No disrespect intended to the countless rock artists out there creating fine works of art – albeit in relative anonymity — but in terms of mainstream popular music the Foo Fighters are one of the few acts that have succeeded in marrying popularity with independence.
The Foo Fighters seamlessly blend influences of the British Invasion, Grunge, Hard Rock, and Punk into music that both is both appealing purely on an entertainment level, and also deceptively complex. And in a world of synthesized drumbeats, Miley Cyrus and vacuous Country trash about trucks and cutoff jeans, these guys actually get airplay.
This is no small feat, and their most recent release Wasted Light is hardly a pile of throw-away pop ditties befitting of a light beer commercial. It’s complex, creative music, that is both sensitive, aggressive, and occasionally physically exhausting. These guys just bring it, and one never gets the sense that there is any underlying concern about crafting something deliberately approachable or commercial. They just do what they do. By all accounts they are successful while keeping their integrity intact. You won’t hear them on Glee either.
I just wish these guys would (or could) play a venue smaller than a stadium, because I’m too old for standing with 60,000 of my closest friends in a ball field. Then again when you are one of the last real rock bands, a lot of people want to see you.]]>
Despite all the progress in digital modeling and analog circuit design, for some people a guitar amp isn’t a guitar amp without a few glowing glass bottles heating up the room. Technically obsolete but sonically beloved, tubes are still with us. And the crazy thing is they all sound different from type to type, and even brand to brand. Depending on your point of view this is a tweaker’s delight or nightmare.
Truth be told, there is some great sounding digital stuff, and if you are generally immersed in very high gain sounds or lots of effects, I’m not sure tubes are essential. There is just so much other signal processing going on that the subtle qualities of vacuum tubes can get lost. My friend’s Eleven Rack sounds pretty darn good pounding out raging “SLO” crunch, but as a semi-clean Fender Deluxe? Not so much. So if you are still chasing clean to slightly dirty tones, I think analog and vacuum tubes still hold the edge. Speaking of “The Edge:” By the time his guitar has run through fifty feet of effects and remote switching gear, does it matter that it’s plugged into a vintage Vox? No, especially not in a stadium. Sometimes it’s all about what you’re seen playing, which is why most of those stacks at a typical concert aren’t even plugged in (unless you are Yngwie).
If you are deciding to go the tube route, or are looking at a new tube amp, you also have to think about what types of power tubes. Preamp tubes are almost always the venerable 12AX7 — with an occasional EF-86 — so that choice is usually made for you. But with power tubes you have some decisions to make. Here are some comments and thoughts:
6V6 – The mainstay of the 30 watt and under Fender amplifiers, especially from the Tweed and Blackface era. Some of the newer small Fenders today like the Junior and Deville series use EL-84, so check under the hood. Sweet sounding with a high end that is complex and not overly bright, they are a great tube for small amplifiers. Maligned by some as not having strong bass response, that can be as much cabinet size and circuit design as the tube itself. A great tube for Strats and Teles. Less popular today than the EL-84, but a Dr. Z Remedy on half power is one of my all-time favorites. The ValveTrain Trenton is also another great recent 6V6 amp, and Rivera is also a proponent of this tube (they don’t make an EL-84 amplifier).
6L6 - The mainstay of the larger American amplifiers, the 6L6 can put out up to 25 watts per tube and is found in higher powered amps like Twin Reverbs, and many Mesa amplifiers. A little harder sounding and less complex than a 6V6, but it’s got a lot of low end. Great for chunky tones, sparkling loud cleans, and high gain.
5881 – A lower output alternative to the 6L6, the 5881 is often used interchangeably and is felt to have a little more delicate top end, and be a touch more musical. Amps with a 6L6 may be running at higher voltages not suitable for a 5881, so do your homework before you swap.
EL-84 – Developed by Philips, probably the most popular tube for amps under 30 watts, and the darling of boutique builders. Many of the small Fender amps today use this “European” tube rather than the 6V6. Personally not my favorite, especially not for gigging. They do have a lovely round “bouncy” tone that is really cool at low volumes, but these tubes tend to get shrill when cranked up, and have flubby, weak bass. YouTube is full of videos of people playing totally cranked small EL-84 amps through attenuators in their home studios. That may be fun, but not for your vocalist, or the crowd. This tube may be the “sound” of a Vox, but gimme a 6V6 any day.
EL-34 – This tube is the crunch of the big Marshall amplifiers: Punchy, with a strong upper midrange bite and lots of harmonic content. Most big Mesa 6L6 amps will also accept the EL-34, and it’s worth making the swap. The problem is that any Class AB amp with these tubes is going to be pushing 50 watts or more. So they are fun but loud. There are some specialty Class A amps that will take a single EL-34, so you can have some fun without peeling the paint.
