It's My Amp In A Box: The Best Pedals To Get Classic Fender, Marshall, Vox Tones & More

Rock music's history can be boiled down to a handful of different amplifiers. But tracking down these amplifiers has become increasingly difficult over time. As a result, the market for amp-in-a-box pedals has exploded in recent years, giving hobbyists, studio musicians and everybody in between a foundation for their tone without breaking the bank.

What is an amp-in-a-box pedal, exactly? The answer is not as simple as accurately reproducing the tone of a cranked up Marshall, Vox or Fender amplifier. Capturing the right feel – response to picking dynamics, building accurate EQ sections and ensuring full range of tones is available across all gain and volume levels – is equally important.

The following amp-in-a-box pedals work best when used as the foundation of your overdriven sound. As many builders recommend, start with your amplifier set clean and with a relatively flat EQ, using the pedal – and not your amplifier - to accentuate frequencies as desired.

1. Marshall Plexi & Hot-Rodded Marshall Tones

Nearly a decade ago, pedals such as Lovepedal's Purple Plexi and Catalinbread's Dirty Little Secret captured many guitarists' imaginations with their ability to faithfully capture tones harkening back to the late 1960s and 1970s. Giving players an upper-mid spike and crunchy rhythm tone made legendary by some of rock music's greatest icons – from Angus Young to Jimmy Page – these pedals soon become staples on the boards of gigging musicians who prefer to leave their Marshall Super Lead at home.

An overlooked feature of many Marshall-tuned stompboxes, however, is the ability to clean up with the guitar's volume knob rolled back. This tone, on full display across Jimi Hendrix's most memorable live recordings, has also been tackled by others – including Wampler's Plexi-Drive and Xotic's infinitely tweakable SL Drive – which emphasize the feel of a cranked Plexi or JTM as much as they do Marshall's unmistakable growl.

Marshall-type pedals aren't without their drawbacks, though. Set at higher gain levels through an already-overdriven amp, your signal can become compressed, dark and muddy.

Best in Class: Wampler Plexi-Drive, for advanced EQ options and pre/post gain switching. Xotic SL Drive for its three-knob simplicity and internal DIP switches.

Recommended Uses: Marshall-type pedals respond especially well with other overdrives and fuzz pedals, as long as they’re first in your chain. Try a tube screamer-type pedal to dial in a lead boost or a silicon-style fuzz for classic, screaming fuzz tones.

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2. Vox-in-a-Box

Some manufacturers found their way into rock history by developing a fleet of game-changing amplifiers. Others needed just one. The Vox AC30 was first made famous by the Beatles on recordings such as “Day Tripper” and later championed by Queen's Brian May. Providing guitarists with a distinctive jangle thanks to its 30 watts of power and quartet of EL84 tubes, Vox's flagship model (along with the 15-watt AC15) remain a wildly popular amplifier from stage to studio.

But with the used market for vintage Vox amplifiers virtually nonexistent – and an online community of guitarists who can't make up their mind about the quality of modern Vox amplifiers – how can one coax the AC30's sparking cleans and jangly overdriven tones from their rig?

That's a question that pedal manufacturers have tackled in recent years. Before his tragic passing in 2016, Catalinbread's Nicholas Harris helped pioneer the Vox-in-a-box with the CB30 and Galileo. The former allows guitarists to dial in Vox's signature low-gain sparkle and the latter to coax a lead tone out of their amplifier not unlike Brian May's famous “Bohemian Rhapsody” guitar solo. Others such as Menatone's Top Boost in a Can and Wampler's Thirty Something may be more difficult to find but ultimately worth the search.

Best in Class: Catalinbread Galileo for pairing a Vox AC-30 and Dallas Rangemaster into a single pedal.

Recommended Uses: Set in front of a clean amplifier for low-to-medium overdrive, with a treble booster (or Crowther’s famous Hot Cake overdrive) in front for harder rock tones.


