The G&L Bluesboy: Traditional Bluesboy or Bluesboy 90?

Belair Green G&L Bluesboy 90

The G&L ASAT Classic Bluesboy™ has been around for many years, and is very much analogous to the Fender Telecaster Custom, which comes and goes at times the Fender lineup. The concept is simple: Create an option for players that like the idea of a Tele® style guitar but find the traditional Tele neck pickup lacking in dynamics and flexibility.

It could be said that G&L already solved this problem by creating the MFD ASAT neck pickup, which pretty effectively “fixed” the Tele neck doldrums. But there’s a market for a humbucker equipped ASAT, so why not fill it?

The original ASAT Classic Bluesboy uses a Seymour Duncan Seth Lover pickup, which emulates the construction of the early PAF pickups developed by its namesake. With a fairly low output and Alnico 2 magnets, it has a smooth top end with good clarity, but the wound strings are on the warm side and lack a strong attack. It’s a “loose” sound that has a definitive old-school vibe, and it’s always seemed to me more of a Jazz tone than a Blues tone. It’s a very good pickup, but the contrast to the ASAT bridge pickup is rather stark to the point of being a challenge to find an amp EQ that works well for both (although the sound of both pickups together is rather heavenly).

The G&L Bluesboy 90

A few years back G&L developed a great P-90 pickup that they used in some of their limited edition ASAT Junior II guitars, and even some Tributes. Originally created by Gibson in 1946, the P-90 fell out of favor with the advent of the PAF humbucker. The P-90 lived on in the Les Paul Junior and other less prestigious Les Paul models, but the PAF was clearly viewed as the “better” pickup. So G&L has this really nice pickup and no standard USA production model to stick it in. Enter the Bluesboy 90 (and the Fallout too, but that’s another post).

My totally subjective theory is that P-90 pickups are not very popular because as builders responded to the commercial desire for higher output pickups, the P-90 did not respond well to higher octane techniques. High output P-90 pickups are often dull, one-dimensional, and at the bridge take on a grating nasal bark. Somebody trying a P-90 for the first time would not be favorably impressed.

Much to their credit, G&L developed a very moderate output P-90 pickup that measures in the mid-6K range, which is a “weak” reading for a P-90. While resistance is no guarantee of tone, the G&L P-90 is a clean sounding pickup, with good note definition, even midrange response, and the wound strings have a pleasantly percussive attack. It’s not the scooped glassy sound of a Legacy, but a fatter, firmer tone that is warm, clear and expressive. The pickup handles pedals well too, taking on a slightly creamy note, but not collapsing into mush. Or just turn up your amp – always a good idea – and the G&L P-90 will create it’s own natural crunchy personality.

It’s also a great tonal match with the ASAT bridge pickup. In terms of overall response, the P-90 and ASAT Bridge are more akin to each other, and if you tend to work both pickups in equal amounts, it’s more likely you’ll find a common ground amplifier EQ.

Traditional G&L Bluesboy or Bluesboy 90?

If you delve into Jazz or smooth pop, and typically don’t rely on the bridge pickup in large amounts, the traditional Bluesboy is a very nice guitar. No denying it looks cool too. There are a wide range of tones that you can get with the Duncan pickup, but be advised that what amp EQ works for the neck may not be optimal for the bridge.

If you like to tinker with your guitar, the opportunities for replacement humbucker pickups are limitless. A quick pickup swap with possibly a moderate output Alnico 4 or 5 pickup may be all that’s needed to bring sonic harmony.

My personal opinion is that out of the box (or the case) the Bluesboy 90 is a more harmonious package. For reasons previously stated, the G&L P-90 sounds good by itself, and plays nicely with the bridge. It’s a single coil, but it doesn’t sound like a Strat®, and chances are you already have one of those. There are fewer options in terms of pickups tweaks, and yes P-90 pickups can be noisy under stage lights. Thankfully, LED stage lights are on the rise. Once the drummer starts, who can tell?

It’s not difficult to find happiness with either guitar, but if you’ve never tipped your toe into the P-90 pool, the ASAT Bluesboy 90 is a very positive introduction.

