2010 Premier Gear Awards
November 16, 2010
As you peruse Premier Guitar gear reviews, you probably notice that just about everything we review in these pages is pretty cool in some respect. Some things that pass through our hands, however, are above and beyond amazing. If they don’t blow our minds or stagger us with their beauty the minute we extract them from their case, bag, or shipping box, they knock us dead when we pick ’em or plug ’em in. These special few receive our prestigious and coveted Premier Gear Award.
The 31 products that received awards in 2010 are a wonderfully varied lot. There are some of the usual suspects—manufacturers like Fender, Taylor, Martin, and PRS that seem to brew up an exceptionally sweet-sounding something every year—but there are lots of new faces and little guys too. Companies like BilT, Strymon, and Elite Tone, as well as luthiers like Jens Ritter, David Munn, and David Flammang who embody the convergence of artistry and craftsmanship that’s possible when an individual is possessed by the drive to create something extraordinary.
Some products, like the TC Electronic PolyTune and the Ultimate Ears 4 Pro in-ear monitors solve musical and performance problems with a smart and practical approach, while others—like the Tone Box Skull Crusher and BC Audio No. 7 amp—are both great sounding and positively bizarre.
What they all have in common is something of our own raison d’être—the power to unlock sounds in our heads and fingers, and to point the way in our quest for the perfect performance, tone, or tune. We’ll be surprised if among these prizes—which we’ve divided into five categories—you don’t find an important piece of your own musical puzzle.
Back to Basics
Like things old school? These hot pieces of gear not only give you access to timeless sounds, but are dead simple too—the kind of simple that keeps you playing instead of twiddling knobs. So quit thinking and start jamming! These tools will help you do the talkin’.
Fender ’57 Champ
Even when you’re Fender, it’s tough to top a legend. But sometimes coming close can yield amazing results. That’s certainly the case with the ’57 Champ—a reissue of one of the mightiest little amps ever built. While Fender Champs of several eras might make short lists of the best recording amps ever, the 5-watt, 6V6-driven 5F1 circuit on which this reissue is based is treasured for its class A circuitry and lack of negative feedback loop. In practical terms, that gives the ’57 Champ (January 2010) an impressive combination of low end and punch. To reviewer Bob Goffstein’s ears, “the volume was beyond what I would expect from 5 watts.” And he found the proprietary Weber Alnico speaker “punchy and sweet.” Goffstein also used the ’57 Champ in the studio and for re-amping purposes—which reminded him “why every studio needs a Champ.” Add to all this a sweet, down-to-the-letter, period-correct, tweed-covered cabinet and handwired circuitry, and it’s easy to see why so many players have welcomed this little gem back with open arms.
The Jaguar Junior (May 2010) is an amp for folks who like things easy. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t do a lot. In fact, the Jaguar is one of the amps that seem to have a little something funny going on somewhere behind the curtain (if we may reference the Wizard of Oz). It seems way louder than its 17 watts, and it’s got a much wider sonic palette than its Master Volume, Volume, and Tone knobs would suggest. It even has a Pentode/Triode switch that enables you to power the amp down to 7 watts. As reviewer Pat Smith found out, it’s got a startling amount of headroom. He was moved to note that “set for clean, it is everything you’d want: big, fat, tight bass response with a clear-but-not-harsh top end. Jazzers who like tubes will really dig the Junior. The touch sensitivity is very good, and you can get such a nice dynamic range here.” He had a lot of fun dialing up dirtier tones with the Master Volume, and he remarked how much tone variation could be achieved with crafty use of a guitar’s volume knob and on the earthy distortion tones available with guitar volume wide open. Smith described the dirty Jaguar as “classic, gritty grind—think Billy Gibbons or George Thorogood.” Combine that with enough clean headroom to do everything from jazz to jangle, and you’ve got one very versatile kitty.
Nik Huber Krautster
Some of the most timeless and unquestionably coolest electric guitars ever are the dead simplest. Guitars like the Telecaster and the Les Paul Jr.—they don’t get any simpler. And most attempts to improve on that formula attempt to do so by making matters more complex. That’s why we love the Nik Huber Krautster (May 2010) so much. This mahogany slab of subtle simplicity makes no apologies for its lack of frills. And it even ups the simplicity ante on the Tele and the Jr. by eliminating a tone control. But that doesn’t mean the Krautster skimps on craft. No mein freund, this dressed-down and mighty German is flawlessly crafted with a gorgeous curly maple neck that meets the body in an impeccably designed and executed heel joint, and it resonates like a mother even when unplugged. It does have one dirty little secret, and that’s a volume knob that also works as a coil-splitter, turning the Häussel humbucker into a single-coil. An affront to simplicity? We think not. It sounds too dang cool. Reviewer Chris Burgess found the Krautster “extremely sensitive to touch and playing dynamics,” and he noted that, with the Volume knob all the way up and an amp primed with gain, the Krautster “simply shines.”
