Low Noise

I’m often asked how it is that my Texas Tone amps have so little hum and hiss compared to many other tube amps, and yet have such sweet tone. It’s by design.

So many tube amps today are descended from amps in the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. Many builders today make tube amps that are either clones or replicas of those amps. Texas Tone tube guitar amplifiers are not clones or replicas. They are new designs that are inspired by those iconic amps of the past. In those rare cases where we make a traditional amp design, it’s updated for low noise and safe operation.

Why not clones or replicas?

Safety

In some cases, the choice is clear – safety. Guitar amplifiers of the past had two-pronged non-polarized AC plugs. Turning the plug upside down reversed the polarity, which was interesting because there was no way to know which end was up. The danger of this is that the so-called “ground” side of the amp chassis could become “hot” and vice-versa. Tube amp builders made compromises and concessions to this. Two of these were the Ground switch and what became known as the “Death Cap.”

The Ground switch reversed the polarity of the plug (equivalent to turning the plug over, when you didn’t want to turn off your tube amp). I recall that the trick was to get all the amps on stage to the same polarity.  How did we do that?  Hold your guitar strings and tap a microphone. If you got shocked, you needed to flip your Ground switch or turn the AC plug over.  Ouch!

The Death Cap was a capacitor wired to one side of the AC power, or to the Ground polarity switch. It was intended to get rid of hum if your polarity was reversed. The reason it’s called a Death Cap is that if the capacitor fails, then your amp chassis, and by extension your electric guitar, could become hot with 120 Volts AC, a most unpleasant situation. Today, all amplifiers are built with a three-prong AC plug and a power ground, or at least they should be.

Noise

The noise floor of many vintage amps (new ones, too) is quite high. Many guitarists just get used to the noise and hum. I know one who doesn’t like tube amps because they hum and hiss.  I told him, “mine don’t.”  Some guitarists buy noise gates or noise filters or line filters to help reduce unwanted noise and hum. This noise is due to two things – component selection and wire lead dress. A little background may help.

Grounding

Many amps are built with poor grounding techniques, with multiple ground points throughout. This is a recipe for noise, as multiple ground points cause ground loops, a main contributor to noise. Texas Tone amps are built with solid electrical engineering ground scheme to eliminate ground loops and ensure low noise operation.  Well-respected electrical engineer and amp builder Randall Aiken has a nine-point plan for proper grounding.  As he states, “Grounding isn’t rocket science.”  Makes me wonder why some amp builders don’t follow basic grounding rules.

Lead Dress

In the mid-1960s Leo Fender sold his company to a large conglomerate. They immediately instituted cost-savings, partially due backorders of items sold but not yet produced. The Fender General Manager, Forrest White, had implemented a quality bonus program to ensure high quality work, but this was one of the first things scrapped to increase production numbers. Due to the rush to push product out the door, and without the quality incentives, amplifiers were built without proper attention to wire lead routing, called “lead dress”. Poor lead dress can lead to hum, hiss, oscillations, squealing, and generally negative impacts. Rather than fix this, the company changed their circuits to add anti-oscillation components, and changed component types and values to save money. The end results was that guitarists began to seek out the older amps that sounded better.

Components, Wire, and Lead Dress

Texas Tone tube guitar amplifiers are built exclusively with aerospace grade military specification wire. It’s flexible and yet holds its shape, even with right-angle bends, is conservatively rated at 150C (300F) and 600 working volts. I’ve seen some tube amps use 105C or even 85C wire rated as low as 300V. Since most tube amps produce between 300 and 500 Volts DC, using 300V wire is asking for trouble.

I make sure that the wiring inside Texas Tone amps does not induce noise, by ensuring that high voltage wires are kept away from signal wires.  Any time wire paths cross, they do so at right angles and sufficient air space.  Many sensitive signal wires are shielded.  There are lots of current spike and noise in transformer center-tap wires and choke wires.  These are kept away from sensitive preamp nodes.  I’ve seen some amp builders, in the name of neatness, bundle wires together with tie wraps – a sure recipe for noise.