Improve your Guitar Tone: Optimize your Volume and Tone Controls

I would wager that if you took an informal survey, you’d find that most guitar players play with their volume and tone controls full up 90+% of the time. More likely than not most players get their tone figured out at the amp and just leave the guitar up at the max.

We don’t we use our guitar knobs?

On many of guitars, turning down the volume control causes an unacceptable loss of high frequencies and dulls the tone of the guitar. This might be desirable in some instances, but not if you like the sound of your guitar but just want less of it. The volume control is a potentiometer – which is really a variable resistor – that is supposed to attenuate all frequencies equally. But the sensation is that more high frequencies are lost first. This is partially the nature of signals and partially that human hearing is not linear, and we hear high frequencies less at lower overall volumes. The tone control is a potentiometer with a capacitor, which is a passive electronic component that filters out specific frequencies. The tone control on most guitars is a “low pass filter” that bleeds off increasing amounts of high frequencies as the control is turned down.

How To Optimize Your Volume And Tone Controls

Step One: Turn your amp up. The gain section of a guitar amplifier is often not linear, and amplifier barely cracked open may far from developing optimal tone. We’re not necessarily talking distortion, just nice harmonically rich sound. If your amplifier volume is at 2 or 3 and your guitar is at maximum, try turning your amp up to 4 or higher and turning your guitar down. On most amps this will start to get them into the sweet spot of their range and you may notice a noticeable improvement in overall tone. You may also notice that even with the guitar turned down the tone is not so muddy. Oftentimes the controls on the guitar appear to work much better once the amp is getting some exercise. Plus now you have some room to play with volume-wise on the guitar, and a whole bunch of new sounds open up. Many amplifiers – especially early tweeds – don’t really get a lot louder past “5” on the dial, they just get dirtier and richer. If you’re amplifier is just too loud anywhere past 2 or 3 on the dial no matter what, go amp shopping. While you’re at it get a smaller one.

This is also a good time to mention that several guitar makers have moved to printed circuit board (PCB) volume and tone control assemblies. This clearly optimizes their manufacturing and assembly process, but makes modifications more difficult if not impossible. The subjective tonal quality of a PCB assembly is a hot topic, and there are many players not happy with the notion of a $3000 guitar having board-mounted pots and capacitors. In general, if your guitar has a PCB assembly and you want to tweak it, you’re going to have to take it out and start from scratch. With that said, let’s look at possible control improvements.

Install quality potentiometers – Guitar manufacturers must watch cost, and they’ll sometimes skimp on the quality of the electrical hardware, knowing that most players never look under the hood. But like anything, some stuff is better than others. Many import guitars use the “mini” pots, which due to physical construction limitations, often just don’t work as well. A high quality audio taper pot will make a difference in the ability to control volume and tone. Our Emerson Custom wiring kits use their own special version of CTS pots, and Mojo and others offer high quality replacement parts too.

Change Potentiometer Values – Traditionally, single coil type guitars use a 250K ohm potentiometer, and humbucker guitars most often use 500K. The higher impedance of a 500K pot for the tone control will retain brightness a little better, while a 250K pot will sound warmer. For a very dark guitar, you might want to even try a 1meg pot for the tone control.

Try a treble bleed – While this sounds painful, it’s a small resistor/capacitor network soldered between the input and output lug on the volume pot. The purpose of the treble bleed is to bypass the volume control with a small amount of high frequency signal regardless of where the volume knob is turned. The effect is to retain acceptable high frequency response at lower volumes. It works, and it’s a matter of taste and experimentation whether you like the effect or not. Emerson wiring kits all come with this feature (installation is optional), and you can find lots of information on this little circuit on the Internet and guitar magazine websites.

Vintage versus Modern Wiring – This is another topic that is all over the Internet. The primary difference is that modern wiring has the tone capacitor grounded to the tone pot case (shunting high frequencies directly to ground) while the vintage wiring has the tone capacitor connected between the volume and tone pots (the entire signal is being sent through the capacitor before it is attenuated). Modern wiring allows for independent control of volume and tone, while vintage wiring produces some interaction between the volume and tone controls (the tone control works differently depending on where the volume control is set). Many players feel that vintage wiring retains tone better as the guitar volume is turned down. I would agree, and find that the vintage wiring schematic gives a greater, more musical range of tonal options. If my guitar isn’t wired this way, I change it.

