Archive for the ‘Amp Posts’ Category

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The unhappiness with my tone. And it’s about that time. It’s been…almost a year since I got my base tone right where I wanted it to be? 10 months, maybe? Right about the time for me to get restless. Last night, at one of my normal venues, the ‘guts’ were gone from my tone. Same tone, just no 3d effect. I even took it apart to see if one the speakers had come loose from its solder, or if a tube was starting to go. Doesn’t appear that way.

Maybe my picks are getting worn down, maybe the speaker cable is going. Or maybe I’m just bored and accidentally ran across this picture again:


Jason Orme with his lovely KT88-tubed Divided by 13 RSA23, run in combination with an unfortunately not-pictured Matchless DC30. And if you’re thinking that the ‘4Alanis.com’ in the bottom right of the picture is referring to Alanis Morissette, you would be correct. But before you bash, check her out live. Orme and the rest of her backing band are absolutely amazing. His tone and melodic sense are to die for; I do wish he wasn’t wearing the ‘I-want-to-be-Eddie-Van-Halen’ wristband, but hey……guess you can’t have it all.

So is it an awakening of my ears, or just plain boredom? Should I just be happy with my tone and cure my boredom by just playing my strat exclusively or something like that for the next couple weeks? Definitely. Will I? hehehehe If I gave you one guess……


The Postscript: Apologies for the decidedly uninformative posts as of late. Life is……well, let’s just say that life is definitely happening right now, and all that that entails. Gear reviews, demos, musicianship articles, and stuff that might actually be useful (imagine that!) are hopefully on their way.


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Maybe……just maybe the most overlooked part of amp tone. I’ll talk to a lot of people who are into tube-swapping, are point-to-point handmade snobs, and all that jazz, but who couldn’t care less about their speakers. Maybe it’s because you can’t see the speakers, so what’s the point of getting cool ones? (That really did use to be me. You know, I just might be the most materialistic guitarist you’ll ever meet.) But I remember the first time I actually took my tone mentor’s advice and changed my speakers. The difference was astounding. And then I remember the first time I took his advice again, and actually got the speaker he told me to get. And there was much rejoicing.

(By the way, I don’t know if you have people like my tone mentor in your life, but they are very valuable. You know, the unabashedly honest people. I remember he’d call me up and ask, ‘Hey what guitar are you playing now?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, this Delta Les Paul knockoff. The guy told me they used to have a license from Gibson to make these, but then they started using better materials than Gibson and making them sound better than Gibson, and so Gibson sued them! So this guitar not only sounds better than a Gibson, there were only 200 of them made! I got for $250, and it’s worth, like, $5000!’ And he would say, ‘No.’ That honesty is so crucial. ;) )

EdgeBono.jpg picture by rypdal95
(And no, my tone mentor is not The Edge. Edge is my tone man-crush. I thought that was clear. My tone mentor is Mr. Huffman, to whom I owe a great deal, even if he doesn’t like the Memory Lane. hehe And is it just me, or does it look like Edge just ‘tolerates’ Bono sometimes?)

So speakers, at least in my opinion, are just as important as your amp. The wood of your cabinet is also extremely important. If I could boil it down to two things to look for in amp cabinets, I would say that you need to get a cabinet made of actual, solid wood. Not partical board, not some synthetic, new-fangled material they make Target furniture out of. (Nothing against that……half my wife’s and my apartment is Target furniture. But if we move it once, it’s toast.) Same thing as a guitar. The wood makes up a ton of the tone. And secondly, match your speakers so that the amp drives them.

Here’s what I mean. Even more important than a good speaker, is a speaker or speaker combination that matches your amp in wattage. You want the speaker, the only other part of your tone besides your hands, pick, and strings that actually moves real air and creates real soundwaves, to be pushed right up to its most efficient point. A 15 watt amp and a 75 watt speaker is not going to give you as much air flow and hence is not going to be as loud or as full as a 15 watt amp pushing a 15 watt speaker. I see so many people who think that a higher wattage speaker will give them more volume. Nope. The volume is from the amp, and the speaker just makes the amp’s tone real.

Now, there is another school of thought on this that you want a speaker with a high wattage rating so that it will be just a clean representation of the amp. Almost a blank pallette that doesn’t add any of its own tone. This tends to work better with sound reinforcement stuff like PA systems. But still, I find that personally, though I want a little more headroom in speaker systems so they don’t get overdriven and blow, they still sound better the closest they can safely be to the rated wattage of the soundboard. Some jazz and blues guys also use high-rated speakers, as did a lot of guys in ’80’s new wave bands. And they get some cool sounds. It’s definitely something to experiment with. And I used to do do it. I ran a 30 watt amp into a 2×12 cab with two 150 watt speakers. Whoa. And I liked it. But then I switched to a 15-watt Alnico Blue. And my ears just……well, let’s just say I’m not going back.

music-scene-breakfast-club.jpg picture by rypdal95
(Sorry, when I think ’80’s new wave, this is what I think of. Killer movie. Ever been tempted to do that in a library? Really hoping it’s not just me now. And this photo is definitely from VHS. Either that or it’s supposed to look all trippy -80’s-synthesizer-trill-dream-sequence. Either one is plausible. It was the ’80’s.)

Your amp just sounds the best when it’s sound is pushed out back into space, into reality, by a speaker working at its maximum potential. When the speaker is actually pumping, and being forced to use all of its frequency range. If you have too high of a mismatch between speaker and amp, the speaker will not be pushed enough, and you’ll lose a ton of frequency response. You’ll end up with a dull, middy, behind the mix sound.

