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Best of 2011: Premier Gear Awards

Step right up, ladies and gents. You''re about to revisit 21 pieces of gear that gave us the proverbial slap upside the head, left us shaking in our seats, begging for more, and screaming at the thought of living in their absence. Welcome to the parade of 2011 Premier Gear Award winners.

What makes a Premier Gear Award winner—particularly when about 90 percent of the gear we saw this year could be considered for the distinction? Well, above all, what it really means is that a guitar, bass, pedal, or amp spoke to the reviewer in a deeply personal way and opened up a sense of possibility or an avenue of expression. It means that, somewhere, a manufacturer, designer, garage-based pedal builder, or sawdust-churning luthier has applied their talents to create something extraordinary by any measure.

But perhaps most important, each of these tools spoke up in their own voice and said, “There is music within these wires, wood, and circuits. Come! Take it and make it yours!” We’re quite certain you’ll find your own tune lurking in one of these objects, however beastly, beautiful, or bizarre. We can’t wait to hear what you come up with.

In its original incarnation, the Way Huge Green Rhino was one of those effects that, in the eyes and ears of some players, grew to be more adored than its inspiration. Way Huge’s take on the TS-808 was never built in large numbers but it was treasured for taking the Tube Screamer tone template and widening its sonic spectrum.

We gave this reissue a Premier Gear Award because it so beautifully manages to pull the same trick twice. As we noted in our original review, the Green Rhino jumps off from the bluesy, thick tone made popular by the Tube Screamer and adds a little more clarity, low end, and bite.

Reviewer Jordan Wagner praised it for “delivering gritty, vintage blues tones with a little extra width and clarity.” He also noted that the “100 Hz boost/cut control is capable of transforming the Green Rhino from a blues lead powerhouse into a gutsy, standalone overdrive that preserves pick dynamics for everything from 16th-note riffage to Stonesy rhythm work.” It’s enough to make us scream, “Welcome back Rhino!”

When we first heard about the Dumkudo Overdrive, it was in hushed whispers of a “Dumble in a box.” As it turns out, the Dunkudo Overdrive is much more than that. Gear Editor Charles Saufley declared that it’s “one of those seemingly living, breathing pieces of musical gear that will talk back to you, point you down a different path, and holler encouragement. Or give you just what you need when you want to play it safe and speak up within your comfort zone.”

PG found that the three switchable voices give the Dumkudo a flexibility that’s “bound to appeal to everyone from blues and roots-rock players that like a little more horsepower under the hood to jazzers willing to dabble with more impolite tones.” The Dunkudo can move from mellow to menacing at the drop of a hat—and it looks pretty freaking cool doing it, too.

We were onboard the minute we heard that Richard Goodsell was building an amp powered by 6973 tubes—the tube of choice behind many low-to-mid-powered 1960s Valco, Supro, and Gretsch amp circuits. We also knew that in the hands of Goodsell it would become something very special all on its own.

Editor in Chief Shawn Hammond dug the wide range of tones, from the fat and slightly scooped Wes Montgomery sounds to the bright, biting, and twangy textures. But he was bowled over by the tremolo, remarking “I’ve never encountered a warble that sounded so fat and three-dimensional… at about 10 o’clock and Depth cranked—it was like Hendrix playing “Machine Gun” through a Leslie!”

We’re used to Richard Goodsell building great stuff. It was especially nice to see him venture out from the tried and true templates this time around—and with such spectacular results.

Nick Cave sideman and Grinderman multiinstrumentalist Warren Ellis may not seem like the most likely candidate for a signature axe—heck, he spends half his time playing fiddle. But anyone who witnessed Warren the Wizard conjure everything from sweet jangle to hellhound howls from his Eastwood tenor on the last Grinderman tour could will understand the massive potential of both Ellis and this cool, little guitar.

PG Gear Editor Charles Saufley found that “the string spacing makes fingerpicking this thing a delight. And adapting clawhammer banjo techniques to electric guitar tones resulted in some very interesting approaches to both composition and cool-sounding versions of old folk and country standards.”

And while it’s two strings shy of what most of us would consider a full house, he also found the Eastwood to be a guitar of “remarkable versatility—one that can lend thrilling new flavors to roots music, Americana, and internationally flavored jams, as well as worlds of texture to the music of boundary-obliterating experimentalists.” Trust us, you’ll never think of four strings the same!

At this point, we could probably call Strymon relentless. This mad scientists’ club of tone-tweaking kooks keeps obliterating expectations about how analog digital signal processing can sound. But they’re also happy to exploit digital’s potential to explore more exotic sounds and analog emulations in the same unit. And that breadth of vision births wonders like the TimeLine, a studio-grade Delay that leaves few permutations of the effect unexplored in a package that’s surprisingly easy to navigate.

