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Gear Review: Tech 21 RK5 FlyRig

By Rev. Bill

I had a size problem. It was too damn big.

In November of last year I did the longest run of gigs I have ever done at one venue. We did 19 nights in a span of 25 days at the Aquarius in Laughlin, NV. And I had a epiphany about gear. Well, to be more accurate about broken gear.

The run was five-days-on, two-days-off for four weeks and in the middle of the 2nd run, I had two guitars—out the three I was carrying—go down. Weird coincidence, but both my 335 and my Black Falcon had one of the wires that feed the output jack come loose. If you have ever tried working on semi-hollow or hollow-body electric guitars, you know they are not easy. All the work has to happen through the F-holes. I made a trip to the local Wal-Mart and bought some fishing line and paper clips for fishing wires out of the body and tying the parts off and grabbed the soldering iron out of the toolbox that I carry on every gig and sat in my room trying to fix ‘em. I succeeded with one and got through the week then headed back to Vegas and my guitar savior Neil Smith who fixed them properly.

But in the days off that week, I thought a lot about gear and gigs and being in a town where the nearest music store was 100 miles away. That is actually a fairly typical situation for us when we play out of town. “Away” gigs for us mean Laughlin and Mesquite. One is 100 miles south of Vegas and the other 100 miles north and neither have a music store.

The guitar situation was a drag but I carry three so I got through it. But I only carry one amp. And it is a 35-year-old-ish Mesa Boogie Mark III. A tube amp. Notoriously finicky. It sounds great but if it went down in mid-run, I was screwed. I needed some kind of backup.

I initially turned to a Line 6 POD HD400. A great piece of gear. I have used most of the same FX modeling that is in the HD400 for a while but I used it in the form of the M9 multi-FX unit from Line 6. But the HD400 added amp modeling and and onboard wha and direct XLR outs that could feed a PA. I tore apart the pedal board i had used for the past couple of years and put the HD400 and my Boogie channel switches and my talk box right on the floor of the stage and finished out the run like that.

It worked OK. I am used to the M9 with six switches for accessing specific effects and the HD400 is set up very differently with three FX slots and each of those fairly limited in what kind of FX they can produce. Ironically, I don’t use a ton of FX. An overdrive, a compressor, a tremolo , a phase shifter and a delay. Pretty meat and potatoes. But getting the combos I wanted on the HD400 was a bitch. The slots are basically setup as drive FX in slot 1, modulation FX in slot 2 and time FX in slot 3. All of that meant I had to set up four different banks to make the combos I wanted and I was still not able to get back to what I was used to.

So when time came to put together a new pedal board I changed my thinking. The HD400 was my backup. I needed it for amp modeling in case my tube amp went tits-up on a gig.So, I grabbed the M9 again and put it all on one board.

And it was enormous.

The Old Pedalboard From Hell. It barely fits into the photo frame.

The Old Pedalboard From Hell. It barely fits into the photo frame.

On the Line 6 tip, the HD400, the M9, a Relay G70 wireless and the non-Line 6, two channel switches, a Heil talk box with a little amp to drive it and an Aphex Xciter. It was more than 44 inches wide and weighed more than 50 lbs. I had no case so I built a frame inside of a giant duffel bag and put wheels on it. It took up so much space in my smallish car (a Chevy HHR)—in which I somehow manage to pack a full PA and my guitar gear—that I found myself in my driveway at 4AM pushing and shoving gear trying to make it all fit before leaving for another out of town run. And it took up a huge amount of stage space.By the time I had done a single run of gigs with it, I knew i had to make a change.

I have known about Tech 21 for a very long time. I first met the team at their HQ in Manhattan back in the ‘90s when I was doing GIG Magazine. Yes, they proudly and somewhat unbelievably manufactured their products in a building in NYC for a very long time. Up until 2002, when they expanded and moved 14 miles west to Clifton, NJ.