Wrap Up – Depending on the size range of amplifier you are shopping for, your choice of tube may be per-determined by the power rating. On the sub 40 watt end, my recommendation would be the 6V6. Not as ubiquitous as EL-84, but worth it for overall sound quality and flexibility. The 6V6 has a different pin arrangement than the EL-84, so they cannot be swapped unless you purchase adapters.
For larger amps, my pick is the EL-34, and a number of big rigs can flip a switch and accept an EL-34 or 6L6. For a 6L6 amp that cannot use an EL-34, check with the manufacturer and see if it is compatible with the 5881. This can be a nice tweak for a little less headroom and power output. A lower-voltage Fender Bassman running 5881′s is a delectable clean-to-mildly-crunchy tone machine.]]>
One of the frequent questions asked these days on the gear pages is what’s a good “Pedal Amp?” So what is a Pedal Amp? I would define a Pedal Amp as an amplifier that does not add extreme tonal coloration, and is able to handle high signal inputs without adding additional coloration or distortions. To some that does not sound like a particularly good amplifier, as for many old-school players the amplifier is an essential part of the sound equation. But for players that increasingly use various types of effects and digital modeling, the amplifier becomes more of an “amplification system” and less of a tone source.
Going back a few decades, the early amplifiers were instrumental to the developing sound of rock music. The happy accident of distortion, and then the use of lots of distortion as the essential rock guitar sound was not what the Founding Fathers intended. But as recording techniques, sound systems, and musical styles evolved, the concept of a pure unaffected guitar tone became increasingly rare. From the early days of cranking up small wattage amplifiers to get grindy tone, practically everyone today — well maybe not Neil Young — is using some type of effect to generate anything from mild to insane distortion. And while there are zillions of multi-channel amps out there, for flexibility’s sake pedals just allow much more room to mix and match tone.
So what makes a good Pedal Amp? In a word: Headroom. From a design standpoint, early amplifiers were notoriously short of headroom, both in the preamp and power sections. This of course gave them their warm creamy tone, but pump a high gain pedal into a Fender Tweed and the net result will be mushy distortion with very loose undefined low end. Practically speaking the pedal is creating distortion, and the higher input signal from the pedal is also distorting the preamp of the guitar amplifier. Distortion-on-distortion is not always desirable or musical.
Generally speaking, low powered cathode biased amplifiers (Tweeds, small Vox’s, lots of other low power EL-84 amplifiers) are not super candidates for pedals that have the capability of generating fairly high input levels. Even the relatively brawny 45 watt Fender Bassman won’t handle a lot of input signal without getting floppy. Hot input signals can come from distortion pedals or frequency modulation pedals (chorus, flangers) that tend to increase the signal level. Now boost pedals are made specifically to increase the signal, often for the purpose of overdriving the front end of an amplifier. But a boost pedal it typically only increasing the signal, and not adding its own distortion or other artifacts.
The boutique amp craze, with its plethora low power Tweed and Vox inspired designs (Dr. Z, Matchless, Badd Cat, Victoria etc) created some awesome sounding amplifiers that well-heeled baby boomers were craving. However they were not necessarily great at handling pedals, and even at 18 watts a Maz 18 is still damn loud. And this inspired the attenuator craze….and now everybody just buys pedals.
Fixed biased amplifiers — like Fender Blackface or similar designs — by virtue of their circuit topology have higher headroom and tolerate pedals better. Fender of course was trying to make louder and cleaner amplifiers to fill the larger venues that rock bands were playing. For that reason amplifiers that follow the higher powered Fender Blackface 6L6 tube lineage tend to be pretty good pedal amplifiers.
Once amplifier designers discovered master volume techniques and cascading gain (preamp distortion) techniques, amplifier designs became “stiffer” cleaner and louder. The general elimination of tube rectifiers in favor of diode rectifiers also increased headroom, and made the amplifiers sag less, and play cleaner under heavy loads. Distortion was now a design goal, not a by-product of marginal design or power handling capability. But to some, all these improvements — including dreaded solid state — took away some of the “organic” nature of the early amplifier sound.
Fast forward to the boutique amp craze and builders were putting all this “marginal” stuff back into amplifiers: Cathode bias, low power, and tube rectifiers. And at the opposite end of the spectrum some players are now using a totally digital preamp source — like an Axe Effect Fractal or Eleven Rack — and a powered full-range speaker system from JBL, QSC, or EV.