Of course, though, you don’t want to blow your speakers. Well, maybe you do……I don’t know who all reads this blog. If you’re in a Dead Kennedy’s tribute band, go buy a 100 watt Marshall and some 5 watt 8 inch speakers. Knock yourself out…you’ll nail their tone. ;) And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, if that’s your deal! But to the rest of us, we obviously don’t want to be changing speakers every gig. So, try to get speakers rated just slightly higher than your amp’s wattage; so then they’re pushed well, but they can also handle wattage spikes on the huge downbeat chord without blowing. Personally, I use a 30 watt amp into a 2×12 cab with a Celestion Alnico Blue (15 watts) and a Celestion G12H-30 (30 watts). So, as close as I can get to matching the ratings. And of course I mic the Blue if I’m only mic’ing one.

Which leads me to my next point. Celestion Alnico Blue. Get one. Nope. That’s the whole point. Get one.

I find that Celestions tend to sound best for EL84-based, Voxy amps. Specifically the Alnico Blues and G12-H’s. For EL34-based, Marshally amps, you might want to think about some Celestion Greenbacks. And for 6L6-based, Fendery-type amps, my preference is Jensens. For my 6L6-based amp, I use a 50 watt Jensen for a 40-watt rated amp. Again, trying to get the wattage a close to being matched without too much risk of blowing the speaker. And both Celestion and Jensen are making great reissue stuff, too. Within the last couple years, though. Make sure you get ‘British-made’ (not just ‘British-designed’, actual ‘British-made’!) for Celestions, and ‘Italian-made’ for Jensens. Other companies to check out would be Weber and Scumback. Both are making great clones of ’60’s speakers. And you definitely want to go clone rather than vintage. Speakers, just by their nature, are pushed hard. Vintage ones go out a lot, especially if you push your amps……which hopefully, you do. (See? I always just think my opinion is the right one. I should really try to be more humble. I mean, I’m saved by the fact that my opnion is always right, but the humility thing would help just in case. ;) )

The other speaker to check out is Eminence, although I’m not a huge fan. I used to be, but then Celestions and Jensens changed my mind. Please don’t kill me too much for saying that, if you’re getting sweet, sweet tone out of Eminence. You can kill me a little bit, but not too much. hehe

And lastly, very simply, EL84, EL34, and KT88 amps tend to react best to birch wood cabs. Solid. Again, please, please, please go with solid wood. And don’t go ported unless you plan on mic’ing the port, or you just play at home. And for 6L6 and 6V6, pine usually sounds the best. Pine is bigger and bassier, and just emphasizes that American blusey tone better. Birch is more mid-high-ey (?) and focused, and tends to cut through the mix better like you want with the other 3 types of amps.

As for closed or open back cabs, get open. It’s better. I’m just kidding. I really like open for most tones, closed if you really need that extra punch, like for metal or Marshall tones.

And if you can tell the difference between wiring in series or parallel, I salute you.

Sorry, I kind of lost some steam there at the end. But I don’t want to get too ticky-tacky into some of the tone stuff. In tone, there’s some main points, and then there’s some crazy stuff. Like how to angle your amp against a wall so that the bounce-back hits the speakers out-of-phase to create a harmonic texture that’s pleasing to the one person sitting at such and such a latitude and longitude to hear it. I mean, if you’re into that, then cool; but I’ve spent a lot of time on stuff like that years ago, and missed some main points like driving my speakers, matching cabinet woods properly, or playing the right notes. ;) So sometimes I just want to make sure we keep the main thing the main thing, to steal a way-used-too-much-in-every-sermon-and-movie-since-1997 phrase. But it is pretty true.

And also, it’s difficult to write this blog and re-arrange my pedalboard at the same time. It doesn’t really need re-arranging, I just want to touch them. Lovingly. I mean, I’m going to go practice, of course.

And it’s officially Christmas season now, and I love Christmas. So this is happening:

elf2.jpg picture by rypdal95


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The almost finale of the Amp Tone posts……and another boring and technical post. Remember, for every boring and technical post, I’ll have a light-hearted, tra-la-la (in the best possible way) post up above. But some people dig this stuff……tone is like candy for us. No, really. We can literally taste tone. So we’ve had both parts of the effects tone posts, now we’ve got the fourth of five parts of the amp tone posts, and it’s just about time to move into what I feel to be the most important part of tone–the guitar. That’s debatable, of course, but that’s for a later post. So we’ll finish up the amp stuff right now in this post and in another soon……or until I think of something else that I just can’t live with unless I spit it out on this blog. Which is where most of these posts come from anyway. Me spitting.

So by this point, if you’re reading this, I’m assuming you’re agreeing with (or at least patronizing with) the views on getting a tube amp, deciding on the style of tube you want, and changing out the tubes. So now it’s time to set the amp. And this depends absolutely and unarguably upon your personal setup. Which begins with your hands. If we had the exact same amp and even the same guitar, we would still want to set our amps differently because of the way we play. You want the tone journey to be an organic, liquid experience, rather than a staunch, mathematical experience. Remember, there is no magic setting for any particular amp. For instance, a hollowbody guitar will cause you to roll off some bass on the amp. But if you’re playing jazz, you may want to emphasize the bass on your amp to accentuate the bassiness of the hollowbody. It all just depends. And please remember, these are my views……they could be wrong. They’re not, but for the sake of argument, they could be. (Come on! I’m just kidding!! Don’t hate…appreciate.)

So the first rule is unequivocably this: use your ears. And the second goes right along with it: keep your tone as pure as possible. Every piece of gear has a way it ‘wants’ to sound. A strat has a thinner feel. Trying to eq up the bass and mids on your amp will not give you the thicker Les Paul tone. It will sound muddy. Same way in trying to boost treble with a Les Paul to sound like a strat. That’s why some of us wackos are such gearheads……we’re looking for gear that doesn’t have to be tweaked like crazy to get the sound we’re looking for. The more you tweak, the more fake it will sound. And that doesn’t mean spending a ton of money……it just means doing some research and playing a lot of stuff in order to find the sound you want, and not just buying whatever is most popular or convenient.