The Mk. III Tone Bender was one of most essential ingredients in Jimmy Page’s early ’70s tone recipe. Like most fuzzes of its day, it was not a complex circuit, but its beautiful simplicity gave shape to some of the most iconic hooks and licks in the rock encyclopedia. So it’s always a surprise that there aren’t more Mk. III clones out there—and that makes it even more of a treat when a really magnificent one like the SkinPimp MKIII (February 2010) comes along. While the Skin Pimp MKIII yields access to the sounds that sent Zeppelin aloft, there’s also a 3-way Frequency toggle that helps tailor the MK III for more contemporary distortion settings. MKIII tester Jordan Wagner used the toggle to “dial in some of the most fantastic, midrange-heavy fuzz this side of Master of Reality.” Needless to say, Wagner also found the MKIII capable of the classic snarl that makes vintage pedal junkies seek out the original Mk. III. He remarked on the note articulation, raspy bite, and “one of the best vintage Jimmy Page tones I’ve ever come across, including that sharp bite Page had in his pick attack that is so elusive in fuzz pedals of today.” A whole lotta love, indeed.
For those of us that see the guitar as a tool—or a blank canvas—of limitless possibility, it’s heartening to see there are still thirsty creators, inventors, and mad scientists bending, stretching, pushing, and sometimes breaking the design and technology envelope. And in some cases, these outside-the-box thinkers may change the way we play forever.
The ’60s were awash with exciting, bizarre new guitar gadgetry. And the drive to build a guitar that could do it all was a bug that bit even the most legendary builders. Fender was no exception. And though Leo never lost his noodle in the manner of the mad scientists at Tiesco Del Rey or Vox, he did have his Marauder—a guitar much too laden with contraptions (by Fender standards, at least) to ever see the light of day. Amazingly, BilT Guitars has helped realize that most radical expression of Leo’s vision in a most practical way in the form of the Relevator (December 2009 web exclusive), a Frankensteinian amalgam of Jaguar, Jazzmaster, Marauder, and Starcaster designs, with a touch of Swiss Army knife versatility a la Vox’s Starstreamer. In fact, there’s not a lot the Relevator won’t do. With built-in delay, fuzz, and modulation (the latter two can be pretty radically tailored by trim pots that supplement the standard controls), it lets you explore textures from the subtle to the insane. And the Relevator is packed with top-quality components like a Mastery bridge and Duncan Antiquity Jaguar and Jazzmaster pickups that enhance playability. Reviewer Chris Burgess summed up his experience with the Revelator thusly: “I can’t even speculate on how many hours the Relevator has taken from me; it matters little, since I was blissfully unaware of them passing, and I wouldn’t ask for even five minutes back.” With all the gizmos this guitar packs, it’s not like he had a choice.
MSRP $2200 (as reviewed)
First things first: This Jens Ritter Princess Isabella Baritone is one rare bird. But scarcity is far from the only thing that makes this guitar a treasure. The Princess Isabella (June 2010) embodies the vast design potential of the electric guitar, the sonic possibilities of odd-scale instruments, and what you can achieve when you think of a solidbody guitar as sculpture. Few things about the Isabella are what you’d expect. The body is exceptionally thin—about an inch thick—which means the f-hole isn’t an f-hole at all. There’s a tailpiece that’s gold-plated by a German jeweler, a Häussel pickup that uses rare-earth magnets to achieve its low profile, and a 24-karat gold-plated backplate. Yeah, it’s ostentatious and over the top, but it’s got soul and sounds beautiful! Reviewer Pat Smith found the Isabella’s tone to be remarkably organic and acoustic sounding, noting that it has “more sustain than an archtop, but retains a seemingly delayed attack very much like a traditional jazz guitar.” After playing it in baritone B-to-B tuning, Smith said the super-resonant swamp-ash body “really rattles your teeth—in the good way.” A low-end rumbler and an exquisite jazz machine all in one. Yes, its 10 grand, but in both form and function, the Princess Isabella Baritone is as fascinating and full of expression as a guitar can be.
