Category Archives: Gear

making the champ my champ

A post on some good experiences with easy amp modification.

About two years ago I tried to build a Fender Champ amplifier from a rather expensive amp kit (TAD) from Germany, including a perfectly made tweed cabinet. It was the first time for me to do this. I really took my time to solder accurately, and it took me many weeks to finish. To my great surprise it instantly worked, and from the moment I finally put away the screwdriver after closing the back it was just plug and play…

For a long time, I really was content with this little box that gives five very loud and intense watts – more than sufficient a sound pressure for my living room studio. I only found the Jensen P 12 R speaker (I had chosen a special champ edition with a bigger speaker for more bass response) sounded too dull. But as I also have a cabinet with two Jensen P 12 Q, I tried this combination and was quite pleased. I found that my Les Paul sounded good as it drove the amp harder and produced some nice crunch, but with my Stratocaster it was, again, too dull. The amp didn’t quite react to my playing, sounding neutral at best.

But come to think of it: non of the above results of my tests are true any more! Not that my ears would change from day to day, but I have applied some very easy mods that I think are not even real mods, and now it’s only the champ when it comes to playing Stratocaster…

A book on tube amps (“A Desktop Reference Of Hip Vintage Guitar Amps” by Gerald Weber), a very practical and easy-to-read guide to some more understanding of tube amps, was the catalyst. I brought together two ideas of which I had heard separately: The installation of a bright capacitor over the amp’s volume pot (as provided in many Fender amps, called the bright switch), and the installation of a multiple switch to house several caps of different values – making it possible to dial in different presets suiting each guitar or even each pickup separately. Remember the champ has but one volume pot – no tone control at all, and even the volume pot serves as on/off-switch in addition, thus canceling the memory of your last volume setting when turned off.

I was amazed at how plainly audible the difference was! With a simple trick that – applied to guitar volume pots – is called a “volume bleed circuit” a vast curtain was drawn back, and I finally had the treble and mid frequency range desired. Nothing is added that wasn’t there before by this procedure – it’s  just changing the balance between frequencies by adding something that the volume pot is taking away when not turned to maximum. Kind of reloading. By trying several different cap values you may affect only the very high treble, or include parts of the midrange, too. Gerald Weber mentions cap values from 47 pF to 120 pF.  You can solder one or several caps to a switch, as I did, or solder the one you like best directly over the input/output of the volume pot, thus losing the original sound. A switch will also be connected to the input/output terminals of the pot.

My multi-switch has six positions. I left the first blank to reproduce the unchanged, original sound. Then I added 33 pF, 47 pF, 100 pF, 120 pF, 150 pF. Lower values just add very high treble, as opposed to the higher values that increasingly allow for more middle to get through… I have already chosen some favorite switch positions for each guitar.

So now there is sort of a tone control for my little champ that I mounted on the chassis where there was some space left. I do not mind reaching for it on the backside of the amp, but maybe that is not a good idea for everyone.

A second step of modification included exchange of all three tubes of the little amp. Instead of a 12 AX7 preamp tube I placed a 5751 that gives lower gain, but clearly more nice treble. Just crank up the volume a bit more than used to, and voilà an excellent sound! Gerald Weber in several instances mentioned a rectifier tube named 5V4 that replaces a 5Y3. It makes the amp a little bit louder, which was no aim of mine, but also gives more, and tighter bass. Since I wished to make the champ sound less “boxy” I had to add more bass as well as treble. To check bass response, the low “E” from an electric guitar (compared to other notes) was perfectly right.

Then I tried several types of power tubes. First, different brands of 6V6, but then I switched to another tube (my favorite one on the modeling device “Vox Tonelab SE”) that is called 5881 (kind of a military rugged version of 6L6, but of different construction and sound). That’s when I experienced Strat-player’s heaven! Now that’s how this amp was meant to sound, and it sounds good with humbuckers, too. No matter a 5881 belongs in other amps, like the Fender Bassman – it just sounds great in my amp and makes it sound bigger. No problems so far.

Changing tubes (with the amp off!!!) is easy for anybody, only a little more difficult than exchanging a light bulb. If you are capable of soldering, you may try and add a bright cap to any amp’s master volume, I think, provided you are missing some treble or clearness of sound. The degree of sound shaping achieved of course depends on the way your volume pot is reacting when turned! And on the range of frequencies that is affected by it. So it may work in some amps, in some not. It certainly doesn’t make any difference with the amp’s volume turned all the way up – so the softer your setting, the more effect there will be…

Last thing to do was loosening the four screws that hold the baffle board (a rather thin wooden front the speaker is mounted on) a little, so its extra vibrations can add to the impression of volume, of vibrating tone. I think this measure that is known since the old days put the sound of the internal speaker above the sound of my 2×12 cabinet. What’s also important with these small amps is to place them in a somehow elevated position so the speaker’s cone addresses the ear directly. Otherwise much treble and presence will be lost.

