Electro-Harmonix Holiest Grail
When you visit the Louvre, you know you’re going to see the Mona Lisa, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and the Code of Hammurabi. You’re also going to see a ton of other things that you have likely never heard of. And you know, just because they aren’t featured attractions doesn’t mean they don’t belong among the world’s best. I lay this analogy at your feet as I present to you one of my absolute favorite pedals of all time, the Electro-Harmonix Holiest Grail.
Of course, the irony of a museum analogy when referencing a pedal named after a relic in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is not lost on me. And to this device I add another wrinkle; the Holiest Grail is a reverb relic in the absolute best way. And it belongs in my museum.
In the late-’80s, digital reverb was turning the corner and becoming an effect that more and more players relied on. But nobody really knew what they exactly wanted—today’s players know the difference between spring reverb, hall reverb, plate and shimmer, convolution and whatever else. Back when digital reverb was in its infancy, it was just “reverb.” Sure it had the names, but there was little difference between algorithms. Nobody played through a plate reverb on the first generation of digital units and thought it sounded like an EMT-140; it was just variations on a theme. They sure were trying, though!
Sometime down the line, this approach failed and companies went back to basics. Boss’s RV-3 offered some rudimentary approximations, dedicating two different modes to “room” and “a more spacious room.” Alesis’s Microverb series kept plugging away at various room sizes. Electro-Harmonix’s own Holy Grail offered one knob: Reverb. Soon, the Holier Grail came out offering spring, hall, room and “flerb” modes (don’t ask). Reverb pedals were selling like hotcakes despite starting over in ambition. The iron was hot and it was EHX’s time to strike. After all, Boss had just come out with an RV-5 with real, discernable modes to supplant the aimless RV-3. In the early ‘00s, the Holiest Grail was EHX’s most righteous offering.
Representing a “kitchen sink” approach to reverberation, the Holiest Grail doesn’t give players the ability to adjust inconsequential parameters within a specified algorithm. Instead, it offers up control over the acoustic properties of reverb itself—damping, decay and most importantly, diffusion, which allows players to morph between styles at will. A dedicated Spring slider lets you cut in a percentage of spring tank for a whole new dimension of ‘verb. And the generous pre-delay section adds some feedback to the equation for ultra-wet drip. It should also be noted that the Holiest went above and beyond in all features. While most reverbs offer a few milliseconds of pre-delay, EHX gave 440. While many reverb pedals max out at a fixed decay length, the Grail places no limits on its space.
Before it gets there, it passes through this unit’s secret weapon: its preamp. Without a shred of irony or bias, I absolutely love this preamp. Unlike almost any gain based device I know, it features one control, going from completely silent, to crystal clear frequency enhancement to blown-out Neil Young-esque distortion. There’s a raggedy fragility to the sound that is truly unique, mostly because it’s overloading the front end of a primitive A/D converter. It’s rather remarkable among a sea of gain pedals that don’t manage to capture that versatility with five knobs, let alone five or six.
Back before reverb pedals were sleek computers with footswitches, the Holiest Grail looks like a real mid-2000s desktop PC inside, with a swath of boards adorning every surface. The externals live up to the hype, serving up features simply unheard of at that time, from the mundane yet welcome like a stereo output and MIDI implementation to the fresh on-the-fly preset system with eight easily-recallable patches. Though the process is extremely rudimentary compared to modern units, it’s overwhelmingly easy to get it going right out of the box. In lieu of an illuminated bank display, you get a very low-tech solution to a high-tech problem—simply move the slider cap in front of the number corresponding to the bank you want. No fuss, no muss.
An expression pedal can be connected to the rear panel which gives you control of . . . the input signal strength! While this sounds somewhat counter-intuitive, it’s actually a super-dynamic control as the Input Gain slider has such a huge range, you can dial the reverb signal in just right, then perform some swells or add a little bit of breakup to the signal at will.
The Holiest Grail is a perfect representative of one of my favorite eras of pedals, back when they really began to take hold as performance tools beyond simple effects. This era is squarely within the crossroads of high-quality effects engineering and the dazzling array of rack gear affordable and practical to a waning percentage of guitarists. Get into it.