Moog MF-105M MIDI MuRF
Who, apart from the grumpiest music purist, doesn’t love a Moog? From the earliest gigantic monster synths to the newest Moogerfooger pedals, Bob Moog’s creations, and those of the company that now bears his name, have helped create some of the most original music ever recorded. With the Moogerfooger MF-105M Midi MuRf (May 2010), Moog shares the wealth of extreme tone-tweaking experience with guitarists again. And for those bold enough to wade into these waters, the rewards are bountiful—if twisted—indeed. The MF-105M Midi MuRF is a multiple resonance filer array, which is likely alien speak to anyone apart from dedicated synth heads. In simpler terms, the Midi MuRF enables you to create everything from subtle, frequency-specific modulation effects to cranium-twisting, space-time-folding LFO effects. The MIDI capabilities—too deep to list here—enable interfacing with sequencers, drum machines, and other MIDI devices, as well as activation of filters if you have a pickup-to-MIDI interface. Reviewer Brian Barr “had great fun creating everything from choppy rhythms to resonant soundscapes” using the Midi MuRF. The worlds you’ll create are likely limitless.
Strymon El Capistan dTape Echo
The bias against digital stompboxes has faded in recent years. But the Strymon El Capistan (November 2010) may have what it takes to knock down the very last bricks in that wall of resistance. It ambitiously attempts to deliver every possible permutation of sound that you could get out of an old analog tape echo machine—from the aural irregularities and glorious signal degradation to the quirks of multiple playback heads— in a single DSP-based stompbox. And the extent to which it succeeds is amazing. One of the beautiful things about the El Capistan is that it emulates the analog charms of tape echoes and gives players access to crystalline digital delay colors with equal aplomb. And it enables variations on the two that are damn near otherworldly. You could spend years exploring the El Capistan and never uncover every flavor of delay within. In comparing the El Capistan with a vintage version of the legendary Roland Space Echo, reviewer Jordan Wagner found that “the pedal’s feel, response, and overall tone were often every bit as musical and organic as its venerable ancestor.” He also discovered that when he “needed a little more clarity to go with the irregularities and character, the El Cap delivered in ways the Space Echo could not approach.” If this pedal doesn’t sell you on what DSP can do, we don’t know what will. But for the open-minded, the El Capistan might just extend their playing voice to an intergalactic level.
TC Electronic PolyTune
Beyond making sure a tuner works accurately and is legible in performance conditions, few of us give much thought to that unremarkable but indispensible box at the head of our pedalboard. It’s safe to assume that even fewer of us sit around waiting for a minor revolution in tuning pedals. But players of all stripes sat up and took notice this year when TC Electronic delivered the PolyTune (April 2010). If you’ve never been jazzed about a tuner, this little number will likely change that. What makes the PolyTune different are its polyphonic capabilities. It can detect pitch for all six strings—simultaneously—as well as display whether they’re flat or sharp and register your corrections on the fly with an automatic switch to monophonic or single-string mode. For anyone who has ever heard their tuning go sour on stage and not been certain of the culprit, the PolyTune has the potential to save a lot of time and embarrassment. And while, for now, it only works in standard tuning (which can be transposed down by as much as a fourth to accommodate dropped and B-B baritone tunings), the PolyTune has already drastically changed the way many players tune onstage—and its USB port enables you to download future software updates (including new tuning compatibilities) from TC.
One of Taylor’s first big breakthroughs came via the magic of octave strings, most specifically when Neil Young took the stage on his well-documented Rust Never Sleeps tour with a 12-string from the then-new company. So it’s no surprise that, three-plus decades later, the little San Diego luthierie outfit that became a guitar industry giant is still dabbling with the expressive potential of octave strings. And with the 8-String Baritone (January 2010)—which features octaves on just the third and fourth strings—Taylor proves they’re still willing to dabble with unconventional instruments. Gayla Drake Paul, despite having a declared reticence to fool with the extra-long scale of a baritone, found it “extremely ergonomic” and even “cuddly.” And predictably, this big Taylor turned out to be a harmonic-hurling tone monster. Paul found that flatpicking brought out “a lovely, warm-but-shiny sound, like polished gold at sunset,” and that fingerstyle work could be easily colored with octave accents without overpowering a tune. Most of all, Paul found the Taylor 8-String Baritone “endlessly inspiring.” And what more could any of us ask from a guitar, no matter how many strings?
