The guitar universe gathered momentum in a big way in 2022—which is easy to see in this year’s wildly diverse parade of Premier Gear Award winners.
Here's a look at 2022’s most notable new guitars, amps, effects, and accessories, reviewed by our editors and writers:
VALCO KGB Fuzz
While it looks like the work of a Cold War-era mad scientist, this do-it-all dirt dauber is so versatile that it’s easy to overlook its big footprint. It conjures up classic tones that could satisfy Muff, Tone Bender, and maybe even Fuzz Factory fans, but the KGB is also a super-characterful, straight-ahead distortion in its own right that sings with fuzz at minimum and offers six adjustable impedance settings, creating a tonal cornucopia.
$299 street, valcofx.com
BOGNER Ecstasy Mini
Historically, big rock tones have required big hardware. However, Joe Charupakorn was quite taken with this shoebox-size ripper that aims to deliver the vibe of its (much) larger counterpart. At 30 watts, the class-D solid-state amp offers way more gain than its 4-pound weight suggests is possible. In addition to the expected EQ controls, the Ecstasy Mini offers a quartet of toggles that emulate a Variac-style control, deliver even more gain, and shape the midrange—all for the price of a boutique pedal.
$329 street, bogneramplification.com
Guitar synthesis gets the MINI Cooper treatment. There are 171 wildly tweakable sounds and 128 presets inside this rugged 5" x 4" box with an easy-on-the-eyes display and friendly layout. You want ’70s cheese or prog? Eighties Crimson? Classic Floyd? Radiohead? It’s all on tap and easily accessible with a little help from the online manual. Killer for newcomers or guit-synth veterans looking to slim down their board or rack.
$299 street, boss.info
DUNLOP Pivot Capo
Dunlop’s newest screw-tension capo didn’t solve every last problem associated with assisted fretting. It’s still not quite as convenient as a trigger capo for making changes fast. But string grip—particularly on low strings—is excellent and the variable tension solves a lot of intonation issues. If you switch between guitars with different fret sizes a lot, the Pivot could be a savior.
$29 street, jimdunlop.com
ELECTRO HARMONIX Ripped Speaker
The Ripped Speaker lives up to the promise of its name, delivering damaged tones that evoke early raw rockers. But thanks to wide-ranging fuzz, tone, and rip controls—the latter of which is a bias-starve knob—there’s a lot on tap. It’s easy to conjure everything from Fuzzrite-style distortion to gated fuzz sounds befitting a player like Adrian Belew to pure deconstructed noise sputter, making the Ripped Speaker a unique, versatile fuzz that won’t break the bank.
$110 street, ehx.com
REVEREND Flatroc Bigsby
The Flatroc Bigsby looks a lot like an homage to Gretsch on the surface. But the Retroblast humbuckers that drive the output from this versatile solidbody will probably sound and feel familiar to anyone that has the pleasure of playing a vintage-voiced, low-output PAF. Gibson-style tones are far from the only sounds on tap here, though: an awesomely practical bass contour control can re-cast the Flatroc to play the part of everything from Rickenbacker to Stratocaster to catalog 1960s Japanese instruments.
$1,119 street, reverendguitars.com
KEELEY Compressor Mini
Keeley’s experience with pedal compressors might be, forgive the pun, unparalleled. Okay, maybe he has a few rivals for the King of Comps title. But the Compressor Mini confirms that he can run the range from super flexible and feature rich to stupidly simple, as is the case here. The Compressor Mini’s simplicity belies how rich it can sound. A tone-recovery circuit preserves high-end and a parallel compression scheme sums clean signal at the output in a manner that preserves a lot of string detail. It’s also super quiet. And at $129, it’s a cool way for fans of simple compressors to elevate their output without breaking the bank.
$129 street, robertkeeley.com
Keeley Compressor Mini Demo | First Look
BLACKSTAR Dept. 10 Dual Drive
Packing an actual 12AX7 into a drive pedal not only adds the comfort of glowing glass to the experience but gives this two-headed stomp impressive versatility. The smartly designed setup allows the Dual Drive to comfortably fit at the beginning or the end of your board, due to the excellent cab sims and uncluttered layout. At $299 it’s right in the sweet spot for dual-function pedals that balance features and value.
Blackstar Dept. 10 Dual Drive Demo | First Look
UNIVERSAL AUDIO Volt 276
UA can count an enviable wealth of iconic, well-regarded high-end pieces of hardware and software among their stable. And while a legacy like that can make entry into less rarified and affordable markets tricky, UA delivered big time in the form of the Volt 276. The Volt doesn’t feature the same fancy 1176 compressor and UA-610 preamp models from UA’s Apollo and Luna operating environments. But the models here (as well as the included Marshall and Ampeg emulations) are effective tone sweeteners all the same. A clearly caring approach to the hardware design means it also looks great on a desktop, which is much more than a lot of affordable interfaces can claim.
$299 street, uaudio.com
TC ELECTRONIC SCF Gold
Talk about venerable. TC’s original Stereo Chorus Flanger appeared in 1976. And even in those nascent days of modulation stomp design, the SCF emerged in very realized form. In this newest incarnation, it remains an excellent alternative to other chorus/flanger combos. A clear top end makes it a lot less murky sounding than many other analog modulators. We suspect its relatively low price and jack-of-all-trades versatility will put a lot of fence-sitters over the top.
$149 street, tcelectronic.com
TC Electronic's 1st Pedal Reissued! SCF Gold Stereo Chorus Flanger Demo | First Look
Perhaps the ultimate modeling/IR box for space-conscious players on a budget, the IR-200 has 128 presets, eight core amp models, 244 cab and mic IRs, three reverbs, and stereo, MIDI, effects-loop, USB, headphone, auxiliary-input, and footswitch/expression-pedal connectivity. And the interface is intuitive, with top-mounted controls for gain, level, bass, and treble. If high-end modelers seem intimidating or pricey, this device could be your huckleberry.
