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 fault!
An amplifier will 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 right here.