While electric guitar themselves have changed little over the past 70 years — 1950’s designs still rule — guitar amplifiers have continued to evolve, and the pace of evolution has increased greatly over the past several years. Efficient sound systems long ago obviated the need for huge amplifiers, and for most players today a 1×12 is about all they want to haul (few club owners want to see a Marshall half stack roll in). For most situations — especially high gain — solid state has really caught up with tubes, and modelling amps like the Kemper have found homes even with fussy pros and studios.
Besides enabling lightweight powered speakers and bass amps, Class D solid state amplification technology has also enabled a wave of affordable pedal amplifiers. These days it’s pretty easy to have 25-50 watts of usable power at your feet and in some cases ditch the amplifier all together. But why a pedal amplifier?
Output Flexibility – Most solid state pedal amps have a speaker output, direct line out, and a headphone output, and unlike most amplifiers don’t need a speaker load to operate safely. They are perfect for quiet headphone-only practice. Plus some like the Hughes & Kettner Ampman have an AUX input for feeding in a music source to play along with. The direct XLR outputs are typically switchable between full frequency response and some type of speaker emulation, facilitating both live and recording environments.
Multiple Voices – Since these are solid state devices — some with DSP-based effects — most of the pedal amps have more than one core sound. The Quilter Superblock series amps have three different voices to choose from, while the H&K Ampman amps have two completely independent channels to play with. We’ve also sampled the Thermion Zero, and while it does not have multiple voices it does have an effects loop, which is true of most other pedal amps.
Performance Flexibility – If you are jamming with friends you can run it into a speaker cabinet, have fun, and be able to stick your amp in a backpack. For bigger venues you can still use a cabinet for stage volume and the direct out into the PA and monitors. If you want to be super portable you can go direct-out-only and listen through floor monitors or in-ears. Depending on the size of your pedal board you might be able to make space for the pedal amp and your effects for an all-in-package. As we mentioned earlier, the H&K Ampman has two independent channels plus a boost and solo switch making it a true replacement for a two channel amp (although it lacks reverb and full EQ).
Cost – Just starting out and don’t know what you need for an amp? Small inexpensive guitar amps are often less than impressive, and a pedal amp will sound way better through a set of headphones, and allow you to work on your chops in private. You can take it anywhere, and down the road get a cabinet.
Backup – Even if you are total diehard and want to see glowing glass bottles on top of your speaker cabinet, what if it goes down during a gig? One of these babies will save the show and take up very little space in the car.
Can you really gig with it? – It depends on your setup. If you are a rocking blues band with a loud drummer and don’t mic guitars, some pedal amp options are borderline on overall volume (the efficiency of your speaker cabinet will play a role in this). If you normally mic the guitars and use monitors, these will work great with or without a dedicated speaker cab (I get most of my sound through an ear monitor but still like a 1×12 to judge overall tone). In regard to sound quality, while it’s always a matter of opinion and personal taste, overall I’m impressed. Good tone is a function of the amplifier + speaker + cabinet and a pedal amp through a good quality speaker cabinet is going to sound better than a middling combo amp. Sometimes progress really is progress, and if you can get the sound you want while also reducing space and weight is that bad (Your bass player already knows the answer)? Success with a pedal amp is enjoying the experience and convenience while separating yourself from what good sound should look like.
We’re a guitar dealer and it’s our mission to match the right guitar with the player. We sell amplifiers too, but far fewer of them than guitars. This is to be expected, as guitars are viewed as the primary determining factor in chasing the “tone goal.” Plus they look cool, and New Guitar Day is celebrated across the internet.
But we see many guitar players continually buying new and sometimes very expensive guitars with only casual concern to the rest of the signal chain. Or beginners who spend the majority of their budget on an electric guitar, only to plug it into the least expensive amplifier they can find. In both situations, the outcomes may be less than satisfactory.
So we’ve come up with the 50/50 rule for how to budget your dollars, especially at the lower end of the spectrum. In general it goes like this: If you have $800 to spend, you should strongly consider equally dividing your budget between guitar and amp. Why? The amplifier is at least half your sound if not more. And a bad guitar through a good amp is always better than a good guitar through a bad amp. No amount of fancy woods or high end pickups will sound good through a tiny practice amp with an 8″ speaker. You don’t need to have tubes or hand wiring, but amplifiers have a very important job of reproducing the guitar signal. There is a floor to how cheaply you can make a speaker or transformer, and the very low end of the amp world is not a place to be.
Let’s take the $800 budget: Can you get a new or used $400 guitar that will play well, sound good and get the job done as you improve your craft? Absolutely. Now you have that same amount to spend on a new or used amplifier. Maybe a used Blues Junior, a Peavey Classic 30 or a solid state amp with handy features like a headphone output. But the point is you can get something worth plugging into for many years that will sound good, and you can easily gig/jam/record with.
