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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.

 

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.

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

Guitar Pedals – What’s with all the Stomp Boxes?

February 10th, 2013

On a recent business trip, I took along a recent edition of Guitar Player to read on the plane. In that issue they had a special section where they reviewed sixty guitar pedals. Sixty. Six Zero. Even at that, there were several well known brands that were not even represented! Every day it seems that there is a new boutique pedal maker out there with a new take on and old classic, and occasionally something really different. What is going on?

In the interest of full disclosure, UpFront Guitars does not sell many pedals. Honestly, I have found that it’s a bad fit for my business model, and I don’t do well with them. To be taken seriously, you need to carry lots of brands, and there is a lot of competition from the eBay used pedal market where players are frequently dumping their latest experiments in sonic bliss. Also, many of the boutique builders sell direct, so there you are carrying somebody’s pedal and they are selling against you. In that case why have dealers? But this is not about sour grapes, it’s about why there are so many darned pedals out there. I have a few theories:

Low barrier to entry – As I have said in previous writings, it’s not hard to get in the pedal business: Buy a die-cast box, a soldering iron, benchmark a few classic designs, and you’re in business. OK, not that easy, but a lot easier than making a guitar and much better certainty of sales. Pickups have become this way too. The raw materials are very easy to obtain, and boutique winders have sprung up all over the place. Most of these “noveau” builders are not breaking any new ground, so it’s hard to say what they are doing other than saturating the market. This is not to denigrate the folks that are really turning out new imaginative product, but it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a ton of me-too stuff out there.

The 2009 Recession – The recession in 2009 was bad for a lot of things, including musical instrument sales. The only category that grew during that time was effects. People still wanted to buy some type of new toy, but had to watch their wallet. Stomp boxes fit the bill even when guitar and amp sales were tanking.

Modeling Amps – Is it just me, or does it seem as though the craze over modeling amps has blown over? Aside from really sophisticated stuff like the Fractal, Eleven Rack, and Kemper, many amps have sort of gone “basic” again. Possbily buyers have decided it’s more flexible to have a couple pedals than it is to buy a box of so-so “amps” in the form of a sterile sounding combo amp. To me, the affordable modeling stuff has typically sounded blah to occasionally awful, and most players settle in on one or two sounds anyway.

Active secondary market – This is also known as “used pedals”. Don’t like what you just bought? You can probably get 60% of your money back in ten days on eBay. Most players don’t keep pedals long enough to wear them out, and the Next Greatest Thing is often for sale used a few weeks after they hit the streets. It’s not nearly so easy to sell your amp if you don’t like it, and shipping it can be daunting.

Cheaper than Amplifiers – The amp market is pretty terrible these days, especially at the upper end where even some of the well-known names are struggling to move product. There are also lots of “used” amplifiers for sale dirt cheap as dealers try to unload inventory while trying to respect MAP pricing (which further depresses new amp sales). Plus look at the well known amp builders that are now making pedals: Mesa, Bogner and Rivera to name a few. All three of these companies make expensive amplifiers, and the market for high end stuff is limited (and an imported “value” line can hurt your image). If you cannot sell someone an amplifier, sell them the essence of your amplifier in a box. While fundamentally I maintain that a great amp is worth your hard earned money, it’s tempting to do a pedal-makeover to breathe some new life into your old rig. I’m not sure that a pedal will make a bad amp good, but the economics are tempting. I have carried some of the Rivera pedals, and while they are good they violate an important rule: Price. Keep it under $179 and it’s almost an impulse buy. Price it at $250 or higher and buyers look elsewhere.

The theory of “What the heck” – What other product promises the ability to transform your sound at such a low price? Plus installation could not be easier: Just plug it in. It’s not like a pickup, which requires some dis-assembly, soldering, and the risk that it won’t sound good (some makers like Seymour Duncan now offer solder-less pickups to lower the skill barrier). Pedals are like a new diet shake or a magic wrinkle cream that promise so much for so little effort. It’s actually marketing genius; and has certainly been a boon for magazine advertising, stores and e-tailers.

