What Ever Happened to the Rack Guitar Rigs of the '80s and '90s?

There was a time in the mid-'80s to early '90s when any guitarist working in the realm of rock would have bet their Boogie that the traditional rig—consisting of a few effects pedals into a guitar amp—would soon go the way of the dodo. The rack system was it, baby, and who would expect to see anything but a big-ass rack rig in the backlines of concert stages the world over?

After all, those 19-inch reverbs and delays and harmonizers weren't going to wire up themselves. And where would your three-channel tube preamp go, and the dual-100-watt power amp that you slaved it all into? Guitar pedals and old-school amps—leave that stuff for the garage bands and blues clubs. Even your aspiring weekend rock warrior at the 200-capacity local venue was racking it up circa 1989. Analog pedals and integrated traditional amp heads and combos? Chances are, soon nobody would even make them anymore.

Which, of course, never happened. But for a while, that's sure where the guitar world appeared to be headed. So what happened to those rack-centric rigs, what replaced them, and have they found a fresh role in today's music? To get there, let's talk to some of the key techs from the heyday of that sector to find out how the whole phenomenon got started in the first place, why it suited guitarists' needs so well at the time, and whether it really went away... or just evolved into something different.

Early Days: Pedals and Switchers

Robert (Bob) Bradshaw's name and his Custom Audio Electronics (CAE) company are synonymous with custom pedal controllers, switching networks, and rack-based guitar rigs. He veritably initiated the trend, was at its epicenter throughout the boom, and continues to make custom touring rigs to this day. Having started in the business before the stage rack was even a thing for guitarists, he would not only create such rigs for the biggest artists in the business, but would develop and drive much of the technology that helped to make those rack systems work.

When Bradshaw first arrived in Los Angeles in 1978 to work in the industry, however, guitarists were still largely struggling to make disparate collections of pedals and the occasional big studio outboard unit play nice together with traditional guitar amps, and he was navigating uncharted territory to get there.

"When I started," Bradshaw tells us, "it was really just pedals still. So, I was taking pedalboards and instead of them being on the floor, taking them out and rack-mounting pedals, or putting them in different enclosures."

"In fact, the first racks that I ever worked with were stereo component racks, that had a glass front. This was for Buzzy Feiten, who was my first major client. There was a Technics home stereo rack, and I had to put rack rails in it in order to mount the stuff. There weren't drawers yet, per se, there were just pedals mounted at a slant on top, and the rack stuff mounted down below it."

From this rudimentary start, Bradshaw pioneered methods of mounting discrete effects units and building custom remote foot controllers and switching systems to assimilate them into an artist's stage or studio rig. Once the effects no longer needed to be on the floor under the guitarist's feet, the rig could be perceived, and conceived, in an entirely new light. Essentially, long before the multi-FX units of the '90s came into being, Bradshaw was custom-building bespoke "multiple-effects systems" out of whatever any given artist might want to incorporate into a rig, and the service caught on big time.

Over in the UK, prominent techs like Pete Cornish were working toward similar goals. His own work more often consisted of repackaging artists' preferred effects pedals into integral units that enabled them to work seamlessly together, with a buffered output to help them travel the long cable runs required of stadium-sized stages. But as the rack craze got going, this also became more and more a part of his efforts.

With all such ventures, Cornish says, "My first consideration is not to lose the tone and dynamics of the guitar. My main contention is with the myth of 'true bypass.' The true-bypass function, which is promoted by some, can create dreadful problems with a system that uses many pedals. Take, for instance, a 15' guitar cable linked to six pedals, each linked by a 2' cable, and then on to the amp by say a 3-' cable. If all pedals have 'true bypass,' and are off, then the total cable length hanging on the guitar output will be 55'. This will cause a huge loss of tone and signal level."

While alleviating these problems in the early '80s, Cornish built remote rack effects systems and boards for Andy Summers of The Police, James Honeyman-Scott of The Pretenders, John Deacon of Queen, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, and near-countless others, although his meat 'n' potatoes business still revolved around custom pedalboards that remained under guitarists' feet front-of-stage.

