VEMURAM JAN RAY MA, RAGE E AND KAREN GUITAR PEDALS

Alex Wilson casts his eye over this buffet of boutique overdrive.

Full review and independent analysis of the Vemuram Jan Ray MA, Rage E and Karen Guitar Pedals by Australian Guitar Magazine.

PRICE: $495 (Karen) | $579 (Jan Ray MA) | $595 (Rage E) – All prices AUD

OUR ANALYSIS

An overdrive pedal is one of the fundamentals of a pedalboard, with almost every electric guitarist needing a bit of crunch now and then. The 21st century’s explosion of boutique guitar culture has seen so many variations on this humble stompbox that it’s hard for manufacturers to stand out from the crowd. One tried-and-true method is to pitch yourself at the top of the heap – beautiful presentation and an expensive asking price will signal to punters that you’re a premium product, and what’s inside must be the goods.

Vemuram started in Tokyo, Japan in 1998. They're on a self-described quest, seeking the “Guitar player’s Holy Grail of overdrive pedals.” They have an interesting aesthetic: classy, yet quite odd. Vemuram pedals are made of brass, come folded in brown paper, are boxed in a minimalist style and accompanied by a mini screwdriver and logo sticker. They’re emblazoned with quirky names like Karen and yet still have a kind of dignified seriousness about them. 

It’s almost like they’re chunky diamonds, sitting on a silk pillow, surrounded by rose petals as muzak burbles in the background. Nonetheless, Vemuram’s pedals have found a home in the rigs of big hitters in every corner of rock's hall of fame, ranging all the way from Keith Urban to Richie Sambora to Wayne Krantz. 

Their reputation notorious and their price tags hefty, Vemuram itself remains somewhat mysterious. There’s nary a company history on the website, but instead a stark manifesto outlining their philosophy of pedal design. Online gear forums are divided on whether the pedals are indeed the bee's knees, or just another over‑hyped luxury stompbox. So all in all, these are maybe the most boutique of boutique pedals I’ve come across.  

Kick on the Rage e and you’ll be hit by a wave of creamy distortion. The gain added by this pedal, even without the boost, is considerable. The compression of the circuit hits the lows hard, lending them percussiveness and size. Clarity and width is retained as the Rage e does not cut the high frequencies as aggressively as other pedals. The boost function shoots an already volcanic amount of gain off into the stratosphere, and while it can’t be engaged separately to the main drive circuit, that didn’t prove a big problem in practice.

Terms like ‘warmth’, ‘depth’ and ‘organic’ are often abused by guitarists speaking vaguely and reverently about their favourite tones. But the Rage e, and indeed the other pedals in this review, all have that kind of richness to their sound – the amount of thought Vemuram have put into their tonal characters is stunning. 

These Vemuram pedals almost always flattered my playing, and moreover, they feel fantastic. Despite their various colours and capacities for gain, all these pedals are marked by natural and spongy breakup curve that’s absolutely delightful under the fingers.

Karen has a fair bit more headroom than the Rage e, but is still a rocker’s pedal. Its distortion is aggressive, bright and chunky. It’s definitely a gnarly sound with the gain cranked, but generally it’s best for a smoother, more old-school sound. Given the headroom available on this pedal, you can hear more of the distortion’s pleasing compression pushing back against you. Despite this, the pedal still feels sensitive and open to play.

The Jan Ray’s emulation of a Fender is dedicated, dignified, natural and detailed. Plug an actual Fender guitar into it, and the pedal will snap and sparkle. However, it’s also versatile, conjuring a really nice and creamy saturation from a Gibson hollowbody. While midrange increases a little with more volume, this pedal tends to brighten and widen the sound. As it has the highest headroom of any of these pedals, the compression is gentle and responsive.

IN-DEPTH SPECIFICATIONS
We’re talking three different varieties of overdrive, each with wildly different applications but all sharing in tonal excellence. The Rage e was the first product from the company and is a high-gain monster. Powerful and percussive distortion is on tap, and when the boost is engaged, it pushes this sound into an even thicker saturation. 

The Karen is pitched by Vemuram as a more dignified, stripped-back version of the Rage e. It turns back the clock to court a sound of the '70s, exemplified by Marshall’s four-input JMP and two-input JCM amps. It lacks the boost of the Rage e and is overall a bit cleaner. 

Finally, the Jan Ray MA is a Mateus Asato’s signature mod on the company’s regular pedal. The Jan Ray’s core sound is that of a '60s Fender Blackface set to the ‘Magic 6’ setting. The MA signature adds a bit more gain than you'd find with the usual Jan Ray pedal.

The company has a few methods for setting their pedals apart in the boutique overdrive market, or the 'Economy Class' of guitar pedals. 

Firstly, they claim to have rigorous production methods focused around hand-wiring and stringent quality control. Secondly, they house all their pedals in brass – this looks cool as hell, and also (apparently) provides much better noise insulation than regular aluminium. 

Finally, each pedal has a recessed trim pot you can get at with that helpful included mini screwdriver. This adjusts the overall saturation level of the circuit, separate from the individual control offered on the front-facing pots. This allows you an awesome amount of control over the pedal’s gain staging, allowing you the choice of how hard you want its boost to push your preamp.

It’s a sensible and inspired concession to the unique gear of each guitarist. Another way of looking at it is that it simply expands the scope of each pedal’s use. It’s comforting to know that, if the need arises, you can push it that little bit harder or clean it up that fraction more.

WHY IT’S ON THE TOP SHELF
Some forum scouting indicated that many players are put out by the intimidating pricetags on these drive pedals. While it’s always great to see cheaper pedals, these pedals have the build quality and price to justify a steep cost.

WHY YOU’RE PROBABLY GOING TO WANT IT
Firstly, how they sound. Vemuram really nailed each tone they set out to capture here – we can waffle on as much as we like, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice not to hear it for yourself. Secondly, how they play. They’re just really satisfying drives to dig into, and there’s a real sense of dependability to the breakup, assisting in the mastery of licks. And finally, there are the extras – the build quality, the cool extra trim pot, and the handwired circuits. These all contribute to the sense of these products as elegant and professional tools worthy of the big asking price.

WHAT YOU SHOULD CONSIDER FIRST
Can you afford one? For some, the price may be just that little bit too prohibitive, and there are certainly drive pedals out on the market that give Vemuram’s boxes a run for their money – that is, if you're willing to sacrifice on build quality.

CONTACT
Gladesville Guitar Factory

Ph: (02) 9817 2173
Web: guitarfactory.net