Tremolo Shootout & the 'Tone Versus Price' Controversy

Alright, tremolo shootout time. I promised it was coming, and now I’m actually making good on that promise. Unlike my promise of the ‘Using Delay in Modern Music’, which I’ve been talking about for months, and have yet to post. Apologies. Apologies…all around. (And if you can name where that quote came from, I will literally give you a kiss. But mostly because I think my wife’s the only one who can name it. Quite a gamble on my part, though; because if I’m wrong……and someone else names it……basically, if you know it, and don’t want my lips anywhere near you, just keep quiet.) 

I was asked to do this shootout by my brother, Eric. (Eric is not really my brother, but I call everyone ‘brother’, because that’s what Robert DeNiro and Val Kilmer did in ‘Heat’; and I perpetually live my life under the delusion that I am in that film (and U2).) He wanted to hear a bunch of tremolo pedals next to the Danelectro Tuna Melt tremolo; which gets rave reviews, even though it only costs like, $25 used. Which is definitely not enough to sound good in the price/tone equation. ;) 

deniroheat2           deniroheat21
(Wow, this is a great film. What a shot. Add a little U2 soundtrack as you’re watching the confliction in that scene, and life doesn’t get much more emotional. Is it bad when you feel more emotion in a film than in real life? Probably. That’s how I knew I loved my wife. I was like, ‘You make me feel better than ‘City of Blinding Lights’!’ Yep.)

Which is actually why I jumped at the opportunity to do this shootout. I’ve been getting a bit of flack on youtube lately because of all the boutique pedals sounding better than the mass-produced ones. I’ve been getting messages asking me if I’ve purposely set the knobs on the mass-produced ones to sound bad. hehe And while it’s like, ‘Hey, if your ears tell you they sound bad, then they sound bad’, it’s difficult for me to prove how hard I try to get the cheap ones to sound good, and how badly I would love to find the cheap ones that sound better than my boutique ones so that I could then sell everything and go buy food. (Eh…it’d probably be more guitars.) So…in order to try to vindicate myself, ;) , I’m trying really hard to find some good sounding mass-produced pedals. And I gotta be totally honest, there’s been a lot of bad sounding ones. hehe Please don’t kill me for saying that.

The Players

Sorry guys. I couldn’t get all the pedals you asked. One of my stipulations when I do these is to not lose money (hehe…riiiiight…well, at least I try); because obviously, I cannot keep them all. So I have to resell them for at least what I paid…which means I can’t buy these things new. So, for instance, I was looking for, but could not find, good enough deals on the Fulltone SupaTrem and the new Seymour Duncan…what’s it called…the ShapeShifter, I think? The one with the tap tempo. So again, apologies. But I did get a couple that I’ve been wanting to try for a while.

–Guyatone Flip Tube Tremolo (with a JJ 12AX7 tube)

–Monster Effects Swamp Thang

–Cusack Tap-a-Whirl

–Danelectro Tuna Melt

The Signal Chain

I chose to do the strat exclusively on this one because I haven’t done that all that often in these videos, and because trem just seems strat-ish to me. I don’t know why. I always feel like the single coils like it better.

Gerard Melancon strat (Lindy Fralin blues)–>
–>Swamp Thang–>Cusack–>
–>bypass looper (–>Tuna Melt/ –>Guyatone)–>
–>Holland EL84-based amp–>
–>65 Amps cab with a Blue and G12H-30

Possible Personal Biases

–I’ve had the Guyatone for the longest, so I know my way around it the best. It’s also one of the last things on my board for the time being from True Tone in Santa Monica, and I always love having gear I bought from LA because, again, makes me feel like I’m Val Kilmer in ‘Heat’, which in case you’re wondering, is never a bad thing. So I really wanted to like it, and have wanted to like it for a number of years.

–But at the same time, I can’t stand the orange color of the Guyatone. So part of me really did not want to like it. So maybe that balances out? 

–At the first tone workshop I ever went to, the guy running it had a Monster Effects Swamp Thang. And it sounded incredible. Ever since then, I’ve wanted one; but they’re a bit hard to find as I don’t believe they’re made anymore. Plus it has vintage-style knobs, and a green led…gorgeous.

–The Cusack cost the most. I wanted to sell it. And the red knobs are ugly.

