Monday, July 9, 2012

The Goran Fat Boy Overdrive - A New World's Champion

"Man, this thing is righteous! Please let the builder know how much we appreciate the kind gift. It is online and in service. Wow!!" Billy F. Gibbons

"Billy Gibbons has received his Fat Boy Overdrive and was using it today in the studio. He wanted me to tell you thank you very much from him, and that he will be using it now." Lance Lopez

The Goran Fat Boy Overdrive pedal may be the best sounding distortion device I have ever played through, or heard. However, the last thing I would ever wish to do would be to speak an untruth, or to ruffle feathers. While I have invoked the name of one of the true modern day gods of tone, I also must state that he does not endorse Goran products. What I have written is true, and my intent is this - to state that while it is true that Billy Gibbons owns the pedal, digs the pedal (he must, he gave one to a friend), and has used the pedal, he does not endorse this, or any other products with the possible exception of Gibson's 'Pearly Gates' Les Paul, and I completely respect that and would never wish to imply otherwise. Mr. Gibbons would sound like Mr. Gibbons through any gear you gave him, and to imply that the tones that emanate from his guitaring are anything but his imprint would be preposterous. By the same token - I think he digs it. And like I said, it may be the finest sounding dirt box I have ever stomped upon.

"Online and in service"
It's not easy to get me excited about distortion/overdrive pedals. I owned my first Electro-Harmonix LPB-1 Power Booster back in the mid-70s - it thrilled me to no end. My little Fender Vibro-Champ amp turned into a veritable mini-Marshall, and I could instantly do a very convincing Ace Frehley imitation. I was hooked.

Over the years I moved from one distortion/overdrive pedal to another, as I'm sure most guitar players have. I went through periods where there were tubes in my pedals - the Butler/Chandler Tube Driver comes to mind, as does the Ibanez Tube King (designed by B.K. Butler - the US version states the BK 5022305 patent number on the case), ending up later with a Butler designed Tube Works Real Tube, which Butler says he tweaked by playing ZZ Top's Tush through it over, and over again. There was also the wonderful Mesa/Boogie V-Twin that had a tube front end so sweet that I even occasionally used it to warm up digitally recorded vocal tracks! I even experimented with using a variety of different tubes in these pedals (especially, substituting 12AY7 tubes for 12AX7s) - always searching for that magic sweet spot in my brain.

Of course, there were my 'Strat' years, and I used Echoplex pre-amp clones, the ubiquitous and still wonderful Ibanez Tube Screamers (TS9 and TS 808s), and maybe my all time favorite, the Fulltone Full Drive 2 (the orange 90s model). But even that didn't last, and I eventually quit using front end boosters completely. I decided that with the right tube amp connected to your guitar, all you need between them is a cable.

Still, there were many times when I found myself stomping on the ground in front of me, stepping for a pedal - that little extra oomph, that muscle-bound magic, and it wasn't there. Still, I thought that until I had found the miracle pedal, that tonal nirvana of my dreams, I would simply do without.

It was then, just late last year that something rather exciting happened.

Lance Lopez

 Lance Lopez had just returned from a very successful world tour that had seen him playing to huge crowds from Indonesia to Germany, even in Belgrade, Serbia. If you don't know Lance Lopez, you need to fix that right away. He's the best string strangler to come out of Texas since Stevie Ray Vaughan. Here's some of what's been said by others:
"Texas has been know throughout the years to be the breeding ground for some of the baddest guitar players of all time...Lance is yet another one to carry on that Texas tradition." Billy F. Gibbons - ZZ TOP

"A very exciting and intense Blues Guitarist." Jeff Beck

"Lance Lopez got 3 standing ovations when he opened a show for me and I was among those standing." B.B. KING

"One of my favs, the boy can make a guitar sing!" Greg Martin - Kentucky Headhunters

"When we are onstage together I get chills because Lance reminds me of someone I used to play with along time ago." Buddy Miles
Lance Lopez with Rama Satria Claproth  in Indonesia!
Lance Lopez is a dye-in-the-wool guitar tone fanatic. He's a big man, but his tones are bigger. His sonic vibe is not unlike that of Leslie West - mind you, they sound nothing alike, it's just that Lance's tones are that identifiable. He's a humbucker and head/cabinet sort of guy. He's currently endorsing and using MusicMan Reflex guitars and Mohave AmpWorks amplifiers, and he's a bread and butter kind of guy when it comes to tone. He believes in using only what sounds great and works - gig after gig.

