Other Amps

At What Point Does A High Quality Amp Enter The Equation?

26

Another part of the equation no one has brought up yet is one's playing ability. Do you get to a point in your playing ability where you can justify the nice gear?

I guess a lot depends on the music you play most often as well. In my case, I'm currently playing mostly cover music in a local garage band with a few overdrive pedals. Once all the band audio gets mixed in, I doubt average listeners could tell the difference between a great tube amp verses a fuss free, less expensive SS amp.

But I absolutely love playing some Shadows or Venture instrumental covers in the basement by myself with good gear at low volumes. I think that's an environment where both my playing ability and quality of gear could shine ... though it would seem a little self-indulgent to add a $1500 amp to that equation. But if I'm willing to pay that kind of money for a quality guitar, why shouldn't I do the same for a quality amp?

27

Quoting the WB:

Tim, there's one thing, not unimportant I think, that hasn't come up in this thread, but that we had an email conversation about last week : overdrive. You mentioned to me that in your average playing conditions, you get most of your overdriven to distorted tones from pedals, because the volume constraints of the settings you play in don't really allow you to open up the amp.

I usually play on the verge (or slightly over) of amp breakup and only use pedals to add to that, extend the breakup and compression I already have. And that's exactly where the "quality amp" thing comes into play in my experience.

Once your amp is "nice enough", say your Peavey C30 (as opposed to say, some Crate monstrosity or whatever), and you have some nice pedals, you can get the driven tones you're after.

In my case, every time I've been confronted with anything from the Peavey Classic range as provided backline (flying gigs), I've been frustrated that I couldn't just "plug in and turn it up" as I do with the vintage Fenders or boutique fender based designs I'm used to. Turn a Peavey classic on the clean channel up to where it breaks up, or a Fender Hotrod, and you get the dreaded harsh, crackly tone I so dislike about amps in that vein. And in the case of the 4X10 versions of those amps, it just gets too painfully loud to comfortably stand in front of with a big hollowbody guitar. And the master volume/overdrive channel on those amps doesn't do the trick either, that's just more ugly.

And I've found the same goes for a Deluxe Reverb reissue : it's louder, tighter and a lot more harsh than a nice blackface, silverface or boutique-ey version of the same, once you try to get some breakup from the amp without pedals.

I've seen quite a few blues/roots/retro/rock and roll musicans who play flying gigs get Quilter heads and play them into the speakers of whatever combos the promotor provides - the Quilter might not their dream amp, but at least they know what they're in for, can get some breakup tones without going deaf or investing in a bunch of expensive pedals, and it's infinitely cheaper and more practical than taking a tube head on flying gigs. I've been taking my Quilter head to gigs with provided backine too, for the same reasons.

And I'd agree with all that - except to say that I really like the dirt channel on the C30, for my like-a-pedal purposes anyway. And I've read more than one review which specifically praises the "natural" overdrive - though I think the context was probably more overtly crunchy/classic-rocky than your preferred under-to-over-the-threshold tone.

I frankly haven't tried the Classic dirtchannel for that particular tone - though I know the clean channel would have to be ridiculously loud to get to that threshold - so I take your word for it.

Going back to our email conversation, and probably tying in with this discussion, I'm not even sure I know how to USE a guitar in that threshold range. I think I may truly lack either the ear or the technique for it. As I said in my email, I was certainly used to all degrees of natural overdrive and compression in my earliest playing experience, as I had access to nothing but amps (and improvised amps) whose cleans gave out at conversational levels, so if I wanted to play (and I did), I was playing dirty. Thus from the time I had access to big enough amps to stay clean, clean seemed like the effect to me - and that was coincidentally the time pedals started to be a thing. So a fairly clear dichotomy between clean and dirty early on became part of my playing DNA. I'm comfortable in both domains, lovem both - I just don't know that I've ever managed a smooth and seamless transition between them.

And it can't be because I've never played through equipment which will do that transitional zone. I've just played through too much stuff (my own and other peoples'), over too long a time, in too many contexts, for that to be credible. Even by accident or inadvertence, I have to have played through gear which would do it.

I've tried to be analytical about it - not to say obsessive - and I can't imagine why I don't dance adeptly from clean through edge of hair into drive and low crunch. How can it be touch? While we all have our habitual articulation, pick attack, velocity, etc, it's not hard to plug into a rig on which a guy was just doing that crossover thing and purposely (if not expressively) play at graduating levels of picking strength - just to see where that thing comes in, how it sounds, how it feels, how to control it. But Ah swar tew GAWD I can't remember ever hearing that thing under my fingers. No matter the guitar, the gear, the setup, I always seem to be either clean - or dirty.