The 50/50 rule works as your budget increases, but naturally if you are going to drop $3500 on a Custom Shop Fender, the law of diminishing returns comes into play. Spending $3500 on a guitar is a completely subjective choice not really based on performance. Much the same could be said for an amp at that range; but at least with an amp you are spending it on hardware and components and not on bling.
What if you have maybe only $400 to spend on guitar and amp? It’s tough to do both in that range, but stick with the 50/50 plan. A $200 guitar can be had, and a $200 amp will sound way better than a $79 “starter pack” amplifier.
As we said, we are in business to sell guitars, but budgeting for and finding the right amplifier will greatly improve overall satisfaction. Happy players keep playing which is the ultimate objective.
Historically a build-to-order manufacturer, over the past few years G&L has introduced some no-option build to stock lines. One of their first attempts the Fullerton Standard line was maybe a bit too standard, and while the price was good the guitars lacked much curb appeal. Currently there exists two no-option USA series of the guitars, the CLF Research series and the Fullerton Deluxe. The CLF Research is its own animal, rebooting some the early 80’s aesthetics and offering some guitars — like the Espada — that are not available in any other format (Custom Shop excepted). The Fullerton Deluxe series are standard popular G&L models with a range of nice appointments and upgrades that would cost more if you followed the build to order route. To keep the cost in check they now come with a gig bag, and mercifully they dropped the gloss neck of the original FD series in favor of tinted satin. It’s not that the G&L gloss is sticky, but it’s a sticking point with many buyers.
Why Fullerton Deluxe? – Any manufacturer needs stable production to plan materials, product flow, labor, and in general keep things humming. While we love the fact that G&L will build to order, it’s less efficient and results in a bumpier product flow than making just a few standard models. Also, big box stores and large dealers don’t want to custom order each guitar. They want SKU’s (stock keeping units) they can have their purchasing department order based on what their ordering system is telling them. All Fullerton Deluxe guitars have a UPC code because modern purchasing systems recognize the UPC code as the model identifier. A build to order guitar has no UPC. Outlets like Sweetwater and Guitar Center sell almost exclusively Fullerton Deluxe and CLF Research because they are SKU guitars. They give G&L an steady flow of regular volume and they are easy to order and plan. These heavyweights also have the ability to commission their own specific models too, such as the ASAT Classic Custom that only Sweetwater offers (which has a UPC).
Why buy a Fullerton Deluxe? – If you like the finish and the features and you don’t mind a gig bag, why not? They are not lesser guitars, and if you want a G&L right now and you like what you see, our experience is that the quality of a FD is on par with a build to order. Also, places like Sweetwater and GC can offer financing that many smaller dealers can’t touch. So if you want a guitar and take 3 years to pay for it, a FD through a big box is an attractive option.
Are Fullerton Deluxe the same quality? – From what we have seen, yes. One could argue that if you make the same thing every day and not 15 different things every day your quality should improve. That would be boring, but it’s healthy for a factory. While we don’t carry much for FD guitars — why fight Sweetwater at their own game — our experience with them has been generally positive. And for certain guitars like the Skyhawk the only way they are available is as a FD or CLF Research.
Why build to order? – In short, you can get what you want in a reasonable amount of time. Or you want a left handed USA guitar. And if you want a Fallout, SB-2, Legacy HH, Classic S….it’s the only way you can get them in a USA model. Plus we like creating interesting guitars and so do our customers. Lastly, it gives the smaller shops the ability to differentiate themselves from the big box stores, and being different is the key to survival. Maybe we can’t commission our own specific model like Sweetwater, but there’s no such thing as a Fullerton Deluxe Fallout either (fingers crossed).
A potential doomsday scenario for smaller dealers is that as new models are released, they are launched only in the FD or CLF format. That puts the independent shops squarely in competition with with big boys. But G&L has been very good to us, while managing the likes of influential big box and internet retailers. That has not been the case for every manufacture that has decided to ride the big box tiger. Choice is good, and G&L offers both availability and the ability for players to create something that’s personal. Sometimes you can have it both ways.
If you play in a live band — even in relatively small clubs — it’s not that unusual to mic the guitar amplifiers. The preference towards smaller amplifiers and the general frowning upon of high stage volume makes mic’ing the amp a good option. If for nothing else, being able to feed the guitar through the monitors allows everyone to hear what is going on. And as every guitar player knows, it’s impossible to judge your guitar sound — or how loud it is — while standing two feet in front of your amp. Having the guitar in the monitor also helps prevent “volume creep” during the night.
