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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The biggest departure from the 6G3 is that the “normal” circuit has been replaced by a “British” circuit.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.


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.

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.