Strymon’s amazing tape delay emulation technology is just one of the delay options on a menu that runs from analog delay staples to super-out-there intergalactic textures. It’s full of cool preset capabilities, filters, and modulation for coloring your repeats. It also has an all-around, can-do aura that we found “infinitely tweakable to suit a musical situation.” This is one tough-to-top delay.

Chicago amp wiz Tim Schroeder is good enough to win the favor of noted gear junkies Jeff Tweedy and Wilco. And these days, that means you also have the ear of otherwordly axe genius Nels Cline. The DB7 is essentially the same amp that Schroeder built for Cline—one that’s since become his main squeeze onstage because it satisfies the sonic alchemist’s need for wide sonic spectrum and sky-high headroom in a midpower amp.

Reviewer Adam Perlmutter found the 6L6-powered, 45-watt DB7 to be “a sustain machine, making the plainest of sonorities a thing of wonder.” He remarked that the “simple act of hitting a first-position chord on the guitar summoned a tone that was uncommonly full-bodied, sweet, and complex.” Perlmutter was also knocked out by it’s beauty, quality, and brilliant design. And if we heard a nicer amp this year, quite honestly we can’t remember anymore—we still hear the sweet chime of the DB7 ringing in our ears.

France’s Vigier Guitars is renowned for uniting evolutionary design with style that’s at once individual and rooted in cherished visual motifs. There’s certainly a whole lot of Les Paul and PRS-style cues evident in the G.V. Wood, yet this guitar is really about the details and the sonic dividends derived from attention paid to little things.

The slick, phenolic, resin-based fretboard is a string bender’s dream, even if it’s a tad hyper at times. The amber body is light and balanced, and the coil-tappable Amber pickups pack tone options for days. Reviewer Jordan Wagner remarked that the G.V. Wood “feels like a guitar for every occasion,” adding that “it yields a beautiful, full-spectrum signal that’s exceptionally responsive to touch.” Given how this guitar reminded all of us how you can still refine the familiar into something spectacular, it was a no-brainer to bestow the G.V. Wood a Premier Guitar Award.

There could easily be a “Coolest Looking Amp” award set aside for whatever Tone King brings out in a given year, but there isn’t. The reason the Galaxy received a Premier Gear Award in 2011 is because this swingin’ 60-watt, 6L6-powered bachelor pad fixture sounds crazy sweet on top of looking fit for the Dean Martin Go-Go combo that never was.

Premier Guitar found it capable of everything from “surf-able cleans to biting blues,” and was driven to qualify the output as some of the cleanest, punchiest, most harmonically rich tones we’ve ever encountered. The onboard attenuator makes it truly usable as a sonic living-room fixture. But we also found it “blisteringly loud” and ready for the stage. It was just about impossible to find a flaw in construction anywhere. Did we mention it looks cool? Dang!

It gives us great faith to see how far Z. Vex has come while indulging such sick pedaldesign impulses. The Lo-Fi Loop Junky was one of the most glorious symptoms of the illness. And with the new Lo-Fi Junky (which takes the looper, if not the loopy, out of the equation), Z. Vex has consolidated some of its more delightfully obscene tones.

We could talk tech about how compression and vibrato combine to create its reality- twisting sounds and more mellow and unique textures. But what matters is that this is a ticket to a truly new Tonelandia if you’re willing to buy a ticket. From chorus to wacky warble to a compression that reviewer Jordan Wagner called “staggeringly good,” this is one twisted genius of a pedal.

Some of us don’t mind too terribly if our guitars sound like they were tuned by a sleep-deprived member of the Kingsmen from time to time. Most of us, however, like to tune a lot and prefer that our guitars stay that way. And others have the nerve to prefer alternate tunings that stay in tune, which no matter how you size it adds up to a whole lotta peg-twisting. That reality apparently got guitar innovator Trev Wilkinson thinking. The result is the Fret- King Super-Matic, a self-tuning marvel that really works in standard and alternate tunings alike.

The real magic of the Super-Matic is the latter capability. It makes the guitar a real solution to the guitar-that-can-doit- all dilemma, if that’s your concern. Features like the Vari-coil pickup coilsplitting system and the fact that you can store your own preset tunings make this a guitar you can personalize for a multitude of situations.

There’s no shortage of fools that have gone in pursuit of Jimmy Page’s Led Zeppelin I tone, forgetting that it was a combination of studio wile, an all-analog studio signal path, and a certain set of magical, genius fingers interfacing with a mind open to wildly divergent influences. Even still, Satellite Amplification did us mortals the favor of resurrecting one of the most vital components of the equation—a beautiful take on Jimmy Page’s Supro Thunderbolt cheekily dubbed the Mudshark.

