It is undeniable that the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation has, at every point in its history, made a concerted effort to bring innovation to guitarists at every skill level and price point. They became a household name specifically because of their attempts to bring an affordable yet fully professional guitar to market. Volumes have been written about this, so there’s no need to re-hash it here; you can read “A Brief History of Fender Guitars” at Dawsons to get an idea, if you aren’t already familiar. Fender’s mission in life is to make good tone accessible.
Certainly, that mission has expanded a bit since those early days, and with quite a few twists along the way. I should know: My #1 guitar is a 1985 MIJ Fender Contemporary Stratocaster. What my guitar has in common with what readily comes to mind when invoking the name “Stratocaster” wouldn’t fill a crushed thimble. It is a very strange beast, made a very strange time for the company, and I would certainly never suggest that it’s the best Strat out there, or really that it was even particularly good. You know what, though? I love my guitar.
I cannot say the same for the Fender effects pedals that were readily available when I was learning to play. As I write this, the only one I can even remember off the top of my head is the Fender PT-100 Tuner, which I owned. And hated. It was abysmal at just about everything at which a tuner should excel.
If I go looking, I am reminded of the actually-pretty-nifty Fuzz Wah released in 1968, though I certainly have never set eyes on one in real life. More familiar to me are the Drive and Chorus units, as well as the Yngwie Malmsteen Overdrive and Phaser. All of these are fine, but it’s part of my job to consume pedal-related media on a constant basis and I have literally never seen any of these on a pedalboard.
My point is this: Fender is not exactly known for effects pedals. Their mark will forever be felt on guitars, basses, amps, and even pickups, to some extent. However, with wave after wave of boutique pedal makers bringing out intriguing designs and the old stalwarts of MXR/Dunlop, Boss, and Electro-Harmonix more than holding their own, Fender would have to come up with something pretty remarkable to have the kind of impact on effects pedals that they’ve had on those other products. Perhaps there’s another way, though.
At Winter NAMM this year, Fender debuted a new line of six effects pedals built new from the ground up. Led by Stan Cotey, Fender brought its knowledge of tone and circuitry to bear on the question of how to introduce an entire line of pedals into such a crowded field in 2018. As you can imagine, the proposition caused a variety of reactions ranging from excitement to curiosity to shrugs. The blues lawyers of the world who rely on Fender to produce the world’s great tube amps are disinclined to think that there should be another line of pedals at all. The pedal freaks of the world are divided between keeping an open mind and getting caught up scoffing at the understated (some might say outdated) graphic work on the units.
Fender was so kind as to furnish me with a loan of the entire line to review. Right away, the approach is clear: This is a utility player’s pedal line. What you have here is everything you need and nothing that you don’t, at price points that might make casual observers wonder how Chase Bliss stays in business. (That was a cheap shot for a joke. Sorry, guys. You’re doin’ good work. Keep it up.) The line tops out at $199 for the Santa Ana Overdrive and goes down to $99 for the Pugilist Distortion and Level Set Buffer. So then, not quite cheap pedal territory, but comfortably below some of the nosebleed pricing you see out there, settling in around the EHX area of things for the most part.
Compared to the cheap (ahem, Chinese) pedals of the world, though, these are robust units that immediately read to me as studio tools. There are lot of options on these pedals, covering the kind of wide tonal territory session players need to call up at a moment’s notice. Additionally, I’m intrigued by what I perceive as subtle cues that these are meant to compete with other hugely-flexible, but costly, alternatives.
The configurations and color selections make me think that Fender has specific ideas about the pedals with which it wanted these to compete. The A/B voicing, two-stage gain, and color make me think the Santa Ana is supposed to be a cheaper Strymon Sunset ($299). A gold-colored, dual channel, blendable distortion? Could be the Chase Bliss Brothers ($349). And why does The Bends remind me of the Origin Effects Cali76 ($329)?
Am I reading too much into this? Probably. But lest we forget, marketing and packaging play a pretty big part of selling, and since they seem disinterested in following Digitech in trying to make their pedals look boutique-y (the Obscura and Polara both come to mind), I don’t think it’s so far-fetched to think a little priming is at play here.
