As the 1980s drew to a close, UK guitar amplification giants Marshall introduced an effects pedal which set out to replicate the characteristic Marshall overdrive sound with a wide array of amps. The Guv’nor, as it was called, proved a great success, meeting with widespread approval from fans of the Marshall rock sound – particularly since the pedal only cost fifty quid.
But as the industry sang the Guv’nor’s praises, Marshall set to work expanding its footpedal offerings into a three-piece range, which hit the UK shops in 1991. Within the new trio, the Guv’nor was replaced with the Drive Master – basically the same pedal (as far as I could tell) rebranded and set in a re-styled casing. Added to this was the Shred Master, which aimed to impress the high-octane metal fans with its heavier saturation, and the subject of this retrospective – the Blues Breaker. It’s most often written as the Bluesbreaker these days, but Blues Breaker is how the name appeared on the pedal itself.
The idea with the Blues Breaker pedal was to simulate the valve-type personality of the vintage 2x12 Marshall combo amp used by Eric Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers band. The amp in question came way before the introduction of controllable gain stages, or even prescribed distortion per se. It was based on a (Fender) design built to produce a clean sound, only running into mild overdrive at high volume due to the inefficiencies of the technology of the day. But when driven hard, the combo imparted a soft and harmonically attractive breakup on the tone, and added subtle delights to the feel of playing the guitar. When you played softly, the guitar remained clean, if warm-toned. But when you dug into the strings the guitar barked with an overdriven grunt. This added to the guitar’s dynamic qualities, and in the early stages of the 1990s blues revival, was one of the most desirable ingredients for the trend-driven electric guitarist. If this pedal could provide, for £55, what would otherwise require a pretty costly amplifier, Marshall were gonna shift a fair old few of these things…
Of course, a single footpedal was not gonna make a cheap practice amp sound just like a revered vintage valve combo. You needed an amp with a nice basic tone to begin with. What the Blues Breaker pedal was built to do, was to add that attractive breakup and dynamic overdrive to a clean amp setting, creating the illusion of that ‘vintage-valve-combo-up-loud’ feel. That, at least, was the theory. Did it work?
In my view it worked extremely well. If you were someone for whom an effect needed to warp the sound beyond recognition, you’d hate this pedal. Using a polite Strat, with the Blues Breaker’s Gain between zero and about 3 o’clock (in other words, most of the knob’s rotation), you don’t get any perceptible distortion. Things only really get dirty in the final quarter turn of the knob, and even then it’s not roaring overdrive. It’s just a bit of vintage roughness. Consequently, there were guitarists who would regard this pedal as a bit of a non-effect. But if you appreciated what Marshall were aiming for, you couldn’t help but marvel at their success.
By far the most stunning trick this pedal has up its sleeve is the most subtle one. Namely, simulating the warm, grainy quality a valve amp takes on just before it goes into overdrive. If you set the Blues Breaker’s Gain control immediately below the point where overdrive becomes obvious (which will depend on the type of guitar), what it does to the sound is phenomenal. As I say, it’s very, very subtle, but for me, it’s the difference between wanting to play for five minutes, and wanting to play for an hour.
Perhaps the next best thing about the Blues Breaker is that there’s a separate Volume control. Almost all effects pedals have them, but it seems to matter so much more with the Blues Breaker. Being able to back off the volume, but still keep the valves-pushed-hard feel is a feature masses of guitarists were searching for, and still are. You do lose some compression as you reduce the input volume of the signal feeding the amp, so it won’t feel exactly the same. But the way the sound breaks up doesn’t change as you reduce the level, so the Blues Breaker fulfils its role.
The final control knob (well, it’s the middle one, but it’s the one I haven’t yet mentioned), is the Tone. This is self-explanatory, and unless you change guitars a lot, you’d probably set it to taste and forget it.
Marshall replaced this original Blues Breaker pedal with an updated version, which is alleged to be inferior. I can’t vouch for that because I’ve never tried the newer model, but the Bluesbreaker 2 is certainly different because it has more than one mode. What I can say, is that the 1991 Blues Breaker was an exceptional pedal, and is still my favourite non-valve overdrive unit of all time. Most of the time I don’t even use it for overdrive. I just let it colour the tone and add its sublime pre-distortion detail to the clean sound. It really is much more inspiring than using a cold, clinical clean sound. For once, the hype surrounding a discontinued device is not misguided, and I hate to say it, but if the subsequent version of this pedal was unable to duplicate what the original could do, then the inflated prices these things sometimes fetch are justified.
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