s safe to say that this pedal is definitely built to last. One of the things I personally always tend to check on new pedals to get a feel for their build quality is their knobs. It always seems like the knobs on cheaper pedals generally feel a bit loose when dialing in settings while the knobs on higher-end boxes tend to have a tightness to them, with just the right amount of give. It’s hard to explain but I always imagine it’s because the cheaper models use a less refined, less detailed method of construction. Anyways, back to the point, I was very satisfied with the professional feel of the Blacksmith’s knobs. The paint job should please its target audience as long as they don’t associate ‘80s metal with hairspray and glitter. Black tends to fit everywhere, right? Overall, I would put the entire build almost par with boutique level hand-assembled stompboxes, the only con being the plastic back plate, but hey, it makes for easy access when trying to switch batteries so it’s an understandable design choice. And like all modern pedals worth their weight, the Blacksmith offers true bypass so it’s sure to play nice with the rest of the boxes on your board.
All in all, in a world filled with hundreds upon hundreds of distortion pedals, the Blacksmith Distortion pedal has enough looks, power and experience behind it with an emphasis on a niche level crowd that it will most likely carve its way into the hearts of many classic metal heads everywhere. And at only $99.99, it shouldn’t bite the wallet too hard!