Vox AC 50 tone

Some people have been trying to find out via my blog how a Vox AC 50 sounds. Well, they can take a listen in these posts, for example: synchronicity and the Vox AC 50, third planet, volcanology

But to be honest, I’ve been wondering by myself what kind of amp it really is. It is provided with the same power tubes as a Marshall plexi: the EL 34. The reason was all the famous groups like The Beatles wanted louder amps and Vox had to meet their needs building amps that were louder than an AC 30. Since the AC30 has already a quartet of EL 84 (which are rather low power, but high sound quality), the consequence would have been an octet.

This being rather expensive, and developing much heat in the chassis, they decided to build an amp with different power tubes. Some people assume an AC 50 is nearly the same as a Marshall plexi, but it is not.

There is this roughness in sound, that’s true (a typical Marshall trait), but to my knowledge the amp’s design is completely different. As usual, the entire band would use the same amp in the sixties, except those who were successful enough to buy a stack for each member. So there is a “normal” channel that would provide enough low end for the bass player or for the rhythm guitar (they had this dogma in mind: rhythm is dull, solo is bright).

And there is the “brilliant” channel for solo instruments, which can be really biting! What I found out about the sound is, it is barely balanced. Some bass frequencies tend to dominate, others not. With electric bass my sound somehow got out of hand, and so I preferred my SWR amplifier.

The tone stack is very effective, as one might know from other Vox amps; the knobs are interactive, so you can get a great variety of sounds. With the brilliant channel I had to cut down treble.

But on special occasions this amp is unbeatable! I love the crazy subtones when playing two notes at once with distortion, and I love how the wah-wah sounds with this amp. For reasonable sound pressure levels I use a power soak, and for distortion I prefer a treble booster with inbuilt fuzz.

That’s what I can tell from my own experience. Hope it helped.

robot’s dream


For this post I had a new illustrator signed, who much to my satisfaction translates my ideas into pictures. Despite the fact he is only five years old (erm 5 1/2, I am to say), it shows my son can readily paint the psychedelic way (maybe it helps listening to psychedelic music with his father very often), and it shows no mind-manipulating substances of any kind are needed…

So it’s your turn now to guess what this dream’s about! (Amongst humans it’s not a wide-spread knowledge that robots have a very vivid emotional life, but children still know…)

guitar & gear: Fender Jaguar, Fender Tweed Champ, Roland Space Echo

mikes: Electro Voice RE-20, Neumann KMS 105

psychedelic guitar sound


Is there a distinct psychedelic guitar sound, or is it just the same as vintage guitar sound?

To make sure, I added a short medley here, that you might use as quiz, if you like to. I would enjoy reading your comments, if you recognized some of the bands or songs!

Yes, there is a distinctive psychedelic sound, but it happened to be produced with just the same equipment as connected to “vintage sound” in general. I will try to define the most typical traits of it:

Excessive use of effects: as there were only a few effects at the time, these were cranked up to maximum. Tremolo at maximum speed and intensity, until it gives a shattering sound that splices the notes. Reverb: reverberations that seem to last for years…

I think, Pink Floyd were the first to use the Tape Echo, already in the band’s early times. Many signals in their music are veiled by excessive use of this effect.

Edgy or even biting guitar sounds, predominantly coming from Fender or Vox amps (both reputable for being rich in treble).

Backwards guitar: officially “invented” by the Beatles on their Revolver album, there seem to have been different occasions when a band or a recording engineer by mistake put the tape the wrong way, and everybody went “what was that? can you play that again?”

Excessive finger-vibrato (listen to “Deserted cities of the heart” by Cream! Clapton’s vibrato is incredible there. Could that have been a whammy bar?)

Pseudo-Indian playing style by rushing up and down the neck on just one string. Slides and the modal, drone-like sound provide a recognizable allusion to Indian music, with a chirping sound sometimes approaching a Sitar. Guitar players consciously tried to imitate other instruments, or even a siren.

Amplifier-Feedback: with the volume set high, speakers stimulate the guitar strings until a circle of self-oscillation is established, mostly running up to harmonics.

Phaser, only just invented, mostly got applied to the whole mix (“Itchicoo Park” by The Small Faces), but there may be examples of phased guitar sounds.

The Wah-Wah was invented as a trumpet effects unit (!) in 1967 by Vox, and there are only few examples of psychedelic wah wah . Am I wrong with that? To me it seems the wah-wah is more connected to the Hard Rock era, beginning around 1968. And Miles Davis definitely did not misuse a guitar effect for his trumpet (many listeners protested), but it was designed for just his instrument!

