Fight Marketing BS

I was looking at boutique tube amp websites, since I’m in that business.  I’m looking to see what other builders’ websites look like, what they’re selling, what their prices are, etc.   I’m often amazed by the amount of marketing lingo, and frankly, total BS that can be found on some of these sites.  I will list a few of these.

Period-Correct Transformers

This one is pure BS. Household voltages in the 1950s were perhaps 10 volts lower than they are in 2017.  Therefore, if you take an amplifier built in the 1950s and run it on today’s power, the test/idle voltages, bias numbers, etc., will all be off.  The high voltage may as much as 30 Volts DC above specification.

However, an amp built today is built with transformers designed for 120V operation, so that negates any need for “period-correct transformers.”  As a matter of fact, if a 1957 amplifier uses a 115/650VAC transformer, and a new amp uses a 125/650 volt transformer, guess what- they both put out 650VAC, it’s just that one does it with a 115V input, and another does it with a 125V input.

While it’s true that if you run are using an old amp from the ’50s today your voltages will be too high, a new amp is designed for today’s higher line voltages.  A “Period-correct transformer” only matters if you’re replacing a power transformer in an old amp.  To that end, some of the new replacement transformers have two primary taps.  One example used in my amps has a 115V primary and a 125V primary.  Bear in mind also, that although 120 VAC is the modern U.S. standard, actual measured voltage is plus or minus 5%.  I usually see 122 Volts in my shop.  When I test my amplifiers, I always use a variable AC transformer to test at 120VAC.

Tube vs. Solid-State Rectifiers

I read on one site about an amp’s tube rectifier having excellent sonics due to a lack of solid-state components.  That’s debatable enough, as many guitarists like the sound of their solid state amps, but then he goes on to say that solid-state rectifiers slam the tubes on power-up causing excess tube wear.  That is simply not true!

Tube-rectified amps generally behave differently than solid-state diode rectified amps.  In general, solid-state diode amps are “tighter” than tube-rectified amps, and tube-rectified amps generally exhibit a bit of voltage “sag” under high loads, leading toward a compressed sustain.  Again, in general.  Some people like solid-state rectified amps, and those amps have excellent sonics.  Amps such as a Twin Reverb® of Vibro-King® have solid-state rectifiers and excellent sonics.  My Texas Tone™ Ranger comes with a solid-state rectifier, and can also use a tube rectifier.

Solid-state rectifiers do not “slam the tubes on power-up.”  In fact, the type of rectifier has nothing at all to due with slamming the tubes on power up!  That particular symptom is a function of the Standby switch.  The Twin Reverb® and Vibro-King® use solid-state rectifiers and a Standby switch.  When a Standby switch is used on startup, waiting 15 seconds between turning on the power switch and switching the standby switch on, then there is no slamming the tubes on power-up, regardless of the type of rectifier.

The whole idea of slamming the tubes on power up is debatable anyway.  Books have been written about it.  The official tube manuals speak of things such as “cathode stripping” and the need for standby switches, but add a qualifier, “except for receiving tubes.”  Tubes used in guitar amplifiers are all receiving tubes.  Some tube rectifiers heat up gradually, and don’t even need a Standby switch.  I like to use a Standby switch, and I isolate them for trouble and noise-free operation.

Cathode-Biased Watts

Some boutique amp builders claim that their cathode-biased 6V6 tube amps produce 18-22 Watts with two 6V6 tubes in a Class AB push-pull configuration.  Um, no.  With 350V plate voltage you might get 13 or 14 watts.  If you’re running 420V B+ you might even be able to get to 16 watts.  By the way. the 1955 GE tube data lists 315 V DC maximum for their 6V6GT tube; a modern JJ 6V6S indicates a 500VDC maximum.  Either way, you’re going to be hard-pressed to get more than 16 Watts from any cathode-biased push-pull 6V6 amp, and that’s running way-above-spec (for anything but a JJ 6V6S) plate voltage (some people call the JJ 6v6S a cross between a 6V6 and 6L6).  I don’t know where they’re getting those 18-22 Watt numbers.  Instantaneous millisecond peaks at the speaker with 50% total harmonic distortion?  I don’t know.  I rate my amps in real, tested Watts.  My cathode-biased 6V6 push-pull amps will output around 14 Watts +/- 2W, depending upon the model.  No BS.

