The Sunday Papers

Rat Tales: The Origins and Evolution of Pro Co’s Little Black Box

By Andy Perrin | November 24, 2017

Riff City Sunday Papers Vol.1 No.16

Whether it’s the pristine jet black edifice of a reissue or the rusted and cracked paint of an original, the Pro Co Rat has a look and tone all its own. In many ways, however, the sounds that have earned the Rat a place among the pantheon of overdrives began with a happy accident deep underground.

In the mid-1970s, Scott Burnham found himself working for a guitar accessories company in Kalamazoo, Michigan. While the company was known for cables, direct input boxes, and other essential yet hardly sensational gear items, what put them on the map was Burnham’s experimental design involving a distortion pedal. With ambitions of making a hard-driving fuzz effect, Burnham began toying with some relatively simple circuit designs. Gain, filter, and volume, a seemingly straightforward recipe. That is, until you accidentally swap in the wrong resistor. Zap! In an interview with the New York Times a few years back, Burnham recalled attaching the wrong component to his board and hearing a shrieking, aggressive, distorted fuzz. “This is something I have never heard,” he recollected. That sound and inadvertent innovation marks the birth of the Pro Co Rat.

With a prototype in place the first wave of production level Rat pedals were released by 1978. The so-called “Bud Box” pedal was released in a whopping production of a dozen pedals. These early models were entirely hand-built, from the drilled holes to circuitry. Between 1979-1981 the lineup came into its own with a proper build and launch of “The Rat.” Still all black, save for the now iconic white logo, and still sporting just “distortion,” “tone,” and “volume” knobs to put you in touch with the edge of the original. In 1982, Pro Co released the second version of the Rat, which marked a major evolution in the design. In place of the EQ “tone” knob Pro Co opted for a “filter” dial that cut high-frequencies out. Over the years and decades that followed, Pro Co would continue to innovate this little black rodent box with iterations on their classic design. As with any pedal’s rise to fame, an army of clones quickly marshaled in the Rat’s wake. These days, Rat-inspired sounds include the Catalinbread Katzenkonig, Mooer Black Secret, and JHS All American.

The Rat’s rise to prominence ran parallel to the ascendancy of players across genres who found its overdrive infestation a welcome addition to their sounds. For example, the pedal featured prominently on Dave Grohl’s guitar sounds of the Foo Fighter’s first record, as it did previously in select tracks of Kurt Cobain’s grunge lines in Nirvana. The Rat also found fame nibbling at the feet of the likes of Jeff Beck, Joe Perry, and David Gilmour. More recent and versatile uses of the old school Rat include new school sounds of Ratatat as well as the soulful sounds of Hozier on the Grammy nominated song “Take Me To Church.”

While the gear industry has celebrated many milestones as of late, the Pro Co Rat deserves honorable mention for being an infestation that has persisted for almost four-decades. Just like vermin it’s named after, the Pro Co Rat just won’t go away!