Home Guitars Amplifiers Accessories About Contact
Home :: Blog

Guitar Amplifiers – How Many Watts Are Enough?

October 28th, 2014

If you’re an active guitar player, you’ve certainly noticed the continuing trend towards smaller, lower powered amplifiers. This has occurred for a number of reasons: Popularity of boutique clones of early amplifier designs, older players downsizing to focus on playing at home rather than performing, and the advent of very good affordable sound reinforcement systems.

Historically, the first guitar amplifiers were pretty small because the guitar was not necessarily the lead instrument of the band, and in many cases the band itself was not amplified. Plus the technology of the time – tubes – dictated smaller low power systems.

As rock music and the electric guitar became more popular, both the volume levels and the size of the venues increased. But true high quality “house” sound systems like today did not exist. So the guitar amplifier was not for “tone”, but was also the primary vehicle for what the audience heard. Amplifiers also did double or triple duty: Check out the input panel of many early amplifiers and you’ll see input jacks for multiple guitars and microphones. Adjusted for today’s dollars, pro gear back in the day was vastly more expensive than now, and sharing was a practical necessity.

So like the Space Race, the power race was on, and by the end of the 50’s the larger guitar amplifiers were pushing 50 watts or more. Fender’s introduction of the blackface amps in the early 60’s addressed the need for louder, cleaner sound. The blackface amps differed from their tweed predecessors in a number of ways, but features such as fixed bias design, higher plate voltages, and solid-state rectification had more to do with volume and headroom than tone. The largest amps topped out at 100 watts, which is really the practical limit of four 6L6 or EL-34 power tubes. This is pretty much true today for tube amps, and anything more than that gets very heavy and hot (bass players had it tough then). Today a bass player can get a 500-watt Class D solid-state amplifier that’s the size of a phone book.

But back then if you were going to play an arena, you needed stacks of amplifiers because they were doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Plus it’s kind a macho thing and looks really cool too. Today, you can play an arena with a 15-watt amplifier, and some performers do. While there is a certain visceral sensation to the sound of a 4×12, the need for a row of Marshall stacks is essentially visual. And unless you’re Yngwie Malmsteen, many of those cabs on stage aren’t even on.

So how much power do you actually need? Unless you require extremely high levels of clean volume without the assist of a PA, 50 watts is the most you’ll ever need. How much volume an amplifier produces is a function of its design: Fixed versus cathode bias, amount of negative feedback, plate voltage, rectifier type, etc. It’s hard to generalize, but a 15-watt amplifier with no negative feedback and a solid-state rectifier can be very loud and clean. My main amp head has (4) 6V6 tubes, solid state rectifier and a 20/40-watt switch. The only time it’s on 40 watts is when the band is playing outside.

If you are playing clubs and typically put the guitars through the PA, 15-30 watts will likely do it. While early amplifier designs were guided by power output, choosing an amplifier today is more about how you want it to sound, rather than how loud it will go. If you play mostly at home or jam with friends, 10-30 watts is where a lot of the amplifier market is targeted these days. Finding the right amount clean headroom – which is important if you use pedals – is an important selection criteria. If you regularly jam with a drummer, 30 watts is probably a better choice than 10. Five-watt amplifiers can be fun, if all you want is loose, old school grind. But with a humbucker-equipped guitar, there will be little in the way of decent clean volume.

Many modern amp designs have the ability to vary total amplifier output. Some do this by actually dropping out power tubes (4-to-2 for example) while others vary the amount of voltage to the power tubes or phase inverter. These features cut volume as well as headroom, allowing the ability to clip the power tubes at reasonable volumes. The Traynor Ironhorse amplifier has a fixed/cathode bias switch that changes the output of the amp from 37 to 17 watts, respectively. This not only affects total volume and headroom, but also the feel (I like the softer nature of cathode bias).

If you have a large amp that you don’t want to part with, there are of course power attenuators, which are available as an add-on accessory. These work by absorbing some of the energy that would normally go to your speakers. In effect, you can crank the amplifier but the attenuator “soaks up” some of the energy (volume). Attenuators work by placing some type of resistance/inductance network in the signal path to the speakers. Without getting technical, even the best ones mess with the feel of the amp, and how the guitar interacts with the amplifier. It’s hard to explain but it’s a disconnected feeling. They sound good on YouTube, but so does everything. My suggestion is to buy a smaller amplifier.

