Distinctly Different

Recently, my wife and I attended a music showcase. One of the bands featured a very good local guitarist, one that I’ve known of for over 30 years. He’s always played well, and he’s well respected.

During the course of the show, he played several guitar solos, all of them top notch, and kept the rhythm going with style the rest of the time. He was using a Fender® Stratocaster®, which looked to me to be either a 57 re-issue or an Eric Johnson signature model, and a Bugera amplifier, with a well-stocked pedal board in between. This brings me to my first point.

Eric Johnson has a signature tone. If you’ve heard him play, it usually doesn’t take long to discern that, ‘that’s Eric Johnson playing.’ Fender recently introduced a new Eric Johnson Signature Stratocaster Thinline model. While talking about this guitar, Mr. Johnson recalled some advice that B.B. King gave him years ago:

“You know, you can do this; you can do that. There’s all these things you can do, but find the one thing you do that’s unique, that nobody else can do, and just go with it!”

B.B. King had an instantly recognizable style. So does Eric Johnson. So do many others, from Carlos Santana to Willie Nelson to Roy Buchanan.

While listening to this great local guitarist play his solos, which were all on point and very good, I couldn’t help but notice his tone. To me, it sounded very, well, generic. It sounded like a Strat played through a pedal board. Nothing distinguishable about it, even though it was musically very good and well placed.

During a break in the show, my wife, who has a very discerning ear for music, had asked me who the guitarist was, and commented that he was really good. She’s very honest about her musical thoughts. If my tone or playing or singing is not very good, she will tell me. She’ll also honestly tell me her thoughts about anyone we listen to. I value her opinion; it’s an opinion forged by years of musical training.

As we were driving home after the show, I asked my wife what she thought about his tone. I asked her cold, so as not to prejudice her response. She replied that his tone, “wasn’t very good. It sounded cheap.” Interesting, especially considering that he was a very good guitarist playing what is considered to be good equipment.

That One Thing

Perhaps the greatest compliment I’ve ever received from anyone came from Mark Daven of the Guitar Radio Show. During an interview with him, after he had played two guitars through two different Texas Tone™ amplifiers, he stated:

“Many times I’ll play amps and you can’t tell one from the other. These are very distinctly different sounding amps. They made me play differently. I started approaching the instrument in a different way as I played each one.”

Mark Daven, Guitar Radio Show

When speaking about my signature amp, the Texas Tone 12, he stated that it has a “a pulsating tremolo. Different than anything I’ve heard before.”  He’s heard lots.

Don’t be generic. Don’t settle for a ‘me, too’ sound. Take advice from two masters, B.B. King and Eric Johnson. Find that thing you do that’s unique, that nobody else can do, and just go with it.

For me, it’s hand made tube amps, featuring the unique Hypnotic Slam Effect of the  Texas Tone 12 tremolo.


Low Noise

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

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

Why not clones or replicas?


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

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

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


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


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

Lead Dress

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

Components, Wire, and Lead Dress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.



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.


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.


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.