Upon unboxing, you will find these very well-packed in custom-designed boxes. The short user guide that comes with each explains the control layout and function, but offer no sample settings to get you started. The pedals themselves feel substantial; they’re quite heavy, with the top and sides made of a single piece of bent, brushed aluminum. They’re also fairly large, with the single-channel pedals measuring about 1/4 inch wider and almost an inch taller than an MXR-style pedal. That’s about the same height as an EarthQuaker Devices pedal with top-mounted jacks, which is interesting since these have side-mounted jacks. Also: These have the brightest LEDs known to humankind in them. Wear sunglasses if you play these on a dark stage.
There’s a battery door on the bottom panel that folds down on a hinge that snaps shut if you don’t hold it open. My impression is that you will see used units floating around with these broken off in no time. That’s just the way of it with battery doors on pedals. However, these are apparently user-fixable and easily replaced if that should occur. The power jack bumps out from the top rather than being flush or recessed like most pedals. Finally, there’s a bag with adhesive rubber feet if you want them, otherwise the bottoms of the pedals are flat. The knobs all have LEDs in them to help with seeing the settings on dark stages, and there’s an LED killswitch at the top to turn them off to save on battery power.
But do they sound good? Let’s find out. Before we get into it, a few notes:
- I am not the world’s greatest guitarist. I’m not even the world’s okayest guitarist. I’ve used the same lick for most of the tests, so no, I haven’t considered your style. Nevertheless, you should get an idea of the change in sound across the samples.
- I do not own the aforementioned possible competitors for these pedals. I do have some pedals, though, and when possible, I’ve included a comparison to the effect that lives on my board full-time.
- All samples are recorded direct-in using the headphone out of a Quilter MicroBlock 45 into Logic with the transparent amp, the Modern American 4×12 cab, and Dynamic 57 mic models. There’s just a touch of reverb to liven it up a little.
- My trusty, if bizarre, ’85 MIJ Strat (27-5800 model) was used for all samples. Those are Fujigen 7.6k humbuckers.
- Pedals were powered directly with a Truetone 1 Spot. No daisy chains.
- Each clip has the lick at least six times: Twice with no effect, twice with the Fender pedal, and twice with the comparison pedal.
This is a very unscientific test, to be sure. These are merely reference tones, and taken together with the provided YouTube demos, you should get a pretty good sense of what they sound like. The comparisons to other known pedals can sometimes be lacking in demos, so I thought having them ready-at-hand could be valuable for some. At the end of the day, a pedal can only ever modify the sound of your hands on your guitar through your amp, so realistically, you’ll have to get these plugged into your rig to see if you love them.
For the curious, we’ve reviewed and compared the Fender line of effects pedals newly released for 2018.
1. Santa Ana Overdrive
The Santa Ana Overdrive is an example of the boost + drive pedals that are becoming very common of late. Much like the reverb-delay combo pedals, they can save a little room on your pedalboard while also giving you greater flexibility in some cases. Where you’d have to physically change the order of a boost and an overdrive if they were separate units, these allow you to move the boost around within the pedal signal itself.
Two things to note right off the bat: 1. Fender says the FETs make it sound tube-like, which is pret-ty close to calling it amp-like, and you know what that means. (For those that don’t: it means nothing. Pedals don’t sound like amps and manufacturers should stop saying that.) 2. In the video above, Pete says, “You know what I would call that? I would call that distortion.”
It’s a throwaway comment, but it’s kind of true. There’s a lot of gain in this pedal, particularly in comparison to Tube Screamer type drives. Given the fact that you can choose for the boost to increase the gain, much of the Drive knob’s range is in pretty heavy breakup territory. I tested it both with the Quilter as you’ll hear below and with an Orange Micro Dark and in both cases, I felt compelled to turn the Drive down more often than not.
In addition to Drive, controls on this include a four-band EQ, Level, Voice, Boost and Bypass footswitches, Bypass select and FS Select. The Voice allows you to choose between A or B and the manual says that one is American voicing and one is British voicing, which I imagine maps to the A and B names accordingly. Do with that what you will, but both the manual and Fender’s product video indicate that this should be primarily used as an amp-matching mechanism in case yours is too bright or too dark normally.
