Looking for a unique sounding, visually striking, crunchy stompbox to separate yourself from the pack? Check out the vintage Japanese Bixonic Expandora from the mid-nineties! They are really customizable distortion/overdrive/gated fuzz tone machines that have been beloved by everyone from Bush, Bootsy Collins, Megadeth, guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani, St. Vincent and the Reverend Billy F. Gibbons from ZZ Top himself! The Rev famously put this unique distortion pedal on the map by famously chaining six of the Expandora’s together! Bixonic Expandoras house a wealth of switchable guitar tones in a small package, which can help save space on a pedal board. This small hockey puck shaped pedal is still a relative sleeper on the vintage market, so chasing after a used one won’t break the bank!
The first time I ever heard about the magic of a Bixonic Expandora was from Dallas based blues guitarist Lance Lopez and his tech Kenny Kranzow. Lance and Kenny would always rave to me about the genius of professional tone seeker Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top and his fabulous guitar sound. They knew the man personally, as Lance used to tour with Billy and Kenny knew Billy from the SRV days, and they knew many behind the scenes secrets about his personal tone. When I tried to get some specifics revealed to me, asides from the countless stories about Billy’s large, expensive vintage guitar collection, his unobtainable 59’ Les Paul’s, his unusual choice of Marshall JCM 900’s and his vintage Marshall Plexi’s, as well as the countless guitar effects in his possession, one small piece of gear seemed to be held in extremely high regard: The Bixonic Expandora! The pedal was talked about in almost whispered tones of reverence by both guitarists. It was said to do things to your guitar signal that nothing else could. What wasn’t said, was that finding one in the wild would almost be impossible. Jokingly, I started referring to the Expandora as a “unicorn” of a pedal. Often spoken of, but never seen! After doing some research of my own, I learned that not only did the Bixonic Expandora become famous due to Billy Gibbons using no less than six of them at a single time (yes Google it), but it was used by other artists as wide ranging as indie rock star St. Vincent, guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani, the heavy metal band Megadeth, Funk Master Bootsy Collins, and famous rock n’ roll producer of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame Butch Vig! Once it became apparent to me that this pedal was extremely versatile in different genres of music. I knew I had to have one!
It took me eight years of searching for an Expandora after first hearing about them. They are extremely uncommon but not impossible to find nowadays with online gear shops like Reverb.com. I chose to hunt mine down the old-fashioned way by hitting as many used stores as possible. When one finally came up for sale in Dallas ads, after a quick phone call, I pulled the trigger on one. Once an agreed sum of money exchanged hands, it was shockingly under $200, I marveled at the hilarity of what I had just purchased. The pedal that had been spoken of in legendary whispers, the pedal that Reverend Billy Gibbons used to great effect, turned out to be a small, circular stainless-steel box no bigger than a can of tuna but about the size of a hockey puck! The Bixonic Expandora’s stainless-steel finish reflects a ton of light, which might be helpful in seeing the unit under stage lights. The pedal’s name and descriptions of the controls are embossed onto the stainless-steel face, with respective controls for Gain, Tone, and Level. The Expandora also features a nine-volt input power supply, like those on the Voodoo Labs Pedal Power, so the unit is perfect for use on modern pedalboards! While my Expandora didn’t come with a standard power supply, it did run just fine off a standard nine-volt battery. To access the battery inside the pedal, you simply remove the single screw on the backplate. In arguably the coolest move ever, Bixonic put all the controls on the backplate of the pedal so you don’t need a manual!
The Bixonic Expandora really sets itself apart from the competition once you actually open the unit. Inside the enclosure are a set of dip switches that allow you control how you use the pedal! These dip switches can be moved to change the output gain of the pedal, which then set up the Expandora for being used in three increasing gain modes: Crunch, Overdrive, and Distortion. For those in the know, there is also a secret mode Bixonic aptly called “The Forbidden Fuzz” Setting which sounds unbelievably wild! Using these dip switches in combination with different guitars and amplifier combinations can really add the Expandora to any type of guitar rig!