–And the Danelectro. Like I said earlier, I was really hoping this might be the ‘mass produced yet good sounding’ pedal. The Bad Monkey was definitely decent, but it didn’t really come too close to the boutique-y stuff it was up against. But at the same time, I’ll be honest…part of me is very scared that one day I’ll come across a bunch of cheap stock pedals that totally kill my expensive ones, and hence subsequently ruin that wonderful sense of false, boutique superiority I get when I bring my pedalboard places. ;)

And the Shootout:

 

The Conclusions

Wow. Probably the most interesting shootout I’ve done…because I don’t think there was a clear-cut winner. At least for me…not sure I’ve found my trem yet, even thought they all sounded very good. (Even the Danelectro! Yeah!)

–The Guyatone I think might have had the best effected sound over all the spectrum of different trem sounds, as well as the most versatile. But what it did to the dry signal I did not like. It’s funny, this has been on my board for years. There’s a good little dose of humility. I liked it a few years ago when I bought it, and then just used it sparingly whenever trem was called for, which isn’t too often with me. Then I finally try it against some other trems and it’s like, ‘Oh.’ But at the same time, the actual tremolo sound was great, and it could get both slower than all the others, and more pronounced on the slicer stuff. And admittedly, I’m a freak about ‘the integrity of the guitar signal’, so I can see some people loving this pedal. And I wouldn’t think them wrong to do so. It did suck a good bit of tone when not in the loop (at least to my ears), and it does need its own adapter.

–The Swamp Thang was, I think, hands down the warmest and most vintage sounding. Extremely smooth, warm, touch-sensitive, and really had that vintage amp throb. Absolutely loved it. Only issue was that this thing was definitely built for warm, vintage trem; if you want a slicer out of it, it really didn’t do that articulately or fastly (made that up) enough.

–The Cusack sounded great. Not as vintage-y as the Swamp Thang, but still very warm; yet keeping enough cut to be able to do the faster tremolo thing and the slicer thing. Definitely the most original. Being able to switch between wave forms, and to ‘brake’ into a slower trem sound smoothly and with a footswitch, was really cool. Tap tempo is also a very useful feature. Although I do wish you were able to set the tempo by hand when you wanted to, also. But it seems a lot of thought went into the build of this, to be able to get it to do the full spectrum of trem sounds, to do them all well, and to add some cool originality to them.

–And the Danelectro…okay…honestly…really sounded good. The hard setting sounded fake, but on the soft setting? A little less organic in the swell of the throb (yikes, musicians talk weird) than the others; but you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference. And at a couple of magical settings, I thought it might even sound better than my beloved Guyatone. Does suck a noticeable amount of tone when not in a bypass loop. But for $25 used? Crazy difficult to find anything better at that price!

The Keepers

Well, they all had their strong points and their weak points. The Guyatone was a great trem, but as I’m a freak about the dry signal, it was out. And the Swamp Thang just melted me. Loved the sound! But in order to keep it on my board, I’d have to get another tremolo for the fast sounds, and I don’t have the board space for two tremolo pedals right now. So it’s out (for the time being, at least…until trem becomes like delay for me…wait…heresy!). And the Danelectro sounded really good…but it just couldn’t match the tone and versatility of the Cusack. So I’m keeping the Cusack, but keeping my eyes open for something that’s just like the Cusack, but maybe with a depth switch to get the warmth of the Swamp Thang, and with the ability to set tempo with a knob or a tap switch, rather than just a tap switch.

So what does this all this mean?! Vindication!! See? I do like cheap pedals after all! Score. I’m not just sub-consciously setting the cheaper ones to sound worse! ;) But wait…the one I ended up keeping was the most expensive one! Blast! I’ll keep looking…I’ll find that cheap pedal someday. And hopefully in Hollywood…so I can keep pretending.

val-kilmer_bw51
(I mean, how can you not pretend to be that? Sorry. Is it uncomfortable when I talk this way? At least the hair…come on, you gotta admit!)

Splendid.
Karl.

0 thoughts on “Tremolo Shootout & the 'Tone Versus Price' Controversy

  1. good stuff! i actually liked the Swamp Thing but all of them sounded good (even the Dano). Too bad, you didn’t have the Empress Tremolo. I would have loved to hear it side-by-side the Cusack & Swamp Thing.