Surface-Mounted Components

One builder claimed a “surface mount capacitor” as the main power supply filtering device.  Huh?  Then he includes a photo and the model of the capacitor.  It’s not a surface-mount capacitor. It’s a multi-section can electrolytic capacitor, the same one used in hundreds of other amplifiers.

These are surface-mount capacitors, not used for power supply filtering in tube amps (they’re tiny, smaller than a dime):

surface-mount

This are multi-section can, of the type used in tube amps (they’re about the size of D cell batteries):

nice

Point-to-Point Wiring

Don’t get me started.  I wrote a whole blog on this.  I do not use “point-to-point’ wiring.  With point-to-point wiring, each component is connected to a tube pin or solder lug or jack.  There are no “boards” whatsoever.  Examples of this style of construction include most old tube hi-fi equipment, 70-era Sunns, and more recently BadCat and Carr.  I sturdily mount all passive components on turret boards or tag boards.  Wires are carefully routed to avoid noise and cross-talk, and I color-code all wiring for easy tracing.

True point-to-point wiring example:

point_to_point_thumb.jpg

Turret board wiring example:

LilDawg12_thumb.jpg

I looked inside one award-winning boutique amplifier advertising 100% true point-to-point wiring.  He is correct, and it’s a mess inside, with gobs of silicone holding everything in place and wires and components everywhere.  On the other hand, I see other builders that seem to be neat-freaks, with wires tied together in bundles, which is a recipe for noise.   Neatness counts, but neatness in correct wire dress, not looks. Substance over flash is one of my values.

It matters not whether an amp uses a PC board, tag board, turret board or true point-to-point wiring.  What matters is whether the components are sturdily mounted and selected for long life, laid out logically, and that signal, power, and heater pathways are routed for low noise and easy troubleshooting, and that you tell the truth about your amps.  Rest assured that all of these criteria are met in Texas Tone™ amps.  In many cases, the hiss is so low that you have to play your guitar to verify that the amp is turned on. It’s why power lights are so important!

Be aware

Don’t fall for marketing BS.  Don’t just buy an amplifier because your guitar hero plays one.  Do you play and sound exactly like your guitar hero?  If not, then using the same guitar and amp won’t make you sound like him.  I can play with a Twin and a 335, and I still don’t sound like BB King, nor if I use a Strat and a Marshall stack will I sound like Hendrix.

If you want a reliable amplifier, with high quality components, low-noise and easy troubleshooting wire routing, and above all great tone with no BS, chose Texas Tone™. Why? Because “Your TONE Matters”.

Your.Tone.Matters.07

I’m not going to lie to you or trick you into buying one of my amps with marketing lingo.

Thanks.

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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.

Guitarlington 2015 – The 4 Amigos Guitar Show in Arlington Texas

Last weekend, I displayed my amps at my first guitar show.  Besides the obvious marketing aspects, I met some great people there.  Although lots of vendors had amps, especially vintage amps, I was surprised that there were only a few other amp vendors there.  There were many choice pieces there, including some ’57-59 tweed Fender Bassman amps.

Daniel manning the Texas Tone booth

Daniel manning the Texas Tone booth

One of the amp vendors was Brown Amplification from McKinney, Texas.  They make heads and speaker cabinets, but not combos.  Since I only make combos, I sent them folks looking for heads and they sent folks to me looking for combos.

The first folks I met were the team from Wathen Audiophile. They make some really choice speakers and amps, but they were mainly displaying their select line of preamp and power amp tubes, all cryogenically treated with their proprietary treatment and selected to their own very strict specifications.  Each individually serialized tube includes its own laboratory test report for Heater vol, Plate vol, Screen vol, Grid vol, Transconductance, Grid Leakage, Plate Current, Plate Resistance and Gain. They were kind enough to supply me with a 12AX7-WCM that I used Sunday afternoon in my Texas 2:10 Special in the V1 preamp stage.  That amp got rave reviews (more on that later).

In the booth next to ours, between us and Warthen, was RBi Music, featuring FRET-King guitars by Trev Wilkinson . I use the Wilkinson compensating brass saddle Tele bridge on my guitar.  I really like those guitars, especially their JD Duncan Jerry Donahue model (my personal favorite) and a beautiful Elise semi-hollow model.  Rick Taylor and I got along well, and I let them test drive guitars on my amps, to our mutual benefit.

I had an interesting conversation about guitar amps and the music scene with Mark Daven of the Guitar Radio Show. Mark’s a great guy, and was nice enough to give me a shout out is his blog about Guitarlington 2015. Lauraine O’Toole from Avalon Multimedia dropped by for a visit and had some nice words for the Texas 2:10 Special.