But do stomp boxes really transform our playing enjoyment, or just give us a shiny new object to chase instead of playing our guitars? The music industry benefits from this constant “pedal churn” but does the player? To me, pedals are like pizza: Most of them are pretty good, and rarely are they awful. Yes, there are some “bad” pedals out there, but I don’t think it takes a lifetime to find a few pretty good ones to form your core sound. My board has been pretty solid the past three years, and is mostly gain pedals, one modulation pedal, and a reverb. Some were carefully chosen and some were just cheap, like a BBE Minder Bender because I needed chorus for a couple songs and did not want to spend a lot. So what’s on there now is:

  • Peterson Strobe Tuner
  • Lovepedal Kalamazoo
  • JHS Charlie Brown
  • Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive (ten years and running)
  • BBE Mind Bender
  • Lee Jackson Mr. Springy Reverb

That’s it, and I used my own “brand” of Evidence Monorail patch cables. Plus I don’t have any more room on the PedalTrain. I have been messing around with a Voodoo Lab Giggity, which is not even an effect so much as it is a parametric EQ of sorts. But I like it, and if it stays, something may have to go.

I do like other pedals: A have a Fulldrive that I used to play a lot, and I like a lot of the Wampler stuff, but it’s not as if they get me to some new musical place. If I don’t like the way I sound, it’s probably me and not the pedal. If your new pedal makes you want to play more, that’s great. If it just makes you want to re-arrange your board instead of playing, that’s not great. For a person who sells gear, this is dangerous advice. But I guess there is no quick route to being a great musician, and pedals are not the musical equivalent of Rogain. Playing, playing with other people, and optionally playing live are what really makes us better. Everybody has heard a great guitar player in a guitar store making a $150 guitar sound good. There’s a reason for that: Practice, and the gift of talent. We can’t all be gifted, but we can all practice.

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.

 

 

 

In Defense of Good Guitar Amplifiers

April 13th, 2012

This is somewhat a continuation of an earlier blog regarding the benefits of a good guitar amplifier, owning more than one amplifier and also the general state of amplifier sales.

Over the past decade we’ve witnessed a couple significant trends in amplifiers. One of those trends was the rise of the boutique amplifier business. This trend may have peaked at the during the recession of 2009, but there has been an explosion of small builders making everything from faithful vintage reproductions, to interesting and creative new designs. The boutique boom may have also reinforced the realization that 15-30 watts is typically more than enough for most jamming or club situations.

The rise of digital modeling amplifiers was not originally a topic that I was going to address, but it at least deserves honorable mention. Early pioneers like Johnson and Line 6 drove the concept that a player could in theory have many historic amplifiers in one cabinet. This has become a permanent fixture in the amplifier world, culminating in high end audio products like the Eleven Rack and the Fractal Axe-FX. Some of these products have frighteningly good emulations, although typically the more “processed” the sound you are emulating the better they perform. Getting a Fractal to sound like The Edge is more satisfying than getting it to really sound like a Deluxe Reverb.

The other significant trend over the past 5-7 years is the rise of really inexpensive tube amplifiers. In my opinion, once the boutique industry proved that simple low-powered amps were a great way to get wonderful tone at reasonable volumes, manufacturers with access to low cost sourcing took that concept to overseas with the idea of offering much lower cost with the same features. If you think about it, a 15 watt amp with three tubes and four knobs is not technically hard to make, and in China it’s also incredibly cheap to make. So now instead of paying $1500 for a hand-wired Tweed Deluxe clone, a player can go to their local big box and get a 10 watt all-tube Chinese screamer for $299.

So the trend these days is that players are buying fewer amplifiers, and they are also buying cheaper amplifiers. In 2008 the average price paid for an amplifier was about $340, and there were 1.1 Million sold. In 2011 amplifier sales were 900,000, and the average cost had dropped to $255, 25% drop in average price (in contrast the average guitar price over this period dropped only 9.8%). This is a significant trend over a short period of time, and higher end amplifier builders must be feeling it. While the drop in average price may be partly due to post-recession caution and less disposable income, I think there is also a perception that, “Hey, it’s got tubes and it’s a grand less, why spend more?”

