Holy Treble Boost Batman!
Updated: Jul 13, 2022
Dallas’ Rangemaster was bare-bones effect designed to set atop an amp, not as a floor pedal with a footswitch, it has just two controls – Boost Set and an on/off switch. Dallas Rangemaster: Wade Jones. (From Vintage Guitar)
For years I obsessed with finding how to get Eric Clapton’s elusive “Woman Tone” from his John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers and early Cream days. I have spent years auditioning various combinations of gear going for that sound-that creamy, yet biting, wailing sustain that never seems to fade away. I can even say I thought I’ve come down right Home Depot “paint chip” close with a couple guitar/amp/pedal combinations. But I’ve never actually nailed it until now. I’d like to share how a simple treble booster was a revelatory, nigh a near religious experience.
The year was 1966. The times were indeed a changing. Mini skirts were in, the Vietnam War was raging, Adam West’s Batman hit television sets, protests were happening in the streets, and popular music was undergoing colossal changes. The Beatles released their psychedelic masterpiece “Revolver”, The Beach Boys released their groundbreaking album “Pet Sounds”, and in jolly old England young guitarists were packing underground music clubs playing a new kind of electric blues. The undisputed king of the London guitar slingers was a young man named Eric Clapton. Crowds of Londoners would flock to see him play the blues night after night. His sound was considered legend. His musicianship was considered to be untouchable. His fans even took to spraying “Eric Clapton is God” graffiti all over town.
What could inspire such devotion? Why it was his guitar sound that Eric christened “Woman Tone”.
Now, while there are pages and pages on internet forums describing how awe-inspiring Woman Tone was in 1966 when people heard it. There were literally no comparisons in recorded music at the time. While loud guitarists had certainly been recorded before at Chess records, never had such a thick, fat, creamy, raw lead guitar sound hit listeners turntables. It suddenly became the IT sound for guitarists everywhere. The problem was most players couldn’t quite nail Eric’s sound.
For one, the sheer stage volume at which Clapton plays is pretty hard to duplicate in your bedroom. He uses very large, very powerful high wattage amplifiers turned all the way up. However, most amplifiers of the day still retained a relatively clean sound most of the way up the volume dial. It became necessary to use some form of electronic clipping to aid the amplifier in going into that level of distortion where the sound could be usable at lower volumes, or thicker at higher volumes.
Enter the Dallas Rangemaster Treble Boost! The Rangemaster was a simple design circuit that brought musical nirvana to high level guitarists in their day. The effect lifts your pushed guitar signal into a lush tube distortion. Nobody really has ever laid claim to inventing the simple circuit design, but with it’s less is more approach to tone shaping the Rangemaster design was brilliant. Housing only a single germanium transistor, three resistors, four capacitors, and a boost knob. All it needed was a single battery to work and you were off to the races! There was an input jack in front and a hardwired output cable in the back to connect to your amplifier.
The circuit was packed into an unremarkable folded metal box that was painted a dull grey. The only thing that made this thing not seem like a dull grey box was a screen-printed picture of musical notes moving up a clef. Clearly, the designers wanted this little box to be heard and not seen! The glorious tone that comes out of the Rangemaster is in part thanks to the single germanium transistor housed inside the circuit. Germaniums tend to have less gain than their silicon counterparts, but they sound more organic, warm, and lush when pushing signal into distortion!
So basically, the Rangemaster was one of the very first guitar effects designed to be used with a loud electric guitar amplifier. However, to call it a pedal is going a bit too far. The Rangemaster just had a single on and off switch on the front of the unit, and unless you had extremely fast fingers, it isn’t exactly realistic to switch it on during a guitar solo. The effect was just usually left on and players adjusted their guitar’s volume knob to taste. I.E. Clapton wasn’t turning the Rangemaster just before thrashing his Les Paul in a solo!
Ironically, though the Rangemaster inspired countless budding guitarists to pick up their instruments and practice like never before, not many units were made, and even fewer have survived over the years. As technology evolved most guitarists seemed to have chucked theirs out in favor of other things, like Ibanez Tube Screamers, to push their amplifiers. And yes, does the Tube Screamer sound far more efficient, quiet, smooth, compressed and its more gig friendly than the Dallas Rangemaster? Yes. There’s a reason many guitarists made the switch over to Tube Screamers. But that open, raw, harmonically rich lead tone that was early “Woman Tone” just isn’t a Tube Screamer folks.
Flash forward to 2019 for my ultimate search for the “Woman Tone” and a Treble Boost. I’m still looking for those raw tones associated with my guitar heroes from the late sixties and early seventies. I’ve come into my own as a player, and I’ve even dropped some cash on the real vintage amplifiers my heroes would have used. Yet, I’m not 100% satisfied. In the back of my mind, I felt strangely wanting more even though I own a vintage plexi, vintage blackface Fenders, a righteous Dumble clone, and a few Mesa Boogies. With all the gear I own I should be able to just plug my guitar into the right amp for the job, crank it, and get what I’m looking for. Yet, I seem to miss the mark just slightly on a ton of recorded music.
After a ton of research, a musician friend of mine mentions that there was a box in the sixties that might help me called a “treble booster”. While I’ve heard the term thrown around over the years, I’ve never thought about purchasing one because I used to always play Fender amplifiers, which have never been accused of having a lack of treble in the company’s history. But I decided what the hell, I’d call up Analogman and order his exact recreation of the Dallas Rangemaster. If it sucked, like I imagined it would, I knew Analogman had enough street cred to warrant resale value to where I would get my money back from a disappointing pedal. So, money parted ways out of my bank account and I waited.
(TOP) The face of the Treble Booster has an input jack. A hard-wired output jack routed out the back. (BOTTOM) Inside the Rangemaster is simplicity itself; one germanium transistor, three resistors, four capacitors, a Boost Set pot, an on-off switch, and a battery. (From Vintage Guitar)