J.P.'s Gear Review v2.0 - Ep. 10 - JHS and Electro-Harmonix collaboration: Lizard Queen

 


What do you get when two pedal nerds decide to LARP working for Electro-Harmonix under Mike Matthews in 1975, the heyday of the "big box" EHX pedals, and they come up with a new circuit? You get this: the Lizard Queen Octave/Distortion pedal. It's a simple but effective design that truly encompasses everything Electro-Harmonix was about in the mid-1970's.

The backstory

Sometime in 2021, Josh Scott, from JHS Pedals, and Daniel Danger, graphics designer and "Electro-Harmonix Archivist", wanted to know what it would be like to work under Mike Matthews in 1975. They then decided to design a circuit that EHX would have produced back then using the processes and parts that were available at the time. It also had to be in a big box enclosure like all other EHX pedals of the era, because why not: they look cool and they make a statement!

Over the course of the following year, they hand-built 6 "big box" units and gave one to the man himself, Our Lord And Saviour Mike Matthews in 2022. JHS released a video on the making-of and the whys of this project that is well worth watching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kn7j2QPRHz4.

Since this JHS Show episode aired in February 2022, the public went wild and everyone and their pet goldfish wanted one for themselves. Hence, a special collaboration between JHS and EHX gave us the Nano Lizard Queen that is now available in music stores everywhere for the low price of 125$CAD (or 99$US). They offered 1000 units of a limited edition big box version available from JHS online only, but the 349$US price tag made me reconsider it. I love a good fuzz, but I don't have that much gear allowance money, so I got myself the EHX Nano Lizard Queen instead.

The design

The circuit is fairly simple: it's a fixed-gain fuzz (i.e., gain is always maxed out, as it should be) with a high-octave added to it. The fuzz circuit is based on one of the many versions of the Big Muff Pi (the Ram's Head version, I believe) and the octave up is based on the Green Ringer.

Although EHX's pedal names and enclosure designs are on the funky side, the control names remained very utilitarian. The Volume and Octave controls are pretty self-explanatory, but it features a Balance control, which is akin to the Tone control on a standard pedal. This darkens or brightens the sound (hence its "shadow" and "sun" sublabels) and it has a distinctive effect on the octave.

It's simple, it's effective, and octave fuzz was all the rage back then. Roger Mayer's Octavia and the Foxx Tone Machine Octave Fuzz were selling like crazy, and the Lizard Queen is definitely something the engineers at EHX would have come up with.

The unboxing

The box is a typical EHX box: simple graphics, simple text, with a serial number sticker slapped on the back. The pedal itself was tightly wrapped in a plastic bag with its manual and a registration card, and the bag was wrapped in bubble wrap.

The pedal is mounted in a custom enclosure that matches the standard Hammond Manufacturing 1590B dimensions. It has a nice silver powder coating, and high-quality printed graphics.

Since I had to open it to remove the battery, I checked the circuit and the components. Unsurprisingly, it is a surface-mounted PCB which is relatively large considering the type of circuit it is. I suppose it's easier to fit in the enclosure when the potentiometers and jacks are soldered directly on the PCB itself.

The jacks are all PCB-mounted, and the footswitch uses a nice 3PDT helper board that is linked to the main PCB with a six-strands wire. The circuit is designed with discrete components only; no integrated circuit is present on this board. It's all-analog transistor stuff going on.

The board is a bit greasy/flux-y, but nothing out of the ordinary. It does have a nice Easter egg marking on the top left corner. Everything is well soldered and looks tidy. Overall, it's typical EHX quality and it looks rock-solid.









Overview

True to the original design ideas of early EHX pedals, it's a very simple effect. This being the "Nano" version (since it's not in a big box enclosure Electro-Harmonix is known for), it has the footprint of a standard pedal. Beside the obvious DC in, guitar in and amp out, it has three controls:
  • Volume: how loud the output of the pedal is.
  • Octave: how much of the octave you want in the output.
  • Balance: how dark/bright should the output be. This one has sublabels "shadow" for fully counter-clockwise, and "sun" for fully clockwise. It has a marked effect on the octave.
According to Josh from JHS, the idea for the balance knobs sublabels came from the fact that lizards can't control their body temperature and need to find to proper balance of shadow and sun to regulate it. It's unusual, but I like where they were going with that.

