Wild Things

In Amps by admin

“The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware… joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely, aware”

— Henry Miller

It’s a rare day when we fail to receive a request for enlightenment, guidance, or affirmation of someone’s chosen path in the quest for tone. Handwringers like, “Do chambered guitars sound ‘better ‘than solid ones?” Or, “Have you found any new pickups that sound like the PAFs you wrote about?” And there are the never ending questions about amplifiers… “Which sounds ‘better’… a Swart Atomic Space Tone or a reissue tweed Deluxe?” And perhaps the most popular and vexing riddle of all— “Which speaker will sound best in my new amp du jour?” Of course, the goal here is to shrewdly nail the perfect choice the first time, with no miscues, detours or regrets.

But the most revealing inquiries of all are those that question reality… “I changed the pickups in my guitar and now I really love how it sounds, but I have the feeling I should be loving it even more. Any suggestions?”

Making the right choice the first time… It’s what we all want, and it’s never been tougher… Like the hapless tonefreak who can’t trust his own ears, the current golden age of gear we enjoy today can vastly complicate our decision-making, especially for those whose quest is focused on discovering ‘the best ‘rather than merely settling for what sounds good to them (for some, apparently there is a difference). If we were to roll back time to, say, 1962, how much simpler would our pursuit of the perfect note have been? Budget rigs could easily be put together with National, Kay, Danelectro, Supro, Harmony and Silvertone guitars and amps. Investing slightly more dough could get you a Fender Duosonic or Gibson Melody Maker, along with a smallish, inexpensive Ampeg, Gibson or Fender amp. And for pros and the elite among local ‘weekend’ bands, the default move in 1962 were the big Fender piggyback amps paired with Stratocasters, Jazzmasters, Jaguars, and Gibson 335s and SGs. In ‘62, Telecasters remained largely the domain of country players, and the odds of seeing anyone locally playing an older goldtop or sunburst Les Paul were usually pretty slim. If you blew a speaker in 1962, you might acquire an identical replacement under warranty through an authorized dealer for your amp weeks later, or you could order a very ordinary Utah from an electronics repair shop or catalog. We blew the output transformer in our very first blackface Deluxe Reverb and the dealer simply gave us another new Deluxe! Simpler times, indeed…

Today we fumble and fret over amps spanning 50 years of manufacturing history, and an unprecedented number of new amplifiers at every price point. Guitar buying is slightly less complicated now that prices for the most desirable older models have largely eliminated them from casual consideration, but among new and not-yet-collectable used guitars, we are still inundated with choices among instruments made by custom builders working solo, ‘custom shop ‘guitars, and less expensive models made in the USA, Mexico and Asia. And then there is the confusing and hype-laden ‘custom ‘pickup market, the wildly bloated pedal and effects business, aftermarket guitar hardware and so on, all of which survive and thrive on the implied promise of ‘better tone.’ This is the essence of the great ToneQuest— a concept that resonated with us far more than launching another guitar magazine crammed with advertorial ‘reviews’ under a more predictable banner like Guitar Slayer, Pimpage Guitar or Three Beer Guitar… Of course, Three Beer Guitar would have augured the end of our tone quest altogether…

After three beers, everything sounds bitchin,’dun’t it?

With fewer exceptions than many of us might care to admit, what is really being fed by the manic development and marketing of all the new gear being built and humped today is the promise of miraculous salvation— as if a cascade of liberating epiphanies shall descend from on high, inspiring that which has remained beyond our grasp, never mind whether one can actually play the guitar at a level commensurate with their dreams of perfect tone. Just as the custom pickup builder cannot mention the overwhelming and unpredictable influence that individual guitars impose on tone, or the custom amp builder who will not admit that certain amps sound best with single coil pickups while others naturally shine with humbuckers, the choices we make aren’t always as clear and straightforward as a marketing pitch would imply. As Keith Richards said in Tom Wheeler’s book, The Soul of Tone in response to being asked how his tone was distorted, yet each note remained clear, “The main ingredients are the right amp with the right guitar. “Well, now, that does complicate things a bit, doesn’t it?