I also got to meet Kevin Butts at Killer B Guitars.  I had to do this after Mark Daven brought a beautiful Killer B lefty T style guitar over to play through my amps. This guitar not only sounded great, but it was a work of art.  I had to tell the builder how impressed I was with his guitar.

The Texas 2:10 Special

I had three amps at the show – The original Texas Tone 12, the tweed Texas 2-Step, and the Texas 2:10 Special.

Daniel manning the Texas Tone booth

Daniel manning the Texas Tone booth

Although the tube tremolo on the Texas Tone 12 always warms my heart, and gets good response, on Saturday the Texas 2-Step got the most attention.  The ability to go from single-ended Champ to push-pull Deluxe circuits, and easily moving from clean to saturation, brought lots of positive response from listeners.

On Sunday, however, the Texas 2:10 Special was the star of the show.  Two incidents stand out.  A nice lady with a Tone Forge T-Shirt came by to get some brochures, and told me that the Texas 2:10 Special was the best amp in the show.  Late in the day, a very talented Nashville guitarist named Nathan came by, looking for the star amp.  He said he had heard about the amp (Texas 2:10 Special) and had come by to test it out.  He played and played on that amp, covering a variety of styles quite handily, all the while raving about the tone and responsiveness of the Texas 2:10 Special.  Rick from RBi let him play the JDD and Elise, but most of his playing was on my personal Telecaster.  He was most impressed with the amp, and I hope to get in touch with him again when he comes back to Austin.

All in all, it was a great time, and a great showing for my amps.  It’s always good to get feedback from musicians, and it’s extra special to get such positive response from people for whom music is their livelihood.

Bruce

Why Do Tube Amps Sound Better… or Do They?

Many guitarists, especially those that play rock, blues, or country music, seem to agree that “tube amps sound better”.  Almost all guitarists would agree that given the same rated output power, that “tube amps sound louder”.  A 30W amp tends to sound louder than a 65W solid state amp.  Of course, for some types of music, solid state is the preferred amp, and it’s for very reasons that tube and solid state amps sound different.   A jazz guitarist who is not going to overdrive his amp may like the cleans that solid state amps offers.  A metal guitarist or “shredder” may like the very overdriven tones that solid state amps produce that make them so very different than tube amps.

Why do so many think tubes sound better?  I am one of them.

Here’s why:

Guitar amplifiers are often severely overloaded by signal transients, (THD 30%), especially in today’s world of high output pickups and pedals. Under this condition there is a major difference in the harmonic distortion components of the amplified signal, with tubes, transistors, and op-amps separating in distinct groups.

Op-amps produce strong third, fifth, and seventh harmonics when driven only a few dB into overload.  The resulting sound is metallic with a very harsh edge, which the ear hears as strong distortion. Because the sound may be objectionable, op-amps are rarely operated in their saturated region.  This results in a very clean amplified sound with little coloration and true dynamic range (within the limits of the amp).  This dynamic range is not necessarily a good thing, because of the limits of the rest of the system.  The top end of the dynamic range contains transients, but lacks solid pitch information.  The result?  Clean, but perhaps sibilant and cymbally.  Colorless.  Dull.  Perhaps you don’t want your amp to “color” your sound.

Transistors produce buzz or white noise when severely overloaded, caused by the edge produced by overloading on transients, mostly seventh and ninth harmonics. The ears hear this dissonance as noise. Another factor is a lack of “punch” due to strong third harmonics, a kind of blanketing of the sound. Transistor amps exhibit a strong third harmonic when driven to overload, producing that blanketed sound.  This sound, compressed lack of punch, and strong odd order harmonics, may be what some guitarists are looking for.

Tubes generate a whole spectrum of harmonics when overloaded, particularly the second, third, fourth, and fifth, to give a very full bodied sound.  Tubes also differ from op-amps and transistors in that they can be operated in the overload region without adding objectionable distortion.  A slow rising edge and open harmonics combine to create an ideal sound.  Within the 15-20 dB overload range, the electrical output of the tube increases only 2-4 dB, creating a natural compression.  Since the edge is increasing within this range, the subjective loudness remains uncompressed to the ear.  It is this effect cause tube amps to have a higher apparent volume level not indicated on a volume (VU) meter.