Amps of the 1950s used carbon composition resistors. Why? Because that’s what was available and cheap, not because of some “sound mojo”. Allegedly, and subjectively, carbon comp resistors are said to be somehow warmer sounding.  Huh?  Many of these resistors aren’t even in the signal path!  Carbon comp resistors have notoriously loose tolerances, poor drift and noise characteristics, and are responsible for most of the crackling and frying sounds heard in most old tube amps.  I’ve also tested 220k carbon comp resistors that read anywhere from 185k to 240k!  Not good when the circuit calls for two 220k resistors tied together, or using one as your supply voltage for a gain stage.  Rest assured, the gain and distortion characteristics of a preamp with a 190k versus a 240k are quite different.

Most of these carbon comp resistors are rated at 350 Volts, not a happy situation in tube amps that routinely see more that 400V!  The resistors used in Texas Tone tube guitar amplifiers are known for their stability, high temperature and voltage rating, and extreme low noise, and they don’t drift like carbon comp resistors. Here’s a comparison:

Type Tolerance Temperature Voltage Low-Noise
 Carbon Comp 1/2 Watt  ±10% 125C 350V NO
Texas Tone USA ±1% 175C 500V 0.10 μV/V
Texas Tone 1 Watt ±5% 155C 500V -10x Carbon Comp

Not only are these components low-noise, high voltage, and high temperature, they have tighter tolerances and they don’t drift, so they maintain your sound.  You want your sound to be consistent, night after night, gig after gig, session after session. You want a reliable musical instrument, not one that crackles, pops, hums, and is unreliable.

When you hear a Texas Tone amp, you’re not hearing hum and hiss, you’re hearing yourself at your best!  When you sound your best, you play your best.  Your tone matters.

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Inspiration

What does “Inspired By” mean?

Vintage amps sound great, or do they? Unless you’re a professional or collector with the means to pay for one, you’ll probably never know, except when you hear someone else play one. You may never hear one, as people that own them often don’t tour with them, because they’re too valuable, or fragile.

One thing is certain. They’re old. They have outdated grounding schemes that are noisy. They have capacitors that have dried out. They have resistors that have drifted from their original specs. It may sound good, or it may not.

So people buy clones. Sometimes they pay large sums for a factory “reissue.” But, what is it that you really want from a good tube amp?

Before you decide, know what you really want.

Sometimes, the most difficult thing to ascertain when making a decision, is, what is the desired outcome, what is the goal? Is the goal to have a 5E3 Deluxe, a 5F6a Bassman, or a JTM45? Why? Because they’re great amp? They were great amps. They’re iconic. They’re the standard.

Many times, though I hear from guitarist questions or complaints about these designs. Things such as,

  • “How can I get more clean headroom from my tweed Deluxe?”
  • “My Bassman/Marshall clone is too loud for the venues I play. I have to turn it down, and then I don’t get the tone I want.”
  • “The amp is great, but it’s heavy” or “it’s too noisy.”

Inspiration

Texas Tone™ tube guitar amplifiers are inspired by famous designs.

The Texas Tone 30 is inspired by the 5F6a Bassman/Marshall JTM45. But it’s not a clone of either one.

  1. I dispense with the Bright channel, and add a Lead channel. Why? The Bright channel simply had a high-pass capacitor that bypassed high frequencies around the Volume control. My Lead channel actually changes the gain and frequency response of the channel, allowing for both more distortion and a better ability to take pedals.
  2. The resistors are chosen for low-noise, stability, and long life.
  3. Modern grounding techniques allow for less hum and hiss.
  4. I use a phase inverter that is more balanced and still high gain, and a different output transformer, to push the output tubes to optimal performance.
  5. I scale back the Presence control with a more subtle Voicing control.

The results is a loud 30 Watt 12″ combo amp that can play with sweetness or crunch. I call it my BB King amp, because with it, even I can get those sweet tones.

The Texas Tone Ranger is inspired by the Marshall 18W amp, but it’s not a clone, or even close. For starters, it uses a pair of cathode-biased 6L6 output tubes for the full-range tone those tube are famous for, rather than the EL84 tubes of the Marshall. Secondly, I use the ‘normal’ channel as a practice channel, with less volume and a single non-interactive tone control that is a high-pass/low-pass design, rather than a simple treble roll-off. The TMB channel is a rocker.