Change Capacitor Values – The general rule of thumb is that for tone controls “Gibson” guitars use .022 mfd (micro-farad) capacitors while “Fender” guitars use .047. Generally speaking, the greater the capacitor value, the more aggressively they roll off high frequencies. With single coil guitars being typically brighter, the .047 value makes sense (although many G&L guitars with the MFD pickups use the .022 value). One trick on neck humbucker pickups is to use a .015 value, which roll off highs even less abruptly and helps to keep the pickup from getting too muddy. If your tone control does not seem to “do anything” try a higher value.

Capacitor Construction – Here we enter the world of Voodoo. A capacitor can be made of many different materials, and for cost purposes guitar companies will often the lowest cost component, typically a ceramic disc capacitor.  These are felt to be the least “musical” sounding, and there are various varieties of “film” capacitors — usually a foil and mylar film construction – that are preferred for audio applications. The Holy Grail capacitor is thought to be a paper-in-oil capacitor, and tone freaks will spend big bucks finding old “PIO” caps from the 50’s and 60’s. The PIO capacitors are expensive because they are expensive to make, and are made in small volumes for special purposes, like high end audio circuits. As with tubes, the mainstream world dropped this style of capacitor years ago due to cost. Capacitors can affect your sound, and also how your tone control reacts. PIO capacitors do tend to have a very smooth tonal effect on the high end. But don’t think you have to spend $50 on a NOS Cornell Dubilier oil filled capacitor to get good sound. The hands down bargain cap is a 715 or 716 “Orange Drop” film capacitor, which is typically under $2.

Optimizing your guitar controls can be a fun and low cost way to improve your sound. You can buy complete drop-in kits, or if you like to solder, it’s a great DIY project. The Internet is full with information and there are countless variations of control schemes. But the most important lesson is to use your amp and guitar controls together as a team – not separate components — and explore the full range of what your rig has to offer.

Guitar Amplifiers – How Many Watts Are Enough?

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.


Checking out the Arcane Special “42” Tele Neck Pickup

A long time ago my brother Gordon had a Telecaster. It was his first really good guitar. It was blond and had a rosewood fingerboard ($270 at the Music Machine in Norwalk CT in 1977 – Gordon).   For Christmas one year I bought him a pickup to replace the stock neck pickup. I wasn’t really up on what was current then gear wise and the aftermarket pickup business was in its infancy. This was the ‘70s and even Seymour Duncan mailed a Xerox copy of something he had typed when you called and asked for a catalogue.

I bought him a Velvet Hammer Strat neck pickup. I was probably told by the shop that sold it to me that it would fit with a little work. Of course it did and I’m sure that by Christmas day afternoon were were hacking away to make it fit. While memory isn’t always spot-on, I do remember how good it sounded.

It had that glassy clear liquid Fender sound. We had no Black or Silverface amps, not even a Fender but the sound, that sound was there. The Tele sure didn’t sound like before we installed the Velvet Hammer. Years later I had a Strat and I also installed a Velvet Hammer into the neck position of that.   That sound has stuck with me.   I love a good neck pickup more than any other position on a Strat or a Tele.

The Rio Tallboy has a taller bobbin and uses longer magnets.
The Rio Tallboy has a taller bobbin and uses longer magnets.

Travel ahead 30+ years and now I have a Tele I built up from parts.   I used UpfrontGuitars to source the Emerson pots/caps, the Rio Grande Vintage Tall pickup set and a few other items.

At first figured I’d be swapping pickups after I got the guitar sorted but in fact the Rio Grande’s are very, very good and have held steady for nearly two years now.   I don’t know why I should have been surprised how good they are. They aren’t a “big name” brand and unknown to me at the time.   The bridge is nice and thick with no Cowboy twang that dominates the tone. I can make it bright but I can also make it grind.   Through my 5E3 clone I can get a great clang and clear tone with that great Tweed grizzle on top.

I also like the neck pickup very much. Not a muddy Tele tone as I’ve found on some Fender Tele’s. It has a good true Fender tone.   But I had to change it.   Why?   Because Gordon told me about this Arcane “42” Tele neck pickup that brought that clear glassy Strat feel to a Tele. So I had to try it right?