The FS Select allows you to set the Boost switch to either boost the level or boost the drive; basically a pre- or post-gain, like you see on pedals like the Keeley D&M Drive. (The boost cannot be used on its own, sadly.) Finally, you have the option of Buffered or True Bypass. Internally, it uses the Klon-esque 18v power rail, just like the Wampler Tumnus or Electro-Harmonix Soul Food.
For these samples, I compared the Santa Ana both to an Ibanez Tube Screamer Mini and to the pairing I usually use for my “overdriven” tones, which is an EarthQuaker Devices Arrows into a Malekko Sloika MkII. I really couldn’t set these similarly given that they’re so different, but I set them up pretty close to as I might have them normally, though I would probably tweak the Santa Ana’s EQ a bit.
Santa Ana — Bass, Middle, Treble, Presence: Noon, Level: 9 o’clock, Drive: Noon.
Tube Screamer — Tone: Noon, Level: Max, Drive: 3 o’clock.
Arrows — Level: 11 o’clock.
Sloika — Drive: 2 o’clock, Saturate: 3 o’clock, Volume: 3 o’clock.
First is the clean, then Fender Voice A, Fender Voice B, Tube Screamer, and Arrows + Sloika.
Both in my experience and in the Andertons video above, the pedal comes off as somewhat overly bright using Voice A. My Strat’s humbuckers are notoriously dark, so I was surprised that I felt like I needed to pull back on both Presence and Treble when using that voice. I preferred Voice B on the whole and found that all the tones I needed were in there somewhere. That said, this will be an entirely different beast with an all-tube amp or with lower-output single coils. Overall, this is pretty flexible without necessarily having a pronounced EQ curve until you start twisting knobs.
- Controls: Level, Drive, Bass, Middle, Treble, Presence, Voice, Boost Select, Bypass Select
- Power: 130mA at 9V DC
- Boost footswitch is selectable between Level boost or Drive boost
- Possible competitors: Strymon Sunset ($299), Keeley D&M Drive ($229)
Verdict: Plenty of control and utility, as well as an awful lot of gain, for better or worse. If you like the tone, this could easily replace three pedals on your board.
2. Pugilist Distortion
Of the entire line, this is the pedal I’m most interested in. I rarely ever play clean and tend to rotate my high gain pedal pretty regularly in search of that certain something.
Controls on this include a Tone and Gain knob for each distortion engine, a Blend knob with Series/Blend switch, Bass Boost and Level. All of these are pretty self-explanatory. While the Santa Ana gets a full EQ, these tone knobs only dial in or dial out the Treble frequencies. Still, there’s the Bass Boost switch to have some control over the lows, as well. When the Series/Blend switch is up, the Blend knob is defeated, so both engines are running at the same time, A through B. The manual notes that a good, well-rounded tone can be achieved with Blend on, distortion A set to be cleaner and brighter and distortion B set to be dirtier and darker, mixed to taste.
That Bass Boost switch is an interesting addition. The manual suggests that you’d use the Bass Boost for clean amps and turn it off for already-driving amps, which makes sense since low frequencies distort first. I think it’s a bit of a tell to the market they envision for the pedal, as folks playing at home by themselves tend to favor more bass because it sounds great as a standalone tone. I’m guessing that at most gigs, you’ll want Bass Boost turned off so you cut a bit better, but certainly that depends on the rest of your rig.
I’ve sampled the Pugilist at higher gain settings, both to get beyond the gain range of the already-hot Santa Ana, but also to get closer to the level of drive I use normally. For my heavier tones, I add a DOD Boneshaker on top of my Arrows + Sloika tone outlined above. (As an aside, I totally get why the Boneshaker isn’t well loved, but I got it for cheap and it’s doing the job for the time being.) I added a few quick chords at the end of these takes.
Pugilist — Tone A: noon, Gain A: 3 o’clock, Tone B: noon, Gain B: 3 o’clock, Blend (switch down): noon, Bass Boost: Off, Level: 3 o’clock.
Arrows — Level: 11 o’clock.
Sloika — Drive: 2 o’clock, Saturate: 3 o’clock, Volume: 3 o’clock.