Inspiring Better Living through Better Tone

It’s my experience that when you have better tone, you’re inspired to play more, to play better. I once told a band mate that if you have the right tone, you can play anything. Think of your favorite guitarists. Chances are, he has a signature style, a signature sound, a signature tone.

Inspire yourself. Go practice. Sound good and be heard.

Cheers.

Please, Not Another Clone!

There are a handful of famous tube guitar amplifiers: Fender tweed Deluxe and Bassman; Marshall JTM45; Vox AC30; Fender Deluxe Reverb and Twin Reverb. They’re considered icons, the best of their breed. I don’t build clones of those amps – who needs another tweed Bassman? Modern solid-state amplifiers make use of modeling or digital technology more on that later and can be made for low-cost overseas and offer a wide variety of features, but none have attained the icon status of the great amps of the 1950s and ’60s.

“Hollow-state” technology is non-linear in its response, i.e. how a preamp tube responds- in frequency response, dynamic range, distortion, and amplification -varies depending upon the instantaneous input signal. When you realize that live electric guitar signals are nothing like the waveform-generated signals of a workbench, you also can visualize why creating a musical signal that can replicate this instantaneous harmonic distortion and non-linear response is quite unrealistic, and must depend upon approximations and false assumptions. A modeling amp can sound “sorta” like a vintage amp, at least until you play it side-by-side with a real vintage amp under real live musical situations.

The tube amplifiers that I build are designed to re-introduce these vintage circuit characteristics and combine them with modern quality components, build techniques, grounding techniques, and electrical principles to produce a guitar amplifier that creates a new sound that still seems “vintage” in quality. While I might base my designs around the tweed amps circuits, compared to them I utilize a preamp that operates under higher clean headroom conditions, which both provides a means of highlighting output distortion and makes my amps very pedal friendly, something that wasn’t even considered in the late 1950s or early ’60s. Changes such as voltage and filtering levels, and a low TSR index create a larger input dynamic ranges, reduced third order harmonics and wider input dynamic range at the phase splitter. The resulting sound is what you expect from a hand-built tube guitar amplifier- sweet, dynamic, touch sensitive tones that make your guitar sing.

While my amps are not clones, they’re certainly inspired by those great amps, but with a few good modern touches, all built by hand in Austin, Texas. Maybe that’s why one happy owner recently replaced his famous British amp with a Texas Tone 12.

TexasToneJSB

Better Living Through Better Tone.

-Texas Tone tube guitar amplifiers.

Why Re-invent the Wheel?

When discussion turns to new amps designs, the phrase, “Why re-invent the wheel?” often comes up in the conversation.  I heard it twice at the 2015 4 Amigos Guitar Show in Arlington.  This is usually accompanied by a discussion of the iconic, Holy Grail amps of the mid-1950s to mid-1960s, especially the Fender blackface “Reverb-Amp” designs, the Fender tweed Deluxe, and the tweed Bassman, a design which was also the basis for the iconic Marshall JTM45 amp.  A well-known website for finding amplifier schematics actually links to the Bassman schematic as the JTM45 schematic.

With these three amps being considered the epitome of tube guitar amp design and implementation, do we really need new or even different amp designs?  Do we need to re-invent the wheel?

Leo Fender’s preamp.

Leo Fender’s guitar amplifiers set the standard for guitar amps.  Not only are his tweed Deluxe and Bassman amps considered all-time classics, his black-faced Deluxe Reverb and Twin Reverb amps are also classics, the amps by which others are judged.  All of these amps, including clones and reissues, are widely used today.  The same can be said of the famous Marshall Amp designs.

Although today’s guitarists appreciate those tweed amps for their sweet sustain and creamy, compressed distortion, Mr. Fender didn’t intend for them to be distortion machines.  Looking at the evolution from tweed to blackface amps, one can see that Leo Fender was on a quest for more clean headroom, which is what the Twin Reverb is all about – clean and loud.