Some months ago, I wouldn’t have dreamt of the sound quality and variability my champ has gained now. This was my first and only experience so far with “amp tuning”, apart from soldering some better tone caps to my AC 15 and changing all the tubes in my amps. Pretty successful for my purpose – I was amazed myself. Please feel free to ask questions.

Vanilla Fuzz

[audio:fuzzbass.mp3]

After eight years of continuous guitar lessons a young student of mine surprised me with a good-bye-present of a kind I had never thought to receive:

He had built an effects unit for me! It’s a Fuzz he called “Vanilla Fuzz” because of the yellowish casing – but he has not been aware of a band called Vanilla Fudge which is one of my favorites and fits the topic of this blog perfectly. For this present he must have spent countless hours of building, soldering and even painting; and finally he gave it away just for me…

When I tried it the same day I received it (I couldn’t wait much longer) I found it was nice, but something was missing with the higher notes. After some consideration I resolved to try it with bass – and that was a revelation: it felt like this unit had been built as a bass fuzz device, and as such it is filling a gap in my stomp boxes pool.

As a “thank you” I post a music with fuzz bass on it. And mandolin and conga plus a bicycle bell. Sounds strange? Sure it is!

instruments & gear: Tobias 4-string bass, Vox AC 50, Epiphone Mandobird, MXR Phase 90, Tube Reverb

tube sound

[audio:tubesound.mp3]

When I wrote about vintage sounds I promised to explain what makes tube amps so indispensable for guitar players.

Tubes (or valves in British English) strongly react to the player’s plucking the string softer or harder, allowing for shifting from clean to crunch without readjustment of the knobs on your amp. Many players just use the guitar’s volume pot to add the right amount of distortion, so in reality this pot ends up more as a distortion control than a volume pot… All the distortion units on the market are but an approximation to a good tube distortion (some of them melting very nicely into the amp’s distortion, though).

With tube amps, the frequency spectrum varies significantly with any variation in playing technique – there may suddenly be more bass if you pluck very softly, and there may arise an edgy, cutting note if you pluck harder. At high gain settings, the power tubes themselves begin to distort the sound, and this is what is said to be a guitar player’s heaven!

There is a natural compression when you drive a tube amp hard enough, giving more sustain to your tone. It is impossible to describe the richness and the many shapes and colors of tone you can get with a good tube amp. I won’t extend on different types of tubes here, but some are connected with certain amps: the 6V6, 6L6 and 5881 with Fender, the EL 34 with Marshall and the EL 84 with Vox. They do shape the sound significantly, e.g. the EL 34 is held responsible for the “British sound” associated with the rougher kind of distortion of Marshall Plexi amps.

The Fender Champ (used in the musical track above) is one of the simplest, smallest amps in existence, with only one preamp tube (12AX7), one rectifier (EZ 81) and one power tube (6V6). To get some distortion out of it, I used my favorite treble booster, and the usual tube reverb unit to enhance the sound.

To exploit the potential of tube amps takes some experience. I found out I had to practice specifically to be able to handle a new sound or a new amp. Playing technique has to adjust with every amp or setting. What for me turned out to be most rewarding was exploring the field of crunch sounds, as they cover the whole spectrum in between clean and distorted. A bunch of options and variants come in, as you have to find the right guitar with the right pickups to match your amp and give the desired sound…

Some years ago I didn’t seem to know what my desired sound was, but I didn’t let it discourage me. After a while it showed that distinctiveness can only be a result of the process. How could you know what you want, when you lack first-hand experience? So it will take some time, and I can only encourage everybody to experiment on your own, trusting your own ears and nobody else’s.

