By Scott Auld
Our friends at Suhr Guitars/JS Technologies sent four amazing guitar pedals for us to take a look at. I’ve been an admirer from afar of John Suhr’s guitars since seeing them in Mark Knopfler’s hands in the magazines in the 80s. As far back as I can remember, John has always been associated with gear that exuded a classy, exotic high-end aura. And why not? For years he honed his skills at Rudy’s Music Stop in NYC, making fellow New Yorkers like Lou Reed, Steve Stevens, and G.E. Smith happy. John paid his dues as Senior Master Builder at Fender’s Custom Shop, - the stories of his amp work for Eric Clapton have become legendary, and his JST line of guitars and amps take a back seat to absolutely no one.
So it was no surprise when I opened up the boxes to look over these new pedals. The fit and finish is flawless –much more attractive than just about every other pedal enclosure on the market today. In a gorgeous anodized aluminum enclosure, the first one I opened, the Suhr Riot, looks like it should be mounted on the rear deck of a Cadillac – not our lowly gigging pedalboard. But what are you gonna do? You need to hear them to enjoy them!
The Suhr Riot is a very flexible distortion pedal, ranging from smooth warm overdrive to full-bore high-gain distortion. The Riot was tailored specifically for use in front of tube amps, where touch-sensitivity and judicious use of the volume control to affect distortion levels is a primary consideration. Like a 100w head, your fingers, pick and guitar’s volume knob are your primary controls over exactly how monstrous you want your tone to be.
The Riot features an easy-to-tweak layout which includes Gain, Level and Tone controls, plus a three-position Voicing switch. The Gain control controls the clipping /saturation level that we all associate with the word "gain". Do you want a classic, AC/DC crunch? Or do you want to blister Satriani-esque, legato leads? This control is your first place to go. Your output volume is controlled using the Level knob, and Tone shapes your output response from dark to bright.
That Voicing switch is magical – you get three modes, the leftmost position having a natural, organic, Hendrixy-sound (think good old germanium fuzzbox buzz). The middle position is that modern metal sound – a strident midrange and very tight bottom. The right toggle position of the Voice switch is a vintage high-gain sound, and was my personal favorite – it just seemed to cooperate with whatever I had in mind, riff-wise. For example, I knocked Badfinger’s No Matter What right into next week with that setting – get the idea?
The sleek Shiba Drive is described by Suhr as a “smooth sounding overdrive pedal that will work great with clean amps for a bluesy overdrive tone” – and it’s the truth. I ran my Les Paul R8 into the Shiba drive, into a fairly clean Top Hat Deluxe, and the resulting sounds were very rich and creamy while still allowing the natural character of the guitar/amp combo to shine through. There were no shrill overtones or harmonics, just pleasant, rich chords with a slight midrange boost. Switching over to my single-coil Strat, the clarity of the guitar was not lost – if anything, it was enhanced. The gain that I dialed in was added in a musical way that complimented the richness that my pickups already give me – the mids punched through, the lows were not obscured, and leads were pleasant, not brittle or thin. There’s not usually too much you can say about a smooth overdrive pedal, but the main thing that jumps to mind as I write this is that I did not want to stop playing when I had the Shiba glowing.
In addition to the normal Drive, Level & Tone controls, Shiba has a Smooth Switch with three modes that seems to have the most effect on the higher end of the frequency spectrum. It does what you’d think a Smooth Switch would do – it lets you choose how much mid/high spike you get to work with as your starting point.
The next pedal I plugged in was the first mystery pedal of the bunch for me: what does the Iso Boost do, I wondered? Is this just going to be a clean boost /Beano boost clone? Hardly! As it turns out, the Suhr Iso Boost uniquely incorporates a clean, transparent boost as well as a transformer-isolated buffered signal to cleanly drive long effects chains and long cable runs.
Quoting the Suhr documentation: “The Iso Boost dramatically expands the range of your tube amplifier. As a clean boost, the Iso Boost can vary from unity (buffered) to +20dB of gain.” What does that mean? Well, to put it bluntly, it means that putting the Iso Boost at the front end of your pedal chain MAKES YOUR RIG SOUND BETTER.
Run a long cable from your guitar to your board? Or from your board to your amp? The Iso Boost maintains the integrity of your guitar & pedal chain’s combined sonic signature, while providing a very musical sounding boost. It may not be the sexiest, flashiest pedal you buy, but you just may find the Iso Boost the one indispensable component to keep your rig sounding its best.
Last, the double-wide, two-button KoKo Boost earns my award for Guitar Soloists’ Swiss Army Knife. Why? It’s all about the midrange, baby. KoKo Boost provides both a clean and transparent boost AND a frequency-selectable midrange boost.
Folks who have run FOH/studio audio consoles, or high-end hi-fidelity entertainment systems, will be familiar with a parametric EQ system: you can control which frequencies are getting boosted/cut and how much they’re getting boosted/cut. The KoKo Boost seems to operate from a similar logical starting point: you’ve got a Boost control, which provides up to +20dB of gain (how much you’re boosting), and a Mid control that selects the signal level of the specific mid frequency that is selected by the Freq toggle, mounted in the middle of the pedal (which frequencies you’re working on – High Mid, Mid, or Low Mid). Oh, but it’s not that simple: you’ve also got two separate boost modes: Boost Mode and Mid Boost Mode. The first mode simply boosts everything the selected amount, whilst Mid Boost Mode follows your preselected mid settings. The result is a very flexible, powerful tone-shaping tool.
I said it’s all about the mids, baby – and it is. The power of a carefully crafted mid boost - the secret to being heard in a live band mix - is right there in your hands (er - under your foot). Many guitarists don’t realize that what the need for their solos isn’t more gain, it’s more mids. The KoKo provides exactly the amount of mid boost you need for your solo to jump out front. This pedal should be on the pedalboard of every lead guitarist out there – and “KoKo” might as well mean “Guitar Solo!” to me.
Other stuff: all of the Suhr pedals reviewed utilize a neat FXLink feature, which allows you to control the on/off operation from a remote switching station. Also included in each is a cool low-battery warning indicator, and available true bypass via relay (see the instruction manuals for more info on these features).
All four of these pedals are very addictive – they are hard to stop playing, and I would be pleased as punch to give any of them a permanent home on my gigging- or home-use pedalboard. Sadly for me, and happily for you, they are going to some lucky TGP winners, where they will no doubt find very happy homes. I’ll miss them!