Review: Fender Hammertone Distortion

Subscribe to Mixdown Magazine


Review: Fender Hammertone Distortion

hammertone distortion
Words by Luke Shields

Fender Australia | Price: $159

Not to gloat, dear reader, but I consider myself pretty lucky where gear ownership is concerned. Many of the sundry pedals spilling wantonly from both my go-to board and the drawers, shelves, and cupboard under the stairs where my cast-offs go were given to me by people who, misguidedly or otherwise, believed that I would use them wisely to make something of myself. The joke’s on them I guess, but I digress.

Read more product reviews here.

Like most guitar players who took up the sword any time in the last 30 years, my naive desire to look, be, and sound like Kurt Cobain was what set my fingers twitching all those years ago. With that in mind, my most coveted gift suggestion as a 14-or-so-year-old was a distortion pedal, really ANY distortion pedal, to plug in between my student pack guitar and amp and shred four chords at a time forever and ever, amen. One glorious Christian-come-Capitalist holiday, I unceremoniously unboxed what I later discovered had been affectionately dubbed ‘the worst distortion pedal ever’ and I was hooked. Every wishlist thereafter was incomplete without one noisemaker or another in prime position to add to my first, monotonal box of rock. 

Among effects, distortion has reigned supreme for the better part of a century. While clean tones bejewelled by lush time-based effects are enjoying another little bit of a renaissance of late, it shows no sign of relinquishing the throne, particularly for players looking for their first footswitch to fiddle with. Enter Fender’s new Hammertone Distortion in all its bristling, hefty glory.

The Hammertone line assumes an interesting place in Fender’s product line. At first glance, one could be forgiven for glossing over these austere, grey boxes, assuming that they are merely another smattering of the most mass appeal, oft-requested sounds as trotted out by just about everyone who has ever picked up a soldering iron. Au contraire, while there is indeed one of each of the main branches of the effect family tree present, their designers have made a point of sitting them just a little to the left of centre in the personality department. Attempting to make simple pleasures anew is thin ice that companies both great and small have fallen through time and time again. However, I am now four pedals deep in the lineup and have not been disappointed or thoroughly un-surprised yet.

The Hammertone Distortion is a prime example of that rubric. It has everything that the current trend towards ’90s revivalism dictates but with more range than you might expect. For the most part, it is pitched toward the more bass-heavy, gutsier end of the frequency spectrum, meaning that it should play well alongside Soviet-style fuzzes and the ilk with the greatest of ease. It is chiefly there to deliver a goliath, bristling wall of sound at the crest of the gain dial, ripe for all those groove-laden drop D riffs you’ve been itching to show the band in the week between jams. From there, I was also able to pull a fairly palatable, fiery, nasal, HM2-style squawk out of it, which is a commendable amount of range for something designed to be driven that hard. From Earth to Entombed in one fell swoop is no mean feat! 

Adding hair and punch to a roaring wave of gain is without a doubt its primary function, but like all good Fender fans, I wanted to know how it handled in the softer moments. While it didn’t quite pare back to Klon-style transparent overdrive territory, I was pleased to meet quite a handsome torn speaker sound at the lower end of the sweep which could be a tasty flavour if added to an already hearty sonic stew. 

God knows that in this day and age, dirt is well and truly embedded in the fibres of a very well-trod carpet. Surely by now, we’ve heard just about every colour of that rainbow! A big part of the reason why it has stayed on top for so long is that it is after all the first and deepest sonic well for us all to mine. Of the Three Dirty Stooges, distortion, overdrive and fuzz (or Larry, Curly, and Mo to their mother) the former has become maligned somewhat as a one-trick pony since its heyday in the late ’80s and into the ’90s. This may come down to the fact that many manufacturers producing classic distortion circuits have too long taken for granted the amount of versatility that players ache for in approaching this type of unit. I wonder if it is partially a matter of convenience resulting from design consistency, but I have a feeling all the dirtbags in the Hammertone series share a similar internal layout which has lent this particular machine a heightened sense of its own potential, which is a nice touch from Fender and the real success of this model.

The tone stack swings pendulously from almost brown-sound-territory, low-frequency oscillation to shrill, Banshee-like highs. You can zero in on your specific type of grit, doubly ensuring that this upstart will play nicely with the other members of your pedalboard personnel. It may not do absolutely everything imaginable but it handles a really broad range of heavy more effortlessly than most other pedals in its class.

If the Hammertone series were a flight of bullies leering menacingly at you across the schoolyard, the Distortion would be the overly-pierced, untamed one on the back flank obsessively flicking a butterfly knife around. It snarls, bellows, screeches and howls and makes no apology for doing so. After all, what flight of bullies is complete without its loose cannon making the evil and ruckus just that little bit less predictable.

Fender’s Hammertone Distortion may not be there to please everyone, but it has enough torture techniques of its own in its repertoire to make every adventure a hair-raising one.

Head to Fender for more information.