Well I’m pretty sure this pickup will stay in my “Swan-o-caster”.   Wow. The note separation even within that Tweed gritty envelope is superb. All those adjectives, piano like on the wound strings, clarity, brilliance etc., apply here.   This is classic Fender Strat tone. David Gilmour comes to mind; Mark Knofler and John Mayer to name a few. With chords or single notes there is that honest true Strat sound, the Fender sound.

Where the Rio would get a little blocked up when turned full up the “42” doesn’t. The “42” stays more articulate. Either pickup sounds fantastic turned down as honestly most pickups do.   The “42” can get a me a great scooped almost cocked wah tone when I dial the guitar tone done to maybe 7 and then play up around the 12-16th frets. There is also a kind of Robin Trower sound played this way. The solo from the Stones “Can’t You Hear me Knockin” comes to mind. Just all those iconic Strat tones leaping from my Tele has me very pleased.   I got just the sound I wanted while jamming along in my head to “Like a Rolling Stone” as in Hendrixs’ version from Monterey Pop.   Even without any Blackface kind of amp I can get that “clang”, the percussive strike of a Strat.

The ‘42” gets its tone from being a 5.75k wind vs. the 7.17k wind of the Rio. The Rio has longer magnets that protrude beyond the baseplate. So really once again it shows that outright turns of wire “X” and magnet strength and length make a real world difference. That 5.75k wind of the “42” is pretty low these days. Fine by me. I’d rather hear a pickup amplify the sound of a guitar than just sound like pickup.

So there you go, just another view of one piece of gear vs. another. I’m pretty sure I’ll try an Arcane in the bridge at some point. Toss up between the ’50 and the ’51 Experience.   Stay tuned.

– Neil Swanson

Two neat EL34 guitar amplifiers from Traynor

If you crave the sound of the classic big British amplifiers, then you should check out amplifiers using the EL34 type power tube. The EL34 power tube was originally released by Mullard-Phillips in the 1950’s and in most common amplifier applications produces about 25 watts per tube. This is the power tube associated with the big British amps of the 60’s and 70’s produced by Marshall, Orange, Hiwatt and others.

The EL34 power tube has great harmonic detail, and a broad upper midrange that really fattens up the unwound strings of a guitar without making it sound muddy. Single note lines tend to have a lot of “meat” to them making amplifiers using these types of tubes sound both bright and thick at the same time. Traynor has two affordable amplifiers using the EL34 power tube, each with it’s own unique features.

Traynor Ironhorse – This Ironhorse is a “lunchbox” style of amplifier that uses (2) El34 power tubes and is switchable for either cathode or fixed bias. The fixed bias mode produces 40 watts, and is the tightest/brightest setting with the most available clean headroom. The cathode bias setting produces fewer than 20 watts and while still providing a good amount of clean headroom, has a little softer attack and a bit more “feel” to it. With a gain, master volume control and a three-way tone stack control it’s easy to dial in some natural crunch, or keep it clean and get your jollies with pedals. The Ironhorse is honest and tasty El-34 tone for great classic rock crunch in an affordable and lightweight package. It’s on the mark  for all sorts of live situations, and with the money you save on this amp you can go get yourself a nice set of new or NOS power tubes. It comes with a nice soft gig bag too.

Traynor YBA Mod 1 – In Traynor-speak, YBA means “Yorkville Bass Amplifier, which is what the 40-watt YBA was originally designed as. But the YBA found favor with guitar players too, and the Mod 1 version adds the ability to place the bright and normal channels in series or parallel, and adds an attenuator. In series the volume controls act like a master/gain control, while in parallel they function like normal/bright channels that you can blend just like a Tweed Fender. The attenuator can vary the ouptut power from .5 watts all the way up to 40 watts. At low wattage settings you can get all sorts of massive rock clang at very reasonable levels, while 20 watts is good for even the loudest of stage volumes. It’s hard to imagine even needing the 40 watt setting. Like the Ironhorse, the YBA has the complex crunch and texture that EL-34 tubes do best, and the added attenuation feature makes it good for practice and recording. Not quite as portable as the Ironhorse and pretty darn loud, but the attenuator can essentially size this amp from a large club down to a bedroom.