The trend towards lower stage volumes, and the affordability of good sound reinforcement and monitoring systems has been a boon to amateur and pro players alike. Using a guitar amp as the sole amplification source is very rare, and your band will actually sound better if you turn down and let the PA and the monitors do their job. And your band mates will appreciate it. Which brings us to the guitar player’s favorite lament of “I can’t hear myself.” Which is a topic we’ll address shortly.


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.

Are vintage guitars, amps and pickups really better?

June 28th, 2014

There is no denying that vintage musical equipment holds great allure for many players. Famous players and people of means often have prized vintage gear and swear by it. There is a general unquestioned belief that old gear is just inherently better, but is it really?

Humans by nature are nostalgic, and are predisposed to believe that the old days were always better. You know, things like Polio, Segregation, and AMC Gremlins. And once people perceive a change from the way things were, there is a reflexive yearning for whatever it was that is no longer the way it was. With Fender, this was of course the purchase by CBS. With Gibson I suppose it was the move from Kalamazoo to Nashville, and the Norlin era of ownership. I’ve even had a customer opine that any post-1999 Taylor isn’t as good because they changed their neck joint technique. Really?

These days, mid-70’s Fenders have asking prices well over $2000. Frankly, I was around in the 70’s and nobody thought much of a 70’s Strat. The 70’s was a true low point in American product quality, and manufacturers were trying to reduce costs and compete with the likes of the Japanese, but did not have the tools and processes to do so effectively. But now these indifferently assembled products of the 70’s are over thirty years old, and suddenly they are vintage? No, they are just old. So before you consider plunking down three grand on a post-CBS Strat with a wobbly micro-tilt neck and a 1/4″ thick finish, let’s somewhat objectively consider whether vintage really should mean anything to you in regard to playing value.

Guitars – In terms of solid body electric guitars, there really is no technical reason why a modern guitar can’t be as good or better than a vintage guitar. Why? Because basically all the materials that go into building an electric guitar 50 years ago — the woods, hardware, electronics, pickups, nitrocellulose lacquer etc. — still largely exist today in the same form (we’ll get to vintage pickups later). If you want to build a guitar just like it was 50 years ago, for the most part you can. Except today we have CNC machines, better hardware, and much better process control than ever existed 50 years ago. Guitar companies have gotten very good a letting machines do what they do best, and having people do what they do best. That’s why you can buy a $400 guitar that plays amazingly well and sounds good to boot. While some of this value is tied to low cost labor, it’s more a function of advancements in manufacturing.

Interestingly, there was a test in 2012 involving professional violin players that in double-blind testing could not reliably tell a prized Stradivarius violin from a high quality modern violin. Their ability to identify which instrument was the Stradivarius (they were wearing dark goggles) was virtually no better than random. When asked for their preference, most players chose the newer violin, but thought they were playing the vintage instrument.

There are various intangible reasons for owning a vintage guitar: The look, history and feel of an old instrument is hard to quantify but compelling for many players. Have a piece of gear with a sense of history can be a cool thing, and any instrument purchase is a combination of head and heart. But like many products today, the price-to-value ratio for new guitars is at a very high level (even for American gear) so don’t buy into the “only vintage is good” argument. Sometimes old stuff is just old stuff.

Pickups – Much like guitars, the materials available to build pickups the way they were built in the good old days still largely exist. The great pickups of yore were largely a function of good fortune.  Guitar manufacturers sourced wire and magnet materials based mostly on availability, the tension of the winding machine was generally controlled by hand, and the number of windings was approximate. On other words, not all pickups were created equal. Today’s boutique winders have studied the characteristics of a good pickup, and can faithfully reproduce a “good day” in Fullerton in 1957 on a consistent basis. And large pickup manufacturers utilize process controls and modern equipment to produce consistent product that can also sound awfully good. Spending $200 – $400 on any single pickup is probably never necessary, and spending that kind of money on a parted-out vintage pickup is basically a crap shoot.

