Given how blues roots have pretty much become the de rigueur, etched-in-stone guitar-god standard, it’s either a wonder (or perhaps an inevitability) that a new breed of inventive players unconstrained by blues-rock templates—like Keith Levine, Gary Lucas, Kristin Hersh, and John McGeoch—has emerged in the post-punk era. But few players cut a more unique or distinct path away from the blues than the late Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S. Howard, who died from liver cancer in 2009 at the age of 50. Armed with little more than a Fender Jaguar, an MXR Distortion +, a reputably broken MXR Blue Box, and a Fender Twin, Howard strangled sounds out of his guitar that few listeners had heard before, both as a solo artist, and with his Birthday partner in crime, Nick Cave.
In tribute, Denmark’s Anders Reuss channeled his love of Howard’s playing into the handmade RSH-01, which combines Distortion + and Blue Box-style circuits in a single enclosure. That first incarnation of the pedal was done in a very limited run, and at $300 a pop, even some of the biggest Howard fans were left longing. The interest was sufficient enough that Reuss decided to create this more affordable, Chinese-made version—the RSH-02. Reuss donates $9 from each RSH-2 sale to Kræftens Bekæmpelse, the Danish Cancer Society, in Howard’s memory.
Visually, the RSH looks fantastic. The uncluttered white enclosure is home to three knobs (distortion, blue, master output), two switches (bypass, blue), and two LEDs (red for bypass and, appropriately enough, blue for the blue function). Howard’s fans will appreciate that the input and output jacks are labeled Jaguar and Twin Reverb, respectively.
Having never used an original RSH-01, I can’t make a true comparison in terms of build or sound quality, but Reuss says he’s meticulously overseen the production of the RSH-02 to assure high standards. The build quality is good, and the new blue fuzz output trim pot, conveniently located on the back of the unit, is a useful addition to the design. A smaller enclosure also makes this version more likely to make the cut on a crowded pedalboard. An integrated circuit board makes the more compact design—and the new price—possible.
The original RSH had jacks on the back panel to reduce pedalboard clutter. The blue control used to be over the blue switch, which is more intuitive, especially when one needs to make quick changes. Unfortunately, both have been moved on the RSH-02. This is because, although both versions have the same components, the RSH-02’s two circuits are now on the same PC board. It’s a bit of a bummer, but not insurmountable.
Zoo Music, Man
I don’t have a Twin Reverb lying around, so I plugged the RSH-02 into a Carr Sportsman and reached for my trusty ’60s Jaguar. Copious reverb was part of Howard’s sound, so I dimed the Sportsman’s. Though I was eager to go straight to extremes, I started with a straight distortion sound. MXR Distortion + pedals have a reputation for inconsistency, but frankly I’ve never found a bad one. The RSH doesn’t sound like the darkest Distortion + I’ve used, but it definitely lacks the sizzle and fizz of the newer models—which, in my opinion, is not a bad thing.
The distortion effect doesn’t have a dedicated switch, so you have to dial back the distortion to reveal the naked blue sounds (provided, of course, the blue footswitch is engaged). They’re controlled by the mix knob, which works more intuitively than on an MXR Blue Box: Turning it clockwise moves from just fuzz to just octave. The fuzz side is buzzy and extreme, while the octave side has a pronounced square-wave quality. The octave side also sounds a little gated and synthy, and the tracking tends to be glitchy—just like a Blue Box.
To launch into Jimmy Page’s conventional use of the effect on the “Fool in the Rain,” set the knob at noon—but don’t be surprised if Howard’s ghost haunts you till you explore more radical terrain. Though you can easily summon straight-ahead octave fuzz, the real magic happens when you combine both effects. The RSH-02 puts the blue effect first in the chain, just as Howard did, and as distortion is increased downstream, different harmonics shine through. You’ll also hear pronounced harmonic shifts when you switch guitars. Jaguars aren’t known for sustain, but a Jazzmaster, Telecaster, and Travis Bean changed the character dramatically. More sustain from the guitar itself improved tracking from the blue effect, and adding a Janglebox and a Guyatone compressor added even more singing musicality.
With distortion off and blend cranked, you get humming, synthy sounds—you can really hear the expansiveness of the two-octave stack. As I set the RSH-02 to moderate distortion and blue blend at noon and then moved from simple, scale-based patterns to ringing arpeggiated lines and finally to pedal-note progressions, the sounds got less predictable and I had a lot of happy accidents. The more information you feed the blue section, the less control you have over what comes out of it. This is not a bad thing. In general, using the neck pickup and playing with a lighter touch improves tracking, while an aggressive attack through the bridge pickup increases unpredictability—and picking right by the guitar’s saddles or behind the bridge yielded chaotic, beautiful noise. The pedal is mostly ineffective with a bass, but a baritone Fender yielded interesting results: Tracking was good, particularly in the upper register notes, and the pedal went from weird and arty to being dark, grinding, and really evil sounding. The lower frequencies of the higher notes weren’t really affected, but the upper harmonics sounded like a buzz saw.
Although the Reuss RSH-02 is a fantastic tribute to the rabble-rousing spirit of its namesake, it certainly isn’t only good for experimentalism. Anyone who digs more conventional application of MXR Blue Box-type sounds would do well to consider the impressive flexibility of the Reuss. Although the RSH-02 is ostensibly just a distortion and an octave fuzz, it’s also effectively a fuzzbox and a square-wave effect. Like its inspiration, it’s not for everyone, but it delivers exactly what it promises—and more—and costs less than the two units it mimics.