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.

Advertisements

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.

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

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.

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.

Point-to-Point Wiring?

Recently, I saw on a boutique guitar amplifier maker’s website that his amps feature “point-to-point wiring”.  I doubt it, and I don’t think you would want it if it were true.  Leo Fender did us all a favor when he dumped point-to-point wiring and started using tag boards in his amps.  In the 1950s, Fender amps earned a well-deserved reputation for serviceability and reliability, so much so that an amp could fall off of a touring bus or pickup truck bed, or be pulled out of a wrecked car, and still work.

What Leo did in his narrow panel tweed amps was to mount his components on sturdy boards with solder grommets for the passive components, and then he mounted the entire amp chassis to the top of the amp, with the controls facing up and the components facing the back of the amp.  Simply by removing the back panel, all electronic components were accessible, with the exception of the power and output transformers.

An amp that is wired point-to-point does not use any type of board for mounting components.  Resistors and capacitors are attached directly to potentiometers, switches, jacks, and tube sockets, and use flying wire leads to connect to one another.  It’s a rat’s nest of wires and components that makes servicing a real pain in the neck, and subjects the components to un-needed stress.  Here is a photo of an old amp that features point-to-point wiring:

point_to_point

I think you’ll agree that it’s a mess, and that troubleshooting or servicing would be difficult, and many components are unsupported.

On the other hand, here are two very nicely done tag board amps, the first a Champ-like build, and the other a Marshall type build:

LilDawg12

3942121509_243e098481_z

As you can see, the tag board amp circuits are easily traceable for troubleshooting, and the components are all supported by sturdy boards.

It’s for reasons such as these that I choose to use tweed-style cabinets and tag or turret boards in my own amp builds.  My amps are hand wired, but do not feature point-to-point wiring; they feature tag boards or turret boards.  All connections are hand wired, and all component leads are bent and soldered by hand using high quality solder for a sure and lasting connection.

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.