My personal “master plan” is to create a best-of all-worlds-situation in my studio by having examples of Vox, Fender and Marshall at my disposal. I’m already oversupplied with Vox, but there is no Marshall… I’m planning to built one from another amp kit (like the Champ) …maybe next year…

guitar & gear: Fender Jaguar, Fender Tweed Champ, BSM Fuzzbooster, Tube Reverb

Lawsuit SG soundtracks

[audio:SGdemo.mp3]

Finally I made it! It’s so easy to promise new recordings, and then sometimes it’s kind of impossible to record for weeks. But in the end…

The E-major chord in the beginning is out of tune, once again. But as soon as soloing begins, no wrong notes are discernible. I think I have accepted a guitar player’s fate: our instrument is not tempered, and whenever a C Major sounds fine, E Major will be horrible…

In many songs (mainly old ones) I found it very charming to hear a guitar that’s slightly out of tune. But it happens anyway… Two minutes into a recording your having tuned the guitar before is already worth nothing. And I think to a certain degree it’s o.k., since I like the human factor, the inexact and the non-tempered. What makes Miles Davis’ trumpet sound so great? Among others, that his notes are non-tempered! I like the same quality about the early John McLaughlin. And I understand when Neil Young praises his Bigsby detuning his guitar after every application. (Don’t overdo that! Normally, I would have cut off the initial part of the track… And, yes, I know there is a Buzz Feiten tuning system and other solutions out there).

First you listen to the SG with both pickups activated. There is much treble. At around 0:36 you can hear me switch the toggle to the neck pickup – a sound very appropriate for Blues. I try to play around with several styles, getting a bit funky, and presenting some power chords.

I think the Amber pickups are great. They sound incredibly direct and clear. Even though I experience some difficulty with the neck and the overall performance, the SG has assumed a new status in my little studio, mainly due to these pickups.

guitar & gear: Ibanez SG, Tweed Champ, 2×12 cabinet with greenbacks, Tube Trem as a booster

Lawsuit SG

Over the last weeks I’ve been busy modifying another old guitar I had been given by a neighbor about six years ago: it’s an Ibanez, but completely different from what most people know as an Ibanez.

This guitar is from 1971 – maybe a vintage item, if you will, but already slightly beyond the “Golden Age” of electric guitar craftsmanship. Since it’s from Japan, then a low-wage country, its worth is not at all comparable to that of an American original. This SG (a so-called lawsuit model, that became illegal after Gibson won a case) is just a cheap copy, with bolt-on neck at that. The pickups were almost broken as the electronic circuitry in general was.

But from the moment I played this instrument for the first time, I found there was something special about it – not very SG-like, but individual in quality. With a slide it delivered a great sound, and for some years it has been my guitar for special occasions, also for noise orgies…

Until the pickups finally gave up, and I had to get new ones. I decided to order some P90 style pickups. But a few problems arose: there were three pickups originally, but I wanted only two. The third one was activated only in the middle position of the toggle switch, and, contrary to what one might expect, this sound had less power and gave me no criterion to want a third pickup. But what to do with the ugly hole in the middle?

I procrastinated resolving this, and instead went on to ordering hand-wound P94 pickups – they are similar to P90s, but in a humbucker format. I expected a brighter sound than with humbuckers that should be matching the bolt-on neck construction and give a direct sound that could be great with some crunch added.

And so it was. When I received my pair of Amber P94, there was no difficulty in mounting them, and within half an hour or so the guitar was ready to be played again. The sound turned out much clearer and more present than before, and the special design of P94 (with pole pieces instead of screws), only recently available, gives them an exceptionally direct response. Needless to say I had built the electronic circuit anew from scratch, with good CTS replica pots, bumblebee caps and cloth wire, adding to an unimpaired frequency spectrum.

After due consideration I mounted the old middle pickup again, as a dummy, so new and old looks are merging. It looks fine to me. No ugly hole any more…

There were still problems with the narrow string spacing that was already improperly done by the Ibanez factory, the strings not being parallel to the neck. I tried a different bridge I had saved from my Epiphone, but with it I had to carve out a new notch for the E6-string that otherwise would have dropped off the fingerboard. Still it feels somehow weird to play on this neck, but the sound is great – and it’s still great with a slide! This guitar will remain my guitar for special occasions, only much better than before…

Soundtracks featuring this guitar coming soon.

Guitar Caps

Sparing you the discussion whether or not there are differences in sound with different caps, I simply begin with: “Yes, there are. Use your ears and you will find out”. This post is to enlarge upon some former posts – when I still had no idea how many people would be interested – specially upon “switches and caps“, which is my no.1 post concerning hits now. There are some comments there with additional information, if you like.

A list of some of the capacitors I tried with guitars:

Luxe Caps” (Vitamin Qs), made of Russian military caps, thoroughly coated to look like vintage caps. They are California made, but the link above is to a German distributor, where I bought a bunch of caps (I’m also German), being much more delighted with the sound quality than with their English on the home page. But there are some forums (just google “Luxe caps”) who talk about alternatives to these rather expensive parts. Or look here for NOS caps.