Why indeed. Guitar players incessantly focus on their axe, but often treat the amplifier as an appliance that will instantly transform the wonderfulness of their guitar into beautiful music. It’s almost as if you could plug into your washing machine and essentially get the same tone. Truth be told, the amplifier is at least 50% of “your sound,” maybe more. Heck, the just the speaker in the amp is a major determining factor in how you sound.  Amplifiers are inherently complex and every component — transformers, capacitors, type of tubes, layout, speakers, component values — has a contribution to the overall quality of your tone. Every manufacturer has a cost target they need to meet, but there is no way that the $299 amplifier manufacturer pays the same attention to detail regarding component selection than the guy making the $1000 amplifier does. When a manufacturer chooses to save $1.50 by installing an inferior speaker or transformer, they risk making an otherwise reasonably good product into something flat and uninspiring.

With amplifiers it’s not just the labor that costs money, it’s the hardware. A worker in China can solder just as well as a worker in the USA. They can probably fabricate a cabinet and apply tolex just as well too. It’s not as important that you can solder, it’s what are you soldering. Is it a transformer made by people who really know what makes a quality product optimized for guitar, or is it a transformer that went out for bid and was chosen because it was $.15 cheaper?

Historically, China’s edge has of course been labor. And while the landscape in China is changing, in general labor has been cheap, and the majority of their costs are in the materials. When it comes to manufacturing, they are much less sensitive to labor cost as they are to material cost (in many ways the complete opposite to the US). When a Chinese manufacturer needs to reduce cost, there is much more leverage in reducing material cost than labor cost (this is changing too: See Indonesia). The plain truth is that China is a very good place to assemble product. The risk in China is not the ability to assemble quality products, but the quality and reliability of the material supply chain. With material cost being king, there is intense pressure to squeeze every cent out of material cost, often to the detriment of product quality.

The point is that component quality and selection is critically important to the sound qualities of a guitar amplifier, and  the costs of these materials are essentially the same regardless of where the product is manufactured.  The $299 guitar amplifier is not using the same components as the $1000 amplifier, period. The parts really matter, and at this time, most of  the top quality amplifier components are not being made in Asia. Can you assemble a “kit” of top quality components and ship it to China for assembly? Sure, and you will pay to ship the components to China, and then you will pay to ship the amplifier on a boat back to the US. It will still cost less, but probably not a lot less, and that amp will have a pretty large carbon footprint.

Ultimately, good amplifiers cost money, and good amplifiers matter just as much as your guitar. I’m not suggesting that in order to be happy and have good tone you must spend at least $1500 on an amplifier. But to some degree cost and quality of sound are inextricably linked. Take the Vox AC 30 for example: They are made in China and run anywhere from $999 to $1500. Vox/Korg is taking advantage of lower cost labor, but they are also not skimping on components, including shipping British-made speakers to China. These amps are made in China, they are not junk, but they are also not inexpensive.

A quick story: We were recently displaying at a guitar show that had a lot of custom builders in attendance. So this was not an amp show, it was a guitar show. But some of these builders were displaying guitars that cost thousands of dollars, but all they brought to demo product were $150 10 watt modeling amps. Result: They sounded like garbage. What were they thinking? On the other hand, we brought a couple Rivera heads, a Rivera 1×12 cab (and to be to “PC” a Rivera RockCrusher Attenuator). When somebody tried any of our guitars, people stopped and listened. The guitars sounded good because the amps were good.

Playing through a really good amplifier that melds with your tone and style is a transformative and immensely satisfying experience. Choosing an amp needs to be taken seriously, and placed on the same level as choosing your guitar. You may even find that one  amplifier — just like one guitar — does not adequately address the range of tones that you are looking for. However, once you find an amplifier that speaks to you, you may find that the constant urge to experiment with pedals, pickups and guitars suddenly becomes much less urgent.

The case for owning multiple guitar amplifiers

March 7th, 2012

You have many guitars, why is just one amp enough?