So back to the original topic: Good Pedal Amps tend to be more modern or higher powered designs that can tolerate strong signal inputs, and if they use a tube power amp section, have a solid state rectifier. If you are playing live or play at high volumes and want to use gain pedals, it’s advisable to avoid lower powered designs in the mold of a Tweed or Vox. Nothing against these amps — Robert Cray through a Matchless is a great sound — but it’s not a pedal sound. There are always exceptions to the rules of course, and some of the boutique designs using the EF-86 preamp tube (Dr Z. Z-28 for example) have quite of bit of clean headroom despite modest power outputs. It’s always dangerous to generalize.
Speaking of which, what about the Mesa Dual and Triple-Rec designs. Don’t they also violate the low power/tube rectifier rule? Yes, sort of. Up around 100 watts, tube rectifiers are pretty marginal AC-to-DC converters for creating the high voltage DC that power tubes need. By wiring two rectifiers in parallel, each rectifier is only carrying half the current, and therefore can share the load and maintain headroom (Fender did this on some 50′s amps for the same reason). A Triple-Rec adds one more rectifier for handling even higher powered designs. Mesa could have just used solid state diodes, but a Mesa Diode Roadking lacks marketing pizazz. Most Mesa — and modern metal — amplifiers are characterized by very “clean” clean channels and the distortion is produced by various combinations of tube and solid state wizardry.
Finally, here’s a personal example with the two amps I like to play the most: A Fender Reissue Bassman, and a Dr. Z Remedy head plugged into a Mojo Pine 4×10 cabinet with Jensen P10R/Eminence Blueframe speakers. Both are using virtually identical speaker arrangements, speakers, and cabinet materials. But the Bassman is an early cathode bias design with a tube rectifier, and the Remedy is a solid state rectifier design using four 6V6 tubes (not a “reissue” design but billed as having Marshall Plexi-style tone). They both have the same power output, about 40 watts. I love the Bassman tone, but in gigging situations using pedals for various levels of gain and effects, the amp loses definition, attack, and can get sloppy. Even on half power, the Remedy has better attack, low end firmness, and is overall tighter. Crunchy gain is crunchy gain. On full power the Remedy is really too clean for most situations except outdoor gigs. But both are 40 watt amps.
My general rule of thumb for any amplifier selection is to find the best clean tone that makes you happy and then go pedal shopping. If your favorite tone is clean to slightly crunchy, you may never need pedals and a smaller lowered powered “old school” amplifier may be the ticket. But if you are like most players, make sure the amplifier of your dreams has sufficiently stout headroom to serve as a suitable platform for whatever pedals you decide to use down the road.
The “other” Legacy — the S-500 — often gets left out of the conversation. With it’s G&L Magnetic Field Design (MFD) pickups, the S-500 has slightly different, more industrial look. And while rock ‘n roll is supposed to be the music of rebellion, guitarists can be very conservative, and things that deviate from “vintage” often get rejected. With the exposed socket head pole pieces of the S-500 pickups, the guitar looks just different enough to get passed over by some players as “not right.”
But is the S-500 a better guitar?
Possibly “better” is the wrong word choice, but the S-500 is possibly a more useful guitar in the context of playing and performing. It’s in the best commercial interests of G&L to produce something that is essentially akin to a Stratocaster. While I can’t say for certain, it’s probably G&L’s best selling model too (though I sell more ASAT’s than Legacy’s). But the G&L MFD pickup is intended to be an improvement over the conventional Alnico pickups designs, and in theory the S-500 is supposed to be an evolutionary step forward.
The basic concept behind the MFD pickup is that it’s really built more like a P-90, with a ceramic bar magnet underneath, and with six adjustable steel pole pieces. The MFD pickups also have a fairly low coil resistance, but a stronger, broader magnetic field. The low coil resistance results in a more even frequency response, but the magnetic field creates a greater signal output. The result is a fairly “hot” single coil with a full frequency response, and none of the peaks and hot spots characteristic of an over-wound conventional pickup.
The overall sound of an S-500 versus a Legacy is that it’s a little fatter and warmer. The tone is slightly darker, there is less midrange scoop, and they are not as glassy and bright on the top end. Sounds terrible doesn’t it? Well not really, especially given the fact that nearly all rock music these days is played with some amount of overdrive or distortion. The greater midrange, output and lack of icy top end of the S-500 makes it a great choice for more modern sounds. Overdrive tones with the S-500 are rich, harmonic, and much fuller than than a guitar with conventional pickups. The bridge pickup is absolutely more useable than a Strat bridge pickup, and the in-between tones of the neck + middle and middle + bridge are also punchier and less brittle. The higher output and slightly attenuated high end works great with pedals too.