$399 street, boss.info
SCHECTER Sun Valley Super Shredder Exotic Hardtail
Fine-tuned shred machines made Schecter Guitars’ name in the 1980s. This outlier eschews more metal elements, like a double-locking trem and active pickups. However, those omissions make the guitar more versatile than many of its counterparts. That’s also largely thanks to the ability to split the pickups in several different variations.
$1,249 street, schecterguitars.com
MAESTRO Comet Chorus
For its splashy return to the effects fray, Maestro dressed up its new pedals in some of the coolest enclosures we’ve ever seen. But the pedals distinguish themselves in terms of sound and function, too. And the Comet Chorus emerged as especially distinguished. Its ability to approximate rotary speaker sounds and generate complex compound modulations—thanks in large part to the “orbit” mode that blends in tremolo—made it one of the most distinctive modulation units we played all year.
$149 street, maestroelectronics.com
Maestro's Five New Pedals | First Look
Little amps like the Fender Champ can be superstars in the studio. Magnatone’s Starlite owes much in terms of inspiration and design to the Fender Champ. But it also offers a best-of-all-worlds take on the Champ’s familiar tune by bridging tweed, black- and silver-panel variants. Much of this flex is achieved via a tone control that adds midrange, softens transients, and adds saturation. It’s a simple fix to the intrinsic limitations in super simple circuits, but it really stretches the Starlite’s functionality and appeal—which is copious on the style side, too.
$1,299 street, magnatoneusa.com
PRS SE Silver Sky
This $849 guitar plays like a million bucks! The Indonesia-made version of PRS’ John Mayer signature S-style is truly exceptional within the vintage tradition, with superb, wide-ranging tones, a fast-action neck, an improved cutaway over many other S-type designs, and a bridge-pickup-dedicated tone pot. Smooth medium-jumbo frets, a reliable vibrato arm, and an 8 1/2" fretboard radius are among the other virtues that make the SE Silver Sky a pro instrument at a bargain price.
$849 street, prsguitars.com
PRS SE Silver Sky John Mayer Signature Demo | First Look
FROST GIANT Architect of Reality
Heads up, Sabbath fans! The Architect of Reality essentially drops the preamp section of Laney’s ’80s Advance Overdrive Response heads at your feet. These amps had an extra gain stage and a slightly darker sound that Tony Iommi put to service. And this pedal possesses destructive amounts of volume, gain, and low-end that are capable of conjuring wall-of-amps doom. To achieve this, the JFET-driven Architect pumps 9V AC up to 36 volts. It’s probably best with high-wattage/high-headroom amps, and have a noise gate handy, but rejoice in occupying the mythical space between distortion and fuzz, where destruction and chaos feel like real propositions.
$250 street, fuzzworship.com
Enough of us grew up with simple, 1-knob phasers that the Zelzah will probably scare a few old-school phase folk. True, Zelzah’s impressive under-the-hood capabilities could give a just-the-basics-please modulation user pause. But like most of Strymon’s pedals in this format, there is a basic elegance here that lets the uninitiated work fast and intuitively, too. In addition to rich 4- and 6-stage phaser colors, Zelzah also features switches for barber pole and envelope phase modes, a useful resonance switch, and a voice control that enables access to flange and chorus tones. A one-stop mod shop? Sounds like a fair assessment to me.
$349 street, strymon.net
First Look: Strymon Zelzah Multidimensional Phaser
At heart, the Cloak is a straightforward, huge-sounding room reverb with a minimalist control set: room size, high-cut, mix, and shimmer knobs, and an internal slider for selecting between trails and true-bypass operation. But with its highly adaptable nature—the pedal paired beautifully with single-coils and humbuckers, overdrives, and several amps—and lovely fidelity, the range of possible sounds is wide. Shawn Hammond wrote, “With mix at max and higher room-size settings, high-cut tamed some of the more garish aspects of shimmer ’verb and turned my guitars into veritable film-scoring machines.”
$210 street, catalinbread.com
SOURCE AUDIO ZIO
As reviewer Dave Hunter noted, the ZIO is far from a one-trick-pony boost. Built in collaboration with Christopher Venter of SHOE pedals, this all-analog affair offers four different preamp voicings and three different tone settings. Simple enough, but the resulting tones—especially in the studio mode—are sweet, juicy, clear, and articulate. Our reviewer loved it so much he even imagined a board that would feature two ZIO units to take full advantage of the many sounds it can make.
$199 street, sourceaudio.net
MARTIN 000-18 Modern Deluxe
How do you refine a model that’s essentially perfect? Martin isn’t the first guitar company to grapple with that problem. But there’s something about the nakedness of an acoustic guitar that renders the issue quite challenging. Martin made the 000-18 Modern Deluxe extra special with some superficial improvements: pearl inlay logo, Indian rosewood binding, and Waverly butterbean tuners. There are practical improvements, too, like the asymmetric-profile neck. But the things that make the 000-18 Modern Deluxe extraordinary are the same things that make any great Martin a gem—tones of extraordinary depth and touch response that feels, at times, telepathic.
$3,599 street, martinguitar.com
FENDER Hammertone Delay
For all its success in the business of building iconic guitars, Fender’s effect history is relatively spotty. But their affordable, simple Hammertone pedals certainly have the potential to stick around. The Hammertone Delay’s combination of design economy and fun-to-use factor make it a tasty proposition for 99 bucks. But the pedal’s personality and breadth, which ranges from almost spring-like reverb overtones to cool Abbey Road ADT tricks and super-clear digital tones, make it a stuffed and super-practical delay for the price.
$99 street, fender.com
Fender Hammertone Pedals Demo | First Look
The combination of familiar lines with modern tech made Ola Englund’s sleek rock machine a standout. Loaded with a pair of Fishman Fluence Modern pickups and an EverTune bridge, the GC1.6AFAB takes a meticulously crafted model and adds a ton of value. Each pickup has independent volume controls along with a push-pull to move between two different voices. The crisp and fast response of the pickups along with the value made this ultra-playable guitar a can’t-miss.