Maybe that's the core deficiency - or maybe frustration, deficiency is too strong a word (it doesn't keep me up nights or tempt me to burn my guitars) - that keeps me questing through pedals and amps, trying to find that elusive threshold environment. (I mean, not that I need it for "my music" - obviously whatever "my style" is, it's developed without instinctive access to that zone, and I'm satisfied enough to keep playing - but it would be nice to be able to do something that comes so naturally to every roots guitarist on the planet.)

I get you on the Quilter - an "emulation" you're familiar and comfortable with which is perfectly scalable for any situation. (The Tech 21 claims to do something similar.) In my experiments so far with the MicroBlock, I may start to get something of the kind; when I turn the gain up to around half and above, I get a bit of subtle intermodulation distortion within the notes of pretty-much clean chords, and around single notes, which fattens and thickens the clean tone without otherwise much changing it, and importantly without adding fizz on top. Man do I hate fizz on top. But it only seems to be there (or maybe I can only hear it) when the master volume is up louder than my wife wants to hear it.

Which is the final frontier - smooth transition through the clean-to-drive zone, based on pick dynamics - scalable from small gig volumes down to don't-interrupt-the-TV-in-the-next-room. So: from 95-100 dB down to 65 dB or so, without change in response or dynamics?

I keep thinking power-scaling in the right boutique amp might do that; say, 20 watts down to 1 watt? But then Scott Rust's .25 watt (that's one-quarter of a watt) custom-built through a 1-12 keeps up with anything else in the room, so you tell me. (I guess THAT amp is probably the most exotic, ear-tickling boutique I've ever seenheard. And I believe it's a strict one-off, with crazy expensive components. And the man's a high-end audio designer.)

28

it would seem a little self-indulgent to add a $1500 amp to that equation. But if I'm willing to pay that kind of money for a quality guitar, why shouldn't I do the same for a quality amp?

Well, exactly. If the gear produces pure playing satisfaction, it's worth the money. SOUNDing better makes you a better player. The cliché is to say sounding better inspires you to play more, play better, etc - all of which may be true - but there's an IMMEDIATE payoff. You just plain sound better to you and anyone who hears you. (It's why simpler, less "advanced" players benefit so much from using gear other guys say they don't deserve: what they ARE doing simply sounds better. You can hear the dimensions of the tone. Do you want to hear Bono playing 1st position chords on a bad guitar - or on a Falcon?)

The whole quest for "tone" - instead of simply practicing for technique - recognizes that to some degree music is about the SOUND. Again, sounds stupidly obvious - but music IS also about the notes and their arrangement, the rhythm, even the technique. Ideally all that works together, but we've all seen shredders whose technique drops the jaw but whose tone makes them unlistenable. I'll take a simpler style, played cleanly, with rich enveloping tone - over that, any day.

If you're good enough to hear the difference in gear, you're good enough to own the stuff.

I agree with Walter - mediocre guitar through a great amp beats a great guitar through a deficient amp.

29

I'd like to hear those amps, Parabar. Sounds like you're fixed.

Of course, I may be too - and just don't realize it.

30

The reason most guys buy a tube amp is for the overdrive sound. If you only play clean a lot of solid state amps can handle that with less noise, repair hassles, or weight constraints.

These days pedals are a lot better with ridiculous variety and versatility so even a cheaper tube amp can be made to sound great....so that the need for an expensive tube amp can't be justified as much for SOUND.....So why buy an expensive tube amp?

They retain their resale better and are built with more durability. That's about it.

31

The reason most guys buy a tube amp is for the overdrive sound. If you only play clean a lot of solid state amps can handle that with less noise, repair hassles, or weight constraints.

-guitarcapo

I beg to differ. The reason we buy tube amps is exactly what WB is talking about: that in-between clean/dirty sound. There are transistor amps that can do great clean or dirty, but I've never heard one do that edge-of-breakup we all love so much.

32

Absolutely. We buy tube amps because we can't resist. It's 100 year old technology that still sounds better than the best emulation. Because it's smells as hot as it sounds. Because the harmonic mix as it starts to break up cannot be copied by transistors or computers.

It's the simplest, purest sound in rock-n-roll.

33

While there are good sounding solid state amps for guitar - some of which sound better than most mass market tube amps, a great tube amp sounds great clean, dirty, and all points in-between.

A well maintained great tube amp will also last for generations. Most other amps are disposable.

34

Without trying it out, I'd not buy an expensive amp regardless of reviews and suggestions. I'm lucky to have a Josh built amp that is awesome in so many ways, but I recently discovered that my little 5w Gretsch 5222 loves the BZ Jet at volume. Maybe there are certain amps that bring out the best of a certain guitar...like a matched pair.

