Sometimes Frugal means downright inexpensive. Digitech’s Hot Head Distortion pedal runs a smooth fifty dollars, budgeted within the means of any guitarist considering buying a first pedal – and I imagine that’s partly the intention, getting the attention of people who aren’t familiar with the pedal industry with a product that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Digitech has a bit of a PR problem in today’s market that seems to stigmatize “digital,” especially digital distortion. Not everybody cares, but a lot of people insist (for better or worse) on analog only gear. Unfortunately for Digitech, their name and the prolific history of their digital effects and modeling units means that they have to go pretty far out of their way to get people to notice when a pedal isn’t digital. I think that might be why this pedal and others in the same series, which are all absolutely fully analog, get overlooked. I say it is unfortunate because for those willing to check it out, there’s a surprisingly useful pedal at a very attractive price!
To start with the basics, the Hot Head Distortion is packaged in a sturdy metal housing. It’s powered by either a battery in the easily accessible, spring-loaded battery compartment lock setup which you can access with a guitar cable’s pointy end, or by a standard Boss or Ibanez style 9V DC center-pin negative adapter. On top, it has four controls, a fairly standard setup of Level, Low, High, and Gain. They all do exactly what it says on the tin. One thing that stands out about the pedal (and the others in the same line) is that it has two outputs, one labeled Amp, the other labeled Mixer. The Mixer output is nothing sophisticated, no fancy, complex cabinet simulator here, but it does chop off the annoying, buzzy highs that are associated with going direct-to-board, and I imagine in the right (wrong, very wrong!) circumstances it could be a gig-saver.
The operation of the unit is perfectly familiar to anyone, I would imagine, though its intuitiveness doesn’t imply perfection. On the one hand, it’s a very “plug and play” pedal. The tone-shaping options are effective for what they are, giving you some boost and cut on the lows and highs, a setup that is easy to understand. On the other hand, the mids are pretty much fixed, and the pedal has more treble than many distortion pedals at the neutral position. The low frequency adjustment is very capable of dialing in the right amount of mid-bass, but it can be a little tricky to get the highs just right. A little clockwise and it’s way too bright, a little counter-clockwise and it’s muddy. The High knob has a narrow sweet spot with a given setup, somewhat compounded by the pedal’s potential lack of maximum output. If you have a high-output guitar and you’ve dialed back the High knob to get a more even tonal balance, you might find yourself cranking the level control and still just barely reaching unity – or, undesirably, just slightly shy. The last thing you want when you kick on a dirt box is for your sound to get aggressive and distorted but noticeably quieter than your clean tone!
Still, the level issue isn’t one that most people will encounter. What is remarkable about the pedal is that the actual distortion character is really beefy and full. That won’t come across if you’ve got the High knob cranked up, but keeping it closer to noon or a little before demonstrates a nice, chunky distortion, responsive to playing dynamics and pickup changes, with some real “Marshall-in-a-Box” flavor when dialed in. Its distortion can get harsh if you crank the Highs, and dull if you cut them too much, but there’s some wiggle room in which you get a variation on a nice tonal theme. Considering a lot of pedals at this price point are looked down on (rightfully or not) for just messing up your sound, I think the tone of the pedal is very much worth the small amount of time it takes to dial it in for your gear.
There are three things about the pedal which might affect your decision based on your other gear. First, it definitely doesn’t take “boost” pedals well. In fact, it sounds terrible with them. If you’ve got a high-output boost pedal that really cranks up the gain of your signal (in the electrical sense, not just a crunchy overdrive but a true level booster) the Hot Head responds by basically folding under the pressure, becoming very indistinct and almost sounding like a very badly designed fuzz pedal that decays into a mediocre distortion sound as the signal level goes down. Second, it is a buffered pedal, and while its buffers are suitable and compare perfectly well to other pedals in the price range and even higher, some pedals just don’t sound like they should when run after a buffered pedal, because they’re expecting the very different output impedance and voltage that a guitar plugged in direct provides. Then again, some pedals sound better with a buffer. It’s not a bad buffered design, just keep in mind that it is buffered. Third, it is my opinion that the switch design of this pedal is going to be relatively prone to failure. It’s a board-mounted micro-switch, triggered by a metal extension with some foam on the end. That definitely won’t hold up to repeated, aggressive use, and the “soft” feel of the pedal’s activation might inspire some guitarists to just stomp on it so they know it’s on. All switches fail eventually, but this particular type I have had negative experience with in the past.
Price: $49 USD
Pros: Very affordable; metal enclosure will hold up; a good sound, if a little bit of a one-trick pony; a primitive but effective mixer out that could save a gig if your amp goes south!
Cons: Limited sweet spot for any given guitar and amp setup; not quite enough level for some knob configurations; a less-than-robust switch combined with a “soft” activation will probably mean some players mash it and end up killing the switch early