OPERATION AND TONE TIPS:
*I’m going to give everyone, in my opinion, the single most important thing to remember when using the Bixonic Expandora is considering what speakers you are running with your amplifier. In my opinion, all reports online of the Expandora lacking in bass signal is really due to what size speakers you pair with the pedal. Using 10’ speakers is certainly a no-no with this type of distortion unit. The smaller speaker circumference does not allow for a well-defined bass sound from this distortion unit, which in turn can make the pedal sound brash and harsh. Try using 12’, or even 15’ speakers, for a fuller, more defined tone. Experiment with different styles of speaker breakup to see what works best with your ears. I like JBL’s and Greenbacks with this pedal! Also, this pedal truly shines with a great set of humbuckers, but don’t sleep on a good Telecaster bridge pickup either! While this pedal does sound awesome through various Fender amps, taking it through a test drive of a Marshall Plexi is truly a magical experience!
THE DIP SWITCHES:
The internal dip switches are what set the Bixonic Expandora apart from other pedals. By changing the orientation of the switches, you can go from a mild overdrive, all the way to a searing, fluid distortion and everything in between. These Dip Switches are labeled D1 and D2 on the rear of the pedal.
“Crunch” Mode: with both dip switches in the “up position” the Expandora is placed into “crunch” mode. Ironically, despite the name, “crunch” mode is the weakest of all the gain staging in this pedal. This is definitely the mildest of all modes on the Expandora. To my ears it sounds more like there’s a gritty edge to the note that blooms with vibrato and pick attack. No matter the gain staging in this mode, the Expandora cleans up with your guitar’s volume knob and responds dynamically to your pick attack like a good germanium Fuzz Face would. I usually set my tone knob just under noon, to find the sweet spot where the mid’s react more naturally with my electric guitar’s tone. While this mode does sound fantastic with single coil instruments, it seems to really shine with PAF style humbuckers because the pickups give more beef to the signal. I do however really enjoy the sound of this mode with the tone control knocked back a bit to roll off some treble on a Telecaster flatpole pickup.
“Overdrive” Mode: this mode is accessed by switching D1 in the down position, and D2 in the up position. This mode is much heavier than the “crunch” mode with the lowest setting being reminiscent of the highest setting on the “crunch mode”. I find this mode adds a ton more attitude to your playing, but through a cleaner amplifier, or a amplifier set at low volume, your guitar tone will sound overly bright. Be sure to really get your tube amp cooking to give up the goods with this pedal. With a Telecaster played through a Fender Deluxe Reverb, I got a really useable Keith Richards style rhythm tone. This mode does remind me of an Ibanez Tube Screamer in terms of how it interacts with your guitar and the slight boost you get in the mids. I tend to use this mode with either a Strat or a Tele into a Fender amplifier because the rhythm tone is just so chunky and satisfying. But on the other hand, using an SG or a Les Paul through a Marshall Plexi really lets your playing sing with fat sustain and feedback if you hold notes too long. The more distortion you add in to the Expandora in this mode it gets incredibly chunky through the Marshalls.
“Distortion” Mode: this mode is accessed by switching D1 in the up position and D2 in the down position. Distortion mode is a much darker, brutal tone with a more neutral bass response. Soloing lead lines hit with authority and massive sustain. Pick attack is articulate through the high gain mode. I had to learn a slightly difference pick pressure to get the clarity of the other modes, but it was a fast learning curve. I could go through Black Sabbath, Randy Rhoades, and Megadeth as well as a great grungy blues tone a la Gary Clark jr. depending on how I used the saturation. I could also get chords to ring out hard with clarity with any difference in pick attack being noticed immediately! I love this mode through Marshalls again and I usually use it with either P90 pickups, or PAF style humbuckers. The other modes sound great and offer more headroom with any amplifier, but with your amp getting natural breakup with Expandora on top of it in “distortion” mode it really rocks. This is the obvious winner with this pedal!
The shiny Bixonic Expandora covers a lot of sonic territory in a small package. It invites players to experiment with different guitars, pickups, amplifiers, and speakers to give up the goods. It is well worth it to try as much as you can before settling on a mode to use for everyday use. The more time I spend playing around with the Expandora, I really felt as it the pedal constantly rewarded me for my curiosity. Between the three modes you can cover a lot of sounds, clean or dirty. While it might not be as “in the moment” as other more expensive digital emulations of overdrive pedals made today, it is a cost-effective alternative to purchasing multiple dirt pedals. Jut remember it only gives up the goods if you work at mastering what’s under the hood! Stay tuned for more info on the super-secret “Forbidden Fuzz” mode!