Note that there is no fuzz control since it is a fixed gain fuzz like the One-Knob Fuzz pedals (i.e., the fuzz is always maxed out). To control the level of fuzz, you must use the volume control on the instrument itself. And seriously, who doesn't max out the fuzz on a Big Muff?

First impressions

Right out of the box, this pedal has a very distinctive charm to it. The simplicity of the graphics makes it look like it's straight out of 1975. Yes, it was the idea from the get-go, but even the Nano version of the pedal conveys this impression. Compared to the Soul Food, Flatiron Fuzz, East River Drive, or any of their other pedals with complex graphics, the Lizard Queen looks refined. It's elegant in its simplicity.

The knobs are conveniently placed in EHX's typical triangular fashion, like 90% of the three-knobs pedals they released to this day. The DC jack is top-mounted and both ¼-inch jacks are on either side. Everything is mounted to the PCB itself, so it's unlikely to move in any way. It's one big unit that come out as a whole should it need to be serviced.

There's just one thing, though. Out of all the colors available to chose from the visible light spectrum, why is the PCB BLUE?!? Green would have been a much, much better choice (unless they were going for a "Grand Cayman blue iguana" look, in which case the print should have been blue as well). I feel like I have to dock at least half a point in the final rating for this reason only, even if its petty.

Sound-wise, it's a very pleasant sounding fuzz, and the octave goes from "very subtle" to "drowning out the input signal". There's a lot of play with the octave control and it's very versatile. When the octave is fully counterclockwise (i.e., off), it's a nice one-knob-fuzz if you ignore the balance control and leave it at noon.

Further testing

Fuzzes are fun. Octavers are... uh... temperamental. However, mixing both together is awesome!

Testing the basics

As mentioned previously, it's a fixed-gain fuzz so there is no fuzz control knob. In order to change how thick the fuzz is, you need to use the volume control on your instrument. You'll have more of less room for adjustment depending on the combination and output level of your pickups (i.e., single coil pickups will generally be less punchy). The Volume knob controls the output of the pedal and has no incidence on the level of fuzziness or the octave.

I expected it to sound thin on single coil pickups, but it has some good bite to it. You can easily get velcro-fuzz sound by just slightly dialing down the volume and playing around with the Balance knob. On my Stratocaster with noiseless single coil pickups, I get about 10% of play on the volume knob before it starts to not respond very well. The cut-off is fairly sharp as you'd expect it. Once the input voltage is too low, transistors don't turn on anymore... Most of my humbucker-equipped guitars give me maybe 20-25% of play, but it's really dependent on the pickups. Either way, it sound great on pretty much every instrument I tried it with.

The Octave knob controls how much of the octave will be blended in the output. The first ⅔ of the knob gives you very usable tones. Passed that point, the octave overpowers the signal and the input is drowned out, making the overall output of the pedal not as loud and punchy as it would otherwise be. Most of the low-end is lost to the octave and it sound a bit flat (but not in a bad way). It's not an issue of the pedal, but rather a side-effect of mixing in an octave that is typical of the Green Ringer circuit.

The Balance knob is a bit more complex. Its effect on the dry signal is very subtle, and its behaviour will change based on the octave level. The Shadow side gives you a smooth, Big Muff Pi-esque sustain fuzz, while the Sun side will be a more raspy and bitey gated fuzz.

So far, it's very good and versatile. There are no unusable settings on this pedal.

Of course, the next step is to test it on bass where it works and sounds awesome. I did have to get myself an EHX Switchblade Pro in order to blend the dry signal back in to mitigate the low-end loss that fuzzes, distortions, and overdrives that are not made for bass usually have.

The only negative point I have noted is that while it's very good for single notes, plucking multiple notes at once or playing chords can get very muddy the more octave you blend in. You lose a bit of clarity, but I think it's a limitation of the circuit rather than a design fault.

Does it stack?

Boost

One thing that you might want to try out is to place a boost in front of it. Sadly, my DIY boost pedal is of dubious performance but I did try it for gits and shiggles.

With the boost set at about 50%, it solves the issue of having practically no fuzz control on my Stratocaster. It doesn't sound bad, but let's just say this boost circuit is not the cleanest... This prompted me to shop around for an actual boost, and got myself an EHX Linear Power Booster LPB-1 for 55$CAD - brand-spankin' new! It's an awesome little boost and I don't know how I lived without one until this day.