NigelTufnel1.jpg picture by rypdal95
(The purest tone possible……guitar directly into amp. Directly. Ah, this is probably one of the best satire photos on us tone junkies that I’ve ever seen.)

So after using your ears and trying to keep your tone pure, try setting your eq knobs straight up and down. Again, as a general rule, if you have to tweak the living daylights out of your amp’s eq to get a decent tone, you’d be better of getting a new amp. The eq section is for minor changes to set the amp to react best to the guitar, and pedals if that’s your deal (and if you’re here at this blog, I’m guessing, on the average, that it is. ;) ) Now, make minor changes on the eq to set the amp to your guitar, hands, and taste. In general, you’ll want treble up a bit, mids up a very small bit, and bass down a bit. And just for the record, on my main amp, I break this eq rule quite a bit. It’s a sacrifice I make because of an amp with tone I can’t find elsewhere. This stuff happens. If you try to set your amp according to this post, and the sound sucks, disregard this post immediately. The rules are here to help tone; if they don’t work, throw ’em out.

Next, and this is something I wish I could say until the end of the world (hehe, that’s a U2 song), use the gain knob as your master tone knob. What I mean is, the gain is not your volume, and it’s not your distortion. It’s your ‘tone.’ Set the gain where you think it sounds best with your guitar and for your style. If you’re looking to play something really, really clean, set it low. If you’re looking for a really overdriven, distorted, gainy sound, set it higher. For me personally, I like my amps set just on the verge of breakup. Where it sounds clean, but with just a little bit of edge (hehe…more accidental U2 references……no, with me and U2, there are very few accidents). Then, I use overdrive pedals to ‘push’ the amp into it’s own natural breakup. The amp’s overdrive will always sound better than a pedal. So set your amp to where the pedals can push it into its own overdrive. But when you go back to clean, the sound is clean with a bit of bite. If you lower your picking dynamics, you’ll get clean. If you dig in, you’ll get a hint of overdrive. You can also do this without pedals by setting your amp to be clean with your guitar’s volume knob at about 6 or 7, and then overdriven with your guitar’s volume knob up at 10. And lastly, remember that if you don’t like your amp’s natural overdrive, no pedal will ever fully rectify that. Just try it……try using pedals not for their own sound per se, but to push your amp into it’s overdrive sound. You just might like the results.

(Ya, I know. Another U2 clip. But this is a great example of an amp just barely pushed into a sweet, edgy overdrive. Edge’s hollowbody is doing a great job with that. Not to mention, this is one of the musicaly tightest and most passionate songs ever written. Again, just my U2-loving opinion, hehe, but this is also a great song for those who have ever only heard Joshua Tree-era U2. And, uh…don’t pay attention to what they’re wearing. The PopMart tour had amazing music and not so amazing wardrobes.)

Also, when dealing with gains, remember that there are some low settings on gain knobs at which the amp will just not be driving the power tubes hard enough to sound good. Most amps have two ‘click points.’ You’ll turn the gain up and hear the amp kick in. And it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s my tone.’ And then as you keep turning it up, there will be another, more subtle one, where it feels like you just had a jump in tone.

So now we have a problem. Most likely, with this method, you’ve got a tone that you’re just digging. But, dpending upon the wattage of your amp, this tone may be really, really, really loud. Which is why a lot of people dig the lower wattage amps. The tone they’re after happens to be high on the gain knob……so in order to not kill people (sometimes literally……ever hear those trebly Marshalls that literally make the room swim?), they’ll get lower wattage amps. I used to have a 100 watt amp that just didn’t sound good until it was almost all the way up. Sounded great the one time I played in a huge outdoor venue (and by ‘huge outdoor venue’, I mean a big picnic at a park)……but for all the other clubs and small churches? Ya……good tone ceases to matter if people can’t hear it because they’re covering their ears.

BacktotheFutureAmp.jpg picture by rypdal95
(Micheal J. Fox of ‘Teen Wolf’ fame. Playing, for most of us, the dream amp. I still think this is one of the greatest scenes in movie history. But I might be biased.)

So now this is where the master volume comes in. A good master volume will preserve the gain tone that you set, at any volume. Now, there’s not any amp I’ve ever played where that is entirely true. Even the power scaling master volume amps or the post phase-inverter master volume amps. Your tone will always sound just slightly better with your amp running at full throttle…i.e., with the master volume all the way up. (Again, the reason for lower wattage amps.) But some amp builders have done very well with their master volume circuitry, and you can turn them down to lower volumes, and still preserve almost all of the tone of the gain knob. Now, some will argue that you should set your amps by having the master volume and gain knobs work together as two volume knobs. I’m not a huge fan of this…I’ve gotten way better results by using the gain knob to get my main ‘sound’ or ‘tone’, and the master volume as just that……a master volume.

And if you’ve got an amp with just a gain knob, and no volume, I really hope you happen to like a lower gain setting. :) hehe Or get a smaller amp, or take your amp to a tech to have a master volume installed. The other thing you can do is to get a half power switch. I run my main amp with a half power switch. So, if I’m in a small venue, I flip the switch down to 15 watts, which disables 2 power tubes. Then I can maintain my tone by keeping the master volume all the way up. If I’m in a bigger venue, or playing with a drummer who’s beating his drums like they told him he couldn’t play on tempo, I flip back up to 30 watts and use all 4 power tubes.

HollandTwins.jpg picture by rypdal95
(My amps. And as is my custom, this picture was taken not even a month ago, and the pedalboard is changed, and I’ve gone through speakers for the Holland Brentwood on the left. And sorry for my mad skills, ’80’s new wave, motion sickness camera shot.)

