For all the power of modern processor chips, there’s one thing reverb pedals—and even high-end digital rack units—have trouble nailing, and that’s authentic spring-reverb sounds. Many come close enough to satisfy players who simply want a dash of the springy mojo that’s defined so much electric-guitar work since the 1960s, but the warmth and complexity of a cranked vintage Fender reverb—particularly the swooshiness of three-knob outboard units—remains elusive, even for those with 21st-century digital firepower.
Not being an engineer, I have no idea why it’s so tough to emulate such an antiquated technology. Maybe it’s because other reverb types primarily create the aural illusion of ambient spaces in various “sizes”—a feat that focuses on replicating the original signal at varying intervals and with different EQ shadings. Convincing spring-reverb emulation, on the other hand, must replicate the sonic je ne sais quoi derived from the mechanical process of routing a guitar signal through electrified springs. And of course the hot vacuum tubes driving many iconic reverb units are integral to the sound, too.
Whatever the reasons, getting a pedal to replicate the pleasing, asymmetrical glory of a cranked spring reverb has long been nearly impossible. With certain newer stompboxes you might think you’re getting close, but A/B them with the real deal and you hear a difference—particularly in the smooth roundness of the decays. For surf purists and spring aficionados addicted to that squishy, retro vibe, digital artifacts in the reverb trails is an unacceptable dead giveaway. So if you don’t already have a spring reverb in your amp, how do you get that inimitable sound without having to fork out close to a grand (Fender’s ’63 Reverb reissue goes for $700, and boutique units are even more) for a bulky effect the size of a guitar head?
Recently, three pedal companies tackled this challenge head-on: Mojo Hand Fx unveiled the Dewdrop, Catalinbread brought out the Topanga, and Subdecay debuted its Super Spring Theory. I tested each pedal with a variety of guitars, including an Eastwood Sidejack Baritone with Manlius Jazzmaster-style pickups, a Schecter PT Fastback II B, a Telecaster with Curtis Novak pickups, a Telecaster with Nordstrand NVT A3 pickups, a Danelectro ’56 Baritone, a Schecter Ultra III with a TV Jones Magna’Tron, and an Eastwood Airline H78 reissue. I also enlisted one of the hottest surf guitarist in PG’s home state, Brook Hoover of the Surf Zombies (surfzombies.bandcamp.com), to get his take on how convincing these three contenders sound. Brook used his old Jaguar and Mustang guitars to test each pedal through his collection of vintage and boutique amps, and we A/B’d each with his Fender ’63 reissue outboard reverb, as well as the black- and silverface Deluxe Reverbs he often uses for Surf Zombies work.