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Which Wood to select for your G&L Guitar?

November 21st, 2011

As one of the few mainstream manufacturers of electric guitars that works to a custom-order format, a G&L custom order customer has several decisions to make. One of these is which wood to use for the body.

The general rule for G&L guitars is that Alder is used for Standard Colors (solid colors, 2 and 3 color Sunburst, Tobacco and Cherry Burst) and Swamp Ash for Premium Finishes (translucent finishes and most bursts). But, Swamp Ash is also available as an option for the Standard Colors too. For a less dramatic effect, you can get Alder with a premium finish. How much does the wood matter, and is one wood better for certain types of guitars?

Alder – Alder is a traditional tone wood for solid body guitars, and has been used for decades by Fender and others. Alder is dense, has a nice grain, and is reasonably light. If you are concerned about weight, Alder is consistently lighter than Swamp Ash. Tone is often associated with weight with the generalization that lighter is better. There are many factors that affect guitar tone, and unless weight is the primary consideration, don’t obsess about it too much.

Tonally, Alder is punchy, tight, with a solid midrange and a bright high end. Alder works very well with Legacy guitars, and it’s characteristics gives the lower output Legacy pickups some good punch. It’s a great combination, and the best choice for those looking for the classic Fullerton sound. For pickups with a lot of output and midrange — such as the Z-Coils used on the Comanche and Z-3 — Alder can be a little too zippy, giving the Z-Coils a very fast attack and somewhat harder midrange.

Swamp Ash – Swamp Ash has a striking, deep grained appearance and looks great with translucent and clear finishes. A nice translucent finish on Swamp Ash can be just as interesting as flamed maple, and less expensive. Swamp Ash has some fine tonal properties too, with a lighter midrange and a sweeter top end than Alder. Consequently, Swamp Ash works well with pickups that have a lot of midrange and top end. It’s a great match for the large MFD’s used on the ASAT Special, Z-Coils, and S-500 pickups. Swamp Ash  is a more delicate sounding wood, and in my opinion works very well with the Z-Coils.

Legacy guitars can sound good with Swamp Ash — and look awesome —  although the sound is somewhat lighter in body than with Alder. The high end is rounder and smoother, but the reduced midrange can have a thinning effect on the bridge pickup. If you like to install hotter bridge pickups in your Legacy guitars, Swamp Ash works very well.

The ASAT Classic pickups seem to work well with either wood, which is a testament to the flexibility and musicality of these pickups. So if less weight is a consideration, go with Alder. Occasionally a Swamp Ash ASAT will hit 9 pounds, which can get fatiguing during a three hour gig. Another fix is to go Semi-Hollow, which takes a little low end out of the guitar, but makes them up to a pound lighter and is sonically very balanced.

Conclusions – This is obviously a very subjective topic, but after ordering and playing dozens of G&L’s certain patterns do emerge. So if forced to grossly generalize, my recommendations on the most common G&L models would be:

  • Legacy – Alder is first choice. Swamp Ash works with a hotter bridge pickup (Semi-Hollow really sucks the bottom out, not my pick)
  • Legacy HB – Alder or Swamp Ash. Alder for a dense tighter sound and Swamp Ash for a more open airy tone.
  • ASAT Classic – Alder, Swamp Ash or Semi Hollow. Alder for more punch, Swamp for sweeter top end, Semi-Hollow for overall balance.
  • ASAT Classic Alnico – Classic low output pickups work best with Alder which provided fuller midrange and snappy low end.
  • ASAT Special – Swamp Ash, Alder or Semi Hollow.
  • ASAT Bluesboy – Adler to maximize twang, Swamp Ash for a cleaner, leaner humbucker sound
  • ASAT Bluesboy 90 – The P-90 is very flexible and Alder works as well as Swamp Ash
  • Comanche or Z-3 – Swamp Ash on the Comanche is my pick if using the DF vibrato. With the Saddle Lock bridge, Alder or Swamp Ash both work.
  • S-500 – Swamp Ash is my favorite. Alder is a little harder and darker with the S-500
  • SC-2 – Alder is punchy, Swamp Ash is a bit more lush. Vibrato option really makes the guitar lively.
  • Legacy HB2 – OK, not a common guitar at all, but like the HB Alder gives it a tighter more dense tone, and the Swamp Ash will open up the humbuckers a little

 

The Blackface Sound – Right for You?

