Back in the autumn of last year I realised that while Marshall tones were overwhelmingly well represented within my pedal-chain, I had nothing to represent that other classic UK amp type - the wonderful Vox AC30. The Vox AC30 is one of the few amps that has both stellar clean and distortion tones - best described as ’sparkling’ - both being unique and distinct and brilliantly utilised by The Beatles, U2’s The Edge, and above all - Brian May of Queen. In fact it was the Brian May Treble-boosted distortion that I was most keen on capturing when I headed out to do my research.
As always, I have a preference for the compact enclosure form factor, unless a larger pedal size contains significantly worthwhile extra features that justify that larger form-factor. Some of these pedals are better at the cleaner end of the Vox-type output spectrum, while others specialise in the treble / top-boosted distortion. The way Brian May does it - the treble booster is permanently on, and the degree of distortion is simply controlled by the guitar volume dial.
I was really seeking a pedal that would do both the clean and distortion well, and that really worked brilliantly with the guitar volume roll-off (a la Dr Brian May). My overall winner was initially the Catalinbread Galileo, although I don’t feel it does the sparkly clean quite as well as it could do, and I felt it could have benefited with one or two additional tone-sculpting dials and slightly more gain on tap - possibly more volume too. As it is though, its treble-boosted distortion output is generally excellent, while it does seem to compress somewhat and loose some of its sparkle at higher distortion levels. My initial second favourite was really the Wampler Thirty Something, which doe the clean parts beautifully, but is not quite as brilliant with the Brian May crunch - and its larger size counts against it somewhat. The Menatone Top Boost in a Can is also an excellent pedal, but it is somewhat ruined by it’s really odd newer shape - I much preferred it in its compact and medium-size enclosures - versus its current stretched horizontal arrangement. Where Zvex is cleverly launching vertical versions of its pedals, Menatone seems to be going in the wrong direction.
Each of the pedals listed gives you something slightly different, and its own take on the particular classic voicings in question, yet I don’t believe the perfect Vox-alike pedal currently exists. I would love for Brian May to get involved with a boutique manufacturer to replicate his exact tone within a compact pedal enclosure. In fact I would like to see a Chase Bliss / Foxpedal -style compact pedal with twin footswiches - so you can stomp the boost on/off like on the Wampler Thirty Something. And while the Wampler is a pretty decent pedal, it does not totally capture the Brian May sound in my opinion.
There are several worthy contenders her, and each of you readers will have different preferences and priorities in mind. Yet exactly what I am after is not currently available, although it is closely enough matched for now in both the Bearfoot Green Emerald and Catalinbread Galileo - so that’s the two I would recommend. I’ve listened to the Mooer 004 Day Tripper several times now, and don’t feel it really gets quite close enough to either the clean sparkle or the crisp Brian May distortion - but then again it does not specifically have any treble-boosted options - I guess it really does depend on what you are after here.
Pedals listed alphabetically.
These Russian pedals are not so much in circulation in the UK, although they are easily available from Thomann most of the time. This pedal is modelled after the Vox AC30, and does a commendable job at capturing the core classic tones - nice and bright and sparkly, although not quite the full saturated distortion of Brian May at the gainier end. A mid-priced offering that is easily worthy of consideration.
This is Bearfoot FX's edition of the Björn Juhl BJFE sound-designed Emerald Green pedal - which is modelled after the Vox AC-15 Twin 10 amp. Björn Juhl is amazing at capturing and reproducing bright and sparkly frequency registers, and this pedal is no exception. It has a huge range of gain and tone-sculpting ability with just 4 dials - and does create a rather excellent saturated Brian May-style sound. I actually may by tempted to hunt one of these down!
This is a pretty decent Vox amp tone clone - with a 3-way voicing dial - Clean | Crunch | Drive. There's plenty of variety on tap here, and you get a very usable Brian May style soaring + saturated lead tone on the Drive setting. The Boss way is a bit of a cheat really though as you're supposed to be able to go from clean-to-scream just using your guitar volume dial, yet here you would need to manually switch up each gain stage. This pedal really puts out some great tones, but kind of fails in the overall execution. My preferred arrangement too would be 2 footswitches so you could stomp in the extra drive boost if required. Nevertheless a great sounding full-range Vox pedal - could probably do with a more modern update!
Carl Martin produces both Single and Triple footswitch versions of its AC Tone pedal - in correspondingly compact and large-size enclosures. The original larger pedal sounds wonderful, but is simply too large for my preferences - it nevertheless has beautiful and highly accurate sparkly Vox-y tones - possibly not the full range of Brian May saturation, but has enough gain on tap for most. It's more compact brother does not quite have the dynamics of the original, but has plenty of range within its 3 dials, and works particularly well for the clean sparkle.
This is my current 'Brian May' pedal of choice and I mostly really like it, but would recommend some minor adjustments for the next version. I would like slightly more volume and gain on tap, and slightly less compression at higher gain - also with the addition of one or two more tone-shaping dials to help you dial in your desired tone - possibly an extra 'body' dial would suffice. And then a la Chase Bliss and Foxpedal - I would really like twin footswitches so I can easily stomp on/off the boost. I also feel that slightly more engineering is required to perfect the guitar volume roll-off - as you currently suffer a touch too much volume drop-off to get to clean. Other than those minor niggles, I really love this pedal - which is one of the closest and most compact matches to that superb Brian May treble-boosted Vox sound.