Amplifiers – Compared to guitars and pickups, amplifiers are probably least likely to be truly reproduced in the exact manner of materials and construction as their vintage counterparts. Partly this is due to the complexity of an amplifier and myriad of components and materials used. Some of chemicals used in capacitors, speaker adhesives, transformers, etc. can’t be used anymore because they are hazardous or even carcinogens. Vacuum tubes, while still available new, differ from their vintage counterparts for either reasons of cost, health, or availability of materials (and some of the NOS tubes really are magical, and never to be made again). But that does not mean that there are not lots of fantastic sounding new amplifiers using available modern materials.  I’ve personally gone through a “must have blackface” phase only to come to the conclusion that they really weren’t for me, no matter how much I was told I would like them.

Plus even more than vintage guitars and pickups, older amplifiers varied widely in component selection, tolerance and speaker type. Fender used several different speaker brands depending on what they could get a good deal on (vintage Utah speaker anyone?) and Marshall was equally cavalier with component values and sources. Lastly  given the fact that few vintage amplifiers survive without some amount of component drift, component replacement, or “improvement” and it’s easy to imagine plunking down a good deal of cash for a box of rocks. Then there is just the whole reliability issue of of gigging a 50 year old amplifier. Now if you want an old amp purely for historical vibe, go for it, but sonic nirvana is not guaranteed.

Wrap Up – The great mystery of analog sound, is that everything does matter to some degree. Sound is an interaction of guitar, amplifier, and player. And within that there is a subset of pickups, components, speakers, cables, tubes….everything. Chasing the perfect sound can be fun, inspiring, and sometimes obsessively frustrating. And as Frank Zappa said, sometime you just have to “Shut up ‘n play yer guitar.” Because as we all know, the greatest variable is the player. I’m not down on vintage equipment, and sometimes owning something only for its aesthetic value is reason enough. Guitars and amps can be art, or at minimum great examples of industrial design. But like our 70’s Strat, buying “vintage” equipment guarantees nothing but age, and a little objectivity can save you a lot of money and frustration.

Sounds Clips of Andrews A-22 Amp using our Dan Neafsey DGN Tele

January 11th, 2014

Here are some quick sound clips of the Andrews A-22 20 watt EL-34 amplifier. We demo’d this amp using our DGN (Dan Neafsey) Tele. Dan’s Tele has his own hand-wound P-90 and a Rio Grande 60’s Tallboy bridge pickup. Both the amp and Tele are really nice pieces.

Recording details. Nothing real fancy here:

  • Apple Pro Logic
  • Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 firewire interface
  • Andrews A-22 amplifier
  • DGN Tele
  • Shure SM-57
  • Evidence Audio guitar cable
  • Apple plug-in for a little reverb
  • Waves V-Comp plug-in for compression and EQ

DGN Clean Neck

DGN Dirty Neck

DGN Clean Bridge

DGN Dirty Bridge

For more sound options from Upfront Guitars:  www.upfrontguitars.com


Vacuum Tubes – Favorite Power Tubes for Guitar Amps

September 23rd, 2013

Two 6V6 with a GZ-34 rectifier is a great recipe for clean to crunchy rock and roots music

Despite all the progress in digital modeling and analog circuit design, for some people a guitar amp isn’t a guitar amp without a few glowing glass bottles heating up the room. Technically obsolete but sonically beloved, tubes are still with us. And the crazy thing is they all sound different from type to type, and even brand to brand. Depending on your point of view this is a tweaker’s delight or nightmare.

Truth be told, there is some great sounding digital stuff, and if you are generally immersed in very high gain sounds or lots of effects, I’m not sure tubes are essential. There is just so much other signal processing going on that the subtle qualities of vacuum tubes can get lost. My friend’s Eleven Rack sounds pretty darn good pounding out raging “SLO” crunch, but as a semi-clean Fender Deluxe? Not so much. So if you are still chasing clean to slightly dirty tones, I think analog and vacuum tubes still hold the edge. Speaking of “The Edge:” By the time his guitar has run through fifty feet of effects and remote switching gear, does it matter that it’s plugged into a vintage Vox? No, especially not in a stadium. Sometimes it’s all about what you’re seen playing, which is why most of those stacks at a typical concert aren’t even plugged in (unless you are Yngwie).