Refined And Luxurious
Call them sublime. Masterful. These are pieces of gear that ooze excellence in the categories of craft, execution, and performance. They’re either put together like the Parthenon, sound like the gods singing from Mt. Olympus, or leave us shaking our heads at their engineering brilliance. And they’re the kind of gear you end up being unable to live without or insist on taking to the grave!
“Small jumbo?” you ask incredulously. We say, “Who cares what you call it when it sounds this good?” Dimensions (and related puns) aside, this latest work from David Munn’s shop is a beautiful convergence of gorgeous tonewoods (padauk and Sitka spruce) and playability-enhancing design—most notably a Manzer wedge that makes this big-bodied 6-string much more comfortable to play. Gayla Drake Paul was understandably effusive when it came to describing her playing experience with the Small Jumbo (July 2010). She found it “brilliantly velvety and shimmeringly warm,” adding “this guitar takes my breath away every time I pick it up. It has fantastic low end. There’s bass to burn, but it’s so clean—there’s not a bit of mud to be found.” Smooth and balanced, the Small Jumbo proved ideal for recording. And Paul found it equally suited for alternate-tuning fingerstyle work or strumming. So, with this much tone and versatility, does it really matter what oxymoronic moniker it bears?
Sometimes there’s just no purer embodiment of guitar art than a beautiful, well-built, perfectly proportioned acoustic. And that’s certainly what we got in the Flammang Grand Concert (March 2010), an elegant and understated Carpathian Spruce and Brazilian rosewood beauty that sounded like a slice of heaven. Gayla Drake Paul was bowled over by her experience of playing the Flammang, saying “this is what guitars are supposed to sound like: rich and brilliant, full and warm with no nasal midrange, and no mushy, muddy bottom end. Just play an open chord, like an Em7, and let it go.” And while the Flammang Grand Concert is most likely intended for fingerstylists, Paul found it to be a great vehicle for flatpicking, as well as an even-voiced tone machine tailor-made for the microscope of the recording studio—and free of “crunchy or snotty overtones” or “unmanageable boominess.”
MSRP $7900 (as reviewed)
Jetter Jetdrive Dual OD
With a lot of low- to medium-gain overdrives on the market, it’s not unusual to feel like you’ve got limited options. Not so with the dual-channel Jetter Jetdrive Dual OD (December 2009 web exclusive), which offers up a truly impressive palette of OD hues, superior responsiveness, and transparency that lets your amp do the things it does best. The Jetdrive’s two basic channels—the 6V6-ish “Blue” channel and the more Anglo-sounding “Green” channel—offer two distinct worlds of overdrive to work with. But with the capacity for one channel to drive the other (depending on which gain knob you set higher) and channel-specific Tone controls that can be used together for even more complex blends, the Jetdrive easily inhabits tonal territory all its own. Reviewer Michael Ross found that “sustained single-note bends bloomed into the kind of high harmonic found only in the best boutique amps,” and that humbuckers used with the blue channel “sent it to fat-city, without a trace of mud.” Ross summed things up by calling the Jetdrive a “two-channel boutique in a pedal.”
L.R. Baggs Anthem Tru-Mic Pickup System
Reviewer Gayla Drake Paul calls this dual-source acoustic system “a truly giant leap forward” for those who want their great-sounding acoustics to sound amazing even at ungodly stage volumes. Find out what sets it apart in this month’s full review.
It’s probably not a stunner to see a PRS McCarty among our Premier Gear award winners. After all, it’s a guitar that a gazillion players have lusted after since the model debuted in 1994. In its DC 245 Limited Run incarnation, however, the McCarty is outfitted with the company’s much-lauded 57/08 pickups, vintage-inspired aesthetic touches (like brushed-nickel pickup covers and an understated, slightly aged-looking smokeburst finish), and fancy touches (like bird inlays) that Smith incorporated as a special tribute to Ted McCarty, the former Gibson president and design pioneer. Reviewer Jordan Wagner couldn’t find enough ways to praise the 57/08 pickups, calling them “utterly fantastic.” Over the course of evaluating the McCarty (April 2010 web exclusive), Wagner found that “midrange response from the pickups is very soft, but each frequency is audible and discernable, making them rather difficult to muddy up. Combined with tight, blooming lows and a very unique, singing high end, the whole package is just extraordinary.” And in the end, Wagner called the McCarty DC245 Limited an “extraordinary tribute from one visionary to another.”