Tubes sound louder and have a better signal-to-noise ratio because of the extra subjective headroom that transistor amplifiers do not have.  Tubes get their punch from their natural overload characteristics.  Since loud signals can be reproduced at higher levels, the softer signals are also louder.  This is the famous “sweet spot” that tube amps exhibit.  Strong second and third harmonics give a feeling of a more natural bass response.

The sweet spot will sound loud clean and full, and exhibit wonderful touch sensitive dynamics that follow the guitarist’s playing dynamics.  Roll back the volume control on the guitar or play softer, and you get the full, rich tone at a quieter level.  Dig in, or roll up the volume control, and now you have that natural, sweet, singing tube overdrive that we love so much as guitarists.  This is why we love tube amps!

Notes on harmonics. The primary color characteristics of an instrument are determined by the strength of the first few harmonics.

  • Odd harmonics (3rd and 5th) produce a stopped or covered sound.
  • Even harmonics (2nd, 4th, & 6th) produce choral or singing sounds.

The second and third harmonics are the most important.  The second, an octave above the fundamental, adds body and makes the note sound fuller.  The third harmonic is a musical 12th.  Instead of making the sound fuller, it blankets the sound and makes it sound softer.  Adding a fifth harmonic to a strong third gives the sound a metallic quality that gets increasingly annoying as the volume increases.  A strong second with a strong fifth tends to open up the covered effect that the third induces (this is usually what we want).  Adding fourth and fifth to this will change the sound to an open horn like sound.

Higher harmonics, above the seventh, give edge or bite to the sound.  As long as this edge is balanced, it will reinforce the fundamental and give a sharper attack quality.  Too much of the higher harmonics- seventh, ninth, eleventh – will give that raspy, dissonant kind of sound.  The human ear is sensitive to the edge harmonics.

The major characteristic of tube amps is the presence of strong second and third harmonics, sometimes in concert with the fourth and fifth.  Remember, a strong second with a strong fifth tends to open up the covered effect that the third induces, and strong second and fourth harmonics help create that singing sound we all love so much in our tube amps.

Tremolo

I like tremolo.  I like the way it sounds.  It sounds great on a Rhodes piano and it sounds great on a Fender guitar.  It’s a great effect, and used on lots more songs that just Crimson and Clover.

Leo Fender added a tremolo effect to his guitar tube amplifiers in the 1950s with the introduction of the Tremolux and Vibrolux amplifiers.  For some reason, marketing perhaps or a misunderstanding, Leo often called his tremolo effect a vibrato, and he refereed to his vibrato arms on his guitars as a tremolo.

Just to set the record straight, tremolo is the varying of the amplitude, or volume of a sound, while vibrato is variance in pitch.  The “Fender Synchronized Tremolo” on a Stratocaster is a vibrato effect, while the “Vibrato” on Fender blackfaced amps is, in actuality, a tremolo effect.
 
The first guitar tube amp tremolos used what’s variously knows as “bias wiggle”, “bias vary”, or “grid bias” tremolo.  This is what my amps use.  Later amplifiers used different, more complex, or more advanced tremolo circuits
 

Grid Bias Tremolo

A 12AX7 tube triode high gain stage (one triode half of a dual triode 12AX7) is normally used as a low frequency oscillator (LFO), as high gain is a requirement for the LFO to work. (The other half of the 12AX7 is often used as the phase splitter for the push-pull output section.)  To produce the oscillation, the output of the tube is fed back to the input after being processed by a series of capacitor/resistor (RC) taps- three capacitors in series, with a resistor to ground after each one.   Each RC filter produces a phase shift, and cascading them in series causes the gain stage to go into an oscillation.  There is often a footswitch to lift the ground of the circuit, which turns it off.
 
By carefully selecting the value of the resistors and capacitors, the designer can set the speed of the oscillation.  Typically, tube amp LFOs have a base rate of anywhere from 1 to 12 cycles per second.  (A tremolo rate of between 4 and 6 cycles per second seems to be the most pleasing to the ear.)  One of the resistors is usually a potentiometer that is used to vary the speed of the oscillation.  When playing guitar through a tremolo, 1 cps is really slow, whereas anything above 3 cps is pretty fast.  Sometimes you want that really slow, relaxed sound, and sometimes you want that fast warbly sound.  It depends on the style and the song.
 