If you are deciding to go the tube route, or are looking at a new tube amp, you also have to think about what types of power tubes. Preamp tubes are almost always the venerable 12AX7 — with an occasional EF-86 — so that choice is usually made for you. But with power tubes you have some decisions to make. Here are some comments and thoughts:

6V6 – The mainstay of the 30 watt and under Fender amplifiers, especially from the Tweed and Blackface era. Some of the newer small Fenders today like the Junior and Deville series use EL-84, so check under the hood. Sweet sounding with a high end that is complex and not overly bright, they are a great tube for small amplifiers. Maligned by some as not having strong bass response, that can be as much cabinet size and circuit design as the tube itself. A great tube for Strats and Teles. Less popular today than the EL-84, but a Dr. Z Remedy on half power is one of my all-time favorites. The ValveTrain Trenton is also another great recent 6V6 amp, and Rivera is also a proponent of this tube (they don’t make an EL-84 amplifier).

6L6 – The mainstay of the larger American amplifiers, the 6L6 can put out up to 25 watts per tube and is found in higher powered amps like Twin Reverbs, and many Mesa amplifiers. A little harder sounding and less complex than a 6V6, but it’s got a lot of low end. Great for chunky tones, sparkling loud cleans, and high gain.

5881 – A lower output alternative to the 6L6, the 5881 is often used interchangeably and is felt to have a little more delicate top end, and be a touch more musical. Amps with a 6L6 may be running at higher voltages not suitable for a 5881, so do your homework before you swap.

EL-84 – Developed by Philips, probably the most popular tube for amps under 30 watts, and the darling of boutique builders. Many of the small Fender amps today use this “European” tube rather than the 6V6. Personally not my favorite, especially not for gigging. They do have a lovely round “bouncy” tone that is really cool at low volumes, but these tubes tend to get shrill when cranked up, and have flubby, weak bass. YouTube is full of videos of people playing totally cranked small EL-84 amps through attenuators in their home studios. That may be fun, but not for your vocalist, or the crowd. This tube may be the “sound” of a Vox, but gimme a 6V6 any day.

EL-34 – This tube is the crunch of the big Marshall amplifiers: Punchy, with a strong upper midrange bite and lots of harmonic content. Most big Mesa 6L6 amps will also accept the EL-34, and it’s worth making the swap.  The problem is that any Class AB amp with these tubes is going to be pushing 50 watts or more. So they are fun but loud. There are some specialty Class A amps that will take a single EL-34, so you can have some fun without peeling the paint.

Wrap Up – Depending on the size range of amplifier you are shopping for, your choice of tube may be per-determined by the power rating. On the sub 40 watt end, my recommendation would be the 6V6. Not as ubiquitous as EL-84, but worth it for overall sound quality and flexibility. The 6V6 has a different pin arrangement than the EL-84, so they cannot be swapped unless you purchase adapters.

For larger amps, my pick is the EL-34, and a number of big rigs can flip a switch and accept an EL-34 or 6L6. For a 6L6 amp that cannot use an EL-34, check with the manufacturer and see if it is compatible with the 5881. This can be a nice tweak for a little less headroom and power output. A lower-voltage Fender Bassman running 5881’s is a delectable clean-to-mildly-crunchy tone machine.

For amp offerings at Upfront Guitars:  www.upfrontguitars.com

Pedal Amps – What’s a Pedal Amp?

September 22nd, 2013

Nearly every guitar player today uses some type of effect pedal, either for practice, recording or  playing live. Safe to say there is hardly anyone who does not own some type of effect pedal, making them both a great market for manufacturers, but also a real consideration when deciding what type of amplifier to use.

One of the frequent questions asked these days on the gear pages is what’s a good “Pedal Amp?” So what is a Pedal Amp? I would define a Pedal Amp as an amplifier that does not add extreme tonal coloration, and is able to handle high signal inputs without adding additional coloration or distortions. To some that does not sound like a particularly good amplifier, as for many old-school players the amplifier is an essential part of the sound equation. But for players that increasingly use various types of effects and digital modeling, the amplifier becomes more of an “amplification system” and less of a tone source.

Going back a few decades, the early amplifiers were instrumental to the developing sound of rock music. The happy accident of distortion, and then the use of lots of distortion as the essential rock guitar sound was not what the Founding Fathers intended. But as recording techniques, sound systems, and musical styles evolved, the concept of a pure unaffected guitar tone became increasingly rare. From the early days of cranking up small wattage amplifiers to get grindy tone, practically everyone today — well maybe not Neil Young — is using some type of effect to generate anything from mild to insane distortion. And while there are zillions of multi-channel amps out there, for flexibility’s sake pedals just allow much more room to mix and match tone.