The whole idea for this topic came from a conversion Gordon (UpFront Guitars owner) and I had about the Weber vs Celestion speaker as mentioned in a previous blog entry.  Gordon is in a position to play many different guitars and many different amps.  Me not so many choices.  I tend to play a smallish Class A amp and bypass the tone stack.  Speakers are my tone control so I’ve tried a bunch.  I love P90 Les Pauls, Gold top or JR’s.  My speaker tastes differ from Gordon’s because of the guitars I lean towards.  We do agree on the G12H30 and Weber 12F150B however.

As for amps, I really like the sound of the KT66 tube.  I came across a very old 6L6G that kicks that KT66’s butt and sounds more KT66 than the KT66 sounds.  Now I have an advantage in that my amp (an Emory) takes almost any tube you can imagine.  It is kind of like having several amps. So here we go, why NOT have several amps?

Why not have several amps? Well think about it.  You can gig with a 15-25 watt amp today no problem.  And really why wouldn’t you?  They are smaller and easy to carry.  These days most clubs own a good PA and want to mic your gear anyway, or the band brings their own sound, choosing between many of the great lightweight powered speaker systems from JBL, RCF, QSC, etc.  Besides, it’s getter to get the  volume to the front with the PA and not with searing stage volume.  Many years ago I did sound at a club.  Looking back on the gear that arrived onstage, well I’d hate to see that now.  No, I didn’t like having a guy with a Fender Twin in control of his volume.  I had no mics on amps, I had no control.  A good sound guy with control of the house sound is your friend.  The guy with the guitar and his finger on that chicken head volume knob is not.

There are plenty of amps in that 15-25 watt range that in fact cost less than the next guitar you lust after.  I’m talking a nice small tube-filled combo in the flavor or your choice.  Or maybe a small head so you can mix and match those multiple 1×12 cabs with different flavor speakers with different flavor heads.   No pedal can really emulate a Tweed circuit on that edge of breakup.  I’ve tried.  A pedal to make an amp that doesn’t sound like a Black Face sound like a Black Face?  Well maybe.  At least as long as it is run clean because a Black Face break up is a sound all it’s own.  Marshall in a box?  There are those that claim that possibility. And remember, no pedal will ever get you a great clean tone.

Let’s say you have a tone in your head, a favorite player that you want to sound like.  Some of mine are……..A Gibson 335 into a Tweed Deluxe will do wonders toward sounding like Larry Carlton on “Don’t take me Alive”.  A loud clean Strat with great reverb and echo á la David Gilmour.  A Les Paul JR into a wall of Sunn PA amps: Leslie West.  Strat into small Tweed just like Clapton on Layla.   The list goes on.  The point is you need more than the guitar, you need the amp or AN amp that is more like your “head tone”.  No, I’m not denying the fact that tone is in the hands.  But a Guild Starfire into a Line 6 just isn’t going get you into  Zakk Wylde land.  You need some gear help here.

We saw some of this first hand when Upfront Guitars did the All American Guitar show in Valley Forge, PA in 2011.  Let’s for the sake of simplicity use two Valvetrain amps as examples.  The Valvetrain Trenton for the warm smooth Tweed sound and the Bennington for the more cutting bell like clear Black Face tone.  Both amps were on display for sampling.  Both amps fall into the “American” camp in regards to the way they are voiced.  We had 15? guitars on display from G&L, Godin and that nasty little Tele from Angry Angus.

Shoppers would cruise our wares and ask to play axe “X”.  “Sure, great which amp” we’d ask.  They’d point to the Bennington combo.  So off they go playin’ their licks. All is sounding well, but then they ask if they try “that one”, pointing to the Trenton.  BTW, both amps have two 6V6 power tubes, Trenton is s tube rectifier, Bennington SS rectifier.  Both have the same size cabs and the same Eminence Wizard speakers.  The difference being one a Tweed voice the other a Black Face voice.

Plugged into the Trenton things change.  This amp is more their sound, their feel.  It works better for their licks.  It makes them play stuff that the amp’s tones conjure.  I kid you not if you are a SRV fan or like that whole Texas tone thing you’d dig a Bennington and you’d play that kind of lick.  And I can’t tell you how many times people grabbed that Angus Tele, plugged into the warmer tweedish Trenton, and after strumming a few chords they just HAD to play the three instantly recognizable and unmistakable opening chords to Hendrix’s “Wind Cries Mary”.  The guitar and amp combo just hit that nerve.  A guitar with Humbuckers into the larger Rivera heads would have attracted a whole other player.  The gear leads the ear.