This dead-simple, 5881-tube powered, 20-watt, blue sparkle meanie, is a thing of minimalist beauty. And we discovered that it can very stylishly move from wellmannered to malevolent, finding that it “remains defined during complex chord work, and exhibits pick sensitivity that we have rarely experienced in an amplifier. It’s very honest, with beautiful grit and nary an ounce of dampening or over-compression.”

It may not get you all the way to “Dazed and Confused,” but it can get you part of the way in style and perhaps open up some unexplored facets of your own playing along the way.

Andy Fuchs’ Plush line of effects have been turning up with ever more regularity on the pedalboards of frontline guitar rippers. If the Jersey Thunder is any indication, bassists will soon be falling in line—especially if, as reviewer Jordan Wagner observed, the Jersey Thunder can summon frequencies from your bass you may not have even known were there.

Like so many Fuchs products, from amps to pedals, the Jersey Thunder seems built with an ear for touch sensitivity. The versatile Shape control moved Wagner to comment on how he could summon punch without loss of clarity. He found the Slope EQ settings “perfectly tuned.” Little surprise, perhaps, given that Andy Fuchs is behind it all—but maybe a revelation for bass players in waiting.

Breedlove built its rep’ on top-quality guitars that walked just a little off the beaten path. The Focus SE Custom Walnut couldn’t do a better job of holding up that tradition. With walnut back and sides and a redwood top, it’s a beautiful deviation from bread and butter tonewood combinations.

The result, as reviewer Gayla Drake Paul noted, is a guitar that’s “simultaneously dark and brilliant, thanks to the snappy-but-deep qualities of the walnut back and sides— which sound a bit like a cross between rosewood and mahogany—while the redwood has the warm detail of cedar.” Gayla also loved its rich and varied personality: “it’s quite loud, projects extremely well, and is responsive to a light touch—all of which translates to great dynamic range. Play it whisper-soft and you’ll get a crystalline, delicate tone. Dig in, and the Focus SE rocks without significantly blurring overtones.”

We also noted it’s a guitar that “gorgeously illustrates how Breedlove has helped bridge forward-thinking and old-world styles.” We’re thankful that Breedlove still knows how to walk that walk.

In tackling a re-interpretation of the underground legend that was and is the Roland Bee Baa, Black Cat not only gave new life to one of the great unsung fuzzes, but lent some of its own twists that make it a standout in a cluttered cosmos of buzz ‘n’ fuzz boxes.

The strength might be a beautifully skuzzy, but surprisingly meaty, ’60s-style fuzz in Bee mode, a switch to Buzz mode rendered our candy apple Bee Buzz a brawny cousin to the Fuzz Face and Big Muff clans.

Gear Editor Charles Saufley was moved to gush that the “Bee Buzz is a brilliant beam of stinging light in the world of brawny, super high-gain fuzzes,” and that “with the flip of a switch it transforms into a meatier Muff-like fuzz that can run with those tigers, too.” For those who don’t mind risking the sting, the Bee Buzz is one burly little bugger that can rise above the din.

Rarely has such an ambitiously named piece of gear lived up to its handle. No joke, this little box really can sound like the whole freaking cosmos in all its exploding, nebulous glory. It’s a pretty nice straightforward reverb, too, if that’s your need or fancy. But smart and free-ranging players will take advantage of all its multitudinous capabilities, and will no doubt make some very interesting music.

Space does its magic by spinning out sonic tangents from 12 basic reverb algorithms, including Hall, Room, Plate, Spring, and Reverse and more esoteric algorithms like Mangledverb (distorts and detunes reverb tails), Shimmer (shifts pitches in reverb tails and lends a touch of harmonizing), and Blackhole (lends an overtone-rich, morespacious- than-space feel).

The latter is a particularly apt descriptor because this Eventide can truly be a Black Hole for practice time. Few pedals have ever made a single D chord so cool in so many ways. Those who care to venture further into the ways it will interact with more nuanced playing risk never returning. Like the universe itself, Space is virtually endless. If you go, don’t forget to write.

If you’re among the more visionary folk who agree that an amp can look like something other than a vinyl- and cloth-covered fruit crate, the Anacon Technology Zagray! is your white knight. It certainly won’t hurt that it sounds amazing, too.

The 23-watt, 7591-powered head, which evolved very publically on forums, much to the delight of circuit nerds, was built by tinkerer extraordinaire Aleksander Niemand. While it looks like a handful, PG reviewer Steve Ouimette found the Zagray! quite capable of everything from simple clean Strat tones to Montrose- and ZZ Top-style crunch—praising a midrange voice that he claims “smokes just about every amp on the market.”

