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UpFront Guitars 2019 NAMM Wrap Up

February 1st, 2019

We’re on the plane back from NAMM, and it seems like a good time to reflect on what was a very productive few days. Firstly, NAMM is so huge there is no way to take in the entirety of the show without literally running non-stop up and down every aisle. NAMM requires a game plan, and ours was mainly to meet with our current product partners, catch up on things and see what it new.

Espada-Natural

All-new G&L Espada

G&L – Prior to the show, we had already seen an sneak preview of some of the unique guitars that G&L was bringing to the show and “tagged” a couple in advance. But G&L had a lot cool news that we did not learn until getting to their booth late on Thursday. The big news is the G&L Espada, a newly released guitar that G&L reversed-engineered from a 1969 design unearthed from original Leo Fender drawings. Featuring new split coil MFD pickups, active/passive controls and a very sexy Tele/Skyhawk/Stingray mash, the Espada is really new but authentically G&L. Actual production date is TBD, so suffice to say we are in line to get some.

Also at the booth is their new Doheny HH and Skyhawk HH, and both will be available through the Fullerton Special line of fixed-option guitars. Both use their chrome-covered humbuckers, which we prefer sonically to the open-coil AW4470’s, and they also dress up both guitars nicely. There is also going to be a Fullerton Special Skyhawk with the current S-500 pickup set. We’re glad to see more Skyhawk models, as we love the shape and ergonomics of this design.

Bandlab – Bandlab has been hard at work on a number of projects, and we really dig the direction they are heading. The Bandlab folks are pretty sharp, and they while they respect the value of history and tradition, they know it needs to be backed up by innovation, quality and consistency.

Heritage is in good hands, and they continue to make improvements in the factory, and work on making each model as consistent and high quality as possible. While they’ve narrowed the range of products that dealers can purchase, it also means they are available from stock with very little wait time. Their “Custom Shop” is still getting up and going, but for those who want a truly unique creation that will be an option in the future.

harmony-guitarsWe saw the first Harmony prototype guitars at the 2018 show, and we’re glad to report that they will finally hit the streets this spring. Made at the Heritage factory, they include mahogany and alder bodies, bolt-on mahogany or maple necks, ebony fret boards, their own gold foil pickups, and nitro finishes. The finish and playing quality is right up there, the weight it good, and the foil pickups have a funky groove that is bright but full bodied. At around $1300 with a Mono Bag, these are a literal no-brainer and offer a fresh addition to any player’s lineup.

Also later in the year will be Harmony amplifiers. These will be semi-closed back, hand-wired 6V6 designs with built in attenuator and vibrato. The design is pleasantly retro, and will get you noticed in a sea of Deluxe Reverbs. The prototypes are built in Singapore, and the production models will likely come from one of the Bandlab facilities in that region. While it’s hard to judge an amp in the din of NAMM, our own experience was very encouraging, and we’ve posted internet legend Jay Leonard Jay doing some great demo work of his own.

harmony-amps

In the fall – Harmony Amplifiers

Tiesco is another legacy brand that Bandlab was resuscitated, and this spring they will release their first three pedals; a boost, fuzz pedal, and delay. Bandlab sweats the design details, and these pedals have unique and sturdy enclosures, funky graphics and intuitive controls. The boost pedal features a 9V and 24V power setting and ranges from true boost, to medium-crunch that is harmonically rich and detailed. The fuzz stole my heart, mainly because I don’t like fuzz, and I loved this pedal. It’s big and authoritative, but does not trample the tone of your guitar. It’s more classic crunch than lo-fi fizz, and it’s got an awesome octave feature that changes register depending where you are on the neck. I need it.

Mono is another Bandlab brand, is well known for their sturdy gig and gear bags beloved by professionals on the go. We plan on bringing some of these into the shop this spring.

ESP-multi-scale

ESP LTD M-1000 Multi Scale Guitar

ESP – Some of the sexiest guitars on the planet are at the ESP room, and their USA and Originals lines continue to push the envelop of functional art. They just built their first left-handed USA Eclipse, and we’ll soon commission our own southpaw model. They added some great new finishes to their Japanese E-II line, and much to our delight they’ll be available on the 22-fret Eclipse model. And while we pride ourselves on being a mostly USA shop, their are certain ESP guitars that we lust after that are not available anywhere but the LTD line. This includes affordable versions of their handsome Viper (SG-ish) and a very cool multi-scale (fanned fret) guitar that just knocked us out with how easy it was to play.

double-dreamer-webJAM Pedals – Our wildly artistic friends from Greece are updating nearly all of their graphics, and while some of them are a little less whimsical in nature, they continue to offer a wide array of custom graphics. Most of the changes in the line are evolutionary, but what caught our eye is their new Double Dreamer. This is an update of our best-selling Tube Dreamer 88, and they’ve added a wet/dry mix, the high gain feature is now a footswitch for on-the-fly usage, and the high gain is assignable to either or both channels.

Keeley – Keeley is always cooking up something new, and this year they had a larger space, some of the best personal demo capabilities, and four new releases. Their new Synth-1 is the most ambitious of all of them, and while it’s not for everyone, if you are looking for the road less traveled, this is it. Also of note is their new DDR, drive, delay and reverb pedal. Essentially a small pedalboard in an enclosure no bigger than their D&M Drive, it will allow you to travel light but not lacking for tone.