One really great young player came by and after trying I think three guitars into two amps started playin’ this mad funk stuff.  People stopped and listened.  Even the “DB “ Police (check noise levels) put down their meters and listened.  His playing and the right guitar and amp combo (Angry Angus “Testy” and Valvetrain Trenton) were just so right.  He soon stopped funking around, paused kind of looking off into space and launched into playing Hendrixs’  ”Wind Cried Mary” chords and riffs before veering off to “Power of Soul” from Hendrix’s Band of Gypsy’s”.  Now he could have been playing those licks on anything and he would have been good.  But he nailed the tone with the right guitar and amp.  Others bonded with the Bennington and left thinking hard about another amp, not another guitar.  The Bennington was their sound almost more than the guitar they brought or we supplied.  They thought they needed another guitar.  Now they want another amp.

Fender Reissue Bassman has found a good home

We saw the same thing occur: The same right melding of player, licks, guitar, amp and pedal over the two days of the show.  I know the stuff I like to play.  I know what tone is in my head.  If it means you pass on another guitar to go with another amp to get there why not?  Maybe it’s time to look towards alternate amps?  Hey, I just got another Tweed  style amp (A reissue Bassman, which means I had to get one too – Gordon). Did more for my tone than another P90 Les Paul ever would.  Just saying………

 

Guitar Amps: Tube or Solid State Rectifier?

January 26th, 2012

When shopping for a high quality tube guitar amplifier, one of the potential decision points along the way is whether to purchase an amplifier with a tube or solid state rectifier. What does all this mean, and does it matter?

Vacuum tubes are powered by high voltage DC (250 – 500 volts) while the power coming out of the wall in your house is 120 volts AC. To convert AC voltage to DC voltage the AC alternating current is rectified into DC current. Back in the early days of tube amplifiers the only way to rectify voltage was to use a special type of vacuum tube called a rectifier tube. By the early 60’s electronics had advanced to the point that solid state silicon diodes had become an affordable alternative to tube rectifiers. A diode allows current to flow only one direction, and a simple “bridge” of four diodes is a cheap and reliable way to rectify AC into DC.

From a pure cost standpoint, silicon diodes are very attractive to the manufacturer. They are cheap (pennies really) and they rarely fail. They also produce a very “tight” output, and a  power supply with a solid state rectifier is very stable and consistent. And it does not generate any heat to speak of.

In comparison, a tube rectifier requires the tube (dollars not pennies), tube socket, additional wiring, and a more complex power transformer with a special tap (output) to power the tube rectifier. There is also more variation in tube performance than diode performance, and in general a tube rectified power supply is “looser” and it’s actual output will vary more in relation to demand.

The “Sound” of Solid State versus Tube

Besides being a cost advantage, solid state rectifiers provide a “stiffer” power supply to the power tubes which results in more headroom with less distortion. The famous Fender Twin Reverb Amp has always used diodes to provide loud clean sound. An 80 watt amp would overwhelm  the power handling capacity of a single tube rectifier, and diodes were pretty much the only way to go. Certain Fender Bassman designs used two tube rectifiers in parallel to share the load and provide better headroom and cleaner sound. If this sounds somewhat like a Mesa Boogie “Dual Rectifier” you are absolutely right. For a 100w or 150w head, two or three rectifiers in parallel are the only way to provide tight punchy sound without going solid state. So in general solid state rectifiers are associated with cleaner, tight, punchy sound with good headroom. And they help keep costs down.

Tube rectifiers has certain characteristics that are deeply ingrained into the Mojo of tube amps. When faced with a strong power demand (striking a big chord or picking very hard) the voltage output of the tube will actually “sag” or drop in voltage. This results in a softer note attack and maybe a little clipping or “hair” around the notes. As the note decays, the voltage comes back up and “pushes” the note giving the effect of a slight volume swell and more sustain. When players refer to an amp as “touch sensitive” it is this effect of the rectifier tube sagging and swelling with the notes, and responding directly to the player’s style. Low wattage amplifiers with tube rectifiers have a nice spongy feel, warm sound and soft clipping that many players love. With all the boutique builders furiously cloning Champs and Deluxe’s it’s clear that this type of tone has some hard core followers.