So what makes a good Pedal Amp? In a word: Headroom. From a design standpoint, early amplifiers were notoriously short of headroom, both in the preamp and power sections. This of course gave them their warm creamy tone, but pump a high gain pedal into a Fender Tweed and the net result will be mushy distortion with very loose undefined low end. Practically speaking the pedal is creating distortion, and the higher input signal from the pedal is also distorting the preamp of the guitar amplifier. Distortion-on-distortion is not always desirable or musical.

Generally speaking, low powered cathode biased amplifiers (Tweeds, small Vox’s, lots of other low power EL-84 amplifiers) are not super candidates for pedals that have the capability of generating fairly high input levels. Even the relatively brawny 45 watt Fender Bassman won’t handle a lot of input signal without getting floppy. Hot input signals can come from distortion pedals or frequency modulation pedals (chorus, flangers) that tend to increase the signal level. Now boost pedals are made specifically to increase the signal, often for the purpose of overdriving the front end of an amplifier. But a boost pedal it typically only increasing the signal, and not adding its own distortion or other artifacts.

The boutique amp craze, with its plethora low power Tweed and Vox inspired designs (Dr. Z, Matchless, Badd Cat, Victoria etc) created some awesome sounding amplifiers that well-heeled baby boomers were craving. However they were not necessarily great at handling pedals, and even at 18 watts a Maz 18 is still damn loud. And this inspired the attenuator craze….and now everybody just buys pedals.

Fixed biased amplifiers — like Fender Blackface or similar designs — by virtue of their circuit topology have higher headroom and tolerate pedals better. Fender of course was trying to make louder and cleaner amplifiers to fill the larger venues that rock bands were playing. For that reason amplifiers that follow the higher powered Fender Blackface 6L6 tube lineage tend to be pretty good pedal amplifiers.

Once amplifier designers discovered master volume techniques and cascading gain (preamp distortion) techniques, amplifier designs became “stiffer” cleaner and louder. The general elimination of tube rectifiers in favor of diode rectifiers also increased headroom, and made the amplifiers sag less, and play cleaner under heavy loads. Distortion was now a design goal, not a by-product of marginal design or power handling capability. But to some, all these improvements — including dreaded solid state — took away some of the “organic” nature of the early amplifier sound.

Fast forward to the boutique amp craze and builders were putting all this “marginal” stuff back into amplifiers: Cathode bias, low power, and tube rectifiers. And at the opposite end of the spectrum some players are now using a totally digital preamp source — like an Axe Effect Fractal or Eleven Rack — and a powered full-range speaker system from JBL, QSC, or EV.

So back to the original topic: Good Pedal Amps tend to be more modern or higher powered designs that can tolerate strong signal inputs, and if they use a tube power amp section, have a solid state rectifier. If you are playing live or play at high volumes and want to use gain pedals, it’s advisable to avoid lower powered designs in the mold of a Tweed or Vox. Nothing against these amps — Robert Cray through a Matchless is a great sound — but it’s not a pedal sound. There are always exceptions to the rules of course, and some of the boutique designs using the EF-86 preamp tube (Dr Z. Z-28 for example) have quite of bit of clean headroom despite modest power outputs. It’s always dangerous to generalize.

Speaking of which, what about the Mesa Dual and Triple-Rec designs. Don’t they also violate the low power/tube rectifier rule? Yes, sort of. Up around 100 watts, tube rectifiers are pretty marginal AC-to-DC converters for creating the high voltage DC that power tubes need. By wiring two rectifiers in parallel, each rectifier is only carrying half the current, and therefore can share the load and maintain headroom (Fender did this on some 50’s amps for the same reason). A Triple-Rec adds one more rectifier for handling even higher powered designs. Mesa could have just used solid state diodes, but a Mesa Diode Roadking lacks marketing pizazz. Most Mesa — and modern metal — amplifiers are characterized by very “clean” clean channels and the distortion is produced by various combinations of tube and solid state wizardry.