Roadhouse-nylon

Eric with the Roadhouse Nylon

Godin – Godin has been making a lot of changes lately, and one of the more notable releases is their line of Godin Branded acoustic guitars. Godin has long maintained several acoustic brands, but this is the first time we’ve seen them put the Godin headstock on an acoustic. These are upper end models, all solid wood with both gloss and satin finishes. Other items of note are the reappearance of their very attractive Denim Blue finish on the ACS and A6 models, a new high end semi-hollow Summit, and some interesting new Kingpin models like their T-Armond with TV Jones DeArmond style pickups. In the Art & Lutherie line they’ve release a new finish that we really like called Havana Brown, and a cute Roadhouse Nylon acoustic.

Yorkville Sound – Yorkville is so many different brands you could literally stock a store with it (and they do in Canada via owners Long & McQuade’s more than 80 stores). Items we plan to add include their Traynor YGL2 guitar amp, which is a 30-watt version of our favorite YGL1. A little more power and slightly bigger enclosure is just the ticket for gigging players who need a great sounding pedal-friendly amp. They also have a nice compact acoustic guitar amp that is an affordable companion to their higher end Hughes & Kettner ERA-1.

What really grabbed our attention at Yorkville is the Xvive line of wireless transmitters for guitar, bass and vocals. They have a new plug-and-play wireless microphone adapter that turns any microphone into a wireless mic. So if you like the mic you have, you can now make it wireless. And everything is ultra-compact, so no big transmitter box, power supply, etc. It will make you rethink wireless.

Yorkville is also the parent of Hughes & Kettner, and they were showing off their Black Spirit 200 amplifier head. They’ve delved even further into connectivity, and the Black Spirit is a guitar amp, redbox, audio interface…and bluetooth enabled via an app.

Lastly, Yorkville is also “prosumer” and pro audio from compact bluetooth-enabled battery powered enclosures to full line arrays. If you are planning a system from solo acoustic to fixed installation, we can help you with that.

C.B.I – And if you are building that new sound system or studio, don’t forget cables. In upstate New York, C.B.I. makes everything from patch cables to concert-sized snakes and stage boxes. We’ve always liked their products, and like every stop we made on our NAMM tour, we learned something new. Their Stagewinder pedal board snake simplifies pedalboard and effect loop setup at a reasonable price. We also learned that we can simplify our cable packaging and eliminate the use of plastics (while adding our own UpFront Graphics). C.B.I. makes practically everything cable related, and we can also quote custom jobs too. We walked away with a new appreciation of C.B.I.

NAMM is fatiguing but energizing, and a little Southern California weather in January doesn’t hurt either. We’ve made our shopping list, and we’re checking it twice. Christmas is coming again this Spring.

Shyhawk-HH

G&L Skyhawk HH

Kingpin-DeArmond

Godin Kingpin T-Armond

A6-denim-flame

Godin A6 Denim Flame

 

Hand Wired Guitar Amps: Point-to-Point and Other Constructions

April 22nd, 2018

We recently became acquainted with the Little Walter amplifier line, and after hearing them and meeting their creator Phil Bradbury, we decided to jump on board. Truth be told, amplifiers are a tough product to sell, and many players are enamored with purchasing more guitars rather than purchasing another amplifier. While we would hardly not sell a customer a guitar, we are firm believers that amplifiers are a critical and overlooked component to a player’s tone.

Little Walter "59" Head

Little Walter “59” Head

Among other interesting features and attributes of the Little Walter amplifiers is that they are point-to-point (PTP) construction. Due to the labor-intensive nature of this construction style, PTP is quite rare and constitutes a tiny fraction of total amplifier production. But before we get to PTP, let’s cover the other more popular methods, their benefits and drawbacks. And we are only addressing tube amplifiers, not comparing solid state to tube amplifiers.

 

 

Printed Circuit Board (PCB)

The vast majority of amplifiers are constructed using printed circuit boards, from lowly practice amplifiers to high end products from Mesa, Fender, Marshall, etc. PCB’s are cost effective, permit assembly automation, and also allow for higher levels of complexity not possible with other methods. Multi-channel amplifiers, on-board effects, processor chips and modeling are just not possible without PCB construction. While most PCB amplifiers utilize “through hole” components similar to those used in older styles of construction, newer surface mount devices (SMD) can radically shrink the size of certain components, allowing for even greater levels of functionality with minimal impact on space.

While newer technology lowers cost and increases functionality, there can be compromises in sound. Some components do have a “sound,” most notably capacitors, transformers, and some believe even resistors. A paper-in-oil capacitor has a particular sonic characteristic that is unique to its construction, but the size and configuration make it unsuitable for volume production, not to mention cost. You might scoff at the idea of one capacitor type sounding better than another, but make a speaker cone out of the wrong paper and it will sound bad. The same is true with passive electronic components. An amplifier’s price is a function of its components, but also its assembly method, and some components are only practical on a hand-wired amp.

The layout (schematic) of a printed circuit board is also a compromise between assembly efficiency and optimal circuit path. If you’ve ever seen a PCB, it’s a myriad of thin copper traces laid out in usually logical parallel lines and right angles. Good circuit board layout is part skill and part art, and tightly packed component layouts can create capacitive losses, impact certain frequencies, add noise, and overall have an impact on the sound. That may sound like tone snobbery, but having been in the business of manufacturing PCB-based products, schematics have consequences.

