This week, I will discuss the fabled Marshall Bluesbreaker from the early 1990s, not the Marshall Bluesbreaker amplifier produced in 1962, although they do share some relation. Confused? Don’t worry; I’m here to walk you through the hype and sound of the now highly-expensive discontinued Marshall Bluesbreaker pedal!
While going through the 2020 quarantine, I’ve had a rare luxury to go through some of my gear collection. It’s certainly been fun auditioning old favorite guitar/amp/pedal combinations that I liked many years ago and hear how they fit with my musical mind in the here and now. Some pairings suggest I might have always had an exquisite tonal taste, while others made me wonder if I was merely deaf back then.
One particular old favorite piece of gear from my collection that has consistently stood out is my well-loved Marshall Bluesbreaker. It’s a relatively large crude-looking black metal box with three controls that looks like it’s been through the wringer around the footswitch. This pedal traveled everywhere with me until I decided to retire it a couple of years ago. It stays retired because, unfortunately, the hype surrounding these old things is so real that it’s more likely to walk off my pedalboard than anything else mysteriously. The pedals are valuable, collectible, and rare but oh, so musical!
Jim Marshall unknowingly started a rock n’ roll revolution when he decided to stop importing and selling Fender amplifiers in England in the early sixties. Up to 1962, Marshall had made his living importing American electronics like hi-fis and amplifiers into England. Due to the sheer expense of shipping American made Fender amplifiers across the Atlantic, and because the costs cut into his profits, Marshall did what any street-hustling electrical engineer would do: attempt to copy the Fender Bassman design with cheaply sourced local electronic components and eliminate the middleman.
Bass amps had become hot commodities in the booming London music scene, and Marshall thought he could at least sell many bass amps. Unbeknownst to Jim Marshall at the time, the changes in critical components he made to Fender’s Bassman original design with local electronics, like El34 tubes instead of the American 6L6, would create a very different sound. A sound that would go on to define rock n’ roll for generations to come. Marshall’s first unit was the JTM head, and later a 4x10 combo inspired by the tweed Bassman combos from the 50s, the other a 2x12 combo. At the time, Marshall amplifiers intended use as bass amplifiers, but if you plugged an electric guitar into them and cranked them up, they made a jaw-dropping sound.
Famously in 1965, a young Eric Clapton makes a pilgrimage to Jim Marshall’s music store to inquire about purchasing an amplifier that would fit in the “boot,” or as we Americans like to say, “trunk” of his car. Jim Marshall ends up selling young Eric Clapton, a JTM 2x12 combo amplifier, and Eric goes on to gig his way into John Mayall’s band, the Bluesbreakers as his guitarist. John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers end up recording an album with Eric Clapton on guitar. They record the album as they played in the London club scene, live and loud. Eric ends up playing his 1960 Gibson “Burst” Les Paul on the recording. The ensuing combination of Eric’s incendiary Les Paul soloing through the cranked up JTM 2x12 combo with all the room mics in the studio picking everything up became so influential it created the British 1960s blues scene. Guitarists now lovingly refer to the JTM 2x12 combo as the “Bluesbreaker” amp in reference to Eric Clapton’s years playing with John Mayall and the Bluesbreaker tone that changed rock n’ roll.
In the early 1990s, Marshall amplification decided to start making a line of pedals that sought to recreate certain Marshall amp tones from the different eras. On the heels of their semi-successful at the time, and hugely popular later, Marshall Guv’nor overdrive pedal. The Guv’nor was the first successful foray into the effects pedal business, and Marshall wanted to see if they could continue their success with another line of pedals. The early 90’s run consisted of the Marshall DriveMaster, Marshall ShredMaster, and the Marshall BluesBreaker, with each pedal designed around different gain stages and uses of Marshall amps like the Marshall JTM 45, Plexi, and JCM 800. The Guv’nor originally pretty much covered all three’s sonic territory, and it just seemed like Marshall decided to make three separate pedals designed to make each sound.
This brings us back to what became my now rare black Marshall Bluesbreaker. The Marshall BluesBreaker pedal line was not very successful and was discontinued in the mid-nineties after just a few years in production. The Bluesbreaker remained largely unpopular and undiscovered until a young and relatively unknown badass guitarist John Mayer began blogging about them in the mid-2000s. John talked about how much he liked using the Marshall BluesBreaker pedal as a cheap, usable non-true bypass overdrive to push the sound of Fender Stratocaster pickups into a specific glassy colored voice. Ironically, while John’s comments about the Marshall BluesBreaker being an excellent cheap non-colored non-true-bypass find were spot on, it did make the old Marshall Bluesbreaker pedal become one the most talked-about pedals on the internet.
