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2010 Premier Gear Awards

2010 Premier Gear Awards

Need help finding the perfect tone machine to give that special guitarist on your gift list this holiday season (or to drop hints to your loved ones)? Then you’re in the right place. Here we look back at the guitars, amps, stompboxes, and accessories that made 2010 a fantastic year to be engaged in “the relentless pursuit of tone.”

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.

Street $999

Jaguar Junior

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.

Street $1747

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.”

Street $2680

SkinPimp MKIII

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.

Street $250

Next-Level Innovators

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.

BilT Guitars Relevator

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)

Jens Ritter Instruments Princess Isabella Baritone

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.

Street $10,000

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.

Street $459

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.

Street $299

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.

Street $99

Taylor Baritone 8-String Acoustic

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?

Street $3199

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!

David Munn Small Jumbo

“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?

Street $3200

Flammang Grand Concert

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.”

Street $249

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.

Street $299

PRS Ted McCarty DC 245 Limited Run

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.”

Street $3395

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.”

Street $269

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.

Street $399

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.

Street $2250

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!

Street $1795

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.”

Street $195

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.

Street $177

Godin ICON Type 3

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.”

Street $1395

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.”

Street $249

Lovepedal RedHead

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!”

Street $199

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.”

Street $4599

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

T-Rex Octavius

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.

Street $279

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!

Street $399

Do-It-All Marvels

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.”

Street $899

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.”

Street $1799

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.

Street $219