Eyelet and Turret Board Construction

Eyelet and Turret Board construction utilize an epoxy or fiberboard card as a platform to lay out the various small components of an amplifier. The larger components such as transformers and tub sockets are generally affixed directly to the amp chassis. These types of amps can accommodate a wide range of component configurations and allow quite a bit of design freedom. Most of today’s “hand-wired” amps use this type of construction, and examples include Dr. Z, high end Fender and Marshall models, and many other boutique brands. Fender used eyelet board construction on all its amps right through the seventies (more a lack of investment than tonal concerns). Being hand assembled is not without cost though: A standard PCB Fender Deluxe Reverb is around $1100, while the hand wired version using a fiberboard will set you back $2400. If you plan to keep an amp a long time, a non-PCB amplifier is much easier to service, and if you are a tweaker, also easier to mod. While PCB’s are repairable they are often fragile and fussy to service, especially for an amateur. If the PCB contains SMD devices, just throw it out and get a new board.

Eyelet board amplifier

Eyelet board amplifier

Do hand-wired amps sound better than PCB? By virtue of their component flexibility, often less complex and less crowded layouts, they certainly have the potential to sound better. Of course, the actual circuit design matters too, and nobody is going to go to the trouble of making a hand-wired amplifier with cheesy components. There is a little of chicken & egg going on here, but it’s understandable why many discerning players gravitate towards this style of amplifier.

 

 

Point-to-Point Amplifiers (PTP)

PTP is in many ways the most primitive type of construction, and dates back to when modern materials for circuit and turret boards did not even exist (the fiberboard is a waxy carboard material that predates the PCB). In PTP construction, the components are wired directly to their intended connections with no type of component board. Some builders may use terminal strips to for structural support, but the circuit path is very direct, and you can see exactly where everything is going. Due to the labor-intensive nature of construction, PTP amplifiers are typically single channel amplifiers with limited bells and whistles. In another instance of chicken & egg, they are simple designs because the nature of their construction drives them in that direction.

BC Audio Point-to-Point amp

BC Audio Point-to-Point amp

The selling point of the PTP amp is that the pure, direct circuit path along with optimal wire routings and broad component freedom have a beneficial impact on tone.  Technically speaking, PTP amps have the least amount of “stuff” clogging up the circuit, hence the potential for better sound quality.

The concept behind the PTP amp is what we like to call “directionally correct.” If you put 15 pedals between your guitar and the amp – or in an effect loop — there is a degradation in tone. Every additional circuit and feature in an amplifier – including reverb – has some impact on the amp’s natural tone (if your amp has a switch to bypass the tone controls, note the jump in gain). The PTP amp is the shortest distance between guitar and speaker.

Can you hear the difference? Like most things with music, it’s a highly subjective question. And like other hand-wired amps, PTP amplifiers are not going to skimp on component quality. The best thing to do is listen to a lot of amplifiers, and ideally if you can listen to them through the same speaker cabinet, as this also has a big influence on sound. We have the luxury of being able to try a lot of amps, and our own experience has led us in the direction that the fewer the knobs, the better. Maybe we’re just bad at adjusting knobs, but our ears tell us to keep it simple.

Life tends to drive us in the direction of increasing complexity, and music is no exception. But your guitar is not a smart phone. Ideally, it’s an analog tool to create art that requires an intimate connection between the creator (you) and the medium (your guitar and amplifier). Oftentimes simplicity is the key to creativity.

Discovering Octal Preamp Tubes for Guitars Amps

March 12th, 2018

Little Walter model 50 HeadFor most players using tube guitar amplifiers, the ubiquitous 12AX7 may be the only preamp tube they have ever used. It’s the highest gain of the 9-pin dual triode preamp tubes, although the lower gain 12AY7 and 12AT7 show up in various functions such as phase inverters and reverb drivers. There is also the pentode EF86 9-pin tube that has been used by Dr. Z., Bad Cat and others. But it’s a safe bet that the 12AX7 is king of guitar preamp tubes.

Early guitar amplifiers from Fender, Gibson, and others used what are known as “octal” preamp tubes (such as the 6SL7, 6SN7 and 6SC7), which use the same 8-pin base as the 6V6 and 6L6. This tube pre-dated the development of the 12AX7, and is essentially what there was for early guitar amp builders to use.

When the 9-pin designs came along, builders quickly changed over to them for the simple reason that it helped make louder, tighter amplifiers at lower cost. Distortion was not a feature back then, it was a problem, and the 12AX7 was part of the solution. Early amp builders were not obsessing over the “sound” of a particular tube. The goal was amplification, plain and simple.

Octal preamp amplifiers are still around, but they represent a tiny sliver of overall amplifier production. While there are a handful of amp builders using them, BC Audio did a lot to put them back on the map. The BC Audio products won great praise in the guitar magazines, especially for their great crunch tones.

Octal tubes have lower gain factors than the 12AX7, run at lower voltages, and are felt to have a warmer more complex tone. While a 12AX7 amplifier with two 6L6 power tubes will produce about 50 watts, an octal design with the same power tubes will be in the mid-30’s.

We’ve recently become exposed to octal guitar amplifiers through our association with Little Walter tube amps. We’ve also had the ability to directly compare the Little Walter 50 octal head with their “59” head (50 watts, nine-pin 12AX7 preamp).