So while having guitars in the mix has obvious benefits for the both the audience and the band, what’s the best way to get it into the mix? Typically most bands tend to mic amplifiers, and there are plenty of options for microphones. As guitar amplifiers get more feature-laden, many now include a balanced direct out, sometimes with various forms of “speaker emulation.” As not only a guitar player, but the sound man for the band, two things have made my life infinitely more convenient: Digital WiFi mixers, and a good amplifier direct box. So while it’s very convenient to be able to throw a mic in front of the amplifier, I find that a direct box gives more consistent results and fewer headaches during the performance.
I’ve been using the Radial JDX for a number of years, which is specifically designed for guitar and bass amplifiers. If you have a head/cab arrangement it’s very easy to connect between the head and speaker. After that you run a microphone cable from the direct box to the mixer and off you go. If the amp is a combo, it can get a little more tricky if the speaker has a very short cable or is internally wired. This is a primary reason sound techs like to use microphones, as they work with anything. But if you plan ahead or mix the same bands all the time (like I do) using a direct box has advantages.
Why a direct box? For starters it’s more consistent, and you get the same sound wherever you go. Bouncy floors, microphone bleed, placement…none of that matters. Plus I can’t tell you how many times a mic gets kicked out of position on a cramped stage. With a direct box none of that will ever happen.
I use the non-phantom version Radial JDX which has a “reactive” load to mimic the characteristics of a speaker, but it is not a speaker emulator in the sense that is simulates a particular speaker. To me it sounds very natural, and it since the room sound is a mix of amp and PA, there is still plenty of the “real” amp sound in the room. Subjectively speaking I’m just as happy or happier with the sound of the JDX over a well-placed SM-57. I’ve tried the phantom power version of the radial JDX but the results have varied depending on the mixer. This may be due to variations in phantom power output depending on the brand of mixer, so I stick with the AC-powered version.
If your guitar amp has a direct out, try it and see how it works. Ditto for the speaker emulation, if that’s an option. Speaker emulation is a matter of taste, so let your ears be your guide.
If you are recording, microphone selection and placement is almost an art. But if you are in a working band and need to show up, set up and have everything work, consistency and reliability take precedence. This is even more true if like many weekend warriors you don’t actually have a person in charge of the sound. For DIY bands, going direct can save time and headaches.
Heritage Guitars has been around since Gibson Guitar pulled up stakes and headed down south in 1985. But in the past few years, they have had three sets of owners, and we’ve had experience with all of them. There was the “original” Heritage owners, a “transitional” local ownership that purchased the company in 2016, and ultimately a sales and marketing agreement with BandLab in 2017. Today, Heritage guitars is effectively operated by BandLab.
The acquisition by BandLab sparked significant controversy amongst Heritage fans, and even some of their employees. This type of blow-back is not unusual when an iconic brand — even if the iconic brand is the “other” brand — is taken over and changes are made. Just think back to “Pre-CBS” and how that evokes the good old days before the big bad conglomerate took over.
At first we were worried ourselves, and the early communications from the BandLab management team had us concerned relative to our potential long term prospects as a dealer. But now that we are a couple years down the road, we’ve been very impressed with the BandLab management of the Heritage brand. And here’s why:
Without launching into a bunch of marketing mumbo-jumbo. BandLab understands brand equity, and the power of a properly managed brand. They understand and appreciate the history and emotions behind Heritage name, and what it means to players and fans. But they are also realists, and for Heritage to survive they have to deliver consistent high quality product at a price point that is competitive with similar products. The “old” Heritage had an expansive catalog of product, of which probably 4-5 models made up 80% of the sales. BandLab took the classic “80/20” rule (80% of sales comes from 20% of the products) and slashed the number of models and variations available to dealers. While at first this seems reckless, it makes perfect sense. It allowed the factory to focus and optimize the processes around their most popular products, and deliver them quickly at a high level of quality. Where the “old” Heritage would take 4+ months to make a guitar, the “BandLab” Heritage will typically ship us one in a few days, and it’s good right out of the box. Most of models that are no longer available to us we would not have ordered anyway. And you can still get them, but you have to go through the Heritage Custom Shop, which is rightfully where they belong.
Around the time of the BandLab involvement, there was also internet chatter about the loss of traditional manual processes and the introduction of increased process automation. While we have no particular insight into the manufacturing processes at Heritage, what on earth is the problem with using a CNC machine to cut the rough profile of a body or neck? Cutting out a body by hand does not make it better, it just makes it more expensive and potentially less consistent. Have people do what people do best — like polishing, binding…detail work — and let machines do what they do best. Case in point: Every Heritage guitar is processed through a PLEK machine, and people seem perfectly OK with that. If “authenticity” means that a guitar company cannot evolve and advance their technology, sooner or later the guitar company will cease to exist, or decline into irrelevance.
