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The Guitar Pedal Boom – Too much of a good thing?

July 21st, 2012

As anyone who is even a casual player has noticed, the last few years have been truly explosive for the guitar effects market. The rise of stomp box mania has defied current economics trends — sales even grew during the recession —  and is now over a $60 million segment of the MI industry. The number of brands and selection is dizzying, and just browsing one particular online guitar website revealed that they carried over 120 brands!

Why are pedals so popular?

Well for starters, as far as guitar gear goes, pedals are cheap thrills. With the vast majority of pedals being priced under $150, it’s not a big investment to try out a pedal, and if it’s not the cat’s pajamas you can sell it to a friend, put it on the shelf, or stick it on eBay. To some degree it’s pretty hard to wear out a pedal, so a used one on eBay is typically a smart choice. I have a theory that pedals are like the proverbial Christmas Fruitcake; there is actually only one, and everybody just keeps passing the same one around.

For a budding manufacturing or mad scientist, going into the pedal business has a fairly low barrier to entry. Practically everyone uses the same die cast box — now that guy is making a killing — silk screening and painting is pretty low tech (some people even skip the paint) and the actual cost of the components are pretty low too. If you don’t mind hand soldering, there is no need for fancy assembly or wave soldering equipment. It’s also pretty easy to find schematics online, or just back engineer your favorite stomp box. Now there are obviously many serious companies out there doing lot’s of research and making significant investments in R&D and manufacturing. But for somebody who just wants to get into the business, it’s a lot easier than making guitars, amps, or speakers.

One other factor — at least to me anyway — is that if you are looking for great sounding distortion or gain, which is by far the most popular effect type, a pedal is quite often better sounding than most “gain” channels on two or three channel amps. There are many players out there with multichannel amplifiers that tend to play only the clean channel, and rely on pedals for distortion and modulation effects. Why is this so?

Well if you look back to the early amplifiers and the onset of distortion, the distortion was caused by the power tubes clipping, which turned out to sound really good; warm, sweet and very musical. A low powered amplifier with limited headroom such as a Fender Tweed would distort at a reasonable volume level. It sounded great, and everyone saved their hearing. But bands were playing ever larger venues and needed larger amplifiers, with more wattage, and more headroom. Now the amps were louder, which was good, but that warm power tube clipping was gone. Try and get a Fender Twin to distort, I dare you. Players needed volume and distortion that they could control.

But some clever engineers came of with the master volume control. This allowed the player to essentially overdrive a section of the amplifier, but control the overall volume level with the master volume. Presto! distortion at listenable levels. But the characteristic of the distortion was different. It was not warm and creamy but more harsh and fizzy. This is the because the distortion is produced by clipping the preamp tubes, and this distorted sound is then fed into the power tube section for amplification. It’s a sound, but not the sound of an amp being played at the limits of its clean headroom.

Early master volume amplifiers were often harsh and raspy, with an edgy tone that was anything but musical. Fender’s foray with master volume controls in their 70’s Silverface amps were vile, sounding somewhat like a Kazoo Orchestra playing Smoke On The Water. Obviously amplifier designers have gotten much better in producing musical overdriven sounds, typically still by using preamp distortion. The famous Mesa high gain sound is essentially multiple preamp tubes each over-driving the other to produce a thick chunky distortion tone. This is sometimes called cascading gain, and it can sound really good. If you’re a fan of metal, it’s where it’s at.

But this type of distortion is actually fairly easy to emulate using solid state components. It’s not so easy to make a pedal that really sounds like a small amp working hard on a Saturday night, but fuzz and higher gain distortion sounds can be quite convincingly created in a small metal box. It looks a hell of a lot more impressive to have a half stack, but a 1×12 or 2×12 combo with good headroom and a couple pedals can sound pretty mean.