In the context of playing live, the S-500 holds up very well, and can be heard in the mix without getting shrill or piercing. The extra heft of the MFD pickups and their fuller, creamier overdrive tones project very well, and fit many styles of music from classic rock to progressive. Bedroom tone and live tone are very different animals, and while the S-500 may lack some of the glassy cleans of a Legacy, it’s a great tool for covering a wide range of musical styles.
I will reference a story that has been told several times in different publications: Jimi Hendrix was known for using a long, cheap Radio Shack coil cable with his Strat. Coil cables are notorious for having a lot of electrical capacitance, which cut high frequencies, boosts the midrange, and makes the tone darker. The net effect of Strat + Coil cable is a warmer, darker Strat with less high end.
Blues legend Buddy Guy has often performed live with a Stratocaster equipped with Fender Lace pickups. These are noiseless dual coil (humbucking) designs that sound very clean but have a lot body and output. For years Clapton Strats have used active EQ and noiseless (humbucking) pickups. While I hesitate to drop names like these in this lowly blog, they are good examples of true guitar heroes that don’t always adhere to tradition and pure vintage setups.
If general jamming, low volume playing, or traditional blues, funk and rock tones are your bag, the G&L Legacy is great choice. You’ll hear the sound you hear on the records. And as there is a plethora of aftermarket pickups that will drop right in, you’ve got huge leeway to experiment. If you really like to rock and can deal with the look, go for a Legacy HB with the bridge humbucker.
If you tend to play out, use effects, and cover a wide range of music (such as a cover band) the S-500 is worth serious consideration. While it can’t cop the pure scooped glassy tone of a Strat or Legacy, it’s still single coil in nature, but can morph in many different directions with ease. You can experiment and mix MFD pickups with conventional pickups, but visually the guitar may look a little mongrel. Personally, MFD’s respond differently than conventional pickups, and I don’t mix them.
The S-500 is meant to be in some ways a “better” guitar, and depending on what your needs are, it really is.
Good looking “safe” colors that I like:
Some interesting more adventurous colors:
Colors that I find less attractive:
Satin Frost Topcoat – G&L also has a satin frost option that can be applied to any finish. It kills the shine giving a traditional finish a low-sheen look. It’s sort of “vintage” without being aged. On metallic finishes it really changes the whole character of the finish. I have a Tangerine metallic bass with a satin topcoat. It’s kind of sexy and does not show any grime. If you want a guitar to look “older” without physically abusing it, the satin frost topcoat is a good option.
Neck Tints – G&L’s light tint and vintage tint are now available in both gloss and satin finishes. This is really nice because the feel of a satin neck is very smooth and dry, but looks “naked” without some type of tint or a rosewood fingerboard on top. Many customers opt for the vintage tint, but it’s deeper hue has a little orange tint to it, and it does not work with everything. So to me, it’s a matter of getting the best match with the body color. In general the light tint is the most adaptable, but the vintage tint looks dynamite with certain shades.
Satin or Gloss Light Tint – Best with Greens, Spanish Copper, Yellows, Cherry Burst, Blacks, Blues and Blonde. A lighter alternate for Oranges and traditional bursts too.
Satin or Gloss Vintage Tint – Butterscotch, Sunburst, Tobacco Burst, Two color Burst, Reds, Honey, and Oranges. Also a good alternate with Cherry Burst, and Blues.
Plain satin or Gloss – Best on natural finishes and Blonde. If a guitar has a rosewood or ebony fingerboard, plain satin is a very good and economical playing surface. It’s a good way to keep the cost down, as gloss and tint both add cost.]]>
Finishes – Any semi-hollow model automatically includes the premium finish option on swamp ash, and this is built into the cost. You can get a solid finish too, but the wood choice will still be swamp ash. Of course the “Deluxe” models have flame maple tops so don’t ask for a solid finish on that!
Weight – Some guitar players are obsessed with the topic of weight. For many, the tone of the guitar is often ascribed to the weight of the body. While weight and tone is a subjective discussion, from a purely comfort standpoint, a semi-hollow is definitely easier on the back. Typically, a semi-hollow G&L will tip the scales at about a pound lighter, which you will definitely feel. An ASAT semi-hollow will generally weigh between 6.8 and 7.6 pounds, while its solid body brethren will weigh from 7.6 to 8.8. Why such a wide swing on the weight? Swamp ash has more inherent variability than alder, and sometimes can get pretty hefty. Really light swamp ash is out there but it’s getting rare. An and ASAT, solid body alder is generally within a couple tenths of 8 pounds. Body contours and belly cuts can also take a little weight off a solid body ASAT, but are not available on the semi-hollow. Note that the ASAT Deluxe semi-hollow has a mahogany back, and theses are often the lightest of the ASAT family (and the most expensive). Any other semi-hollow is all swamp ash, and alder is not available.