Yet another discontinued pedal which many like the sound of - there is a solitary second-hand example currently available on Reverb.com for around £130. A very simple pedal with just Volume and Gain dials and a 3-way 'Fail' toggle which actually allows you to ramp up tha gain level stages to pretty decent Brian May style saturation. For it's simple layout it's actually a pretty decent pedal, though not one of my frontrunners here.
This pedal looks to have been discontinued recently as both its associated sites - Homebrew Electronics and Tone Factor are currently working somewhat dysfunctionally. This is a fairly simple pedal with just Gain and Level dials, but twin 2-way voicing toggles. It also seems to be available in two colourways - the sort of sky blue version above - as found on Reverb.com, and the copper-coloured version seen on the Homebrew site.
The Menatone TPIAC has long been a leading contender for the Brian May type sound, and has evolved significantly over the years - having beem released in 4-dial (compact), 5 & 8-dial twin footswitch (medium), and currently in the elongated horizontal 6-dials with twin footswitches version. I love the sound on this one, but hate the new form-factor - in it stretched version I would rather be tempted to seek out one of the earlier compact 4-knob versions - which I see kind of neck-and-neck with the Galileo, but obviously the latter is far more widely available. I really can't see why Menatone cannot reformat the current pedal into a compact version - in a similar arrangement to Chase Bliss, Foxpedal or even my Dr Scientist Frazz Dazzler - which has 7 dials and twin footswitches in a compact enclosure - as wide as it currently is I just cannot consider it for inclusion.
As with most Mooer pedals - they rarely disappoint, but don't always necessarily cover all the ground you would like them to. Some people really seem to like this pedal - which is a decent mini effort as such, but which I feel does not quite capture either the sparkly cleans as well as the Wampler, or the distortion end as well as the Emerald Green. Galileo or TPIAC. This is still the best mini pedal available in this category as far as I can tell.
This is another long-standing and popular Vox amp clone in medium enclosure with 6 tone-sculpting dials - there was at one stage a pretty enormous deluxe version with 4 footswitches and a number of additional switches and features. This is probably the nearest head-to-head for the Wampler Thirty Something - but lacks the latter's boost footswitch and headroom voicing options. That said it does to the clean-to-scream pretty well, just in a slightly larger enclosure than I would really like. It has a really decent tone and does the clean sparkle and crisp distortion pretty well, but the Wampler's additional features push that ahead in this form factor.
This pedal is the odd one out here, being based on a Tube Screamer sound rather then Vox directly - but with a 4-way voicing toggle for added tone-sculpting ability. It lacks a separate boost footswitch and obviously there are pedals which more closely match the Vox profile, but the Sparkle Drive can get you really well into the ballpark of a Vox with lovely sparkly cleans at low gain, and rich crunchy distortion higher up the gain scale. It has the medium-size form factor which I am not entirely au fait with, and probably the Wampler does a better job overall at this size, but this is a really great pedal nonetheless.
There's no doubt that this is the most versatile Vox-style pedal currently available, and probably will make a good match for most players' requirements. The 15 | 30 voicing switch is inspired - giving you the headroom options of the different wattage amp permutations - with corresponding compression and distortion profiles. I find the Wampler really excels at the sparkling cleans. The boosted distortion is decent for sure, but is not quite the opening riff of Queen's 'One Vision'. When I play that using my Catalinbread Galileo it is a lot closer, but I still need to ramp it up a touch further by using either the Treble boost on my Strymon Sunset pedal, or the clean boost channel on my Foxpedal Defector Fuzz! I'm waiting for Brian to get on the Chase Bliss / Dr Scientist / Foxpedal bandwagon - where those pedal-makers easily accommodate twin footswitches on a compact enclosure. I feel several of Brian's pedals could benefit from some improved chassis engineering and shrinkage!
There is nowhere near the same number of Vox amp clones compared to Marshall, and there is a somewhat heightened complexity in being able to accurately reproduce both the sparkly clean and complex distortion ends of the amp's output - as well as the treble-boost ability to use the guitar volume dial to roll off distortion and easily ramp up from clean-to-scream - like Brian May does.
For my purposes I was really after the Brian May Treble-boosted Vox experience in a compact pedal form factor. I think overall that Wampler actually has the best approach in its use of dials, voicings and footswitches - but I don't really like the over-sized enclosure, and feel that the Bearfoot Emerald Green and Catalinbread Galileo have a more satisfying distortion sound. When doing my original research I somehow overlooked the Emerald Green, which I currently feel would probably be my top choice, it is though around 1/3rd dearer than the Galileo. And I still feel both of those pedals could be improved by having a separate boost footswitch.
The perfect Brian May pedal does not currently exist for me, but I do feel that I might check out and possibly add the Bearfoot Emerald Green, as I am a huge fan of of Björn Juhl's sound design, and already have several of his Mad Professor and OneControl pedals.
The surprising thing here for me as with Marshall - is why Vox hasn't bothered to put out a decent sound-alike pedal of its own - which accurately captures its most celebrated tones. There are those who will choose to go with a Vox amp as their core tone, but the current trend is more towards home-playing at lower volumes, within a pedal platform environment. This means that both Marshall and Vox are missing out on significant revenues. Clever manufacturers are making their core tones available in a variety of formats - Amp, Synergy Module and Pedal - meaning they are much better placed to monetise their key tones.