He was also very reluctant to let it go when Niemand needed it back, saying: “few amps I’ve played over the past few years offer the flexibility, performance, tone-shaping options and pure fun of the Zagray! If I had to choose a single studio amp for my work, this might be it.”

We may not have moved along enough in our musical evolution to require the extended possibilities of things like fanned frets. But when the time comes that a regular old four-string is standing in the way of you playing your best, the Dingwall Z3 5-String is waiting to launch you to the next level.

According to reviewer Dave Abdo, you could sum the Dingwall in the words “versatile” and “balanced.” In fact, he “was able emulate the punch of a StingRay or the warm, plucky sounds of a jazz bass with a simple turn of the pickup selector.” No mean feat for a single bass.

The fan frets had Abdo counting himself as a convert in no time at all—finding the layout comfortable and intuitive after a spell. Most of all, he really came to appreciate that the Dingwall could do it all, from rockin’ moves that seemed almost incongruous to its advanced appearance, to the fancy fretwork it looks born for.

If the Totally Wycked Audio Triskelion TK-1 looks more than a little like an instrument sent across space by some sinister Klingon-ian kingdom to do harm, well… it kinda is. Inspired in many ways by the Maestro Parametric Filter and Systech Harmonic Energizer, it’s a filter that boosts and modifies specific frequencies—often in radical ways.

The TK-1 proved to be a multi-dimensional weapon. And we noted that it was easy to set the Triskelion to take advantage of a guitar’s given strength, hone in on the harmonic sweet spot of a guitar or pickup and boost it. But as its aggressive visage suggests, it’s just fine with getting mean, and we were moved to remark that it’s “graceful and at home when heavy, and will drag you and your guitar happily screaming in pursuit of lingering notes and harmonics.” Clean or dirty, we found lots of reasons to love the TK-1. For bringing so much life to our axe work in spite of its Wycked appearance, we felt it most deserving of a Premier Gear Award.

Acoustic guitars don’t get much prettier—or prettier sounding—than this. Santa Cruz’s Don Edwards Cowboy Singer honors one of America’s genius cowboy poets, but it’s also about the nicest interpretation of the classic, all-mahogany Martin 00-17 that you’re likely to see.

Like so many Santa Cruz guitars, the Cowboy Singer oozes with understated luxury. And while it may be inspired by a classic, it has a personality all its own. Gear Editor Charles Saufley remarked, “the Santa Cruz has a dimension, brightness, and crystalline tone that you could safely call uncommon for this tonewood recipe.

He also noted “the fact that Santa Cruz gets such a wide spectrum of sound and projection out of a small-bodied mahogany acoustic speaks volumes about Hoover’s extra-mile manufacturing methods, which include thin nitrocellulose finishes and timeconsuming, tap-tuning of tops. And the payoff comes in the form of an extremely dynamic, touch-responsive guitar that can gracefully accommodate stylistic shifts.” A sweet singer to be certain.

The Nolatone Rotten Johnny was in the running for the prettiest amp we saw all year. The beauty went more than skin deep. The 15-watt, 12" speaker equipped, 6V6-powered amp proved to be quite capable of clean and nasty tones thanks to a well-designed control set and circuit.

Reviewer Steve Ouimette was prompted to remark that “the Rotten Johnny doesn’t lack headroom. Because there is so much control via Pre and Post gain over how hard you hit the tubes, I found myself digging deep into the wealth of Strat-friendly clean sounds you can get with less aggressive use of those controls.”

On the flip side, Ouimette noted that he “was able to dial in AC/DC rhythm tones with just the right amount of kerrang and chime to create the illusion of a blaring baby JTM45.” All that and a cabinet that drove many of us to drool, left us little choice but to bestow a Premier Gear Award.

The cult of Gilmour is a mighty army. It even has a team of engineers dissecting his tone around the clock—picking it apart down to the very last brick in the wall, so to speak. Sometimes they yield discoveries for the rest of us. Take the Skreddy Lunar Module Deluxe—unabashedly created to transport us to the microgrooves of the Dark Side of the Moon LP, but also a fuzz of wild flexibility.

Reviewer Joe Charupakorn was quick to note how beautifully the Lunar Module Deluxe tamed the more temperamental side of silicon Fuzz Faces like Gilmour’s. He further observed that the Skreddy “gives the player even more control over this notoriously hairy circuit with a variable-gain input transistor, as well as a tone control for added brilliance that’s helpful for tailoring the pedal to different guitars and amps.” Great for Gilmour-heads, but a sweeter Fuzz Face clone for the rest of us, too. Meet you on the dark side, then?