November 20th, 2011

If you read our previous post on the Tweed era amplifiers, you’ve gotten a glimpse of how the demands of rock music were shaping the evolution of guitar amplifiers. While the Fender “Narrow Panel” Tweed amplifiers were extremely popular, there were some specific issues that Fender wanted to address. Although Tweed amplifiers were still available in the early sixties, the short-lived “brown” and “blond” series of amplifiers in 1960-64 foreshadowed what was ultimately to become Fender’s arguably most popular amplifiers: The Blackface series.

Blackface – The first Blackface amplifiers were released in 1963, and featured cosmetic as well as important changes in amplifier design. The controls were front mounted, as most users were now guitar players who played in front of their amps, rather than pedal steel players who sat behind them. The black tolex covering was purely a practical consideration, as the the brown tweed did not wear very well on the road. But internally, changes were made to make the amplifiers louder, cleaner, and with more features such as Reverb and Vibrato. Over time most designs changed over to a fixed-biased design. The fixed bias designs were cleaner, with more headroom, and a brighter sound with greater attack. Furthermore, some of the higher powered designs used solid state  silicon diodes in place of tube rectifiers which further increased headroom and attack. Out of Blackface, the classic “glassy” Fender sound was born, and Blackface amplifiers quickly became famous for their clean detailed sound a low volumes, increased headroom, and smooth overdrive when cranked to higher levels.

The Blackface series were clearly up to the task of handling the increasing volume levels of rock music and the larger venues that bands were playing. It would be fair to say that Leo Fender not see distortion as a desirable quality, and the focus of the Blackface series was to be louder, cleaner and more durable inside and out than previous Fender designs. Pro Audio sound as we know it was in its infancy, and often stage volume was the only volume! Anybody who has played a Twin Reverb knows how loud these amps can be, and getting one to break up is an exercise in masochism.  Years later as “vintage” amplifiers became popular, the 22 watt Fender Deluxe was one of the more desirable models because at 22 watts it was easy to carry, and the modest wattage meant that very pleasing breakup could be had a reasonable volume levels. In fact, the trend today in amplifiers is definitely smaller, as players realized that the tone they are looking for is best produced by a smaller amplifier, and miking a small amp has become routine. The obvious exception is the wall of stacks seen at big concerts, but most of those are for visual effect and —  unless you’re Yngwie — are not even on.

As many know, the Silverface series of amplifiers followed along in 1968. While often maligned for being “CBS” Fenders, Silverface is not synonymous with bad, and for the first few years most Silverface amps were essentially Blackface models with updated cosmetics. Into the 70’s though, more significant changes were made as Fender was not keeping up with the trend of heavy rock and distortion. To keep up with builders like Marshall, Fender added features like a master volume control to many of their models, and some of these sounded pretty awful. To the faithful, this was the beginning of the end until the buyout of CBS in 1985. Many will argue that except for the reissues and custom shop models, Fender never regained their amplifier greatness. Popular “modern” Fender models like the DeVille and Blues Junior series use the ubiquitous British type EL-84 tubes. While these tubes are also popular with many boutique builders, they are tonally very different from the 6V6 and 6L6 tubes that powered the classic Fender products.

Rivera amplifiers tend to be known for their high gain rock capabilities, but that is only half of the story. Most Rivera amplifiers are channel switching, and the clean side clearly emulates the Blackface school of design (Rivera founder Paul Rivera Sr. was at Fender in the early 80’s as their marketing director). Rivera clean channels have plenty of clean headroom, volume, and that sparkly, glassy sound so familiar to Fender lovers. Rivera uses 6V6, 6L6 and EL-34 tubes for their products, and does not use the EL-84 (the EL-34 is clearly not a “Fender” tube, but great for hard rock). Rivera also uses solid state rectification, which boost the clean headroom of the amplifiers. The Rivera Venus series combines Class A operation with the classic Blackface sound resulting nice tight tones with a hint of warmth around the edges. The gain side of Rivera amplifiers is voiced much more in line with would could be described as a classically “British” tone with lots of distortion, thick mids, and a tight bottom end. With ample tone shaping capability and often a “pull boost” knob, Rivera amplifiers can also crank out that scooped midrange hard rock grind popular in a lot of  music including modern Nashville country, which these days is essentially the new Pop Rock. Or as a friend of mine puts it, “Recto-Country.” To generalize, Rivera is best described as Fender Clean/British Grind, combining two of the most classic sounds in Rock ‘n Roll.

