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Amps II

Hello Troubadourians! Last month we began talking about amplifiers, guitar amplifiers in particular. As I said, this is a very complex subject with lots of facts to consider and countless opinions, too. As we continue our discussion I’ll do my best to give you facts that you can verify for yourself and if I have to opine about something I’ll be sure it’s an informed one backed up by experience. There are nearly as many brands and types of amplifiers as there are guitars. We can limit the possibilities by choosing only among our favorite brands, but how do we have any favorite brands if we are either just starting out or are new to the electric guitar? Well, we generally rely on the opinions of experts or friends. I suppose I qualify as an expert since I’ve owned many different amplifiers and have been using them since I was 12. As for opinions, most of mine are formed from experience in using, selling, and repairing amplifiers of many brands and models. Oh, and from
listening.

What are the most important qualities of an amplifier? In no particular order, these would be my criteria: tone, features, versatility, volume, weight, size, price, looks. Let’s begin by talking about tone. Like many things musical, tone is highly subjective, and a good tone is in the ear of the beholder. It helps to know what you want to hear before going shopping for an amp and having some knowledge of what your favorite player uses is a good place to start. Let’s say you like classic rock and your favorite band is AC/DC. That’s the tone you hear in your head when you think about electric guitar. That should be simple enough, right? Okay, but which tone do you mean? Malcom Young’s rhythm tone or Angus Young’s lead tone? “What?” you say. “I thought that was simple.” Yeah, I know, but each brother has his own distinctive tone, which is why I asked. If someone is new to electric guitar or doesn’t know all of the “guitar slang” that players throw around, it’s easy to hear guitars as a composite tone when listening to a band’s music. But while you hear things as a blended sound, there are always parts or riffs that stand out and grab your attention on their own. When you then want to replicate what you heard you’ll usualy gravitate to the tone of those riffs. Take “Back in Black” for instance; if it’s the opening riff that hooked your ear, that’s Angus. Digging on a particular solo? Angus again. But what about that rock-solid rhythm? That’s Malcolm. When you listen with intention you can hear how different and distinct each tone really is. It’s genius how they blend into one massive tone. The easy part is that both brothers use vintage Marshall amps. Malcolm favored 50-watt versions and Angus favors 100-watters. Relatively speaking, neither used a lot of gain to achieve their tones (translated, that means that neither turned their amps up all the way, only enough to get some breakup in the sound), but the basic sound was probably still fairly loud, as Marshall amps are capable of being loud to begin with. Of course, they would set the volume and tone controls of their amps differently—and they are different players using different guitars—but the main difference can be attributed to the basic tonal voicing of the 50-watt and 100-watt models of their Marshall amps. The 100-watt amp, in addition to having more power, also has an overall somewhat brighter tone. This combined with Angus usually turning up a little more than Malcom, facilitated Angus’ need to cut through and be heard above the band for his solos and riffs. If they had somehow decided to use the same gear, their tones wouldn’t have blended as well. Ironically, they would have probably sounded sort of mushy and the power of their individual parts would have been dulled or lost altogether. I used AC/DC in this example since they are a classic model for two guitars playing simple parts in a hard rock context—often playing the same chords—yet they each maintain a distinct tone while remaining true to the tonal expectations of the genre. By creating similar yet distinct tones with similar yet distinct amps, they are able to deliver an overall tonality that is greater than the sum of its parts.

So, I spent over half of this column discussing the tone of two players and one band. This should give you an idea about how truly complex it is to get a good tone and then have it blend with the other players in the band. Maybe you don’t like AC/DC or rock music in general. Maybe solo jazz is your thing. That’s only slightly easier since you only have to please yourself with your tone. Usually, for a tone to be considered a good jazz tone, the amplifier needs to be exceptionally clean—meaning no distortion—and be capable of producing a darker, woodier, almost acoustic tone. Think George Benson. Why is this sort of tone preferred for jazz? Tradition has a lot to do with it since electric guitars and jazz music essentially developed together. The desire was to preserve the acoustic properties of the archtop jazz guitars. And the tones that we associate with jazz guitar were the only tones that the available technology would produce that kept the guitar sounding reasonably acoustic. Since that is the tone that guitarists got used to hearing in a jazz context it has become the de facto standard. So how do you get that tone? Often guitarists start with a solid-state amplifier. As I’ve described in previous columns, solid-state refers to amplifiers that use transistors in their gain and tone circuits rather than vacuum tubes. Since the desire is to keep the sound as undistorted as possible, this type of amp is a good place to start. A common choice for many years was a Polytone. There were many models of Polytones in varying sizes and power but all shared the common goal of clean, undistorted amplification. Obviously, there are dozens more tones that we can discuss and we’ll continue to expand our knowledge in the following columns. We’ll also talk about the other qualities of amplifiers we mentioned above. But we really need to be sure to get into the why of all of this because that’s where we’ll really learn how to choose the best amp for us.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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