Saturday January 14, 2012

The Boss DS-1 Distortion Pedal Review

In 1978 Boss Corporation released the Boss DS-1 Distortion Pedal, after having a huge success with a small range of compact guitar effects.  Depending on your point of view this was either a move of brilliance for the guitar industry or the unleashing of Hellspawn on Earth to an unsuspecting public. Whatever your opinion, the Boss DS-1 has ingeniously slipped into our psyche with classic anthems in particular Nirvana’s Smells like Teen Spirit and Joe Satriani’s Always with Me Always with You. Today the Boss DS-1 Distortion Pedal is a mainstay on a lot of budding guitarists pedal board due to its entry level price tag and easy availability.



The original 1978 Made in Japan (MIJ) had a Toshiba TA7136AP op-amp. This is known as the Silver Screw version and now commands a high price tag on eBay. This was superseded by the Boss DS-1 (MIJ) using a Rohm BA728N op-amp. Current Boss DS-1 pedals are Made in Taiwan (MIT) and use a Mitsubishi M5223AL op-amp.

Notable Users of the Boss DS-1

Boss DS-1

Boss DS-1

Some notable guitarists have used the including Satch, Vai and Petrucci; those crazy Italians! Steve Vai has used the Keeley modded Boss DS-1 in the past but now endorses his Ibanez made Jemini pedal, which allegedly is closer to a Tube Screamer. Joe Satriani has collaborated with Vox to introduce the VOX Satchurator which does sound similar to a Boss DS-1. More recently Satch introduced his new pedal the VOX Ice9 Overdrive pedal.

Joe Satriani's Settings

Tone 9 o'clock
Level 5 o'clock
Dist 2 o'clock


Steve Vai's Settings

Tone 11 o'clock 
Level 12 o'clock
Dist 10-11 o'clock 



Boss DS-1

Boss DS-1

Tone overall is thin and transitory. By itself the Boss DS-1 is harsh and brittle and is missing some roundness. There is however a nice 80’s type tone trying to claw its way out and I’ve managed to coax out some good tones by stacking another distortion or boost pedal before it using an equally affordable DigiTech Bad Monkey. On the upshot there is a hard crunch for rhythm. Depending on your guitar amp you might even get a reasonable tone out of it if your amp is of good quality to begin with. A tube amp will no doubt yield a fatter tone but the target audience that this pedal is aimed it is more likely that it’s going to be buddied with a 10 watt solid state practice amp.

This pedal gets loud. In fact to get it to its sweet spot the Volume knob has to be up to where it’s nowhere near bedroom levels anymore. The Tone knob is also not likely to go over 11 o’clock and that’s just with humbuckers. Single coils need to be EQ’d down a little else it’s far too bright. With the latest incarnation of the Boss DS-1 Distortion Pedal upping the Tone knob also incurs a noticeable volume boost. Some have suggested that it may be that the treble is just increased but I think clearly it is an actual volume spike. The Distortion knob at round the 3 o’clock mark will get you smooth distortion. Cranking to 5 o’clock gets fizzy quick. It’s probably too brittle and harsh but admittedly fun! I stacked a Wampler Pinnacle before the Boss DS-1 Distortion Pedal and the tone was quite useable. It was a very 80’s glam metal style tone. But that’s definitely more to do with the Wampler but all the same the Wampler does not do this tone alone.

I am not a purist that needs to have custom interconnects or power conditioners but there is some severe tone sucking of other pedals going on. Even when off there is a significant tone loss exhibited by other pedals. Obviously at this price it’s not going to include true bypass but buyers need to be aware of this. Not only that, but if you’ve spent a small fortune on replacing those noisy single coil pickups with custom humcancelling ones, well this pedal will reintroduce that hiss back in. It’s fairly noisy.


Boss DS-1 Battery Compartment

Boss DS-1 Battery Compartment

Like all Boss pedals the is built like an Abrams tank. A ballistic missile would probably bounce off it. This pedal won’t ever fall apart from heavy abuse. Probably why modders have a hard time Dremelling it. Also unlike those pretty boutique pedals, the Boss flip up battery compartment is well-located and has become the defacto standard of mass production effects pedals.


The Boss DS-1 Distortion Pedal has found new life as the poster boy for stompbox modders. There are several variations of mods available, the most famous being the Keeley mods. The schematics can be downloadable or you can buy the modded pedal online. If you already own this pedal and handy with a soldering iron it could be a good opportunity to experiment with some modding. The Analog man Super mod is $60 and the Pro is $65. New pedals are also available with the PRO mod for $105.

More interesting than the mods itself are the names given to these mods: Seeing Eye Mod, Ultra Mod, Fat Mod, Fuzz Central Mod, DS-1/Super mod, pre-’94 “Vintage” Tone mods and my personal favourite the Meat Lover’s Mod!  If only Apple were that imaginative; the iBoss mod?

I have not personally played a Boss DS-1 Distortion Pedal with a Keeley mod but going by the YouTube videos they do not seem drastic enough to improve the tone quality. At the most the Keeley just sounds even louder. Granted YouTube’s quality isn’t that informative but it would be hard to expect a few of cap swaps to improve the tone that greatly. Given the price of a Keeley DS-Ultra mod is $129 (includes the pedal) that’s comparative to the price of a boutique pedal such as the M.I. Audio Crunch that will also incorporate true bypass.

Other Similar Pedals

  • DigiTech Hot Head Distortion Guitar Effects Pedal New: $49.95
  • DigiTech HardWire TL-2 Metal Distortion Pedal $99
  • Ibanez Jemini Steve Vai Distortion Pedal $199.99
  • Vox Joe Satriani Satchurator Distortion Guitar Effects Pedal $129.99


Boss DS-1

Boss DS-1

Boss is usually considered the lowest common denominator in pedal manufacturers and the Boss DS-1 Distortion doesn’t help extinguish that reputation.  This pedal is not completely without merits. The tone is near likeable and has an 80’s drive sound but it needs to achieve this with some help. A tube amp is the way forward. Another way to get a thicker meatier sound without getting out your soldering iron is to stack it with another boost pedal.

Sadly I can’t recommend the Boss DS-1 Distortion Pedal out of the box and I’d be hesitant to buy a modded one given the price overlaps many superior boutique pedals. If you are really intent on tone chasing the Vai sound then a Keeley modded Boss DS-1 is justifiable. But if you are a beginner looking for an entry level pedal you might want to check out a DigiTech Hot Head, Boss Metal Zone or similar.


  • 80’s tone
  • Affordable
  • Indestructible
  • Easy access to battery
  • Moddable


  • Not True Bypass
  • Tone sucking
  • Thin and transitory sounding


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