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.

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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

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.

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.

Texas Tone 12 Public Debut

The Texas Tone 12 had its public debut last week, at an outdoor gig by Rosie and The Ramblers at Freddie’s Place in south Austin.  I was concerned thaTexas Tone 12t, being a small tweed type amplifier surrounded by a full band, it wouldn’t be able to produce enough volume. I was wrong in that concern.  Rosie and The Ramblers didn’t play at ear-splitting volume, but more of a listening level show.  Usually, each of the Ramblers’ two guitarists play through Fender Blues Junior amplifiers.  On this night, John Winsor had agreed to play the Texas Tone 12 after playing though it on a demo session several days earlier.  He still brought his Blues Junior just in case.

John set up the Texas Tone 12 on the stage next to Schley Barrack’s Blues Jr., and put the tremolo footswitch on his pedal board.  After a few minutes of tweaking and sound checks, the Ramblers were ready to go.  After the first song, which sounded very good, I asked them to turn up Rosie’s vocals. She’s an expressive singer with a strong voice, and I wanted that to come through the mix.

The Texas Tone 12 did more than hold its own. John and Schley, who both play Fender Telecasters, trade lead and rhythm parts, and sometimes play harmony lead lines.  Both are very good guitarists.  Schley handled the Albert Lee parts in Emmylou’s Luxury Liner just fine.  John sometimes keeps his leads on the mellow side, but occasionally lets that biting Tele twang come through.  Not only did the lead parts sing through the Texas Tone 12, but the rhythm parts didn’t get lost.

John was quickly able to find the amp’s ‘sweet spot’, which in this case had the volume on 12 and the gain at 6 or 7. At that setting, he could easily play clean or overdriven tones, depending upon his picking style and his guitar’s tone and volume settings.  According to John, “It is really responsive, breaks up nicely, and gives a great warm/slightly-compressed overdrive.”

Playing a mix of country standards and original material, the tonal response of the Texas Tone 12 shone throughout.  Winsor and Barrack were both impressed with the richness of the amp’s tremolo circuit.  Winsor again, “man, that tremolo sounds sweet! There were a couple of those ballads where Schley and I both heard it and gave the thumbs-up!” Rosie, also did not escape those sweet tremolo sounds.  After one of the songs, she said, “How did you like that!” with a smile and a nod of approval.

Overall, it was a good first outing.  John Winsor’s thoughts on the amp, “Your Texas Tone sounds great! I think it is an excellent amp… I wouldn’t change a thing about it.”

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