Radial is a Canadian company with a reputation of providing high-quality pedals and other tools to professional guitarists. Luckily, regular folks like me can get their hands on them, too, at prices which are competitive given their market and sophistication. Before I dig in to the details, I imagine you are wondering what sets this pedal apart. By now you've heard a number of pedals in our roundup which all claim to get some aspect or era of the Marshall Sound, and you might have noticed that each pedal accomplishes its goal of sounding like one Marshall or another. It might not seem amazing, then, just to say that the Tonebone Hot British achieves the basic goal of a Marshall-in-a-Box. You might be more impressed to hear that with the Hot British, it's really more like having a big box full of Marshalls. If that piques your curiosity, read on!
One glance at the Hot British confirms that a lot of thought has been given to versatility. The face of the pedal might be imposing if it weren't arranged neatly: there are five knobs (Level and Drive, as well as High, Low and Contour) and three switches (Top End, Voicing and Mid Boost) with three positions each and a true bypass switch. Just looking at the controls does a great deal to explain their nature. We're all familiar with High and Low, but the switches all have a little frequency-response graph picture by each position to give you a visual representation of each one's effect on the sound. The controls are interactive and in some cases quite related. The High control and the Top End switch are used together to configure your treble, while the Contour knob is like a parametric midrange adjustment with center frequency and width controlled by the Voicing switch.
The Mid Boost switch doesn't directly interact with the other controls, but it has such a profound effect on the sound of the pedal that you might find yourself setting the controls flat, picking a Mid Boost position, and then working from there. While the initial impression might be that the pedal's tonal adjustments are dauntingly complex, the learning curve is manageable. Read the documentation and if you have any trouble the thorough instructions on Radial's web site, with charts to explain how everything fits together, should have you up to speed in no time.
...with its powerful tone shaping, the Hot British can give you at bare minimum a recognizable representation of any Marshall amp's voicing, and in many cases it goes well beyond that.
If the downside to sophisticated tone controls is a learning curve, the big pay-off is versatility. The eras of rock and roll to date each have an iconic Marshall amplifier that powers many of the hits, and while the basic formula and circuit changed only in small increments over the years, those small changes gave each its own unique voicing and overall character. The majority of classic Marshall amps have a strong family resemblance in their basic sound, but just as in a real family, the interesting stuff is in the nuances. Equipped with its powerful tone shaping, the Hot British can give you at bare minimum a recognizable representation of any Marshall amp's voicing, and in many cases it goes well beyond that.
Is it the perfect product, then? Have we finally found the absolute be-all, end-all of Marshall-in-a-Box pedals? As competent and multifaceted as this remarkable pedal is, I can offer some critique. The only notable shortcoming of the pedal is an intermittent problem with output level which occurs with some EQ settings, especially darker ones or those in which the Mid Boost is set to zero. If you happen to like a really dark, grungy tone - say, a Big Muff into a JCM900 kind of sound – you might find yourself with the level maxed and still not at unity output. On the other hand, with the Mid Boost engaged and the Treble set to Flat or higher, you'll find that you might only be at a little over half-way and already at unity. The other thing worth mentioning is really just something to keep in mind. With hot pickups, and depending on how the tone controls are set, higher Drive levels can become quite grainy and fizzy, leaving Marshall territory for something less auspicious. However, that is really only because of the amount of gain available – for reference, in the demo clip, I never had the Drive control above two-thirds using a Seymour Duncan JB bridge humbucker. With single-coils, all that gain on tap comes in handy.
The Hot British does have special power needs, provided for by the included 15V DC/400mA wall wart, and the industry as a whole has a problem with the barrel-ends of adapters all being the same, even when incompatible power will kill a pedal. In this case, you might want to label the end of the included adapter so that you don't inadvertently plug it into a pedal that can't handle the juice. That extra voltage translates into superior headroom in the hybrid solid-state/tube clipping circuitry compared to 9V pedals, a fact you will appreciate when playing dynamic rhythm and leads. Radial has done a fine job with the Tonebone Hot British, providing a pedal which manages to capture the essence of the Marshall tone while simultaneously allowing you the freedom to pick which sort of Marshall tone you want, all in a sturdy and attractive package at a competitive price.
Price: $199 Street
Pros: Rugged construction and flexible tone shaping
Cons: Inconsistent output on some settings, hot pickups can cause a grainy, fizzy sound if you're not careful with the Drive control