Buffalo FX's new Ram's Head will satisfy the tastes of players who lust after Gilmour's tone on Animals and The Wall.
If you line up a several original “ram’s head” Big Muffs, each will speak with a slightly different accent. Electro-Harmonix allegedly used some 20 different schematics for this second version of the Muff, which the company introduced in 1973. One constant among originals, however, is their midrange scoop, which can make the Muff a shadowy presence in a live situation.
Precision Muffin Makin’ Steve Painter of Buffalo FX says that addressing this midrange drop was the first priority of his ram’s head clone, and indeed, his NOS BC239C transistor-driven unit has a perceptible midrange bump and increased top-end headroom. The components are period-accurate—everything inside this black box existed in the ’70s.
It’s a beautifully built box too. The Buffalo FX Ram’s Head uses the same enclosure as Painter’s last fuzz, the Germanium. It’s taller than most pedals, which may take some getting used to. One reason for the unusual enclosure is a quick-release 9-volt battery drawer, which might remind Muff fanatics of Pete Cornish’s famous clones. No need to fuss with wires or connectors—just slide the battery into place. (You can also power the pedal with a center-negative 9-volt barrel adaptor.)
The straightforward controls mirror the original: sustain, level, and tone. Input and output jacks are at the crown of the box, and there’s a small blue power indicator LED next to the footswitch.
Stepping Out of the Shadows Because the original Ram’s Head is so closely associated with David Gilmour’s tones from Animals and The Wall, I hooked up a Stratocaster and an Orange OR50 with EL34s to approximate Gilmour’s classic rig. Running a clean output on the amp, I engaged the Ram’s Head with sustain maxed. This setting was a bit aggressive for most of Gilmour’s leads, but dialing back the gain to 3 o’clock let me nail the sustained bends from “Dogs.” However, the maximum-sustain setting proved excellent for mining Tony Iommi’s Vol. 4 lead tones, especially after adding a slight tone bump and switching to a Les Paul with humbuckers. The extra dirt lends a gritty bite to metal-tinged solos without inducing overwhelming feedback.
In a full-band setting, the Buffalo was a revelation. You sometimes need an extra overdrive or EQ pedal to make a Muff heard within a raging band, but not with the Ram’s Head. Painter’s tweaks provide a hot edge that cuts through dense band arrangements with output to spare. Even paired with a dark, reverb-drenched Fender Twin Reverb, the Ram’s Head easily finds a toehold for lead work or rhythm riffing. I performed an A/B test between the Buffalo and several other Muff-style pedals lurking around my rehearsal space, and the advantages of Painter’s mods shone brightly. The Buffalo usually sounded slightly cleaner, with greater midrange clarity.
The Verdict This is the second Buffalo FX fuzz box I’ve reviewed, and my expectations were high. Steve Painter hand-wires, assembles, tests and screen-prints each box, and his dedication shows. The Buffalo FX Ram’s Head’s added midrange presence increases the circuit’s versatility without sacrificing the power you want from a Muff. It’s equally happy with single-coils and humbuckers, and sounds great through both American- and British-style amps. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a rig this Ram’s Head won’t work with.
A stylish, EL84-driven acoustic amp with touch and tones aplenty whether you’re a technique-obsessed finger-stylist or a simple strummer.
Talk all you want about how style doesn’t matter when it comes to gear (though I suspect few loyal PG readers will make so absurd a claim), but let’s face it, there’s something a little bit more satisfying—even inspiring—about taking the stage with stuff that looks undeniably sharp. And the thing about Gerry Humphrey’s handbuilt, EL84-driven Espresso 15 is that it not only looks cooler than just about every acoustic guitar amp in the history of the universe, but it also sounds utterly gorgeous—with touch and tones aplenty whether you’re a technique-obsessed finger-stylist or a simple strummer.