Real McCoy Custom RMC8-Guitar Eqwahlyzer
Brad Plunkett’s mid-’60s design for the Italian Vox Clyde McCoy is widely regarded as one of the greatest wah circuits. And for many pedal makers, building a fair emulation of that iconic stomper would have been a major accomplishment. But Geoffrey Teese, the man behind Real McCoy Custom wahs, has always had the will and wizardry to constructively tinker with classic wah sounds. And the RMC8-Guitar Eqwahlyzer (November 2010) does a beautiful job of delivering the much-loved Plunkett/Clyde McCoy flavor, with equalization capabilities that enable you to customize the voice to your rig and style. The versatility doesn’t stop there, either. A toggle switch allows you to switch the sweep contour between a NOS Icar-taper pot and an expanded-range taper that’s reminiscent of an aged Icar-taper ROC-POT 5.2 wah pot. Reviewer Steve Ouimette loved the way the controls enabled him to modify the wah’s tone to better suit humbuckers, P-90s, and single-coils. And he remarked, “no matter what combination of guitars and amps I used, the RMC8 delivered in spades. The tone was always lush, the sweep was smooth and free of scratchiness, and the sonic flexibility was nearly unlimited. It can be easy to grow weary of a wah when it’s a one-trick pony. But there’s almost no end to what the RMC8 can deliver.”
Ultimate Ears 4 Pro Series Custom Monitors
Few performing musicians—even seasoned pros—warm up to in-ear monitors right off the bat. No matter how muddy a stage mix is, the same in-ear-monitor mix will usually sound—and feel—weirder. But as our reviewer John Bohlinger found, Ultimate Ears 4 Pro in-ear monitors (January 2010) are, how shall we put it . . . unnaturally natural. Bohlinger performed with the Ultimate Ears 4 Pro in settings including an open-air festival, an intermediate-sized club, and a recording studio, and he found them superior to wedge monitors or headphones in every instance. According to Bohlinger, had he “started with the UE 4 Pros, I would’ve stopped right there and saved myself lots of money and aggravation.” With everyone from the Rolling Stones to Van Halen in agreement, maybe we’ll have to start imagining a world without wedges.
Tried And True—With a Twist
There are a lot of ideas in the gear world that just plain work—and always will. The sounds they make are all but hardwired into our musical memories and subconscious, often because of how intricately they’re intertwined with classic songs and the tones of our heroes. But even the best ideas leave room for refinement, evolution, or variation. Each item in this category of Premier Gear winners bravely attempts to add something extra to these totems of great guitar thinking. And in every instance, they’ve gotten something really right.
3 Monkeys Grease Monkey
The 30-watt Grease Monkey (December 2009 web exclusive) is powered by four EL84 tubes and serves up a British flavor that’s truly gargantuan. Reviewer Gary Guzman noted that the Grease Monkey might have more accurately been called King Kong for its massive output. He also called it a “tonal monster,” noting its “extreme touch sensitivity and dynamic range.” Players that gravitate toward bare-bones amps will love the Monkey’s simple control set, which features Cut and Shape controls that enable a little more roar than an AC30 and a little more clean headroom than a Marshall. The Grease Monkey is one of the cooler-looking amps we’ve seen around the PG offices, too.
BC Audio Amplifier No. 7
You can pack a lot of stuff in an ammunition box—your baseball card collection, your guitar cables, and a couple stompboxes. But an amplifier? Naturally, there’s a lot more to Bruce Clement’s ammo box amp, dubbed the No. 7, than visual gimmicks. Reviewer Steve Ouimette found that the 15-watt, point-to-point-wired, 6V6-powered No. 7 (January 2010) had an exceedingly unique voice that sounded much more akin to an AC30 or a baby Marshall Super Lead than a 6V6-driven amp. He found headroom aplenty by simply rolling off his guitar’s tone control, but he was also able to drive the amp to saturated, Hendrixian heights by setting the amp’s controls to the max. Ouimette also found the BC No. 7 exceedingly pedal friendly when he ran octave dividers, fuzzes, and distortion boxes through it. “It’s like having a handful of your favorite classic tube amps at your fingertips but still hearing something new and fresh. This is an amp that you can play for hours and never get bored with.” Pass the ammo!
