Released first in 1978, the Boss DS-1 has been the driving (no pun intended) force behind some of the most popular guitar sounds for the past (almost) four decades. Guitar greats like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, John Frusciante, Rivers Cuomo, and Kurt Cobain have all used the DS-1 to great effect (pun definitely intended), but like all musical gear – what works for some won’t work for all.
For this Boss DS-1 review, let’s take a look at the features and sounds of this ubiquitous distortion pedal and see if it is worth the price of admission!
Boss DS-1 Features
While I don’t think that anyone would call the DS-1 a “feature-packed” pedal, I really think that its simplicity may be one of its greatest assets. The official Boss DS-1 page lists its feature set as follows:
- Classic BOSS Distortion tones for guitar and keyboard
- Reproduces dynamics of playing, from soft to hard
- Distortion, Level and Tone control to tailor overall sound as desired
- BOSS five-year warranty
Not exactly an exciting list (does anyone consider a warranty a feature?), but that’s what you get. In addition to the three knobs to control Tone, Level, and Distortion, the pedal also features a light to indicate on/off status and a low battery, and an input for a Boss PSA power supply if you don’t want to rely on batteries.
Boss DS-1 Controls
With lots of boutique pedals offering a variety of knobs and switches, the 3-knob arrangement on the DS-1 is both refreshing and straightforward.
The three knobs (Tone, Level, Distortion) are the same knobs that you find on many popular drive pedals (Tube Screamer, Big Muff, Boss’s BD-1 Blues Driver, etc.) and so any tonal adjustments are easy to do quickly and on the fly. If you use several different amps or guitars (or if you need to change your drive settings between songs) the single knob for Tone, Distortion, and Level make it easy to do quickly on a darkened stage.
For those guitarists looking for one pedal to do it all, the DS-1 may not look as versatile as something like the Fulltone Full-Drive 2 or the Mesa/Boogie Throttle Box EQ, don’t be fooled by appearance – sonic flexibility can’t just be measured by the number of knobs on a pedal!
Boss DS-1 Chassis and the Rest
If you’ve seen just about any Boss pedal, you know what they look like and how they are built. The small metal chassis and rugged footswitch mechanism of this pedal are well suited to the typical abuse a pedal takes while gigging.
About the only feature missing from this pedal is true bypass (more on this later, though). Despite the lack of true bypass, it sounds pretty good in an effects chain when it’s off, and the lack of true bypass shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.
And that’s it – as far as features go, it’s a pretty straightforward distortion pedal!
Boss DS-1 Sounds
Despite the lack of switches and knobs compared to some handmade, boutique drive pedals, one of the areas where the DS-1 shines is in its “versatile simplicity.” By that, I mean the ability for this pedal to change character and tone by rolling back the guitar volume, switching to a neck (or lower-output) pickup, or even modifying your pick attack (or using your fingers instead of the pick). I personally love this kind of versatility – it gets me to think about my playing technique instead of just mindlessly spinning knobs and flicking switches (though that’s fun too)!
As with any pedal, your specific guitar, amp, and your amp’s settings will control how this pedal sounds. From a Fender clean sound, though, I found that the tone control can make things either harsh or muddy, so there’s a good range of adjustment for any clean amp sound.
Put the Distortion knob around 12 o’clock, and the distortion is harmonically rich with a nice smooth sound. There is a bit of a mid-scoop, but some adjustment of the tone knob can really dial in the sound quickly for just about any musical situation shy of metal. The nice thing about this middle setting for the Distortion level is the pedal still cleans up well at lower volumes while sounding still maintaining its distorted character when the guitar is turned all the way up. You can also hear individual strings at this setting, making distorted arpeggios and single lines clear instead of mush. Setting the Distortion knob higher – around 3 or 4 o’clock – will add in a little bit of fizz with the extra distortion as well adding some compression for a bit more sustain.
Set the Distortion knob lower, and the DS-1 can also be a great solo boost pedal for an already overdriven amp. Keeping the Distortion level high when plugging into a distorted amp can also work, depending on the sound you are after.
At all but the highest Distortion and Level settings, the DS-1 remained fairly quiet.
Needless to say, the “simple versatility” of this pedal right out of the box is what makes it such a great addition to any pedalboard – but that’s only half the story!
Boss DS-1 Modifications
Since the DS-1 has been on sale for almost forty years, it’s an easy pedal to find. Combine that with its relatively low cost, and the DS-1 is a modder’s paradise.
There are websites dedicated to changes that you can make with a soldering iron and a few dollars worth of capacitors, resistors, and diodes that can totally change the way this pedal sounds. From JCM-like Marshall tones to a more modern distortion (and everything in between) there are mods for it! There are also mods to turn the pedal into a true-bypass pedal when it’s off, but I think the tonal changes are the real modifications worth considering.
If you want to change the pedal but don’t know a soldering iron from an ironing board, there are even companies that will take your DS-1 pedal and perform all the magic themselves – often with only a week or two turnaround time!
Boss DS-1 Summary and Verdict
If you are looking for a quality distortion pedal at a (very) reasonable price, I don’t think that you can do much better than the DS-1.
It’s versatile and responsive to your playing style, it’s easy to dial in, it’s durable, it’s inexpensive, and if (when) you do get tired of it, you can modify its tonal characteristics to dial in your tone even further – all for less than the cost of many boutique distortion pedals! And when it gets beaten up, tossed around, or loaned to a friend and never returned you can just go down to the local music store and pick up another one!