Read Time 8 Minutes
Mike Scuffham of Scuffham Amps has a great quote about tube amps.
“I think with any reproduced music, it’s hard to capture the true feel of the original sound and space. With a guitar amp we are talking about the physics of a powerful guitar speaker moving a lot of air. Even if we manage to create a totally accurate amp/speaker/cab/room emulation, I wonder if we’ll ever match the thrill of using a real tube amp. Like waiting for the valve heaters to warm up and hearing that electrical click when you switch from standby or the crackle of a guitar cable. Or just the idea of hot glass vacuum tubes with high tension voltage and knowing you have that power under your fingers. I think these are some of the reasons why we get so passionate about guitar amps.”
A good tube amp has a nebulous sonic mojo that eludes definition. It creates a tonal resonance within the player that gets the player excited by his or her tone and helps get into the head-space of playing with that excitement. Like good guitars, good amps produce sounds that just make you want to play them.
From the sacred …
For some players, it might seem odd that I don’t own a tube amp anymore despite the fact that I am a tube amp aficionado. In this series, I’ll talk a bit about how and why I switched from tube amps to a modeling based approach. While these posts will outline my evolving journey through tone, the approaches, discoveries and pitfalls I’ve encountered along the way may help you with your own quest for tone.
The first amplifier I used was a solid state Scamp Amp combo with a 12″ speaker, 30-40 watts of power and no effects. This started a path of picking up various inexpensive distortions, delays, reverbs and modulation devices to put in front of it. The tones I got were awful in retrospect, but learning that turning knobs to 10 doesn’t always make for a better tone was part of a path way to getting a sound.
My first “real” amp was a Marshall 1×12 JCM 800 combo that I absolutely adored. This amp was goosed on the front end with a T.C. Electronics Distortion/Boost pedal for my “lead” tone and I really liked the mix of solid state and tube distortion. I ran this signal chain through an additional Marshall 4×12 1960 cabinet as my main rig for years. While the JCM 800 is prized by many players for it’s distorted tone, it had the best clean tone of any amp I’ve ever owned.) Alas, this amp was stolen from a basement in Allston, MA where I was rehearsing and (after some failed experiments with a Laney 50 watt head) the cabinet was sold soon after.
This was followed by a 70’s Ampeg VT 40 combo amp (with 4×10’s) that I paired with a few ‘80’s era Soviet made Electro Harmonix pedals, an Ernie Ball volume pedal and a tube echoplex. I remember playing a gig once and being told by the soundman, “Wow. This would have been state of the art in 1973” and thinking that was really cool. It was also noisy as all hell. I sold the tube echoplex and got a Jam Man. In addition to delays, I loved the looping possibilities of the unit and started getting into sound sculpture.
The Ampeg was eventually sold and replaced by a great Seymour Duncan Convertible combo amp that had pre-amp modules that you could put in for different tones. After experimenting with about 6 different modules, I eventually got rid of it because I could never get a distorted tone out of the lead channel that I liked. There was a vintage Gibson amp that I had restored and sold (it only had 15 or 18 watts of power and failed me pretty famously on a gig once). I finally settled on a Fender Hot Rod DeVille. (Later on, I used an Electro Harmonix Big Muff PI for all my distortion so the irony of getting rid of the Convertible which had such a great clean channel is not lost on me now.)
While this initial process of chasing tone was long and arduous, by acquiring one amp and one pedal at a time I was able to start getting into the sound of each individual component and begin to dial in what I needed with a little more control. This gradual crafting of a tonal palate (and an aesthetic) for me provided some great lessons in developing what would become my sound. One early lesson I learned from the Seymour Duncan and the Fender was to look for amps with good headroom and breakup and go for the best clean tone I could get and juice it with what (good quality) effects I needed from there.
… To the profane
While I was smitten with tube amps, I’ve also been interested in guitar-related technology. These initial forays into technology included owning both a Rockman and (the original) Zoom 9002 at various points in my life.
But those solutions, for me, weren’t really feasible for live solutions. Their tonal limitations limited them to addressing the scenario of getting something like an electric tone when practicing with headphones at home.
The first real game changer for me was Line 6’s POD 2.0. In the POD, I heard effects and some distortion tones I liked that sounded good with a tube amp and that I couldn’t get out of my pedals. With that unit (and the original Line 6 short board) I started having 2 live rigs while I was gigging in Boston.
The “full” rig was huge. It took an 88 key keyboard flightcase (modified by FnH Guitar’s John Harper) to hold everything. In addition to having to be fit lengthwise into any car I was riding in, the board also weighed a ton.