Once the LFO is built, we have to find a way to use it to vary the volume of the amp.  The “bias wiggle” version takes a tap off the LFO output, runs it through a DC blocking capacitor, and then to a potentiometer that is used as a Depth or Intensity control.  The output of this is fed to the grid bias of the output tubes.  The effect of this oscillation on the output tubes bias voltage is to cause the gain of the tube to fluctuate, and, voila, we have a volume-altering tremolo, where we can control the speed and depth, and click it on or off with the step of a footswitch.
 
This tremolo is lush, warm, and pulsing, a “hypnotic slam effect”. And everything was fine.

Photo-Cell Tremolo

However, Leo was a tinkerer, and always striving to make things better.  If the coupling capacitor were to fail, and high voltage DC was introduced into the grid circuit of the output tubes… well, bad things could happen, like blowing out the tubes or even transformers.  Leo wanted to isolate the LFO from the grid circuit.  He did this by using a lamp and an optocoupler (light-dependent resistor).  The LFO voltage was used to turn a lamp on and off, and the optocoupler then effected the grid bias of the preamp circuit.  This had the desired result of isolating the high voltage from the grid, but it changed the sound of the tremolo.  The optocoupler was more of an on/off switch than a variance, taking away some of the lushness.  Still, many like the deep sound of this tremolo. The parts count and cost was still low, and while it was great for a Princeton or Deluxe, but Leo wanted something better on his higher end professional amplifiers.

Harmonic Vibrato

His solution was a completely new design.  In a 1958 design R. H Dorf patented “a combined tremolo-vibrato system for use in an electronic musical instrument.  Mr. Dorf used an LFO to control the input of his vibrato triode, and the bias of his tremolo triode, and used high- and low- pass filters to prevent sub-audible tones from reaching the power amp, and to keep his effect of the bass notes. 

imageThis design, that “divided signals into components of equal magnitude and opposite phase,” was one influence on what Fender called the “Harmonic Vibrato”. 

This multi-tube circuit split the high frequencies from the lows, and then separate out of phase LFOs for the highs and lows.  The highs were becoming louder while the lows were getting quieter, and vice-versa (see drawing below).  This produced a very rich and lush tremolo that people still argue about- whether or not this effect produces a phase-shifting pitch change, a vibrato. My best answer at this time is that the swirling effect of the highs and lows isn’t a true vibrato, but when it reaches our ears the changes in intensity of the highs versus the lows can be interpreted as an apparent pitch change, when it really isn’t a pitch changing effect.

image

The Digital Age

I have a DigiTech RP-150 multi-effects pedal that I like very much. It uses the modern digital technology – effects on a chip –that’s used in most modeling amps.  I use it with headphones for practicing, often with the built in drum machine.  I connect it via USB to my computer, and play along with music recordings, or I use it to for recording tracks.  I’ve also used it live on numerous occasions.  One of its many effects is tremolo.  I used this to add a tremolo guitar track to a song that we used at my oldest daughter’s wedding for the father-daughter dance.  I bought the mp3 from Amazon, and then used my RP-150 and Audacity to add a tremolo guitar track.  The results were very pleasing.

I also built a transistor tremolo foot pedal to add tremolo to my Palomino V-16 amp for playing live and recording.  It sounds pretty good, and and gives a nice pulsating tremolo tone.  I used it every time we played Bob Dylan’s Everything is Broken.

Sometime after I built my first tube amp, with tremolo, I decided to do an A-B-C comparison.  I had been told by professional guitarists that my old-fashioned grid bias tremolo sounded very good, and wanted to put it up against my other tremolo effects. So, I did.

I hooked everything up, and played them one against each other.  Third place? The digital tremolo.  What sounds great on a PC or in headphones or in a recording environment, is not necessarily what works live.  See my post on why you can’t sound like your favorite guitarist. Second place?  The tremolo effects pedal that uses transistors.  The sound is more organic, more rich.  The clear-cut winner though, was the real tube tremolo.  Oh, my nothing beats the real thing, baby!

There is a richness, a depth, a feel, to tube tremolo that just can’t be gotten any other way.  Just as a good tube amp will be rich with a dynamic touch responsiveness to go from clean to crunch just by varying your right hand on your guitar, tubes give a rich tremolo sound that approaches the swirling sound of a rotating speaker.

This is why I build my amps the old way.

Conclusion

While tremolo was the first on-board guitar amp effect, and went out of favor in the late ‘70s, to be replaced by distortion, it’s still a widely-used effect, that can have a very pleasing effect to the ear on the right song.  Whether a slow ballad or a jazzy up-tempo number, a little tremolo can add a nice touch.