Is Tube the only “true” path to Sonic Bliss?

If you need a lot of volume, clean headroom, or really like a tight low end to your sound, an amp with a tube rectifier may not be your cup of tea. Folks who like metal or hard rock need not apply, although Boogie has made a real name for themselves with the Dual Rectifier. Of course having two rectifiers sort of defeats the purpose, but it’s great marketing. Even if you really like that softer  attack and early clipping, you don’t have to have the extra expense and maintenance of a tube rectifier: Just play a smaller amp! If you are playing a 50 watt amp for jamming or in clubs, chances are it’s too big. Even 30 watts may be too much. Big amps were designed prior to pro audio and commercial sound systems. The big 100 watt amps of today are matters of testosterone and showmanship. Nobody needs that back line of amps — OK maybe Yngwie Malmsteen does —  it just looks awesome.

I really like the spongy feel of a fairly low powered tube amplifier. A nice 20 watt amp with a 5AR4 rectifier playing through a 12 or a couple 10’s has great feel and character. And it will handle most club gigs with no problems at all. It may lack a little punch, but this type of setup gives the player great control over the texture of the notes. However, after saying all that, my #1 go-to amp has a solid state rectifier. But it’s still only 20 watts (on half power) and the overall sound quality and touch sensitivity is still there because it’s sized right for the task. There is so much to amplifier design, transformer design, and component selection that picking an amplifier on strictly one aspect — it “must” be Class A for example — just does not make a lot of sense.

Early amplifier builders used tube rectifiers because they had too. If affordable silicon diodes existed in 1950, they would have used them instead, and we would have never known the difference. But tube rectifiers have that tribal folklore attached to them, and for some there can be no other way. They can add a lot of character to the sound of an amp, but like many other “must have’s” a tube rectifier is not instant guarantee of goodness. In the end, buying on sound quality and choosing an amplifier that is sized appropriately for your needs is the best strategy.

 

Our new favorite speaker – Weber 12F150B

January 3rd, 2012

Around here we tend to play around a lot with various speakers, always trying to find “the one” that does it all. Although I’m a hardcore single coil player and gravitate towards Fender inspired designs, my personal preference for speakers has been tilted to the British side. My current favorite up to now has been the Celestion G12H30, and the Eminence Wizard. The G12 has a nice combination of warmth and detail, good bass response, and sounds good loud or with pedals. The Wizard is extremely balanced and generally sounds good with anything, but has a little less sonic character than the G12. The Vintage 30’s are very popular, but they have somewhat of a honky midrange bump that I find fatiguing.

My brother — who plays with speakers more than I do — recently said, “You’ve got to try the Weber 12F150B. It’s supposed to be a real blackface sound with a British flavor.” I had to think about this, as my first experience with Weber’s several years ago in a ’67 Pro Reverb were not positive. The Pro came with two Weber ANILCO speakers that to me sounded flat, thin and unremarkable. I think they were in the 12A125 series, but they just didn’t do anything for me. I sold them both on eBay and remember one of the buyers writing me back to say, “Are they supposed to sound this way?” In retrospect, the amp also had some problems, but I came away thinking that I was maybe not a Jensen person.

I also found after several encounters with other ANILCO speakers including a Tone Tubby, Red Fang, etc, that I was really not in love with ANILCO speakers. Of course, your supposed to like these speakers; after all they have cool magnets, cute names, mojo, etc. But I kept liking ceramic speakers. To me they seemed to have more presence, and responded better to my style of playing. Ditto for Jensen-inspired speakers too: While I like Fender style amps, I generally liked them better with the roundness and fullness of a British style speaker.

