Vacuum Tubes – Favorite Power Tubes for Guitar Amps

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:

Pedal Amps – What’s a Pedal Amp?

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:

The Guitar Pedal Boom – Too much of a good thing?

As anyone who is even a casual player has noticed, the last few years have been truly explosive for the guitar effects market. The rise of stomp box mania has defied current economics trends — sales even grew during the recession —  and is now over a $60 million segment of the MI industry. The number of brands and selection is dizzying, and just browsing one particular online guitar website revealed that they carried over 120 brands!

Why are pedals so popular?

Well for starters, as far as guitar gear goes, pedals are cheap thrills. With the vast majority of pedals being priced under $150, it’s not a big investment to try out a pedal, and if it’s not the cat’s pajamas you can sell it to a friend, put it on the shelf, or stick it on eBay. To some degree it’s pretty hard to wear out a pedal, so a used one on eBay is typically a smart choice. I have a theory that pedals are like the proverbial Christmas Fruitcake; there is actually only one, and everybody just keeps passing the same one around.

For a budding manufacturing or mad scientist, going into the pedal business has a fairly low barrier to entry. Practically everyone uses the same die cast box — now that guy is making a killing — silk screening and painting is pretty low tech (some people even skip the paint) and the actual cost of the components are pretty low too. If you don’t mind hand soldering, there is no need for fancy assembly or wave soldering equipment. It’s also pretty easy to find schematics online, or just back engineer your favorite stomp box. Now there are obviously many serious companies out there doing lot’s of research and making significant investments in R&D and manufacturing. But for somebody who just wants to get into the business, it’s a lot easier than making guitars, amps, or speakers.

One other factor — at least to me anyway — is that if you are looking for great sounding distortion or gain, which is by far the most popular effect type, a pedal is quite often better sounding than most “gain” channels on two or three channel amps. There are many players out there with multichannel amplifiers that tend to play only the clean channel, and rely on pedals for distortion and modulation effects. Why is this so?

Well if you look back to the early amplifiers and the onset of distortion, the distortion was caused by the power tubes clipping, which turned out to sound really good; warm, sweet and very musical. A low powered amplifier with limited headroom such as a Fender Tweed would distort at a reasonable volume level. It sounded great, and everyone saved their hearing. But bands were playing ever larger venues and needed larger amplifiers, with more wattage, and more headroom. Now the amps were louder, which was good, but that warm power tube clipping was gone. Try and get a Fender Twin to distort, I dare you. Players needed volume and distortion that they could control.

But some clever engineers came of with the master volume control. This allowed the player to essentially overdrive a section of the amplifier, but control the overall volume level with the master volume. Presto! distortion at listenable levels. But the characteristic of the distortion was different. It was not warm and creamy but more harsh and fizzy. This is the because the distortion is produced by clipping the preamp tubes, and this distorted sound is then fed into the power tube section for amplification. It’s a sound, but not the sound of an amp being played at the limits of its clean headroom.

Early master volume amplifiers were often harsh and raspy, with an edgy tone that was anything but musical. Fender’s foray with master volume controls in their 70’s Silverface amps were vile, sounding somewhat like a Kazoo Orchestra playing Smoke On The Water. Obviously amplifier designers have gotten much better in producing musical overdriven sounds, typically still by using preamp distortion. The famous Mesa high gain sound is essentially multiple preamp tubes each over-driving the other to produce a thick chunky distortion tone. This is sometimes called cascading gain, and it can sound really good. If you’re a fan of metal, it’s where it’s at.

But this type of distortion is actually fairly easy to emulate using solid state components. It’s not so easy to make a pedal that really sounds like a small amp working hard on a Saturday night, but fuzz and higher gain distortion sounds can be quite convincingly created in a small metal box. It looks a hell of a lot more impressive to have a half stack, but a 1×12 or 2×12 combo with good headroom and a couple pedals can sound pretty mean.

My apologies for a highly compressed and somewhat biased view of amplifier history, but many players have found that an amplifier with a good sounding clean channel is the perfect “canvas” to paint on with the pedal of your choice. Often a well-crafted little box will sound better than an amplifier using preamp distortion to achieve high gain sounds. That’s my experience anyway, and my choice in selecting an amplifier is totally focused on finding the best natural tone possible, and using pedals to color the sound in a way that suits my musical leanings. I also happen to like a little “natural” tube grit to my tone, so I tend to play fairly low powered amplifiers, but even so I’m never going to turn my amp up to “10” for a solo. I’ll use a pedal. As far as I can tell, the only people who turn their amps up to “10” are on YouTube, and live in very small bedrooms.

So pedals are inexpensive, they are plentiful both new and used, and the low investment required to get in pedal business means that lots of people are making them. So it’s all good, right? Sure, there is nothing essentially wrong with having too much of a good thing, and over time the number of pedal makers will reach some sort of natural Darwinian limit: The really good builders with grow and thrive, and the hacks and pure copycats will fade away. I’m of the opinion that pedals are somewhat like pizza: None of it is truly bad, and everyone finds their favorite. There are however many bad amplifiers, and spending $300 on some boutique distortion pedal with rare germanium diodes will not hide the fact that your amp sounds like crap. Start with the amplifier and speakers first. Get your core sound down to where you really love what you hear with nothing more than a guitar, a good cable, and your amp. Then go forth and experiment with the little die cast boxes of your choice.




The Fender Bassman Amplifier – The amp for almost everything?

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

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

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?

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

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.

A profound observation on guitar amplifiers

I am a big fan of the a monthly newsletter called The ToneQuest Report. It’s a real treat for guitar geeks and it has great interviews, interesting reviews, and is sometimes just plain silly. But it’s informative, written well, and does not suck up to the flavor-of-the-month for guitar gear or trends.

The latest issue has a great interview with Mike Zaite (Dr. Z) of Dr. Z amplifiers. His last interview with ToneQuest was over I decade ago (I have it) and so I was pumped when the new issue arrived today with a big “Z” on the cover. In this interview Dr. Z makes a very profound statement about amplifiers that I will quote if full:

“You have to remember too that there is no pedal in the world that is going to give you a clean tone. You gotta have that from base and then you can layer on top of that. If you don’t have a good, rich harmonic clean tone, there is no pedal in the world that is going to give you that.”

Huzzah! Dr. Z nailed it, and I could not agree more. I have been advising customers and friends for a while to find the best clean tone they possibly can, and then experiment with a couple pedals to spice it up. No pedal is going to turn a ho-hum amp into a killer rig. The foundation has to be there for the structure to exist. You can’t build a house on sand, and putting a raft of boutique pedals in front of a runt is a waste of money. Put your hard earned dollars into an amplifier that makes you mumble, “damn this thing sounds good” every time you power up. You will have spent your money wisely, and saved your self a lot of aggravation and gear churning down the road.



New Amps versus Vintage Amps

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.