Creation Audio Labs Holy Fire
Tired of overdrives that suck tone and shrink the sound of your guitar and amp? The Holy Fire (April 2010) might just be the fix. Reviewer Steve Ouimette found it to be capable of tones ranging from warm and subtle overdrive to brutal fuzz perfect for wall-shaking stoner rock. But Ouimette also found that the Holy Fire never diminished bass response in return for high gain. He also found the Holy Fire to be exceedingly clean, remarking “the overdrive sound is thick without being muddy, and you can bring it up to the highest settings without adding significant noise. In fact, this pedal has got to be the quietest OD pedal I’ve ever heard.” Ouimette surmised that part of the Holy Fire’s quiet and fiery magic is attributable to the 48-volt power supply that comes with the box. But whether he was using it for thick gain or subtle overdrive, Ouimette found that the Holy Fire had a “unique ability to bring the best out of your guitar and amp.”
Elite Tone Fillmore Thunder
As legendary as the original Octavia octave fuzz is—especially to Hendrix disciples—it’s not a widely or readily understood effect. It’s a little bit hairy, alien, and random, which of course is why Jimi loved it—and why so few players in search of Jimi’s tone ever master it. The Fillmore Thunder (May 2010 web exclusive), a beautiful Octavia-style circuit from Elite Tone may not be much easier to get your head around, but a player with the patience to unlock this pedal’s many capabilities will find a wealth of Octavia tones that evoke Jimi’s sickest octave tones—and realms beyond, too. A Bias knob helps players dial in a less-compressed distortion than original Octavias, and a Gain control makes it easier to tailor the pedal to your guitar’s output. Together, they make the Fillmore Thunder a more expansive and capable take on the Octavia sound. Reviewer Kenny Rardin took this praise a step further, calling the Fillmore Thunder “the most controllable Octavia I’ve ever played.” He cited the unit’s exceptional flexibility, too, noting that “usually Octavias are used on the neck pickup and above the seventh fret; this one tracks well throughout the fingerboard and even works well on the bridge pickup.” Sounds to us like a true evolution of a revolutionary and timeless effect.
Godin has always packed a lot of value into their guitars, but the ICON Type 3—with its Lollar P-90s, rock-solid and super-clean construction, and clever High Definition Revoicer (H.D.R.) active-to-passive switching capability—is one of the most value-packed 6-strings we’ve seen in a long time. For starters, it’s a looker. It features a simple, elegantly sculpted mahogany body that steps off from Gibson design territory but employs an offset waist and smooth top carve to claim an aesthetic all its own. The chambered body also makes the guitar light and extremely comfortable to hold. Reviewer Gary Guzman found that the H.D.R. gave the ICON Type 3 (November 2010) greater punch and responsiveness in many situations and added presence and brilliance when needed. But he also found the simple combination of the Godin and the Lollar pickups a perfect match. “With or without the H.D.R., the Lollar P-90s had me hooked with their balance of midrange, clarity, and warmth. These pickups inhabit an ideal sonic space that’s brighter than a humbucker, yet has a fatter, thicker tone than a traditional single-coil that breaks up very smoothly with distortion.”
Kilpatrick Audio Vibro Man
Canada’s Kilpatrick Audio knows how to pack a lot of tricks into a single pedal. But few pedals by any manufacturer come close to packing as many truly useful and expressive tricks as the Kilpatrick Vibro Man modulation pedal (March 2010). Its ingenious circuit gives you not just delicious vibrato and tremolo effects, but also a vibrating bandpass filter that can be used in conjunction with the tremolo to produce mind-bending modulation madness. With such deliciously twisted modulations, it only makes sense that the Vibro Man also enables you to send your signal out in stereo for warped synchronization effects. It also includes a Touch switch that accentuates a given effect the harder you play. Reviewer Jordan Wagner said using the Tremolo and Vibrato together produced some of the coolest modulation effects he’d ever heard, noting that the Tremolo occupied a modulation sweet spot that was “not too soft, but certainly not too choppy.” But what impressed him most was the Vibro Man’s range: From subtle to seasick wobbly, its tones make it a “multi-function modulation powerhouse.”
Sometimes it seems tonehounds spend their whole lives trying to clean up their dirty tone. Fair enough. But sometimes we like our dirty a little more wild. That’s where the Lovepedal RedHead (September 2010 web exclusive) comes in. Steve Ouimette used the word “irreverent” to describe this pedal’s fiery voice. He also invoked the name of Billy Gibbons, a virtual patron saint of grease, sleaze, and attitude, as someone who would adore the RedHead’s snarling and delightfully boxy tone. In more aggressive settings, Ouimette used the RedHead to summon controlled harmonic feedback and create a bed for more Gibbon’s-like pinched-harmonic effects. Ouimette found the tone control very flexible and useful for adding bite and presence. He also found the RedHead to be the ticket for kicking his Stratocaster and Marshall into amp-blowing Blackmore territory, declaring with glee that the RedHead served up “the thickest, most badass attack I’d heard through my Marshall in years . . . the sound of the amp acting like it was going to give way at any second.” He also gave the RedHead what we consider high praise (at least when we’re in a dirty mood) when he emphatically declared, “This is not a subtle pedal!”
