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.

Brown Eye

Download Example 1
Download Example 2
Download Example 3
Hairy with Saturation
Download Example 4
With C45 engaged
Clips recorded with a 1968 Reissue Gibson Les Paul Custom with Bare Knuckle pickups, mic'd with an SM57.
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.

Brown Sounds
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 volume knob.

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.

Buy if...
you want one of the finest representations of classic and modern British high-gain tones available.
Skip if...
you want a traditional American sound.

Street $3000 100-watt head; $2800 50-watt head; options from $50-$500 - Rack Systems -