All in the Eyes of the Beholder
Humphrey makes amps one at a time in his Chanhassen, Minnesota, shop, and the focus that’s born from such a work style shows. For starters, he didn’t just look at an old Fender tweed, sketch a reasonable facsimile, and start stuffing wires inside. To be certain, there are traces of classic electric amp designs—if you squint while looking at the front of the amp, you can sort of envision a deconstructed and/or melting Silvertone (and that Humphrey logo looks just a little like the old Harmony script, no?). But the Espresso looks as much like the work of a very creative chair or cabinet builder, evoking the organic and ordered shapes of Danish/West Coast-fusion furniture designs. And every facet of the construction—from the dovetail joints to the beveled carves and the tube compartment—is flawlessly executed.
Unlike a lot of acoustic amps, the Humphrey’s control array isn’t cluttered with parametric EQ knobs, pads, or effects. In fact, any half-wit barbarian rocker who can figure out a Twin Reverb is likely to be at ease operating the Espresso 15. Knobs include input volume (or gain), master volume, treble, mid, and bass, and two small toggles activate a horn tweeter and a bright circuit. The control layout isn’t the only aspect of the Espresso 15’s construction that would be as familiar to an electric player as an acoustic specialist: The tube selection wouldn’t be out of place in a small electric-guitar combo amp—it includes the power section’s dual EL84s, two 12AU7 preamp tubes, and a 5Y3 rectifier tube. Perhaps the one area where the Espresso has something significantly in common with other acoustic amps is its driver—it’s loaded with a light, 10" neodymium-magnet speaker.
Acoustic amps can be confusing tools for the uninitiated, primarily because they’re sensitive and prone to feedback. But that’s less the fault of the amp than an inevitable trade off that comes from balancing output and the natural resonance of an acoustic’s hollow body. But the Espresso 15, apart from a tendency to have a strong resonance in the low end if you’re not judicious with the bass control, is very forgiving and good sounds are easy to get.
With a Martin D-18 outfitted with a passive L.R. Baggs M1 magnetic soundhole pickup and a Martin 00-15 with an active L.R. Baggs Element at the opposite end of the lead, the Espresso tended to sound most natural with the tweeter horn on, the bright switch off, and all three EQ controls down in the lower half of their range. And it’s wonderful that some of the finest sounds are available down this far in the EQ controls’ ranges, leaving lots of room to tailor your sound to a room, song arrangement, or band.
The best analogy or corollary for the Espresso 15’s sonic signature is a high-end tube stereo amplifier, which uses the headroom and warmth of tubes to reproduce the signal from a recorded source. The warm fidelity that you associate with audiophile hi-fi gear is something you hear very clearly in the Espresso 15. It’s not necessarily a transparent amp (a quality that’s of subjective worth anyway, depending on how you play), but it definitely retains the vocal essence of a given guitar.
Turning the horn off enables you to play it safe with regard to feedback. The tone becomes more concise, though you’ll lose a little bit of range, too. Strummers will likely want to keep the bright switch off because, although the amp definitely has the headroom to handle high end without feeding back—and it is way more forgiving than many solid-state models under similar circumstances—it can sound brash with heavy strumming. But the world of extra headroom you get by disengaging the bright switch and manipulating the very effective treble control gives you flexibility enough to create a cool strumming tone.
Running the D-18 through a few fingerstyle workouts and employing a gentle touch yielded sweet, soft, and bell-like clarity that made the Humphrey and magnetic pickups seem like a very natural match—enabling everything from a pure, distinct dread tone to muscular, husky, and crystalline sounds to rounder, mellower Gábor Szab—-style jazz tones when you manipulate the tone controls.
Tuning down to double drop D and running through a propulsive take on Neil Young’s “The Loner” found the Humphrey willing and able to generate ample low end with a heavy but cool compression—and not a hint of bottom-end feedback.
My smaller, all-mahogany 00-15, with its more concise and bell-like sound, was the better match for generating true acoustic detail. In intimate settings—the kind you’d get in a coffee house, small club, or gallery—the Humphrey imparted a beguiling sense of dimension and space, adding soft contours to the undersaddle pickup’s output without trimming harmonic content.
With looks that would be at home in a fine design retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Humphrey Espresso 15 is as close to an heirloom-level piece of gear you’re going to get—at least on the amplification side of the equation. Some of that design elegance translates into ease of operation, particularly if you’re an electric-minded player—for the Espresso just isn’t much different than a blackface Fender. It’s only the sensitivity of the controls that takes some getting used to, like any acoustic amp.