If you are looking to change up your sound, think about your amplifier too, and not just your guitar. With the EL84 dominating the small amplifier market, many players have never sampled the brawnier more harmonically rich tones of the EL34. So for less than a high quality solid body, you can get a taste of the tone that powered the British Invasion.

Fender to phase out MSRP “List” Pricing

Fender has recently announced that starting in July, they will no longer provide Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Pricing — also known as list pricing — to their retailers. As of  July 7th, Fender will begin using just an “advertised” price, otherwise known as MAP pricing.

In many industries besides musical instruments list pricing is an almost meaningless number, sometimes only a reference point from which to calculate the MAP price. Given the fact that probably 0% of guitars are ever sold at list price, reverting to using only MAP may not have any material impact on the average consumer. But given the ability of buyers to rapidly price check products on the internet, MSRP bears little connection with reality.

The larger goal for Fender and other makers of well-known consumer brands is working with retailers — brick and mortar and otherwise — to properly present, market, and value their products. If the internet has proven anything, it’s that there are people out there willing to make amazingly little margin on their sales. Sometimes these folks don’t last long (it’s hard to survive on marginal profits, at least not without massive volume) but they all have their impact on the overall market. While low pricing and competition is inherently good for the consumer, taken to an extreme it lowers the value of a product to the point where it becomes unattractive to manufacture. This is the Wal-Mart effect of being able to drive a supplier to the brink of failure.

Case in point: I used to work for a well-regarded maker of very nice pens (writing instruments to those in the industry) and in order to grow volume they took on big box customers such as Wal-Mart, Target, etc. It got to the point where Wal-Mart was retailing our typical pen for less than a jewelry store or gift shop to could buy it from us. Long term having our pen at Wal-Mart dropped it’s perceived value, plus our traditional retailers were mad at us and stocked less of our products. Ultimately, Wal-Mart dropped the pens because the product did not generate enough sales volume. So the pen company alienated their traditional retailer, had their reputation damaged by the big box store that ultimately jilted them, and for that and many other reasons the company was never the same.

I can’t be inside the minds of Fender management, but the pen company experience feels very much like what many old line musical instrument manufacturers have been going through. We’ve had the grand experiment with Guitar Center, Mars, Unique Squared, Bain Capital, a botched IPO, and now it’s time to regroup and rethink.

While guitars can and will be sold on the internet, if they are sold and marketed like a commodity, the industry is doomed. Musical instruments are a personal experience, and people create art and emotion with them. Quite often the sales process is a relationship process, and even big mail order companies like a Sweetwater get that point. Consider Best Buy and their dalliance with MI products: Having untrained, underpaid people selling microwaves and Marshall amplifiers was so uncool and unappealing it could only crash and burn.

It’s interesting to see the recent changes at both Fender and Gibson. Fender is getting new management, dabbling with some direct sales of merchandise and high end products, cracking down on MAP violators, pruning minor brands, and eliminating MSRP. Gibson has been in an acquisition mode to acquire other types of entertainment and audio products, and positioning Gibson as a “lifestyle” (sic) brand. And while all this is going on, Guitar Center has cut ties with the private equity group that nearly killed them, dropped Berhinger for kicking them when they were down , and is crafting a plan to cutting years of quarterly losses. Interesting times indeed.

Personally, as a self-described “micro-retailer” I’m not sure who I’m rooting for. But emotionally, Fender is trying to maintain and protect the value that their products represent. Yes, you can get a silly “Fender” stereo in a VW Beetle, but I think you’ll see less pimping of their name, and more focus creating true brand value. Gibson appears to be doing the corporate diversification game, which is a sign that they may have less than rock solid faith in the profitability of their core products. Both approaches can work, but Fender’s “do what you are good at” approach is more reassuring for music lovers. As far as Guitar Center goes, their tactics have contributed to the devaluation of musical brands in general, but they are now trying to reinvent themselves. GC is very big player, so it’s similar to not liking General Motors, but not wanting them to go belly up either.  Paying their salespeople a half decent hourly wage would be a start though.

In the end though, any product has to represent value: Both tangible and emotional. And the selling process is part of the overall value proposition. Selling your product for too little, whether it be a guitar or the music you create is bad for your products, and it’s bad for the artist and creator. Free sounds cool until it’s your work that is being literally given away. On the surface, Fender dropping MSRP may appear like just a marketing sleight of hand, but hopefully it’s a sign of a new recognition of value in the MI industry.