While the 50 and 59 are not the same amplifier with different preamp tubes, they do highlight the characteristics of the two platforms. The octal 50 has a more organic feel, a slightly softer attack, and a smooth top end. It’s not spongy and loose in the way of a small Tweed, but it’s remarkably tactile. It’s got a enough clean headroom to work in almost any band situation, and distortion pedals produce a detailed linear crunch that is devoid of sharp peaks or emphasized frequencies.

The 59 has a more familiar feel, and while it’s not a “blackface” amplifier, the attack and response is more in line with a mid-power 12AX7 American-style amplifier. The 59’s cleans have more sparkle than the 50, and the low end is big, rich and percussive. Distortion pedal response is not as smooth as the 50, and there is more high end sizzle with the 59.

Without choosing sides, octal amplifiers offer the guitar player a demonstrably different feel and tone. With mainstream production dedicated towards 12AX7-based designs, octal amplifiers are decidedly more expensive, and limited to “boutique” builders. However, for a  player looking for more a more dynamic and tactile response without resorting to the limited headroom and squashed attack of a low powered amp, octal amplifiers offer a solid alternative.

 

Fender ’64 Deluxe Reverb Hand Wired – New Amp Day – Almost

January 29th, 2018

Fender 64 Deluxe Hand Wired

Being such a big fan of the “regular” Fender ’65 Deluxe Reissue Reverb, I quickly reserved a ’64 Deluxe Hand Wired as soon as I heard they were available. After all, what could be better: Hand wired with high quality components, pine cabinet, and reverb on both channels.

So with much anticipation it arrived early January from Sweetwater, the mega store we can’t help but like. Oddly enough around the same time I also purchased a used ’65 DRRI for the other guitar player in my band. He wanted one because he liked mine so much.  In some ways the used DRRI is closer to the ’64 Hand Wired model than my own DR, because mine came from the factory with a Celestion Blue (and blue tolex). The ’64 and ’65 both have the same Jensen C12Q speaker.

The ’64 DHW (Deluxe Hand Wired) is very pretty, the workmanship is great, and the grill cloth has a perfect old-but-not-worn look. The pine cabinet is nice, and the weight is super gig-friendly. I was not about to pull the chassis on a brand new amp, but I’m assuming they did a nice job inside too.

But in the end the ’64 DHW went back to Sweetwater, and my DHW experiment had ended. Why?

What I noticed right away — and so did my other guitar player — is that we don’t like the Jensen C12Q much. It might be authentic but it’s kind of thin sounding, and the breakup is a little raspy and rude. By jumping the output of the amp to various cabinets we quickly learned that we were both happier with the tone of the Blue, or other British voiced speakers. And also that a lot of the early breakup of the amp was the speaker and not the amp. With a different speaker the DHW does have better headroom and will handle pedals well at moderate stage volumes. For pedals it works best plugged into input #2, and I liked the slightly warmer tone of the Normal channel best. Now it’s easy enough to change a speaker, but I just paid $2499 for the amp, and did not feel like dropping up to $200+ on Blue or Warehouse Alnico.

Secondly, the DHW just sounded a little stressed and more hard edged than my Blue DRRI. Now this can be tubes, or a lot of other factors, but DHW sounded as though they maybe tweaked it to break up a little sooner and be a little louder. Almost as if it was biased too hot. Compared to my DRRI, the feel was different regardless of speaker: More urgent sounding, and less of the “give” that I like out of my DRRI.

Now I almost never leave anything alone, but at $2499, I wanted to love the amp as is, and not start tearing into it trying to get it where I wanted it to be. So Sweetwater happily accepted the return, and $65 of UPS later, it’s back home in Indiana. Where it will probably not stay for long.

Moral of the story: Speakers matter immensely. I already knew that, but this was a great reminder of how much of a difference they make. Also, I just like most “British” voiced speakers better even in an “American” amp. And while from a standpoint of tone and maintainability I like non-circuit board amplifiers, that alone is not the key to happiness. I really like my “blue” DRRI despite the fact it has a fragile (to repair or mod) Fender circuit board and pedestrian components. Lastly, no matter how much you love your guitar, the amp is at least 50% of the equation, probably more. Search out amplifiers as zealously as you search out guitars, and respect how much influence they have on your tone.

Upfront Guitars – My personal rig rundown

August 12th, 2017

Players always like to see what other players are using, so just for fun here’s my current gigging and general playing setup.

Typically I bring a “Fender” style guitar with me, and for many years that’s been some type of G&L. Currently it’s a G&L ASAT Classic “S” with spalted alder top, swamp ash back, carmelized ebony fretboard, 12” radius Classic C neck and stainless frets. It did not start life an “S” but I realized that I really needed the middle combinations and modded it for the middle pickup (it did not have a middle rout). I’m a big fan of the neck-middle and middle-bridge much more than I am of the traditional Tele neck+bridge (which it does not even do…for now). It also has an Emerson wiring assembly which I put in every guitar I play.

ASAT Classic S

Prior to this I was using a Knaggs Severn which had a Strat type pickup arrangement with David Allen Strat Cat pickups. While the tone was great, I always hit the volume knob on that type of guitar, plus the fuller output and more mids of the G&L MFD pickups just “gig” better and work great with pedals.

