TOP SHELF: Vemuram Guitar Pedals
Alex Wilson casts his eye over this buffet of boutique overdrive.
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.