And lastly, some amps have a couple random knobs. The presence knob and the reverb knob. And both can be daunting when trying to dial in your tone. But presence is just what it sounds like…presence. It is how ‘or ‘small’ your amp sounds in the mix. Too little and your amp will sound far away. Too much and your amp will sound mushy. So set it moderately. Play your strings open as you turn the presence knob back and forth to get a feel for it. It will be different for every rig and in every room. And for the reverb knob, my advice is, if you’re looking for a surf sound, a cool ’60’s sound for a solo, or a drowning in the ocean tone for a certain song where you plan to have the guitar just sitting behind the band, go ahead and turn it up. Other than that, set it very, very low to just sweeten things. Too much reverb can make the guitar sound just washy and stand out in the mix for all the wrong reasons.

That’s it. Remember, try to find out how your rig ‘wants’ to sound, and where it is ‘happiest.’ If you’re making drastic changes, you’ll get bad results 9 times out of 10. And again, I’m no one to talk because I do break that rule a bit, because I try to use the first rule almost exclusively: use your ears. Take this stuff as a basics course that is a good starting point. Then let your ears do the rest of the setting for you. And not just your ears. If you’re playing only for yourself, then fine. But if you’re also trying to reach people with your music, try to find out what they’re hearing in your rig, and what they would like to hear as well.

Hopefully the boredom wasn’t too bad. Soothe yourself with tone.


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By this point, I’m assuming you have a tube amp. If not, please check the archives on the right, click on Amp Tone Part 1.5, and listen to the horrendous ear pain that was my playing without a tube amp……as well as some other atrocious, unforgiveable guitar sins (like being…how do you say it…’not good’, but still soloing…ya, I pretty much smashed that rule to pieces…in a bad way, not a cool rock ‘n roll way). Please, learn from my terrible tone, and save yourself. It’s not a matter of money…there are plenty of decent tube amps that are less expensive than transistor amps. And if you’re playing a solid state amp and getting killer tone, please send me clips……I’m more than willing to admit I’m wrong. (It’s just that I’m not. hehe Kidding. Just a little.)

The thing a lot of people overlook about tube amps is that to get that overdriven tone we’re all striving for, we are actually misusing the tubes. They weren’t meant to ‘break up;’ we just started doing that to them because it was the ’60’s, and the thought of doing something conventional (like using an amp properly) was akin to the thought of casting Mark Whalberg in Planet of the Apes–you just shouldn’t do it. (For the love of all that’s good in this world…why, Tim Burton…why Marky-Mark?) So they started turning them up and distorting the tubes. And we all came to adore the sound. And I’m no different. But the thing is, with every note of tone-dripping goodness, we are wearing out our tubes.

marky-mark.jpg picture by rypdal95
(That’s Oscar-nominated Mark Whalberg, in the middle, sitting on the car with the white man bandana…looking, well…white. Yep. This actually happened.)

Marky-mark2.jpg picture by rypdal95
(And this is Oscar-nominated Mark Whalberg acting his heart out, being choked by an ape. His career obviously progressed quite nicely. This actually happened, too. I think even the Funky Bunch didn’t go see this one.)

So it becomes necessary to change the tubes. If you’ve never done this, or if it’s been awhile, my guess is that you’ll be blown away by the difference it makes. It just puts life back into your amp. Your amp will sound like it’s breathing again; more fat, more lush, more space and weight behind the notes, the harmonics will sit on top of each other more cleanly, and it will sound much more 3d. It’s one of those things where if you’re used to loving your tone, but the past few weeks you just haven’t been diggin’ it as much as usual, then it’s probably time to change your tubes. A good rule of thumb is to change them out once a year…I tend to play a lot, so I try to do it once every six months. Seriously, it’s like changing your strings…it’ll make more of a difference than any one pedal ever could.

The other thing to think about is that there are very big differences in tube manufacturers. Most amps come stock with no-name Chinese tubes and Sovtek tubes. In my humble and absolutely not professional opinion, these tubes are not very good…bordering on being very sucky (almost as much as Marky-Mark…and sorry all, but I just ran across Planet of the Apes on tv, and it is just offending how dumb that movie is. Did Mark Whalberg just kiss the monkey woman and the human woman? Are they even allowed to show that?) Just as changing to fresh tubes will make a huge difference, so will changing from bad tubes to good tubes.

planetoftheapes.jpg picture by rypdal95
(Sorry. I’m having a terrible time letting this go. This is Tim Roth…in his finest film-acting moment as a monkey. Complete with the Tom Cruise Mission Impossible under-the-eyebrows glare that is his only expression throughout this whole movie, and golden lion monkeys doing their best Patrick Swayze Dirty Dancing impression on his bosom.)

The best sounding tubes I have heard are NOS (new old stock) Mullards. These are from the ’40’s-’60’s, and just sound fantastic. The NOS Amperex tubes from Holland, and the old Tesla tubes from Yugoslavia, are also both very good. My problem with these tubes has been that they overheat and break on me quite often because of their age. It’s also about 50% of the time that I buy ‘fully tested at 100%’ NOS tubes that end up having like, an hour left of life on them. So unfortunately, I’ve relegated myself to buying well-made new tubes. I’m not a huge fan of Sovteks, and incidentally, the last I heard, both Mesa Boogie and Groove Tubes were buying Sovtek tubes and re-labeling them. (Ya, I know.)

