Monday, April 7, 2008

Tube be . . . or not tube be?

You may or may not know who Andrew Barta is . . . but as a guitar player, you probably should. Long before Line 6 entered the world of modeled, solid-state amplification - (7) years to be exact, Tech 21, Barta's NY-based company, introduced the SansAmp, which literally set the music and recording worlds on their collective ear.

Back in 1989, amp-modeling was pretty much undiscovered country. Yes, there were many companies designing / manufacturing effects - but none that could emulate the tonal characteristis of (3) highly sought-after tube amplifiers - - all packed snugly into a foot pedal! As if this wasn't a feat in and of itself, the SansAmp also pioneered the idea of line-direct recording - i.e. electronically facilitating the "effect" of microphone proximity in relation to the sound of the amplifier. In 1989, these were incredibly broad and defined strokes on a very large, but completely blank canvas. And the only artist holding a brush - Andrew Barta.

Nearly (20) years later, it's hard to name a major player in the burgeoning guitar retail market that doesn't have some type of modeling offering. The surprising thing here is that amongst all the Flash Gordon, whiz-bang techno candy currently out there - the Tech 21 SansAmp (*now marketed as that SansAmp GT-2) is still one of the best and the most reasonably priced.

While browsing the Sound OnS ound website, I came across an interesting 1996 interview with the Tech 21 founder. In the article, Mr. Barta spoke about some of the intricacies of the solid-state tube-emulating concept, as well as the physical and technical theories that came into play during the design process. One thing I found particularly interesting was that many of of the key tonal elements were rooted in very basic sound & electronic principles - things such as decay, clipping, phase inversion, and reverb.

So how does an article like this equate to the everyday player? Very simply - when applied to your own tone, having a basic understanding of key sound and electronic principles can lead to some pretty big things. Whether it be live sound, recorded sound, gear choices - whatever; knowing how things work, and how sound behaves has benefits all across the board.

If one were to judge by recent trends, it would appear that vintage tube technology has made a prolific return to prominence. In fact, so much so, that many high-profile players have all but written the epitaph for the solid-state amplifier. But the bell tolls not for ye', o' venerable purveyor of guitar tone. Solid state amplification is alive and well, and sounding better than ever. As a matter of fact, Andrew Barta & Tech 21 have a few new tricks up their sleeve. More on that one later. J.

Finishing School

I've always had an interest in the science of vintage guitars and gear, as many of those things often transcend themselves to other areas that can be vitally useful to my own playing, or gear.

I'd recently read an article in which Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top) was trying to explain why his # 1 Les Paul (which he dubiously dubbed "Pearly Gates" ) has that sound. One of the things he'd mentioned in that particular article was the finish - which was something I hadn't heard mentioned before. Sure, I've heard / read other stories about some of the other things that vintage gear afficianados have claimed as the "magical element", including: the wood (old stand vs. new growth); vintage hardware (metallurgy anyone?); and some old-school wiring / electrical (different types of bobbins, cloth-insulated wiring, certain waxes, vintage pots / capacitors, etc.) Yes indeed - the pursuit of the "grail tone" leaves no stone unturned.

As I was exploring this very topic on the internet, I came actoss the following article, in which the author determined that the lacquer used on vintage guitars (i.e. non-synthetic, non-polyurethane) was a key element of its sound / tone. To further bolster his claim, he actually stripped down, and refinished a new guitar with an older type of lacquer finish. You can check this story out for yourself at the BYOB (Bring Your Own Battery) Website: The Effect Of Lacquer

This is but one of the tons of cool topics about vintage guitars / amps. If anyone else has links or resources to other vintage gear-related topics - let me know. J.

*NOTE: If you double-click on the photo of Billy G., it will enlarge. Then you can get a good look at the Rev's custom Rio Grande stack in the background! ;~)

Skin Deep

Fact: The world is filled with some incredibly UGLY guitars. Along with some incredibly lame, horribly designed, and and fantastically hilarious ones, too. Ladies & Gentlemen, I present to you:

The Guitar Site's Ugliest Guitars II

(*scroll down to the post, and click on the individual headers)

The Name Game

I used to think that my friend Darren had the market cornered on great band names. For the record, he has now been "officially" de-throned. Check out the links and see why:

To all the guys in "Orphan Clown Train" - maybe you should have waited for this post . . . ??!!! J.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Small change . . . BIG tone