Finally, here’s a personal example with the two amps I like to play the most: A Fender Reissue Bassman, and a Dr. Z Remedy head plugged into a Mojo Pine 4×10 cabinet with Jensen P10R/Eminence Blueframe speakers. Both are using virtually identical speaker arrangements, speakers, and cabinet materials. But the Bassman is an early cathode bias design with a tube rectifier, and the Remedy is a solid state rectifier design using four 6V6 tubes (not a “reissue” design but billed as having Marshall Plexi-style tone). They both have the same power output, about 40 watts. I love the Bassman tone, but in gigging situations using pedals for various levels of gain and effects, the amp loses definition, attack, and can get sloppy. Even on half power, the Remedy has better attack, low end firmness, and is overall tighter. Crunchy gain is crunchy gain. On full power the Remedy is really too clean for most situations except outdoor gigs. But both are 40 watt amps.

My general rule of thumb for any amplifier selection is to find the best clean tone that makes you happy and then go pedal shopping. If your favorite tone is clean to slightly crunchy, you may never need pedals and a smaller lowered powered “old school” amplifier may be the ticket. But if you are like most players, make sure the amplifier of your dreams has sufficiently stout headroom to serve as a suitable platform for whatever pedals you decide to use down the road.

For more information on platform and pedal options at Upfront Guitars:  www.upfrontguitars.com

Amplifying your Godin or other Acoustic Guitar

June 7th, 2013

Godin A6 Koa Extreme


Here at UpFront Guitars we sell a lot of Godin and Simon and Patrick acoustic or thinline acoustic guitars. All these guitars have built in electronics, and in most cases the buyer does not ask me for advice on how to amplify it. Without a doubt, amplifying an acoustic or even the thinline Godin acoustic-electrics is a challenging proposition. Despite major advances in on-board electronics, getting a natural sounding amplified tone still takes some work. There are multiple ways to approach amplifying an acoustic guitar with on-board electronics, and here are a few suggestions we’ve stumbled on along the way:

Straight it the Mixer – For many performers, direct into the board is a very common approach. However, many mixer preamps are not that friendly for acoustics and the sound can be a little flat and uninspiring. This gives rise to the Acoustic Preamp, which is typically a stomp box with EQ parameters specially voiced for acoustic guitars. Quite often Acoustic preamps feature special “notch” filtering to help fight feedback, and the ability to adjust not only the gain but center frequency of the all-important midrange. At minimum they also serve to convert the Hi-Z 1/4″ jack signal from the guitar to a Lo-Z XLR input for the mixer. There are many manufacturers of these products including some well know names like L.R. Baggs, Radial, Tech 21, BBE and others. These products run from $129 to $500 for the Taylor K4. My feeling that going “naked” into the mixer is not going to yield desirable results, and some type of signal conditioning is needed.

Tube or Microphone Preamps – An alternative to a specific acoustic preamp stomp box is a microphone preamp. These can range from $99 for an ART tube preamp to thousands of dollars for an Avalon, Universal Audio or other high end studio stuff. In general these are tube-driven devices that are intended to offer a softer, warmer sound and natural analog compression via a vacuum tube circuit. For short money, we’ve played around with a basic ART MP Studio V3 Tube Preamp ($75) and it certainly takes the harsh edge off a piezo-based transducer, and offers some basic amount of tone shaping. Mic preamps also have lots of other uses besides acoustic guitars, so it’s a multi-functional tool. You can spend a ton of money here, so consider whether you are looking for a product for live performance in front of a bunch of drunk people, or a critical recording application.

Powered Speakers – Chances are these days that if you are playing your acoustic into the mixer, there is a good chance that the mixer is feeding a powered 2-way speaker. Powered speakers rule the world of portable and small-medium PA systems, and they also make excellent stand-alone acoustic amplifiers. For most acoustic electric guitar demos our favorite tool is a QSC K-10 powered speaker. It has plenty of power, and the full range frequency response needed to produce complex acoustic guitar tones (acoustics have a wider frequency range and more complex overtones than an electric). Plus as opposed to an electric guitar amplifier, powered speakers typically have a specific woofer and tweeter to accurately produce high an low frequencies. A good preamp, maybe a little reverb and a high quality powered PA speaker is a killer combination, even if you are also feeding the mixer.

