Friday, January 23, 2009

Vox: The Fab Four Years . . .

Dave Tea joins us once again for another great Beatles piece. - - J.

One of my obsessions and favorite things to do lately is busting Beatle myths, and there are quite a few to conquer. One that sparked my enthusiasm recently is the myth, or myths surrounding the Beatles and Vox amplifiers. There is a lot of information out there on the subject, too much to cover in this posting so I’ll try to provide a few links for you gearheads that need to dig deeper into the details of the Beatle/Vox fascinations.

When the Beatles joined forces with manager Brian Epstein in 1962, they were a scruffy club band in dire need of professional stage amplifiers. Up to that point they had been using whatever modest rigs they could afford, borrow or steal. Lennon had acquired a blonde Vox AC15 somewhere along the line (all Voxes were blonde in those days, black Vox amps would appear later on...due to Beatle demands), and all of the Beatles dug its chimey, harmonic-rich tone. Mr. Epstein decided to try something rather bold, and asked one of the Vox marketing guys if he would trade a backline of Vox amplification for an artist endorsement.

The Beatles were only famous in Liverpool at the time, and it was a bit of agamble for this guy to actually give away amplifiers. This wasn't done. His gut feeling that this would be beneficial to Vox would prove right soon enough, but must have seemed quite foolish at the time. From that point forward until Brian Epstein's death in 1967, Vox would provide the Beatles with their latest and greatest bass and guitar amplifiers, and a keyboard or two under the agreement that whenever they performed anywhere, all amplifiers used onstage were Vox, and nothing but Vox. Posing for print ads was also part of the deal, but the Beatles got what they needed to try to be heard over the ever-increasing wail of ever-increasing, rabid, screaming fans. Demand for little-known Vox amplifiers eventually skyrocketed, as did the demands for Gretsch and Rickenbacker guitars, Hofner basses and Ludwig drums.

The Beatles didn't know that the guitars they banged around, leaned against chairs and dropped on the floor would become Holy Grails to latter-day gear geeks, nor did they really seem to give a lot of thought or concern to these tools of their trade. They were selling records and poking girls left and right, and making great noise with whatever non-pampered instrument might be lying around the studio at the time. The only Beatle that really collected or even seemed to care much about guitars was Harrison, but he gave a lot of them away to friends. I’m guessing that the Beatles probably laugh hysterically when “historians” and other gearheads seem to know and care more about what equipment was used on which track or tour than they did, which is easy because when pressed for information, they often haven’t had the foggiest recollection of such mundane details. However, that's not to say that they didn't have their cherished favorite guitars (*stay tuned).

The Beatles used Vox amplifiers in the studio, sure, but after conquering England and the rest of the world they would be given extraordinary access to the rest of the industry's latest electronic toys, gadgets and amplifiers. This was the time when guitar pedals and gizmos were being introduced as well as the first solid state and solid state/tube hybrid amplifiers. As the Beatles’ ever-increasing demand for higher volume and power grew, Vox amplifiers became quite huge, and more and more transistorized. It’s been said that there was a lot of grumbling about the tone and reliability of the massive “Superbeatle” amplifiers that were provided for their stadium shows.

Always free to use whatever brand of amplifiers they wished making records, a blonde piggyback Fender Bassman was reportedly used more often on more recordings from 1965 forward than any other, recording bass and guitar. They might've actually paid for that fine piece of equipment.

The end of live touring in 1966, and the death of Brian Epstein in 1967 effectively ended the Vox/Beatle "partnership", but Vox amps would continue to be seen in the backline in some later promotional films that the Beatles would send around the world instead of themselves.

Fender began sending gifts to the lads as well, guitars, basses, pianos, public address systems and tube amplifiers. By the time of the Let it Be sessions, or maybe before, Fender ruled the backline of the Beatles....not only because they sounded great, but because they were free. - - by Dave Tea

Some Beatle links:

Rig O' The Month - Feb. '09

February's ROTM photo was shot by friend and award-winning photo journalist Darren Gibbins. A guitarist himself, as well as an avid music collector, the skills he uses in capturing the artistry and design of guitar equipment are reflective of his passion for the same. This particular session was a long time in the works, but as you can see, the results were well worth it. Plans are in the works to feature more of Darren's outstanding photography work here at the Tone Farm, as well as a link to his website once its completed.

First, the guitar - a Mexican-made 3TS Classic 60's Fender Stratocaster, purchased at Last Chance Guitars in Des Moines, IA back in 2005. My reasons for stopping in the shop were mostly to quell my nagging urge to play while away from home for two weeks training for my then-new job with CWG (*flying down from Fargo did not provide me with the opportunity to bring a guitar along.) Two weeks of playing it at the shop after work and I knew it had to come home with me.