Tuning Your Sound – Balancing Your Pickups

Think of your sound chain. By “sound chain” I mean the links all the way from you, your fingers on your guitar, the acoustic and electrical properties of your guitar – the resonance, pickups, volume/tone controls, bridge – and then on to your amplifier’s capabilities and settings, and then finally to the speaker. When you make any change to any link in this chain, you change the sound. There is a basic, intrinsic sound to your chain. This includes your normal playing style, volume, and tone, along with the standard “sound” of your amp/speaker at your normal settings. For ten years I played a Fender Nashville Telecaster.  Recently I’ve been playing a PRS Custom SE Semi-Hollow.  After a recent practice, the other guitarist, who plays a Fender Stratocaster, commented that he thought I would sound more different than I did, using the PRS versus the Fender.  In spite of change to a completely different type of guitar, I still sounded like me.

There are three places to tune your sound. You, your guitar, and your amp.

One of the often overlooked links in this chain is pickup height. Some experienced players know how great of a difference pickup height can make. They talk of pickup height in terms of finding a “sweet spot” where pickups sound their best and are most responsive and dynamic. Often, but not in any case always, this means lowering your guitars pickups. Guitar techs even apply a term, Stratitis, to the negative effects of having pickups too close to the strings on a standard Fender Stratocaster guitar.

Most electric guitars have two or more pickups, and even many of those with one pickup will have multiple switch or tone settings. Start with the bridge pickup, with the volume and tone wide open on the guitar. Set your amplifier’s tone to where it gets the flattest frequency response. (For a Fender blackface amp, this is usually with the Treble and Bass turned down and the Mids up). Fret the string at the last fret and set the pickup height according the the manufacturer’s spec; this will be the starting point. Bill Lawrence says to fit one nickel under the high E and two under the low E on a Fender Telecaster bridge pickup, then lower the pickup evenly to taste, and then adjust the height of the neck pickup to match the bridge. By the way, a U.S. nickel is about 5/64″ thick (.077″ or 1.95mm).

After setting the pickup height to factor spec, play across the strings in the middle of the neck. Play arpeggios and scales and melodies across the neck. Are the bass strings louder than the treble, or the treble strings too weak or too bright? Lower the pickup on the strongest side to even out the frequency response. Work in even increments, perhaps a quarter turn or half turn at a time. Test again. In this way, you can compensate for a bass-heavy amp or pickup by lowering the bass side of the pickup, or make up for an ice-pick treble sound by lowering the treble side of the pickup.  If lowering the bass or treble side was not enough, you can always lower the pole piece for that string. If lowering worked on the 5th or 2nd string but not on the 6th or 1st, then you can raise the pole piece for that one string.

Once you get the pickup height right for tonal balance, try lowering the entire pickup one whole screw turn and see how it affects the sound.  Do you like it better or not as much. If not as much, then raised it back., and then raise it a turn to see if you like that better.  One person I know says that his DiMarzio Air Classic pickups sound best closer to the strings.  Lace Sensors usually sound best close to the strings.  Fender single coil pickups often sound better farther away.  If lowering the pickup sounds better, then lower it another whole turn and test again.  What you want to find is the sweet spot, where the pickups are the most clear, the most balanced and the most responsive to your playing style.

Does your pickup have adjustable pole-pieces? Probably so if it’s not a Fender-style single coil pickup. Here is a way to adjust each string for best balance. Turn the volume down to where the amplified sound is only slightly louder than the acoustic sound of the guitar. It helps to have a long cable to get some separation from the amp. Again, play some arpeggios and scales and melodies across the neck, listening for strings that are lower in volume. When you hear it louder from the guitar than from the amp, you’ll know. Raise the pole piece underneath that string a quarter or half turn at a time, and then test again. Test again a stage volume, listening for a string that is too quiet in respect to the others or is too prominent.

I once had to choose between two amps. My standard gigging amp was louder, gainier, and was very bright – lots of treble. The other had a much fuller tone, more bass and midrange, and was not as loud. I chose the second for the sweet tone, but then had to deal with the fact that my sound was now too bassy and dominated by the low end. The solution? I ended up lowering the pickups on the bass side to get a more even response. This worked like a charm, and now the tone and response from string to string is very balanced. This allows me freedom of tone and volume settings on the guitar and amp, and greater flexibility in playing styles.  I can dig in on the bass strings without them completely overpowering my sound, and I can accentuate highs or lows as I see fit, just by varying my attack on the strings.