Birth of the Rack Rig

Back in the States, Bob Bradshaw was dealing with similar issues on a daily basis. The effort required more than just bundling the individual pieces together and making foot controllers to switch them. "There was a lot of learning how to deal with impedances and stuff," Bradshaw says. "[At first] I was working with pedals mostly, and Echoplexes and stuff like that. And then rackmounted stuff came into it.

"Studio guys would come to me and say, 'I want to use this Eventide Harmonizer…' It was meant for studio use, and the early H910 Harmonizers or the H949s and stuff were 100% wet, there wasn't any control for mixing direct sound with those things. They were made to be used in a mix bus, so there was no dry signal passing through them. And keep in mind, in the beginning all of the effects chains were right into the front end of the amp, and there was no such thing as preamps or effects loops when I started."

To get these complex networks of disparate effects working together, and hitting the amp without significant loss of signal or veracity of tone, Bradshaw developed interfaces that consisted of multi-channel mixers to blend several effects in series. While working with Michael Landau around 1980, though, Bradshaw noticed that however well-put-together the rack system, the resultant guitar tone lost a little veracity going into the front-end of a traditional guitar amp, and the wet effects such as reverb, delay, and modulation weren't translating the full meat of the guitar tone, either.

What they wanted was a better approximation of the sound of these effects as used in the studio, where a guitar amp would be mic'd up and that signal would be run through the rack effects via the mixing desk.

Robert Fripp. Photo by Sean Coon. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

The solution that he and Landau developed—and which he'd apply to the rigs of Steve Lukather, Eddie Van Halen, and other major artists soon after—was to use the entire amp head essentially as a preamp, padded down with a load after the speaker output (initially just a fixed resistor, but later a speaker in an enclosed box to present a reactive load for improved dynamics), and to tap a line-level signal from that, which would run into the effects rack. From there, the signal would be amplified by MOSFET power amplifiers.

"Landau and I did this first," says Bradshaw, "and voila! Here we've got the thickness of the amp sound, because we're hearing the whole sound of the amplifier." While the tone was there, however, the weight and load required to achieve the entire rig was formidable.

"I toured with Steve Lukather from '85 until '92," he recalls, "so we're taking around a Soldano SLO 100 for a lead sound, a modified Marshall for a crunch sound, and a long-box Mesa-Boogie for a clean sound. So this is a big-ass case that you're touring around with! And built into this case it's got these load boxes too, that are rumbling away next to the amplifiers. I go, 'Man, there's got to be a way to cut this down. These amps are being used as preamps. What if we take the preamp stages of these things and put it into a two-rack-space box?'"

Rackmounted Tube Preamps

Around 1987 or early '88 Bradshaw tasked a young amp maker named Michael Soldano with building a separate three-channel tube preamp, with one channel based on his own SLO 100 lead sound, one on a modified-Marshall crunch sound, and one on a Fender Twin-style clean sound. Soldano's X88R was born (named after the year it hit the market). Lukather loved it and took it out on tour, and soon many major artists were ditching their traditional amps for independent preamps.

A Soldano X88-R preamp in a small rack. Photo by Lorenzo's.

As the system became even more rack-centric in the late '80s, Bradshaw and other techs and the artists they served also turned to separate rackmounted tube power amps for their back-end. Early on, these frequently came in the form of powerful Mesa-made units originally intended for the company's bass amps, but makers like VHT, Egnater, and others soon developed better guitar-voiced power amps.

As so often happens, once the rack warriors got a system that took them to the next level, they soon began to see ways in which that could be improved upon too. Noting several ways in which the groundbreaking Soldano preamp could be upgraded, Bradshaw started talking to New York City guitar tech John Suhr, who had recently moved into amp modification and design.

"I was making my living working at Rudy's [Music Stop] in Soho as well as playing the clubs in New Jersey and in an original band in New York City," Suhr tells us. "I met Bob when I ordered my rig. I was unsatisfied with the amp suggestions, and threw myself into designing an amp that better appealed to my taste and ears. I told Bob about a Marshall I loved that I modified, and he asked me to do one for him so he could hear it. I modded one of his Marshalls, sent it back, and he loved it."

