Dave's Corner: Six Totally Crazy Effects

Ever since the dawn of amplification, we’ve had some oddball guitars and freaked-out amps unleashed on the scene. There’s something about the promise of crazy-assed sonic exploration that has delivered the balance of real nut jobs to the effects world. Whether the product of genius or lunacy, the better of these whacked-out creations sometimes prove a source of abundant creative inspiration. The lesser end up as novel distractions at best, sonic dead-ends at worst, but barrels of fun nonetheless.

Let’s take a quick look at six wild and wonderful tone tools, old and new, that boldly defy the bounds of the ordinary. Rather than ranking them or reviewing in chronological order (most defy the bounds of time and don’t deserve the random logic of a competitive list), I'll arrange them in a sort of analog feng shui so they maximize vibrational energy and coalesce harmonically with the ancient ley lines…or something like that. Let’s consider this a “Part I.” I’ll jump back in with another six in the near future. Also, I'm aware these aren’t all “pedals” by strict definition, but you know what I mean.

1) DeArmond Tremolo Control (aka Trem-Trol)

In the world of whack, nothing’s more whacko than devices that mess up your sound by means of actual moving parts—and often such effects are hard to beat for thick, lush tone, too. The DeArmond Tremolo Control of 1946 and a few years after (also sometimes called the Trem-Trol) is one such beast. It’s easy to forget what an impact DeArmond had on the guitar industry, perhaps because they didn’t put their name on notable guitars or amps, but on inventive creations that worked on or alongside them.

This gear brand from Rowe Industries of Toledo, Ohio put out several high-quality sound shapers in its day, from great pickups to a handful of novel effects. Possibly the first true standalone effects box, the Tremolo Control contains a motor that shakes a small container of conductive “hydro-fluid” (not mercury as is sometimes said) to rhythmically ground out and thereby mute the guitar’s signal as it passes through it. These boxes can sound superb, if and when you can find one, although said “hydro-fluid” usually needs to be replaced (effects historian Dan Formosa recommends Windex as a suitable conductive replacement).

2) Foxx Fuzz Wah Volume Machine

Yeah, sure, other multi-fuzz-wah-whatsit effects have been made since fuzz first met wah-wah, but few have sheer ’70s cool and edge-of-destruction sonic freak power of the mighty Foxx Fuzz Wah Volume Machine. I mean, it’s a machine. They spell Foxx with two Xs. The casing was covered in a fuzzy red flock. Plus, this was the first effects pedal I ever purchased as an aspiring noise artist in my early teens, so I’ll give it a sentimental nod any day. Truly, though, this thing sounds wild and groovy in ways that are all its own. The wah-wah has four settings: Brite, Mellow, Funky, and Mellow Plus. The fuzz - derived from Foxx’s much-lauded Tone Machine - is thick and meaty with plenty of edgy bite when you dial it in. There’s even an Octave/Sustain switch for added ’70s psychedelia, a bonus not even mentioned in the product name (clearly the typesetters grew tired).

Foxx was founded in 1970 and closed shop in 1975, so there aren’t many originals around. Additionally, they were prone to shedding their red flocking and jamming the wah treadle and/or the internal pots, but the recent reissue does a great job of recapturing the glory. I sold mine for like $40 to a guy who presumably knew how to de-flock the internals. Yeah, I was a fool.

3) Fender Vibratone/Leslie 16 Rotary Speaker

When it comes to shaping sound via moving parts, the Vibratone is king of the castle. We call them “rotary speakers” but more accurately (in most cases), these things contain a fixed speaker with a rotating drum in front. This channels the sound to produce a Doppler-inducing warble as your whirling guitar tone is redirected out the side ports. Not wanting to let Hammond organ players have all the fun, many creative guitarists of the ’60s started plugging into Leslie Tone Cabinets (the name Don Leslie gave the rotary speaker cab he invented in 1940) to achieve a similar swirly, phasey tone in their own playing. These cabs had built-in tube amps that weren’t voiced for guitar, however, and they weighed a metric ton.