It’s the sound of the Espresso, however, that tips it from the category of a looker to a performer. Acoustic players who treasure absolute transparency above all may not savor the subtle mood and shading that the Humphrey and its tube complement add to just about every guitar. But apart from that trace of color, it retains and enhances the essential voice of every acoustic you put out in front. A lot of open-minded players will savor the Humphrey’s capacity to expand their guitar’s vocabulary in subtle ways. And no matter how lightly or heavily you use the Humphrey to color your sound, you’ll look unquestionably dashing with it onstage. In fact, we’d guess the only hassle that comes with owning the Humphrey is having to upgrade your wardrobe. I mean, you wouldn’t take the Rolls out for a spin in sweatpants, would you?
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The Epiphone version of the Gibson L-00 captures much of the barking, husky sonic appeal that grabbed the ears of everyone from Robert Johnson to Bob Dylan.
Gibson’s L-body guitars are among the company’s most famous, even if the nomenclature used for these models never fails to confuse. Gibson’s small L-bodies are essentially what we would call a 00, and in Gibson’s world, the “double oh” designation refers to its relative level of glitz, rather than it’s size. What’s important in the context of this review is that Epiphone, in keeping with its tradition of offering affordable versions of Gibsons, has introduced the EL-00 Pro—a very affordable take on the iconic L-00—and it’s one of the real steals in our small-body roundup.
Epiphone’s EL-00 Pro is about as handsome as a guitar could be—beautifully proportioned, but distinct with a dramatic waist taper that sets it apart visually from other acoustics of this size. With a deep and nicely executed tobacco burst finish on the solid spruce top, the Epiphone pulls off the trick of looking way more expensive than it is. Grover 14:1 ratio tuners add an up-market feel and offer real tuning stability. (Impressively, the guitar was more-or-less in tune after coming halfway across the country.)
Playability and intonation are both exceptional and pronouncedly better than what you typically see at this price. It’s also one of those guitars where the dimensions feel just about ideal, especially if you’re more likely to have been picking a Telecaster all day. Given these dimensions, switching back and forth between acoustic and electric just feels more natural.
The Gibson L-00 and its cousins the L-1 and Nick Lucas model were always favored by blues hounds and folkies, and the Epiphone version captures much of the barking, husky sonic appeal that grabbed the ears of everyone from Robert Johnson to Bob Dylan.
The primary difference between the Epiphone and one of its forebears is a pronounced high-mid sheen. Hard strummers will probably find the EL-00 too brash in the midrange, and really attacking the guitar with a flatpick generates some of the strident high-mid blur that can belie an inexpensive guitar’s pedigree—this definitely isn’t the guitar you’ll want to use to capture your version of “Pinball Wizard.” That doesn’t mean that the strong high-mid tendencies in the Epiphone’s DNA are a liability, however. In fact, when properly applied, they can be a real strength onstage and in the studio.
That high-end definition doesn’t come in quite as handy in the country-blues settings you’d most likely associate with a Gibson 00, which is bound to disappoint anyone hoping to get instant Dylan for 300 bucks. But fingerstyle phrasings that gain articulation from more high-mid melodic content—think British folk fingerstylists—are a natural fit for the Epiphone’s strengths. The high end has a crystalline, glassy, bell-like quality. Notes are concise and defined, but resonate nicely. And you get a very surprising amount of sustain that enhances slow, lingering finger vibrato and legato work. Offering enhanced low-end horsepower, hybrid or thumb-picking techniques work well also, as long as you don’t thump too aggressively. And with the right touch, you can generate that husky, bluesy quality alongside the clear, ringing, and resonant trebles to create a very balanced voice for recording.
The onboard Fishman Sonitone undersaddle pickup doesn’t exactly enhance any particular merits of the EL-00. In fact, the guitar’s limitations in hard strumming situations are compounded if you’re using the guitar with a PA or amp. But in the light fingerstyle and folk-oriented applications where an unplugged EL-00 Pro shines best, the electronics work well enough to communicate the guitar’s ample charms—particularly given the price of the whole package.
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Read the rest of the reviews in the roundup: