Believe it or not, but the
amplifiers we have been talking about up until now are only a small
percentage of the whole story. The guitar you play, the string gauge,
even the pick you use all make their own subtle differences that can
add up. Most of these differences 'on their own' however, won't be
very noticeable when you play a multi-amplifier setup at concert
volumes. Yet these are still differences that can explain why you are
having trouble duplicating 'on the nose' that vintage vibe from a
boutique tweed covered amplifier. It may not be the amplifier's
"Any amplifier will only do the best
it can with what it has to work with."
In a proverbial nutshell,
here are my own observations culminated from 30+ years of playing at
all levels and in all situations. Keep in mind that are really far
too many differences between guitars built 50 years ago and today to
mention them all. These are just the few that come to my immediate
observation. Therefore, I won't waste anybody's time by comparing the
tonal differences of wood, fret wire, etc. Lastly, keep in mind these
are my preferences. You may have different needs
altogether. Personally I avoid any fancy phase or coil tap switches.
For me they just seem to 'get in the way' when I am in the 'heat of
the moment'. They work great in the studio, but if you think you can
hear a huge difference playing through a few 'cranked'
Marshall stacks in an outdoor stadium you are dead wrong. If
you only plan on playing/recording that Champ in your bedroom
you can have a NASA type control panel, but today it seems the fad is
to employ 'no-load tone controls' and the option of even bypassing
volume and/or tone controls, which I feel validates my preference(s).
With that out of the way.....
- Many times the difference between a 'so-so' Fender
amplifier and a 'WOW!' Fender amplifier is the guitar.
If you really prefer single-coil pickups, I might suggest
possibly switching over to a guitar with P90 pickups for more
output and overdrive (I don't like pedals at all). My personal favorite
is my own 1959 Les Paul Special. Keep in mind that many older Telecaster
guitars had hotter pickups as well. There is also a very remote chance
that you need to 'recharge' your pickup magnets. You'll only
know by comparing gauss density between your pickups and known 'good'
pickups. This is a job best left to a professional to do. However, if
you have no one in your neighborhood qualified to do this, try any shop
that repairs/calibrates speedometers. If you think for half a minute
you'll see why these people are a great bet to get the job done. Just
be sure to check magnet polarity before you recharge your
vintage pickups. My toolbox holds more than one compass specifically
for that purpose.
- Pickups themselves changed over the years. Early Stratocaster
pickups had 42 gauge wire coated with 'Formvar' wrapped around Alnico
'V' magnets. Eventually the wire was coated with 'Polysol' and wrapped
around a set of Alnico 'II' magnets. Original Telecaster neck
pickups wrapped 9,200 turns of 43 gauge plain-enamel
wire around Alnico 'V' magnets, while modern examples have only 7,800
turns of 'Polysol' coated wire around their magnets. Lastly, the
'stagger' of the pole pieces changed over the years, with later day
examples having uniform, or 'level' height across the strings. If
you think you can hear a difference in capacitors, you'll really
hear a difference in pickups. My personal favorite 'after-market' Stratocaster
pickup is the Lindy Fralin 'Blues' set. With a 5% over-wind,
they have just a little more 'quack' to them, but they don't go near
the much hotter (with much more noise) Texas Special pickups.
Try the 'Bass Plate' on the bridge pickup, and you have a winner.
- Walking hand-in-hand with hotter pickups getting more signal to
your amplifier is heavier strings. The heavier the strings you use the
'fatter' the tone you'll get, and heavy strings were the only option 50
years ago. However, after a certain point, it's just torture. I have
played 11's for years, but trying to play 12's left divots in my
fingers that hurt like hell. Also, vintage guitars were strung with
vintage strings; a core wrapped with pure nickel. Today's strings are
certainly not the same, as most advertising claims that the stainless
steel wrap yields a tone that is 'louder and brighter'.