The guitar itself has remained mostly stock since its purchase, the lone modifications being a better 3-pos. switch, a cream pearloid pickguard, and a set of mojo-riffic, Abigail Ybarra-wound Fender Custom Shop '69 pickups. The CS '69 p'ups provide a super-cool "Texas-meets-psychedelia" tone, allowing one to channel everything from quiet, clean blues to fuzzed-out distortion with equal ease. All-in-all, its a guitar that I am confident will be with me for the duration of my playing days.

And speaking of equipment that will be around for the long haul, the 1968 Fender Silverface Super Reverb pictured along-side the Stratocaster is yet another. A true vintage piece in amazing condition, it produces tone that borders on the religious - or at least in my humble estimation.

Packing 45 watts of big-tube swat, a quad of 10" speakers, factory tremelo, loads of spectacular clean headroom, and the trademark Fender reverb that it draws as its namesake, the Super Reverb brings a bevy of impressive features to a guitar player's arsenal. One of the huge discoveries I've made by playing this rig is how a great "clean" amp can be a fabulous platform for running a good, front-side distortion pedal. To my ears, the distortion produced in this configuration excels not only in note / chord definition, but also seems to be much warmer more harmonically complex than singular distortion alone (i.e. getting distortion from a gain channel.) By no means am I an expert on these kinds of things - but to my ears, that's how it sounds.

Having been personally selected to be the new owner of the amp by its previous sage (*coincidentally, one Mr. Darren Gibbins), the Super Reverb also holds a great deal of personal value. A "gentlemen's agreement" all but ensures that this amp will remain "in the family" . . ;~)

Fender through Fender is one of rock n' roll's elite "go-to" set-ups, and I feel pretty fortunate to be able to tap into that magical combination whenever the mood strikes. - - J.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Gathers Much Moss . . .

Being that its been awhile since I posted a CD review, I thought I'd pull out a personal favorite from my old forum archives. Enjoy!

Music has gone through some pretty drastic changes in the last half century. From rock-a-billy to folk, from psychedelia to heavy metal, from punk to disco, from glam metal to grunge, bands and music are continually evolving; like a musical carousel that never stops. Every once in a while, it's nice to know that you can get off of that merry-go-round, and settle into something more comfortable, more familiar. You know what I'm talking about. That wonderful feeling of a slow smile spreading across your face as those first enticing chords melt slowly into your ears. Yes indeed, some of the finer things do stay the same.

For over forty years, the Rolling Stones have contributed a staggering amount of legendary material to the rock and roll pantheon, all the while staying true to their one of primary musical influences - the blues. In the case of their 2005 CD release "Rarities" (Virgin), the familiar comes in the form of the band showcasing these blues roots through seldom-heard and previously unreleased material, much of which is live - an even more impressive undertaking.

For the casual Stones listener, "Rarities" offers a glimpse into the diverse musical platforms employed by one of rock n' roll's all-time greatest outfits. From blues-drenched covers of "Mannish Boy" and "I Just Wanna Make Love To You", to the dance-funk inspired "Miss You", to straight-ahead rockers like "Live With Me" (from 1969's "Let It Bleed" album), "Rarities" covers a gambut of Stones material in fine fashion. Die-hard fans, on the other hand, will really enjoy the CD's lean towards traditional blues sound, as it hearkens back to some of the band's early, club-playing days.

In listening to "Rarities", I came to the realization of another very important fact. That is, the sheer volume of material released by the Stones often detracts fans and listeners from the finer points of their music. Their arrangements, while seemingly sparse, allow their songs to "breathe". In other words, when Keith and Mick harmonize, you can hear them harmonize. When Woody weaves a tasty fill on top of one of Keith's groovin' rhythm lines, you can feel their connection. Likewise, the backdrops to many of the the songs included on this collection are interjected with a sassy sax (say that fast seven times!), or a jukey piano - never once does any of it seem lost in the shuffle. By design? Absolutely. The great bands make it seem so effortless.

Another thing that impresses me about the Stones is the "authenticity" of their sound. Whether playing blues, rock, shuffle, pop, or ballads, the Stones always find a way to weave a little of their trademark "mojo" into each song - i.e. that cocky, English swagger that made them one of the very first "bad boy" rock bands way back in the day. Give a listen to the raucous, live cover of Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy", and you'll know what I mean. Mick's snarling vocal and gritty harp; Keith's raspy, almost transe-like rhythm line; Woody's stinging steel slide fills; Charley & Bill's dark, methodical back beat. The stuff of legends. Most inspiring of all, however, is the band's ability to play together as an effective, coherent unit. Face it - there aren't many bands that can just get down and groove like the Rolling Stones.

