Marshall BluesBreaker review: can this much-copied drive pedal pick up right where it left off?
Widely considered the best of Marshall’s quartet of black wedges, the BB is low on raunch but high on soul – and that remains the case with the 2023 version
Marshall BluesBreaker. Image: Adam Gasson
It seems quite likely that all of this is the BluesBreaker’s fault. There really wasn’t a lot of love for Marshall’s old pedals flying around until word got out that John Mayer had the old black and blue box at the heart of his board. From that point on, the hype basically generated itself… and led, ultimately, to the arrival of these four reissues.
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Launched in 1991, three years after the Guv’nor, the original BB represented Marshall’s first proper go at capturing the tone of a specific amplifier in stompbox form. That amp was the 1962 combo used by Eric Clapton with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (and specifically on the so-called ‘Beano’ album) – thus the nickname.
Did the pedal sound like the amp? Nah, course it didn’t. But guitar history is littered with tales of things that came out wrong and ended up being brilliant anyway – just look at Marshall’s own early amps, which were supposed to sound like Fenders – and the ’91 BluesBreaker is a fine example.
This is a much lower-gain overdrive than the Guv’nor, and makes do with a single tone control instead of the earlier unit’s three-way EQ circuit. So if you’re looking to light a bonfire under a super-clean sound, while dramatically reshaping your midrange response, this is not your best option. If, on the other hand, you simply want to add a dash of sweet grit – or push your amp’s front end into overdrive a little further down the dial – a BluesBreaker could be just the job.
It’s a circuit that’s been widely cloned and riffed upon in recent years, so the biggest weapon in Marshall’s armoury here is the one thing no other company can offer: authenticity. To that end, like the rest of the Vintage Reissue series, the new BB is a fanatically faithful recreation of the old one.
This revised wedge shape is arguably an improvement on that of the Guv’nor, with a raised section protecting the knobs from wayward footswitch-seeking boots. It’s a pity the plastic battery cover is so loose and flappy, but that won’t be an issue once the pedal is rooted at your feet.
With all three knobs pointing at the sky, the new BluesBreaker sounds… quiet. Like, really quiet. Do I have some sort of power supply issue? Nope – this is normal, and a feature of the original pedal that has been grumbled about by more than one user.
It isn’t really a problem, though: just turn the volume up to around 3 o’clock and that’s something like unity gain. There’s no background noise to speak of, but it’s immediately clear what kind of overdrive we’re dealing with here: the warm, gentle, cuddled-by-a-giant-panda kind.
The tone is thickened up in the low end and softened down in the treble, with hardly anything in the way of added crunch until I start pushing the gain well past halfway. When the drive comes it’s smooth and amp-like, with less compression than the Guv’nor, and brings most of that missing treble back with it for a very nearly transparent tonal profile. If you’d rather keep things soft and fluffy, you can always turn the tone down a notch or two… or push it the other way for some good old-fashioned Marshall bite.
This is not an especially versatile pedal, and it doesn’t get as angry as the average overdrive, but spend half an hour with the BluesBreaker and you’ll be wondering why they didn’t bring it back years ago.