ValveTrain really has only one model that I would say is faithfully Blackface, and that is the Bennington Reverb. The Bennington is best described as what the Fender Deluxe once was: A moderately powered hand-wired amp with reverb. The Bennington Reverb is a simple affair with just four knobs (Volume, Bass, Treble, Reverb), one channel, bright switch, a nicely hand wired aluminum chassis, and a 12″ Eminence Wizard Speaker. The ValveTrain Bennington has noticeably more gain and headroom than the Tweed-inspired Trenton, and at 20 watts has ample power for clubs. The tone is clean, slightly scooped, and the high end sparkles without any harshness. While some natural breakup is available above “6” on the dial, the higher headroom preamp takes pedals very well. Rather than crank the amp way up for distortion like a Tweed, you can set a nice clean level, and use a good quality pedal for additional gain and distortion. Like the original Blackface, the ValveTrain Bennington provides great sound and versatility in an easy to carry package,

The Tweed Sound: Right for You?

November 18th, 2011

The world of amplifiers is often divided into particular sound “camps” to describe the  tonal characteristics. Blackface and Tweed are used to describe two of the classic Fender eras, while “British” is often synonymous with Marshall amplifiers, although it can also be applied to brands like HiWatt  that were based on the brawny EL-34 power tube.  Vox of course is Vox, but derives its roots from cathode-biased EL-84 based products (like some early Marshalls). For the purpose of this discussion, we are going address the Tweed style, and how this sound applies to some of the amps we carry from ValveTrain and Rivera.

Tweed – The Fender “Narrow Panel” Tweed era from 1955 to 1964 was really the Genesis of mass-produced guitar amplifiers. While there were other brands emerging in the late 40’s and early 50’s, Fender certainly captured the lion’s share of professional endorsements, and what became know as “tweed” amplifiers were commonly found on professional back-lines everywhere. The Tweed era lasted into the early sixties, at which time Fender addressed many of the issues that were seen as deficiencies in the their Tweed designs, ultimately evolving into the what is lovingly known as Blackface amplifiers.

In the 50’s there was no specific guitar amplifier technology, and early guitar amplifiers were essentially schematics taken from standard design handbooks. Often these handbooks were published by tube companies trying to promote their products. As such, a public address amplifier used at a factory or county fair had a lot in common design-wise with a guitar amplifier. But amplified guitar applications were a lot more demanding that just amplifying a voice (not to mention the new electric bass). As bands got louder and players looked for more volume, the limitations of early amplifier designs became apparent: Limited clean headroom and harmonic distortion at higher volume levels being the most comment ailment. The low wattage, cathode-biased pre-amps and tube rectifiers of the day were not always up to the task of delivering loud, clean volume. The earliest bands to electrify were country, swing and dance bands, and distortion was not seen as a desirable characteristic for an amplifier. This was especially true of pedal steel players, which was an important market for Fender at that time. Although the Narrow Panel Tweeds were certainly a step up   from the earlier designs, the rapid growth in popularity of rock music was pushing their limits.

As new amplifier models in the 60’s became louder and cleaner — including the advent of solid state technology — some players started to miss that old compressed, warm sound of the earlier Tweed designs. Today, a good portion of the boutique amplifier market is dedicated to reproducing early Tweed designs, and many advertise which old Fender schematic version they use. You literally can’t swing a dead cat without hitting somebody’s latest version of a Champ, Bassman or Super; all in search of that warm top end, soft compression, and musical grind at higher volumes. In fact even Fender themselves has gotten in on the game with the “EC” Eric Clapton series of — you guessed it — Tweed amplifiers.

While Tweed amplifiers are great for many styles of rock music, they do have some limitations. Clean headroom at higher volumes is still a limitation, so if you are looking for that — or are content lugging around a Bassman or Tweed Twin — look elsewhere. The front end of Tweed amps also have limited gain, and can be overwhelmed by pedals. Put a strong gain or distortion pedal in front of a Tweed and you’re likely to get a mushy combination of  pedal distortion and front end distortion. Tweed amps are at their best with minimal effects and sometimes the best effect is just a good guitar and cable. Lastly part of the sweetness and purity of the Tweed sound was a product of their simple circuits. Amps faithful to the Tweed heritage typically lack reverb, have minimal tone shaping capabilities, and channel switching is unheard of. Tweeds are not full-feature amplifiers, but part of their beauty lies in their ability to create very pure, organic tones with great texture. For some, that’s all that is needed.