$1,349 street, solar-guitars.com
Solar Guitars GC1.6AFAB Demo | First LookOla Englund’s latest features upscale appointments and a slick playing experience for just $1,299. Video by Carlos Cotallo Solares (https://www.youtube.com/c...
API TranZformer CMP
Once you really get into pedal compression, tough decisions can await. Classic and simple, but maybe noisy? More complex and studio-level control with more headaches on stage? API’s TranZformer CMP isn’t exactly simple. In fact, the control set evokes API’s legendary studio comps like the 2500 Stereo Compressor, which are powerful but not exactly LA-2A-level streamlined. But that experience with studio-grade gear pays big dividends in the TranZformer CMP, which runs quiet and affords a painterly approach to compression with its flexible array of knobs and switches.
$280 street, apiaudio.com
EVH 5150 Iconic Series 40W 1x12 Combo
A more affordable take on the 5150 amp design, this 2-channel closed-back combo was called “insanely versatile and capable of sounds from clean to ultra-high gain to the most extreme molten metal” by reviewer Joe Charupakorn. The channels each feature low- and high-gain modes, and channel 2 includes a noise gate. Other features include an XLR output with speaker emulation, a power amp mute switch, a preamp out, an effects loop, and a 40W/10W power level switch.
EVH 5150 Iconic Series Combo Demo | First Look
BILT The Amp
Delivering 12 to 15 watts of cathode-biased, class AB tone via a 5Y3 rectifier tube, a pair of 6V6s, and a pair of 12AX7s, the guitar builder’s first amplifier—a collaboration with Milkman—is a modern love letter to the venerated tweed Deluxe. But the Amp is no recreation or clone. Just check out its 5-way bass knob and large, handsome cabinet. The result is a loud, midrange-forward combo that sounds great at all volume levels, but thrives when cranked, where it delivers full-on tweed sag.
$2,999 base price, biltguitars.com
YAMAHA Revstar Standard RSS02T
Yamaha has been a force in 6-string electric circles since the 1960s. But their current flagship electric model, the Revstar, was introduced in 2015 and has since been overhauled with an impressive array of features including a chambered body and updated pickups. Our review model sported a pair of P-90s that were a natural fit for blues and classic rock. Big, punchy tones had lots of single-coil chime. Plus, the price is really hard to beat.
$799 street, yamaha.com
Yamaha Revstar Standard RSS02T Demo | First Look
JACKSON AUDIO The Optimist
The whole subset of Klon-inspired circuits is a rabbit hole many fall into. However, the particular variation included in Cory Wong’s signature pedal turned reviewer Jason Shadrick’s mind around. Each overdrive circuit feels rich and full, but it’s the active EQ that comes close to being the MVP. Jackson has always taken great care in making sure the sweep of the controls is useful and musical, and the Optimist might be their most finely tuned setup yet.
$349 street, Jackson. Audio
CHARVEL Guthrie Govan MJ San Dimas SD24 CM
This Japan-built version of the shredder’s signature instrument offers a high-level playing experience. The proprietary tremolo has a wide range of motion, both descending and ascending, thanks to a recessed body cavity underneath the unit, and it offers commendable tuning stability. Elsewhere, accoutrements like a heel-mounted truss rod adjustment wheel and knurled chrome knobs with glow-in-the-dark numbers deliver upscale details. With easy playability and hot, articulate pickups, the SD24 CM is a signature guitar fit for a player fluent in a breadth of styles.
$2,799 street, charvel.com
LINE 6 DL4 MkII
The ubiquitous green delay machine returns in a slimmer modern update. It’s still big, but even on the modern pedal landscape, the DL4’s spacious knob-controlled design feels refreshing, with plenty of room to tweak and stomp around. More importantly, it’s remarkably easy to jump in and find a breadth of unique delay sounds that range from classic to wildly experimental. All the original sounds are onboard, as are just as many new ones, plus a full range of reverbs and the classic looper function.
$299 street, line6.com
Line 6 DL4 MkII Delay Modeler Demo | First Look
I often tell chums griping about their tone to try an EQ pedal. It’s not a very glamorous solution. But it’s often an effective one—especially when carving out just-right fuzz and drive tones. Catalinbread clearly grasps the value of powerful EQ in shaping overdrive output—so much so that they’ve made the Tribute Parametric Overdrive as much an EQ device as a drive machine. The Tribute enables you to boost or cut ranges from 1.4 kHz on the midrange side to 70 Hz on the bass end by 12 dB in either direction. These EQ changes can transform the mood of the already flexible Tribute drastically, from focused boosts to much more aggressive fare.
$179 street, catalinbread.com
Koa has always been treasured by builders for a distinct tonality that sits between rosewood and mahogany. Thanks to a partnership with Pacific Rim Tonewoods, Taylor was able to use a “select grade” koa that helped the company price the model at $2,000 less than some of their other Hawaiian koa-based models. Nobody would mistake this for a budget guitar, however. The sound is every bit as nuanced and complex as guitars with a more flamboyant slice of wood.
$3,499 street, taylorguitars.com
WAY HUGE Red Llama MkIII Smalls
It’s all about simplicity with this 30th Anniversary update to an early boutique-era overdrive. The MkIII has a smaller footprint, but the 2-knob control set remains, featuring just volume and drive. Reviewer Dave Hunter praised the pedal’s “thick, juicy, and chewy” tone, which retains clarity at high gain levels. “When a lot of ODs have started to sound very same-ish, it’s remarkable that it remains so distinct, characterful, and loveable—even after 30 years.”