If I haven't done enough to convince you to go out and buy this CD, maybe I'll mention a bit about the guitar work. As one would expect, it's absolutely dripping with vintage guitar tone. With a majority of the songs being cut live, one is literally face-to-face with Keith's killer tone - a vintage Tele being driven through a pair of low vin # Fender Twins. Woody's sound is equally amazing - especially when he gets busy with the slide on one of his vintage Strats. Hearing these two legendary players "weaving" their way through a classic Willie Dixon blues number, well that's something that quite simply defies description. You have to hear it to understand it. And if you're a guitar player, trust me . . . you will. - - J.

A Distorted View . . . Pt. 1

To kick off 2009 in style, the Tone Farm is proud to present the first in a multi-part feature on one of modern guitar's most musically significant benefactors . . . distortion.


  • Also referred to as clipping, distortion is a change in an audio signal resulting in the appearance of frequencies at the output that were not present in the original waveform.
  • Changes in a signal that involve the addition of spurious tones at frequencies not present in the original sound.
  • A process, often found desirable by guitar players, that alters a sound's waveform.

I'd venture to say that there are probably as many stories and theories about how "guitar distortion" was discovered / invented as there are now varieties of devices that produce it. Even more interesting than that is the fact that in the eighty or so years that electrified guitar has been around (*several internet resources indicate 1928) - it took almost thirty of those years, or around late 1950's, for it to come into vogue as an accepted incarnation of guitar tone.

A partial explanation for that might certainly involve the equipment itself, as most of the amplifiers and guitars being used back then were not designed to produce the kind of harmonic distortion today's guitar players seek, much less that of which would might be termed as "desirable". Another may relate to the music that was popular at the time - very little of which required the "over-the-top" volume levels that are associated with the distorted tones common to yesteryear's classic & today's modern rock music.

Most players would agree that distorted guitar traces its roots to the earliest days of a new form of 50's music called - - rock n' roll. Guitarists like Chuck Berry and Link Wray developed unique, agressive styles of playing that took full advantage of distorted guitar - and are commonly looked upon as pioneers of the genre. Wray was rumored to have punched holes into the speaker of his amp with a screwdriver in order to get the "fuzzy" tone found in his trademark song "Rumble".

While it may be one thing to purposely damage a piece of equipment in the pursuit of tone, in other cases, distortion happened purely by accident. Take for example Johnny Burnette's 1956 remake of "Train Kept a Rollin'". Apparently, while playing a show, one of the tubes fell out of his amplifier. When a reviewer raved about how fantastic the song sounded, Burnette decided he'd go into the studio and record it that way. Genius!

Instrumental artists The Ventures could very well have been the very first band to use a purpose-specific device to distort a guitar signal. Inspired by the "fuzz tone" on the Marty Robbins song "Don't Worry 'Bout Me" (*again, created by a faulty amplifier), Ventures' guitarists Nokie Edwards and Bob Bogle asked their friend - an electronics whiz named Red Rhodes, to design a device that would produce a similar "fuzz" tone. A few months later, Rhodes presented them with custom "fuzz box", and the band immediately put it to good use in recording their hit "2,000 Pound Bee". Hence, the concept of a stand-alone guitar distortion device was born.

As guitarists became more "in-tune" with the inner-workings of their equipment, they began to discover didfferent ways by which to "drive" tube amplifiers into their natural state of harmonically-rich distortion. Eric Clapton was one such player. Using a Dallas Rangemaster treble booster, Clapton coaxed his now-legendary "Beano" tone from a 2x12 Marshall JTM-45 combo. Other players like Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix would take Clapton's lead even further by using bigger / louder amps to achieve their distinctive saturated tube sound.

The music of the 1960's would put an indelible imprint on distorted guitar - especially in terms of how it was created and recorded. But perhaps more importantly were the musicians and players of the era who aspired to its boldly creative and expressive powers, thereby creating for the listener a window that gazed outward upon a brave, new musical landscape. - - J.

Today its your birthday . . .

Saturday, December 27th slipped by here at the Tone Farm w/o too much fanfare. Hard to believe that a year has passed since "the seed was planted".

In honor of the 'Farm's first birthday / anniversary, I would like to extend my thanks to those who have contributed, supported, or offered their words of encouragement throughout the past year. Music has always played a significant role in my life - and having a resource like Tone Farm in which to share that love with others has been a most gratifying endeavor.

As guitar players, music fans, and purveyors/seekers of great tone, we all belong to the same tribe. Moving forward, it is my hope that the Tone Farm continues to be a place where we can share those things, as well as develop an appreciation for some that are new to us - whatever they may be. - - J.