The other guitar that has been in service for a while is a Knaggs Kenai. This is hands-down the best Les Paul style guitar I have played, and is much more open and articulate that most guitars of this ilk. And it’s very comfortable and only about 8 pounds. It also has Emerson wiring, a David Allen P-51 bridge pickup and a Sheptone Heartbreaker neck pickup. The P-51 is hands down my favorite bridge humbucker and you can do almost anything from country to heavy rock. The Alnico 5 Sheptone is a little more percussive than the P-51 neck, and sounds great with a touch of gain. Frankly, the stock Duncan SH-1 sounds very good too, and I could have easily used that.

deluxe and knaggs

For a long time I’d been playing through a Dr. Z Remedy and a Mojotone Pine 4×10 cabinet with Jensen P10R, C10Q speakers. I still love it, plus it’s light and actually not too loud for smaller venues. But after all these years I finally discovered the Fender Deluxe Reverb, and the combination of tone and portability won me over. This particular edition came with a Celestion Blue and a matched set of groove tubes. Other than a Mullard GZ-34 I have so far left it alone. I’m tempted to stick it in a Mojotone Pine Deluxe cabinet to cut the weight a bit and round out the tone a little. I plug into the “2” jack on the Vibrato channel. For tone and ease of transport, no wonder it’s a fixture on so many house backlines.

With the Deluxe I use a Radial JDX to run an XLR line into the mixer. This does a great job of capturing the amplifier’s tone and is much more consistent than using a microphone. The line out is as much for the monitors as it is for adding a little guitar to the overall house mix.

The pedalboard is pretty simple affair and starts out with a Voodoo Lab Giggity. It’s essentially a boost and mild EQ. But for me it’s always on, as everything just sounds better that way (I have it just barely boosting the normal signal level). It’s also an easy way to tweak levels between guitars.

pedal board

The Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive is my “mild” gain pedal and I’ve been using them for probably 15 years. The deal with the pedal is that you can mix in clean signal to maintain attack and dynamics. I’ve also had the Lovepedal Kalamazoo for a number of years and this is my higher gain pedal, although not high gain by popular standards. While it’s in theory a TS-inspired pedal, it has more gain and is not as midrange heavy.

The Keeley Seafoam Chorus is a recent edition. It’s easy to use and can add a nice clean sounding chorus without cluttering things up. The Catilan Bread Belle Epoch tape delay gets used on a couple numbers, and the Lee Jackson Mr. Springgy Reverb only gets used with the Dr. Z. I may try one of the Keeley Tone Stations to consolidate the Reverb and Delay functions and make a little more room on the board.

Lastly, the Solodallas TSR is another “always on” item that acts as a line buffer, and also makes everything sound a little bigger, more 3-D and tactile, especially with pedals. It’s initially subtle, but you know when it’s off. I don’t use it to boost the signal, just condition it. The Strymon Zuma power supply is expensive, but it’s built like a Mercedes and can power just about anything. The Solodallas needed 300mA at 12VDC, and the Strymon is one of the few power supplies that will do this.

The patch cables are the UpFront Evidence Monorail cables that I have made for UpFront Guitars, and the guitar cables are Evidence Audio Melody.

While there are some new pedals that I’d like to try out — such as the Keeley White Sands and some of the Tone Stations — I’m wary about using a new pedal live without getting very familiar with how a new pedal interacts with the board, guitar, and amp. Lately we’ve been playing out more than practicing, and experimentation time has been limited.

 

Amps and Pedals: When Gain is not Volume

July 4th, 2017
Keeley D&M Drive with boost Boost and Drive

Keeley D&M Drive with boost Boost and Drive

Here is a typical scenario: Guitar player in local bar band is playing along through a song, and now it’s time for his/her lead. The player hits his stomp box or gain channel and POOF: Where did the guitar go? Instead of standing out, the guitar fails to cut through, and sounds like and angry beehive, lost in the mix.

This is not an uncommon occurrence. Players mistake gain for distortion, or expect to get more gain and just get more distortion. It’s understandable, as on amps and pedals the terms gain, volume, drive and boost all get used quite interchangeably. But generally speaking where you apply the gain in your signal chain will determine whether you are creating more volume, more distortion, or possibly just a bunch of mud.

In a simple non-master volume amplifier, the volume control increases gain at the preamp level. The power amp section  is a fixed amount of gain. Whatever the preamp feeds it, the power amp section boosts it “X” amount. In this layout when the amp distorts, it’s the power amp tubes clipping. Unless your amp is 15 watts or less, this is pretty hard to do at reasonable volumes. This why some studio players like small low powered amps like the Fender Tweeds, old Supro’s, etc.

Master Volume amplifiers come in many shapes and sizes but most of them have some way of overloading a preamp tube (or tubes) and creating the distortion at the preamp level, and then using a second volume control (the master) to keep the overall volume level in check.

Any type of distortion causes clipping, which compresses the signal (reduces its dynamic range). The more distortion, the more the signal is compressed, producing a very even signal but with less ability to cut. Everyone has noticed how a clean guitar tone cuts through the band better than a heavily distorted one. The uncompressed dynamic range of a clean signal has a lot to do with it. Or if you use recording software, notice how much more peaky a clean guitar signal is than a distorted one? Clean guitar is much harder to track.

Let’s say you are on the dirty channel of your master volume amplifier, so you are already creating preamp distortion. If you hit a boost pedal feeding more signal into the amplifier, the effect is often to overload the preamp section even more, creating more clipping and compression. Distortion increases, but relative volume goes up very little or not at all.