We are personally comfortable with the BandLab stewardship of the Heritage brand, and they understand the needs of independent dealers, and the importance of maintaining brand equity. In the past year BandLab also reintroduced the Teisco and Harmony brands, with a similar degree of sensitivity towards respecting history without being shackled to the past. The world is littered with brands and companies that have been mishandled, mangled and destroyed. Heaven knows Gibson Brands had their fair share of brand acquisition flops along to the road to bankruptcy. Successful brands are those that blend a respect for history while simultaneously adapting to change. We think that BandLab understands this better than most companies, and that Heritage is in good hands.
Setting neck relief on a guitar is usually a pretty straightforward process, but a topic that inspires a lot of debate. Neck relief is the measurement of the “bow” in a neck, typically measured somewhere along the midpoint of the fret board. If a neck is perfectly straight, there is almost certain to be some string/fret buzz in the lower frets. Relief only affects the first few frets on the neck, buzzing above the 8th fret is related to string height (action).
There varying opinions on measuring relief, and our process is:
Capo the first fret, and place your finger on the last fret
On the 8th string, check the gap between the 6th string and fret at the 8th fret
Adjust to suit, we like ~.011 on guitars, and ~.018 on a bass
If you don’t have a feeler gauge, a coated stock business card works as a general guide
If the adjustment nut is at the headstock, when looking down the neck at the headstock turn the nut counter-clockwise to remove bow, clockwise to add bow
If you have the adjustment at the heel of the neck, it’s the opposite
That’s pretty much it, and working in small increments (no more then a 1/4 turn without checking) it’s hard to do any damage.
Notice we said “adjust to suit” and by that we mean that there is not absolute correct amount of relief. Some players like the neck as flat as possible without string rattle, and that’s just fine. If you have a light playing touch, go as flat as you can.
Adding too much relief can be an issue, as large truss rod adjustments put additional stress on the neck. And high amounts of relief can affect intonation, and even cause some upper fret buzz. To visualize the geometry: With more relief, the string length in relation to the fret board forms a bigger triangle, and the two lengths are less alike (from Middle School, the string is the hypotenuse and the fret board is the long leg of the triangle). The greater the difference increases intonation issues. So lots of relief serves no practical purpose, and if you still have fret buzz with a normal amount of relief, there are other issues.
Due to string tension, relief can vary with different brands of strings, and can even vary from side-to-side on the neck. If changing string gauges, check the relief to see if there is a need for adjustment. The same goes if you are going to a different tuning.
Some string gauge types can also put additional stress on the neck, such as a Light Top – Heavy Bottom set. With a LTHB set there is a greater variance in tension between the plain and wound strings, which can put some additional twisting stress on the neck. Some techs feel that LTHB strings are problematic and recommend sets with more even tension.,
Lastly, don’t use relief as a way to adjust string action. This is especially tempting with acoustic guitars as a way to avoid shimming or shaving the bridge saddle. A tiny tweak might be OK, but putting the neck under undue stress is not a good long term strategy.
There you have it: It’s not rocket science, and with a little practice any player can confidently and safely keep their guitar optimized for seasonal weather changes or using different strings and tuning.
We’re on the plane back from NAMM, and it seems like a good time to reflect on what was a very productive few days. Firstly, NAMM is so huge there is no way to take in the entirety of the show without literally running non-stop up and down every aisle. NAMM requires a game plan, and ours was mainly to meet with our current product partners, catch up on things and see what it new.
G&L – Prior to the show, we had already seen an sneak preview of some of the unique guitars that G&L was bringing to the show and “tagged” a couple in advance. But G&L had a lot cool news that we did not learn until getting to their booth late on Thursday. The big news is the G&L Espada, a newly released guitar that G&L reversed-engineered from a 1969 design unearthed from original Leo Fender drawings. Featuring new split coil MFD pickups, active/passive controls and a very sexy Tele/Skyhawk/Stingray mash, the Espada is really new but authentically G&L. Actual production date is TBD, so suffice to say we are in line to get some.
Also at the booth is their new Doheny HH and Skyhawk HH, and both will be available through the Fullerton Special line of fixed-option guitars. Both use their chrome-covered humbuckers, which we prefer sonically to the open-coil AW4470’s, and they also dress up both guitars nicely. There is also going to be a Fullerton Special Skyhawk with the current S-500 pickup set. We’re glad to see more Skyhawk models, as we love the shape and ergonomics of this design.
