tube sound


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

the dragon


guitar & gear: Epiphone Les Paul Custom (while putting on new strings…), Vox AC 15 Heritage, Tube Reverb

illustration by my son

himmel und hölle


When putting the music for this post together, an old children’s game came to my mind. It is called “Himmel und Hölle” (heaven and hell) in German, but it is widespread and known under different names in many countries. A squarish multicolored piece of paper gets folded into several compartments that can be opened with your fingers, showing either the “heaven” or the “hell” part. Children also use the game to “predict the future” by writing numerals on each compartment that apply to a code on another piece of paper.

guitar & gear: Ibanez Lawsuit SG, Fender Tweed Champ for the basic track, Vox AC 50 for the solos, Tube Reverb

Lawsuit SG soundtracks


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

latest toys

From time to time one has to go back to the roots. The roots of this current creative period in my life are, oddly enough, technical aspects of guitar sound. The point is, I don’t see it like that. I don’t care too much about technics. But I’m amazed by what sound can do to your playing, and thus contribute to your creativity. There are periods when I’m playing around like a child, glad to have found new toys. It happened again these days, and so I have to make you wait some more for the promised recordings of the modified Ibanez SG. But I have already recorded some tracks. One of them needs further overdubs, and all of them need to be mixed…

My latest toys are preamp tubes. I read an article in my favorite (German) guitar magazine “Gitarre & Bass” about how different preamp tubes can affect your sound. It said you can easily exchange these tubes without further adjustment – because they are interchangeable. The difference is in the gain they offer, and in the cleaner or crunchier sound you obtain. Lower gain tubes may contribute to a more stable and cleaner tone. Whoever wants to achieve a vintage sound, should consider replacing some tubes. For most of us it’s not necessary to get the most power out of our amps. I mostly have enough headroom to enjoy being able to crank up the volume a little more than usual, because I use to play in a kind of living room studio…

I had built a Fender Tweed champ from a DIY amp kit several months ago. Now I read in the magazine these 50s amps had a 12AY7 tube instead of a 12AX7. I was eager to hear the alleged more authentic sound of the original tube, and when I received it I found out it had somewhat more treble, and gave a cleaner and more stable tone, just like it said. For lack of comparison I do not know, however, if this sound is more “authentic”.

Here is a list of the most common preamp tubes (valves) from higher to lower gain levels:

12AX7 (ECC83 in European terms): the most common preamp tube today, and high gain. The 7025 is a high grade version of the same type which I prefer for the first input stage.

12AT7 (ECC81): used in Fender amps, often for Reverb, about 60 to 70% of the 12AX7’s gain.

12AY7 (6072): as a preamp tube in 50’s Fender amps (Tweed era), and about 50% of the 12AX7’s gain.

12AU7 (ECC82): mostly in HiFi amps, even lower gain than 12AY7. I had to crank up the volume very high to achieve enough resonance, but I was rewarded with a slim and contoured sound with lots of treble.

(The 5751 is similar to the 12AX7, but only has about 70% of its gain. Often recommended as a replacement for the first input stage to achieve a cleaner sound. I haven’t had the chance to try it yet.)

My Champ didn’t have an abundance of treble, and so I ended up with the 12AY7, that allowed for more gain than the 12AU7, but still had some crispness. I have to add, though, that a single coil strat for example, may require more gain to create enough crunch or distortion for your desired sound, and thus the 12AX7 could be the best choice. You just have to try and compare. Go and buy some preamp tubes. Even if you own a hybrid amp with a single tube in the circuit, it can be rewarding to try different types of high quality. If you stick to the high gain 12AX7, try a 7025! It’s virtually the same, but extra rugged and with a more detailed resolution. Also note that there are significant differences in sound and quality between different brands of tubes, depending on when and where they were produced. There seems to exist no equivalent for original RCA, Siemens, Mullard, Valvo and so on. Today’s tubes are produced in just a few countries, but quality is on a rise.

Most of my tube amps are housing new preamp tubes now, the Vox AC 15 Heritage (also with better EL 84s), the old Vox AC 50 (lent by Markus), and the Tweed Champ. For the AC 50 which is from around 1965, I found an original British Mullard ECC83 (my father had stored many tubes in the basement), and the old tube is great in the old amp!

rising up


guitar & gear: Fender Jaguar, Vox AC 15 Heritage, BSM Spectrum fuzzbooster, Tube Reverb

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

strange eye


guitar & gear: Epiphone Les Paul Custom, Vox AC 50, Cry Baby Classic Wah, Tube Reverb