TECH TIPS: Hot Rods – The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Tradition

If you follow what we do at Origin Effects, you’ll have seen us release a couple of pedals that had “Hot Rod” written in big letters on the front. But what does it mean? Is it just a cool name, or a marketing buzzword? Or is it something bigger than that? Obviously it’s the latter. Hot Rod is more than just a fancy way of saying “angry sounding gear”. It’s a huge part of guitar amp culture, and a big landmark on the journey of Rock ‘n’ Roll itself. So, instead of an instructional Tech Tips article, I’m going to tell you a story… of tone! 

Just for a little context: although we make pedals, this is going to be about amps, and here’s why. Aside from our compressors, we make proper Analogue Amp Recreations. Pedals like the RevivalDRIVE, MAGMA57 and DELUXE61 are all complete replicas of valve amp signal paths. The only way to get this stuff right is to be massive nerds about amps, and we’re very proud of it. Anyway… 

Electric guitar music has always been one step ahead of the equipment available. In the beginning, guitar amps only existed to make a guitar louder, whilst affecting the tone as little as possible. The goal was to cleanly amplify a big ol’ jazzbox until it could be heard over a big band. Any tonal change was merely an unwanted shortcoming. 

But it didn’t take long for players to turn amps up to the point of distortion (which, as we know with the benefit of hindsight, is irrefutably awesome). This new sound has underpinned Rock and Blues ever since, and imaginative players spent the next few decades in search of a sound that was exactly “the right kind of wrong”. 

Throughout the 1960s, guitarists pushed things further and further – crank it louder, get a Fuzz pedal, slash the speaker cones – but, even into the ‘70s, the amps they used were still based on those same old circuits designed to be loud, clean and polite. Except now they were on fire, with melted wax dripping out of the transformers. Something needed to be done and the answer was an amplifier designed for Rock. An amp designed for distortion. 

The first of the famous amp-modding repair techs was Randall Smith. Starting with a humble Fender® Princeton combo, he completely rebuilt the amp, adding cascaded gain stages for – you guessed it – more distortion, as well as a beefed-up power amp and high-wattage speaker. Early adopters included Carlos Santana who is thought to have given it its name: the Boogie®. 

What the original Boogie® amp gave guitarists for the first time was real control over this new, sustaining and saturated voice. For all the time we spend talking about “turning up to 11 for that extra push over the top”, it’s important to remember that part of the philosophy of hot-rodding amps was consistency. It was about being able to reliably access massive guitar tones without necessarily having to be at the chaotic extremes of what the amp could handle. 

Speaking of extremes, let’s fast forward a few years into the ‘70s, to Eddie Van Halen. This pioneer arguably did more to advance electric guitar than anyone else except Jimi Hendrix. Although guitar geek wisdom says that EVH’s famous Marshall® Plexi was by no means the most heavily modded amp, he was certainly a player who wasn’t afraid to customise his gear in search of the perfect tone – just look at his guitar! For the mods that mattered, EVH chose another tech who is synonymous with hot-rodding: Jose Arredondo.  

A Marshall® specialist, Arredondo’s famous mods included extra gain stages, master volume controls, diode clipping and tweaks to the amp’s voicing. Looking at this list, I’m sure you’ll notice that these are all things we take for granted in today’s amps, but innovative techs like Arredondo paved the way for these modern conveniences. Word got around and, by the ‘80s, Jose-modded Marshalls® were the amp of choice for Steve Vai, James Hetfield and many more. 

I could go on, talking about Mike Soldano, Paul Rivera and other great amp designers, but their famous circuits are probably best thought of as the first truly modern amps, rather than hot-rodded vintage tones. 

At Origin Effects, the vintage end of the timeline is our speciality. When we created the RevivalDRIVE and RevivalDRIVE Compact, we wanted to make the most accurate possible recreation of the whole vintage amp experience – the sound, the feel and all the little nuances that make a great guitar tone. It had to be analogue, to give that that feeling of interaction between the guitar and the “amp” tone, and it had to be accurate. This also made it the perfect candidate for the Hot Rod treatment. 

Remember how those famous techs took a classic amp and improved it? That’s what we did with the RD Compact Hot Rod. Using the RevivalDRIVE Compact as a starting point, we modified the circuit to produce more gain and more sustain. We tightened up the power supply to reduce sag for a more percussive feel and gave the whole pedal a more aggressive voice. It’s by doing it the old-fashioned way – real mods to a real circuit – that the resulting pedal is so convincing. Try one if you don’t believe me! 

Like I said at the start, Origin Effects are serious about amps. Although we make pedals, we have enormous respect for the great tradition that is valve amp design. And if you really want to be part of that tradition, you gotta build a Hot Rod!