$149 street, jimdunlop.com
Way Huge Red Llama Overdrive MkIII Demo | First Look
WREN AND CUFF The Good One
The lengths Big Muff scholars will go to chasing definitive and “best” Muff tones is well documented in these pages. Wren And Cuff’s The Good One, though, is the result of an accidental discovery along the path to Big Muff enlightenment. The Good One is W&C founder Matt Holl’s attempt to replicate a vintage “triangle” Big Muff that came through his shop for repair. Like many Muffs, it revealed a curious mix of components. But the sum, as duplicated here, is a Big Muff of uncommon range and clarity that delivers sharp, clear transients just as readily as classic Big Muff heaviness.
$309 street, wrenandcuff.com
UNIVERSAL AUDIO UAFX Ruby ’63
Whether you beg, borrow, or steal, every electric guitarist that reads these pages should find a way to experience the sparkling, harmonically overflowing, and flat-out hot-and-rich colors of a vintage Vox AC30. But if you don’t have the cash, connections, or criminal urges, UAFX’s Ruby ’63 is a mighty fine way to explore those sounds in a pedal. Ruby ’63, of course, capitalizes on the modelling savvy and experience that make UA’s digital production environments a revelation. And the same microscopic attention to detail—and above all feel—is here. Will the Ruby ’63 transform a lousy amp into an AC30? Probably not. But the ease with which it imparts the aura and touch of a vintage Vox to a half-decent tube amp or recording interface can be thrilling—and enable you to speak in a distinctly Vox vernacular.
$399 street, uaudio.com
PIGTRONIX Star Eater
Pigtronix is justifiably guarded about what makes up the circuit in the Star Eater fuzz. It’s pretty unique sounding. But when we ventured the notion of a Big Muff and a Shin-ei Super Fuzz bearing offspring, Pigtronix mastermind David Koltai admitted we were onto something. Similarities with these two fuzzes tell only part of the story, though. A sweepable filter generates tones that might make a Big Muff or Super Fuzz blush. And if that doesn’t pique the interest of a jaded fuzz fanatic, I’m not sure what will.
$179 street, pigtronix.com
SOURCE AUDIO Atlas Compressor
This digital compressor offers six basic modes to conjure a wealth of tones, and each of its four knobs has both primary and alt functions. Even more sounds abound via MIDI functionality and Android/iOS connectivity to access Source Audio’s Neuro Editor. The Atlas’ tones should fool analog heads, and advanced digital capabilities might even lead to cool discoveries.
$229 street, sourceaudio.net
Source Audio Atlas Compressor Demo | First Look
MATTOVERSE Warble Swell Echo MkII
This digital delay has a warm voice that evokes classic BBD delays and old-school tape echo vibes. Its woozy modulation—accessed via a waveform knob, plus rate and depth controls—makes it easy to dial-in retro cassette-tape tones, while the swell footswitch and knob access the land of eternal feedback. For all these functions, the Warble Swell is still easy to navigate and feels simple.
$219 street, mattoverse.com
The Lore isn’t the most complete reverse reverb in the world. It lacks some of the magical takes on the effect that Led Zeppelin and My Bloody Valentine made immortal. But the manner in which it combines time-manipulation effects as well as octave and various interval-based textures often yields much more unpredictable results. If you’re keen to scramble a boring song idea, Lore is a fast track to that goal.
$299 street, walrusaudio.com
EASTWOOD Dusty Spring
Stare at modern pedals long enough and you’ll develop an appreciation for pure simplicity. And it would be hard to find a stomp so brainlessly, plug-and-go satisfying as the Dusty Spring. Calling Dusty Spring a lo-fi effect, as its name suggests, would be too simple. It dishes very convincing spring reverb approximations that would easily fool experts—especially in a mix. Rather, the “dirty” seems equally apt in describing its basic, rich earthiness—a quality that isn’t always easy to find in affordable digital reverbs.
$149 street, eastwoodguitars.com
DEATH BY AUDIO Space Bender
Thank goodness for Death By Audio. Their irreverence isn’t just a middle finger to circuit sameness. It’s an attitude that results in amazing, truly unusual sounds. That goes for the Space Bender, which turns chorus on its ear—mixing and mangling modulation, delay, reverb, and filtering effects to ends that are both predictable and chaotic. Come for the chorus but stay for the deeper freakishness. The Space Bender will deliver—guaranteed.
$270 street, deathbyaudio.com
EARTHQUAKER Special Cranker
This ultra-touch-sensitive stomp is, indeed, special: a warm, medium-gain overdrive designed to sound like you’ve added another tube to your amp’s preamp section. With germanium and silicon modes, there’s tons of tone variety on tap, and the silicon side, especially, has a fat, full voice that is responsive to picking technique and preserves the integrity of complex chords. At less than $100, it’s a bargain, too.
$99 street, earthquakerdevices.com
EarthQuaker Devices Special Cranker Overdrive Demo | First Look
If you’re a germanium fuzz fan, this plain-Jane-named box is a gem. But there’s nothing plain about its operation. A large dial controls temperature bias, which is traditionally a problem with heat-sensitive germanium transistors. There’s a pickup simulator/debuffer so the Fuzz can dwell anywhere in your signal chain. And, adding to the fun, there’s also a 2-way toggle for “classic” or meatier, more harmonically saturated “raw” bias modes. Plus, the volume dial works dynamically with the fuzz and clean-up knobs to let you go from deliciously grainy fuzz to thick, Muff-esque doom tones to skanky, toothy, stabbing boost/overdrive.
$249 street, silktone.org
FENDER JV Modified Deluxe Telecaster
Fender’s Japan-built guitars of the 1980s and 1990s are among the company’s most underrated. Among the many gems Fender Japan produced at the time, the Jerry Donahue signature Tele stands out. The JV Modified Deluxe Telecaster isn’t a reproduction of the JD, but you have to think Fender builders had one eye on that design while putting together this one. The soft-V neck is there, and the Deluxe Telecaster appointments. And while the switching and pickups aren’t exactly the same, the series and out-of-phase switching options open up similar tone territories. The JV Modified is as playable a guitar as we’ve handled all year—no small distinction.
