First Impressions: NABLA Custom Black Tweed Overdrive Pedal

This arrived all the way back at the start of December, and since then, it’s barely been off my practice pedal board at home. Although that sounds like a really good thing, the reality is a little more complicated than that …

tl;dr

The NABLA Custom Black Tweed is an overdrive pedal that aims to deliver classic blackface tones and tweed tones, all at the flick of a switch. I bought it for the tweed tones, and haven’t explored the blackface tones yet.

In terms of tweed-tone, it’s more like the Mad Professor Sweet Honey Overdrive than the Lovepedal 5e3 Deluxe. It’s quite a mid-forward sound, and doesn’t bring the weighty low-mids or mid-scooping that some other tweed-tone pedals do.

It’s certainly got a rich, complex mid-range that feels much more like an amp than a pedal, and I found it a joy to play.

However, it’s one of those pedals that comes with a hair-trigger volume control, which I found really fiddly to work with. I’ve struggled to get the most out of the EQ controls, and I had to boost it with my Klon KTR’s built-in buffer to deal with a lack of presence.

It’s a pedal I hope to use a lot in 2021, while keeping one eye on their website in the hope that they release a v2 with these concerns addressed.

What Did You Buy?

The NABLA Custom Black Tweed is an overdrive pedal from Italy. I bought it brand new, direct from NABLA Custom. I swapped a couple of emails with them to get some help with my purchase, and they seem to be super nice people.

As is clearly stated on their website, all of their pedals are hand-built to order. It took a month from me placing my order to it arriving here in the Welsh valleys (ordered last day of October, arrived first day of December). I’m very happy with that.

Why Did You Buy It?

My friend Alessandro Reffo recommended it to me. He’d been raving about how good the NABLA Custom 1987 is (spoiler alert: he was right), so when I went to buy the 1987, I thought, “why not try their tweed-tone pedal too?”

After all, as regular readers know, I’m all about the tweed-tone thing.

What Are You Trying It With?

My signal chain is very straight-forward: Les Paul into the Black Tweed into my Blackstar Studio 10 6L6. The Les Paul is fitted with PAF-style pickups: low output, vintage tone. It isn’t a dark-sounding Les Paul. That’ll become important shortly.

At some point, I’ll dig out a Strat and a Tele to try with it too, but make no mistake: I bought this predominantly to use with my Les Paul.

Oh, and unless I say otherwise, I’ve got the Black Tweed in the ‘Tweed’ and ‘New Tubes’ settings.

This Pedal Is All About The Feel

Right from the get go, this pedal felt incredible to play. I can’t think of another pedal that feels like this (except maybe the NABLA Custom 1987 v2 …).

Best way I can describe it is that it doesn’t feel like I’m playing through a pedal. It feels more like playing through an actual amp. It’s a real delight.

Compared to (say) my Mad Professor Sweet Honey Overdrive (SHOD for short), the Black Tweed is more compressed, but in a good way. The Black Tweed still feels alive, open, dynamic, and responsive even though it’s compressed when cranked. Just about every other drive pedal I’ve tried that’s compressed feels the exact opposite.

If you’re someone who’s never enjoyed the feel of playing through overdrive pedals, definitely give the Black Tweed a look. It might just be the pedal to change your mind.

Not The Tweed Sound That Other Pedals Do

One of the defining characteristics of most (but not all!) tweed-tone pedals is a certain weight or body to the tone, that comes from the low-mids. I’ve been unable to dial that in on the Black Tweed.

In that respect, it’s more like my beloved SHOD than (say) the Lovepedal 5e3 Deluxe, although it has to be said, the Black Tweed makes even the SHOD sound scooped.

To my ear, it’s because this pedal doesn’t have the same mid-scoop characteristic that most other tweed-tone pedals have. If anything, it reminds me mostly of my Marshall Origin amp: it has a mid-forward sound that totally dominates what I’m hearing.

It could well be that the Black Tweed is accurately reproducing what a tweed amp actually sounds like. I’ve never owned such an amp myself, and I’ve never played through one either.

The Volume Is All-Boost

This is one of those pedals where unity volume is a hair or two above the ‘off’ position.

Probably great for saturating your amp by slamming the front-end. Not so great for anyone trying to play at home volumes, or if they’ve got anything in their signal chain with limited input headroom.

Unfortunately, taming this doesn’t seem simple as putting something neutral with a volume control afterwards. I just can’t make it sound the same, even with having matched the volume.