1959FenderTweedDeluxe-058

Throughout his changes in circuit designs, power, voltage, and headroom, one thing remained fairly constant over 15 years – his 1st stage preamp design.  Leo certainly didn’t re-invent the wheel.  He used stock Western Electric circuits right out of tube manuals, and even paid licensing fees to Ma Bell (AT&T).  In fact, the component values for the little-to-no clean headroom tweed Deluxe and the lots-of-clean-headroom Twin, are essentially identical.  The 100kΩ load/plate resistor, the 25µF cathode bypass capacitor, and a 1.5kΩ to 1.6kΩ cathode resistor.  How does that work?

1st_stage_preamp

The only difference between the 1st stage preamp design on a tweed Deluxe and a blackface Deluxe or Twin is that the tweed amps used a lower gain 12AY7 and the blackface amps used a higher gain 12AX7.  Oh, and one more thing.  Higher DC supply voltage, especially on the Twin.  A tweed Pro preamp had a supply voltage of 250V, while the Twin had 410V!  All other things being equal, more supply voltage lends to more clean headroom.  For example, the 1st 12AX7 in a blackface Deluxe Reverb idles at about -1.3V bias voltage, while in a blackface Twin, this same tube idles at about -2V bias.  That extra -0.7 Volts is an indicator of how much more signal the tube can take before it saturates, 1.4 Volts peak-to-peak (-0.7 x 2) – that’s the extra clean headroom.

This higher voltage rule of thumb also applies to the power tubes, by the way.  All up to a point, of course.  There is such a thing as too much voltage or current, and the key here is “all other things being equal.”  When the values of Ra, Ck, and Rk are the same in a tweed Deluxe and a black faced Twin, the supply voltage becomes the big difference.

So, why reinvent the wheel?

Some people don’t want the crunchy distortion of a tweed Deluxe, or the clean and loud of the Twin Reverb. They may not like the higher noise floor of the tweed amps for when they’re recording.  There are any number of compromises, cons, and drawbacks to any amp.  There are other ways to get clean headroom and smooth distortion characteristics besides higher voltages, including the choice of cathode resistors. Even though the 5F6a tweed Bassman and the JTM45 Marshall share the same circuit diagram, we find that Marshall Amp voltages, and preamp cathode resistor and capacitor values, are quite different than Fender’s, as are the tubes used, and the tone stack component values, all of which help account for the different sound of Marshall amps compared to Fenders.

When I designed the Texas 2:10 special, it was for a friend who played a tweed Bassman clone in small clubs.  It was too loud for him; he couldn’t hit that tube amp “sweet spot” at the low volumes required in these clubs, so he resorted to using boost pedals to get the tone he wanted.  What did I accomplish with the design?  I built an amp with almost no circuit noise that can go from clean to dirty at reasonable volume levels.  An amp that can go from the “scooped Mid” feel of blackface clean to a punchy midrange grit, all without being too loud for small clubs or studio use.

It’s not the end all of guitar amps.  It’s just really good at what it does.  I’m pleased by all the positive reviews I’m getting on it, words such as “amazingly impressive”, “the best amp at the show”, “coolest amps I have ever seen” and “the crisp cleans, and crunchy punch and pop that I’m always looking for.”

Thanks for all the kind words.

-Bruce

Are You Sure Leo Done It This Way?

Leo Fender was a tireless innovator, and his tube guitar amps set the standard for the industry that continues today.  Many companies make clones or clone kits of classic 1950s and ’60s Fender amps; many try to be exact copies.  Most current production tube amps use circuits based on, or very similar to, those that Leo Fender tweaked over half a century ago.  Of course, tube circuits predate Leo’s amps, and he paid license fees to Western Electric on many of those 1950s amps for using their circuits.  A triode preamp circuit is a known quantity, and there are only two or three different variations of the basic stage one preamp.  The layout is one thing, it’s how you voice those tube preamp and power circuits that shape the tone or sound of the amp.  But what about the components of the amp build?  Do you need “vintage” components in a vintage-style amp?

Carbon Composition Resistors

Many boutique amps and vintage amps and kits use carbon comp resistors. Why?  Well, that’s what Leo used, and those amps have that long sought after sound.  Modern resistors are carbon film or metal film, and most modern amps don’t sound like a tweed Deluxe or Bassman.  Leo didn’t use those, and many people want the look and sound of a carbon comp resistor, because that’s what the vintage amps had.  But, wait a minute, there’s more to it than that.  Do carbon or metal film resistors sound the same as carbon comps?