$1,349 street, fender.com
Ade Emsley, the Orange engineer who oversaw the resurrection of the new/old Orange effects, decided to overhaul the Orange Distortion entirely. Stating plainly that he didn’t think the original was very good, he started from scratch—building a new JFET-based amplifier circuit with preset bass and midrange settings and an adjustable treble pot on the pedal’s interior. That might sound limiting, but the Orange Distortion is both wide- and rich-sounding, bursting with amp-like crunch and, at times, beautifully articulate.
$249 street, orangeamps.com
Orange Distortion, Sustain & Phaser Pedal Demos | First Look
It takes intestinal fortitude to build a new 1-knob phaser these days. Most companies have slipped into the phase-manipulation arms race quite willingly. But the control now in vogue does nothing to diminish the tone transforming, psychedelicizing power of a 1-knob phaser. And thankfully, Orange had the cover of a vintage-re-issue project to justify building this ultra-elegant phase gem. Modulations balance beautifully between low and high frequencies, and, as a consequence, it feels open, clear, and dimensional.
$249 street, orangeamps.com
MXR Duke of Tone
Lest any of you out there worry, the partnership between MXR and Analog Man’s Mike Piera that yielded the Duke of Tone is no mere marketing exercise. The DOT is built to a very high standard of quality that we don’t often see in affordable mini pedals. Most importantly, it sounds fantastic and is worthy company for the Analog Man pedals with which it shares lineage. At least for this reviewer, the boost is the highlight. But all three modes—boost, distortion, and overdrive—exhibit a smooth, robust voice that can save an otherwise lackluster tone in a flash.
$149 street, jimdunlop.com
MXR Duke of Tone Demo | First Look
Session ace Shawn Tubbs’ signature overdrive is a mid-gain wonder. It’s very midrange-forward, but the response of the EQ controls on both sides offers tone options that range from Mike Campbell chime to Dumble-influenced lead sounds. A standout feature is the tilteq control, which allows for surgical sculpting of frequencies on the fly without any hassle.
$269 street, revvamplification.com
Plus! Read the full reviews on PG.com of December’s Premier Gear Award winners: the PRS Horsemeat Transparent Overdrive and Mary Cries Optical Compressor, the Boss Space Echo, the Dr. Z Z-28 Mk. II, and the Origin Effects Halcyon.
The silky smooth slide man may raise a few eyebrows with his gear—a hollow, steel-bodied baritone and .017s on a Jazzmaster—but every note and tone he plays sounds just right.
KingTone’s The Duellist is currently Ariel Posen’s most-used pedal. One side of the dual drive (the Bluesbreaker voicing) is always on. But there’s another duality at play when Posen plugs in—the balance between songwriter and guitarist.
“These days, I like listening to songs and the story and the total package,” Posen told PG back in 2019, when talking about his solo debut, How Long, after departing from his sideman slot for the Bros. Landreth. “Obviously, I’m known as a guitar player, but my music and the music I write is not guitar music. It’s songs, and it goes back to the Beatles. I love songs, and I love story and melody and singing, and there was a lot of detail and attention put into the guitar sound and the playing and the parts—almost more than I’ve ever done.”
And in 2021, he found himself equally expressing his yin-and-yang artistry by releasing two albums that represented both sides of his musicality. First, Headway continued the sultry sizzle of songwriting featured on How Long. Then he surprised everyone, especially guitarists, by dropping Mile End, which is a 6-string buffet of solo dishes with nothing but Ariel and his instrument of choice.
But what should fans expect when they see him perform live? “I just trust my gut. I can reach more people by playing songs, and I get moved more by a story and lyrics and harmony, so that’s where I naturally go. The live show is a lot more guitar centric. If you want to hear me stretch out on some solos, come see a show. I want the record and the live show to be two separate things.”
The afternoon ahead of Posen’s headlining performance at Nashville’s Basement East, the guitar-playing musical force invited PG’s Chris Kies on stage for a robust chat about gear. The 30-minute conversation covers Posen’s potent pair of moody blue bombshells—a hollow, metal-bodied Mule Resophonic and a Fender Custom Shop Jazzmaster—and why any Two-Rock is his go-to amp. He also shares his reasoning behind avoiding effects loops and volume pedals.
Brought to you by D’Addario XPND Pedalboard.
Blue the Mule III
If you’ve spent any time with Ariel Posen’s first solo record, How Long, you know that the ripping, raunchy slide solo packed within “Get You Back” is an aural high mark. As explained in a 2019 PG interview, Posen’s pairing for that song were two cheapos: a $50 Teisco Del Rey into a Kay combo. However, when he took the pawnshop prize onstage, the magic was gone. “It wouldn’t stay in tune and wouldn’t stop feeding back—it was unbearable [laughs].”
Posen was familiar with Matt Eich of Mule Resophonic—who specializes in building metal-body resonators—so he approached the luthier to construct him a steel-bodied, Strat-style baritone. Eich was reluctant at first (he typically builds roundneck resos and T-style baritones), but after seeing a clip of Posen playing live, the partnership was started.
The above steel-bodied Strat-style guitar is Posen’s third custom 25"-scale baritone. (On Mule Resophonic’s website, it’s affectionately named the “Posencaster.”) The gold-foil-looking pickups are handwound by Eich, and are actually mini humbuckers. He employs a custom Stringjoy set (.017–.064 with a wound G) and typically tunes to B standard. The massive strings allow the shorter-scale baritone to maintain a regular-tension feel. And when he gigs, he tours light (usually with two guitars), so he’ll use a capo to morph into D or E standard.
Another one that saw recording time for Headway and Mile End was the above Fender Custom Shop Masterbuilt ’60s Jazzmaster, made by Carlos Lopez. To make it work better for him, he had the treble-bleed circuit removed, so that when the guitar’s volume is lowered it actually gets warmer.