But I had never really used any of it. We did a lot of Tech 21 reviews over the years but I always assigned them to someone else. Up until less than a decade ago, I was a modeling amp guy—largely because I play the kinds of gigs where volume is a huge big deal and I need big tone at low volume. When the newer digital modeling offerings stopped offering models of the Mark Series Mesa Boogie combos—my preferred amp models—I tried to make due but could never get the tone I wanted and finally did what I had wanted to do since the ‘80s and bought a couple of Boogies. It was around 2008 and the financial meltdown and I was still making really good money as the editor of FOH Magazine and I checked Craigslist several times a day. I scored on some good gear deals.

About the time I was freaking out over the size of my Monster Pedalboard From Hell, the band went into the studio to record tracks for a new video promo. About eight 30-second song “sound bites.” Per the instructions of the agent who asked for this, no solos. Emphasis on vocals and the horn section. I was playing rhythm guitar and most of it clean so in the interest of simplicity, we ran the guitar direct. There was no way there was room for that board, so I used the rack-mount Tech 21 SansAmp that was in the studio. And I really liked it.

So I emailed the Tech 21 folks who, not being millennials, actually read and answer email. And I explained my situation and asked if they had a solution. I needed something that provided some kind of amp emulation (Tech 21 is NOT modeling but more on that in a bit…) that wasn’t huge but that had at least a good clean rhythm and high-gain lead sound. And they responded quickly saying that what I needed was the Richie Kotzen RK5 Signature Fly Rig. So I asked them to send one for a review and if I liked it I would sell the HD400 and buy it. (I shipped the HD400 to its new owner about a week ago…)

When it arrived I had no idea what the box was. I thought it looked like business cards but I knew I had not ordered new cards in months. I was astounded to open the box and see this little tiny pedal board. I fired it up and was pretty happy but was using it to drive a real amp (an early ‘60s Fender Princeton that I bought at a garage sale 30 years ago and that is in my office). The test would come at the next rehearsal where I planned to run it right into the PA.

WHAT IT IS

On the surface it’s like a three-slot mini pedal board. But there is hidden stuff.

Starting in the middle, there is the famous Tech 21 amp emulation. It can be overdriven but it is voiced for a clean sound. To the left is a very good delay section with a hidden setting that will give you a decent chorus-like sound and to the right is a section titled OMG. This is where the RK really comes in. It stands for Ritchie Kotzen—a hotshot guitar player best known for replacing C.C. DeVille in Poison and Paul Gilbert in Mr. Big and for the band The Winery Dogs with Mike Portnoy and Billy Sheehan. It stands officially as maybe the favorite distortion unit I have ever used. Ever. On it’s own, it’s pretty good. But in conjunction with the dirty rhythm channel on the Mark III it is magic. Getting the rhythm chunk of a 4×12 out of a combo amp is supposed to be impossible. But it just kind of magically happens when the OMG circuit is engaged. It has literally changed the way I play. I am substantially more aggressive when using it.

The RK5 is all-metal and powered by a standard wall-wart style power supply. Oh and I nearly forgot. There is a clean boost available in the OMG section, too.

The rubber really hit the road at the next full band rehearsal. I brought a guitar and the RK5 and two cables and nothing else. The output ran into the rehearsal PA. As mentioned earlier, the Tech 21 stuff is an all-analog emulation of a guitar amp. It is NOT digital modeling. And, I know I’m late to the party, but at this point I am liking it better. There are no weird artifacts and it just sounds chunky and REAL. I dialed in a sound that was pretty close to clean with the guitar volume dialed back and that broke up just a little when the guitar was maxed. The studio where we rehearse has a large selection of good guitar amps including Fenders and Marshalls. And I promise that not using them was not missed at all. It was nothing short of a revelation to be able to carry something so small and get through an entire night.

So, here is where we stand…

I wanted something to use as an emergency backup. What I got was a piece that has become an important part of my rig even when I am using an amp, The RK5 can do double duty and allow me to go direct if my rig bites the dust or if volume concerns demand a direct input. Plus, my board is WAY smaller now. The RK5 has made me more than a bit happier. It’s a keeper.

About the author

Bill Evans

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