What does a resistor sound like?  Nothing, unless you drop it on a hard floor in a quiet room.  Tube amps are built on basic math- multiplication and division.  Current equals Voltage divided by resistance.  Put a 100,000 ohm resistor on that 300 volt DC supply and it works out to 0.003 Amps, or 3 milliamps (300 / 100,000 = 0.003).  So, what’s the difference between a carbon comp 100K 1/2 Watt resistor and a 100K 1/2 Watt carbon film resistor or metal film resistor, and what are the assets and liabilities of each one?

Carbon comp resistors look cool.  They’re brown with colored stripes around them, and they look (and perform) just about exactly like those ones in Leo’s 5E3 tweed Deluxe or 5F6A Bassman, so they must be good.  Leo used them (so did other amp builders of that era).  OK, so why did Leo use them?  Here’s a real shocker.  He used them because it was what was available, and the price was right.

Carbon comp resistors have know qualities.  Among these are poor stability, with at best a +/- 5% tolerance, and it’s usually wider than that.  They will change value when stressed with over-voltages, and if internal moisture content (from exposure for some length of time to a humid environment) is significant, soldering heat will create a non-reversible change in resistance value.  Outside of guitar amps, they’re rarely used because modern resistors have better specifications, such as tolerance, voltage dependence, and stress. Carbon comp resistors also cost more today than carbon or metal film.

On the other hand, carbon film resistors have a working voltage of up to 600 volts, and have operating temperatures of -55C to 155C (-67F to 311F).  If your amp ever gets that hot or cold you will have other issues besides resistor performance!  Metal film resistors typically have a 1% tolerance, and possess good noise characteristics and high linearity due to a low voltage coefficient, and they’re very stable.

I like to use rugged MIL-SPEC, low noise, 1% tolerance, high temperature, 500V metal film resistors.  I also use commercial metal film and carbon film resistors. I use some carbon comps, but mostly to satisfy the desires of vintage amp buyers, not for any performance reasons.  The way I see it, if Leo Fender was alive today and building amps, he would use 1/2W carbon film resistors in his amps, because they are the lowest price resistors that have the right electrical and mechanical characteristics.

Cloth Wire

Old Fender amps and guitars (and most old amps and guitars) used this cool cloth covered wire.  Why?  Pretty much for the same reason that they used carbon comp resistors. It was cheap, it had the right characteristics, and it was what was available.

Today, we have much better wire. We have silver-plated, MIL-SPEC aerospace grade, Teflon coated, 600V, 200C wire.  It’s easy to work.  It’s flexible yet holds its shape, it takes solder well, and is small diameter, which is helpful in a cramped chassis.  It’s also pricey.

Less costly is the MIL-SPEC Tefzel coated, tin plated wire. It has similar ease of solder and work characteristics of the Teflon wire, is rated 600V, 150C, and is about half the cost of the above named Teflon wire.  We also have high-temperature MIL-SPEC PVC wire, which has many characteristics of the Teflon wire – takes solder easy, easy to work, small diameter, and is rated 600V, 105C, for about 1/3 the cost of the MIL-SPEC Teflon wire.

There is a new cloth wire out for those who prefer the vintage look.  After all, you may want to show off the wiring in your amp.  This has a cotton cloth braid over a 600V, 105C PVC insulated wire. It’s much easier to work with that the old-style cloth wire, and has superior performance characteristics to the good PVC wire, although it’s still not as easy to work with as the Teflon or standard PVC wire.

Use the new cloth-covered PVC if you absolutely must have the look of cloth wire in your amp, otherwise use a high temp PVC, Teflon, or Tefzel wire.  It’s also the same price as the aero-grade Teflon wire!  Don’t use any PVC or other wire that’s rated less than 600V or 105C.  85C wire has no place in a guitar amp.

Capacitors

I’m not sure I want to open this hornet’s nest, but here goes.  Capacitors are used as power supply filters (to reduce AC ripple in the DC power supply voltage), to block that same DC voltage from the AC signal path and couple tube gain stages together, and to bypass tube cathodes so that the amp gets the desired sound and gain.