"Clean and Loud"
Last time we spoke with Posen, he plugged into a Two-Rock Classic Reverb Signature. It’s typically his live amp. However, since this winter’s U.S. run was a batch of fly dates, he packed light and rented backlines. Being in Music City, he didn’t need to go too deep into his phone’s contacts to find a guitar-playing friend that owned a Two-Rock. This Bloomfield Drive was loaned to Ariel by occasional PG contributor Corey Congilio. On the brand’s consistent tone monsters, Posen said, “To be honest, put a blindfold on me and make one of Two-Rock’s amps clean and loud—I don’t care what one it is.”
The loaner vertical 2x12 cab was stocked with a pair of Two-Rock 12-65B speakers made by Warehouse Guitar Speakers.
Ariel Posen’s Pedalboard
There are a handful of carryovers from Ariel’s previous pedalboard that was featured in our 2021 tone talk: a TC Electronic PolyTune 3 Noir, a Morningstar MC3 MIDI Controller, an Eventide H9, a Mythos Pedals Argonaut Mini Octave Up, and a KingTone miniFUZZ Ge. His additions include a custom edition Keeley Hydra Stereo Reverb & Tremolo (featuring Headway artwork), an Old Blood Noise Endeavors Black Fountain oil can delay, Chase Bliss Audio Thermae Analog Delay and Pitch Shifter, and a KingTone The Duellist overdrive.
Another big piece of the tonal pie for Posen is his signature brass Rock Slide. He worked alongside Rock Slide’s Danny Songhurst to develop his namesake slide that features a round-tip end that helps Posen avoid dead spots or unwanted scratching. While he prefers polished brass, you can see above that it’s also available in a nickel-plated finish and an aged brass.
The good doctor refines an old mid-power favorite that dishes beautiful American-style clean and overdriven tones while packing a muscular punch.
A killer reimagining of an already great design. Bold cleans and toothsome overdrive in an impressively portable package.
No effects loop.
Dr. Z Z-28 Mk. II
Though he’s built bona fide iconic modern guitar-amp designs—and a reputation that he could happily ride into the tube-glow sunset—Dr. Z’s head honcho, Mike Zaite, has always stayed creative. He’s steadily revamped his lineup over the years. And the new Z-28 Mk. II represents a thoughtful update of an amp that many of us assumed couldn’t get much better. The original Z-28, discontinued in February 2018, was a robust 22-watter that reveled in simplicity and thick, versatile tonality. Players loved it. And more than a few lamented its discontinuation.
Those players will be happy to hear that much of the Z-28’s basic architecture remains intact in the Mk. II. Crucially, the original Z-28’s EF86 pentode preamp tube carries over to the front end of the new design. It was a key to that amp’s personality and combination of high headroom, high gain, and thick-yet-clear voicing that hooked many Z-28 followers. But the platform’s dual-6V6 output stage has now been upgraded to a pair of larger 5881 output tubes in cathode-bias, generating 35 watts of power. Additionally, a new master volume control helps rein in the output, so there’s plenty of the good stuff available at less overall volume than the Mk I.
The Mk. II is more than an updated circuit. Dr. Z houses the Z-28 Mk. II 1x12" combo in an updated cabinet, too. This time out, the Z-28 lives in a cab Dr. Z introduced with the Joe Walsh Signature Z-Master. But where that amp was configured with three 10" speakers, the Mk. II features a single-12" baffle and a Celestion G12M Creamback. The cabinet is built from thin-walled ply and measures 22" x 21.5" x 10.9". The dimensions and construction help keep this mid-powered combo’s weight down to a very reasonable 38 pounds. The Mk. II also brings Dr. Z’s popular red-Tolex livery back to the fold. It’s exclusive to the Z-28 Mk. II combo. (A Z-28 Mk. II head is also available, in black only.)
Control interface-wise, the Z-28 Mk. II is just as austere as the original, with the exception of the master volume. Apart from the single input, there’s a volume knob and independent treble and bass controls in the EQ stage, which conceals tone-sculpting capabilities much more powerful than you would expect. Utilizing Dr. Z’s version of a Baxandall tone circuit, these controls offer fairly traditional high and low frequency sculpting from the fully counterclockwise position to noon. Past noon, though, the frequency boost comes with a bump in preamp gain. The result is that there are many more voices and gain gradations available than the deceptively simple 3-knob preamp implies. What’s more, the post-phase-inverter master volume is removed from the circuit when it’s maxed if you want to run the MK. II wide open.
The Z-28 Mk. II uses a 12AX7 in the phase inverter and has a 5AR4 tube rectifier. Cathode biasing of the output stage means you just pop in new replacement tubes when the time comes—there’s no need to re-bias, which is very convenient. Although the 5881s can be substituted with more common 6L6GCs—also with no bias adjustment—the Doc tells us: “I like the 5881s better than the 6L6s I tried. The 5881s seem, to my ear, to be closer sonically to the 6V6, which is what I was trying to achieve in the Mk. II.” Otherwise, a look inside the chassis reveals the same kind of high-quality, handwired circuit that we have come to expect from this Cleveland-based maker.
The Mk. II is an able successor to the original, and then some. I should confess here that I was a fan of the dual-6V6 Z-28 from the time of its release, and I chatted with Zaite about that amp’s merits on many occasions. In my estimation, the Mk. II simply brings more of the good stuff to the table, without leaving out any of the stuff that made the Z-28 great.
A big part of this amp’s magic is in the character of the EF86 pentode preamp tube, which is thicker, lusher, and more full-frequencied than a 12AX7 in most circuits. This tube’s capacity to be pushed hard without folding into self-distorted fizz means the signal is bold, clear, and articulate before it hits the next stages of the amp. As a result, the overall voicing and character is classic ’60s-era American, but it’s complex—blending late tweed, early ’60s brown-panel, and mid-’60s black-panel tonalities with a little extra girth and muscle that tends toward Marshall-like—especially when pushed to overdrive.