Much of the ValveTrain line is based on the low wattage Tweed designs of the 50’s. The Trenton, Tallboy and really all of their Vintage Series (315, 416, etc) are either Tweed inspired or directly descended from specific Fender schematics. The ValveTrain line are not pure clones however, and several models have an expanded control set that provides features such as  half/full power, internally connected normal and bright inputs, and master volume controls. These amplifiers retain the classic tone and feel of the original designs, but increase the flexibility of the amplifier for both gigging and recording. The Rivera amplifier lineup does not really address the Tweed ethos. Generally higher in power, with solid state rectifiers and a full complement of tone shaping options, Rivera clean tones are squarely targeted at the Blackface sound, and will addressed in a companion post on the Blackface era.

The Great American Guitar Show – Valley Forge PA, Day 2

November 15th, 2011

After a satisfying dinner at the Iron Hill Brewery in Phoenixville — which turned out to be a great non-mall dining hotspot — and some much needed rest, we were back at it on Sunday. The crowds on Sunday appeared to be just as good as the day before, with several repeat visitors. The Big Sale never materialized that day, but we were still turning people on to the ValveTrain amplifiers, JHS effects, and taking a couple G&L and Godin orders.

With it’s great tone and feel even at low volumes, the ValveTrain Trenton continued to be the most plugged into item in the booth. Many discovered that the amplifier was so perfectly voiced that flipping the “Raw” switch (which bypasses the tone stack) was the hot ticket. While the Blackface sound is the more often considered to be the Holy Grail of Fender sound, the warmer, bouncy, grainy sound of the Trenton made several Tweed converts.

However, for those looking for more punch and headroom, the Bennington Reverb had several fans in its corner. Louder and glassy with a faster attack, the Bennington was heralded by several experienced players as nailing the Best of Blackface. And will several Blackface amps on the floor that day, this was easy to verify.

The pedal that came between the guitar and amplifier most often was the JHS Charlie Brown. Honorable mention goes to the JHS Morning Glory but that sold so fast most people never heard it (note to self; bring more). With lower output pickups, the Charlie Brown elicited great on-the-edge breakup that just screamed Ronnie Earl or SRV. With a G&L ASAT or Godin Icon meatier distortions were available, but in either case they were articulate, natural and transparent. For this generally Blues/R&B oriented crowed, the combination of the Charlie Brown with the higher headroom Bennington was that “sound in your head” of grind, sweat and sparkle all at once.

The Great American Guitar show will visit the Philly area again next summer, and our plans are to stuff the Minivan to the gills again and make the trek down from Massachusetts. Where else can you get a ’55 Gold Top and a Felix the Cat Guitar all under one roof?

 

The Great American Guitar Show – Valley Forge PA, Day 1

November 13th, 2011

We’re down here on the outskirts of Philadelphia for our first Great American Guitar Show in Valley Forge, PA. We came down Friday during the day in order to unload and get set up for the show on Saturday and Sunday.

While we have no way of actually knowing, there have got to be at least a couple thousand guitars here if not more. It’s surprising how much vintage stuff is on hand: Dozens of 50’s Les Pauls, 50’s and 60’s Strats, 50’s Teles, and enough vintage Les Paul Jr’s to make any Keith Urban fan jump for joy. I’m kind of LP Jr. Double Cutaway freak, and for between $4K and $9K I can have my pick of at least a dozen. The topper is a maple top burst 1960 Les Paul for $175K. Hmmm, house or guitar, house or guitar.

Action at the UpFront Guitars booth was pretty good, with a lot of people drawn to the Godin Icons, No-Top ASAT Special, and the ASAT Honeyburst Classic S. The Emerson pre-wired control assemblies were a popular item too, and of the pedals JHS drew the most attention. Our Clear Blue ASAT HB left the building, and I’ll eat my hat if somebody does not walk out with an Icon tomorrow.

Being a guitar show, most of the attention was focused on guitars, but the updated ValveTrain Trenton and Bennington amplifiers received many complements. The new Trenton with its larger cabinet, improved front end and tube rectifier was just stunning. Warm, sweet, with a nice bounce to each note, it was a real honey. It effortlessly developed great tone at low volumes, while the higher headroom Deluxe-inspired Bennington wanted to be opened up a little more than show decorum would permit. We’ll be taking a video on Sunday with the Trenton and our Angry Angus Tele. Michael from Cliff’s Guitars (Wilmington DE) is going to help us with the demo, as frankly after hearing him play we realized we should stick to selling.

Speaking of players, Joe Bonnamassa was also seen walking around the show, possibly looking for something to add to his already extensive collection.

If you are serious about guitars, and especially if you dig the vintage stuff, the Great American Guitar Show is a must-do.