To cater to six stringers, Leslie devised the passive Model 16 cab that could be powered from a standard guitar amp’s output. From 1967 to 1972 Fender built its own rendition under license as the Vibratone. If you’ve only ever played a transistorized simulator, Uni-Vibe clone, or other solid-state faux-rotary effect, you owe it to yourself to get in a room with a live whirling Vibratone or Leslie 16. The sound literally moves, moving you in the process. You can hear it all over Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Couldn’t Stand The Weather album (although I don’t recall SRV even dipping into the glories of the speed-up/slow-down transitions of these things). The Beatles and Pink Floyd also employed these rotary cabs. But, again, you really need to experience one in three-dimensional space to really dig what it can do.

4) Lovetone Meatball

Considered by many connoisseurs of the wildly funky to be the finest envelope follower/trigger filter (aka “auto-wah”) ever built, the Meatball is the result of London guitarist Vlad Naslas’ request of night-shift BBC studio engineer Dan Coggins to build such a device with “the most knobs ever.” The pedal’s 1994 debut marked the birth of Lovetone effects, a partnership between Naslas and Coggins. Later releases such as the Doppelganger rotary/phaser, Ring Stinger ring modulator and Wobulator tremolo were also majorly knobbed-out. Overabundance of controls aside, the Meatball sounds juicy, phat, meaty and, yes, it has to be said, deeply funky. Lovetone closed shop in the early 2000s, at which time Coggins opened his own Dinosaural line (which has to date released only an overdrive and a booster). Unfortunately, this means it costs a king’s ransom to acquire a Meatball today. Sad, really.

5) Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster

Speaking of “king’s ransom,” I’m including this major classic not because it is necessarily all that bizarre in its sound or function, but because it is one of the most expensive vintage effects units you can acquire (around $2,000 to $3,000 last I checked), despite having possibly the least number of electronic components. That in itself is truly crazy. With eight capacitors and resistors and one germanium transistor in the circuit, the Rangemaster has a parts-to-price ratio that makes a used Lovetone Meatball (above) and its deck-of-the-Starship-Enterprise-like control functions seem downright cheap at, oh, about $600–$750 on the used market. But that’s not really the point, is it?

A good Rangemaster can goose your tube amp’s tone in a subtle yet strangely effective way, turning something decent and tame into a sparkly, juicy, slightly snarly, hyper-dimensional doppelganger of itself. Some are willing to pay for that. Many of the very good and fairly accurate clones available on the boutique market can do the same thing, but they didn’t do their thing for Eric Clapton, Tony Iommi, Rory Gallagher and other major stars, did they? Don’t let the “Treble Booster” moniker fool you. These things boost everything (to some extent) while enhancing harmonic depth and dynamics. Note, however, that no two original Rangemasters you’ll encounter will sound quite the same, due to the broad tolerances (and resultant sonic irregularities in use) of the Mullard OC-44 germanium transistors that were used in most of them (sometimes replaced by an OC-71).

6) Morley RWV Rotating Wah Volume

More moving parts! Morley was the high-tech, pro-spec, industrial-strength pedal maker of the ’70s. Its roots stretched back to the ’60s, however, when parent company Tel-Rey Electronics of Burbank, California - founded by brothers Marvin and Raymond Lubow - licensed its rotating-drum echo device to Fender and other major makers (more of which in another installment, perhaps). The RWV is powered by similar technology - a rotating drum filled with electrostatic oil to modulate the guitar signal — to simulate a thick, warbling rotary speaker sound (see #3 above). It could also be used as a rotary combined with power-wah, or with an expression pedal (aka volume or “swell” pedal), either of which are also available on their own without the rotary sound. Built like a tank and nearly as heavy as one, it’s a trippy unit that can’t quite be replicated in purely non-moving circuits. Inventor Raymond Lubow’s use of an opto-cell to control wah-wah and volume-pedal function rather than a gear on a conventional potentiometer meant they were war-zone rugged, too. Aside from all this, it had a thick, rich wah sound that lots of players dig on its own.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dave Hunter

Dave Hunter is a writer and musician who has worked extensively in the USA and the UK. The author of The Guitar Amp Handbook, Guitar Effects Pedals, Guitar Amps & Effects For Dummies, The Gibson Les Paul and several other books, Dave is also a regular contributor to Guitar Player and Vintage Guitar magazines.

See some of Dave's books on Reverb here.

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