I Don’t Understand The EQ Controls Yet

The best way to get any low-mod action going isn’t to tweak the three-band EQ controls, it’s to start cranking the gain control (which is labelled as Crank). As I turn up the gain, the tone thickens up in a very satisfying way.

I wish I could shape the tone some more by using the EQ controls, but I just can’t quite figure them out. They don’t seem to offer different tonal options out of the pedal, but they don’t seem to be voiced quite right to help me adjust the pedal to my guitar and amp either.

So far, I’ve resisted the urge to throw the MXR 10-band eq onto the board to shape the tone, but that urge is there, and it isn’t going away. Not just for the low-mids that I’m after, either: this pedal could use some help at the top-end too.

The Highs Lack Presence

The Black Tweed’s output is definitely in the mid-range. And, while it’s a glorious mid-range sound, I’m finding that it can sound a little dull in the top-end. The problem, as they say, is presence.

It’s not too bad on the bridge pickup of my Les Paul, but as soon as I switch to the middle position, it’s very noticeable. Unfortunately, I’m very much a middle-position player, and any pedal that’s lacking in presence can be a frustrating experience there.

And I say it’s presence because turning up the Treble control on the pedal doesn’t help; the Black Tweed just becomes harsh and brittle, but that dullness remains.

Is it actually a problem? It has to be said, I only notice it when I’m switching between the Black Tweed and another pedal. If my ears are fresh, and I’m only playing the Black Tweed, then I don’t notice it as much.

Fortunately, I’ve found a fix for it for when it is bugging me too much.

Klon To The Rescue … But Not In The Way I Expected

A big part of the Klon sound is the buffer that’s built into it. The buffer adds a surprising amount of top-end to the input signal – and it turns out to be a great way to take the dull edge off of the Black Tweed.

(This is a trick that deserves its own blog post, if I haven’t written one already!)

What I’ve done is put my Klon KTR in front of the Black Tweed. The Klon itself is off, and the buffer is switched to the ‘always on’ position. (The Klon’s buffer is so bright, Klon owners lobbied Bill Finnegan to make a true-bypass Klon. His compromise was to add a switch to the KTR so that the buffer can be switched off when the pedal is off.)

I really like the end result. Again, as with the volume pot, I just wish it wasn’t necessary.

Old Tubes, Or New Tubes Setting?

One of the toggle switches on the front of the pedal switches between ‘Old Tubes’ and ‘New Tubes’. You’ll definitely want to experiment with both.

I wish there was an in-between setting that gave me the best of both worlds.

The ‘Old Tubes’ setting brings in some of those weighty lower-mids that I’m after. I’ve found I have to be very careful with it, as it doesn’t really cope with my Les Paul’s neck pickup, but still: it’s an option.

Unfortunately, it makes the pedal sound even duller than before. Even with the Klon buffer trick, it’s frustratingly lacking in presence. I’d love to keep the lower-mids from the ‘Old Tubes’ setting, and add in the top-end from the ‘New Tubes’ setting … and have the presence addressed too.

I’m going to try recording with both settings, and see which one gives me the best complimentary recorded guitar tone. Then I’ll decide. Sadly, I’m unlikely to switch between the two of them on a regular basis because the output volume is different, and the volume control is just too damn fiddly to be adjusting all the time.

What’s The Blackface Setting Like?

I honestly haven’t spent much time with it in the blackface setting. I bought this pedal to do the tweed-tone thing. I would have bought it at the exact same price even if it hadn’t offered a second voicing.

I promise that I’ll revisit this setting another time, and (in particular) try it into a whole bunch of amps to get a solid idea of what it’s potentially voiced for. I’ll also compare it against my Synergy T-DLX’s red channel to see how close it gets to an actual amp.

Final Thoughts

Warning: I’m going to sound contradictory here. I think that reflects how conflicted I feel about this pedal.

First off, this pedal is a keeper. I love the feel of playing through this pedal, and the mid-range is simply glorious in its complexity with the pedal’s gain cranked. I’ve spent many hours now just playing through this pedal, losing track of the time and my cares and worries.

At the same time, I hope that they do a v2 revision at some point, because it isn’t quite ready to knock my SHOD off my board. I’d love to see the sweep and usable range of the volume pot adjusted, as well as a bit more presence on the tweed setting to take the dull edge off it. My instinct is that I’d also love to see changes made to the EQ controls, but I can’t say what they should be because I can’t (yet) put my finger on why I’m finding them difficult to work with today.

I think this pedal is going to be on my board a lot in 2021. I’ve always preferred to record complimentary guitar tones, and I’m really hoping that the Black Tweed proves to be the perfect compliment to my beloved SHOD.

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