Bradshaw takes up the story: "I said, 'John, what would you think about doing another three-channel preamp? 'Cos I think the Soldano preamp needs help.' John and I developed the 3+ Tube Preamp and added our own take and gave it what I think is more life."

A CAE 3+ Tube Preamp. Photo by Techno Empire.

The preamp became a huge hit with CAE customers, including Steve Lukather, so Bradshaw and Suhr started a partnership: Custom Audio Amplifiers (CAA). "I was going to stay in New York," adds Suhr, "but it became too big for Bob to handle alone so I moved to North Hollywood, where I did amp mods, helped Bob build rigs, designed PCBs for some of his products, and built preamps."

Boom Times

Once the rack systems got rolling, they were just about everywhere with professional players, in California—and on world tours—in particular. Suhr remembers the whirlwind that was the rack-rig industry of the '90s:

"We went through a lot of R&D and listening tests... It wasn't about a method or a piece of gear, it was really about what the customer wanted. We didn't build 'racks,' we customized solutions for guitar players. They just happened to turn into racks most of the time. As far as artists, it was really everyone in the scene, including some of the friends I've connected with over the years, like Steve Stevens, Reb Beach, Eddie Martinez, and Frampton, and people like Lukather, Landau, EVH, and way too many to remember."

"And I was involved with situations like, for instance, the racks of Tommy Skeoch of Tesla. [Doing Bradshaw's voice]: 'Hey, John, Tommy needs three Marshalls modified for three different sounds, but will always use two of the Marshalls for power amps, so we need great effects loops to interface and three different high-gain preamp sections…'"

Although his name is better known today as the brand behind one of the rock world's favorite lines of modified-Marshall-style tube amps, Dave Friedman also got his start in the industry via the rack-rig boom.

Friedman was just a youngster in the business when he moved to Los Angeles from Detroit in 1987, nearly 10 years after Bradshaw's arrival there. He first took up work at Andy Brauer's Studio Rentals business, doing gear cartage for major artists like Lukather, Dean Parks, and Michael Landau, which got him into the same circles in which the other rack warriors were moving. When Studio Rentals' custom-rack guy left the company, Friedman hit up the boss with a "Hey, I think I can do that for you!" And the rest, as we say, is history.

"I was putting them together, assembling them, and eventually that snowballed over time," Friedman tells us. "I've done rack systems for everyone known to mankind, Eddie Van Halen and the like. But it all started with Bob Bradshaw assembling rigs and stuff, and there were all sorts of new rackmounted effects devices that started to pop up in the '80s. The SPX-90 [a Yamaha reverb unit] came along and Eventides and Lexicons, and people wanted to incorporate those in their rigs."

Although the rack system appears big and cumbersome to many guitarists today, Friedman declares, "In reality, a rack is kind of simple. And if you think about it, if you have a rack preamp and a power amp and effects in one rack, the only connection is your pedalboard connection and your speaker cables, so it's actually quite simple. There's actually less setup than separate heads and pedalboards and such."

"They were intuitive, easy, and would allow you to be professional," adds Suhr. "I plugged my guitar into the front, two speaker cables to the cabinets, one multi-pin to the controller, and I was ready to play. Plus, you could easily craft it to have sounds that nobody else had."

Changing Times

Having entered the rack game near its peak, however, Friedman wasn't in the business long before the trend began to tail off. Asked about that time in the late '80s and early '90s when the industry was predicting the death of the traditional rig consisting of a guitar amp and a handful of pedals, he quips, "Yeah, well, that didn't pan out! [Laughs.]"

Friedman elaborates: "The music changed in the early '90s and then you start to see pedals creep back into the scenario more like it was in the '70s. Lots of players wanted to incorporate pedals into their rigs again, so often we saw the racks starting to go away, and pedalboards starting to take back over."

In addition to the boutique pedal boom of the '90s, the boutique amp craze also tantalized many guitarists with a reminder of how invigorating it could be to plug straight into a raging, hand-wired tube amp and have at it. And right alongside these trends, musical styles were also changing, returning a more raw, ragged, and tech-averse attitude to the big concert stage.