Martin OMC-LJ Pro Laurence Juber Custom Artist Edition
Martin’s OM is one of the greatest acoustic fingerstyle guitars ever designed—heck, it’s just about one of the greatest guitars period. And former Wings and studio ace Laurence Juber is as about as resourceful a guitarist as you’ll ever find. So the fact that the guitar that resulted from the collaboration between the two should end up a recipient of a Premier Gear award isn’t startling. But that doesn’t mean the OMC-LJ (January 2010 web exclusive) is lacking in surprises. Unlike previous Martin Laurence Juber models, the OMC-LJ Pro has a back and sides of maple—a tonewood that imparts a lot of warmth and detail but is more commonly seen on heftier, jumbo-bodied guitars. Reviewer Gayla Drake Paul loved the sonic qualities of the maple and it’s affect on her playing, noting that it had “incredible power, drive, and sustain, with lean but warm bass and plenty of sparkle. You put your hands on it and it starts to sing, and gives up its tone effortlessly. I still haven’t found a way to overdrive it and make it sound fuzzy or distorted.” She also found it amazingly versatile “This guitar rocks. Or whispers. You can make it sing like an angel or bark like a dog. You can play fingerstyle and you can flatpick. It loves open tunings, but sounds awesome in standard tuning.”
Rack Systems Brown Eye and Naked
Amp builder Dave Friedman’s takes on vintage Marshall sounds are informed by working with a very demanding clientele (among them Jerry Cantrell and Eddie Van Halen) but also by an interest in lending them a modern sound and feel. In the form of the 100-watt Brown Eye and Naked heads (September 2010), Friedman took two very bold, impressive, and successful steps toward that goal. Jordan Wagner found the plexi-inspired Brown Eye, with its Fat, Custom 45, and Saturation switches and Clean and Gain channels, to be the more flexible of the two. Noting that it was capable of biting, late-’60s- Marshall clean and saturated tones, Wagner remarked that “the pure, raw aggression lunging from the amp was staggering, to say the least.” The Naked, inspired by a Friedman modification of A Perfect Circle guitarist Billy Howerdel’s JMP 100, is (as the name suggests) the more straightforward affair. Designed for clarity, high gain, and improved touch sensitivity, the Naked impressed Wagner with its headroom and clean-channel tones, though it also had no problem driving into “raging Slayer territory.” With aesthetic nods to the very earliest Marshall heads and tones ranging from classic rock to modern metal, Friedman’s amps cover a lot of high-power Brit amp history and sonic territory.
Brown Eye Street $3500
Naked Street $3000
Octave pedals can take many forms. They don’t come in as many flavors as fuzz boxes perhaps, but they can run the gamut from chaotic and rhino-grunt-belching to harmonically precise and singing. The T-Rex Octavius (November 2010 web exclusive) has a foot in each world. And for having such a many-faceted identity, it might just become the octave pedal most likely to stay on your pedal board. The Octavius isn’t exclusively a dive-down or high-octave pedal. Instead, you can set volumes for separate high- and low-octave functions, which effectively allows you to create a three-octave tone that you can also boost for super-fat and rich lead work or leave clean for subtle texturizing. Out in front of a fuzz box, this thing can do major damage. But by itself it’s an exceptionally musical pedal that can make your guitar pop in a mix. Reviewer Oscar Jordan was able to “dial in all kinds of octave variations, going from subtle thickening of my stock guitar tone to crazy high-pitched stuff that sounded like my Strat suddenly becoming a 12-string.” Looking for one pedal to totally transform your tone vocabulary? The Octavius may be the ticket.