In the absence of experimentation and experience, developing an acute awareness of the sounds we truly prefer and desire is impossible, regardless of how much money we may be willing to throw at the problem. Case in point— a good friend of ours who is also an exceptional guitar player in a thriving band has rather studiously followed the ever-changing ‘hot list ‘of emerging effects and amplifiers for the past ten years, buying many of those buoyed by ‘The Buzz. ‘ With very few exceptions, all that stuff is now gone, but experiencing it enabled him to appreciate just how versatile and valuable the mainstays in his rig truly are. In a true and valuable sense, every ‘failure ‘was rewarded by a new discovery. The fact that one very highly regarded, expensive and hard-to-get custom amp could not be cured of radio frequency interference merely explained how an unusable tool can be elevated to must-have status by gullible cheerleaders with an internet connection who never play out. This is also why, at this very moment, there is a new stack of boxes fully 6 feet high and 15 feet long holding review guitars, amps and speakers just outside our music room, and easily more than a dozen sets of pickups on our work bench being swapped in and out of exceptional test guitars it took years for us to find. Is it fun checking out new gear? Of course, but done right, the quest for tone is also incredibly time-consuming and bloody hard work. As we explore innovative new amp designs, it is also remarkably easy to forget just how good so many classic amps sound, and how well they still stack up against booteek amps now being built 40 years later. Have you ever heard a radio station blaring through a vintage Fender amp? That’s not the way Leo Fender rolled. Not surprising, perhaps… but easy to forget. As much as the gear, it’s our focus and awareness that must be expanded to look both forward and backward as they are constantly refreshed.

So our focus in this edition of the quest is confined to gear, both new and old, and how we purposefully looked to the past in some cases for enduring and unique, consummately inspiring tones from what many would perceive as justifiably unpopular and overlooked footnotes in the history of guitar amplifiers. Do we possess some mysterious, clairvoyant gift when it comes to finding the wild things that can truly inspire us? No. Gaining knowledge and experience while holding on to the enthusiasm, wonder and open-minded optimism that preceded them— that’s the trick. Enjoy…

The Fender Blackface Deluxe. What hasn’t already been written about the blackface Deluxe circuit AB763? Do we really need to be reminded that the blackface Deluxe remains one of the quintessential, all-purpose guitar amplifiers ever built? We wonder… With all the moderately powered, twenty-something watt (or less) new ‘custom ‘amps and reissues that have appeared within the past two decades, we wonder just how many ways a 20 watt amp design can be sliced and diced with significantly unique and truly meaningful results? Well? How many relatively new amps have you played in the power range of the Fender blackface Deluxe that can put a great original to shame or match its versatility? Perhaps you’ve forgotten… Perhaps it’s time to remember.

Pondering these questions prompted us to track down a new (to us) pre-CBS example of Leo Fender’s crowning glory, but with a twist… You’ll notice that we make no mention of reverb… Like the blackface Vibrolux Reverb, prices for clean and straight blackface Deluxe Reverb amps have skyrocketed over the past decade for obvious reasons— they are compact, portable and fully capable of cutting a gig, especially with a few very minor and completely transparent, reversible tweaks. Up until now, perhaps, the non-reverb blackface Deluxe amps have been comparative bargains, selling for half as much as a reverb model. Why? Well, aside from the missing reverb, these amps also lack an extra gain stage in the Vibrato channel (the Normal Channel is full burn), yet they are far more rare than the reverb models by far, having been discontinued in 1966. The cabinet and chassis are also 2.5 inches narrower than the reverb model— a difference we consider to be an asset. So… no reverb and less gain equals a lower price for what is an incredibly versatile and toneful amp that no custom builder can sonically reproduce with new parts today. The Deluxe can also be brilliantly optimized, further solidifying its place in your amp stash. Here’s how…

With the exception of a reconed 1966 Jensen C12N and grounded AC cord, our 1964 Deluxe is completely original. What we don’t really want in a ‘vintage ‘amp is a chassis full of Orange Drop caps — a new amp in an old box, and often a shrill and brittle sounding one at that. The Deluxe sounded good on arrival— no noise, scratchy pots or hum, and as long as they hold out, we’ll continue to bring out the best from our supply of old preamp and power tubes. The reconed Jensen was not impressive, however, which prompted us to consider the eight original speaker mounting screws in the baffleboard… If we wanted to mount a Celestion, for example, four of those screws would have to go. Now, it might occur to some resourceful hammerheads to break out the drill and impose their will on the frame of their precious British designer speaker, ripping four extra holes with the enthusiasm and shrewd calculation of a Guadalajara chop shop… Do we really need to remind you how many ways that strategy could go bad wrong? It can be done easily enough, but you’ll need a powerful, charged-up drill, a proper metal drill bit, a steady hand and common sense. We’ve plans to use the Deluxe as a benchmark amp for evaluating multiple speaker types in an upcoming issue, so for our purposes, the screws had to go. While the entire operation will eat about an hour of your life, getting the four extra screws out of the baffleboard isn’t difficult with the right tools. You’ll need a screwdriver with a fairly sharp tip just narrower than the width of the staples that were originally used to attach the grill cloth, and an Arrow model T-50 staple gun with #505 staples. After pulling the chassis and unscrewing the baffleboard from the cabinet frame, remove the staples holding the grill cloth at the top and both sides of the baffleboard using the tip of the screwdriver to pry them out. Once all three sides of the grill cloth are free, flip it up and remove the four screws with a Phillips head screwdriver.

