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Two neat EL34 guitar amplifiers from Traynor

July 5th, 2014

If you crave the sound of the classic big British amplifiers, then you should check out amplifiers using the EL34 type power tube. The EL34 power tube was originally released by Mullard-Phillips in the 1950’s and in most common amplifier applications produces about 25 watts per tube. This is the power tube associated with the big British amps of the 60’s and 70’s produced by Marshall, Orange, Hiwatt and others.

The EL34 power tube has great harmonic detail, and a broad upper midrange that really fattens up the unwound strings of a guitar without making it sound muddy. Single note lines tend to have a lot of “meat” to them making amplifiers using these types of tubes sound both bright and thick at the same time. Traynor has two affordable amplifiers using the EL34 power tube, each with it’s own unique features.

Traynor Ironhorse – This Ironhorse is a “lunchbox” style of amplifier that uses (2) El34 power tubes and is switchable for either cathode or fixed bias. The fixed bias mode produces 40 watts, and is the tightest/brightest setting with the most available clean headroom. The cathode bias setting produces fewer than 20 watts and while still providing a good amount of clean headroom, has a little softer attack and a bit more “feel” to it. With a gain, master volume control and a three-way tone stack control it’s easy to dial in some natural crunch, or keep it clean and get your jollies with pedals. The Ironhorse is honest and tasty El-34 tone for great classic rock crunch in an affordable and lightweight package. It’s on the mark  for all sorts of live situations, and with the money you save on this amp you can go get yourself a nice set of new or NOS power tubes. It comes with a nice soft gig bag too.

Traynor YBA Mod 1 – In Traynor-speak, YBA means “Yorkville Bass Amplifier, which is what the 40-watt YBA was originally designed as. But the YBA found favor with guitar players too, and the Mod 1 version adds the ability to place the bright and normal channels in series or parallel, and adds an attenuator. In series the volume controls act like a master/gain control, while in parallel they function like normal/bright channels that you can blend just like a Tweed Fender. The attenuator can vary the ouptut power from .5 watts all the way up to 40 watts. At low wattage settings you can get all sorts of massive rock clang at very reasonable levels, while 20 watts is good for even the loudest of stage volumes. It’s hard to imagine even needing the 40 watt setting. Like the Ironhorse, the YBA has the complex crunch and texture that EL-34 tubes do best, and the added attenuation feature makes it good for practice and recording. Not quite as portable as the Ironhorse and pretty darn loud, but the attenuator can essentially size this amp from a large club down to a bedroom.

If you are looking to change up your sound, think about your amplifier too, and not just your guitar. With the EL84 dominating the small amplifier market, many players have never sampled the brawnier more harmonically rich tones of the EL34. So for less than a high quality solid body, you can get a taste of the tone that powered the British Invasion.

Fender to phase out MSRP “List” Pricing

July 4th, 2014

Fender has recently announced that starting in July, they will no longer provide Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Pricing — also known as list pricing — to their retailers. As of  July 7th, Fender will begin using just an “advertised” price, otherwise known as MAP pricing.

In many industries besides musical instruments list pricing is an almost meaningless number, sometimes only a reference point from which to calculate the MAP price. Given the fact that probably 0% of guitars are ever sold at list price, reverting to using only MAP may not have any material impact on the average consumer. But given the ability of buyers to rapidly price check products on the internet, MSRP bears little connection with reality.

The larger goal for Fender and other makers of well-known consumer brands is working with retailers — brick and mortar and otherwise — to properly present, market, and value their products. If the internet has proven anything, it’s that there are people out there willing to make amazingly little margin on their sales. Sometimes these folks don’t last long (it’s hard to survive on marginal profits, at least not without massive volume) but they all have their impact on the overall market. While low pricing and competition is inherently good for the consumer, taken to an extreme it lowers the value of a product to the point where it becomes unattractive to manufacture. This is the Wal-Mart effect of being able to drive a supplier to the brink of failure.

Case in point: I used to work for a well-regarded maker of very nice pens (writing instruments to those in the industry) and in order to grow volume they took on big box customers such as Wal-Mart, Target, etc. It got to the point where Wal-Mart was retailing our typical pen for less than a jewelry store or gift shop to could buy it from us. Long term having our pen at Wal-Mart dropped it’s perceived value, plus our traditional retailers were mad at us and stocked less of our products. Ultimately, Wal-Mart dropped the pens because the product did not generate enough sales volume. So the pen company alienated their traditional retailer, had their reputation damaged by the big box store that ultimately jilted them, and for that and many other reasons the company was never the same.

I can’t be inside the minds of Fender management, but the pen company experience feels very much like what many old line musical instrument manufacturers have been going through. We’ve had the grand experiment with Guitar Center, Mars, Unique Squared, Bain Capital, a botched IPO, and now it’s time to regroup and rethink.

While guitars can and will be sold on the internet, if they are sold and marketed like a commodity, the industry is doomed. Musical instruments are a personal experience, and people create art and emotion with them. Quite often the sales process is a relationship process, and even big mail order companies like a Sweetwater get that point. Consider Best Buy and their dalliance with MI products: Having untrained, underpaid people selling microwaves and Marshall amplifiers was so uncool and unappealing it could only crash and burn.

It’s interesting to see the recent changes at both Fender and Gibson. Fender is getting new management, dabbling with some direct sales of merchandise and high end products, cracking down on MAP violators, pruning minor brands, and eliminating MSRP. Gibson has been in an acquisition mode to acquire other types of entertainment and audio products, and positioning Gibson as a “lifestyle” (sic) brand. And while all this is going on, Guitar Center has cut ties with the private equity group that nearly killed them, dropped Berhinger for kicking them when they were down , and is crafting a plan to cutting years of quarterly losses. Interesting times indeed.

Personally, as a self-described “micro-retailer” I’m not sure who I’m rooting for. But emotionally, Fender is trying to maintain and protect the value that their products represent. Yes, you can get a silly “Fender” stereo in a VW Beetle, but I think you’ll see less pimping of their name, and more focus creating true brand value. Gibson appears to be doing the corporate diversification game, which is a sign that they may have less than rock solid faith in the profitability of their core products. Both approaches can work, but Fender’s “do what you are good at” approach is more reassuring for music lovers. As far as Guitar Center goes, their tactics have contributed to the devaluation of musical brands in general, but they are now trying to reinvent themselves. GC is very big player, so it’s similar to not liking General Motors, but not wanting them to go belly up either.  Paying their salespeople a half decent hourly wage would be a start though.

In the end though, any product has to represent value: Both tangible and emotional. And the selling process is part of the overall value proposition. Selling your product for too little, whether it be a guitar or the music you create is bad for your products, and it’s bad for the artist and creator. Free sounds cool until it’s your work that is being literally given away. On the surface, Fender dropping MSRP may appear like just a marketing sleight of hand, but hopefully it’s a sign of a new recognition of value in the MI industry.