    I think tremolo is one of those effects that you can easily abuse so some variety in uses would really help. thanks!

  2. HAHA!! DANO!!! WHOOO WHOOO!!!

    (Devil wears Prada? *cough)

    Nice vid as always. In the coming month I’m debating whether I’ll use the Dano more or the Seymour Duncan. I’ll see.. ;)

  3. Karl,

    Have a Swamp Thang on the way in the mail. Ordered it direct from the maker in GA. Talked to him once last year when he was in the process of upgrading the “Thang”. He told me that he would shoot me an email as soon as he had things together.

    He reduced the foot print to about the size of….well…it looks like it’s the same size as my Java Boost or Keeley Compressor. He removed the half speed switch and upgraded all the hardware. The tone has remained the same as far as I can tell. It will also take a positive or negative tip 9v adapter without a problem.

    I was almost ready to drop the coin on either a Demeter Tremulator or Diaz Tremodillo because the Swamp Thang was getting so hard to find. It was almost like a message from God (Yeah right! Jesus cares what trem pedal I use.) when I got the email. I had looked at the Guyatone at (pause….sounds of retching) Guitar Center and liked the tone but hated the color (Color is important when considering trem pedals.). Understand the desire for the chopper effect but at the present time…..(This 15 seconds in my life.) I don’t have much call for it.

    Mark

  4. Oh yeah…and vintage tone is pretty important to me. I’m the only guy I know that’s crazy enough to have a Fender Vibratone setting in the corner of my living room. My wife has got to love me.

    Mark

  5. Hiya Karl -
    I have the Empress Trem and I’ll never look back. It really is amazing and if you can manage to try one, you really should. Besides the straight up tremolo sound you can also set it to have a rhythm that accents specific beats. (i.e. every other beat, every third, every fourth, etc.)
    There is a switch to change the trem between the warm tube type, a triangle wave, and a square. There is also a two-speed option that is somewhat self-explanatory.
    So for even more sonic fun – I sometimes use it in conjunction with the EMpress superdelay. I set the trem to square, full depth to get a super choppy trem. Then I set the Superdelay to “auto-sense” the delay time. (Think of it as using your picking pattern as the “tap”. The result is a really wild delayed trem effect that swells and changes as you play. Tap in a different time on the trem and it changes what the delay gets. Very cool. turn up the repeat rate on the delay and it just gets even crazier.
    I’m a big fan of Empress. I have all three of his pedals and am utterly impressed with the quality, in build and in sound quality.
    I have no affiliation with the Empress Effect company. Just a big fan.

  6. Rhoy–yep, the Swamp Thang had my favorite ‘warm and vintage’ sound out of all of them. It just wasn’t versatile enough for me at this time. A few years ago, when versatility didn’t matter at all to me, and I would have had 3 pedalboards if it meant ‘no tone compromising’, I would’ve kept it and then gotten another trem for the faster and more pronounced sounds. But…thankfully those days are over. haha If I ever get super rich, I’ll go on a search for the Swamp Thang again just to keep in my bag for the times when I just need simple trem and so pedalboard.

    And I was really close to pulling the trigger on an Empress trem, but I just couldn’t find the right deal on one in case I didn’t like it and needed to resell it. But hopefully soon! Then I’ll do a follow-up shootout between it and the Cusack.

    Larry–haha Yep! And ya…it did kind of hurt…lol No, not really. I’m just stoked that now maybe the youtube folks will go, ‘Oh, he does like some stock pedals. Wait, then maybe the ones we thought sounded bad in previous demos really did sound bad!’ haha

    Mark–I absolutely agree! Color is so important! ;) hehe And you have a Swamp Thang? Man, I’m so jealous. I so wanted to keep it, but I just need more versatility right now (or, as you said, for the next 15 seconds.) But it did sound incredible!

    And you have a Vibratone? Mmmmm…

    Kenrick–I thought about putting the trem setting on the Glass Nexus in the shootout too, but…uh…kind of forgot. lol But the digital trem is cool for what it is, but I don’t think it really captures the warmth or realness of the analog ones. That would’ve been nice to hear, though. Blast my flighty memory.