Bandlab – Bandlab has been hard at work on a number of projects, and we really dig the direction they are heading. The Bandlab folks are pretty sharp, and they while they respect the value of history and tradition, they know it needs to be backed up by innovation, quality and consistency.
Heritage is in good hands, and they continue to make improvements in the factory, and work on making each model as consistent and high quality as possible. While they’ve narrowed the range of products that dealers can purchase, it also means they are available from stock with very little wait time. Their “Custom Shop” is still getting up and going, but for those who want a truly unique creation that will be an option in the future.
We saw the first Harmony prototype guitars at the 2018 show, and we’re glad to report that they will finally hit the streets this spring. Made at the Heritage factory, they include mahogany and alder bodies, bolt-on mahogany or maple necks, ebony fret boards, their own gold foil pickups, and nitro finishes. The finish and playing quality is right up there, the weight it good, and the foil pickups have a funky groove that is bright but full bodied. At around $1300 with a Mono Bag, these are a literal no-brainer and offer a fresh addition to any player’s lineup.
Also later in the year will be Harmony amplifiers. These will be semi-closed back, hand-wired 6V6 designs with built in attenuator and vibrato. The design is pleasantly retro, and will get you noticed in a sea of Deluxe Reverbs. The prototypes are built in Singapore, and the production models will likely come from one of the Bandlab facilities in that region. While it’s hard to judge an amp in the din of NAMM, our own experience was very encouraging, and we’ve posted internet legend Jay Leonard Jay doing some great demo work of his own.
Tiesco is another legacy brand that Bandlab was resuscitated, and this spring they will release their first three pedals; a boost, fuzz pedal, and delay. Bandlab sweats the design details, and these pedals have unique and sturdy enclosures, funky graphics and intuitive controls. The boost pedal features a 9V and 24V power setting and ranges from true boost, to medium-crunch that is harmonically rich and detailed. The fuzz stole my heart, mainly because I don’t like fuzz, and I loved this pedal. It’s big and authoritative, but does not trample the tone of your guitar. It’s more classic crunch than lo-fi fizz, and it’s got an awesome octave feature that changes register depending where you are on the neck. I need it.
Mono is another Bandlab brand, is well known for their sturdy gig and gear bags beloved by professionals on the go. We plan on bringing some of these into the shop this spring.
ESP – Some of the sexiest guitars on the planet are at the ESP room, and their USA and Originals lines continue to push the envelop of functional art. They just built their first left-handed USA Eclipse, and we’ll soon commission our own southpaw model. They added some great new finishes to their Japanese E-II line, and much to our delight they’ll be available on the 22-fret Eclipse model. And while we pride ourselves on being a mostly USA shop, their are certain ESP guitars that we lust after that are not available anywhere but the LTD line. This includes affordable versions of their handsome Viper (SG-ish) and a very cool multi-scale (fanned fret) guitar that just knocked us out with how easy it was to play.
JAM Pedals – Our wildly artistic friends from Greece are updating nearly all of their graphics, and while some of them are a little less whimsical in nature, they continue to offer a wide array of custom graphics. Most of the changes in the line are evolutionary, but what caught our eye is their new Double Dreamer. This is an update of our best-selling Tube Dreamer 88, and they’ve added a wet/dry mix, the high gain feature is now a footswitch for on-the-fly usage, and the high gain is assignable to either or both channels.
Keeley – Keeley is always cooking up something new, and this year they had a larger space, some of the best personal demo capabilities, and four new releases. Their new Synth-1 is the most ambitious of all of them, and while it’s not for everyone, if you are looking for the road less traveled, this is it. Also of note is their new DDR, drive, delay and reverb pedal. Essentially a small pedalboard in an enclosure no bigger than their D&M Drive, it will allow you to travel light but not lacking for tone.
Godin – Godin has been making a lot of changes lately, and one of the more notable releases is their line of Godin Branded acoustic guitars. Godin has long maintained several acoustic brands, but this is the first time we’ve seen them put the Godin headstock on an acoustic. These are upper end models, all solid wood with both gloss and satin finishes. Other items of note are the reappearance of their very attractive Denim Blue finish on the ACS and A6 models, a new high end semi-hollow Summit, and some interesting new Kingpin models like their T-Armond with TV Jones DeArmond style pickups. In the Art & Lutherie line they’ve release a new finish that we really like called Havana Brown, and a cute Roadhouse Nylon acoustic.
Yorkville Sound – Yorkville is so many different brands you could literally stock a store with it (and they do in Canada via owners Long & McQuade’s more than 80 stores). Items we plan to add include their Traynor YGL2 guitar amp, which is a 30-watt version of our favorite YGL1. A little more power and slightly bigger enclosure is just the ticket for gigging players who need a great sounding pedal-friendly amp. They also have a nice compact acoustic guitar amp that is an affordable companion to their higher end Hughes & Kettner ERA-1.