– amongst them: Bumblebees. The legendary Les Paul caps give a nice and smooth sound, but for some it’s just too dull.

bumblebees

– Black Beauties. Used later on in Les Pauls, they are a bit brighter in sound, and my favorites.

Mustard Caps

Jensen (from Denmark, not to be confused with Jensen Speakers in Fender amps)

Jensen

Styroflex (silvery and half transparent looking)

Red Dimes, Orange Dimes (good ceramic caps, but still ceramic..) and many others.

red dime in a 1967 Stratocaster

Personally, out of vintage repro caps, I prefer Black Beauties for all Les Pauls (including Juniors and Specials), for they give a brighter sound than Bumblebees. Both come in 0.022 uF only. There are intended as replacements for original vintage instruments. With little interest in “vintage correctness”, in a way I don’t care too much if they belong in this very guitar I want to tune. The point is: they sound very very good. Even the higher priced ones are worth trying.

The cheapest solution are Mustard caps, and to me they are second best. Made as replacements for Marshall amps, they sound great in guitars. For most users, I presume, there will be nothing left to be desired. My pimped Epiphone Les Paul houses a pair of them…

Capacitor Values: Values (in micro Farrad) differ from 0.01 to 0.1. The higher the value, the stronger will be the high frequency roll off. Fifities guitars often had bright sounding pickups – these were matched by more roll-off (0.05 to 0.1), whereas 0.022 is most common now. Vintage repro caps only come with vintage correct values, but it is worthwhile to experiment with different ones. In this case, you’ll have to try “normal” caps. I had a bass guitar that sounded somehow strangled until I fixed it with a foil cap of a different value – it felt like a miracle! For the Neck PU of my Les Paul I put a 0.033 uF cap so it lost its biting brightness, whereas for the bridge PU the usual 0.022 was fine.

Jensens are high grade, but originally for HiFi. Rather big in size, they give a very cultivated, smooth sound. Except for my Gibson EB3 Bass, I missed some aggression, though.

For my Stratocaster there was no alternative to a “chiclet” 0.1uF wax paper cap (Luxe). I originally wanted a red dime 0.05, like I had read somewhere, but after comparing it to a chiclet, there was no other way to go. I found the same to be the case with a student’s Mexican strat. These foil repro caps give the best and smoothest vintage sound I ever heard with Fender single coils. I don’t care if all the sixties’s strats were provided with ceramic caps – I would even replace these originals (of course keeping them).

Styroflex also turned out fine, but I missed some of the character in tone that other foil caps delivered. They are best for tone stacks in amplifiers (I already replaced some caps in my amps as well, with good results).

My Jaguar, as usual came with ceramic discs, but with the lower value of 0.01uF, as these single coils are rather different from a strat’s ones, and there are two tone circuits involved. So, no vintage repro caps were available. I simply tested several ceramic caps (for the main circuit), but bigger than discs, looking like the famous “Sprague” ones, and ended up with a 0.015. This one gave a fairly aggressive attack I liked so much that I don’t care I cannot turn the pot down anymore – not even a little bit, or it strangles both tone and volume. But after comparing its sound to the pot without any cap, I knew I couldn’t do without it.

For the Jaguar’s “rhythm circuit” I took a different choice. This circuit was created for dull rhythm sounds with the neck pickup only – but I like to use it for smoother jazzy sounds. For lack of space I sought out an old foil cap from a British Quad amp called “Hunts”, looking like a tiny carrot or a candy, and at the same time decreased the value to 0.0056 uF (roughly, only half of the original value). The result was less dampening, so it served for soloing also.

With all the hype of caps, don’t forget to check your pots! New pots (500 kO for Les Pauls, 250 kO for Teles and Strats, 1 MegO for Jazzmaster and Jaguar) might be just the missing thing in your guitar, brightening up the tone until it shines likes a Rembrandt painting exempt from centuries-old layers of varnish…

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.

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!

switches and caps

My new Jaguar has a whole bunch of switches that repelled many a guitar player before. You know, they usually like to play without having to think about knobs or buttons. Just plug and play, and that’s okay.

But for me switches are paradise! I now have three different capacitors instead of one in my guitar, and I can even switch from foil to ceramic, if I like to, and I simply love all of the sounds they produce.