Tone Box Skull Crusher Overdrive
If there’s one thing rockers like, it’s a good skull. And, frankly, were amazed we haven’t seen a stompbox in a brain bucket before the Skull Crusher. Thankfully, when Tone Box got around to doing this most macabre stompbox deed, they made it sound amazing, too. The Skull Crusher (March 2010) is the brainchild of John Kasha, an expert on high-gain Marshall amp modifications. And as reviewer Steve Ouimette found out, it can turn a JCM 800 into a thick, singing beast. Switchable voicings—including, Clear, Ice, Chains, and Body—yield tone-shaping and switchable-gain capabilities that Ouimette likened to “stepping through a very effective tone stack that revoiced the Marshall for four totally usable and very different tones.” A Turbo Boost mode provides access to a super-high-gain boost full of harmonic sustain that is tailor-made for pinched harmonics and other modes of metallic expression. As Ouimette said, “rarely have I heard a pedal that so effortlessly let you be heard through the din. It’s like stepping above the band and proclaiming, ‘Here I am!’” As if having a glowing skull on your pedal board wasn’t enough!
There’s a certain species of gearhead with a weakness for the contraption that does everything. Not that we blame them—multi-channel amps mean fewer pedals to haul, leave behind, or break. Multifunction pedals lend performance versatility. And digital recording solutions can practically stuff Abbey Road in a box. What follows are some of the finest and most ambitious examples of Swiss Army-knife thinking we’ve seen at PG this year.
Digidesign Eleven Rack
Anyone who’s watched the evolution of the electric guitar business for very long has watched their share of do-everything products come and go. But, like the Pro Tools recording software it’s designed to work with, the Digidesign Eleven Rack (April 2010) has the potential to be a major game changer. The Eleven Rack is a full-featured recording interface that works seamlessly with the included Pro Tools LE software. But it’s also a standalone guitar-effects processor with 16 amp emulations, seven speaker simulations, and another eight microphone emulations. Its DSP is accelerated to eliminate latency, and it also has an effects loop so you can through your favorite stompboxes in the mix. The end result is a lot of creative flexibility and potential— everything from dialing in hundreds of tones onstage to trying countless textures while tracking. As reviewer Gary Guzman succinctly put it, “the Eleven Rack is an all-in-one solution for the modern guitar player, and it makes it easier than ever to record in the studio and perform live—while fully integrating the exact same sounds in both situations.”
Mesa/Boogie 2010 Multi-Watt Dual Rectifier
If you’re a player who needs power and flexibility and considers a wah very nearly one pedal too many, Mesa/Boogie may have just built your dream date. That’s what reviewer Lyle Zaehringer found out when he tested the monstrous Multi-Watt Dual Rectifier (August 2010 web exclusive)—which can operate between 50 and 100 watts, use either 6L6 or EL34 tubes (depending on a bias-switch setting), and cover everything from dirty Texas blues to high-gain metal. The three-channel Multi- Watt has more tone-shaping capacity than a lot of substantial pedalboards: Each channel features a switchable mode (Clean and Pushed on Channel One, and Raw, Vintage, and Modern on Channel Two) and can be set for 50- or 100-watt operation. Zaehringer found studio-ready clean tones at lower wattages, while high-wattage Modern settings propelled the Multi Watt into the shred zone. While players who are new to the Rectifier interface may find the Multi-Watt has a bit of a learning curve, Zaehringer stated that “such versatility makes the amp a good practical buy for guitarists who prefer not to have one amp per musical style.” And he summed up the Multi-Watt’s many merits with: “it would be a vast understatement to say that the Dual Rectifier is a flexible amp. It is the standard of tonal flexibility by which its competitors are judged.”
Source Audio Soundblox Pro Classic Distortion
There are pedals that just make sense for the guitarist on the go. You know, the player who contributes to three different projects and uses whatever amp is lying around the rehearsal studio or club they’re playing that night— the player who’s fed up with lugging around a 10-ton pedalboard all week. The Source Audio Soundblox Pro Classic Distortion (June 2010) is one of those magic back savers. It’s a digital distortion that packs convincing emulations of legendary stompboxes—from the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi and Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face to the Octavia and Solasound MK II Tone Bender—into a single, easy-to-use chassis. It also sports Tube Screamer-inspired overdrives, a clean boost section, and a Tube Drive setting that gives you a taste of that overdriven Marshall sound. And if all that weren’t enough fun, the Soundblox also works with the Hot Hand motion sensor—a wireless system built around a finger ring and an RF receiver that gives you the power to control effect parameters with a wave of your hand. Imagine that—your quasi-Page/Hendrix gesticulations applied to a practical musical purpose other than annoyance of your bandmates! There’s also an optional expression pedal for switching between presets. Reviewer Gary Guzman had a blast running through tones as varied as Brian May-style smooth distortion to Dimebag-like hyper gain settings and crazed Octavia settings. And no less than Adrian Belew has deemed the Soundblox one of the best distortions ever made.