Boneshaker — Distortion: noon, Depth: 9 o’clock, Level: 1 o’clock, Low Level: noon, Low Freq: noon, Mid Level: noon, Mid Freq: noon, High Level: 9 o’clock, High Freq: 7 o’clock.
Clean, then Pugilist, then Arrows + Sloika + Boneshaker.
As with the Level Set Buffer below, I think this could really benefit from either a preset option or a second footswitch. It would be nice to be able to defeat one of the distortion engines on the fly without having to reach down and turn the Blend knob to one side or the other. Of course, every pedal can’t have every feature, or there would really be no reason for them all to exist. I do find the tones and flexibility in this to be more than worth the money. Distortion can be had for cheap as our post on the subject makes clear, but I’m not sure this level of tweakability is available elsewhere at this price.
- Controls: Tone A, Gain A, Tone B, Gain B, Series/Blend switch, Blend, Bass Boost, Level
- Power: 88mA at 9V DC
- Dual distortion engine pedal with the ability to blend or cascade
- Possible competitors: Chase Bliss Brothers ($349), Wampler Tom Quayle Dual Fusion ($254.97)
Verdict: Well-rounded, rich, crunchy tones augmented by a blend function from above its price class make this pedal worth considering.
3. Marine Layer Reverb
Right way, it must be said, this is some thing of an oddity in this line of pedals. If you take a quick spin through our best reverb pedals list, you’ll see three pedals at the same price and a couple just a touch more expensive. Each of those similarly-priced pedals have at least six and up to eleven different reverbs (if we allow for the Hall of Fame’s TonePrint slots). That means that this pedal isn’t nearly as good of a deal as the rest in this lineup, but the mystery doesn’t end there.
Controls on this pedal include Pre-Delay, Reverb Time, Damping, Type, Variation, Filter, and Level. The Type switch allows you to choose between Hall, Room, and Special, which are further altered by the Variation switch. Hall Variation 1 is a large space; Hall Variation 2 a resonant, bright space meant to evoke plate reverb; Room Variation 1 is like a large studio; Room Variation 2 can give you a ’50s studio sound; Special Variation 1 is Shimmer; Special Variation 2 is modulated. Fender wants you to think of these as six different reverbs like the previously-referenced competitors, but really it’s four with different size and max length variations. The Filter switch cuts the treble frequencies in the reverb, which can help it duck into the background, especially when used in combination with the Damping knob. There’s a Dry Kill switch on the back for those times when you only want the reverb signal, such as in wet/dry setups.
To compare this pedal, I dialed in the Special setting on Variation 2, the large modulated reverb. I’m using the EarthQuaker Devices Afterneath for contrast, using the following settings:
Marine Layer — Pre-Delay: 3 o’clock, Reverb Time: maxed, Damping: maxed, Level: maxed, Filter: off.
Afterneath — Length: 1 o’clock, Diffuse: noon, Dampen: noon, Drag: 1 o’clock, Reflect: noon, Mix: noon.
I quite like that modulated reverb, and the Room and Hall variations are also pretty solid. Having Pre-Delay is nice, as is the Filter switch. Ultimately, though, in a world where the Boss FRV-1 ’63 Fender Reverb can still be had, it is mystifying to me that there isn’t a spring setting on this pedal. Perhaps they would rather you get your spring reverb tones from their amps. In the year 2018, Fender opted for Special Variation 1 to be a Shimmer setting in place of what could have been either something sought after like their own amp reverb or something completely unique. Worship players may get some use out of this, and it certainly isn’t a bad pedal by any stretch, but I’m hard pressed to say why your money wouldn’t be better spent on the aforementioned Hall of Fame, since that, too, offers some pre-delay functionality.
- Controls: Pre-Delay, Reverb Time, Damping, Level, Filter, Type, Variation
- Power: 115mA at 9V DC
- Four total reverb voices with variations and useful EQ control
- Possible competitors: TC Electronic Hall of Fame 2 ($149.99), Red Panda Context ($225)
Verdict: Unlike the rest of the line, this pedal doesn’t compete on price nearly as well as the others and the decision to go with shimmer instead of spring seems pretty weird, given that it’s from Fender.
