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  • Writer's pictureAlex

Good Vibes: The Classic Uni-Vibe

The legendary Uni-Vibe is arguably the most unique guitar effect ever created and its hypnotically psychedelic, throbbing tone has fascinated guitarists since it’s inception in the late 1960’s. Made famous by Jimi Hendrix, Robin Trower, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, as well as a host of other players, the Uni-Vibe has become one of the most widely known effects of all time. It has inspired countless boutique small production batch pedal clones, as well as large mass scale reproductions that have flooded the pedal market. Everyone is seemingly looking for that original Uni-Vibe mojo in their guitar rig! It seems to be a good thing, since used originals sell on the vintage market regularly sell in upwards of $2500! In this feature we will look at the history of the Uni-Vibe, the difference between various incarnations, players who have used them on famous recordings, and how to incorporate one into your guitar rig.

What Exactly is it, and How Does it Work?

Let’s get down with what exactly a Uni-Vibe is, and what makes it different from other effects.

The Uni-Vibe is essentially a four-stage phaser with a twist. Inside the Uni-Vibe, there are transistors designed to handle the audio signal going through the unit, and a pulsing light bulb surrounded by four light sensors that control the stages of phasing. The original Uni-Vibe had a square aluminum chassis that covers the light bulb and helps keep the pulsing light even so it can trip each light sensor easily.

Shin-ei Vintage Foot Control Pedal

The Uni-Vibe has two basic settings: Chorus and Vibrato. The Chorus setting is the real star of the Uni-Vibe and is not a traditional chorus pedal, which works through sending your electric guitar signal through modern delay chips, but simply mixes in Wet (pulsing sound) with the Dry (normal guitar signal). The Vibrato setting is much more like the tremolo on a Fender amplifier with much more shake to it. You can control how fast the unit pulses with a footswitch that looks much a like wah pedal. There is also an intensity knob that controls how much of the effect is mixed with your guitar signal, and a volume knob to control how loud the effect is. Original Uni-Vibes did have some problems, mainly your electric guitar signal always runs through the effect’s internal circuitry and as such it can affect how your overall guitar sound is heard through an amplifier. Problems can include when the pedal is turned off your clean sound having a volume drop, and sometimes depending on the unit a dulling of your clean guitar sound.

The History of the Vibe!

Invented in 1968 as the “Psychedelic Machine” by Fumio Mieda of Japan, and once the Japanese “Honey” Corporation was sold to the Shin-Ei Corporation the “Psychedelic Machine” was redesigned into the Uni-Vibe! The Uni-Vibe was originally conceived to make the Leslie rotating speaker sound, a sound very much in vogue in the late sixties, suitable for touring use and portable. Leslie Rotating Speakers are very large speaker cabinets that have rotating speakers inside the cabinets used for effect purposes to inject the Doppler Effect into whatever signal is going through them. Mainly intended for Hammond B-3 Organ Players, guitarists began experimenting with them on recording sessions in the studio to try and get the effect on their guitars. The problem with Leslie Rotating Speakers is that they are extremely heavy, which means it takes many bodies to lift them onto stages, and that they are prone to breaking with touring use.

The Uni-Vibe was designed to be a replacement for the original large, cumbersome rotating speakers but like most attempts in life to short cut the results were not exactly like the original sound of the Leslie Speakers. However, the Uni-Vibe’s sound was so thrillingly unique that many players found it to be a whole new effect in and of itself and began to use it in their playing. You’ll see a ton of hype over the differences between the “Honey” versions and the “Shin-Ei” versions but really it has to do when they were released over ownership of the company.

Mr. Mieda, the inventor of the Uni-Vibe, was fascinated by the phenomenon of phase shifting. When he worked at the Honey Corp in the early part of his career he worked on building many different effect units. In his own words from the guitar effect bible “Analogman’s Guide to Vintage Effects”: “At that time, I was madly enthusiastic about discovering what kind of effect would be created by phases. I did many experiments on phase processing. I had some knowledge about how to get phase shifting while I was developing organs, then I came up with the idea to use the method of photo-resistors and a flashing lamp. However, this way took some time to achieve a good result because the lamps and photo-devices I could get during that period responded very slowly and the quality of those parts was not so good, so it was difficult to complete the method. I designed an oscillator to let the lamp flash be amplified only by resistors and condenser chips (as a passive device). This was not a method engineers usually took, but I liked trying new things.” 

The Uni-Vibe was used on countless recordings in the late 60’s and the 1970’s, but as original units became incredibly scare and musical consumer and guitarist’s tastes changed, the Uni-Vibe seemed to fall by the wayside. By the mid to late 80’s the only noteworthy guitarist to use an original Uni-Vibe was the great Stevie Ray Vaughan. But it was in the early 1990’s when custom pedal builders began offering their take on the iconic pedal, that guitarists began to fall back in love with the effect and it’s no pun intended “Good Vibrations”. Boutique clones ranged from the Captain Coconut, the Black Cat Vibe, Prescription Electronics Vibe Unit, the Fulltone Deja Vibe, the Roger Mayer Voodoo Vibe made by Roger Mayer the man who invented and made many of the effects Jimi Hendrix used, and the Sweet Sound Vibe. A few years ago, the original Shin-Ei company was bought by some professional tone seekers in Austin, TX and they began 100% reproducing the original Uni-Vibe with original parts from the original Shin-Ei plant. These are the closest Uni-Vibes available without shelling out $3000. If you want the real deal; this is undoubtably it!