- Older Stratocasters and Telecasters had bridges
slightly different than today's guitars. Stratocasters originally had a
steel tremolo block, where 'modern' Stratocasters replaced
their steel bridge with a single-piece of chromed 'Mazac', and the
nickel-plated steel saddles were also replaced with 'Mazac'. Telecasters
had a steel bridge and saddles, with a plate underneath the bridge
pickup. This plate was originally tin, and replaced with copper-coated
examples later on, before being absent altogether by the early 1980's.
This can and will all add up in the end to affect the sustain and the
tone, to the point of after-market steel Stratocaster bridges
being offered by more than one company.
- After wallowing through pickups and string gauges, the setup of
your guitar makes a difference, too.
- The pick you use can either add 'snap' to the attack, or a
'compression' to the 'envelope' of the note.
- Although some people are anal about what cord they use between
the guitar and amplifier, after a certain point they are all 'good
enough'. Just avoid those 98¢ specials, as well as those coiled up
jobbies that look like they belong on your telephone. If you think
guitar cords really make that big of a difference, check out the
February 1991 issue of Radio-Electronics. It featured an
article thinly disguising the brand name 'Monster Cable' and
investigating manufacturers claims of 'improved' performance. The final
verdict? Compared to using 100 feet of 12 gauge Romex brand
house-wiring cord, there was indeed a 4.5-dB drop after 50kHz (Lassie
confirmed this). It is also interesting to note that solid-core wire
has the worst 'skin effect' of any cable, but still unnoticeable in the
audio range. In conclusion, there was no tremendous improvement to
using 'Monster Cable' as compared to regular lamp cord. Slight
damping factor improvement could be achieved, although equaled by
increasing wire gauge in relation to the length of the cable. So, if it
makes only a slight difference to recorded wide-range music,
why would it matter to the constipated range of an electric guitar?
After a long and
arduous study, Radio-Electronics determined 'Beastie Cables' weren't
worth the money.
- If you are like most players, you check every so often to make
sure all the controls on your guitar are on '10'. I like to use my
volume and tone controls as 'effects', so playing with the
potentiometer and capacitor values can be some cheap fun. Hardly anyone
uses separate treble-capacitors on a Stratocaster, but I like
the results. I use a .01uF for the neck pickup tone control, and a
.02uF for the middle pickup tone control, sometimes wiring the switch
so that the bridge pickup also gets this tone control. Try a 300K pot
for the Volume control. This is what experimenting is all about. Having
more than one guitar lets you do side-by-side comparisons, avoiding the
pitfall of trying to remember what the last setup sounded like! Right
now I have a half-dozen Strats, and I am also playing with
using linear-taper pots for the tone controls.
I am sure we've all heard
the stories about the repair technician who encountered the guitar
player with a solid-state Roland Jazz/Chorus JC120 and a
Gibson ES335 who sincerely asked the technician to help him
sound like Eddie Van Halen. I, too, have had customers ask me
question akin to 'After you modify my Bassman head, how many watts
will it be then?' or as they are trying out a tweed style
amplifier I built with an Ibanez Jem guitar
enquire.....'Where's the 'Boost' switch?' The best advice I
can give you here is realize what any amplifier you are looking at
is, and more importantly, what it isn't. Try the same
amplifier with as many different guitars having as many different
'features' (string gauge/pickups/etc.) as you can. I won't think of
buying any amplifier that can only sound good with an overdrive
pedal, and neither should you. Remember that any chain is only as
strong as the weakest link, and work on the overall 'big picture'
rather than fuss on little details, like whether or not you have
'Black Plate' 6L6's in your Super Reverb. I have stopped being
surprised at the guitar player who spends $3,000 on the latest
boutique amplifier, and plugs in his Mexican Stratocaster
strung with light gauge strings through a Big Muff Pi fuzz
pedal. Why these people fuss over 'matched' output coupling
capacitors is a mystery to me. Perhaps there is a little too
much information available over the Internet, so I'd best stop
TONE LIZARD AMPLIFIERS