Whack Job: 1968 Gibson/Maestro Rhythm N Sound

Ever since guitar players figured out that by amplifying a guitar they could make new sounds by manipulating the original dry signal, there has been a more than 60-year tradition of tone bending.
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Ever since guitar players figured out that by amplifying a guitar they could make new sounds by manipulating the original dry signal, there has been a more than 60-year tradition of tone bending. It started out innocently enough when amp manufacturers added reverb, tremolo, and EQ. Then, in the ’50s, Link Wray “took it to 11” by embracing distortion, and Les Paul pioneered sound on sound, as well as the use of echo and delay. In the ’60s, Dick Dale saturated his guitar in reverb, and, a few years later, Jimi Hendrix changed everything.

By the mid 1960s, contemporary guitarists seemed to be on a never-ending quest to make their guitars sound unique, and this journey was not lost on the era’s guitar-, amp-, and signal-processing companies. Some geniuses put sounds into boxes that changed the course of electrified music in thrilling ways. Others made devices that invited musicians to shake their heads in bemused bewilderment. In 1968, the Gibson/Maestro Rhythm N Sound arrived on the scene to challenge and perplex guitarists with its way-way-out “sounds” and absurd features.

WEIRDO FACTOR
We can give this device a kind of “pioneer award,” because, back in the day, no one tried to put this much processing power into one effects unit. That’s not much of a weirdo factor, of course, but what is strange about the Rhythm N Sound— especially in light of the multitude of accurate and vibey digital models available today—is that none of the sounds actually sound like the sounds it’s trying to emulate.

PLAYABILITY & SOUND
The Wow-Wow effect is not like the wah-wah you might expect—it’s more like an envelope follower. The Echo preset is really a hard-knee tremolo. The Distortion is not unlike the coveted Gibson/Maestro Fuzz—a grinding fuzz sound with no real fidelity. The String Bass appears to be an octaver. It’s very cool, but not at all like a string bass.

The head scratching continues with the Rhythm presets, where the four choices—Bongo, Brush, Tambourine, and Clave—sound nothing like their names suggest. They are cheesy in the extreme, and if the individual sounds aren’t silly enough for you, you can throw all the switches down at once to combine them. Certain functions can be turned on and off with footswitches, should you dare. And while you may think that a rhythm machine provides preset grooves for you to play to—think again. There are no patterns here—your guitar triggers the mono percussion sounds as you strum or pick. It’s almost laughable, and nearly unusable.

VALUE
There are very few of these boxes out there still working, and you might pay up to a thousand dollars for one at an online auction. Whether it’s actually worth a grand or not is up to you. Is the Rhythm N Sound a gateway to “new sounds” à la Radiohead, Muse, and Jack White, or is it simply a very expensive way to ruin a perfectly good guitar tone?

WHY IT RULES
It rules because it’s a throwback to a time when there was a lot of experimentation in the world of guitar. The Rhythm N Sound is also wonderfully analog, and, trust me, no one has been demented enough yet to produce a software version of this weirdo for the EDM crowd. Well, that is, until you produce a hit club track with it.

Thanks to Dave Stein for the loan of his Rhythm N Sound. Dave is obviously fearless.

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