One of the last times I traveled to Texas, I met with legendary Telecaster player Redd Volkaert who lives just outside of Austin. We spent the morning talking vintage guitars and tube amps, but his description of a pedal made by Austin’s Alan Durham went on to make the greatest impact on my personal tone. The pedal, called the Sex Drive, is a clean boost that Durham originally built for Charlie Sexton in 2001. It’s designed to boost the guitar’s level, adding more bottom-end and sustain while not affecting the amp’s natural tone.
Some musicians, like Volkaert, have discovered that when the Sex Drive’s level knob is turned down, negating the volume increase, it does wonders for clean tones. When Durham first showed Volkaert the pedal, he suggested that Volkaert use it for a week then take it off his board for the following show. “I did and it was like, ‘This sucks without it,’” Volkaert said. “It just added more vibrance and more life.” Many professional musicians use the Sex Drive, finding a use for both applications of the pedal. According to the Austin Chronicle: Typically, people will buy two, one to leave on all the time and the other to employ during solos. “If you need the level to jump, it brings it up and makes [the sound] fatter and tighter,” Durham explains. “These are real precision players who can really hear the subtleties.”
Within weeks after returning to New York from Austin, I acquired a Sex Drive for my set-up. Using Volkaert’s advice, I kept the level low, and tested the pedal between my Telecaster and ‘65 Princeton Reverb amp. The effect added noticeable richness and clarity to my tone. The added sustain in higher registers was subtle yet noticeable. Using the Sex Drive like this was akin to freeing my tone from layers of cling-wrap I didn’t know existed — it just made everything sound better. Used as a boost for solos, the Sex Drive gives necessary volume and heft.
However it’s used, the range of controls allows players to further refine their tone. The tone knob essentially controls ‘Presence.’ It isn’t a traditional tone circuit that controls treble frequencies; rather, it adds clarity to your sound without modifying your existing tone. A compression switch toggles between ‘Off’ (best for use as a boost), ‘Soft’ (a nuanced compression that you feel in your fingers) and ‘Hard’ (slightly more gain and grit). The gain knob on the pedal can add some weight, but won’t put you into overdrive territory. With smaller watt tube amps like the Princeton, the pedal’s 200-percent signal boost can also drive the preamp harder producing a warm natural tube overdrive.
Hand-wired in Austin, the Sex Drive features Switch Craft jacks, Alpha full-size potentiometers and a very bright back-lit blue LED. This is not a true-bypass pedal, but your tone is not colored when the pedal is bypassed. The pedal retails for $219, which, though not inexpensive, is a relatively small amount to pay for such a tonal upgrade.