Even if your “boost” switch is part of the guitar amplifier’s footpedal system, where the boost is applied will determine whether you get more volume (post preamp) or more distortion (in the preamp section). Pedals can do the same thing: If you pump a distorted pedal signal into a signal path that is already compressed, you are just layering distortion on distortion, further crushing dynamic range.

The concept of a “good pedal amplifier” is an amplifier that has enough headroom (clean gain capability) such that you can feed in boosted and distorted pedal signals without significantly overloading the amplifier. In essence the guitar amplifier is amplifying whatever you send in, but adding little or none of it’s own distortion.

A “bad” pedal amp would be a small Fender Tweed. They have so little headroom that any type of signal boosting device would just overload both sections of the amplifier, creating mush. At the other end, a Fender Twin or 100 watt Marshall can take a hot input signal without distorting, and have enough power to amplify that signal to very high decibel levels. If you listen to Angus riff on most AC/DC songs, it’s not heavily distorted, it’s just really loud. And it’s got great dynamics, bite and texture. Angus does not use any distortion pedals.

There are 15-30 watt amplifiers that are good pedal amps, and it has much to do with amplifier design, transformers, and tube selection. To generalize, a fixed bias amplifier tends to have a good amount of clean headroom (Blackface Fenders, many Mesa amplifiers) while a cathode bias amplifier may have great tone, but can be less forgiving to hot signals (Fender Tweeds, Vox, many Dr. Z EL-84 amplifiers).

Tubes matter too. While the 12AX7 preamp tube is by far the most common, the EF86 tube (some Dr. Z, 65 Amps, Bad Cat, etc.) has more gain and clean headroom potential. They also sound different than a 12AX7, but they handle pedals very well.

The fixed bias EF86 Dr Z. Z-28 makes a good pedal amp.

The fixed bias EF86 Dr Z. Z-28 makes a good pedal amp.

My own personal preference is to find a single channel amplifier with decent headroom and really good clean tone — pedals won’t make a bad amp sound good — and then go with pedals for overdrive and distortion. Real power amp distortion is awesome, but in a gigging situation where a lot of different tones/colors are needed, pedals are just more convenient and easy to modulate. If you are in a blues band and can put your Tweed on 10 and ride the guitar volume, it’s a great sound. But if you are in a wide-ranging cover band, the pedal-based format is more effective and flexible. For the record I don’t like feel or tone of attenuators, and feel it’s best to pick the right size amplifier for the job. Unless I’m outdoors I don’t play an amp bigger than about 20 watts.

You should also consider the order of your pedals. If your clean boost pedal is before your primary distortion pedal, it will increase distortion and some amount of volume. If it’s after your primary distortion pedal, it will increase volume more effectively with little increase in distortion. Arranging your pedals with an eye towards how they will interact can greatly increase their effectiveness.

If we go back to the hypothetical guitar player at the beginning of this post, think about some of your favorite blues and classic rock guitar leads. Quite often they are not wildly distorted, but there is a lot of texture, dynamics, and the personality of the guitar player comes through. Managing volume versus distortion can improve the quality of your lead work, and help it stand out better in the mix. I’m not talking about playing “clean” but that crushing amounts of pedal or preamp distortion can really suck the emotional life out of a guitar. Music is all about dynamics, and making sure your guitar does not vanish at that crucial moment can make or break the emotional impact of the song.

 

Cool Amp Find Vol. 4 – Fender Deluxe Reverb Electric Blue

July 2nd, 2017

Fender-Blue-Deluxe-smallThe Fender Deluxe Reverb is hardly rare, and there are literally thousands out there: Vintage, new, Blackface, and Silverface. You can spend $750 for a nice used Blackface reissue, or $2000+ for a pre-CBS (1965) vintage unit. Even in the “bad era” of CBS, the circuit remained largely unchanged. So if you must have the Real Thing, a 60’s Silverface is essentially the same.

We pickup up this particular model in trade. It’s circa 2008, but was pretty much new-in-box, wrapped in plastic. The Electric Blue model differs from a garden-variety reissue by virtue of the blue tolex, a premium set of matched Groove Tubes, a limited edition name plate, and a British-made Celestion Blue speaker.

This particular Cool Amp Find is more about my ignorance and prejudice about the Fender Blackface sound than it is about the rarity or greatness of the Fender Deluxe.

I’ve dabbled in early Fenders — Pro Reverb for example — both true Silverface and Blackface. While I have not owned a Twin, I’ve had plenty of contact with them. I was always hit with the same impression: Too hard, too stiff, and too loud. Given that Fender was making amplifiers that “worked” prior to modern PA systems, there was no environment where I ever got into the sweet spot of these amplifiers. A Pro Reverb on “6” is crazy, a Twin on six is fatal.

It turns out that my problem was not Blackface, it was that I was using the wrong amplifier.

I have now learned what countless other guitar players have already figured out: The Blackface Deluxe Reverb is probably one of the most perfect guitar amps ever. Loud enough on stage to match the drummer, enough headroom to handle pedals, but supple enough to get natural tube amp grind. Plus it’s easy to carry, and there is no shortage of parts, mods and tweaks.

While I’ve not experienced a non-Celestion Deluxe, I like the warm early breakup and strong low end of the Celestion blue. By nature I’m a constant tweaker, but we’ve had a lot of gigs lately and all I’ve had time to do is drop in a Mullard GZ-34 rectifier and a longer speaker cable so I could use my Radial JDX box for the PA. I’m toying with the idea of a Mojo Pine Deluxe cabinet to cut a little weight and give it a little warmer vibe.

