For many guitarists, the name Dave Friedman
doesn’t have the cachet of, say, Eddie Van
Halen or Jerry Cantrell. Yet without Friedman’s
helping hand, Van Halen and Cantrell—as well
as a host of other guitar heroes—wouldn’t
sound as good as they do onstage or in the
studio. Through his company, Rack Systems,
Friedman has been building, modding, and
repairing gear for some of the world’s biggest
stars for the past 25 years. Rack Systems specializes
in high-grade, roadworthy switching
systems and large rackmount rigs. Friedman’s
innovative designs have made him legendary
in the world of professional touring musicians,
and the meticulous construction of his Rack
Systems gear has earned him a loyal clientele.
One of Friedman’s services is modifying amps,
and his extensive experience in this area has not
only helped him create great rigs for top players,
it has also led him to develop a brand-new
series of production amplifiers that are available
exclusively through Tone Merchants. This is a
first for Friedman, who is normally accustomed
to working with major acts on a one-on-one
basis. In the past, having Friedman build or mod
an amp for you required a level of notoriety, but
now his sonic wizardry is available to everyday
players in the form of two models.
The first, the Brown Eye, is a 100-watt high-gain
monster. The second, the Naked, is
actually a reissue of a highly sought-after
amp Friedman built 10 years ago for one of
rock’s premier guitarists. Recently, I got the
opportunity to dig into both of these heads,
and I can report that each is a stunning example
of electric guitar amplification.
At first glance, the Brown Eye head could easily
be mistaken for a modded, late-’60s plexi (and
its nameplate reads “Friedman”). Visually and
sonically, the Brown Eye is firmly rooted in the
tried-and-true Marshall Super Lead of yesteryear,
with a very aggressive voicing, plexiglass
panels, and a large head box. But Friedman
takes these influential traits a step further with
a handful of available options you can add to
the standard production circuit. Our review unit
arrived with all options installed. Boasting a
ferocious growl, this handmade amp is the ultimate
expression of what Friedman likes to hear.
The Brown Eye’s front panel will be familiar
to anyone who has played a Super Lead.
The controls consist of a 3-band EQ (Treble,
Middle, Bass), dual volume knobs (Volume I
and Volume II), and a single Presence control.
Like the venerable Marshall Super Lead, the
amp sports four inputs. However, our review
unit swaps two of these input jacks for a pair
of knobs labeled Clean and Gain. Friedman
calls this option the Simple Clean Channel
mod, and it gives the Brown Eye two independent
channels. Using these knobs, you
can set clean and overdrive levels and then
toggle between them with a footswitch.
Volume I and Volume II function as independent
master volumes in this scenario, which
is really cool because it allows you to set
two separate volume settings if you want to
kick in a boost for a solo or bring the volume
down with a simple foot stomp.
Each of the Brown Eye’s two inputs has its own
voicing—but they’re not simply high- and lowgain
versions of the same circuit, as you’d find
on stock ’60s Marshalls. Friedman calls these
inputs “Brown Eye” and, ahem, “Hairy Brown
Eye.” Both are hotter than a vintage-style circuit,
with Hairy offering the hottest signal.
Using a dual-button footswitch, I was able
to easily move between a raging high-gain
tone, a smooth-and-loud clean sound, and
a volume-boosted iteration of the high gain
channel. The Brown Eye’s clean tone blew my
mind. If you’ve ever played through a healthy,
late-’60s Marshall, you’ll know what I’m talking
about, because there really is nothing
else quite like that clean tone. Few of us are
lucky enough to own a vintage Super Lead,
so it’s exciting to know that these huge, biting
sounds are available in a new amp. Being
able to switch between high-gain and huge
clean timbres is a real treat.
Compared to its companion, the Hairy input
has a slight gain boost, yet when I plugged
a 1978 Gibson Les Paul Custom into this
input, I noticed more of a difference in feel
than tone. The added saturation made it a
little more difficult to coax dynamics out of the amp, but it was still possible to drastically
change its response by rolling back the guitar’s
As I mentioned, PG’s review unit arrived with
all of Friedman’s available modifications.
Other than the Clean and Gain knobs that
constitute the Simple Clean Channel mod,
these extras are accessed on the back panel.
First in line is a Fat switch, which thickens up
the low end to help fill out rhythm parts. I
liked this because it didn’t increase the gain
at all. Engaging the Fat switch livened up
the tone from a Tele without adding grit to
its spanky sound. This simply helped the Tele
project better across the room.
Adjacent to the Fat switch is another switch
that controls Friedman’s Custom 45 response
mod. Flipping this switch smoothed out the
tone a bit more, while adding a bit of chime
and openness to the highs.
When I was ready to hear what sorts of gain
this monster could muster, the next control,
Sat (saturation boost), helped me do so—in
spades. Throwing the Sat switch, I immediately
understood why Steve Stevens and Jerry
Cantrell are using the Brown Eye in their rigs.
The pure, raw aggression lunging from the
amp was staggering, to say the least. Low
notes were super tight and punchy, and the
highs carried a really nice sting.
As far as midrange voicing, I think you’d be
hard-pressed to best the Brown Eye’s overdrive.
With all the versatility and power it offers, what
really sets it apart is its Presence control. The
knob doesn’t simply boost highs and add shimmer,
it adds more girth, dimension, gain, and
perceptible volume. Taming the Brown Eye’s
high-gain settings only required lowering the
Presence knob, which softened the high-end
response and eased off the screaming gain a
bit. It’s as if you have a retractable muzzle, with
the higher settings pulling back the mask to let
the razor-sharp mids and highs bite through.
With the gain channel, Friedman reveals his
intense love of vintage-Marshall-flavored overdrive,
but what about those lovely old plexi
cleans? I was really curious about this, because
my favorite clean tones have come from sweet
vintage Marshalls. I’m happy to report that
the Brown Eye nails the distinctive, percussive
tones that plexi amps are known for.
Thanks to the Simple Clean Channel mod, I
could adjust the preamp gain in tandem with
the master volume. There’s nothing in the world
like standing in front of an old plexi set clean,
and forcefully hitting a bunch of chords in succession.
The sound hits you in the chest in a
way that no other amp can duplicate, but the
Brown Eye gets really, really close. Armed with
my Les Paul, I got wicked midrange punch and
a solid low end, but with a slightly hi-fi edge to
the upper frequencies. The detailed highs were
especially noticeable with a Telecaster. I wouldn’t
say it was a sonic detriment, but rather an unexpected
result. The slightly modern edge of the
amp’s clean sound might turn off some players
who like bouncier, spongier tones. That said, the
Brown Eye’s spectacular clean voice—which has
massive amounts of headroom—is muscular and
rings evenly throughout the guitar’s range.
The Final Mojo
With the Brown Eye, Dave Friedman has
packed decades of circuit design and modification
know-how into a head that represents the
finest Marshall-inspired tones he can muster.
Players who gravitate toward amps with a
strong upper-midrange spike and immediate
attack should really take a look at the Brown
Eye. If you love the pure aggression of a
healthy, late-’60s plexi, yet demand modern
features like channel switching, the Brown Eye
is extremely hard to beat.
you want one of the finest representations
of classic and modern
British high-gain tones available.
you want a traditional
|Street $3000 100-watt head; $2800 50-watt head; options from $50-$500 - Rack Systems - tonemerchants.com