Many of the capacitors Leo used aren’t available today.  Electrolytic capacitors are used as filter and bypass caps, and the ones we have today are very good. I use high quality European made electrolytics.  The controversy comes in when people talk about coupling caps.  The ones that Leo used aren’t made anymore.  No surprise.  There are lots of things from the 1950s that aren’t made anymore, and in spite of nostalgic dreams, much of what we have today is better. Televisions today not only outperform the old tube sets, they cost less.

Some companies today sell very expensive vintage style capacitors, and lots of people buy them.  You can easily find $120 .022 tone caps for you guitar, but a $0.79 Radio Shack ceramic disc will give you the same sound. The only signals that go through tone caps is shunted to ground!  You never “hear” any of the signal that goes through the tone cap.  One company makes vintage size electrolytic caps that are nothing more than a modern small size cap placed inside a larger container! They cost more, of course.

I like to use high quality Mallory 150 coupling capacitors.  Mallory 150 has always set the standard for top quality metalized polyester film, high voltage axial coupling capacitors, and that’s what I like to use.  I use high quality ceramic disc capacitors in tone and oscillator circuits.  I tend to stay away from orange drop polypropylene types.  These caps came into guitar amps in the 1960s, and are the heart and soul of the 1970s CBS Fender silver faced amplifiers.  They’re very stable, that’s the good part.  They were cheap in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  They’re stable and cheap and that’s why amp builders used them, not because they had superior sonic characteristics.  If you can find one, look up an old TV repairman and ask him if orange drops give a TV a better picture that a metallized polyester cap.  He’ll probably look at you as if you’re totally nuts.

In Summary

I build vintage-style amps.  To my ears and to the ears of those that play and hear them, they sound very good.  They have that vintage amp sound- the breakup, the tone, the dynamics, and the touch-responsiveness that make those 1950s tweed amps so much revered.  I get that sound by tweaking the component values while using modern high-quality components that offer better characteristics than the old-style components.  I don’t get that sound using vintage style carbon comps, orange drops, and cloth wire.

If you want the old-school components, I’ll make it that way.  It will certainly make it more “vintage”… and it will make it more expensive.

Why You Can’t Sound Like Your Guitar Hero

In the early days of modern popular music, the mid-to-late 1950s, the guitarist had his guitar, a cable, and his amp.  Chuck Berry and Scotty Moore had their Gibsons, Buddy Holly and Buck Owens had their Fenders, and the amplifier of choice was a Fender, usually a Twin or a Bassman.  It was easy to get the sound, if not the style, of the guitar playing on the popular recordings – the double-stop triplets of Chuck Berry, the fast rhythms of Buddy Holly, or the bright country picking of Buck Owens on his Telecaster.  Duane Eddy was the first one to popularizing effects with his rousing instrumental hits, a style he called twang, played on the bass strings of the guitar using tremolo and reverb.

As the 1960s rolled on into the 1970s, these fathers of electric lead guitar gave way to guitar heroes such as Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix among many others.  They were well known for playing live with stacks of amps and speakers on the stage.  Many young guitarists bought a Gibson SG or Les Paul or a Fender Stratocaster to sound like their hero.  Finding a good amp was a more difficult task.  A Marshall Stack or Fender Dual Showman was too pricy for most, and way overkill for playing in a garage or small club in the mid 1960s.  Small amps were considered student or beginner models and cheap substitutes.  What many guitarists and listeners didn’t know at the time was that the gear these guys used on stage was not the same gear they used in the studio.  Live sound was primitive compared to what we know in the 21st Century.  Often, your amp had to fill the concert hall, and so a stack of amps was appropriate.  Studios at the time, recording on 4-track or 8-track tape, were designed for a standup bass and a few other instruments, and the microphones and consoles were also designed around certain ideas about volume levels.  While an amp stack might have sounded great on stage, in the studio it was the opposite, and could usually not be turned up past 2.  You certainly couldn’t play at concert levels in the studio.