It makes everything better, including the fuzz. The Lizard Queen gets super thick and oversaturated - sans noise - and I absolutely love it. I tried it on both bass and guitar, and it's amazing. Definitely try this when you'll get one.

Adding a boost in front will make the fuzz thicker (the same could be said for any fuzz), but it gives you more control via the volume knob of the instrument which in turn gives you more possibilities.

Overdrive

I tested placing an overdrive before and after the Lizard Queen, as well as using the amplifier's overdrive channels.

As a clean-ish boost, my clone Klon sounds ok. It's not life-changing, but it's not terrible either. It gives that little extra push that some guitars might need when placed in front of the Lizard Queen the same way a boost would. When placed after, it adds an extra volume boost that's not really needed, but with enough gain the overdrive adds some texture. Substituting the clone Klon with an Ibanez TS9DX achieves similar results, except the Tube Screamer isn't as transparent as the Klon.

Using the amp's overdrive channels also adds some texture, but its effect will depend on your amp and the kind of overdrive it can produce. On my Fender Hot Rod DeVille IV 212, it sounds OK on low to medium overdrive level on the first drive channel only. The "More Drive" channel is a bit too muddy for my taste with a fuzz in front, but it's not entirely unusable.

Distortion

I tested with a Boss DS-1 and an MXR Distortion+. I chose these two pedals since the DS-1 has a tone stack, and the Distortion+ does not. I could have also used a RAT or a RAT-adjacent pedal, but - you know what? Let's get the RAT2 and test it out as well.

Beside the different sound color each distortion pedal gives, they all mostly behave the same way. When placing the distortion in front of the Lizard Queen, it doesn't sound that great. It could potentially be workable, but you'll most likely need a noise gate somewhere in the signal chain. The fuzz gets oversaturated, but not in a good way and depending on the type of distortion and level of gain, it can make the fuzz squeal. FYI: in normal operating mode, the Lizard Queen is not supposed to squeal.

When placing the distortion after the Lizard Queen, it does sound a lot better and there are possibilities. However, its not a sound I'm fond of since the distortion overtakes the fuzz and the characteristic sound of the Lizard Queen gets lost to the distortion. On low distortion setting it sounds OK, but it's not going to revolutionize anything.

It stacks OK, but not with everything

It stacks great with a boost in front and/or an overdrive after. The boost add more fuzz and control (mainly with lower output pickups), and the overdrive adds some extra texture although it's not really needed considering it's a fuzz and fuzzes typically sound great on their own.

With distortion pedals, it's hit or miss. Most of the times it won't sound very good or one will overtake the other. The Lizard Queen doesn't play well with distortion pedals, and that's OK.

Audio demo

I did a quick demo on both bass and guitar of various settings on the Lizard Queen. I did not stack it with any other overdrive, boost, or distortion. I used my Hughes & Kettner Red Box 5 to record the audio, since with all the AC units running, it's impossible to get a quiet enough environment to mic my amps. The frequency response for bass is not that great on the Red Box 5, but it's good enough for now. Audio levels were adjusted in post to be about -6db all-around.



Summary

This pedal, that started as a basically a role-play by two effect pedals nerds, turned out to be one of the most requested pedal by both JHS an EHX effects enthusiasts in recent years.

It's simple, sleek, and it sounds awesome. Is it for everyone? I'd say yes. You need at least one octave fuzz in your collection, and at 125$CAD (or 99$US), you'd be hard-pressed to find one that sounds and behaves just as good as the Lizard Queen does.

I absolutely love this octave fuzz, and it stacks well with a boost. Not only that, but the circuit was designed by Josh Scott and Daniel Danger, and produced on a large scale by Electro-Harmonix. What could you ask more?

The All-Important Rating™

Build quality: 9.5/10 (It's well-made and rock-solid like every EHX pedal out there, but why is the PCB blue?!? I had to dock half-a-point for that. Sorry, eh.)
Effect quality: 9/10 (It's a maxed out Big Muff with a Green Ringer-adjacent circuit. It cannot sound bad. It can however sound a bit muddy when you pluck more than one note at the same time.)
Usability: 8/10 (The octave is tricky to dial in after the Octave knob is turned past ⅔ and it kind of drowns the "dry" signal.)
Retro-funkiness: 11/10 (If you didn't know, you'd think it was a reissue of something from the 70's.)


Header image "borrowed" from EHX.com

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