So, some of the good tubes coming out currently are Tung-Sol and JJ. Ei’s are pretty good, but didn’t seem to measure up, in my humble opinion. It was the same with EH’s and Ruby’s. But the Tung Sol’s sound really good. And the JJ’s are my personal favorite. They’re actually made in the old Tesla factories. Nice and warm, reliable, and not much difference can be heard between them and NOS Mullards. I say ‘not much’, because up until last week, I could hear a difference. Then I tried JJ’s new gold pin preamp tubes. To my ears, every bit as rich and full-bodied as some of the NOS tubes. (Isn’t it funny how we musicians describe tone like it was a woman? I wonder if female guitarists describe their tone as buff or handsome. Probably not. They probably describe it as sensitive, or as the alluring gay friend who ends up not being gay. Wow. Bet you didn’t think I could ever take tone descriptions to the place I just took them.) Unfortunately, their gold pinned tubes are just preamp tubes right now. Hopefully they’ll extend it to power tubes soon.

And if you’ve never changed tubes out before, it’s really easy. Preamp tubes can just be pulled and replaced, as can rectifier tubes. For power tubes, make sure you get the exact same type (i.e. 6L6gc, 6L6b, EL34, etc.) or you will have to either re-bias the amp with a meter yourself, or take it to a tech to re-bias. It may not seem crucial, but you can possibly damage your amp if you don’t. If you have an EL84 style amp, those amps are 99% of the time self-biasing, which is nice. So, make sure you get the same types of power amp tubes if you don’t have an EL84-style amp, and then just pull the old ones out, and pop the new ones in. (Uh, make sure the amp is off. Seems dumb, but I in my infinite guitar wisdom have done it before. The tubes burn your hands, and it makes it a little more difficult to actually play guitar. But the tone from the new tubes sounds great!!…if you could actually play your guitar.)

I do seriously suggest changing out your tubes. It will make a huge tonal difference.

And I do seriously suggest never, ever, in the history of your whole life, watching Planet of the Apes. Just let it die. If you watch it, it will make you stupider. I promise.


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In Part 1, we discussed the importance of getting a good tube amp. In Part 1.5, we heard an mp3 clip emphasizing the dire situation one finds oneself in when playing without a good tube amp (and when trying to be Metallica, with no skill and while playing a Delirious song). And I’m sure you’ll agree that the mp3 was probably the worst thing you have ever heard, and made you go running back from whence you came, screaming like a little girl who wants a tube amp. (Hmm…..that didn’t work.) Part 2 is going to be about the different types of power tubes within tube amps, and the different sounds they are capable of. Again, here’s the boring alert for those of you who are looking for posts about Chuck Norris, and why he thinks he is capable of writing a book about politics….i.e. ‘Black Belt Patriotism.’ No, I’m serious! That’s the title! So if that’s what you’re after, and I admit, that’s what I’m after most of the time, please see the post directly below this one or directly above this one.

So there are 5 basic types of tube amps:

1. 6L6-based
2. EL84-based
3. EL34-based
4. 6V6-based
5. KT88-based

Some will disagree with the last two categories, as they are compatible and comparable with 6L6 tubes. But in my experience, not only is the tone of those two types of tubes significantly different, but there are some amplifier manufacturers who have based entire amps around those two types of tubes. They used to be just differetn output replacement tubes for 6L6’s; but now they are coming into their own. Kind of like when you’re picked last at kickball all you’re life…and you’re just the replacement for when the big kid sprains his ankle or starts acting gay so he can hang out with all the girls (man, I really wish I had discovered the benefits of that earlier!). But you know that if you just wait long enough, one day you’ll get your shot. And one day it comes. Never mind that all the other seniors are off campus for lunch. You bid your time…you waited with passiomate patience. Now it has finally paid off. You are no longer picked last for kickball (and are also subsequently much larger than anyone else on the kickball field…just an added bonus for your patience). That’s kind of how it has been for 6V6 and KT88 tubes.

Now, a full tube amp will also use preamp tubes, but those are almost always the same type of tube: ECC83, or 12AX7, as they are also known. There are different types, but just lower or higher gain versions of the same tube. A lot of the amp’s tonal characteristics come from the power amp tubes.

ECC83S.jpg picture by rypdal95
(An ECC83 preamp tube. I use JJ tubes as examples because they are awesome. Well, they’re a very good-sounding type of tube, and very consistent. Probably the best sounding new production tube. The old Mullards and stuff are great, but they do tend to have short lives, at least in my experience. But mostly because JJ’s are awesome.)

Anyway, here’re the quick breakdown of the main styles of tubes in amps; and keep in mind these are broad generalizations. There are many amps (mostly by independent builders) that use different tubes for different results, dictated by how they design the circuit.

1. 6L6 Based Amps

These are probably the most common. They’re also referred to as Fender style amps. Not that Fender only uses 6L6 tubes in their amps, but they have made the majority of their amps based around the sound of this tube. It’s a big, open, clean sound, with a hint of an edge when dug into, that sounds very ’60’s blues. They can also produce some great heavy overdrive, but usually you’ve really got to crank them…depending on the circuit. Think BB King, Jimi Hendrix clean tone (although he did play through a lot of Marshall amps…his tone still is a nice example of what most 6L6 amps should sound like…basically, suffice it to say he is an incredible tonal mystery….and if anyone says, ‘I can nail his tone’…well, most of the world hasn’t heard it yet ;) ), Eric Clapton clean tone, John Mayer, jazz stuff. Just a very classy, American blues type amp. Can really be a nice pallette, too, changing a lot depending on what guitar you plug in. In my humble experience, these types of amps tend to sound best with pine cabinets and Jensen-type speakers. 5881 is the military designation for this tube, and they tend to be a bit cleaner…coupled with a multiple rectifier type circuit, this will give some metal type sounds, such as found in Boogie amps.

6L6GCB_small.jpg picture by rypdal95
(An example of a 6L6 tube. JJ again. JJ rocks. And these are much bigger than the ECC83 tubes; in fact, all power tubes are larger than preamp tubes. But for some reason, that’s how the pictures turned out, and I’m way too lazy right now to do anything about it.)