Lance came back from his world tour absolutely raving about his new overdrive pedal. It had instantly became a part of his rig and has remained so to this day. There's a great story that has Lance arriving at Goran's shop to check out some of the Serbian's creations, including the Fat Boy. The first thing that happens is that Goran wants to walk outside, he wants to show Lance the Fat Boy. Not being exactly sure why they have to go outside to test an overdrive pedal, Lopez accommodates his host and steps back into the parking lot, where Goran immediately proceeds to throw the pedal off the wall of his shop. He smiles, picks the pedal off the ground, and says, "Good! Now let's see how it sounds."

The Goran Fat Boy Overdrive pedal is, indeed, very well built. It lives in a handsome and heavy duty metal housing that is 7.5" long, 5" wide, 2" deep, and features a jet black outer shell and a sexy chrome overlay on the footswitch section. It is a two channel device with a drive section and a solo (boost) section, both of which are foot switchable. The drive section consists of gain, tone, and volume control knobs. The solo section has a gain control, and a volume knob. Both section feature LED indicators that are green when engaged. Perhaps its coolest feature is its mode selector which is switched on via a small toggle switch located between the channels. Classic creme colored chicken head knobs add an attractive look, and are often more handy than plain round knobs, especially on a dark stage.

True bypass is one of those concepts that is difficult for some guitarists to understand. Simply put - for practical purposes, true bypass means that when a pedal is not turned on, your guitar's signal goes straight through to its destination. This means that there is no tone loss, as can occur with some pedals (very notably with wah pedals and time delayed effects). The last thing you need is a tone shaping device that makes your original tone worse - the Fat Boy is true bypass, so it is audibly imperceptible when not turned on. The pedal runs on either a 9v battery, or adapter (not included).

Before we get to how the pedal sounds, let's discuss the mode switch. I've rarely encountered a single switch that does more to elevate the value of a pedal than does this single toggle. It has two modes, FAT and Vintage. It literally gives you two completely different and wholly effective types of distortion - you literally end up with an extra (and great sounding) amp in your collection.

Let's go from small to large here, and first talk about the Vintage mode. This mode provides some of  the most soulful, sweet distortion tones imaginable. It almost casually evokes the holy trinity of amp builders, depending on how you configure your gain, tone, and volume options. Going lightly on the gain and the volume, I could easily coax classic sounds that harkened to sweet grind of the Fender Deluxe Reverb. Utilizing the tone control, I can increase the chime and get satisfyingly Vox-like (think Mike Campbell or R.E.M.'s Peter Buck). With a bit less gain, but more of a volume boost I conjured some lovely Peter Green bluesbreaking. Perhaps most pleasurable for me, though, was engaging the solo section with a bit of extra gain, and hearing tones that accurately parroted the incredible tone of Free's Paul Kossoff's hundred watt heaven. Oh yeah, it also does an admirable job of channeling the 'more difficult than you'd think to reproduce' tone of Malcolm Young - Malcom is the brother responsible for writing and playing the rhythm riffs for AC/DC, and this pedal cops his plexi tones with stunning success. The settings I am talking about here are all found by using a fairly moderate (40%) amount of the gain on hand. Increase the gain levels and you will find precisely what you find as you crank up an old tube amp. You may never max out your gain levels, but you can be assured that as you increase the juice the pedal holds its tone. Some pedals have a maximum setting that is useless - by the time you get there, you've turned your tone to mush. The Fat Boy sticks with you right to the hilt. Did I mention you can replicate any Jimmy Page distortion tone remarkably well with this beauty?

Eddie Van Halen's Marshall
The FAT mode is a completely different kettle of fish. It is the more modern, higher gain side of things, and while it won't do a great job of that horrible scooped mids sound that almost turned heavy metal into a eunuch for a few years, it will nail most of your high gain heavy lifting. It specializes in the type of tone that came to be known as the brown sound - the vaunted tones that had every wanna be metaller in LA turning to Jose Arrendondo, the Chilean amp guru, who started modifying Eddie's amps towards the end of Van Halen's 1978 tour. These tones are massive, but extremely well defined and focused.