The full signal chain at the time (all cabled with George L cables) was:
- guitar to no-name tuner
- Ernie Ball volume pedal
- Vintage Electro Harmonix Big Muff Pi
- Digitech Space Station
- T.C. Electronics Chorus
- Guyatone MD-2 delay
- Vintage Electro Harmonix Memory Man delay
- Akai Headrush looper (this replaced the Jam Man)
- Vox wah and
- another Ernie Ball volume pedal
which was all fed into the front end of my Hot Rod DeVille.
I’d bring the POD and the Line 6 short board to gigs when I didn’t want to use the full rig and as time went on, I found myself using the POD in front of the amp with ever increasing frequency.
The other game changer
Right before I left Boston to study at CalArts, I found out that the rehearsal space I was sharing was robbed. With the exceptions of the Space Station and the Akai (which were the only effects that went home with me regularly) all the rest of my pedals and amp were stolen. While I was planning on going to CalArts to develop my electric guitar playing, without any insurance on the gear (and having no money to replace it), I had, literally overnight, become an exclusively acoustic guitarist when I got there.
While this was a bummer initially, it turned out to be a good thing for my playing. In focusing on acoustic guitar, I became really aware of the tones that my hands were producing and I realized that I had been using a lot of effects to cover technical deficiencies in my playing. I spent a lot of time starting from scratch and re-training my hands to address right and left hand technique. Revising my technique gave me greater articulation and clarity of tone than any effect pedal could have, and proved to be a major factor in revising what I looked for in clean and distorted tones.
That first winter in LA, my wife bought me a POD XT for Christmas. I bought some optional expansion packs and after I got a 50 Watt Atomic Reactor combo amp (with some generous funding from composer Mike Reagan), I was playing electric again.
There have been numerous gear updates since then, but I’ve come 180 degrees on my thinking about vintage gear, tube amps and tone. Now that I’ve had amps and gear stolen from what I thought were secure rehearsal spaces, I don’t want to try to replace them. Now that I live in NY, I don’t want to lug 50-80 lbs of amps and effects around on the subway.
Line 6 had a great quote on their site from Reinhard Bogner recently that I identified with immediately:
“I know that the future of amps is technology. I’m not blind. I love tube amps, but I see the problems more and more. It’s the environmental problems. It’s the production problems of getting tubes from other countries. It’s getting quality tubes. It’s weight problems and shipping to gigs. Those barriers are getting bigger and bigger every year, and technology gets better and better every year.
At some point technology will totally take over. And of course, there will still be people who have old Marshalls, but that will be a minority. So, that’s what I find interesting about working with Line 6. I can’t stop technology from moving, like, stop you guys from writing code. So I’d rather be part of it and learn something from it and go with it. I know it’s the future, so let’s combine forces and make it the best it can be.
Besides, I’m not making tube amps because I love tubes. That’s just the vehicle, combined with the guitar. I want to have good tone. That’s all I want. And if you can give it to me in my iPhone now, hell yeah, I’ll take it. That’s all there is to it.”
That final sentiment of tubes just being the vehicle resonated with me deeply. I don’t know that modeling is “better” than traditional amps and gear, but I’m positive that it’s more economical and convenient for me. I don’t know if my POD HD 500 tone sounds exactly like a miked Marshall with the same series of physical effects pedals, but I know that it sounds good to my ears, that the unit is cheaper than the amp (and much cheaper than the amp and the effects), and that it’s much easier to transport across town.
Being able to save (and backup) hundreds of different sounds (instead of coaxing different sounds out of one static rig) is another huge advantage to me). If, for example, my POD were to break somewhere on the road, I can walk into any large music store and buy one (if the promoter couldn’t locate one) and load my saved bundle from my laptop onto it in about a minute and be ready to play a show.
Having had things stolen or lent and never returned, I don’t want to be reliant on a specific vintage amp or pedal at this point in my life.. The reality is that the guitar is one of the most dynamic sonic controllers ever created and as I said before, even with modeling, a lot of “tone” really is in your fingers.
Gear isn’t going to make a bad performance sound good (yes this includes auto-tune), it only has the potential to make a good performance sound that much better.
On the plus side, I don’t miss the amps or the pedal board. I don’t miss having gigs like the one I played at CBGB’s where a cable broke and I had to try to suss out my board mid set in front of an audience to get signal to the amp.
On the minus side, there’s still a lot to learn with modeling and the learning curve is really endless. I don’t know if it’s ever going to have the same live sonic effect of tube amplifiers but I also don’t know how much that matters to me. In a comparative example, digital recording really doesn’t sound like tape, but since it’s a good sounding (and economical) medium it’s become a standard. To my ears, modeling is only getting better sonically and, like Mr. Bogner, I’m working with the tonally palette I have access to and putting my chips on the future.
In the chasing tone posts to come, I’ll talk a bit about some findings I’ve made in chasing tone, and talk about my 1000 watt subway friendly rig.