In the end there should be no dogmatism about what a psychedelic guitar sound has to be. “Psychedelic” can be an esthetic category beyond historic implications, and is determined to develop further on, along with changing equipment and new effects…



A Bluer Bossa than “Blue Bossa”, I heard this tune composed by my dear friend Saman Vossoughi who plays jazz guitar, and I was like: “what scale is that?”. It sounded so – interesting, so different. And usually I know my scales around…

It turned out this tune is based on Melodic Minor, a scale I had always rejected as not feasible. “It’s neither fish nor fowl”, I used to state, “as part of it sounds like Major, and part of it like Minor”. I simply didn’t know how to use it. I’m glad attending my friend’s concert has taught me to stay open, since I began to practice Melodic Minor as soon as I came home after the concert. All of a sudden I found it rather useful. A week or so later we arranged to meet and record the song in my studio as a one-shot collaboration. Here we are.

The “who is who” is easily to be detected, as Saman has the smoother sound, and my Jaguar is a bit more incisive.

(Saman has dedicated this tune to Joe Henderson, famous tenor saxophone player, who among many other things recorded an outstanding version of “Blue Bossa”. But “Mylodic” bears no direct resemblance to the latter, although it’s kind of a Bossa, too).

guitars & gear: Saman: Gibson ES 335, Vox AC 15, Tube Reverb. Gary: Fender Jaguar, Vox AC 30, Gibson EB3 bass, Cabasa, Tabor, Tube Reverb

vintage guitar sound (2)

In the first installment I stated that vintage sound can hardly be defined, and so it will always remain a rather vague matter.

How can vintage sound be described?

It is said to be smoother and warmer (sometimes called “brown sound”). Maybe that is right most of the time. But chances are you might find typical vintage sounds that are a bit edgy or even shrill. Other than assigning the phenomenon to a certain period of time, there seems to be no real definition what is a vintage sound, and what you find may differ on a large scale.
Others claim vintage sounds are sort of restricted, concerning the frequency spectrum. At least this assumption gives us some palpable hint: the tone doesn’t include the whole spectrum, but is narrower, thus cutting through. Vintage humbuckers (PAFs) are said to sound close to single coils. They definitely don’t share the deep and full sounding characteristics of contemporary humbuckers, rather giving a nasal tone. Stratocasters cover a wide range of sounds, but in general they are prone to providing very much treble (musicians make jokes about bleeding ears).

All of these vintage guitars have their little flaws… and I regret I can’t talk about all the other great guitars here, whether these are Telecasters, Gretsch, Les Paul Junior (P 90 Pickups have their own sound), or – well, you already know I fell for the Jaguar… I heard about modern high gain pickups to cover up the subtleties of the tone, especially the wood resonances. So what for some people may be a disadvantage (like low gain), to others is the only way to go. Hand-wound pickups may offer tonal advantages, but there are never two of them with identical specifications. Variations in wood quality seem to allow for some great vintage guitars, as well as some “dead” sounding ones. (It’s absurd to charge equally high prizes for all of the old instruments just because of their age…)

Less is more – this seems to be the case particularly with vintage sounds. These are far from being perfect, and that’s exactly what creates the magic. Tonal character is probably something like the opposite of universality. In my opinion, the vintage cult can be viewed as a reaction to modern sounds being all too perfect and punchy, and to modern equipment making everything possible.

So our perspective on sound has changed and goes on changing: what had been just the only thing at hand, for sure sometimes complained about at the now called “Golden Age of Vintage Sounds”, has turned into a cult only much later. After countless improvements imposed on amplifiers and instruments it turned out perfection is boring… The failure of transistor amps to accurately reproduce the dynamics of tube amps strongly contributed to that, as well as the fact that we are overfed by ever more frequency range, compression and walls of sound.

But anybody who is determined to make vintage sounds his own, at first has to know he is to face guitars with a fingerboard radius that makes bendings much harder; that he is to face amps without a master volume, and so on. There have been reasons for improvement, and if we go back to an evolutionary step before that, new (old) problems will arise.

But there are solutions out there, and if you are really committed, it will only take you some time before being rewarded with great sounds!

gumBo with Bo


An archetypical 60s rhythm, popularized by the famous and most influential Bo Diddley. Originally a typical Caribbean rhythm, e.g. called “clave” in Cuba, but – unlike this – played with a slight swing feel to it.

Important Bo-Diddley-rhythm-kind-of-songs of the period this blog is all about:

  • Not fade away – Buddy Holly/The Rolling Stones
  • Magic Bus – The Who
  • Get me to the world on time – The Electric Prunes
  • Gone and passes by – The Chocolate Watchband

So, let your guitar’s body turn into a red rectangle, grab maracas, and play some wild Caribbean thing! Here we go, Bo…

guitar & gear: Sakurai nylon string, Fender Jaguar, Fender Tweed Champ, Tube Trem, bongos played with mallets, mini-cymbals (no maracas, sorry…)

overall mike: Sennheiser MD 421

vintage guitar sound (1)

I’m not exactly an expert on this issue, but over the last few years I’ve gained some experience how to achieve an individual sound by replacing some parts of the instrument and by purchasing a matching amplifier. And I would like to share the essence of it.

