Eric Clapton christened it “woman tone.” On the famed 1966 “Beano” album, John Mayall’s Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton, the guitarist ran his Les Paul Standard into a Marshall Model 1962 JTM45 2×12 combo. Legend has it he added a Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster to his signal path on several tracks. With the amp controls dimed and the treble boosted, his sound was thick yet piercing, overdriven yet smooth, distorted yet creamy. That woman tone became famous.
The treble booster was a particularly English phenomenon, sort of like high tea and clotted cream with crumpets, but with a twist. As a stand-alone guitar effect, the treble boost was short-lived and primarily contained to the stompin’ style of British blues and rock and roll. And yet it would go on to have a far-reaching, long-lasting legacy.
Treble boost was a sign of the times. Many British guitarists were using homegrown Marshall or Vox AC30 amps, often in combination with that Cadillac of solidbodies, the Les Paul Standard and its plush PAF humbucker voice. Those darker-toned amps – along with the sonic limitation of early PA systems and the weighty sounds of the bands overall – meant that the high ends could be lost in the muddle. A treble-boosting preamp was needed.
Enter Dallas’ Rangemaster, circa 1966. It was the product of musical-instrument firm John E. Dallas & Sons, Ltd., of Clifton Street, London. Founded in 1875, by the 1960s, the company was offering Dallas and Shaftesbury guitars plus Dallas, Shaftesbury, and Rangemaster amps. In ’65, it bought Arbiter and soon launched the Sound City amp line.
The Rangemaster Treble Booster was simplicity in a box, a Zen-like circuit that created musical Nirvana. Dallas’ effect offered a lift to your guitar signal, sending an amp into lush distortion.
Nobody knows who engineered the Rangemaster for Dallas, but the design was brilliant in its less-is-more purity; one germanium transistor, three resistors, four capacitors, a Boost Set pot, an on/off switch, a battery, and you were set. There was an input jack in front, a hard-wired output cable in back.
It was all packed in a bare-bones, folded-metal box, painted a nondescript battleship gray. A half-hearted attempt to fancy-up the effect came thanks to the screen-printed graphics showing musical notes ascending into a trebly heaven. In a flip of the old adage, the Rangemaster was designed to be heard, not seen.
The glorious sound came thanks to that single germanium transistor. Most Rangemasters have a Mullard OC44 or an NTK275 (as used in the original Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face), although some boast a Mullard OC71. Germanium transistors were less powerful than the silicon transistors that usurped the throne in the late ’60s, but their sound was more pleasing. The result? A luscious, glossy distortion.
The control potentiometer was usually a 10K, but some had 20Ks, which some players believe resulted in a hotter, gainier sound. The battery was a weird, round unit that was soon obsolete. Fortunately, converting the effect to a standard 9-volt was easy enough for even a guitarist to handle.
The Rangemaster was truly a box. Designed to perch atop an amp, it was not a floor pedal with an easy-to-stomp, top-mounted switch. That petite on-off switch on the face of the Rangemaster give it away; unless you had quick and nimble fingers to switch the unit on just before your solo, the boost was either in effect or not. You didn’t hear Clapton power into boost mode just before nailing his Les Paul.
It is, of course, ironic that Clapton’s Marshall amp was originally based on Leo Fender’s 5F6A Bassman and that the Rangemaster added a bit of a Strat-like sting to a Les Paul. But the sound was not pure Strat, and several players use one with a Fender. The Rangemaster could deliver a tone alive with harmonics, fat rather than thin, silky smooth rather than bristling.
The Treble Booster was at its best with an amp already slightly overdriven, ramping the sound to the verge of feedback. You could retain solid low-end, but also reliably push the high-end’s gain.
Les Paul-meets-Marshall was not the only combo where the Rangemaster excelled. Other customers used the effect with a range of guitars and amps; on the honor roll are Jimmy Page, Marc Bolan, Ritchie Blackmore, Rory Gallagher, Tony Iommi, Brian May, and their assorted setups including Strats, SGs, and May’s home-built Red Special, along with various AC30s, Oranges, and Hiwatts.
Following on the sound waves of the Dallas Rangemaster came a variety of copycats. Hornby Skewes offered its similarly basic Treble Booster with a germanium transistor (soon replaced by a silicon transistor) plus its Shatterbox, combing treble boost and its Zonk Machine fuzz. The firm also made a Bass Booster, plus the Selectatone TB2 treble and bass boost. Colorsound made both its Power Boost and later, Overdriver. Orange made a Treble Booster. Electro-Harmonix followed with its Screaming Bird and Screaming Tree.
Vox provided several options. To help its initial four-input AC30, the firm offered an add-on (later, built-in) Top Boost, and also sold its compact V806 Treble Booster, which plugged directly into an amp with no effect-to-amp cable. Others amp makers dealt with the issue in other ways, including a range of Treble, Brightness, and Presence controls.
Other inventors saw an opportunity, too. They built effects that provided instant overdrive without all of the particulars of Clapton’s woman tone. In particular, Ibanez’s Maxon-launched its Tube Screamer circa 1980, and suddenly you could approximate that tone with a range of guitars and amps. By the dawn of the ’80s, the Rangemaster and its brethren were suddenly obsolete.
Rangemasters were never common pedals. No one knows for sure how many were built, but finding them even back in the day could be a search.
Today, the whole concept of a treble boost seems downright silly. Many guitarists now wind down the Brightness and seek out the warmth inherent in tube amps.
As players seek to revive those vintage sounds, Rangemaster prices have skyrocketed while replicas and updated versions that work as true stompboxes are available. Clapton’s woman tone will never go out of style.
This article originally appeared in VG September 2014 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.