Everyone is probably familiar with the saying, "you get what you pay for" (*and in the case of REO Speedwagon, "you get what you play for.") While that statement may hold true for a lot of things, budget-minded tone connoisseurs can still find a lot of great, incredibly affordable gear goodies & tweaks. Using $30 as a spending cap (*which if you think about it, isn't really all that much) - I came up with (6) items that will provide any player with immediate, tone-worthy benefits:

1.) Picks - Yeah, the good ol' plectrum. Ranging in cost from *free* to several dollars (fancy ones are probably more) - a pick can offer a player a number of different benefits. For example - softer picks can be used for a percussive strumming effect; harder picks help notes / chords ring true. Some picks even have special gripping material on them. Whatever and however you play - there's a pick made just for you. Try a bunch out, and see what you like - and still have plenty left-over for wings and beer.

2.) Strings - Like picks, they're a necessity. Most players stick with the same brands all the time - - you know, for "consistency" sake - rarely venturing outside the box. Earth to Mr. / Ms. Guitar Player - at $5 or less a pop, why not try out some different gauges & brands out. I recently picked up a set of Fender Pure Nickel 150L strings for my cream Strat, and was literally floored with their fat, juicy sound. The cost for that huge improvement in tone - $3.99 + tax.

3.) Set-up / intonation - For the gifted, do-it-yourself player - which most of us are not, a fresh set-up will provide an immediately noticeable tonal improvement, not to mention that your guitar will play like "buttah". Think of a set-up / intonation as the guitar equivalent of a trip to the chiropractor. Damage - $10 - $15; more if your axe is severely out of whack.

4.) Dont' get "floored" - While there's nothing wrong with setting your amp on the floor, getting it up off of the floor can do a number of things. Using a stand, with your amp properly angled, the "window" of sound can be directed at an optimum angle to your ear - thus enhancing what you're hearing from your amp (*not to mention your audience and / or band-mates.) It's certainly not rocket science by any means. Musician's Friend has a nice, combo-sized floor stand for right around $20 + shipping. A larger, more elaborate unit will, of course, run you a bit (or a LOT) more - depending on the bells and whistles.

5.) Plug-n-play - Take it from someone who has spent the better part of my playing career using cheap, crappy cables - a good cord makes a HUGE difference. Let me repeat that - a HUGE difference. A cleaner signal going to your amp = less hum / distortion. And that, my friends, equates to better tone. Cables come in all price ranges, with all kinds of features - and $25 - $30 should get you a pretty decent one.

6.) Tube into tone - Got yourself a tube amp, do ya'? Well, if you can plug in a blender to make a margarita, then you can swap out a vacuum tube. Easy as pie. Depending on what the tonal endeavors are for your amp, individual tubes can run you as little as $12 - $15 apiece. Although you might have to stretch your $30 budget out over a few months to get a full set (*some amps require (7) or (8) tubes), you can score a couple tubes here and there, and drop 'em all in when your collection is complete. After your swap is done, plug in, and savor all of the delicious, analog, fire-spitting* goodness.

So there you have it - (6) easy, cost-effective ways to tastier tone. Bon apetit'! J.

( * ) "Of Mice & Modelers" post - 1/11/08.

What was good then . . .

Ah yes . . . the good ol' days. Back in 1959, when this ad came out, it was OK for kids to snuggle up to Dad's Fender Twin, and enjoy enjoy some smooth, tweed guitar stylings at point-blank range. And lucky for Dad - the American Auditory Society was still (15) years from forming.

As you can about imagine - things like this have a tremendous influence on youngsters. Around '68, Little Suzie became Moonbeam, the Grateful Dead groupie, and lost what was left of her hearing attending shows over the course of the next 5-6 years. She's now a counselor at a homeless shelter, drawing from her experiences on the road. In her spare time, she tends to her organic garden, and weaves on her homemade loom.

Dad sold his Twin in the mid 70's to some British guy named Keith, who was in town for some sort of special event. Appartently, he'd shown up at the house in a stretch limo, and walked out of the car with a bottle of scotch in his hand. Now Dad wasn't one to be impressed with this sort of thing, and decided to teach the young man a lesson. Knowing that his prospective customer was fairly wealthy, he said he woudn't take a penny less than $150 for the amplifier. This Keith guy then hands him three crisp $100 bills, and says, "keep the change, mate."

Dad still has that bottle of scotch in the liquor cabinet, too. J.

NOTE: If you enjoy vintage guitar / gear ads, you can check out a few more of the Fender variety at
this link.