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

April 22nd, 2018

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

Little Walter "59" Head

Little Walter “59” Head

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

 

 

Printed Circuit Board (PCB)

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

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

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

Eyelet and Turret Board Construction

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

Eyelet board amplifier

Eyelet board amplifier

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

 

 

Point-to-Point Amplifiers (PTP)

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

BC Audio Point-to-Point amp

BC Audio Point-to-Point amp

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

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

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

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

Discovering Octal Preamp Tubes for Guitars Amps

March 12th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Amps and Pedals: When Gain is not Volume

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

Keeley D&M Drive with boost Boost and Drive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cool Amp Find Vol. 3 – Down Brownie Amplifier

March 31st, 2017
down brownie

Down Brownie 6G3 from Cutthroat Audio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

February 2nd, 2017

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

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

CVR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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.

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.