4. Mirror Image Delay
By contrast to the Marine Layer, the Mirror Image is excellent value for money, if nothing else. Somewhere inside this pedal there is the equivalent of a Boss DD-3, an MXR Carbon Copy, and a TC Electronic Mimiq. That alone is worth the price of admission, to be perfectly honest with you. Each of those on their own cost about what this pedal costs, and there’s functionality beyond that.
The control layout is instantly familiar with Time, Feedback, and Level doing their normal jobs. Type chooses between Digital, Analog, and Tape delay types, with the Variation switch expanding the capabilities of each. On the Analog setting, Variation 2 adds warmth and grit and inverts the feedback. On the Tape setting, Variation 2 emulates a used tape. Variation 2 of the Digital setting is a double-tracking effect, which adds a huge amount of value. In this mode, with the Dotted 1/8th switch off, you get one additional track; with it on, you get two for a total of three tracks. The Rate and Depth knobs control the modulation, which is available in all modes. On the Tape setting, you can control the wow-and-flutter effects with the Depth and Rate knobs.
For this sample, I’ve recorded the lick using the Analog Variation 1 type. This is the good, old-fashioned bucket brigade delay without too much darkening. I compared that to my Boss DM-2W Waza Craft Delay. Aside from the extra grit on the Boss, I think they sound quite close, again considering the Fender’s low price.
Mirror Image — Time: 2 o’clock, Depth: zero, Rate: zero, Feedback: 3 o’clock, Level: maxed, Dotted 1/8th: off.
DM-2W — Custom setting, Repeat Rate: 2 o’clock, Echo: 11 o’clock, Intensity: 9 o’clock.
Clean, then Mirror Image, then Boss DM-2W.
Based on those settings, it is true that the Boss has a lot more in the tank, as it were, in terms of feedback and level. Still, the value of the Mirror Image is undeniable. If you need a Mimiq, set the Type to Digital and Variation to 2. If you need a Carbon Copy, set the Type to Analog and the Variation to 2. Kick in the Dotted 1/8th to fill everything out. Again, I’d sure like to be able to defeat or kick in the modulation on the fly while playing, but honestly, that’s a minor quibble considering everything else on offer here.
- Controls: Time, Depth, Rate, Feedback, Level, Type, Dotted 1/8th, Variation
- Power: 138mA at 9V DC
- Digital, Analog, Tape, and Doubler delay functions
- Possible competitors: TC Electronic Flashback 2 ($164), Digitech Hardwire DL-8 ($159.95, discontinued)
Verdict: As a super-handy utility player that sounds really very good, the Mirror Image has more functions than its price should allow.
5. The Bends Compressor
Confession and context, before we get into this: I really don’t use pedal compression. I have one, as we’ll discuss in a moment, but I almost never play clean, so I find that my drive settings provide all the compression I need in most cases. I leave compressing up to the mastering engineer. With that said, let’s get into it.
Controls on this include Drive, Recovery, Blend, and Level. In this case, Drive is basically the amount of compression, and the LED will change to pink to indicate that compression or gain reduction is occurring. Rather than an Attack knob, you get Recovery, which controls the speed at which it returns to normal gain. When used in concert with the Blend knob, you can dial in just how natural you want the compression to sound. I think most players are used to being able to set the initial note attack in a very specific way, but the flexibility exists here to get around that with relatively little issue.
The color-changing LED definitely recalls the function of the Origin Effects Cali76, which is still the superior compressor, I think. As it should be, for $200 more. In my test below, I’ve compared it to the MXR Custom Comp, which retails for $10 more than The Bends.
The first two licks are clean, the second two are the Fender, and the last set is the MXR.
Here are the settings for both:
The Bends — Blend: 100% Comp, Drive: 9 o’clock, Recovery: noon, Level: 3 o’clock.
Custom Comp — Output: 3 o’clock, Sensitivity: noon, Trim: noon, Attack: noon.
To my ears, the Fender is very obviously less noisy. I’m sure I could tweak the MXR to get closer, but I believe that’s actually Fender’s “dual internal audio path” at work to significant advantage in terms of noise reduction. It’s a very sweet sounding thing. Especially for the price, I think it will easily find a home on a lot of pedalboards.