Famous Users and Songs They’ve Notably Used the Uni-Vibe On

  • Jimi Hendrix was a huge fan of the original Uni-Vibe. He got one in the late 1960’s and began using them on many of his recordings from Electric Ladyland onwards through 1969 and 1970. Great examples of Jimi using the Uni-Vibe would be live at Woodstock on his rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner”, “Machine Gun” from Live at the Fillmore East, “Izabella” from Live at the Fillmore East, “Land of the New Rising Sun” off of his would be fourth album, “In from the Storm” off his would be fourth album. Jimi notably had the Uni-Vibe at the end of his signal chain (guitar>Vox Wah>Fuzz Face>Octavia>Fuzz Face>Uni-Vibe). This produces a sweeping EQ sound through the fuzz when the fuzz pedal is engaged.

  • Robin Trower was another avid user of the Uni-Vibe. After hearing the rise of Jimi Hendrix in the late 1960’s, Trower began experimenting with different effects to get more a Hendrix color in his playing. He started using the Uni-Vibe to add a swirling pulse through out his songs. His 1974 album Bridge of Sighs features Uni-Vibe influenced playing throughout the entire album.

  • David Gilmour used a Uni-Vibe throughout his career in Pink Floyd. Most notably featured on the song “Breathe” of Dark Side of the Moon, this can be one of the most notable instances a Uni-Vibe was used on a commercial recording. Dark Side of the Moon is the highest selling album of all time. David used his Uni-Vibe in a more beautiful textural way than either Hendrix or Trower and sets his speed of the unit very slow so the pulses do not get in the way of his playing.

  • Doyle Bramhall ii is maybe the most well known modern player who uses a Uni-Vibe in his music. For those of you who do not know, Doyle is best known for playing in Eric Clapton’s touring band as a sideman and is also the son of Doyle Bramhall Sr. the original drummer for Stevie Ray Vaughan (before Double Trouble). Doyle uses a Uni-Vibe to achieve both lush textures in his playing like David Gilmour, and also mixes it with different Fuzz Faces to get a Hendrix-like guitar tone. You can hear examples of him using a Uni-Vibe on his records “Jellycream” and “Rich Man”. Recently he covers a brilliant version of “Hear My Train a Comin’” by Jimi Hendrix that has a wonderful Uni-Vibe pulse throbbing throughout the recording.

Where to Place a Uni-Vibe in Your Signal Chain: Before or After Fuzz Pedals?

There has been a debate amongst guitarists for a quite a while as to where exactly to place a Uni-Vibe in their signal chain on a pedalboard. The Uni-Vibe effect is definitely unique to say the least, as it is not quite a traditional chorus pedal or any form of standard modulation. However, most players automatically put their units towards the end of their signal chain because that’s what Jimi Hendrix did. But just because Jimi did doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always the right thing to do. Traditionally, most players have a Uni-Vibe in the modulation effects section of their pedal board going in the traditional order of wah-fuzz or distortion pedals in order of highest gain to lowest gain-overdrives in order of highest to lowest gain-boosts, modulation effects (chorus, Uni-Vibe, tremolo, phaser, flanger)-delays-reverbs. But the Uni-Vibe is a cool effect in that you can experiment with where it sounds best. Some players put it in the very front of their signal chain because the original Uni-vibes have a preamp that colors the guitar signal and they like what it does to their tone.

In my opinion changing the vibe’s placement really affects two different things. If Uni-vibe is placed first in your signal chain, then the fuzz becomes the dominant effect. When setting the fuzz for high gain, usually the only characteristic of the vibe that comes through the fuzz is the throbbing pulse. The vibe's upper harmonics which lend a sense of the rotating speaker effect are lost to a degree by the clipping in the fuzz. Reducing the gain of your fuzz or distortion effect will allow you to recover more of the natural vibe effect and characteristics.

Also, while the Uni-Vibe is engaged, you frequently forfeit control of the fuzz’s gain structure with your guitar volume control if using traditional effects. This means all the traditional love of using a Fuzz Face with your volume knob to get different tones goes away. Bypassing, or turning the Uni-Vibe off, restores the fuzz to the original first position in the signal chain and gives back the original gain control of the fuzz to the guitar, assuming the Uni-Vibe has true bypass.

Uni-vibe after fuzz is like adding a sweeping EQ to your fuzz output. Differences among the available brands of Uni-Vibe clones will become more apparent in this setup. Some will pass along the fuzz output without covering it over, while other vibes may tend to mask the tone of your fuzz combination within a mix. Some Uni-Vibes may overemphasize undesired ranges of frequencies when following a fuzz. Others may degrade the fuzz output by adding more distortion. You’ll hear immediately if you like this option or not depending on your guitar rig.

Generalizations of Uni-Vibe and Fuzz effect tones are usually inadequate to describe the different fuzz/vibe combinations due to the inherently different responses among different brands of fuzz effects and Uni-Vibe pedals when used in conjunction together.

For Hendrix, I prefer the vibe first and set the fuzz for minimal gain or use the vibe into an overdrive into an amp at breakup. I recommend trying both and use your ears with your own guitar rig to determine what’s best for you. As always experiment and have fun!



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