Cosmetics – The entire semi-hollow line is available with or without the f-hole. So if you don’t like the look of the classic violin-type sound hole, no problem. My own ASAT is a semi-hollow with no f-hole, and while I have not played enough guitars side-by-side to determine if the hole makes a big difference, I imagine the effect is subtle. Generally, make your decision on whether or not you like the look. G&L does not finish the inside of the guitar, so if the guitar has a very dark finish, the white swamp ash wood inside the f-hole may be too much of a contrast for some tastes.
Sound – So the big question, how does it affect the sound of the guitar? To my ear, the semi-hollow configuration seems to even out the sound across the spectrum, making the response a little more even and less peaky in spots. Overall the attack is a little softer, and there is slight reduction in low end response. If maximum attack/punch or low end response is of great importance then a solid body G&L is generally a better choice (hard rock or snappy country picking come to mind). It’s not a true acoustic, so feedback is a non-issue, and overall the sound is a touch richer and more dimensional that a solid body. Because of the slightly reduced low end, I’m not sure I’d recommend a Legacy semi-hollow. The conventional Alnico pickups are a little bass-starved to begin with, and a solid alder body is the best choice, just as Leo intended. In contrast, the G&L MFD pickups have plenty of attack and response, and the semi-hollow treatment works very well with them. In particular the ASAT Classic makes a great semi-hollow, and so does the relatively rare Z-3. The Z-coils are powerful critters, and the combination of saddle lock bridge and chambered construction creates a simultaneously complex and powerful sound, with the only downside being that the bridge pickup lacks a little low end.
Cost – Because the semi-hollow construction includes both the added labor of a chambered body and the premium finish upgrade, it does command a price premium. For an ASAT-style guitar, the street price up-charge is about $225. For reasons that I can only imagine relate to build complexity, the semi-hollow Legacy, Comanche and S-500 guitars are a lot more expensive. The street price up charge is close to $700. For that reason alone I really have no experience with them, and customer inquiries about them are rare.
Wrap Up – While other guitar makers offer chambered guitars — Carvin, Gibson, Fender and Godin have them as standard offerings — G&L has really made them a staple of their line and not just catalog oddments. While the additional cost of going semi-hollow is not insignificant, they do offer both sonic and comfort benefits that may “tip the scales” for many players (sorry about the pun).]]>
You’ve seen them on YouTube: Bedroom shredders that can tear it up playing along to a jam track, or just soloing. You probably also know players that can pull off tons of recognizable riffs and mimic their favorite artist down to every bend. These people will get labeled by their friends as “very good guitar players.” But have you ever tried to jam with any of these people? Sometimes considerable technical skill does not translate into cohesive musical thoughts.
In reality, most of us likely spend the majority of our playing time by ourselves. Between work, chores and other obligations, most playing or practice time is generally solo. The skill building of practicing guitar is often a solitary pursuit, but the skill (and joy) of playing music is best enjoyed in the company of other like-minded musicians.
I’ve found that what I know about my playing, my tone, and even how I tweak my gear often goes out the window once I’m playing with others. The interaction of volume, other instruments, the drummer, and a host of other factors has a profound effect on how I actually play and sound. A famous Field Marshall once said that “no plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” Much the same can be said about playing guitar solo versus with a band. Until you are in the heat of battle, you’ll never know what really works and what doesn’t
Technique, and musical theory are all important and help us all become more literate at playing the guitar. And so is understanding your gear, and developing your tone. But things such as phrasing and timing — the parts of playing that turn notes into music — are learned best in the company of others. I’ve heard lots of guitar players play “through” a band, trying like mad to jam their preconceived ideas and notes into a song regardless of the outcome. But music is made when players make the most of the space made available to them, and use the band as a platform for their musical inspiration.
Another thing playing live or with a band will do is make you simplify your gear. Unless you have a roadie, lugging around a huge pedal board, outboard gear, and tons of cables is not only inconvenient, but also begging for technical difficulties. After a few gigs, you’ll be trying to figure out what not to take, and refining you setup down to the essential elements. I think part of the obsession over pedals is driven primarily by home players looking for something new and different to experiment with. I firmly believe that good gear and cables matter, but often subtle nuances get blown away by the drummer or the noise level of a crowded bar (it’s why I don’t worry about noiseless pickups. What?). As I said, I love gear, and good gear sounds better than crappy stuff. But music is ultimately an emotional event that if done well is more than the sum of its parts. A crew chief for a racing team said something to the effect that: If I need .2 seconds per lap I work on the car, if I need 2 seconds per lap I work on the driver.