For years now I use to modify my guitars by replacing their tone capacitors by better ones. Capacitors obviously are the poor cousin of even the best manufacturers. Usually you don’t see them, and that seems to be enough of a reason to provide only the cheapest ones.

But anybody with ears to listen can hear the difference, though it’s never spectacular. With a Gibson Les Paul or the like I prefer foil caps that give a much smoother sound than the ceramic caps provided. You can turn the tone control all the way down to produce the “woman tone”. Still it will sound good and present, while ceramic caps strangle the tone until it virtually disappears!

With a Fender Guitar, they say, you should use a ceramic cap, but one that’s much bigger than the cheap ones. It is called “Orange Dime”. But the really old Strats had foil capacitors, too. After trying one of them, I would never return to a ceramic cap. But that’s a thing you can argue about.

With the Jaguar it took me some time to find out the right items, though. As always, it was trial and error, and I had to change one capacitor’s value from 0.01 uF to 0.005, for instance. The result is amazing. There is a right-in-the-face Rock sound as well as a smooth Jazz sound, and so the Jaguar has become the most versatile guitar I ever played. Oh, I forgot to tell you about the “resonance strings”: they have their own, harp-like sound adding to the many possibilities of this guitar.

For those who want more information, there is a recent post on guitar caps here.

My first encounter with the Jaguar

[audio:McL.mp3]

It didn’t happen for the first time: I fell in love with a music nobody else around me seemed to be able to appreciate. Except for my friend Hans, with whom I grew up musically, and who influenced me to no end. But that’s just another story, and Hans has disappeared from my life anyway.

I’m talking about the album “Devotion” by John Mclaughlin, and this happened decades ago. Typically, “Devotion”, not much of a success at the time, wasn’t even much appreciated by the artist himself later on. He talked about the loveless way “Devotion” was produced, and he certainly could have imagined to make it much better. But there’s just one album like that for me – that kind of music I never encountered again. Not even on the other albums of this great guitar player, who had much more success forming the Mahavishnu Orchestra, right after the time we are talking about.

What’s so singular about “Devotion”, recorded in 1970?

First: the players. On drums: Buddy Miles, who had played with Jimi Hendrix as a part of the “Band of Gypsies”. From the moment I got to know this music, I liked his drumming much better than that of the regular Hendrix drummer, and it occurred to me that the Jimi Hendrix Experience should have always been like that. He provides a strong, driving yet sensible beat. (He has been a Soul singer afterwards, but I miss his very specific strength there.)

On Hammond organ: Larry Young, simply a wizard on this instrument, producing one eerie or sparkling sound after the other to add an extraterrestrial aura to the group sound. Definitely my favorite player of this instrument!

On bass: Billy Rich, whom I still do only know by this record. But he is an integral part of the sound, playing beautiful melodies like the others while keeping the groove. His feel for dynamics makes way for the quartet climbing up to the clouds, as I feel it when listening.

There are no vocals on the album, usually being labeled as an early form of “Fusion”, a mixture of Jazz and Rock elements. But there is a unique guitar sound on multilayered tracks. Which makes me come back to my point:

In some way or another, this album influenced me like only “Bitches Brew” by Miles Davis, or the Late String Quartets by Beethoven could.

When I read the book “Zen Guitar” (go to “The Psychedelic Zen Guitar Story” Page of my blog to know more about it), the first advice I got was: go back to the original sound that made you play your instrument! Go back to where it all began. Try to search for the sound of the divine spark within us all. The sound of one hand clapping (to understand this very important Koan, please read the book!).

After having indulged in Santana’s use of the Gibson SG on the first Santana albums, I proceeded to Classical Rock guitar sounds in general, like the Les Paul and the Stratocaster. I began to experiment with tube amplifiers, trying to build up on my father’s profession as a Audio technician. Before his death, he was really into tube amps. I sometimes wish I could have adopted more of his skills when he was still alive…

This taking me already several years, I only recently arrived at the guitar sound of the “Devotion” album. Guess what?

John McLaughlin played a psychedelically painted Jaguar these days.

I’m certainly far from playing like John McLaughlin, and I certainly don’t even try to imitate him. But listening to the improvisation above I can hear his influence, while my only intention has been to capture the sound of the Jaguar. Except for one short part that is a direct quote from one of the album’s tracks.

So now I’m all Devotion to heavenly sounds as well as to a creator who carried me so close to them, letting me dwell in the creation of music who’s seeds were sown such a long time ago.

guitar & gear: the “olympic white” dream below plus a 1967 Vox AC 30 (lent by Thomas), and Tube Reverb