How to Create Classic Amps from Pedals

I think as gearheads, there’s one thing we can agree on: Gear rules, and the more, the better. Being surrounded by gear is awesome, and many guitarists would likely love to have enough pedals to make a “pedal angel” on the floors of their practice rooms. The same goes for amps: having 10 amps in the basement or rehearsal space is the best thing ever. Players everywhere wish they could fill their spare bedrooms with classic amps and cherry-pick the finest for any given playing situation. There aren’t many guitarists out there that don’t dream of this exact scenario: a robust stable of gear with which to play music until their graying days, and even beyond.

Of course, this is a tainted utopia. Time, spacial—and most of all, monetary—constraints severely limit the arsenal of equipment we can acquire and reasonably use. Unless a player happens to be Alex Lifeson, they can count on not having the luxury of using a different guitar for each song. And as far as practicality is concerned, a new guitar for each song is even more practical than a different amp for each song—that’s just being silly.

Faced with this, there’s a good chance that most guitarists have one or two amps, a handful of guitars and pedals. What follows is a guide on how to make an amp sound like a classic, with just a couple pedals.

The wildcard: The equalizer, preferably parametric

Let’s face it, if a player owns a really mid-heavy or otherwise tonally cemented amp, one that has a recognized sound such as a Vox, there’s no way around using an EQ to shape the sound, and running it first in the chain. My colleague Jamie has written a full article about parametric EQs. In it, he talks about the ins and outs, so to speak, of parametric usage. I’m not going to get into the details about how to use them, but they are a vital tool for pre-shaping your sound before these pedals, in case the amp is lacking in some way or another.

Marshall JCM800 (Keeler Push + VFE Focus)

The JCM800 has certainly experienced a revival as of late at the hands of metal and doom musicians. Many of the loudest and most hirsute bands use them to pile-drive audiences into submission the world over, but of course, this is not what they were designed for. When introduced in 1981, the JCM800 soon found its hands into players such as Buddy Guy and other artists not normally associated with the amp, such as Brad Nowell of Sublime and Brett Guerwitz of Bad Religion. Amp novices that crave the tone of these amps may be surprised to know this.

Marshall JCM800

By containing a Master Volume control and chaining ability, this allows JCM800 amps to get unbelievably nasty, but most people aren’t chasing those kinds of tones. They desire the creamy, mid-rangey goodness of which original JCM800s made great use. Here’s how to get it.

For my money, the Keeler Push is the quintessential Marshall Pedal. Yes, the Dirty Little Secret is awesome, but that pedal is meant to cop the tones of the Plexi and Super- series. Hear me out. The Keeler Push, in all its gooped glory, takes three controls from the JCM800—Volume, Gain and Treble—and delivers 75 percent of JCM800 tones in spades. It’s harmonically complex, it has a great “feel” and the sound is unmistakably Marshall. The combination’s remaining 25 percent is delivered by the VFE Focus. It’s essentially a series of filters that can incrementally dial in the best Marshall tone ever. All it needs is great source material, provided by the Push.

Vox AC30 (Bearfoot Emerald Green Distortion Machine + TC Electronic Spark Booster)

Vox AC30

It’s hard to believe that the Vox AC30 is over 50 years old, or that it was developed at the request of musicians who couldn’t hear their guitar tones over throngs of screaming fans. Though there were many British amp builders back then, none of them were nearly well received as Marshalls or Voxes. In fact, Vox amps may have the advantage in notoriety because some band called The Beatles used them.

When the AC30 originally arrived on the scene, the “Top Boost” everyone knows and loves actually wasn’t a standard feature. Eventually, the amp gained its signature argyle grillcloth right around this time, Vox began implementing its Brilliance feature into many of its models. Eventually, this came to be known as the Top Boost channel, which was basically an extra gain stage with treble and bass controls.