Any guitar playing is better than not playing. But unless your goal is to play solo guitar or do strictly multi-track recording, try and find a jam session or some other format that gets you out there with other players. There is nothing that can simulate playing with a living, breathing band, and making it work takes a combination of technique, patience, and most of all listening. No matter what your style of music or long term goals, it will make you a better player.
Here at UpFront Guitars we sell a lot of Godin and Simon and Patrick acoustic or thinline acoustic guitars. All these guitars have built in electronics, and in most cases the buyer does not ask me for advice on how to amplify it. Without a doubt, amplifying an acoustic or even the thinline Godin acoustic-electrics is a challenging proposition. Despite major advances in on-board electronics, getting a natural sounding amplified tone still takes some work. There are multiple ways to approach amplifying an acoustic guitar with on-board electronics, and here are a few suggestions we’ve stumbled on along the way:
Straight it the Mixer – For many performers, direct into the board is a very common approach. However, many mixer preamps are not that friendly for acoustics and the sound can be a little flat and uninspiring. This gives rise to the Acoustic Preamp, which is typically a stomp box with EQ parameters specially voiced for acoustic guitars. Quite often Acoustic preamps feature special “notch” filtering to help fight feedback, and the ability to adjust not only the gain but center frequency of the all-important midrange. At minimum they also serve to convert the Hi-Z 1/4″ jack signal from the guitar to a Lo-Z XLR input for the mixer. There are many manufacturers of these products including some well know names like L.R. Baggs, Radial, Tech 21, BBE and others. These products run from $129 to $500 for the Taylor K4. My feeling that going “naked” into the mixer is not going to yield desirable results, and some type of signal conditioning is needed.
Tube or Microphone Preamps – An alternative to a specific acoustic preamp stomp box is a microphone preamp. These can range from $99 for an ART tube preamp to thousands of dollars for an Avalon, Universal Audio or other high end studio stuff. In general these are tube-driven devices that are intended to offer a softer, warmer sound and natural analog compression via a vacuum tube circuit. For short money, we’ve played around with a basic ART MP Studio V3 Tube Preamp ($75) and it certainly takes the harsh edge off a piezo-based transducer, and offers some basic amount of tone shaping. Mic preamps also have lots of other uses besides acoustic guitars, so it’s a multi-functional tool. You can spend a ton of money here, so consider whether you are looking for a product for live performance in front of a bunch of drunk people, or a critical recording application.
Powered Speakers – Chances are these days that if you are playing your acoustic into the mixer, there is a good chance that the mixer is feeding a powered 2-way speaker. Powered speakers rule the world of portable and small-medium PA systems, and they also make excellent stand-alone acoustic amplifiers. For most acoustic electric guitar demos our favorite tool is a QSC K-10 powered speaker. It has plenty of power, and the full range frequency response needed to produce complex acoustic guitar tones (acoustics have a wider frequency range and more complex overtones than an electric). Plus as opposed to an electric guitar amplifier, powered speakers typically have a specific woofer and tweeter to accurately produce high an low frequencies. A good preamp, maybe a little reverb and a high quality powered PA speaker is a killer combination, even if you are also feeding the mixer.
Conventional Electric Guitar Amplifiers – As a rule most electric guitar amplifiers are pretty lousy at amplifying acoustic guitars. Mostly because the amplifiers are not designed to produce the wide frequency range needed for a natural acoustic sound. The extended high end needed for an acoustic simply is not needed for an electric guitar, or would have an electric sound overly harsh or icy. But in a pinch, some guitar amplifiers can do a pretty good job, and if you want an amp that can do double duty there are a couple things to look for. First is speaker surface area. More speakers are better, and generally smaller speakers are better than bigger ones. A 2×10 will produce a more detailed sound than a 1×12, and a 4×10 is better than a 2×12 or 1×15. Smaller speakers with lighter weight moving parts can easily produce more detail and nuance than a big 12″ speaker with a 50 ounce magnet. A midrange control is also very handy, and even better if your amp has an active (versus passive) midrange control. Shaping these critical frequencies can mean the difference between a reasonably natural sound and a honky, nasal box o’ noise.
Also, some of the earlier guitar amplifiers based on designs from tube manufacturing handbooks make pretty good acoustic amps. Why? Because they were really not “guitar amp” designs, but rather full-range tube amplifier designs adapted to amplifying guitars. Amps like the Fender Bassman make very good acoustic amplifiers because they are essentially full range amplifiers with four small low-mass speakers in a pine box. We use our Fender Bassman Ltd Reissue to check out acoustics prior to shipping, and it sounds remarkably good. However, our Dr. Z Remedy through a similar 4×10 cabinet with the same speakers as the Bassman sounds more closed and dull. The Remedy is an excellent electric guitar amp, while the Bassman origins are more hi-fi than guitar. Jason Mraz uses two blackface Fender amplifiers for his live stage sound and mixer feed, and his live guitar sound is killer. Surface area and those simple Fender schematics do a great job.