ClaptonFender.gif picture by rypdal95
(And here’s Eric Clapton rocking some type of 6L6-tubed Fender. A Tweed or a Bassman, probably. And it looks like Sheryl Crow has a 65 Amp….looks like a London. I am now justified for playing a 65 Amps cab. See, good tone doesn’t come from the sound; it comes from knowing you play the same gear as rockstars.)

2. EL84 Based Amps

Usually referred to as Voxy amps, or AC30 amps. A very interesting type of amp. The EL84 tubes are smaller, and hence breakup earlier. But they are still able to sound big and wam, just with earlier breakup. Very focused, edgey, glassy, and chimey (take your pick of adjectives). These amps also seem to take pedals very well on the average. Modern players like these a lot for their glassy ‘on the verge of breakup’ sounds. Classic players like their cranked overdrive sounds at relatively low volumes. Very biting and rock and roll, but still with fullness and harmonics. Think Brian May from Queen, the Beatles, Keith Richards, and Edge from U2. Tend to sound best with birch cabinets and Celestion alnico type speakers. The American designation is 6BQ5.

EL84.jpg picture by rypdal95
(An EL84 tube. Mmm….JJ. Now, this picture’s big again…I suck, but I’m too lazy to change.)

BeatlesVox.jpg picture by rypdal95
(The Beatles with their Vox AC30’s. What?! I didn’t use this golden opportunity to show yet another picture of Edge, with his AC30? Nope. I have a collective crush on the members of U2, but I do recognize that there is other music out there. Not quite as good of music, but hey, they’re all trying to measure up to U2’s standard. ;) But seriously, I try not to relegate myself to just one band or style. In the words of Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder when he’s the dude playing the dude disguised as another dude, ‘I diversify.’)

3. EL34 Based Amps.

Usually thought of as ‘Marshall-style’ amps or ‘British Invasion’ type amps. These tubes share sockets with 6L6 tubes, but you need to re-bias before changing out tubes like that. Plus, most circuits are designed to sound best with a certain type of tube. Big, full overdrive, but edgy and chimey as well. The cleans might be a tad sterile comparatively (up for debate, don’t kill me!), but the overdrive is huge and full with bite, too. You really want this type of amp to crank it and get its distortion. Think Jimmy Page, Angus Young, etc. Also known as 6CA7 and KT77. Tend to sound best with birch cabs and Celestion Greenback-type speakers.

EL34.jpg picture by rypdal95
(An EL34 tube. Guess what? JJ. And I guess it was just the 6L6 picture that sucked.)

JimmyPageMarshall.jpg picture by rypdal95
(And here’s Jimmy Page sporting some of his EL34-based Marshalls. And, incidentally, wearing way too little, and caught in the middle of much too homosexual of a dance.)

4. 6V6 Based Amps

These also fit in 6L6 sockets, but again, definitely re-bias before switching them out! These are like the 6L6 tubes, without the brekaup. They sound a bit smaller, and don’t breakup as big. But that can make for some amazing clean tones, and some really, really nice mild overdrive. Gibson amps have been using these for years for great clean tones. And the Toneking amps have made some incredible sounds from using quads of these tubes. Mark Tremonti from Altar Bridges, and formerly Creed, gets most of his recorded clean tones from Toneking Comet amps. Again, probably pine cabs and Jensen-type speakers would go well with these amps.

6V6_small.jpg picture by rypdal95
(A 6V6 tube example. And yep, this picture is too small, too.)

TonekingComet.jpg picture by rypdal95
(I couldn’t find a picture of Mark Tremonti playing his Tonekings. Probably because when he was in Creed, Scott Stapp made sure every picture was taken only of Scott Stapp. Seriously! Remember the video for ‘With Arms Wide Open’? All you ever see is Scott, and then by the time you finally see the band, it’s just in time to watch them disintegrate. Yep. Singers. Anyway, this is the Mark Tremonti-less Tone King Comet.)

5. KT88 Based Amps

These for years were thought of as mostly an earlier-breaking-up replacement for 6L6 tubes. Also known as 6550 tubes. But lately, some amp designers have been basing circuits around them. Divided by 13 has made an amp based on this tube, the RSA23, which is supposed to have kind of a mixed sound between an EL84 based amp and a 6L6 based amp. Big cleans if you want them, but earlier breakup with a chiminess. These tubes are really seeing more and more popularity. Jason Orme from Alanis Morissette uses these type amps, and his tone is spectacular. Let’s say probably birch cabs, and maybe a low powered Jensen, or high powered Celestion…like a couple G12H-30’s or something.

kt88.jpg picture by rypdal95
(A KT88 tube. Whoa! This picture is really big. Sorry, guys!)

JasonOrme.jpg picture by rypdal95
(And here’s Jason Orme. One of my absolute favorite guitarists. No one knows his name, but his tone and layered, minimalistic, melodic, and supportive guitar playing are just incredible. You can see his KT88-based Divided by 13 amp in the background.

Again, these are all generalizations, and many independent builders have made huge strides in creating their own sounds using these tubes with original circuits. But on the whole, this is a good starting point for how to choose what type of amp you want to get a certain sound that you have in your head.

And again, sorry for the boringness. I was trying to inject this with some humor, but my wife is watching The Simpsons in the other room, and it’s really hard to concentrate. Principal Skinner just told a teacher that the children have no future but the children were actually listening. (!) Sitcom plots! But Simpsons are really funny. Just think…if she had been watching Arrested Development, this post never would have been finished.