Now, let’s go back a few years in history to the mid-2000s. The internet was becoming more and more accessible, and more and more discussion boards/internet articles were popping up. It was the first time we would have access to what rock stars would use in their guitar rigs. What were they adding to their signal chains to get that sound? It wasn’t just the occasional glimpse of gear you’d see in a music magazine anymore. It was starting to become more and more a tangible thing. Want to know what your favorite guitarist used to get this sound? Hop on Google, and you’re only a few hits away!
The interesting thing about John Mayer is that he was simultaneously growing up in this booming change and was an active participant in having fun figuring out what everyone else was using. I think his comments about the Marshall BluesBreaker were nothing more than non-maliciously saying there were other usable vintage overdrive pedals out there besides paying inflated vintage Ibanez Tube Screamer prices. Due to Mayer’s presence as a sometimes polarizing guitarist, there’s a lot of misinterpreted hate out there for the old Marshall BluesBreaker pedal, and it’s interesting to see how it’s made this pedal pricey on the used market.
My Thoughts On The Tone:
I lucked into my Marshall BluesBreaker at the Dallas International Guitar Show when I was nineteen years old. After reading from dubious online sources as a kid, I had always wanted one of these overdrives that John Mayer had used on one of his now-famous John Mayer Trio Live album and his highly successful third studio album Continuum. The enclosure wasn’t quite yet at the level of wear I’ve put on it, and the logo was much more legible, but the tone was there. I managed to snag my BluesBreaker for a hundred and twenty-eight fifty from this dealer, who I think saw a tiny bit of talent in my young playing and threw me a deal. I took a little bit of shit from my friends at the time for paying a hundred and twenty-eight bucks for something that used to be fifty bucks only a few years previously. Right now, I’ve seen Marshall Bluesbreakers routinely fetch upwards of five hundred dollars a pedal online. Who’s laughing now?
What kind of tone does the BluesBreaker excel at to be worth that much on the used market? That’s up to the player. As most overdrive pedals go, you have your gain, tone, and level knobs that control how much overdrive you inject into your amplified guitar tone. The funny thing about the BluesBreaker is you wouldn’t know it’s on until you get almost maxed out on the gain control. Even then, it isn’t that drastic of a change to your guitar tone, but what you get is a very dynamic edge of breakup tone that is sensitive to your right-hand picking attack. Oversensitive picking attacks that improve your dynamics are what made the JTM 45 2x12 such a legendary amplifier. The BluesBreaker pedal, while not sounding identical to the amplifier, does share that appealing quality that just makes it easy to play dynamic guitar. I can go from a light touch for some glassy tones to something that barks out of my left hand with a little authority for bluesy leads. Get the right mixture of amp volume and pedal settings going, and it certainly gives off an early Clapton doing his best Freddie King “Hideaway” impression from the Mayall days.
For rhythm parts, the bass frequencies tighten and project how a Marshall amp does in the low end when pushed at higher volumes, but the pedal can get used on a completely differently designed pushed Fender amplifier. On the Fender amps, it adds some darkness to the traditionally bright Fender tone, and it helps give rhythm playing a noticeable bounce when playing rhythmic grooves. I found the BluesBreaker to be an excellent kind of thickener for playing Stax style rhythm in bands. Chords always responded under your fingers tight and were easy to get into a controlled funk.
I agree with the now infamous John Mayer quote about the BluesBreaker’s tone control being able to channel B.B. King on a switch. After playing for more than a few years, I came to understand that this B.B. King pedal phenomenon was because the few guitars I had were Fender Stratocasters when I started. Stratocasters traditionally feature a set of beautiful single-coil pickups that have a singing bell-like quality to them, but never with the lush, thick richness of B.B. King “Sweet Little Angel” when played by B.B. on Lucille with P.A.F. Humbuckers. When I played in the two and four positions on my Stratocaster, suddenly, I was able to coax a little of that B.B. King P.A.F. Driven, less is more approach to soloing with a bit more ease.
One last thing I loved, and still love, about the BluesBreaker is how it’s lower gain style overdrive works well in a pedalboard setting. The low gain applications of the BluesBreaker can help push and color wah-wah tone frequencies a touch spikier to get a funkier wah sound. The pedal also stacks very well with other overdrives on your pedalboard like Tube Screamers! I think a lot of the hype of the Marshall BluesBreaker is that its coolness starts to come out in the micro spaces of gain staging in your rig. Love it or hate it, it has its own thing going on!
I wouldn’t ask anyone to pay the overinflated prices for vintage examples unless they could get a similar deal to what I paid for my Marshall BluesBreaker. There are a ton of other pedal manufacturers that make versions of the pedal. However, if the deal is right it’s worth it to snag one, a Marshall Bluesbreaker will be a great addition to your effect pedal collection, as they are durable, versatile, and uniquely voiced overdrive pedal.