Aurel Exciters – An Aurel Exciter (such as the BBE Sonic Maximizer) use frequency dependent phase shifting and dynamic equalization of (usually) higher order harmonics to make music sound more alive, distinct, and lend a greater feeling of note separation. I really like the results using this type of effect with acoustic guitars, and it’s part of my band’s live acoustic rig. Aurel Exciters are also frequently used in the studio to perk up dull recordings without making them sound overly bright. Aphex and BBE are the best known names in this type of product, and it’s also available as a software plug-in for recording software.
Dedicated Acoustic Amplifiers – I don’t have much to say about dedicated acoustic amplifiers, because it’s been years since I’ve used one. Acoustic guitar amplifiers are optimized specifically for acoustic guitars, and typically have active equalization, and high and low frequency (woofer/tweeter) transducers. As such they are generally overly bright and unsuitable for electric guitars, and if you do double duty with your band, you’re faced with hauling two amps. It just seems more logical to bring your favorite electric guitar amp, and work out a good sounding direct setup for the acoustic.
The Lowdown – Electric guitar players are known to be obsessive about their tone, but acoustic guitars are equally if not more challenging to dial in. A warm, natural sounding acoustic guitar can add a lot of character and richness to any band. Study your acoustic setup, and give it the same attention to detail as you would your solid body. Getting a good sound make take some experimentation, but it’s not necessary to spend hundreds of dollars to spruce up your amplified acoustic tone.]]>
Dada – Now on their 20th anniversary tour this winter (2013), Dada had a couple hits in the mid 90′s with “Dizz Knee Land” and “Dim” on college and progressive radio. Certainly the edgiest of my picks, Dada combines Beatle-like harmonies with sometimes disturbing lyrics, and some of the best guitar playing anywhere courtesy of Michael Gurley. Their songs can range from bleak scenes of despair to naive optimism, and all of it somehow hummable. Truly a great band that was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. All their albums are worthy, but if you buy just one, get Puzzle. But don’t buy just one. They tour very infrequently, and if you can catch their 20th anniversary tour, you will not be sorry.
Del Amitri – From Scotland, Del Amitri’s big hit “Roll To Me” is still pounding out of restaurant speakers all over the country. It’s a shame, as they crafted many sophisticated pop songs with a slightly punk edge that makes Oasis look like total amateurs. From distorted driving rockers to sensitive acoustic numbers, Del Amitri was another band putting out finely crafted tunes just as the world was embracing grunge. We can thank grunge for killing hair metal, but their was collateral damage along the way. Their strongest album is probably Twisted.
Fastball – This Texas trio came to prominence with a song called “The Way” in the mid 90′s and despite a couple other minor hits and a series of solid releases remains relatively obscure. Despite their obvious Beatles influence, Fastball dabbles in almost every musical style and it’s worth noting that their big hit was actually a Rumba….on FM radio. In terms of material, Fastball was not a flash in the pan, and in many ways each album got lyrically and musically stronger. It’s hard to pick their best, and their latest release, 2009′s Little White Lies is as good as any. Fastball still tours somewhat erratically, and stays close to their home base in Texas.
Sister Hazel – Still a college campus favorite, Sister Hazel hit it big with their song “All For You” in the mid nineties, still tours mainly on the East Coast, and is a mainstay of the Rock Boat cruise. Certainly my most mainstream pick, Sister Hazel’s blend of sunny upbeat pop, tight harmonies and solid guitar work is hard to resist. They are not immune to fads and trends, and not all of Sister Hazel’s releases are stellar. For example, take their current dalliance with vacuous country-rock on Heartland Highway. That being said, Heartland Highway is way better than most vacuous country rock on the radio today, but Fortress strikes me as their most consistently solid effort. Always a good live show, and they seem like genuinely regular people.]]>
In the interest of full disclosure, UpFront Guitars does not sell many pedals. Honestly, I have found that it’s a bad fit for my business model, and I don’t do well with them. To be taken seriously, you need to carry lots of brands, and there is a lot of competition from the eBay used pedal market where players are frequently dumping their latest experiments in sonic bliss. Also, many of the boutique builders sell direct, so there you are carrying somebody’s pedal and they are selling against you. In that case why have dealers? But this is not about sour grapes, it’s about why there are so many darned pedals out there. I have a few theories:
Low barrier to entry – As I have said in previous writings, it’s not hard to get in the pedal business: Buy a die-cast box, a soldering iron, benchmark a few classic designs, and you’re in business. OK, not that easy, but a lot easier than making a guitar and much better certainty of sales. Pickups have become this way too. The raw materials are very easy to obtain, and boutique winders have sprung up all over the place. Most of these “noveau” builders are not breaking any new ground, so it’s hard to say what they are doing other than saturating the market. This is not to denigrate the folks that are really turning out new imaginative product, but it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a ton of me-too stuff out there.