The famous guitar solo on Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven was played on a Fender Telecaster using a small Supro amp, as was much of Page’s studio work.  Likewise, most of Eric Clapton’s early famous work was played through a small Fender Champ.  These amps were considered practice, student, or home amps, and not “professional” amps intended for stage work.  In the studio, however, a small amp, cranked wide open and miked, gave a nice big sound.  So the guy who bought a Les Paul and a Marshall, wanting to sound like Jimmy Page, couldn’t duplicate the sound of a Telecaster played through a cranked Supro amp.  While Jimi Hendrix played through stacks of amps on stage – Marshall or Sunn or Dual Showman – in the studio it was a black-faced Fender combo.  Wind Cries Mary is the classic Fender blackface amp tone.

The iconic hit song Layla, featuring both Eric Clapton and Duane Allman on electric guitar, also featured small amps, but with a twist.  Using a 16-track tape recorder, six of those tracks were used for the guitars alone in the first section of the song, with five guitar tracks in the second section.  The famous intro and lead sections of Layla used track 3 for Clapton and Allman solo duplication, track 4 for Allman’s solo, track 5 for Clapton’s rhythm part, track 9, 11 & 12 for Clapton’s harmony parts.  Clapton played lead guitar on one track, and harmonized with his guitar lead on three other tracks.  Now you know why you can’t sound like Derek and The Dominos on Layla when you play at your local club.

In 1978, Mark Knopfler did what no one expected, he created a whole new sound, a new voice, for the electric guitar. At first glance it seems simple. Take a Strat, balance the switch in between notches, and play through a Fender amp, in this case a brown-faced Vibrolux Reverb.  Of course, he also used an Aphex Aural Exciter and an Orange Squeezer compressor, and he didn’t use picks, just his fingers, and he had a style on its own.  Even with a Strat and a Fender combo amp, the best you can hope for is to come close.

U2’s Edge made a career out of playing simple parts through a bank of effects, creating a wall of sound using a myriad of signal processing equipment.  If you’ve got the money and the time…

So let’s say you want to sound like one of your guitar heroes.

Perhaps you liked Jeff Beck’s tone in 1993’s Crazy Legs album.  For that record, he used three amps- a Fender Tremolux and a Fender Bassman in parallel, in a dry wood-paneled room, with two microphones on each amp, a Shure SM-57 dynamic mic and a Neumann U47 tube mic.  At the same time he also ran his guitar through a Fender Concert 2×12” amp, laid on its back pointing upwards in a stone room, with a mic on the ceiling.  The output from the Concert amp was also fed into the speakers of a Fender Twin, which was in an echo chamber. You probably can’t get that tone in your local club, or in your garage.

Maybe you liked Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tone on In Step. He had thirty-something amps in the studio for that one, including a ’59 Bassman, a Dumble Steel String Singer, and a couple of 200W Marshall stacks. Try duplicating that in your music room.

Eric Clapton’s touring gear in the 2005 Cream reunion included two tweed Fender Twin reissue amps, and a Leslie cabinet, a far cry from the triple Marshall stacks of the 1960s.  But once Eric was an unannounced guest at a Little Feat show and the guitar tech was having a fit because the only amp they had for Clapton to play through was a crummy little practice amp. So, for the Little Feat encore, Clapton walks on stage, grabs a spare guitar from the rack, and the tech is bummed because that junky amp is the only amp available and he’s going to sound horrible. Eric Clapton plugged in, goes plink, plink twice, twiddles the knobs, and turns around and sounds like… well, he sounded exactly like Eric Clapton.  Billy Gibbons sounds like ZZ Top whether he’s playing on stage through a 100 Watt Marshall Stack or using a Lead 12 practice amp backstage.

The epitome of the guitar to cable to amp goes back to the early guitar heroes, and to the too long gone Telecaster players such as Buck Owens, Don Rich, and Roy Buchanan, who played their Fender Telecasters straight into their Fender amps, and to the guitar heroes of the ‘60s and 70s who played their guitars through small tube combo amps, and it continues today with blues, jazz, and Indie rock guitarists.

So get yourself a Fender Tele or Strat, or a Les Paul or SG or 335, and plug into a small tube combo amp – a Fender Champ, Deluxe, or Vibrolux, or a Texas Tone 12. Crank it up and you can sound just like… yourself.

After all, as Carlos Santana, a guitarist with a well known distinctive sound, said, “You’re not supposed to sound like anyone else; you’re supposed to sound like you.”