What really grabbed our attention at Yorkville is the Xvive line of wireless transmitters for guitar, bass and vocals. They have a new plug-and-play wireless microphone adapter that turns any microphone into a wireless mic. So if you like the mic you have, you can now make it wireless. And everything is ultra-compact, so no big transmitter box, power supply, etc. It will make you rethink wireless.
Yorkville is also the parent of Hughes & Kettner, and they were showing off their Black Spirit 200 amplifier head. They’ve delved even further into connectivity, and the Black Spirit is a guitar amp, redbox, audio interface…and bluetooth enabled via an app.
Lastly, Yorkville is also “prosumer” and pro audio from compact bluetooth-enabled battery powered enclosures to full line arrays. If you are planning a system from solo acoustic to fixed installation, we can help you with that.
C.B.I – And if you are building that new sound system or studio, don’t forget cables. In upstate New York, C.B.I. makes everything from patch cables to concert-sized snakes and stage boxes. We’ve always liked their products, and like every stop we made on our NAMM tour, we learned something new. Their Stagewinder pedal board snake simplifies pedalboard and effect loop setup at a reasonable price. We also learned that we can simplify our cable packaging and eliminate the use of plastics (while adding our own UpFront Graphics). C.B.I. makes practically everything cable related, and we can also quote custom jobs too. We walked away with a new appreciation of C.B.I.
NAMM is fatiguing but energizing, and a little Southern California weather in January doesn’t hurt either. We’ve made our shopping list, and we’re checking it twice. Christmas is coming again this Spring.
After declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy and parting ways with the sometimes controversial Henry Juszkiewicz, Gibson will emerge from bankruptcy protection on November 1st with a new management team and funding from private investment firm KKR.
It’s safe to say that the future of Gibson the guitar company was never really in doubt. As a brand it is healthy and well-respected, and annual sales of Gibson and associated brands like Epiphone are somewhere in the $300 million range. But while Mr. Juszkiewicz can be credited with taking Gibson from a struggling brand in the 80’s to the giant it is today, his quest to build Gibson into a “lifestyle brand” was also Gibson’s financial undoing.
The Gibson acquisition 1986 was Juszkiewicz’s home run, but nearly every other attempt to build the brand — Stanton, Phillips, Baldwin Piano, Garrison Guitar, Gibson branded restaurants, etc — were essentially financial drags that puffed up the top line, did little to grow the bottom line, and added piles of debt. And when Gibson skipped the 2018 NAMM show and instead attended the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Vegas, things had gotten truly weird. In the end, Gibson’s bonds were rated at near junk status, and the “lifestyle brand” was brought down by what kills most distressed companies: They ran out of money to pay their debts.
With KKR funding and shedding some of the under-performing dead weight, Gibson guitars and Gibson Pro Audio will enter a new chapter of ownership, and has recently announced their new management team. You can read about the new team here: https://tiny.cc/wzsi0y
It would appear that things are looking up for Gibson: They have a great brand, loyal customers, formidable financial resources, and if you look past the buzzword-gibberish of their resumes, a capable management team. But their are some things to watch for with the New Gibson.
KKR is a Private Equity (PE) firm, meaning that they have their own funding to invest with, and are not a publicly traded company. PE firms tend to target companies that they believe are under-valued, with the goal of increasing their financial worth, and selling them at a profit down the road. PE firms are typically not in it for the long haul. They want to get their initial investment back, and hopefully drive up the value for a future sale.
So while the new CEO professes to be a personal fan of Gibson guitars — make no mistake — this is about making money, and preferably quickly. PE firms are not touchy-feely organizations, and they are not always particularly patient. There will be plenty of pressure to perform and create solid financial returns. Hopefully, they will do this by making great guitars that musicians love and want to purchase. But this is not a labor of love, and at some point KKR will want to recoup their investment.
From personal experience, one of the tricky things about Gibson is the steadfast traditionalism of their fan base. In contrast to Fender, Gibson fans have less tolerance for deviating from tradition (no Gibson “Parallel Universe” guitar, that’s for sure). Silly things like robo-tuners aside, Gibson fans push back rather swiftly — sometimes even making personal YouTube complaint videos — when they feel that Gibson has strayed off course. So when the new management team talks about “innovation” they have to keep in mind that their core customer may not be looking for something different. Technology has revolutionized recording, pro audio and even guitar amplifiers, but guitar players tend to like their instruments just as they’ve always been, and are slow to change.