My apologies for a highly compressed and somewhat biased view of amplifier history, but many players have found that an amplifier with a good sounding clean channel is the perfect “canvas” to paint on with the pedal of your choice. Often a well-crafted little box will sound better than an amplifier using preamp distortion to achieve high gain sounds. That’s my experience anyway, and my choice in selecting an amplifier is totally focused on finding the best natural tone possible, and using pedals to color the sound in a way that suits my musical leanings. I also happen to like a little “natural” tube grit to my tone, so I tend to play fairly low powered amplifiers, but even so I’m never going to turn my amp up to “10” for a solo. I’ll use a pedal. As far as I can tell, the only people who turn their amps up to “10” are on YouTube, and live in very small bedrooms.

So pedals are inexpensive, they are plentiful both new and used, and the low investment required to get in pedal business means that lots of people are making them. So it’s all good, right? Sure, there is nothing essentially wrong with having too much of a good thing, and over time the number of pedal makers will reach some sort of natural Darwinian limit: The really good builders with grow and thrive, and the hacks and pure copycats will fade away. I’m of the opinion that pedals are somewhat like pizza: None of it is truly bad, and everyone finds their favorite. There are however many bad amplifiers, and spending $300 on some boutique distortion pedal with rare germanium diodes will not hide the fact that your amp sounds like crap. Start with the amplifier and speakers first. Get your core sound down to where you really love what you hear with nothing more than a guitar, a good cable, and your amp. Then go forth and experiment with the little die cast boxes of your choice.

 

 

 

The Fender Bassman Amplifier – The amp for almost everything?

July 5th, 2012

Preface: Never say on the internet that anything is ever the “best” or you will be hounded by email, gear pages will convulse with derision, and internet servers will glow incandescently straining to handle the volume of traffic proclaiming your incorrectness. So in this post I will completely avoid the term “best’ and merely relate one’s own experience with a particular amplifier.

This story started several months back when my brother Neil called up and said “Hey, I found this really nice amp, you want to go in halves with me?” It seems that our friend Dan Neafsey of DGN guitars had acquired a Fender Bassman Ltd in a trade and wanted to sell it. This is the “nice” reissue of the Bassman with a pine cabinet, GZ34 rectifier and (4) Jensen ALNICO 10″ speakers. It’s very much like the original Fender 5F6 schematic except of course for the printed circuit board, non-carcinogenic capacitors and a 3-prong plug. And it doesn’t cost eight grand. On top of that, it’s a rare “relic” version with some nice mild aging to the tweed, and some faux cigarette burns on the topside. Some find the whole relic thing pretty cheesy, but it looked good and the aging was tastefully restrained. Lastly, Dan had ditched the circuit board and done a point-to-point Mojo Guitar Works conversion with some nice high grade components. So not wanting to turn down a brother in need, I sent him some bucks via PayPal and the deal was done.

At this point I should say that my brother lives about 130 miles away, so half ownership is kind of like joint custody: When do I get to see it, how often, and what about weekend visits? However, Neil also does most of the major work on my car. As luck would have it, it was time for a new timing belt and I headed off to Connecticut with my car and a DGN Tele®.

There are a couple guitar players at the repair shop where my brother works, so there is usually some gear hanging about the garage. They literally have a garage band. Shortly after arrival, my car was on a lift in one bay, and in the other bay was the Bassman warming up, along with a LP Junior, the Tele and a couple pedals.

The garage is a high-bay affair with decent acoustics, and any amp tends to sound pretty big in there. But the Bassman was just on another level. Diving in with the Tele, the Bassman had a wonderful combination of slightly spongy twang, deep full bass, and a room-filling presence that made a typical 1×12 combo sound strangled and puny. This puppy really breathed; and the interaction of some rectifier sag and four little speakers huffing and puffing in a pine box created a connection between guitar and amp that was more mechanical than electrical. Each note had a beginning, middle and end that was totally musical, with a broad projection and sense of texture that you could almost reach out and grab. Open tunings and drop D on the Tele created shivers and silly grins all around. I was hooked.