Your tone is in your fingers, in your heart, and in your soul, and played out through your guitar and amp.

Happy New Year.

Do You Like Your Guitar Amp?

Do you like your guitar amp, the way it sounds, the way it makes you sound?  Maybe you play one of those amps that gets a great sound, but only that one sound.  Perhaps you play through a modeling amp, or an amp with lots of “bells and whistles” that can provide a multitude of sounds, some of them bad.  Maybe you have an amp that gets “every sound but the right one.”

It’s my belief and my opinion that a guitar amp is not some stand-alone piece of hardware that exists to make you sound better.  My thought is that a guitar amp is an extension of the electric guitar, and therefore, and extension of the electric guitar player, the artist, the musician.  I’m not alone in that line of thinking.  The most famous and sought after electric guitars and amps are models designed in the 1950s – the original Telecaster, Stratocaster and Les Paul guitars, and the tweed Fender Deluxe and Bassman amplifiers.  These, along with a few electric guitars and amps made in the early-to-mid 1960s are considered the cream of the crop.

The creator of many of those models was Clarence Leo Fender, known as Leo Fender to the industry, or just Leo to his friends.  He created the Telecaster and Stratocaster guitars, Precision and Jazz basses, and those wonderful tweed and black-faced amps.  These products are so good and so revered that not only are updated versions of those those guitars still in production, but Fender makes re-issues of many of the originals, and those guitars and amps have been imitated and cloned by many builders in today’s marketplace.

Leo Fender considered the guitar amp to be an extension of the electric guitar.  Fender was issued three original patents on his Telecaster guitar.  The first, granted in 1951, was the invention of the combination bridge and pickup assembly that is still used today.  The second, also from 1951, was for the design and style, the look, of the Telecaster electric Spanish guitar. The third, and the one most fundamental to the guitar/amp combo, was patent 2,784,631 for a Tone Control for Stringed Instruments.  This is Leo Fender’s design for the volume and tone control of the Telecaster.  His design drawing for a guitar tone control included the guitar amp- the amp was “Fig.3.” on his drawing.  The amp section included the coupling capacitor and cathode bias resistor for a tube triode, and a speaker/driver.

Think about this for a moment.  The guitar had a tone and volume control, but the amp had neither.  The first electric guitars and amps designed and built by Leo Fender were the K&F models. Today we call them “lap steels”, but back in the 1940s they were just called electric guitars.  The guitar and amp were sold as a set, and there were no tone or volume controls on the amp.  Most of the smaller Fender tweed amps had only a volume control; set the volume on the amp, and then control the loudness and tone with the controls on your guitar.  Even the larger Fender amps started life with only a volume control (which is really an amp sensitivity control) and one control marked “Tone” that would cut or emphasize either treble or bass frequencies in the preamp circuit.  The idea was for the guitarist to control the sound from the guitar, and the amp would respond.  This is why all of the Fender guitars of the 1950s had switches for fast and easy tone changes- from “take-off” leads to straight rhythm to deep rhythm.  The 3-pickup Stratocaster, the 2-pickup Telecaster, even the 1-pickup Esquire were designed for easy switching between three tones.  You could then fine-tune your sound from the volume, tone, blend, and presets on your Fender guitar.

Because of Leo Fender’s two pieces of the same instrument design philosophy, those old Fender amps were known for their responsiveness.  Fender amps of that era, especially the tweed Champ, Deluxe, and Bassman models, are still considered among the finest amps ever made, and they’re much sought after, cloned, and duplicated.  They’re known for touch-sensitivity and dynamics.  They respond to the player’s touch.  Set the volume of the amp on the verge of breakup, and you can go from squeaky clean to raunchy distortion merely by variations in your guitar’s controls and your picking and fingering techniques.  The electric guitar and the electric guitar amplifier- two pieces of one instrument.

So, in essence, that’s my philosophy on guitar amps.  The amp should respond to the player’s touch, the players style, the player’s technique.  My amps are not copies or clones of an existing design, but are built on the same idea that the amp is not only an extension of the guitar, but along with the guitar, an extension of the player, the artist.

Let nothing come between you and good tone, especially not your amp!

-BGM Blumentritt