Also, while the internet is a powerful selling tool, many guitar players still like to have a personal shopping experience. The “old” Gibson made it pretty much impossible for smaller stores to do business with them, and put all their chips in with major big box and internet retailers. While Sweetwater is the major exception, most of the big internet retailers don’t know the product well, frequently have inaccurate descriptions, pricing and sometimes even the wrong photos. You do yourself no favors when your chosen retail channel does not know what they are talking about. Feeling good about where you bought the product is part of the ownership experience (premium car brands focus intently on this aspect of the sales process)
So best wishes to the new Gibson management team. The music business really is different and more emotionally-linked than other products. Guitar Center and Mars Music were supposed to be the future of music retail. Mars folded eons ago, and Guitar Center has struggled for years to turn a profit (they are also in junk bond territory and routinely flirt with insolvency). The great thing about selling musical instruments is that it’s not like selling blue jeans, and a great many of our customers are emotionally invested in the product. Let’s hope they take that into consideration.
While electric guitars and basses are first and foremost musical tools, for many players looks run a close second to tone. For years guitar builders have used various types of wood tops to enhance the looks — and sometimes tone — of solid and semi-hollow electric guitars. Flamed and quilted maple tops have been a perennial option from many manufacturers including G&L, Gibson, PRS, Fender, Godin and others. But one of the more interesting materials of late has been spalted woods. These materials are not part of the regular G&L price book, but they show up depending on availability.
Spalting is caused by fungus that attacks both live and dead trees causing unique coloration and figuring of the wood. It can lead to weight and strength loss, and also reduced density. So while you would not want to build a whole guitar out of a spalted wood, when stained and finished they are unique and eye-catching. Some guitar builders will also use dyes injected into the wood grain to accentuate the look even further.
Tone impact? – Maple tops have been used for years, and in many cases not only look good but have a beneficial impact on tone. This is especially true on set-neck, shorter scale guitars like a Gibson Les Paul, which tend to have a darker tone, and less pronounced attack and harmonics. The dense maple top brightens up the tone and is more reflective. It’s a good complement to warmer more mid-focused sound of mahogany, humbuckers, etc.
But maple as a top is not a particularly complex or rich sounding material. While this works well to “liven up” a Les Paul, the effect is different on a bolt-on, longer scale guitar with single coil pickups. Maple combined with the snappy, more focused tones of a single coil can sound a little dry and one-dimensional. We’ve had maple tops on various G&L’s, and our impression is that they have very clear emphasis on the fundamental note, but not a lot of complexity. We are not totally down on maple, but it benefits from fuller sounding pickups and more complex sounding woods for the back materials: Think humbuckers, most MFD’s (maybe not the Z-coil) and swamp ash.
The spalted woods tend to be different, and our own hypothesis is that the effect of the spalting makes them less dense and softer, even when the material is maple. We’ve found spalted top guitars to be every bit as complex and musical as a good swamp ash bodied guitar. The top may lend even more warmth and richness, but with no two guitars ever being exactly alike, we don’t want to go overboard on analysis. Suffice to say on something like a G&L or other single coil guitar, we very much like the sound of a spalted top, and feel it complements the tone.
Other Materials? – While not a spalted wood, we find Black Limba works nice on G&L-style guitars too. Limba is mahogany-like in tone — though actually not part of the mahogany species — and a Limba cap adds some warmth and mid-range emphasis to a single coil, bolt-on guitar. And it looks pretty. Something we would not do? Maple and Empress: That’s bright/focused on top of bright/focused. It might work on a bass (we like Empress for a bass) but would be as dry and crisp as James Bond’s Martini.
Choosing the cosmetics of your guitar is a fun part of the buying process. But choosing just on looks can have unintended consequences. Keeping in mind what works well together, it’s completely possible to combine both good looks and good tone.
We recently became acquainted with the Little Walter amplifier line, and after hearing them and meeting their creator Phil Bradbury, we decided to jump on board. Truth be told, amplifiers are a tough product to sell, and many players are enamored with purchasing more guitars rather than purchasing another amplifier. While we would hardly not sell a customer a guitar, we are firm believers that amplifiers are a critical and overlooked component to a player’s tone.
Among other interesting features and attributes of the Little Walter amplifiers is that they are point-to-point (PTP) construction. Due to the labor-intensive nature of this construction style, PTP is quite rare and constitutes a tiny fraction of total amplifier production. But before we get to PTP, let’s cover the other more popular methods, their benefits and drawbacks. And we are only addressing tube amplifiers, not comparing solid state to tube amplifiers.
