What is it?
How do overdrive pedals do it? Every time we think we're out, they pull us back in. The truth is, the desire to buy more effects pedals is never over and the holy grail of tone is a mirage. There's no shame in it either because the search for tone is the destination… or something like that. Anyway, here's an overdrive pedal that seized our attention as soon as we first wrote about it, and now we're delighted to say we have one to test. But why are we so giddy?
As the name strongly suggests, this is a pedal about a specific era. A period of alternative rock very close to a lot of guitar player's hearts. Actually, the 1991 pedal started life as a conversation about one album in particular from that year – is the shade of pink and the typeface on the controls giving you enough hints yet?
Matt Webster of YouTube channel Let's Play All is an excellent player (seriously, check out his song lessons) who also played the part of Stone Gossard in one of the UK's top Pearl Jam tribute bands. One night he made a drunken challenge to his friend Andy Llgunas of UK pedal store Funny Little Boxes; to create a pedal that could nail the tone of Pearl Jam's Ten album in time for its 30th anniversary.
A collaboration between Andy, Marc Dunn (SoundLad Liverpool) and Simon Andrews (JSA Effects) on the circuit design, with artwork from John Stewart (Stompslaps) and control knob design from Ritch Tomkins (Stompkins Pedals), this is the first original pedal for Funny Little Boxes. Matt is credited as concept and tone consultant and after he filmed a demo of the pedal last year, preorders went a bit crazy.
And even if you don't connect to the sounds of Pearl Jam's debut for whatever reason, this could still be a great buy for you. As we'll explain.
The foundation of the 1991's blueprint is Stone Gossard's 'mid-forward' overdrive sound on Ten. Andy describes the sound as "a Tube Screamer smashed into a Marshall JCM800") and there are other overdrives out there already that bring Marshall and Tube Screamer influence together. Andy himself notes the JHS Sweet Tea but consciously veered away from a clone in order to deliver a simpler solution to the Ten tone without navigating a heap of parameters, and at an accessible price.
That's an impressive brief for a first ever pedal build, right? But nothing ventured, nothing gained… (pun intended).
First though, it looks great! A Pearl Jam fan can't help but smile at the nod to the band's debut here. Even the LED shines pink! But Andy is clear when he says that this pedal captures the wider "spirit" of 1991 in its sounds too. The year that gave us Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Badmotorfinger and Nevermind, amongst others.
Handmade in the UK, it feels solidly stylish and the custom graphite coloured metal controls have a heft to their travel that says quality to us. You even gets some nice 1991, TLB and Let's Play All stickers in the box. And who doesn't love stickers?
But let's not get carried away with nostalgia and case candy. How usable is this, not just for the whole Pearl Jam side, but also as an overdrive on your pedalboard?
Performance and verdict
It's tempting to just let the video above answer the first question. There wasn't any sleight of hand going on in Gossard's tone (beyond the generous reverb mixed in) and there isn't with Matt Webster's demo either.
It's important to note that Ten has more high end than many of us might remember; Gossard and McCready don't slack on the bite. Andy writes a great piece on the backstory of the pedal here and the process he went through to create and voice the 1991 with the help of industry peers. It's a candid and inspirational read that proves how mutually supportive the pedal-building community can be.
So does he pull it off? With Gain 1's pedal stage full and Gain 2's amp-style gain and the EQ at noon: that's the Alive tone alright! That intro tone was one of the primary goals for the project. The Porch and Even Flow riffs come tumbling out with satisfying results too. But what's just as interesting for fans is how well the 1991 works for appropriating Pearl Jam's post-Ten material.
Now, it could be argued a fair amount of Stone's tones are quite meat and potatoes overdrive rock rhythm but not all are created equal, and the way the mids pop with gritty character with the 1991 feels like a simple and effective way of delivering PJ tones.
We tested the 1991 pedal with our Blackstar valve amp, a solid state Fender Mustang, and tried it stacked with an EHX Soul Food (aka a Klon-style overdrive on a real world budget) and also with Blackstar's excellent Dept 10 Dual Drive preamp pedal. We played a LP Junior-style guitar loaded with a Monty's '54 P-90, a Squier Strat and Gibson SG Special with Seymour Duncan '59 and JB humbuckers.
This is a grungey overdrive, as we'd expect, but it's one that never gets fizzy. Indeed, its ability to retain some of the inherent guitar chime and note clarity impressed us. There's a definite JCM articulation here. And with the Strat that proved to be really effective for John Frusciante drive tones.
Even set low, the overdrive can offer a good amount of dirt for chord work, obviously depending on what you're going into. And there's actually an argument for leaving the 1991 set with the gains fairly low as a go-to crunch tone that sparkles in a mix, but can also push a heavier amp drive channel or pedal.
It's worth considering pairing it with a Klon-esque pedal if you need lighter drive, but also want to push the 1991 at certain points in a song, or for more rhythm chunk; because its gain stages aren't individually switchable. And we wouldn't expect that for the asking price either!
We found that the 1991 paired very well with amp overdrive crunch too. It doesn't get mushy, instead adding a layer of mid-voiced dirt to a lower end drive to replicate a dual amp setup that just sounds bigger. And the EQ character is very useful in a band live mix.
Cranked alone with a valve amp just at breakup, it's actually still great for solos with the right balance of raunch and clarity. The 1991 is a lesson in how important mid frequency are for your overdriven tone when it needs to find its place alongside the low end of bass.
The three-band EQ seems might subtle at first if you're coming from some other overdrives, but that's because this is a pedal with it own distinct character, and the shaping here is effective in enhancing and editing it to your specific signal chain. The pedal balances low end well in general, something easily taken for granted but would soon sound thin if it didn't.
The 1991 is effective for brightening up neck humbuckers, but you may want to up the mid and treble a little while lowering the bass. In general, we found that we liked the bass on around 7-8-o'clock with bridge single-coils, sometimes cutting the treble back a little.
Handmade in the UK for £99 by Andy Llgunas, we admire Funny Little Boxes' commitment to delivering this pedal under £100 and we can see why preorders are flying in. The 1991 isn't a novelty pedal; it holds up as an excellent, characterful overdrive that proves very usable. We can't wait to see where Andy goes next.
MusicRadar verdict: Beyond any grunge nostalgia, this is an excellent drive pedal from a UK builder and its mid-focussed character provides a huge appeal for us.
- ORIGIN: UK
- TYPE: Overdrive pedal with two gain stages
- Bypass: True
- CONTROLS: Gain 1, Gain 2, Volume, Bass, Middle, Treble
- CONNECTIONS: Input and outout 1/4"
- POWER: 9V DC only, 11mA
- DIMENSIONS: 65 (w) x 115 (d) x 39mm (h)
- CONTACT: Funny Little Boxes [preorders for the 1991 are reopening soon]