To me, the physically old equipment is strongly overrated – whereas there is real magic to some of the specifications of, say 50s or 60s instruments and amplifiers; concerning wood quality, pickups, electronics, capacitors, and so on. Nowadays we enjoy the benefits of being able to buy amplifiers or guitars as an reissue of the original legend, as well as the real old equipment, which is normally exclusively called “vintage”. There is not much sense in discussing the value of vintage equipment, though, without at first knowing your aim, your desired sound.

So, the first question to be answered is whether or not your sound requires vintage equipment – or this search may be merely part of a temporal hype. For me, the answer has been clearly “yes”. (Since psychedelic sounds are old sounds, they may be considered as part of the vintage topic. I will write about this soon.) In addition, I could build upon a family tradition, if you will, as my father was passionate about tube amps. Except he didn’t use them as guitar amps, but for HiFi. Some of the parts he left I could use very well, however.

I concentrated on indulging in “the tube sound”, since before that I had only a faint idea of what this was exactly like, and how it effected your guitar signal. My first step, about three years ago, was to buy a Vox ToneLab, a multieffect device that allows for trying a bunch of different tube amp sounds. I used very little of its potential, for my primary interest was not effects, but a possibly realistic simulation of different classics by Marshall, Fender and Vox. It showed that the ToneLab was a good basis for further research. For months I even believed it couldn’t be topped by a real tube amp – mistake! I will try to describe what the uniqueness of tube sound is all about in a second installment…

Vox ToneLab SE

Another primary experience has been exchanging the guitar’s capacitors, which are virtually always small ceramic caps, giving a rather harsh sound with the tone control at maximum, and suddenly giving way to a rather dull and low signal when the tone control is turned down. In most cases, they should be replaced by foil caps.

The overall tone of the respective guitar was significantly altered by different capacitors, even of the same electrical value, but of different brands and sizes; and even when the tone control was turned to maximum. So modifications of the guitar’s electronics turned out to be a major tool to achieve a warmer, more vintage-like guitar sound. For the first time I saw the use of the tone pot at all, as I could play around with a diversity of colors or sound shapes, all of them sounding good!

Step by step I had thus turned my Epiphone Les Paul Custom into an instrument that bears comparison with an original Gibson (replacement of the pickups and many other parts included). I ended up with the conviction that there are many ways to achieve a so-called vintage guitar sound, and no real old equipment is required. At least for my personal needs. I can very well imagine somebody needing exactly what only a certain old guitar or amp can provide. But let’s abandon the hype! For a majority of players it would be sufficient to “tune” their instruments like described above.

Epiphone Les Paul Custom with Häussel pickups, and new hardware all over

Since I aim at something analogous to classical vintage sounds, not the exact same, I may have had it easier in this respect. In addition I found an effect chain including a tube tremolo and a tube reverb very useful. These two were nearly the only effects available to guitar players up to 1967 (when the wah wah was invented), and with them you come closer to sounding Early or Mid Sixties, for example. Some amps (e.g. the Fender Blackface series) are already provided with tremolo and reverb, but using stand alone devices gives you more versatility. The same goes for external speaker cabinets. It’s fun to experiment by combining different speakers with your amp. Clearly, requirements vary depending on whether you play on stage or just at home…

Tube Trem by GP Lightstone

Tube amps are too big a subject to write about in a few sentences. But it’s a good idea to orientate yourself, which of the trilogy of Fender, Vox, or Marshall suits your desired sound best. Further investigation after this question of principle could concern a specific model, like a Champ, Princeton, or Deluxe by Fender, a Plexi, or JTM 45 by Marshall, or the AC 15 and AC 30 by Vox. To get some idea how they sound like, playing around with realistic modeling technology is optimum preparation – but in the long run I found real amplifiers much more dynamic. Beware of their power, though! To achieve a distorted sound they have to be turned up to incredibly high volumes (at least for your living room), and many originals as well as reissues don’t have master volume. If you are playing at home, a maximum of about 20 Watts is more than sufficient (maybe even five Watts are enough).

Vox AC 15 Heritage Reissue

So, the next tool to investigate was the treble booster, used by many guitarists of the 60s and early 70s to boost the signal. The name is misleading, as it’s primary function is to make distortion easier, not to add shrillness. I found it melts into the amps own sound perfectly. Depending on the degree of distortion needed, also a Tube Screamer or other overdrive unit can be used. My most versatile booster is called “Fuzz Booster”, and provides clean boosted sounds as well as a completely unobtrusive fuzz, making it easy to blend one into the other.

This a long story cut short, but that’s what has made me really happy: a combination of somehow tuned (new) guitars with (new) tube amps, tremolo and tube reverb, at times with a treble booster right before the amp’s input – and that’s it!

– For the second installment click here!