As such, the Mk. II makes a great clean-to-mean template without any help from pedals. And the versatile tone controls extend the broad range of voicings considerably. While It’s probably not the best shred platform, the Mk. II’s ability to span roots and blues colors, rowdy classic and garage-rock sounds, and even jazz tones is impressive. The preamp’s copious headroom and robust performance also makes it an outstanding platform for drive pedals—without exhibiting any of the sterility that the handle “pedal platform” often implies. The Z-28 Mk. II lapped up the output from a TS10 Tube Screamer, Tsakalis Six, Wampler Tumnus Deluxe, and JHS Angry Charlie with ease and relish. The master volume works great, too, meaning you can explore the Mk. II’s voices at much lower-volume settings than the Mk. I could handle and dig every minute of it.
The Z-28 Mk. II is a clever reimagining of a well-loved original Dr. Z design. And it quite simply delivers more of everything that won fans for the already impressive Mk. I. Simultaneously stout, thick and articulate, with beautiful cleans and excellent overdriven tones, it’s also a great drive-pedal platform, and a dynamic and expressive amp by any measure.
- EF86 preamp delivers a high-fidelity sound with outstanding dimensionality and dynamic response
- Delivers everything from crystal-clear cleans to muscular overdrive
- Clean tones makes a superb pedal platform; effects sound like they're built right into the amp
A 50-watt tube combo that weighs just 24 pounds.
Light! Powerful. Wide range of sounds.
Channel one can sound flat without pedals.
Blackstar St. James 50 EL34 Combo
Whether or not the push toward lightweight amplifiers is a lasting trend (and why wouldn’t it be?), the quest for less tonnage is definitely yielding interesting amps. Fender’s recent digital simulacrums of the Deluxe and Twin demonstrated that light weight and vintage-correct style can co-exist. Blackstar, too, has made “lighten the load” its modus operandi for the new St. James series. But rather than using digital means to drop pounds, Blackstar stuck with tube amp architecture. That leads us to the St. James 50 EL34 reviewed here: a proper 50-watt, 1x12" tube combo that, remarkably, weighs just 24 pounds.
Blackstar calls the St. James—which comes in 6L6 or EL34 and combo or head/cabinet versions—“the lightest 50-watt amps on earth.” They’re hardly bare bones, though. The St. James 50 offers two differently voiced footswitchable channels, onboard power reduction (50 watts to 2 watts), a digital cab-modeling DI output, digital reverb, an effects loop, a USB connection, and more. And that distant roar? It’s the sound of 10,000 guitarists’ aching backs delivering a standing ovation.
The St. James’ two channels give the amp a strong transatlantic personality. With a single volume control as well as bass, middle, and treble controls (shared by both channels), channel one aims for glassy, slightly scooped American clean tones. Channel two features gain II and volume II (a channel-specific master volume) and the shared EQ section. It’s built for British-style tones, which, in this case, range from Vox-y chime to stack-style roar. Toggle switches on the top panel provide channel switching and a boost for channel two (a footswitch is also included for both functions).
That distant roar? It’s the sound of 10,000 guitarists’ aching backs delivering a standing ovation.
Because the St. James is built around a top-rear-mounted chassis, many connections are situated on the underside of the chassis. But Blackstar thoughtfully provides arrows to the essential connections, so you don’t have to lie on the floor to find them. Connections include USB audio-out for direct recording and loading Cab Rig presets (via the included editing software); a footswitch jack; an effects loop send and return and level switch, a 3-way Cab Rig preset switch; a line out/headphone jack; and a balanced output (a reactive load inside enables silent recording when desired). There are also two 8-ohm speaker outs and a single 16-ohm out.
Inside the semi-closed-back 20" x 18.25" x 10.25" cabinet, which is made from light candlenut plywood, you’ll find a St. James-exclusive, super-light, ferrite Celestion Zephyr 12" speaker. Both cabinet and speaker contribute significantly to reducing weight. The retro-modern, fawn-colored cabinet, incidentally, does a nice job of stylishly communicating its Anglo/American split personality.
In addition to two EL34 output tubes that generate the back-end power, the Blackstar includes two 12AX7s in the preamp. Tube nuts will know that this isn’t enough to generate an old-school, all-tube front end, so clearly some elements of the circuit have taken a solid-state detour. That said, this complement allows for tube gain stages in the most critical positions, and aids the weight-reduction effort by requiring less electrical power, filtering, and other hardware.
The St. James 50 EL34 is powerful. It covers a lot of ground, too. Generally speaking, channel one aims for a black-panel Fender baseline but reads more as a blank slate. That means it excels in tandem with pedals, yet can also feel short on gain coloration. After all, a little breakup and compression is usually part of the formula for most classic ’60s clean machines. A simple OD can rectify this though. A Wampler Tumnus Deluxe, Way Huge Red Llama, and TS10 Tube Screamer all brought out the best of the St. James’ tamer side. Kick one of those on, or chain a couple together, and there are toothsome bluesy leads and thumping rhythms aplenty.
Channel two goes from clean-with-grit to medium gain with the drive beyond 2 o’clock. It also kicks out juicy, classic-rock lead tones when pushed with the boost. It’s important to note that the boost level is preset and elicits a volume jump that varies according to drive II and volume II settings. Sometimes it’s a major leap, but it’s great for getting more sting out of channel two.
There are a few characteristics shared by both channels. The amp tends to bark in the upper midrange, almost regardless of EQ settings. It can also be pretty biting in the treble zone. Both conditions seem as much a function of the speaker as the amp itself and could mellow as the speaker is broken in. On the upside, the treble-forward profile and volume on tap mean you won’t worry about cutting through a dense stage mix. Both channels sound surprisingly beefy in the 2-watt mode, too. The digital reverb, meanwhile, is atmospheric and lends a nice sense of space, though there are no super-surfy spring sounds.