Conventional Electric Guitar Amplifiers – As a rule most electric guitar amplifiers are pretty lousy at amplifying acoustic guitars. Mostly because the amplifiers are not designed to produce the wide frequency range needed for a natural acoustic sound. The extended high end needed for an acoustic simply is not needed for an electric guitar, or would have an electric sound overly harsh or icy. But in a pinch, some guitar amplifiers can do a pretty good job, and if you want an amp that can do double duty there are a couple things to look for. First is speaker surface area. More speakers are better, and generally smaller speakers are better than bigger ones. A 2×10 will produce a more detailed sound than a 1×12, and a 4×10 is better than a 2×12 or 1×15. Smaller speakers with lighter weight moving parts can easily produce more detail and nuance than a big 12″ speaker with a 50 ounce magnet. A midrange control is also very handy, and even better if your amp has an active (versus passive) midrange control. Shaping these critical frequencies can mean the difference between a reasonably natural sound and a honky, nasal box o’ noise.

Also, some of the earlier guitar amplifiers based on designs from tube manufacturing handbooks make pretty good acoustic amps. Why? Because they were really not “guitar amp” designs, but rather full-range tube amplifier designs adapted to amplifying guitars. Amps like the Fender Bassman make very good acoustic amplifiers because they are essentially full range amplifiers with four small low-mass speakers in a pine box. We use our Fender Bassman Ltd Reissue to check out acoustics prior to shipping, and it sounds remarkably good. However, our Dr. Z Remedy through a similar 4×10 cabinet with the same speakers as the Bassman sounds more closed and dull. The Remedy is an excellent electric guitar amp, while the Bassman origins are more hi-fi than guitar. Jason Mraz uses two blackface Fender amplifiers for his live stage sound and mixer feed, and his live guitar sound is killer. Surface area and those simple Fender schematics do a great job.

Aurel Exciters – An Aurel Exciter (such as the BBE Sonic Maximizer) use frequency dependent phase shifting and dynamic equalization of (usually) higher order harmonics to make music sound more alive, distinct, and lend a greater feeling of note separation. I really like the results using this type of effect with acoustic guitars, and it’s part of my band’s live acoustic rig. Aurel Exciters are also frequently used in the studio to perk up dull recordings without making them sound overly bright. Aphex and BBE are the best known names in this type of product, and it’s also available as a software plug-in for recording software.

Dedicated Acoustic Amplifiers – I don’t have much to say about dedicated acoustic amplifiers, because it’s been years since I’ve used one. Acoustic guitar amplifiers are optimized specifically for acoustic guitars, and typically have active equalization, and high and low frequency (woofer/tweeter) transducers. As such they are generally overly bright and unsuitable for electric guitars, and if you do double duty with your band, you’re faced with hauling two amps. It just seems more logical to bring your favorite electric guitar amp, and work out a good sounding direct setup for the acoustic.

The Lowdown – Electric guitar players are known to be obsessive about their tone, but acoustic guitars are equally if not more challenging to dial in. A warm, natural sounding acoustic guitar can add a lot of character and richness to any band. Study your acoustic setup, and give it the same attention to detail as you would your solid body. Getting a good sound make take some experimentation, but it’s not necessary to spend hundreds of dollars to spruce up your amplified acoustic tone.

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.

Guitar Tweaks: Can you hear the difference?

June 3rd, 2012

We’re talking about tweaking your guitars and your amps. You know:  Stuff, gear, tweaks; can you hear the difference?  Once the drummer fires up, does it really matter that you specifically tweaked your pickups, capacitors, pots and speakers? Does it matter to you or to the audience (should you have one) or do you do it just because you love to experiment?

What have you tried?  What can you hear?  What’s for real? The Internet is full of stuff to buy and try.  Some with disputed results, some not.  Some is must have, or at least must try.

For starters, let’s takes strings.  Strings make a real difference in your sound.  Steel, Nickel, Nickel over steel, Nickel over Nickel.  How about even Nickel over round core versus a hex core? It is pretty much undisputed that different strings sound different.  Most people won’t argue that strings make a difference.

The next topic is  Guitar electronics as in “Caps and Pots”.   You commonly hear “was like taking a blanket off my amp”.  Yup a nice old (or new) PIO (paper in oil) cap can really smooth out and open up a dark or muddy guitar.  Some of the “chicklet” caps in today’s guitars are very harsh.   And it all depends on the value of the cap.  .015 is really nice in a LP with a Humbucker in the neck.  Tame a shrill bridge pickup with a .047 in the bridge.  Most guitars, LP’s anyway come with .022’s.  There are a lot of variables here and again most will agree “pots and caps” make a difference because they do.

