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In Defense of the Blues Driver

Hello Troubadourians. In my January column, I responded to a question about a “sustain pedal” from a guitar player. I recommended a Fulltone Fulldrive2 MOSFET Overdrive/Clean Boost pedal over his initial interest in a Boss Blues Driver. I’m sure that there are plenty of guitarists in San Diego and elsewhere who read the column and wondered why recommend one over the other. The Blues Driver is a well made, solid, reliable pedal that sounds good. But as one of the first pedals on the market that sought to replicate the sound of an overdriven tube amp – a task that it performs well – the Blues Driver has now become somewhat dated as newer pedals have been developed, which are even better at tube amp tone replication. Additionally, player’s tastes have changed and evolved as the technology of effect pedals has changed and evolved. Some pedals that were once a must-have for everyone are now found in closets, junk drawers, and languishing in the bargain bin of your local music store, while others have been adapted to function in ways that weren’t obvious when the pedal was originally introduced. I believe the Blues Driver falls into the latter category. To explain this further, we really have to define some basic parameters of how guitar effects are generally used.

First approach… Let’s begin by asking, “Is the unaltered sound of your instrument plugged directly into your amp a significant component of sound?” If the answer is “yes” we can assume that most of the effects you use will be “off” at least as often as they are “on.” This is significant in that this means you’ll usually set the effect’s gain (or output level) to be the same as the basic level as your amp whether the effect is on or off, and implies that you tend to use the device as an alternative to your unaltered sound. Most guitarists who take this approach in their use of gain-type effects use a “clean” sound as their basic sound and use a gain-type pedal to get a distorted or “dirty” sound. Whatever your unaltered sound is, if you use a gain-type pedal to alter the tonality of your sound rather than to alter the volume level of your sound, then you fall into this category. The preference of most of the players in this category is to control their volume and dynamics from their guitar and by altering their playing approach. Using a gain-type pedal offers these players the option of obtaining the sound of a “cranked-up tube amp” while maintaining their normal volume levels and dynamics. This was the original intended use of the Blues Driver and I’m sure there are still many players that continue to use it this way. But as players’ demands for more sophistication in the amplifier tones that gain-type pedals could produce (or reproduce), the limitations of older pedals such as the Blues Driver became more pronounced and they tended to fall out of favor for players who use gain-type pedals as tone alteration devices.

Second approach… With regard to my earlier question, we’ve discussed the players who would answer “yes,” so now let’s discuss those players who would answer “no.” Some players rely on a gain-type pedal to define their sound rather than to alter it. For many, if not most of these players, the basic sound of their amp is almost irrelevant as their “tone” is generated by the pedal, which is always on.

At one time, most players wanted an amp tone like Fender, Marshall, or Vox. Amps from Hiwatt, Orange, and Boogie were also available but not nearly as prevalent and were often too expensive to be used with much regularity in club bands. But that didn’t stop players from wanting the tones those amps produced. Complicating things further, many “boutique” amp builders – Dumble, Trainwreck, Matchless, and Rivera, just to name a few – entered the fray, each with their own unique take on “good tone,” and in the process also succeeded in creating some sounds that had never been heard before. Of course, players wanted the cool new sounds that these new amps were producing but few could afford a boutique amp. Fortunately, the development of gain-type pedals was becoming more sophisticated at the same time and designers of these new “boutique” pedals were able to re-create the tones of these boutique amps at a fraction of the cost. Players were able to buy a “Dumble-like” or “Matchless-like” or any number of “Marshall Plexi-like” pedals and achieve their “dream tone” through just about any amp. That is as long as they never turned the pedal off. The Blues Driver just couldn’t match the sounds of the new “boutique” pedals.

But how would a player use a gain-type pedal to emulate a boutique amp tone through a different “plain” amp? Let’s assume for a moment that a player wants his amp to sound like Robben Ford’s amp. Okay, this equation has two parts: one, do you have 20k-30k to buy a Dumble like Robbens? And two, can you actually play like Robben? No, and No? Well, there’s a solution to the first one at least. You can purchase a Hermida Zendrive for about $200, run it through just about any amp, and get a “Dumble-esque” tone. In fact, this is exactly what Robben does when he’s unable to use his expensive Dumble on a tour. He simply hooks up a Zendrive to a Fender Super Reverb, turns up the output level, and viola, instant Dumble. The key here is to turn up the pedal’s output level such that the tone of the pedal completely dominates – or masks – the natural tone of the amp. It’s that last step that enables players to use their boutique pedals to make their amps sound almost completely like the boutique amp the pedal is emulating.

Sometimes though, the amp already has the tone you want, but it’s often not loud enough for live gigs. Re-enter the Blues Driver. One of the abilities of the Blues Driver, as well as other pedals that were originally designed to be a simple emulation of an overdriven tube amp, is that they can produce an uncolored, boosted signal into the input of an amp. This allows the player to get a small amp to sound much bigger – and louder – without changing the inherent tone of the small amp. So, that old Blues Driver, which was once gathering dust in the closet, has found new life driving the heck out of the input of a small amp while making it sound much bigger. Remember, just don’t turn it off…

Which approach is the right approach for you? Most of you who have read this far already have an opinion and know which approach works for you and, hopefully, you enjoyed getting there. For the rest of you, I hope this article helped you become more informed as to why players make the equipment choices that they do, so you can make the best choice for yourself.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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