The fact may have got lost in the mind-boggling pool of drive effects that have appeared over the past few decades, but once upon a time, distortion pedals were totally unconvincing when it came to recreating valve/tube-amp-driven-into-saturation sounds. Indeed, the early guitar stomp boxes weren’t even meant to be impersonating valve amps. They were just wacky, novelty effects, released at a time when anything that made an electric guitar sound unconventional would get forward-thinking guitarists practically foaming at the mouth.
Above: Two 1980s Rat pedals. On the left, the short-lived final version of the original compact Rat. And on the right, the original ‘80s version of the Rat 2. There’s barely any difference. The Rat 2, which was first shipped to England at the end of 1987, has luminous markings and an LED light encased within the ‘A’ to indicate when the pedal is active. There was a lot more difference between the various incarnations of the original Rat than there was between the final Rat (1) and the Rat 2. There's a roundup of the old versions on THIS PAGE. I don’t know about other countries, but in the UK, the Rat 2 was originally listed as the Rat Mark II (or Rat Mk.II) across the various dealers.
Think of the repetitive lead guitar riff in the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction, and you have a perfect notion of where distortion pedals started back in the early 1960s. Nasal, gravelly fuzz. The sound of the early fuzz boxes could be softened with equalization and smoothed a little by feeding them into an already overdriven valve amp, but in themselves, they were not easy on the ear.
Even through much of the 1970s, solid state electronics struggled to approximate the personality of overdriven valves. A particularly interesting example is the distortion effect built into the Roland Jazz Chorus combo amp of 1975. With their Boss range, Roland became one of the world’s best respected manufacturers of distortion pedals, but the unrefined fuzz of that original Jazz Chorus distortion tells us that in ’75, they still had a hell of a long way to go.
Things changed in the late 1970s, and by 1978 manufacturers were finally getting close to recreating the personality of a valve amp with transistorised circuitry. In particular, the Boss OD-1 Overdrive moved the commercial guitar drive box away from fuzz and into smoother, more valve-like territory. But the OD-1 was still only a mild overdrive effect – not a hard rock distortion. The real strides in mimicking the more highly saturated sound of chain-linked amps or Mesa/Boogie-style gain staging came from a much smaller operation. The Pro Co Rat, built from 1978, initially on a very small scale, was arguably the first stomp box to cross the line from fuzz to high gain valve simulation.
Even though it went into commercial production before the end of the 1970s, the Rat remained very much a select, boutique pedal for years. As late as the mid 1980s the Rats were virtually unknown to the mass market in the UK, and it wasn’t until early 1987 that I actually saw a proper, commercial review of a Rat in the British guitar press. When reviewing a Rat for the April ’87 edition of Guitarist magazine (hitting the shelves in mid March), Neville Marten admitted he’d heard high praise for the unit but had never previously seen one. This is a pro-reviewer, remember. And that encapsulates the way things were across the wider market. No shortage of hype, but you couldn’t actually get hold of the things.
Neville Marten provided a very grounded review. Factual, balanced and descriptive. But even after some very matter-of-fact evaluation, he concluded that the Rat was “the one to beat”. Conversely, quite a number of dealers went into unrestrained “OMG!!!” mode, unequivocally billing the Rat as the best distortion pedal on the market. But was it?
Well, the Rat didn’t have the impact by 1987 that it must have had for early users at the end of the ‘70s or the start of the ‘80s. By the mid ‘80s, amps with built in pre-gain were moving ever further down the food chain and were available in all but the lowest budget areas of the market. Here in England, Laney were producing all-valve high gain amps that would retail in the region of £250. These combos virtually negated the need for distortion pedals, and the quality of their overdrive gave any mid ‘80s stomp boxes unassailable competition. But it WAS still difficult to name a high gain distortion pedal that could subordinate the Rat in 1987.
Among the market-leading options of the day, the Boss DS-1 and Heavy Metal weren’t as valve-like as the Rat, and the Ibanez Tube Screamer couldn’t produce the gain… DOD did some great distortion pedals, and their then new FX56 American Metal was certainly a very enticing proposition for those about to rawk. But the sound was more ‘processed’ and ‘80s than the Rat. Probably the most accomplished direct competitor was the Boss OD-2 Turbo Overdrive, when used in Turbo mode. A very valve-like pedal. Personally, I like the OD-2 better than the Rat, but that’s just personal taste, and there are undeniably bases the Rat can cover which the OD-2 can’t.
Ultimately though, you have to budget for the fact that the Rat came before all of the above units, and the OD-2 didn’t enter the market until 1985. The only way I think the Rat could have been rivalled before the mid ‘80s would have been by chaining together more than one Boss OD-1 or Tube Screamer (or one of each) – but clearly that’s an unfair challenge. My own opinion is that the Rat pedal WAS the best distortion pedal on the market prior to 1985, but during that time it wasn’t widely enough available. Had the Rat had the kind of global distribution Boss and Ibanez enjoyed in the early ‘80s, it would, I’m convinced, have wiped the floor with the competition of the day.
So I think the Rat did to a large extent miss the boat. Had it been available to the average, amateur musician at the start of the 1980s, I think the magnitude of what it achieved really would have been set in stone. But by the mid to late ‘80s when distribution was scaled up, there were too many other great options for the Rat to take guitarists’ breath away as it had with its early users. The pro endorsements left over from the Rat’s more obscure years still glowed bright, but with the rest of the market having evolved so much, phrases like “the best you can buy” were much more open to question when the Rat finally reached the wider world.
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