- Controls: Blend, Drive, Recovery, Level, LED switch
- Power: 60mA at 9V DC
- Multi-color LED mimics function of higher-end units
- Possible competitors: Origin Effects Cali76 ($329), Wampler Ego V2 ($199.97)
Verdict: A very good compressor with modern pedal features and enough control to give you most everything you need, except front-of-note attack time.
6. Level Set Buffer
In my post on booster pedals, I discuss a few things related to this type of effect. For one thing, level matching is one common use of the MXR Micro Amp — just kick it on when switching to a lower-output guitar. Also in that post you’ll find the Wampler dB+, which is possibly the most relevant competitor to this offering, given that both are based around high-quality buffers. That said, the Fender actually offers more functionality than either of those units for a price that falls right between them.
As I said in the intro, this line of pedals really seems to want to provide a quality toolbox for players of all stripes. Certainly, this pedal isn’t exactly exciting, but it’s one of those things that could make a huge difference if you haven’t had something like it on your board to date. Especially useful for players who use very different guitars throughout the course of a set or in the studio.
Controls on this pedal include Level, Hi-Freq, and Load. Level controls a 12dB boost or cut, with noon being unity gain. There is no center detent, but this probably won’t matter in most applications. Hi-Freq also offers 12dB of boost or cut, but only for the “high frequencies”, according to the manual. It doesn’t specify which frequencies those are, but the idea is to add sparkle to dark pickups or tone down the harshness of very bright ones. You’ll have to use your ears there. The Load switch adds capacitance to load pickups like tubes do. This can help rectify mysterious issues with cables or wonky pickups. Finally, the main footswitch acts as a mute so you can utilize the Tuner jack silently.
That last part is a bit odd to me. On one hand, I appreciate the ability to integrate the tuner into this utility function. In theory, this means you could use a non-pedal based tuner to free up some board real estate. On the other hand, pedal tuners are pretty useful utilities in and of themselves and one of their primary functions are that they mute your signal for tuning. In this case, the Tuner jack is always active, so you needn’t mute to tune at all.
Here’s the thing, though: you can’t defeat the buffer/boost function of this with the footswitch. To me, that’s the traditional use case for a pedal like this. Instead, you’ll mute, switch guitars, and then make your adjustment to the knobs every time. That’s…okay, I suppose, especially if you’re in need of a quality buffer at the beginning of your chain. While I acknowledge the low price, it seems to me that this could benefit from some kind of preset functionality; either a second footswitch to instantly recall settings, or some kind of momentary hold for the footswitch it already has. Where you would typically have a booster pre-set to compensate for quieter pickups that you can just kick on when needed, this requires that you turn knobs every time and thus recall exactly where they need to be set for each guitar. That’s begging for you to mark up the lovely textured metal finish with a Sharpie to note where you’ll have the knobs set for each of your vintage instruments.
I haven’t recorded a sample of this, as I only have guitars loaded with relatively hot humbuckers on hand. The way my pedalboard is configured right now, I have no need for a buffer, either. That said, the purpose of this thing is pretty clear and I’m sure plenty of players will be able to make use of this handy tool.
- Controls: Level, Hi-Freq, Load
- Power: 64mA at 9V DC
- Always-on tuning jack allows for tuning without muting
- Possible competitors: Wampler dB+ ($129.95), MI Audio Boost ‘N’ Buff (depends on retailer, $99.95 to $134.95)
Verdict: Odd deviation from expected footswitch function and lack of preset capability may be limiting, but the underlying function is more than up to the task at hand, especially for the price.
On the whole, what we have here is a lineup of very usable pedals, mostly at very good prices. I’d probably skip the Marine Layer, but otherwise, you really can’t go wrong with any of these. They don’t necessarily bring anything new to the pedal game, but they do make some combinations and features available to a wider audience of players. For the professional, they’re certainly road-worthy and their flexibility may prove handy in a lot of environments. If we forgive a few miscues here and there, I think Fender’s ultimately done a nice job, particularly for people who don’t want to splash out for the higher-end units or chase down every boutique maker. The Pugilist and the Mirror Image in particular get my vote.
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