As I drove back I realized that our mutually arranged weekend visits with Bassman would not do. But what now? There are not any shops around me with cool gear — except maybe mine and I sure didn’t have one — and I was not going hit up Guitar Center hoping to get lucky. So with few other options it was off to the “Magic Devaluator” of all merchandise: eBay. I got lucky almost instantly, and there were three used Bassman Ltd’s with the right specifications all bidding in the $700 – $900 range. So for a little over $800 shipped I got a very clean Bassman Ltd with a couple light scuffs, mint condition cover, and even the glossy cardboard piece they put over the top with the all the sales promo stuff and suggested amp settings. From what I can tell, it’s not really used at all. To finance this, I sold my real ’67 Pro Reverb for close to twice that and came out ahead on the deal, sonically and financially.

Whenever I get a new amp, the first thing I try to do is make it “better”. I hauled out some NOS tubes — Bugle Boys, GE’s, RCA blackplates —  talked to my brother about what he experimented with, and so forth. The amp came with the original Groove Tube/Fender tubes including the USA-made Groove Tube 6L6 ‘s. However, except for substituting one of my NOS 5V4 rectifier tubes that I got from KOS (oddly, rectifier tubes do sound different), nothing really sounded better than the original tubes. Clearly the Jensen speakers sounded great, so I was not going to touch them (plus Neil already tried that and said don’t bother).  Fender had done their homework: The Bassman really needed nothing, and any effort to improve it’s sound took it the wrong direction. Lesson learned.

I experienced a similar phenomena with whatever guitar I plugged into it: The tone was good off the bat, with very little tweaking of the knobs. I tried a lot of guitars: Les Paul’s, an Archtop, various G&L’s, a Rickenbacker, and even a Godin Multiac Nylon string. No matter the guitar, it was never a total “do over” with the EQ. Just maybe a slight tweak of the bass or treble and I was off and running. I would have never imagined bringing my G&L and a Rickenbacker to the same gig, but with the Bassman it might just work. And I’m just talking EQ: I have not even mentioned that the Bassman has a bright and normal channel,  each with hi and lo inputs, and you can jumper the inputs to use both channels at once.

I was flabbergasted: All these years I have been messing around with amplifiers, and it never once occurred to me to try a Tweed Bassman. Now I wonder why they aren’t more popular. To some degree the great popularity and legend of the Blackface amplifiers led me to believe that this style of amp was the holy grail of tone. After trying and failing with a few real Blackface Fenders, I discovered in a roundabout way via a ValveTrain Trenton that the Tweed tone really suited my style. Between the Bassman and my Dr. Z Remedy, I’ve pretty much got things covered. Which I guess means that I’m really a Marshall fan because the Remedy is based loosely on a Plexi (but with 6V6 tubes) and the Bassman is the basis for the JTM45. My whole amplifier belief system has been upended by the Bassman.

There may be some perfectly good reasons not to want a Tweed 5F6 style Bassman. You might find that an amp that looks like a big brown suitcase is the wrong look for you, your band, or your peers. I suggest you get over that one, and just have them listen to it or look the other way. Or, that a 4×10 amp is too heavy and bulky. The amp is a little boxy, but the pine cabinet and ANILCO speakers keep the weight down to around 50 pounds, which is way less than any tube 2×12, and even some tube 1×12 combos (If size and weight are truly major concerns, check out the ValveTrain Trenton for a  vibe that’s close, but in a smaller package). You might also be rightly concerned that a Tweed design amp won’t handle pedals or high gain very well. While this is generally accurate of the Tweed genre, the Bassman was intended to handle a bass guitar signal, and therefore does have pretty good headroom, and it’s 50 watts. I find it works pretty darn good with pedals, although if truly high gain rock/metal is your thing, then you will look silly playing a Bassman, and you are free to purchase the large ominous-looking black box of your choice. But if your styles include blues, roots, indie and a good dollop hard driving rock — think  JTM45 — there is no reason a Bassman and a couple well chosen pedals won’t get you there in style, and at reasonable volume levels, and set you back less than a grand. Plus you can finally bring your Rickenbacker to the gig.