    Tom–good to hear from ya! I was totally going after the Empress, and just couldn’t find the right deal. But it does look really intriguing, and Empress has obviously got something going if you’ve got so much of their stuff…your board looks rad. Hopefully I’ll be able to try one out soon. :) Man, you guys are killing me! I just got rid of my orange tremolo, and now you’re getting me into another one!! lol

    Kenrick, Rhoy, and Tom–would love to hear some samples! And Rhoy, yours sound great! :)

  7. LOL! i didn’t even remember that Empress is also orange! can’t wait to see the empress & cusack shoot-out, hopefully soon :)

    btw, were you talking about the samples from the empress site that i linked here or something from my site?

    i got to be honest with you. after reading/listening to this post, i was thinking of doing a post regarding different uses of tremolo particularly in worship setting … thanks for the inspiration brother!

  8. ill be darned ,Karl ive been in the buisness for 20 some odd years and i never noticed how much are effects are robing are tonal ( spell check) quality’s ! kudos my freind i cant wait to hook up my rig and check my EQ. as soon as your video started i noticed the cheaper pedal robing your high end . surely only aficionados like all here will notice such suttle effects but alas ive learned something tonight weeeeeeeeee love this blog . keep up the good work god bless craig

  9. hey mark , ive got the same sitting under plastic its kind of a pet of mine ( old fender ) . ive wanted to see what its worth its in mint condition so ive been sitting on it for 10 years . these amps are so cool ill probably never sell it just like to play and look at it now and then !!

  10. Craig,

    I’ll never sell it. Bought it off of this old guy that played jazz and gave lessons. I never met a man who could play so few notes and sound so good. Vibrato to die for. I’ve also got this mini vibratone made by Songworks. Nice match with my old Princeton. It’s part of my anti-effects set up.

    Karl,

    I don’t have the “Thang” yet but I’m sure looking forward to getting it. I got used to vibrato when I used to play primarily with my Princeton but my current amp doesn’t have it and I kinda miss it.

    Mark

  11. hi Karl, im kind of new here and trying to catch up . so i was researching the old posts and subjects looking for your guitars ? and couldnt find them is it in the near future ? or did i miss that section ???? you reference them and my curiosity grows because i can not find a pict. yet ! so i hope its coming to a blog near me soon . thanks craig

  12. Rhoy–awesome, bro! I’d love to read that post!

    And I was talking about the ones you linked here; although I thought I remembered some of your previous clips featuring the trem a bit. I could be wrong…

    Eck. Orange. lol ;)

    Craig–thanks, bro! And I’m glad this could be of some use! Ya, some effects really do take away your tone. It’s extremely important to use bypass loopers and/or buffers if there is like, more than four effects in your chain. Sometimes even if there is only one! :) Good times.

    Mark–let me know how it sounds when it comes in!! I’m stoked to know he’s still making these. :)

    Wilfried–haha No worries! I appreciate all the suggestions……or, well, maybe the one suggestion…from everybody. lol Guess I’m gonna have to try the Empress! :)

    Craig–ya, they’re on this post:

    http://guitarforworship.wordpress.com/2009/01/16/guitar-tone-part-1-the-importance-of-a-good-instrument/

    Towards the bottom, I reference four of the guitars I’ve owned, and the last two pictures are the ones I’ve currently kept. :)

  13. Hey, my friend Cory told me about you blog and I have just loved looking through your posts (along with all the U2 references :) I too am a bit of a fan) Anyways, a little off the topic, but what kind of loop switch do you use? I am starting to get a good size pedal board going here and am getting sick of the pedal tap dance routine. I live in Kauai and there isn’t much as far as music stores here so I have to find everything online. The only things I see on guitarcenter.com is for like 2-4 loop bypasses but am needing something bigger. Just wondering what you use or what you would recommend for someone who doesn’t want to have to take on another job just to finance one :)

    Thanks,
    J

  14. Hey J,

    Sorry about your comment not going through! I was just looking through my spam box to make sure that doesn’t happen, and I found yours and another comment. :) My apologies.
    Anyway, it’s great to have you here, and welcome! As far as loops, the ones I use are Loop-Master. And I would highly recommend them! Incredible build quality, and great guy to deal with. You can order them direct from him (his name’s Brian Price) at http://www.loop-master.com , or you can find them used from time to time on ebay or on the emporium section of http://www.thegearpage.net/board (well, when it gets back up and running again). :)
    I hope that helps! And again, welcome!

    Cheers,
    Karl

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