Reattaching the grill cloth tight and right isn’t difficult, either. After +40 years, the stiff cloth has conformed to the shape of the baffleboard— you need only snug it up over the edge as you squeeze off each new staple into the grill cloth and baffleboard, following the same general pattern you observed when you pulled the original staples— about an inch apart. Take your time, and the entire operation will be completely undetectable, and you can now mount any speaker you wish in the Deluxe. We initially chose an aged Celestion G12H 70th Anniversary ‘Hellatone’ from Avatar Speakers, which really rounds out the Deluxe with solid lows, excellent midrange and treble tones that are nicely balanced and leave no holes whatsoever in yer tone. We also like the Eminence Private Jack and Wizard, and you’ll be reading detailed reviews of other models from A Brown Soun (Tone Tubby), Eminence, Jensen, Celestion and Fane soon enough.

Turning to the amp, we installed a 25K midrange pot in the hole in the back panel used for the tremolo footswitch with the 6.8K resistor originally on the bass pot. We also unsoldered the brown wire on the tremolo intensity pot, disconnecting the tremolo to add the missing gain in the bright Vibrato channel. Another option is to install a push/pull or on/off pot for the tremolo intensity control that will enable you to bypass the tremolo circuit when the pot is pulled out or clicked off. The addition of the midrange pot is an essential, simple, and completely reversible upgrade, providing valuable midrange EQ of course, but the 25K pot also contributes some serious wallop as the midrange is increased, transforming your Deluxe into a 20 watt British 1×12 with an infinitely richer, bigger and less compressed sound than a typical dual EL84 18 watt clone. When the midrange is turned all the way down, it’s as if the pot wasn’t there, so you lose nothing in regard to the ‘original’ tone of the amp. A competent tech can make these modifications in 60 minutes.

Saving the best for last, we biased the Deluxe for a pair of RCA blackplate 6L6s at 30mA in place of the normal 6V6s. The result is a slight increase in volume, headroom, and a bigger, rounder and more imposing sound overall, yet still fully capable of producing thick and lusty distortion at will. The 6L6 Deluxe also loves pedals of all kinds, so we rigged up a pedalboard with a Boss tuner, Klon Centaur, Timmy overdrive, Xotic Effects RC and AC Boosts, FoxRox AquaVibe and our early ‘90s Japan-era Boss DD3 delay. For reverb, we used our blackface/white knob ‘63 Fender reverb unit. We had the opportunity to give the entire rig a workout recently at one of Greg Talley’s Family Jams that included a Hammond organ, drums, bass and multiple guitar rigs. We paired the Deluxe with our ‘07 Historic ‘59 Les Paul loaded with early ‘60s Gibson patent sticker humbuckers, and the results drew raves from all the guitarists present. Listening to the recording a week later, even we were struck by how the Les Paul and the Deluxe recreated such a familiar, timeless and vocal tone, while also reminding us of how much time had passed since we had experienced that gloriously wet and perfect sound first-hand. We had the same experience during a Jackson Browne set several years ago when Mark Goldenberg unleashed a solo with his blackface Deluxe Reverb, and we had never forgotten it. The point is, we are indeed surrounded by more choices when it comes to guitar amplifiers than at any time in history, yet it often seems that in the quest for the ultimate tone, ‘less’ remains ‘more, ‘and Leo Fender’s legacy simply continues to grow in stature with every attempt to somehow better it.

And now for a technical lagniappe… We asked TQR advisory board member, veteran guitarist and amp wizard Todd Sharp to explain the real differences that set Fender reverb and non-reverb blackface combo amps apart…

TQR:  As a group, what are the basic differences in the circuit between the early non-reverb blackface Fenders such as the Pro, Concert, Deluxe and Princeton, and the reverb models… As you know, the non-reverb, early blackface amps are much cheaper than the reverb versions, and we just acquired a non-reverb ‘64 Deluxe and Pro.

