Whilst trawling through the obscurities of the 1980s the other day, I was reminded of another long-forgotten facet of the period’s UK rock guitar scene. When I say the word Reflex, I’m heading not in the direction of Duran Duran’s 1984 hit single, but in the direction of Rhino Music’s active pickup range. Released in early 1988 after a good three years of R&D work, which included feedback from Shakatak’s Keith Winter, and Marshall amps demoist Geoff Whitehorn, Reflex Reds were a selection of premium guitar pickup sets, clearly designed to compete directly with EMG, but on their own terms and merits, rather than as copies.
Contrary to some present day advice, Reflex Reds were not introduced as a budget or ‘price-drop’ brand. Upon release, the HSS set cost £170, and twin humbuckers came in at £140, so there was no intention of trading on reduced price. This was premium territory, with a premium price tag. Some of the confusion may be down to the parallel range of Reflex Blues, which is sometimes considered today to have been a sonic alternative, but was in fact essentially a budget option. Reflex Blues were much cheaper than the Reds, with the sets retailing at a max of around £70 in the late ‘80s.
Reflex Reds were a departure from the then existing active pickup technology in that they housed the electronic gubbins within a separate ‘black box’ rather than in the pickup units themselves. The thinking behind this was pretty sound. For one, it dramatically increased the battery life, because power was only required for a single component rather than two or three. The system also allowed the EQ (tone) pot to be separated from the Level (volume) within the overall circuit, which made for much more specific, precise and accurate control over each. It would also make updates/upgrades potentially cheaper and more viable, since a complete revision to the sound could be accomplished merely by switching the ‘black box’, rather than changing the full set of pickups.
The main pros and cons of active pickups are well documented, and applied to Reflex Reds just as with other products. On the plus side, all of the pickups could be built to humbucking spec (even in single coil size), and the active electronics could tailor the frequency range and harmonics to hit an exact tonality. The result would be very low noise, even with characteristically ‘single coil’ sounds. There would also be the scope to push the definition and fidelity of active pickups well beyond the capability of passives. On the minus side, guitarists hate messing about with batteries, and the sound will by nature be processed, so it’s bound to be less ‘organic’ and natural than the tone you get with passive pickups. What to one person would be ‘hi-fi’, would to another be ‘sterile’.
Back in the day, reviews of the Reflex Reds were mixed, but all active guitar pickups tended to suffer some level of negative bias in the press. With so many guitarists preferring a passive setup – reviewers among them – conclusions like “They’re good if you like actives” were often the best these technologically advanced products could hope for. It was different in the world of bass, but it could be hard to get a truly objective assessment of active lead pickups. In Guitarist magazine’s first Reflex Reds review, which hit the streets in April 1988, Neville Marten described the sound of the HSS set, used clean, as “stunning”. He wasn’t so keen on the twin humbucker setup (bridge position in particular), but that was the version without the RG2X mid boost ‘black box’, which permitted a much fatter tone and fared a lot better. Marten’s review was about the most objective I saw, but whilst it was predominantly positive and informative, it didn’t make you think: “Okay, I must have those”.
As you can see in the 1980s adverts I’ve posted above, early celebrity users included T’Pau, Saxon and Shakatak, but Reflex was a major, expensive project and I’m guessing the company would have been hoping to get a much longer list of really big names on board. The fact that Reflex were such latecomers to the active pickups scene probably didn't help, and in any case even the well-established EMG didn't exactly break the likes of Seymour Duncan and Di Marzio out in a sweat when it came to guitar pickup sales. Rhino/Reflex had to be admired for looking forward, when so many other pickup manufacturers were almost exclusively looking back for their inspiration.
Buying sets of Reflex Reds here in 2015 is going to require considerable caution, since the essence of the output comes from the ‘black box’, and not the actual pickups. Even though the pickups were sold individually as well as in sets, I wouldn’t suggest buying them in such fashion today. You can’t just pop down to the nearest dealer and get the rest of the kit, along with a load of gen on the different ‘black boxes’ from a sales advisor. You really need the full kit, with proper documentation as to which ‘black box’ you have, what it does, etc. The same pickups will sound different if you use them with a different ‘black box’, so do beware.
Reflex Reds were, however, a high quality product, into which went a lot of thought money and time. With a full, original kit, you could expect high spec, studio-quality sound, although whether or not that high spec sound would be to your taste, is another matter.
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