But overall I love it, and I feel silly that it took me this long to discover the DR. It works well with single coils and humbuckers, and it makes perfect sense that backlines everywhere are littered with the Fender Deluxe. It’s now my #1 gig amp, and unless I’m outdoors, I don’t need anything bigger.

Given the great tone and portability of the Fender Deluxe, whether you purchase new or used, it’s killer value. If you don’t need channel switching, built in effects (other than Reverb or Vibrato) or modeling, I can’t imagine anything better in this price range. And if you really want hand-wired splendor, you could probably purchase a used Deluxe and have someone do a turret board conversion for less than a new boutique amp.

Sometimes in the chase for ultimate tone, we ignore simple solutions that are right under our nose. The Fender Deluxe is simultaneously mundane and also just what I’ve been looking for.

Here is a demo video of a G&L guitar, using our Fender Deluxe Reverb. The player is Berklee instructor Scott Tarulli. There are no effects other than light compression and reverb. The gain tones are the Deluxe Reverb on the normal channel cranked up:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJFtFlAbdn4

 

 

Cool Amp Find Vol. 3 – Down Brownie Amplifier

March 31st, 2017
down brownie

Down Brownie 6G3 from Cutthroat Audio

While the past two “Cool Amp Finds” were out of production used amplifiers, this amp is available new right now. Ron Westwood of Cutthroat Audio has come up with the Down Brownie, a very cool totally portable amplifier that is an expertly crafted reproduction of the 6G3 Fender Brownface, but also much more than just a copy.

The 6G3 Brownface is a “transitional” amplifier that came between the Tweed and Blackface era. Putting out about 15 watts and using a fixed bias 6V6 circuit, the Down Brownie is the type of amplifier that just begs you to crank it up to around “8” and manipulate the various shades of semi-clean to dirty with the guitar’s volume control. Pedals? It’s really not the same. To get the classic sound of a small amp turned up, you really do need a small amp turned up. The Brownie has the tactile push-pull nature between the guitar and amplifier that makes it feel like a living, breathing organism rather than an assemblage of wires and components. No matter where you are on the guitar’s volume control the tone is natural, deep, and satisfying.

But Ron did not stop there. The amp also features tube or solid state rectification, three selectable levels of negative feedback, a post phase inverter master volume (on the back), Mercury Transformers, and an Alnico Weber speaker.

We would also be remiss if we did not mention the vibrato circuit. It’s just dynamite, and can add a subtle depth that you can just leave on all the time, or a deep pulsating warble.

The biggest departure from the 6G3 is that the “normal” circuit has been replaced by a “British” circuit. Rather than just having the normal channel be a drier version of the vibrato channel, the tone stack has been voiced and located similar to a small Marshall amplifier. Also, when you pull the volume control it jumpers the two channels. Oh yeah, pulling the tone control is like a bright/defeat switch. This channel is a little bright for my taste (and so are small British amplifiers) but in jumper mode it gives the Brown channel a nice edge.

All this tweaking potential would not matter if the core tone of the amplifier was not as good as it is. The Brownie has a warm, rich “brown” tone that is similar to Tweed Deluxe, but in my mind less raspy with smoother highs and tighter bass your average small Tweed clone. If you want the Neil Young on-the-verge-of-meltdown tone, stick with a Tweed, but to me the Brownie feels more put together.

If you can’t part with your pedals or want ample clean headroom, the Brownie is probably not for you. You can mic this amp for a gig, but if you need true clean volume, this is not the Brownie’s strong suit. But for shades of clean-ish that you can easily push over the edge, the Brownie is a wonderful creation that weighs less than most people’s pedalboards.

 

Cool Amp Find Vol. 2 – 2000’s Fender Custom Vibrolux Reverb

February 2nd, 2017

Here’s another cool amp find that we recommend: A 2000’s era Fender Custom Vibrolux Reverb. We found ours a local music store that has virtually all second hand gear. Something in the back of my head thought it might be “something” so we nabbed it. You can typically find them anywhere from $550 – $800.

But be warned: This is a somewhat controversial amplifier, and owning one might subject you to criticism and scorn on the gear forums.

CVR

Why? Because while it has blackface cosmetics, it’s not really a blackface amplifier. It’s more similar to the early 60’s brownface Vibrolux Reverb, but it’s not an exact copy of that either. Designer Bruce Zinky — who is the designer of the new line of Supro amplifiers — designed the “CVR” to be a spongier, more forgiving amplifier that would break up a lower volumes. Sort of a brown/tweed if you will. Along the way he also enabled reverb on both channels, took out the negative feedback, and a few other tweaks. Depending on your point of view, he’s either a hero or a heretic.

Maybe not quite a hero, but everyone who plays it really likes this amplifier. Try as I might, I could never really bond with a true blackface. I’ve tried a couple true Black and Silverface Pro Reverbs, but tended to find them too stiff, too bright, and too loud. Getting any character out of them required uncomfortable volume levels. I’ve been more of a tweed fan, and even my Dr. Z Remedy is similar to a smaller Marshall, which was copied from the Bassman, which is a tweed. But while little tweeds are fun, they don’t much headroom at all, which is limiting if you are in a cover band and want to use some pedals.

The CVR fits this middle ground and has enough headroom to gig, but gets its character at reasonable levels. Turn the volume up to about 5 and play with the guitar’s volume knob and you can get a wide range of excellent clean to lightly crunchy tones. It’s a little loose in the low end, but that’s the plan.