Okay, Part 2 has kind of been a reference. Part 3 will go into circuit boards and handwired amplifiers, and Part 4 will go into tips about how to set your amp to make it sound its best. Ya, I know, all this from the guy who played out of a Crate amp with a BC Rich, as evidenced by a horrifying mp3 a few posts back. Granted, I have progressed past that (let’s hope), but I still don’t know everything…which is painfully obvious, if you’ve read more than a few posts on this site. But take this info for what it is, a pallette and a research backdrop to perhaps offer a little bit of help, or research, or confirmation, for you to create your own tone.


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Delving into getting good tone out of your amp…..and if that proves impossible, selling it, and getting a better amp. It’s the guitarist’s way. And as is my custom when I post these ‘a-little-more-on-the-technical-tone-side’ posts, there’s a more humorous one right above for those of you who are already bored just with this intro. And for those of you looking for really in-depth techy stuff, unfortunately, you won’t find it here. I’m a musician (although that’s debatable as well), and tend to describe things in terms of how they make stuff sound, rather than the schematics of things. Not that that’s good or bad, it just is. hehe

Now, there will be a couple parts to this (which is why this one is called part 1); so this first part might be a little redundant to a lot of you who have already gotten passed the whole tube versus solid state issue. But as this issue was my first intro into guitar amps, I’ll start off basic. Because there’s a lot that goes into amps, and it can be overwhelming. A good friend of mine once told me how he chose his first amp. He said he walked into Guitar Center, saw a Crate and thought, ‘I’ve never seen a rock star playing a Crate.’ He saw a Fender and thought, ‘Only blues guys play Fenders.’ Then he saw a Marshall and went, ‘Marshalls! Rock stars play Marshalls!’ And he bought a Marshall.

RockStar-1.jpg picture by rypdal95
(Rock Stars use Marshalls. Point in case. Oh, the cheesiness in this picture is seriously astounding. The best part about this picture is that of that whole wall of cabs, you can see that only two speakers are mic’d.)

And it can be really overwhelming. If you don’t like the tone of your amp one day, it’s like, ‘Is my eq wrong? Did a tube go bad? Do I need a new amp? What if I just don’t like this style of tube? What if the tube’s are okay, but a I need a different circuit style? Why do I think about buying something new as the first resort? But what if my amp just sucks and I spend another month trying to dial it in only to realize it sucks? Maybe I need a solid state amp. No! Heresy! Maybe it’s the humidity in the room today. Yep! That’s it.’ I mean seriously, it can be daunting.

My first amp was a Crate 10 inch. I remember wondering why my tone didn’t sound like the tone from my friend’s tube combo and tube half stack. And I thought, ‘Well, obviously. I need a bigger Crate.’ So I bought a Crate 2×12. And my tone still didn’t sound the same. And as I had just gotten into U2, I started to look at their guitarist’s setup of two Vox AC30’s. And I thought, ‘Well, obviously. I need to run stereo.’ So I grabbed my old band’s Fender 2×10 Fender PA system, and ran stereo out of my GT6. Oh…….yes. Are you picturing my rig right now? Wait…….just wait. And to top it all off, U2 still hadn’t pounded out all the punk and glam rock of my high school days yet. So thumping signal into this wonderfully toneful stereo rig was……wait for it…….a BC Rich bronze Series Warlock. With the action and intonation set up by the brilliant skills of the truck ride from the BC Rich Manufacturing plant to Guitar Center.

Now, not every guitarist goes through this. A lot that I’ve seen, but not all. You gotta realize that I have this ‘prodigy’ complex. I always think that I am this undiscovered prodigy, and I would lay awake at night dreaming of the tears forming in people’s eyes as they listened to my beautiful want-to-be metal-jazz? solos, and then were dumbfounded when they saw all that tone and skill coming out of such a cheap rig……but a cheap rig so briliiantly and originally done! What? Stereo through a PA system? That’s amazing! And then some British guy comes up and says how he and every other band on his continent wahave been talking of this new idea of sharing the same guitarist, and the search for said guitarist has just ended…..when he saw me ripping the pentatonic through the Marshall model on my GT6. That British guy? Sting.

MyDreamat19-1.jpg picture by rypdal95
(What I thought I looked like.)

fail9.jpg picture by rypdal95
(More like what I actually looked like.)

So, ya, I have issues. Anyway, once I finally came to the realization that the tears my tone and playing were bringing to people’s eyes were not tears of wonder or amazement, but rather of something much more frightening, I decided to jump into looking at different amps. And at first, I was extremely overwhelmed.

One of my tone mentors had been working on me a while with the idea of a tube amp. I had been telling him for about a year that my digital modeling Boss GT6 through two solid state amps was the ‘way of the future’. (I remember, those were my exact words.) But in secret, every time we would play next to each other at church, I would listen to his tone, then go home and try desperately to tweak my solid state/modeling rig to sound like his. And one day I finally had to admit to myself that there was a warmth, and a dynamic, and an overall bigness and sweetness of real sound that his rig had and that I was completely missing, no matter how much I tried.

So I started the journey. Now there are two main types of amps: transistor and tube. Transistor is better known as solid state. Tubes used to be the only way to make amps; then sometime in the ’60’s or ’70’s, all these solid state amps started coming out. And it was a big deal. Because tubes are expensive and unreliable at times. Solid state is a much more stable way to make amps. So you can look at some Fender amps from the ’70’s that proudly boast in big letter marquee’s on their fronts, ‘Solid State!’

And then, somewhere down the road, guitarists started to realize that solid state didn’t sound very good.

Now that’s a huge and gross generalization. Even though the sentiment generally tends to be that tube is way better than solid state, solid state does have it’s advantages.

