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.

The Tweed Sound: Right for You?

The world of amplifiers is often divided into particular sound “camps” to describe the  tonal characteristics. Blackface and Tweed are used to describe two of the classic Fender eras, while “British” is often synonymous with Marshall amplifiers, although it can also be applied to brands like HiWatt  that were based on the brawny EL-34 power tube.  Vox of course is Vox, but derives its roots from cathode-biased EL-84 based products (like some early Marshalls). For the purpose of this discussion, we are going address the Tweed style, and how this sound applies to some of the amps we carry from ValveTrain and Rivera.

Tweed – The Fender “Narrow Panel” Tweed era from 1955 to 1964 was really the Genesis of mass-produced guitar amplifiers. While there were other brands emerging in the late 40’s and early 50’s, Fender certainly captured the lion’s share of professional endorsements, and what became know as “tweed” amplifiers were commonly found on professional back-lines everywhere. The Tweed era lasted into the early sixties, at which time Fender addressed many of the issues that were seen as deficiencies in the their Tweed designs, ultimately evolving into the what is lovingly known as Blackface amplifiers.

In the 50’s there was no specific guitar amplifier technology, and early guitar amplifiers were essentially schematics taken from standard design handbooks. Often these handbooks were published by tube companies trying to promote their products. As such, a public address amplifier used at a factory or county fair had a lot in common design-wise with a guitar amplifier. But amplified guitar applications were a lot more demanding that just amplifying a voice (not to mention the new electric bass). As bands got louder and players looked for more volume, the limitations of early amplifier designs became apparent: Limited clean headroom and harmonic distortion at higher volume levels being the most comment ailment. The low wattage, cathode-biased pre-amps and tube rectifiers of the day were not always up to the task of delivering loud, clean volume. The earliest bands to electrify were country, swing and dance bands, and distortion was not seen as a desirable characteristic for an amplifier. This was especially true of pedal steel players, which was an important market for Fender at that time. Although the Narrow Panel Tweeds were certainly a step up   from the earlier designs, the rapid growth in popularity of rock music was pushing their limits.

As new amplifier models in the 60’s became louder and cleaner — including the advent of solid state technology — some players started to miss that old compressed, warm sound of the earlier Tweed designs. Today, a good portion of the boutique amplifier market is dedicated to reproducing early Tweed designs, and many advertise which old Fender schematic version they use. You literally can’t swing a dead cat without hitting somebody’s latest version of a Champ, Bassman or Super; all in search of that warm top end, soft compression, and musical grind at higher volumes. In fact even Fender themselves has gotten in on the game with the “EC” Eric Clapton series of — you guessed it — Tweed amplifiers.

While Tweed amplifiers are great for many styles of rock music, they do have some limitations. Clean headroom at higher volumes is still a limitation, so if you are looking for that — or are content lugging around a Bassman or Tweed Twin — look elsewhere. The front end of Tweed amps also have limited gain, and can be overwhelmed by pedals. Put a strong gain or distortion pedal in front of a Tweed and you’re likely to get a mushy combination of  pedal distortion and front end distortion. Tweed amps are at their best with minimal effects and sometimes the best effect is just a good guitar and cable. Lastly part of the sweetness and purity of the Tweed sound was a product of their simple circuits. Amps faithful to the Tweed heritage typically lack reverb, have minimal tone shaping capabilities, and channel switching is unheard of. Tweeds are not full-feature amplifiers, but part of their beauty lies in their ability to create very pure, organic tones with great texture. For some, that’s all that is needed.

Much of the ValveTrain line is based on the low wattage Tweed designs of the 50’s. The Trenton, Tallboy and really all of their Vintage Series (315, 416, etc) are either Tweed inspired or directly descended from specific Fender schematics. The ValveTrain line are not pure clones however, and several models have an expanded control set that provides features such as  half/full power, internally connected normal and bright inputs, and master volume controls. These amplifiers retain the classic tone and feel of the original designs, but increase the flexibility of the amplifier for both gigging and recording. The Rivera amplifier lineup does not really address the Tweed ethos. Generally higher in power, with solid state rectifiers and a full complement of tone shaping options, Rivera clean tones are squarely targeted at the Blackface sound, and will addressed in a companion post on the Blackface era.