Are vintage guitars, amps and pickups really better?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vacuum Tubes – Favorite Power Tubes for Guitar Amps

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:

Amplifying your Godin or other Acoustic Guitar

Godin A6 Koa Extreme


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fender: 25 Years at the Ensenada Factory

We sometimes like to take pleasure in kicking the big guys when they are down. GM, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft…the Yankees. Seeing the seemingly invincible struggle sometimes makes us little guys feel better. In the world of guitars, certainly the two electric heavyweights Fender and Gibson have had their share of troubles. Fender has been in headlines for their struggling profitability and the much publicized IPO that never happened (probably because the Private Equity people realized that the stock value just wasn’t there). Gibson of course hit the papers with their government raid and fines related to the improper importation of restricted hardwoods. I still maintain that if everyone else in the industry can manage to buy fingerboards legally, then Gibson most likely was doing something not kosher. Also there’s just something about a $3500 guitar with lacquer drips, but that’s for another day.

Fender however recently hit a real milestone with the 25th anniversary of their manufacturing facility in Ensenada, Mexico. What is so great you say about celebrating a factory that makes guitars in Mexico rather than in the USA? The importance of the Fender Ensenada factory is that over two decades ago Fender realized that as global competition would continue to drive manufacturing to low cost countries, that is was better to control their destiny rather than subcontract it. The Fender factory in Mexico now employs over 1000 people and occupies over a quarter million square feet, turning out electric guitars, acoustics, and amplifiers.

It would be nice to think that this manufacturing could have stayed in the US, but by nature guitar making is labor intensive. And with 80% of the worlds guitar market being under $600, nearly all this market is going to be fulfilled by suppliers in low cost countries. In a recent Music Trades article about the Fender plant, it was pointed out that in 1990 China produced 0% of the world’s guitars. Now China produces over 70% of the world’s guitars, but only 45% of the total market value. In other words, they make a boatload of inexpensive guitars. And most of these China factories don’t have names that we would recognize. They are contract manufacturers that produce guitars and then brand them with names that we do recognize. This is how much of the consumer product world works, but it’s hardly the image we like to have of guitar making as a craft.

Fender deserves a lot of credit for investing to maintain control over their intellectual property, their manufacturing processes, designs, materials and product quality. Building a factory is a huge undertaking, and it would have been much less expensive for Fender to just find a factory to build their designs. However, when we stop manufacturing, we also lose touch with the skills and technology to actually create the product. Product designers who know how their designs are made invariably design better products. Take a guitar pickup for example: Here is a product where several companies can take the same wire, magnets and bobbins but all get different results. It’s the process of making the pickup as much as it is the actual design. When manufacturers and designers work together, products and quality naturally improve at a faster rate. The pace of product development increases too, and it takes less time to bring a new product to market. Although the factory is in Mexico, it’s a day trip from the Fender HQ in Arizona. They are in the same time zone and the same continent, and it makes a difference.

As a lot of people already know and appreciate, a “MIM” (Made in Mexico) Fender is a good quality product. It’s not a cheap guitar; it’s a guitar that delivers top value for the price point. As the factory continues to increase its capabilities, the price point and value of the MIM products  will continue to rise. From the standpoint of brand equity, the Fender MIM products are largely embraced by the guitar playing public, and while some would rather be playing a true USA Fender, nobody is being done a disservice by playing an Ensenada product.

Whether it is Foxconn producing the iPad or whoever actually makes Nike footwear, there is increasing separation between the creators of products and the manufacturers of the products. Some pundits will argue that owning the design is the only true value, and that manufacturing is strictly a matter of finding the lowest cost source. That’s how we get Barbie Dolls with lead paint, and why it’s hard to buy a Toaster Oven that will last more than three years. Guitars are not appliances or toys, and should not be built that way.

Fender has its share of troubles, and for some purists the only real Fender guitars are those made before 1965 when a man named Leo ran the company. But for people of normal means, Fender Ensenada products are the pathway to owning what are arguably the most recognizable shapes in rock and roll. Kudos to Fender for keeping the dream of rock and roll alive.