Grunge hit the airwaves and the tour circuits alike, and all at once thousands of guitarists were chasing the sounds Kurt Cobain was making with a few simple '70s-era pedals into the front of whatever standard combo or stack was handy (although he did also use a Mesa-Boogie preamp into a Crown power amp when the gig demanded), or the tone of Pearl Jam's Mike McCready into an old Fender Bassman and the like. Certainly, commercial artists who already had their big rack rigs still took them on tour, but that was no longer the driving trend in the guitar world.

For Bradshaw's part, he saw bust times for rack dominance ushered in partly by the units that were intended to be the epitome of rackmounted effects: the big multi-FX systems.

"A lot of manufacturers started coming out with multi-effects," Bradshaw recalls, "and... you get jazzed about it at first, and then you go, 'No, this thing's a pain in the ass to sit there and press a button and watch the number scroll!' It takes time, and they might switch slowly for channel-switching or MIDI control or something. And they have 12 effects! ART had a rackmount thing that you could use 12 simultaneous effects in 'em, and most of 'em sounded like shit!"

A big part of what did in the monster racks of these rigs' heyday, though, according to Bradshaw, came from the fact that many of the players who first lauded their use were getting fed up with hauling the things around. As Bradshaw puts it: "The guys at the forefront of racks at the time, they're getting older and they didn't want to lug a bunch of gear around. They're not 20 years old any more, they're 30 and 35 and 40 or whatever. Number one, they don't want to lug stuff; number two, freight went through the roof. It was insane how the freight costs got crazy as hell."

Pete Cornish concurs with the latter, and even sites a notable first-hand example: "Discussions with Lou Reed, when he was still touring, revealed that the transport costs to ship his three-part rack had risen to such an amount that it was no longer viable, and we created a smaller pedal-based system that he then used for the remainder of his life."

The Rack's Slight Return

But did the rack system ever really go away? As Friedman, Cornish, Bradshaw, and Suhr all agree, it never so much disappeared entirely as evolved into something else—as touring rigs have done more or less constantly since the inception of the electric guitar and amplifier. Today, racks are still at the center of many large touring rigs, even if they contain different devices than might have populated them in 1989.

"To the question of 'Have racks really gone away?'" says Friedman, "it depends on what you're talking about [laughs]. They've morphed in and out over the years with the sound and style of music; they've come back in a different way now, and now I even wonder if we're going to see guitar rack preamps have a resurgence. I'm kind of interested in that! But the only racks you see today are for larger touring acts. Right now I'm doing a whole backline for Guns N' Roses, and they have mostly pedals installed in racks that they use with their amplifiers."

See one of Bradshaw's recent creations for Deftones' Steph Carpenter in this 2018 video.

"The last rack that left our workshops was in 2007," says Cornish, "and was shipped to Japan for Kenichi Tahara of the band Mr. Children. Since then, we have concentrated on the manufacture of pedals and our own custom pedalboards, but Paul McCartney and Bryan Adams are still using the rack systems we built for them, and I have had them in for servicing recently."

Bradshaw tells us he still builds plenty of rack-based rigs, but the effects going into them are different, and often the formats today lean toward what he calls "hybrid" rigs. "It's mostly pedals," he elaborates. "There's not much rackmount gear available any more, not like there was. And of course, the trend nowadays is Fractals and Line 6 and Kempers. It's kind of come back around to a bunch shit in one box! [Laughs] But the quality of those has gotten better, the technology has improved."

"But I do a lot of rigs that incorporate both pedals and Fractals. I do that with Edge, it's a pretty massive system, and I did another pretty large hybrid system, as I call it, with Steph Carpenter of Deftones. He's got drawers of pedals, he's got a Fractal in there, and he went back to his tube Marshall preamp."

"To me, this is just another cycle," adds Suhr, "a facelift, and not much has really changed. It's the same effects in smaller packages, which can make them more confusing if you are not careful as a designer. I miss the big rig, except for the weight. It was more intuitive, easy to program, quicker to get a sound, and I rarely had to jump through a bunch of menus to do anything."

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