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The 'Brown Sound'

Post provided by one of StringsDirect’s expert guitar bloggers – Mark Thompson from ‘Guitar Addiction’

Before we go on let me tell you what the brown sound is not, it is not;

 The sound of HP sauce coming out of the bottle.

The contemporary arts impressionist sound of colours including brown and plum.The sound of brown paint splashing onto canvas.

The legendary low frequency sound that makes people poo their own pants (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9mB0OGWkYE)

What is the Brown Sound?

Back in the 80’s Eddie Van Halen inspired us with his legendary high gain guitar sound and phenomenal innovative rock guitar chops. The sound he created is said to have been coined by himself as the “Brown Sound” referring to the warmth the colour brown invokes. Eddie on the "Brown Sound":

"There is a difference between being just loud and having what I call a warm, brown sound, which is a ‘toney’ sound."

 "Some people get a sound like an amplified AM radio. I like it to be like a nice home stereo, the difference between tone and no tone."

However, some legends say he was actually referring to the sound of a snare drum when he said this.

How did Eddie Van Halen create his Brown Sound?

 Without going too deep into the schematics of Eddie’s use of gadgets, here’s some insight into the Brown Sound.

EVH used an Ohmite Variac, a variable transformer that raised or lowered the voltage that feeds into the amplifier, starving the tubes of power, plus we know Eddie used a stack of Marshall heads cranked to the utter max to brown that signal. The saturated power tubes of his Marshall heads and Variac created most of EVH’s Brown sound and that lush cranked out Marshall Lead 100 thing has been an iconic sound for many players ever since.

For more in depth analysis of the gear and sounds from EVH check out: http://www.legendarytones.com/edward-van-halen-brown-sound/

And for an alternate view on the whole brown sound thing: http://ultimateclassicrock.com/eddie-van-halen-reveals-his-biggest-lie/

 How do we get the Brown Sound?

Regardless how EVH got his sound and whatever the sound was originally referring to, those of us who really dig the sound from the early EVH records have some stuff to consider if we want to re-create it on a budget. For a start if we use a valve amp we can much get more juice for our valve amps by using power attenuation. These attenuators go in between the output of a valve amp and the speaker cabinet, this soaks up the power so we can drive the power valve stage as hard as they can go without blowing up our eardrums in the process.

What if I don’t use valves and like pedals?

There are several convincingly good brown sound pedals on the market today and I own a couple of them myself. What follows is my review of the simply fantastic Dual Version of the Carl Martin ‘Plexitone ‘


I really do love this pedal, I just recently got it and you know that “found it” feeling? This is exactly what I got as soon as I plugged into this beastly little box.

The Sounds

The Plexitone pedal emulates those great Marshall “Plexi era” amplifiers with two stages of great gain to choose from. There are two channels with one designated tone knob for both, an overall volume knob and a boost channel with its own volume. This effectively gives you 3 channels and if you include your amps cleans that 4 settings that you can use, totally fantasticle stuff.


 This channel is light blues to ACDC territory, think Andy Timmons and this nails it big time. The pedal is so transparent and keeps all the tones of your own amp and guitar faithfully intact whilst adding that Marshall Plexi break up vibe. This channel gives you a light to moderate crunch or a really sweet lead crunch tone useful for blues and rock.

High Gain

Face melting lead tone is right here, bags of sustain and more gain than a weight watchers reunion.

The Plexitone channels are well set up for using together (not at the same time). Raising the gains on each channel saturates them rather than raising the volume balance. This is awesome if you want to switch to a more saturated channel without a huge volume boost. The high gain has as much distortion as anyone could possibly need and ranges from light distortion, useful rock rhythm sounds to proper Brown Sound, metal and a super creamy lead, which sustains forever.

Boost, Tone & Power

This is a really nice little bonus on the Plexitone pedal, the boost is a clear transparent volume boost that works well with the drives, but also acts as a really lovely boost into the front end of an amps ‘preamp’ stage. The tone is so very useful at both extremes, normally you can’t really use a pedals tone at either end of the spectrum, but they have made this so its useful right round the clock with no ugly bits at all.

The pedal has its own plug attached, which gives it the power it needs and I’ve heard also helps headroom and tone in comparison to the smaller 9v single version.

How I use mine & and how it stacks up with other pedals

I will say that pedals can be very hit and miss with each different amp and speaker set-up. I’ve been through quite a few pedals trying to find the sound I like. The transparency of this pedal is one reason I’m confident it would suit most amp setups. I use mine through an orange Jim Root #4 terror, set to clean and all the juicy goodness comes from just the pedal itself.

If you’ve experimented with pedals you’ll know all too well that some pedals do not sit well with other pedals on the board. I can confirm that the Plexitone is very pedal friendly and takes other pedals into it with some lovely results.

I tried my Mooer Green Mile Ts9 clone and Wampler dual fusion into the plexi at low to moderate gain with pleasingly useful amp-like results.


The Plexitone is certainly a special, very simple and extremely effective pedal. This is useful for blues, rock and metal all day long, but if you’re into jazz it won’t float your boat at all.

Carl Martin has built this thing like a Sherman tank; I won’t ever sell mine and would definitely replace it if it were stolen.

Check out the awesome Carl Martin plexitone demo video below

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