3. Fender Tweed Champ, Blackface Super Reverb & Others

Fender's place in rock history cannot be overlooked due to their versatility alone. To this day, the likes of Neil Young and the Eagles' Don Felder prefer some of Leo Fender's original designs - like the Tweed Champ - to coax raunchy, saggy overdriven tones from their rigs. The Police's Andy Summers relied on the infinite headroom of the Fender Twin as a platform for their sound. Stevie Ray Vaughan took Fender's Super Reverb to new levels with the help of the trusty Ibanez Tube Screamer.

Appropriately, manufacturers have attempted to provide musicians with the tools to recreate a variety of classic Fender-based tones without breaking the bank for a vintage Tweed or Blackface. While nothing may be able to reproduce the clean headroom of a Fender Twin, pedal makers have focused as much on the responsiveness of these pedals across their full volume range as the tones themselves.

The results vary as much as Fender’s vintage amplifier catalogue. Lovepedal's High Powered Twin Tweed and Catalinbread's discontinued Formula No. 5 provide an accurate level of growl and sag to capture Neil Young's “Hey Hey, My My,” Don Felder's iconic “Hotel California” guitar solo and everything in between. Wampler's Black '65 aims to recreate the tone and dynamics of a Blackface amp at full volume, as does Boss's wallet-friendly FDR-1 Reverb, which adds reverb to the mix, too.

Best in Class: The Boss FDR-1 for its touch-sensitive, snappy tone that pairs nicely with the added reverb/tremolo functionality.

Recommended Uses: For those looking for a lead boost, a tube-screamer type will take guitarists into Steve Ray Vaughan territory. Fuzz pedals work too, but can sound thin and trebly when not EQ’ed properly.

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4. High-Gain: Mesa, Soldano and Others

Distortion pedals have been seen and heard on thousands of recordings since 1978, with the release of Boss's DS-1 and the iconic ProCo Rat. Catching on to the demand for more gain, Mesa/Boogie, Soldano and other amplifier manufacturers would respond for much of the next decade with amplifiers tuned specifically to give guitarists just that. As a result, Mesa's Rectifier series and Soldano's SLO-100 were born, subsequently redefining the sound of “American” high gain in the process.

Few pedal makers have dared to capture these tones in a smaller footprint. Brian Wampler is not one of them. As part of Wampler's acclaimed line of amp-in-a-box pedals, the Triple Wreck delivers on its claim to offer Mesa/Boogie enthusiasts that tight, thick, high gain distortion complete with a 3-band EQ and gain boost. Wampler's SLOstortion pushes the envelope even further, promising to deliver the SLO-100's full range of dynamics – from crunch to high gain – through virtually any amplifier setup.

Best in Class: Either. Both pedals share similar EQ controls and quiet, usable gain at all volume levels.

Recommended Uses: A standalone pedal serving as the foundation of your distorted tones. For those looking for more, each pedal contains a footswitchable boost.


5. Forgotten Icons: Supro & Ampeg

Supro is a name that many guitarists may have only recently become familiar with. But during their 1960s, Supro's Thunderbolt amplifier was used by the likes of Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix to produce a raw, overdriven rock tone that, with its 15-inch speaker, could compete with the loudest of drummers. With three knobs – the same amount you'd find on a vintage Thunderbolt – JHS's SuperBolt was created to faithfully capture the Thunderbolt's sag and roar at a fraction of the price.

Marketed as a foundation overdrive to recreate “Stones” and “Stoner” tones, Catalinbread's SFT is a throwback to Ampeg's increasingly-hard-to-find VT-22 and V4. This pair of amplifiers was marketed towards bassists but quickly became favorites among guitarists for their full-bodied tone. Used by the Rolling Stones in the 1970s and Josh Homme of Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age in the 1990s and 2000s, the SFT has proven capable of covering crunchy, low-gain tones from rock's heyday through more modern stoner rock tones made famous by the likes of Homme – all while serving as a usable bass overdrive pedal, too.

Best in Class: Catalinbread SFT. As part of the company’s foundation overdrive series, the SFT responds well to different pickup configurations and stacks with other pedals without issue.

Recommended Uses: Set to the edge-of-breakup, as preferred by the likes of Keith Richards and others. Set to stoner mode, the pedal responds and sounds much like a vintage fuzz.


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