After testing the pedal out by myself for a few days, I was concerned that perhaps my enthusiasm was forced - that what I was hearing may only be some sort of wishful mirage. I took the pedal to the test laboratory of not only one of the best players I know, but also one of the best repair technicians in town. My pal Chris Wright has been hammering out some of the most inventive guitar rock around for some twenty years, and has a great reputation for being the go to guy when your guitars, amps, or pedals are misbehaving. He's also a stone cold encyclopedia of high output guitar tones.

Christopher Wright
We plugged the pedal into a 50 watt, single channel amp and a custom built 2X12 closed back cabinet that Chris had just finished building. In terms of tone, his amp resembles a beefed up plexi. It is an amazing sounding amp that is chock full of tone and is extremely loud, but never harsh. In short, it is a great amp. We ran the pedal through its paces on the Vintage channel, and it faithfully replicated the sounds I had gotten at home. When we kicked it into its FAT mode, my friend's eyes lit up as the harmonic content blossomed and notes of seemingly endless sustain were instantly on tap. As brilliant as the amp had sounded when used in my home studio, it came into a world of its own when married to some healthy horsepower and running as it was meant to be ran.

Right hand articulation is often the tipping point between good distortion devices and great distortion devices. The Goran Fat Boy seems extremely focused on bringing out the proclivities of the picking hand. If you dig in, or smack it, it responds without flinching - but if you gently caress the notes it will respond in a more delicate, soulful, and intelligent manner. I was reminded of the great varieties of tones that Rory Gallagher once coaxed out of his equipment. So much modern distortion has actually taken individuality away from players - I'm all about gear that let's the player's soul shine through, and the Fat Boy does this in spades.

The solo (boost) section of the pedal shares the basic tone shaped by the drive channel, via the drive's very well voiced tone knob. The active knobs on the solo side are for gain and volume, and both actually work - many times, I have come across boost settings which did little but provide a huge bump in volume. The Fat Boy's solo controls both contain a large degree of maneuverability. The solo channel can be contoured to provide the extra push for a solo at the end of the set, or to cut through sections of music where you may just need a bit of something extra. There's not a significant change in tone, just in horsepower - and given that it can be delivered in the form of volume, gain, or both is a huge benefit.

Three, or five channels? Depending on your application, this pedal takes a single channel amp, and turns it into a five channels if you take into consideration being able to switch between modes, or a three channel amp if you are in a live setting. Changing the mode switch could be done between songs, or by a tech, but for our discussion I think the reality is that in a live setting the Goran will effectively add two channels to your current amp. In the studio, or at home, you basically are granted four very different degrees of breakup, and tone. Four very usable modes of distortion - not a lot of pedals offer this much real world usability.

Whether you are a roots rocker, bluesman, classic hard rocker, jazz rocker, or even a Priestly metallurgist, the Goran Fat Boy Overdrive will deliver on its promise to provide you with the last distortion pedal you may ever need - not that it will be the last you will ever buy, as that is not our nature. It is an extremely well built pedal that contains top flight components (Black Gate electrolitic capacitors, NOS Allen Bradley composite resistors, and a military grade opamp) - this thing is built like a tank. It shines brightest when coupled with great guitars and amps, but it also makes a Squier Strat Pack sound pretty incredible. Some high end pedals are more transparent, and not so impressive with lower end gear. Regardless of your rig, the Fat Boy makes the grade.

Oh yeah....while I was copping tones, there were two in particular that thrilled me. They are two tonal footprints that are historically hard to copy. The first were those associated with that "Lil Ol' Band from Texas," and I found that with a bit of tweaking the Goran could ably emulate anything from Tres Hombres to I Gotsta Get Paid, and 'all points in between.' As I stated earlier, the Reverend Willie G can get his tones out of most anything, and lord knows he has - however, you will be greatly aided in your search for tonal nirvana by the Fat Boy. The second was a tough one - could the FB approximate the fire breathed by the legendary Ritchie Blackmore? I have always found the dark master's tones to be vexing, so I was pretty amazed at just how easily I am able to dial in a mirror image of the Deepest of Purples. That is why I have no complaints, and only kudos to offer about this fine, fine, fine piece of gear. No matter what I asked it to do - it did, and exceptionally.

I'm sorry if you find this a bit wordy, or shall I say verbose, but like I said, this may be the finest distortion device I have ever found, and I think its story deserves to be reasonably complete.

My thanks to the Goran Custom Guitar Staff, Goran, Lance Lopez, and Fabrizio Grossi!

All quotes used for this review are available online, and in no way imply an endorsement of the reviewed article!

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