It’s hard to find a better “cranked AC30” tone than that of the Emerald Green Distortion Machine by Bearfoot. There are four knobs: Volume, Voice, Distortion and Treble. The Voice control is basically the “Vox knob” as turning it allows players to dial in Voxiness with ease. The TC Electronic Spark Booster is much like the Top Boost or Brilliance of a Vox AC30, as it is one of the only extra gain stages one can add to an amp with individual Treble and Bass controls. Also, there is a Mid setting on the Spark, so players can sort of “reverse” the Vox sound by adding the mids in after the gain, for some interesting sounds.

Fender brownface amps (Wampler Black 65 + Catalinbread Pareidolia/Topanga)

1962 Fender Brownface Deluxe

The so-called brownface amps from Fender are among the most legendary of all Fender equipment. Manufactured after “Tweed” and “Blonde” eras, the brownface era was produced between 1959 and 1963. Tube-based spring reverb was the hallmark of these amps, as well as their chewy tones. Originally, the brownface amps were somewhat low-output and more unrefined, making them great rock ‘n’ roll amps, yet they still cleaned up stupendously with the guitar’s volume knob, making them exceptional at both ends of the floor, so to speak.

Aside from tube-based reverb, a big plus for the brownface era was Leo Fender's “not-quite-a-vibrato” vibrato circuit. Much debate has raged back and forth as to what kind of effect it actually is, with each side landing in ambiguity. Such an ambiguous yet beautiful effect begs to be recreated via pedals and I would be remiss to speak of brownface amps without it.

Firstly, the Black ’65 from Wampler makes a pretty convincing brownface sound. I know, I know—BLACK ’65. However, diming the pedal and then rolling the guitar’s volume knob back just a hair will suffice nicely. The pedal has a full three-band EQ, so tailoring it a guitar’s pickups is a very easy task. The Catalinbread Pareidolia and Topanga offer the distinct vibrato circuit and tube spring reverb emulation, respectively, to help duplicate the brownface tone in the player’s head, as there are six different models in this era.

Tiny recording amps (Mojo Hand FX Superlative + Source Audio Programmable EQ/Ibanez LF7 Lo-Fi)

Fender Blues Junior

Old-timers out there may remember a time when tiny one- or two-tube amps were a fixture in every budding musician’s home. I refer to them as home fixtures because most of them resembled a piece of retro furniture. So ubiquitous are these amps that it’s not out of place to find them in vintage or antique shops that largely have nothing to do with musical equipment. These low-watt monsters are nearly as voluminous in brand as they are in number; it seems like there are hundreds of different brands out there. One thing’s for sure, though: these little suckers can cook when turned up, and they make excellent recording amps as a result. Recall that amp distortion wasn’t really a “thing” when most of these were being made, so the breakup is a gnarly afterthought and a byproduct of true man-versus-physics mayhem.

It should stand to reason that guitarists lusting after this featherlight breakup tone should have several of these at his or her disposal, because they’re widely available. This is true. However, when gigging guitarists need this tone at shows, and only temporarily, this can present a problem.

Luckily, Mojo Hand FX has paid homage to the classic Supro amps with its Superlative (get it?) and all is well in the early-breakup world. This awesome drive isn’t so much “low-gain” as it is “all-gain,” as its meant to simulate a small tube amp on the verge of total meltdown. Its Hi-Lo toggle switch emulates its ability to run ultra-hot at the slightest volume nudge, retaining this exceptional breakup sound. Emulating the tiny speaker of these amps is a job only an EQ can do, and the Source Audio Programmable EQ offers users presets so they may emulate one or many of these tiny amplifiers—I suggest differing presets according to speaker sizes. If a one-and-done box is preferred to get this type of raspy, lo-fi tone, the Ibanez LF7 from the Tone-Lok series does just that: it’s a rather powerful tone shaper with an inherent Drive control which gooses the front of any amp with plenty of scooped-out goodness. Be sure to set the toggle to Guitar and melt some tubes—or better yet, why not both?

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