Printed Circuit Board (PCB)
The vast majority of amplifiers are constructed using printed circuit boards, from lowly practice amplifiers to high end products from Mesa, Fender, Marshall, etc. PCB’s are cost effective, permit assembly automation, and also allow for higher levels of complexity not possible with other methods. Multi-channel amplifiers, on-board effects, processor chips and modeling are just not possible without PCB construction. While most PCB amplifiers utilize “through hole” components similar to those used in older styles of construction, newer surface mount devices (SMD) can radically shrink the size of certain components, allowing for even greater levels of functionality with minimal impact on space.
While newer technology lowers cost and increases functionality, there can be compromises in sound. Some components do have a “sound,” most notably capacitors, transformers, and some believe even resistors. A paper-in-oil capacitor has a particular sonic characteristic that is unique to its construction, but the size and configuration make it unsuitable for volume production, not to mention cost. You might scoff at the idea of one capacitor type sounding better than another, but make a speaker cone out of the wrong paper and it will sound bad. The same is true with passive electronic components. An amplifier’s price is a function of its components, but also its assembly method, and some components are only practical on a hand-wired amp.
The layout (schematic) of a printed circuit board is also a compromise between assembly efficiency and optimal circuit path. If you’ve ever seen a PCB, it’s a myriad of thin copper traces laid out in usually logical parallel lines and right angles. Good circuit board layout is part skill and part art, and tightly packed component layouts can create capacitive losses, impact certain frequencies, add noise, and overall have an impact on the sound. That may sound like tone snobbery, but having been in the business of manufacturing PCB-based products, schematics have consequences.
Eyelet and Turret Board Construction
Eyelet and Turret Board construction utilize an epoxy or fiberboard card as a platform to lay out the various small components of an amplifier. The larger components such as transformers and tub sockets are generally affixed directly to the amp chassis. These types of amps can accommodate a wide range of component configurations and allow quite a bit of design freedom. Most of today’s “hand-wired” amps use this type of construction, and examples include Dr. Z, high end Fender and Marshall models, and many other boutique brands. Fender used eyelet board construction on all its amps right through the seventies (more a lack of investment than tonal concerns). Being hand assembled is not without cost though: A standard PCB Fender Deluxe Reverb is around $1100, while the hand wired version using a fiberboard will set you back $2400. If you plan to keep an amp a long time, a non-PCB amplifier is much easier to service, and if you are a tweaker, also easier to mod. While PCB’s are repairable they are often fragile and fussy to service, especially for an amateur. If the PCB contains SMD devices, just throw it out and get a new board.
Do hand-wired amps sound better than PCB? By virtue of their component flexibility, often less complex and less crowded layouts, they certainly have the potential to sound better. Of course, the actual circuit design matters too, and nobody is going to go to the trouble of making a hand-wired amplifier with cheesy components. There is a little of chicken & egg going on here, but it’s understandable why many discerning players gravitate towards this style of amplifier.
Point-to-Point Amplifiers (PTP)
PTP is in many ways the most primitive type of construction, and dates back to when modern materials for circuit and turret boards did not even exist (the fiberboard is a waxy carboard material that predates the PCB). In PTP construction, the components are wired directly to their intended connections with no type of component board. Some builders may use terminal strips to for structural support, but the circuit path is very direct, and you can see exactly where everything is going. Due to the labor-intensive nature of construction, PTP amplifiers are typically single channel amplifiers with limited bells and whistles. In another instance of chicken & egg, they are simple designs because the nature of their construction drives them in that direction.
The selling point of the PTP amp is that the pure, direct circuit path along with optimal wire routings and broad component freedom have a beneficial impact on tone. Technically speaking, PTP amps have the least amount of “stuff” clogging up the circuit, hence the potential for better sound quality.
The concept behind the PTP amp is what we like to call “directionally correct.” If you put 15 pedals between your guitar and the amp – or in an effect loop — there is a degradation in tone. Every additional circuit and feature in an amplifier – including reverb – has some impact on the amp’s natural tone (if your amp has a switch to bypass the tone controls, note the jump in gain). The PTP amp is the shortest distance between guitar and speaker.
Can you hear the difference? Like most things with music, it’s a highly subjective question. And like other hand-wired amps, PTP amplifiers are not going to skimp on component quality. The best thing to do is listen to a lot of amplifiers, and ideally if you can listen to them through the same speaker cabinet, as this also has a big influence on sound. We have the luxury of being able to try a lot of amps, and our own experience has led us in the direction that the fewer the knobs, the better. Maybe we’re just bad at adjusting knobs, but our ears tell us to keep it simple.
Life tends to drive us in the direction of increasing complexity, and music is no exception. But your guitar is not a smart phone. Ideally, it’s an analog tool to create art that requires an intimate connection between the creator (you) and the medium (your guitar and amplifier). Oftentimes simplicity is the key to creativity.