Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster

What Does Eric Clapton, Black Sabbath, and Queen have in Common?

The Dallas Rangemaster Guitar Treble Booster!

This small grayish gear box pretty much defined British Rock and Roll of that era and was used by Eric Clapton during his stint with the Bluesbreakers. Later devotees of the Rangemaster included Rory Gallagagher, Toni Iommi, and most notably, Brian May of Queen. The Rangemaster wasn’t actually a stomp box at all, but was originally intended to sit on top of an amp and act as the amps front end. One knob handles loudness while a slide switch bypasses or engages the effect. What the Rangemaster does is add a bit of high-end punch and presence to your sound. With a healthy 10db of boost, this device has no problem pushing the front end of your amp with a sweet crunchy overdrive.

Vintage Dallas Rangemaster treble booster
It looks like rusted metal when in fact it’s pure gold!

Treble Boosters Create the Guitar “Sweet” Spot 

Treble boosters in general, create the “sweet” in guitar tones, although with many units I have found the need to turn the treble down on the amp. The vintage Dallas is hard to come by (though a few guitar geeks out there are building similar models these day). Less compressed than a distortion or overdrive pedal, it allows you to play balls-to-the-wall without sacrificing nuance.

For those players who are obsessed with having more than just a “note off/on” tone to their sound, who are looking for a more open and responsive sonic overdriven experience, one of these babies is the ONLY way to go!
Brian May and Fryer Guitars offers some sweet May signature models. These models have no knobs or even an on/off switch, as the unit as integral to his sound as his Vox amp.
Electro Harmonix Screaming Bird Treble Booster
Electro Harmonix Screaming Bird Treble Booster

Electro Harmonics also makes an inexpensive model that I’ve heard excellent things about, and at around $40, it seems like a great investment for killer tone.

Fact is, there are many commercial and boutique shops that are making treble boosters A simple Google search or perusing eBay will inform one about just how many builders (should I say artisans?) are devoted to creating these devices.

History of the Treble Booster

Interestingly, the treble booster really was designed to do what its name purports– to boost the treble in your signal. Some music historians believe that amps from the 50s and 60s tended to deliver a darker tone, hence the need for the effect.

It wasn’t until the 1966 album John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers featuring Eric Clapton came on the scene was the treble booster employed (along with a cranked Marshall amp and a ’59 Gibson Les Paul) to help create the rich, creamy overdrive so popular in the late 60s and 70s. In fact, perhaps Eric Clapton’s almost forgotten and perhaps greatest claim to fame is that he invented that smooth, overdriven tone. Before that 1966 album, if guitar players wanted a dirtier sound, they had to rely on fuzz pedals or in some instances, poking holes in their speaker.
Lots of manufacturers also offer overdrive pedals like the classic Ibanez Tube Screamer which imitates the sound of a treble booster being cranked through an amp at loud volumes. The only downside (in my opinion) to overdrive pedals is that they tend to compress the sound. The more compression, the less nuance a player can manipulate via is hands.
Unfortunately, amplifiers need to be cranked to get a treble booster to work properly. This is due to the need to not only get the preamp tubes to really heat up, but the power amp tubes as well.
 That being the situation, for most people, most of the time when they are practicing or playing at home, an overdrive pedal will be preferential as it can get that smooth sound without blowing out your ear drums. I think over time, they just preferred the treble booster, even in live playing situations, as guitarists became used to that sound and forgot just how much more expressive a treble booster can be.
But even then in the 1980s, overdrive gave way to distortion. The first Van Halen album did for guitar players in the 80s what Clapton with John Mayall did in the 60s– changed the game. Now with distortion, the tone of a guitar could be thick and very heavy sounding, perfect for the Heavy Metal music of the time.
No doubt distortion rocks, but again, the sound was even more compressed and therefore offered even less nuance. Doh!

What I mean by “nuance” when talking about treble boosters for guitar players

What I mean by nuance is essentially this: a good guitar setup (an amp with a lot of headroom and a guitar made from quality tone woods like mahogany) will allow a player to determine how loud or soft a note will be by how he or she picks or strums it.  A good guitar rig will allow the instrument to behave the same as an acoustic instrument, only louder, completely capable of allowing for all the beautiful subtlety of a fine violin or woodwind instrument.
Putting a treble booster in the chain will deliver a thicker, more overdriven tone, without the player having to sacrifice that subtlety. Fuzz, overdrive and distortion pedals can’t do that.

The Bottom Line for the best overdrive

Treble booster are still the ultimate way to get a killer overdriven tone without sacrificing the expressiveness inherent to the instrument.

To be honest, I think some of the art of guitar playing has been lost with the advent and adoption of overdrive and distortion pedals. No doubt, they are wonderful effects that open the doors of creativity and have defined musical styles over the last thirty years or more. But like all things in life,  gains are often made by sacrifice.

And what I mean is that too many guitar players today, have either forgotten or have never known that their instrument can be just as expressive as an orchestral string instrument or a piano. And in some ways, even more so than an acoustic; an electric guitar can provide as much sustain as a bowed instrument (with feedback, even more).

So treble boosters, especially the Dallas Rangemaster (the one by which all other treble boosters are judged) have become sort of like the Archimedes Codex. Something lost to time. Very few guitar players even know about them. I have had conversations with some incredible players who grew up on guys like Brian May, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin (I’ve heard Jimmy page used a Rangemaster on the first Led Zeppelin album), and had no idea these things existed.

So my advice to all guitarists out there, is to get hold of a treble booster and mess around with it for awhile. Not saying you should retire your Tube Screamer or MXR Distortion, but definitely check one out and see what happens. It may even take a little tweaking to get it to really sing.

And like I said earlier, there are so many makers, so it needn’t cost you $300 or more to get a repro of a Rangemaster (although they are totally figgin’ cool!) to plunk down on top of your amp. In fact, for less money, there are many guys that took the same Rangemaster circuitry and stuck it in a stomp Box!

You may well find that it’s totally worth it to try a treble booster if you’ve been looking to capture the sound of your favorite 70s Guitar Rocker and haven’t had any success.

by Jonathan Schlackman

Leave a Reply