But purists decry it’s lack of faithfulness to any particular original Fender schematic, the low background hiss caused by adding reverb to both channels, and what’s felt to be an overall wimpy reverb. Phooey I say. In most situations it’s way more usable, and gives you the “turned up” tone at a level your band can live with. And does anybody turn a “true” Fender reverb up over 3? Regarding the hiss, who can tell once you are playing? And if you have a drummer it’s a totally moot point.

In addition the 2×10 speaker format is a great combination. There is more speaker surface area than a 15″ speaker, and you get nice low end response and better coverage with less beaming than a single 12″ speaker. Top it all off, the CVR weighs only around 40 pounds, maybe less depending on speaker choice.

Naturally, since this is not a faithful reproduction of a Vibrolux there are modification kits to make it true to the brownface Vibrolux schematic. Moyer is one of those kits and Fromel makes a couple different versions of his kit. My brother installed the Fromel kit in his CVR and it did exactly as intended. My only caution is that is “undoes” some of what makes it a CVR, and makes it more like a true Vibrolux. Yes, it is quieter, but also little stiffer and brighter. Fortunately you can do only parts of the Fromel kit, and the instructions tell you exactly what mod is having which impact on the amp. You can upgrade the tone caps and power supply caps, but not necessarily put back the negative feedback, etc.

These are really nice amps, easy to carry, and for very reasonable money your are getting a gig-worthy amp that will rival products costing triple the price. Hands down my favorite all-around Fender so far. With the new amplifier world generally split into two camps of cheap/depressing and boutique/expensive the CVR is a gem.

Interesting Amp Find Part 1 – The Mesa Stiletto 50W

October 22nd, 2016

mesa-shotI would normally categorize myself as a “less is more” person when it comes to amplifiers. I tend to favor rather simple amps, usually single channel, and use a couple pedals. Most of the time I’m using a Dr. Z Remedy, but also have a Bassman, a Custom Vibrolux and as of recent a Mesa F50 (the next blog topic).

But along comes this Mesa 50W Stiletto that we took in trade. I once had a 100w/50w Lone Star Combo, and it shares a lot of the options, knob assignments and tweaking possibilities. So even though I have never played a Stiletto, I somewhat knew my way around it.

This amp was Mesa’s answer to the Marshall sound, and as such sports EL-34 power tubes, a Plexi/Bassman style circuit, and a sealed cabinet with a Vintage 30 speaker. It has the Mesa “spongy” switch that drops the amp voltage for more touch response, and the ability to switch between tube and solid state rectifier (individually on each channel). Also like many Marshall amplifiers there is no reverb.

Initial impressions of the amp was that it was extremely bright and tight. On regular power and solid state rectifier, this amp as very little give, and if you’re a “spongy” amp guy like me it’s a little disconcerting. But between the tube rectifier, the spongy switch, and the three position “character” switch for each channel, there is something for everyone.

I like EL-34’s, and they have a very complex and harmonically rich top end. This helps the Stiletto pump out some awesomely good clean tones. By running on spongy with the gain and master around noon, and using the tube rectifier, it’s not hard to get some sweet touch-induced tube crunch. The amp also has an overall level control, and you can get these tones at reasonable volumes. But if you want your own personal Twin, run it on solid state rectifier and full power and you’ll have ample clean headroom. It’s likely that if you ask a typical Mesa player how they like their clean channel they’ll say, “I don’t know.” The Stiletto has a clean channel worth knowing.

The gain channel is naturally quite bright (like a Marshall) and don’t be afraid to twist the tone controls to tone it down a bit. But once you have it dialed in, it’s got some amazing Brit-crunch that has overtones and character out the wazoo. The sealed back cabinet helps to tighten up the sound, and the enclosure is not a parallel box, we assume in order to reduce standing wave forms. The total gain potential is end-of-days crazy, and we can’t imagine a usable scenario. But if you like tight, harmonic crunch you can cut with a knife, it’s freak’in awesome. You can’t model this….

Drawbacks? The Stiletto combo must weigh around 70 pounds, so it’s a good thing it has casters. Also the Vintage 30 has an inherent midrange spike, and some EL-34 tubes are likewise, and we found the standard Mesa power tubes were a bit too forward in this respect. We are using some groove tubes that we like, and if we can find some Winged C’s we’d probably be really happy. We also tried a Warehouse Reaper HP in the Mesa, as we’ve like the Reaper in the past. We could not get it out of the cabinet fast enough. Just goes to show that Mesa really does engineer the amplifier, and you can’t just stick anything in there. Same with pre-amp tubes: They are not easy to get at, and just leave the Mesa tubes in there. If you can find a NOS 5U4GB, go for it.

I sort of thought that we’d move this Mesa along as soon as it came in the shop. But it sounds awfully good, and we’ve taken it on gigs where we don’t have to haul it up stairs. On cleans it comes close to our beloved Dr. Z. Remedy, and it can break up a lower levels. If you don’t want to bring any pedals and just use the gain channel — and if you can open it up — it’s other-worldly.

The Stiletto does not really EQ or respond like your typical Mesa, and in that respect it was probably somewhat misunderstood, and underappreciated. But it’s probably our favorite Mesa so far, and highly underrated. They are out there anywhere from $800 to $1300 and represent a true bargain.