Enter the Weber 12F150B. This is a ceramic 50 watt speaker (also available in 25 watt). I ordered mine with no “dope” around the speaker surround which should theoretically make it more responsive and break in sooner. It also has a British ribbed Cone. I popped it in my favorite cabinet (Pine 1×12 from South Valley Vintage Amps) and played it over the next several days. Wow, I was in love. I kept doing A/B tests with my G12 in an identical cabinet. While the G12 is supposed to be a warm speaker, it was actually brighter, but flatter, less dimensional, and stiffer sounding. The G12 has good note definition and detail, but now it sounded sterile. In contrast, the Weber 12F150B had that Jensen upper end clarity, but coupled with softer “edges” around the notes and great touch sensitivity. While on the same settings it has less bass than the G12, sonically it is balanced and extremely dimensional. Pushed with a pedal (Sparkle Drive, JHS Charlie Brown, Love Pedal) it was smooth, sparkly, and again wonderfully touch sensitive. Although the Weber was understandably a bit stiff on day #1, it broke in quickly and continues to improve and impress.

This is a speaker that can straddle the British/American tonal spectrum really well and would make an awesome replacement speaker for any Blackface style amplifier. Powering it with a Dr. Z Remedy, Rivera Venus, or ValveTrain, it just blew away anything else in the room. Best of all they are reasonably priced at around $110 and made in the USA. If you are a tweaker, this is money well spent. If it turns out not to be your cup of tea, you’ll make someone on eBay very happy.

New Amps versus Vintage Amps

December 12th, 2011

I love old amplifiers, especially old Fenders. I love they way the look, the history behind them, how they are built, and even all the quirky minutia on how to accurately determine the amp’s age. Occasionally I even like the way they sound.

I’m on my third iteration of trying to find the perfect Fender Pro Reverb. Everything about it says I should like it: Cosmetics, type of rectifier tube, unmodified chassis, all matching transformer date codes, and so on. The problem is that it’s not my favorite sounding amp (not to say it’s bad) and while the hipness factor is solid, there are certain concerns about taking a 45 year-old amp to a gig. Not just the opportunity for damage, but the potential that is just might fry something in a  big way in the middle of a gig. Back-up amplifiers are great, but not if you’ve only got a minivan to carry your own gear and the PA.

I’ve come to the conclusion that unless you in the mode of collecting — or you can afford the risks of gigging with rare gear — then the concept of owning vintage amplification is less than practical for the active musician. In today’s world of hand-wired amplifiers — and some printed circuit board models —  all the classic schematics have been faithfully reproduced, some builders have improved upon them, and there are many new great sounding new designs. Vintage-construction transformers are readily available, as are good quality resistors, all manner of capacitor types, and more than enough good sounding speakers to shake a guitar neck at. In addition, most  components being made today are of tighter tolerance, more reliable, and free of really bad stuff like carcinogenic chemicals. One can make the argument that there is nothing like NOS tubes — and I have some nice ones — but some day NOS will mean 90’s Soviet tubes, so then what? My advice is to find the brand you like best, and maybe stock up on NOS rectifiers, because if anything else they seem to last longer.

So aside from hazardous chemicals and ungrounded plugs of yore, today’s boutique amplifier builder is not significantly restricted in any way from making a great product. Plus today’s new amplifiers are electrically safer and more reliable than what was state-of-the-art fifty years ago.

This is not about shamelessly promoting selling new gear: After several years of chasing the mystery of vintage amplifiers, I’ve decided I really like the new stuff better. To me, the sound quality from many of today’s small builders is outstanding. I also really like the convenience of heads and cabinets, which were generally not available in the vintage years. So for the same price or less than many of today’s vintage amplifiers, it’s possible to purchase a new unmolested amplifier that will sound great, and provide many years of generally care-free service. Some day it might even be “vintage” and you can sell it to someone for more than you bought it!

It’s also a myth that quality was always better in the good old days. Vintage gear is fraught with variation (especially electrical components) which is why there is some great vintage gear out there, but also some absolute dogs, and a lot of replacement transformers.  Thanks to the Japanese taking us to task in the 70’s and 80’s, most product today is much more consistent than it was 40-50 years ago. Sometimes old is just old.

If historic value is of primary importance, seek out vintage. If you are seeking the best possible sound quality, there are dozens of great choices available from many American manufacturers.