Pickups: Way to big a field to even start to discuss here.   I’ve tried a bunch.  I’ve heard large changes, not always what I wanted and I’ve found after some installations I can barely hear any difference at all.   It’s nobody’s fault; the whole idea of describing sound is rather vague anyway.  But in general shop wisely and have an idea of what you want, and then pickups are a good solid upgrade.  I’ll throw out a generalization, and that is go for pickups with less output than you think you want.  Pickups wound really hot choke off highs you may want later.  Get the tone out of the guitar and tailor it at the amp.  Also pickup output can be increased with larger magnets as well as windings.  Difference is the larger magnets don’t choke highs like windings. You can also split hairs by changing magnets in the pickups you already have, but that may be getting too OCD for some.

As with pickups, speakers are a huge topic and they can make or break your sound.  Everyone likes something else.  And remember what sounds great alone in practice situations may not sound great in a band setting. Loud alone isn’t the same as loud with a drummer.   This is why I like heads and separate speaker cabs.  Mix and match.  Makes for more options.  So let’s put speakers into the category of yes, makes a difference.  Yes we heard the difference.

So many more things you can change.  Everything matters.  The room you play in matters.  How far is your open back amp from the wall at home vs a practice or gig?   Your amp, your tubes, your tube bias………  Even the pick you use makes a difference.  This is an area where naming all the stuff that matters can’t really be tackled in one blog.  But it is stuff we mostly all agree we can hear, and that it matters.  We want our base tone to be as good as it can be.  If we can hear it, then it was worth it.

So why is it that the web is full of players who argue that you can’t hear the difference in cables?  They say the cable from the guitar to the amp can’t make any difference, and any difference heard is because you just paid a lot for a cable.  It’s all snake oil and pseudo-science, right? Nope, I’m here to say that it matters much more than you think.

A year ago I was at UFG (Upfront Guitars) world headquarters to try some stuff.  I had a nice Gibson R4, my groovy little true PTP wired boutique amp armed with nice old tubes and we’re rockin’ out.  We were trying different cables.  I was playing a solid core cable versus my OK mid-priced name brand stranded cable.  Yes there was a difference.  More clarity, more shimmer (here we go, trying to find words to describe tone) from the solid than from stranded, and less distortion.  Then I tried a coil cable.  I have a tendency to make any straight cable turn itself into a knotted mess in minutes.  I had hopes that the coil cable sounded good.  If it did I was getting it.  It was as clear as day that the coil cable was the worst cable we tried.  Worse than a straight stranded cable.  Worse than my daily cable. No doubt, no question, it was dull, dark, and fuzzy.  No point in debating it, and not close to the solid cable

A real eye (ear) opener was when I did a blind test.  This was not planned but it worked out that way.  I had been playing just guitar with solid core cable into the amp.  Played some chords, riffs, all the stuff you play when you are trying gear out.  Then I added a couple of pedals into my signal chain.  These are good pedals with true bypass, they were all off and I used stranded cable between them and to the amp.  I started playing again.  The other guy in the room whose back had been to me all this time said right away “wow, what did you change?”  All I’d done was add some stranded cable to my signal chain.  The clarity was different, a little more muffled, a little less “shimmer” Also I found that what I had thought was attack-driven dirt when I played harder was actually distortion from the stranded cable and not from me hitting the amp harder. Swapping in solid core cables cleaned up the signal and the distortion was gone. I now have solid cable in my board and the whole signal chain, but I’ll agree that good stranded cable is very close to solid cable.  I’m just looking for a clean signal.  I can wreak havoc later with a pedal, right?

Yes Hendrix liked the sound of a 50’ coiled chord from Radio Shack.  There is also a guy on Youtube with fantastic demos of his ’59 LP and Trainwreck amp.   He likes the sound of a very long (100’?) cable in his signal chain.  He likes what it does for his tone.  His tone BTW is freakin’ awesome.  You may also like either of the above.  You gonna tell Jimi his sound was crap, to get another cable?  He knew what he was doing.  A cable is a tone control.  Don’t ignore it.

I guess I feel like I owe it to myself to get things right. I just want the cleanest purest signal from my guitar to the amp or pedal.  I know that once the band starts up, once the drummer shows up late and starts his noise in the room with the low ceiling and the wall of mirrors across the dance floor you may feel all is lost.  But you gotta have a good thing going in right?   If you can hear it, it will have an impact on your playing. And you can hear it.

 – Neil Swanson