See, tubes are finicky. Out of the 2-10 tubes that are usually in an amplifier, sometimes you can get a bad sounding one. They’re fragile, and can break quite easily. They have a short lifespan, and have to be changed out. Different manufacturers’ tube sound audibly different. They need to be warm to sound their best; but not too warm, or they can blow. Solid state amps, on the other hand, are (like aforementioned), much more stable. They don’t break down as easily, the sound is much more consistent because you have taken out the variable of the ever-changing and wearing out tubes, and they’re much easier to dial in the sounds you like because their clean and overdrive sounds are not dependent upon misusing tubes. That’s right. That’s the sound we guitarists have come to love……the misuse of tubes. We get them too hot so that they distort, and we dig it. We call it that saturated tube overdrive. And solid state, in general, because it does not have those tubes to misuse, tends to sound more sterile.

Of course there are exceptions, and most of those are due to very clever circuit design by some genius manufacturers. The Roland JC-120 is a solid state amp that is renowned for its cleans. Some of the old Silvertone solid state models from the ’50’s and ’60’s are rumored to sound just like tubes. And one time I heard a jazz guitarist rocking out of a boutique Evans amp, and it sounded fabulous. So there are definitely exceptions……..

SilvertoneHead_no_2_collage.jpg picture by rypdal95
(Sweet little Silvertone tube head. On a lot of amps, such as old Silvertones, you can’t tall if they’re tube by looking at the front or even sometimes the model. You gotta flip it around and look to see if there’s tubes. Obviously, they’re there in this one. If you don’t see any, stay away! Just kidding……..not really…..)

…….But on the average, a tube amp will sound warmer and fuller, have more harmonics, be richer in both tone and feel, will better bring out the dynamics in your playing and in your guitar and effects, and have a much better overdriven sound. But it will also be less reliable and less consistent tone wise.

That being said though, once I finally played through a tube amp and sold my Crate and lost (literally) my Fender PA, it’s like my ears were opened up. There is a warmth, weight, and reality to the sound of a good tube amp that I have yet to find in a solid state or transistor amplifier. So my vote is hands down for a tube amp. If you have yet to try one, or if you are looking for a first amp, really try to find a good tube amp. The best tube amp with the best tone/price ratio I can think of is the Fender Blues Junior. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a solid state amp with the warmth, feel, and responsiveness of that Blues Junior.

There is also a little something to be said for both tube rectifiers and solid state rectifiers, but that will be covered in the next part, as this post is already probably years too long for most.

Tubes. And then someone will rock some amazing tone from a solid state amp and put me to shame. But still, as I have yet to hear that consistently, and as the shame of my past rig and metal/glam awesomeness continues to push me further and further away from anything resembling solid state……


Splendid tubes.

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Well I am very stoked indeed. It seems my amps break down all the time….I don’t know why. I do run them hot and I play out a good amount, but still; it seems abnormal. So a good tech is crucial for me. And you gotta have a good one…..we’ve all heard the horror stories about techs touching amps and them never sounding the same again.

So I usually go to Jerry Blaha in Hollywood. Not only is he a brilliant tech and amp builder, but come on now….it’s Hollywood. And some of you may know that I am just slightly less unhealthy with my movie obsession than I am with my music obsession.

MeAlandBobby.jpg picture by rypdal95
(Ya, sorry for another disturbing picture….but I had to show how much I am in love with films…..especially those with Al and Bobby. They were actually quite nice here in person. A little quiet, but….. Thanks to my wonderful wife Jamianne for taking this picture. Most wives would have been embarassed, but she’s very cool. Much cooler than I am…..and if you think I’m just being sweet, take another look at the picture. Not so much cool there.)

I love going to Hollywood. I used to go once a month. (I didn’t break my amps once a month. We used to go there just for the guitar shops.) But as gas prices rose, amps breaking came to be my excuse for going to Hollywood……as well as Jerry’s teching skills. Here, for those of you who might be new to this blog, you can read about the last Hollywood escapade as well as repairs and mods to my amps here (and it has pictures! in case you find words in general a bit dull):


Yep. Very awkward pictures of me in those posts……what can I say, Heat is one of the greatest movies ever. But then gas prices rose even further. So when two of my amps broke down this last month (okay, seriously, one broke and I bought another one to play while I sold the broken one, and then it broke), I just literally didn’t have the gas or time to go all the way to Hollywood at the end of the month……the end of the month is when there’s this big zero in my wife’s and my bank accounts. Every once in a while there’s a number there……ya….usually with a negative sign next to it.

So I decided to try out Tim Pinnell at Top Gear Guitar in San Diego, which is much closer for me to drive and has waaaaay less traffic. Someone on gearpage said they live in Arizona, but drive all the way here to California to have Tim fix their amps. I was like, okay…..sold.

PinnellAmps.jpg picture by rypdal95
(An example of some of Tim’s work….this is one from his own line.)

So I took him two of my amps. Again, how am I so unlucky as to have two broken at the same time?

HollandBrentwoodsmall.jpg picture by rypdal95
(Holland Brentwood. This is my loops amp as well as my ‘plug straight in’ amp.)

Bassman20small.jpg picture by rypdal95
(Bassman clone. Handwired as well. Sounds great, but it’s up for sale as right now in my life there is a lot of guitar gear and not a lot of….uh…..money.)

And he fixed them beautifully. Even modded them very slightly to get rid of some excess hum. He really knows his stuff……and the amps sound better than they ever have. The best thing was how stoked Tim is about his job. He was explaining all kinds of stuff to me that I didn’t understand. (I pretend, though…..you don’t want to look foolish around geniuses.) So, my loyalty is still with Jerry up in Hollywood, but when gas money is short, it’s really nice to know there’s a tech like Tim Pinnell who can just nail the repairs and mods.

Just thought I’d give some quick props for two jobs well done, in case anyone in my neck of the woods is looking for a good tech. Or for those of you as crazy about films as me…..go see Jerry and make a day of it in sweet, sweet Hollywood.


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