Blackstar’s St. James 50 EL34 1x12 Combo offers potency, useful extras, and a nice array of sounds in a very light package that will make many backs very happy. It’s priced competitively with mid-power offerings from other big guitar-amp manufacturers. It’s also incredibly practical, demonstrating that tube power still has a place at the featherweight amplifier table.
Blackstar St. James (EL34) Demo | First Look
A modeling amp in vintage disguise.
Pros: Great balance between digital power and simplicity. Lightweight and super affordable. Nice app for editing.
Cons: Footswitch not included. Some functions are not intuitive and require a look at the manual. No digital readout.
Line 6 Catalyst 100
Line 6’s Catalyst series is the latest in a generation of amplifiers bridging the gap between digital modeling’s enormous possibilities and many players’ desires for old-school simplicity. These amps offer detailed, convincing amp models—but not too many of them—in a compact, vintage-style design that makes avoidance of option fatigue a priority. The very accessible prices also make the series a direct competitor to Boss’ ultra-successful Katana amps. The Catalyst is offered in three models: Catalyst 60 and Catalyst 100 (both of which have one 12" speaker), and the Catalyst 200, which has two 12" speakers. For this review I tested the Catalyst 100, which sells for a very modest $399.
The Catalyst has plenty of bells and whistles. On the surface, though, it looks a lot like a simple, conventional 2-channel amp. There are knobs for boost, gain, bass, mid, treble, presence, channel volume, effect, reverb, and master volume. There’s also a knob that lets you choose from six original amp models: clean, boutique, chime, crunch, dynamic, and hi gain. Mini buttons let you save and choose between two channel presets or engage manual mode, where what you see is what you get. Other mini buttons allow you to engage boost, tap tempo, and select effects and a tuner. On the back panel is an output power knob that lets you choose from mute, ½ watt, 50 watts, and 100 watts. There’s also a USB jack, a DI out, and an effects loop.
Six Amps in One
There’s not enough space in this review to cover all the amp models in depth. And I suspect that for many players even just a few used through the full range of their clean and dirty variations will be everything they ever need. Still, the Catalyst’s abilities and potential—especially relative to its price—will excite any potential user.
I started my own experiments with the boutique voicing at the ½-watt output setting. Predictably, there’s not a lot of output in this mode, though it’s a lot of fun as a practice amp. At the 50-watt output setting, though, I could hear and feel the amp in a more complete way. There was headroom to spare and it’s impressively dynamic and responsive to picking nuance. And it was surprisingly easy to get SRV-style bite out of otherwise clean, blues-tinged phrases—again, very impressive. The useful boost knob lets you dial in extra kick, and, thoughtfully, each amp model has a specifically tailored boost voicing. In boutique mode higher boost settings added a lot more gain to the amp model’s cleanish sound, and the saturation sounded and felt organic.
The chime model, loosely inspired by a Vox amp, is warmer and thicker than the boutique model in cleaner settings. But when I engaged the boost (with the knob at noon) and set the gain knob around 11 o’clock, the amp positively screamed—generating an aggressive and at times piercing sound that would reward a player with a commanding approach like Eric Gales or a 1960s-influenced guitarist who loves the potency of single-note lines.
The high-gain model, meanwhile, is a fire-breathing beast. With the gain at 11 o’clock, there is plenty of bottom end, and the sensation of the amp moving air becomes more apparent. Engaging the boost softened the attack slightly, which made soloing more liquid. But there wasn’t much of a difference through the range of the boost knob from noon to max. The amp model is pretty saturated to begin with.
There was headroom to spare and it’s impressively dynamic and responsive to picking nuances.
No Jumping Through Hoops Running Loops
Using the clean model, I ran my Yamaha UD Stomp delay through the effects loop. The results were dimensional and often sublime. The power-amp-in feature lets you plug in a pedalboard and play it directly into the Catalyst 100’s power amp. I used another setup, with a Mesa/Boogie V-Twin preamp pedal, directly through the Catalyst’s power amp and it sounded phenomenal. And even though the preamp is bypassed in this mode, the boost function is still active. Set at 10 o’clock, it added a nice final touch to the Mesa/Boogie preamp’s clean channel, making it sound discernibly richer. In my humble opinion, just the power amp and speaker cabinet alone are worth the $399 price.
Though Line 6’s acclaimed HX technology is embedded in the Catalyst, the company did a good job of keeping options easy to manage and navigate. There isn’t an endless buffet of effects, as you might expect. There’s a standalone reverb, and apart from that you can only use one additional effect simultaneously, unless you bring your pedalboard to the party.
In total there are 18 effects, grouped into three categories: delay, modulation, and pitch/filter—each with a corresponding LED in green, blue, or purple, respectively. If you’ve used Line 6 products before, many of these excellent effects (and the color coding) will be familiar. There’s the fabulous dynamic “ducking” delay, some modulation models based on iconic pedals like the MXR Phase 90 and others, and some classic Line 6 pitch/filter effects like growler synth and synth strings. If you do want to use more effects simultaneously, the effects loop is an excellent way to patch in external effects.
The USB hookup, by the way, enables connection to a computer so you can use Line 6’s editing software, which allows you to dive deep into tone editing or just fine tune a few things. I imagine that, in reality, most users will just figure out how to get a couple of core sounds directly from the amp, save them, and just go with that. But it’s always great to have options, and if you’re someone that actually maximizes the capabilities of modelers and editors, you’ll have a field day with the app.
For any guitarist looking for an all-in-one, plug-and-play setup for practice sessions, live shows, and recording (you can record directly using both USB and the built-in DI with cab simulation), the Catalyst, at $399, is pretty tough to beat. It’s got more features than many players will need, but what will count for most of the target audience is how much you can accomplish without diving too deep. And though the price might suggest otherwise, Catalyst isn’t just for beginners or intermediate players. Any professional guitarist that’s tired of dealing with tube related maintenance and expenses will be happy with many of the sounds here.