The 2009 Recession – The recession in 2009 was bad for a lot of things, including musical instrument sales. The only category that grew during that time was effects. People still wanted to buy some type of new toy, but had to watch their wallet. Stomp boxes fit the bill even when guitar and amp sales were tanking.
Modeling Amps – Is it just me, or does it seem as though the craze over modeling amps has blown over? Aside from really sophisticated stuff like the Fractal, Eleven Rack, and Kemper, many amps have sort of gone “basic” again. Possbily buyers have decided it’s more flexible to have a couple pedals than it is to buy a box of so-so “amps” in the form of a sterile sounding combo amp. To me, the affordable modeling stuff has typically sounded blah to occasionally awful, and most players settle in on one or two sounds anyway.
Active secondary market – This is also known as “used pedals”. Don’t like what you just bought? You can probably get 60% of your money back in ten days on eBay. Most players don’t keep pedals long enough to wear them out, and the Next Greatest Thing is often for sale used a few weeks after they hit the streets. It’s not nearly so easy to sell your amp if you don’t like it, and shipping it can be daunting.
Cheaper than Amplifiers – The amp market is pretty terrible these days, especially at the upper end where even some of the well-known names are struggling to move product. There are also lots of “used” amplifiers for sale dirt cheap as dealers try to unload inventory while trying to respect MAP pricing (which further depresses new amp sales). Plus look at the well known amp builders that are now making pedals: Mesa, Bogner and Rivera to name a few. All three of these companies make expensive amplifiers, and the market for high end stuff is limited (and an imported “value” line can hurt your image). If you cannot sell someone an amplifier, sell them the essence of your amplifier in a box. While fundamentally I maintain that a great amp is worth your hard earned money, it’s tempting to do a pedal-makeover to breathe some new life into your old rig. I’m not sure that a pedal will make a bad amp good, but the economics are tempting. I have carried some of the Rivera pedals, and while they are good they violate an important rule: Price. Keep it under $179 and it’s almost an impulse buy. Price it at $250 or higher and buyers look elsewhere.
The theory of “What the heck” – What other product promises the ability to transform your sound at such a low price? Plus installation could not be easier: Just plug it in. It’s not like a pickup, which requires some dis-assembly, soldering, and the risk that it won’t sound good (some makers like Seymour Duncan now offer solder-less pickups to lower the skill barrier). Pedals are like a new diet shake or a magic wrinkle cream that promise so much for so little effort. It’s actually marketing genius; and has certainly been a boon for magazine advertising, stores and e-tailers.
But do stomp boxes really transform our playing enjoyment, or just give us a shiny new object to chase instead of playing our guitars? The music industry benefits from this constant “pedal churn” but does the player? To me, pedals are like pizza: Most of them are pretty good, and rarely are they awful. Yes, there are some “bad” pedals out there, but I don’t think it takes a lifetime to find a few pretty good ones to form your core sound. My board has been pretty solid the past three years, and is mostly gain pedals, one modulation pedal, and a reverb. Some were carefully chosen and some were just cheap, like a BBE Minder Bender because I needed chorus for a couple songs and did not want to spend a lot. So what’s on there now is:
That’s it, and I used my own “brand” of Evidence Monorail patch cables. Plus I don’t have any more room on the PedalTrain. I have been messing around with a Voodoo Lab Giggity, which is not even an effect so much as it is a parametric EQ of sorts. But I like it, and if it stays, something may have to go.
I do like other pedals: A have a Fulldrive that I used to play a lot, and I like a lot of the Wampler stuff, but it’s not as if they get me to some new musical place. If I don’t like the way I sound, it’s probably me and not the pedal. If your new pedal makes you want to play more, that’s great. If it just makes you want to re-arrange your board instead of playing, that’s not great. For a person who sells gear, this is dangerous advice. But I guess there is no quick route to being a great musician, and pedals are not the musical equivalent of Rogain. Playing, playing with other people, and optionally playing live are what really makes us better. Everybody has heard a great guitar player in a guitar store making a $150 guitar sound good. There’s a reason for that: Practice, and the gift of talent. We can’t all be gifted, but we can all practice.]]>