Category Archives: Guitar Talk

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.

psychedelic guitar sound

[audio:psych-medley.mp3]

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…

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!

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!

a guitar player’s favorite keys

When I was young and proud of what I had learned, I considered the keys of E and A as something “dull”. My aspirations rather were to play Jazz and be most versatile in all the 24 keys (12 major and 12 minor). To play in E was something very ordinary, as most of the beginners did that. So I avoided playing open strings at all.

Well, this has changed completely. Today I just love to play open strings, and I love to play in E or A (major or minor). Since I’m trying to listen more closely to what the guitar itself “wants to play”, or what one might denote as inherent in the instrument, I don’t worry any more about keys. When I improvise the respective keys define themselves without me manipulating or choosing at all. It may sound weird, but it often gives me the feeling of letting the instrument itself make the choice. After all, those “dull” chords sound just fine, and open strings can be very inspiring in various keys…

What I “found out” playing this way, was not only a preference for E and A, but another one for the key of B in the seventh position. I seems like just any electric guitar provides optimum performance there.

At least this goes for rock music – I really like the smooth feeling of keys like E flat or A flat in Jazz. These statements are only a basis for discussion, and for sure there are many more aspects to this subject, as there are down tunings, capodaster playing etc. But that’s exactly what makes playing the guitar such a great thing!

the gnome

[audio:gnome.mp3]

Unlike Modest Mussorgky’s famous piece (from “Pictures at an Exhibition”) this is not a heavy march, but a lighter and slightly annoying improvisation, using the built-in damping mechanism of the Jaguar. This patented invention by Leo Fender was something he was really proud of, whereas most musicians found it useless and demounted it right away.

This, among other things, has contributed to the Jaguar’s fame as a “faulty design”; but at least for this recording it proved useful for me, providing sounds only available with this strange mechanism. If you listen closely, you will hear it activated 20 seconds into the track…

guitar & gear: Fender Jaguar, 1967 Vox AC 30, Tube Reverb

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

Jaguar=GAS?

Some musicians suffer from a disease called “gear acquisition syndrome”, or GAS, and it looks like I am one of them. Or maybe not.
Like those people, I always have another amplifier, a new guitar, or at least a little stomp box in mind, and it’s not only pure pleasure I get out of it (though many people perceive me like that).
Like with my new Fender Jaguar guitar, buying something can be followed by hard work and frustration (for the modifications required). Of course, in the end everything turns out well, and as soon as I’m done with one thing, it’s just about time to make a new plan.
That’s one perspective. Another perspective serves as a proof I’m not infected: I hardly ever sell the gear I buy, and I’m totally dedicated to using everything I own in a creative way. Only there’s so much creativity, linked to sound and equipment in a peculiar way (which I only got to know over the last few years) – the artist within demands ever more searching!

And what have I found this time? Well, now it’s not a surprise anymore, and I could tell you, like I told you when I got the new Vox AC 15 amplifier, that it’s the best guitar I ever had or even played. And it would be just the truth. The Fender American Vintage Jaguar is a little known guitar with an arguable fame, but like always, everything depends on on taste, on perspective, on you. Or me.

Instead of arguing, I’ll show you some pictures. And for very sure, you’ll get to listen to this instrument in one of the next posts. I think I’ll tell you the whole story how I got to this guitar in one more “News”-post, coming soon.

What about you? Are you GAS-infected, too? Or maybe something similar…

embracing mistakes

[audio:Cm3.mp3]

Here for the first time I’m trying to keep my music from the over-earnestness to which I strongly tend. Those among you who are really ambitious (like I am) know how hard it is to see or hear our own mistakes over and over again, and to know they are out there for other people to stumble over or even laugh about them.

It’s so hard to let go of your self-criticism in favor of spontaneity. For this blog I had to learn that, hoping an impression of freshness would prevail also in the listener’s minds.

Mistakes and little flaws inevitably creep in when you improvise over a period of, say, four minutes or so. The trick is to not let them distract you. And afterwards, when listening to your “product”, not to take the music and the whole project too serious.

A few seconds into this little piece of music there’s an awful chord, but I turned it around as if it had been on purpose and it became the starting point for a very vocal-like expression… So why bother?

guitar & gear: Epiphone Les Paul Custom, Vox ToneLab, tube reverb

These are two friends of mine showing a typical reaction to my music… Kidding. What you see is alcohol-free late night amusement (it’s possible!) at a party in my house, and there were still some other guests…