Good question. An interesting fact about the blackface Fender amps is that they all use the same basic preamp circuit with little exception until you get to the output stage. The Bassmans’ varied the most of all blackface Fenders. The Pro, Twin, Deluxe, Super— all exactly the same preamp, vibrato, and phase inverter, only difference being the power tubes, output transformer and speaker configuration. The power transformer and power supply (including rectifier types and voltage dividers) do vary with each model, but all preamp stages are identical with very few exceptions.

The Princeton uses the same preamp circuit as the others, but a different phase inverter circuit altogether— a single triode circuit often referred to as a concertina circuit. All the other blackface types use two stages of triode to handle the phase inversion. The concertina is a cheap and effective means of producing two out of phase signals capable of driving the push/pull power stage, but it is quite limited as it produces a slight gain loss on one side. This accounts for the thinner sound that the Princeton produces at clipping. There are actually a few fairly simple tweaks you can do to the concertina circuit to beef it up and fatten it up a little bit, while yielding a few extra watts of output from the Princeton as well.

The actual difference between the reverb and non-reverb blackface Fenders (including the Princeton) are that of course the reverb is added, but also an extra triode stage of voltage gain is inserted before the phase inverter tube at the Vibrato channel. This stage blends the reverb return and dry signal together and in the process, adds a gain boost to that channel. This is obviously why the Vibrato channel is hotter than the Normal channel.

TQR:  Have you noticed any significant differences in component values, component choices circuit designs between the earliest blackface amps (‘64, ‘65) and models produced later that are supposedly the ‘same’?

There are a number of little changes— somewhat significant, but most of these are already obvious, like a 5U4 instead of a 5AR4 rectifier, or the middle pot added in place of a fixed 68K resistor, which stands the tone stack off of ground. I think I have seen a few earlier blackface amps with a higher value, fixed mid resistor like 82K or even 15k, but I’ve never seen it on a schematic. (FYI— the resistor in question sets a “middle” gain ratio and is offered on later blackface Fenders as a variable 10K ohm pot labeled “middle”).

There is one other component value which might be worth mentioning… The final coupling value into the phase inverter stage. As far as I know, all blackface models used a .001uF value. Also worth mentioning is that almost all the early amps used a ceramic disc type here. Personally, I almost always prefer the .001uF, although I have seen some blackface amps with a .01uF in that spot. Along with the introduction of the silverface amps came a permanent change in that value to .01uF as well as a master volume and a more sterile sounding phase inverter circuit, but then we aren’t talking about the silverface amps.

Other than these obvious changes, the power supply filtering changed a little. On later models the first filter arrangement on most changed from two paralleled 500v filter caps to two series connected 100uF 350v types yielding a higher (and safer) voltage rating. This effectively changed a 40uF/500v first filter to a 50uF/700v first filter. When the amp is in standby, the voltage across the 500v types was often exceeded. In similar fashion and what has always been a real mystery to me, is that Leo Fender used a 50v rated bias filter cap in many of his blackface and earlier amps. This cap almost always has something like 62 volts across it. You can often open a 40 year old blackface amp and see that overvoltaged cap sitting there and working just fine. I theorize that since the bias circuit draws such little current from its supply, this cap is never stressed at the over-voltage, but still— I have no idea how so many amps obtained approval simply for the face value of component ratings and industry standards.

An often overlooked component value change is under the cap pan in blackface Fenders. Most blackface voltage dividers used 1k and 4.7k resistors— 1W types. The Deluxe Reverb used 10K in both spots, where the Deluxe (non reverb) used a 10K and a 27K. This is often overlooked when people convert Silverface amps to Blackface – and it makes a difference.

The only other real difference that I can think of is coupling cap types. I don’t know who made them and I am not sure if Leo used Mylar types or what for sure. The blue cylindrical caps are the most common, and I wish I did know exactly who made them and what the exact dielectric composition was, because they do sound good. My guess is they are Mylar types. Fender went to a brown, blob-looking thing, which I am pretty sure were polypropylene types and they also sound pretty good. It’s interesting, because I often dislike the sound of guitar amps with too many stages of polypropylene caps cascaded. They tend to sound sterile, since that type of cap is very fast and maybe a little upper mid accentuated— a good thing— but too much of a good thing is sometimes not a good thing. TQ

Todd Sharp
Nashville Amplifier Service
www.amprepair.com
615-591-7556