Take your #1 to a shop and do some speed dating. If they have a good return policy you could take her home with no regrets.

35

The reason most guys buy a tube amp is for the overdrive sound. If you only play clean a lot of solid state amps can handle that with less noise, repair hassles, or weight constraints.

-guitarcapo

I beg to differ. The reason we buy tube amps is exactly what WB is talking about: that in-between clean/dirty sound. There are transistor amps that can do great clean or dirty, but I've never heard one do that edge-of-breakup we all love so much.

– Otter

I never get into all that subtlety. Basically there's cleans.... and then all that other stuff where the signal is distorted, overdriven, on-the-edge-of-breakup, dirty, clipping...whatever you want to call it. Whatever floats your boat describing it, my point is in that area tube amps excel over solid state. But if you don't need that sound (maybe you are an old jazz guy or whatever) maybe tube amps aren't worth it.

36

While there are good sounding solid state amps for guitar - some of which sound better than most mass market tube amps, a great tube amp sounds great clean, dirty, and all points in-between.

A well maintained great tube amp will also last for generations. Most other amps are disposable.

– Kap'n

The key word there is "well-maintained"

Electronics do not improve with age in the same way that wooden instruments or fine wine does.

The components actually degrade....which can change the sound in unpredictable ways.

So yea if you replace the caps and resistors that have drifted....you can maintain the same sound...or you can let those components drift off spec and maybe the sound will get brighter or muddy or whatever depending on where in the circuit it happened. But don't kid yourself that you can't achieve the same results by just modifying the amp's circuit.

Personally one area I often disagree with some musicians is the speaker. While many people seek out vintage speakers with the original cones...I prefer newer cones. I feel that speakers start sounding mushy when the paper wears out after a few decades. To my ear they come to life when they are reconed.

37

First off you should have a reputable amp from 15-50 watts. Second you should start with your guitar volume at 5 and the amp volume at 10...adjust accordingly.

38

First off you should have a reputable amp from 15-50 watts. Second you should start with your guitar volume at 5 and the amp volume at 10...adjust accordingly.

– Pt

......or, a 5 watt amp with everything on "11".

39

Seems I have a habit of coming into these threads late; lots of closers, but no matter. How about this; lets say one has sveral thousand dollars worth of really nice stellar guitars (not Stellas) and a crappy amp. Doesn't make sense to me.

Back around 2008 I had one tube amp; a Fender Blues Jr. and a solid state power amp for travelling. The BJ was ok for smallish gigs with its upgraded speaker, but not what I would call a great amp. I had an opportunity to record live and the engineer had a nice hand wired tube amp for me to use. It sounded great but as soon as we started playing it broke. I was over an hour from home and the only available replacement was a solid state amp designed for acoustic guitars. The guitar sound on the recording is terrible. After that I thought, "I have a really expensive guitar so why in hell don't I own a couple of really good amps." Just didn't make sense not to.

So, I went on a quest and after buying and selling several tube amps I now have some beauties and I only wish I had done it sooner. There are still some great deals to be had on silverface Deluxe Reverbs. The key is to have a good amp tech who will help keep the amp(s) in reliable playing condition. Super Reverb's....folks don't want to deal with the bulk and weight, but they are great sounding amps and can be had for really good prices. With the great cabinet builders around these days it is a simple task to order a small combo cab (2 X 10" speaker configuration for example) and drop the head in. I did that with my 1966 Tremolux and it sounds fantastic. The pedals that are being made now are so good that we can get almost any type of overdriven sounds we want. If the Fender scooped sounds are not appealing, the old Ampegs are great and can be had for smallish money. I have a 1960 Mercury and a Reverb-e-rocket that have midrange punch that contrasts the Fenders nicely when a change is desired.

I guess what I'm saying, aside from expressing an obvious love for old tube amps, is that there is really no reason not to have a really good amp to go with really good guitars.

40

Just a simple test of the general principle:

Go to your local shop. Pick up the guitar you covet most. Plug it into a mass-produced, modern PCB amp.

Then pick up a modern, mass-produced, affordable guitar, and plug it into a coveted (or at least covet-able) tube amp.

Repeat several times with comparable equipment in both directions.

In my experience, it is easier to get better tone from a mediocre guitar with a high end amp than with a high end guitar through a mediocre amp, with some variance for preference of different guitar and amp type 'families'.

What this kind of experiment won't account for, obviously, is serviceability of the amp and playability of the guitar. But it should give you an idea of the importance of each component with regard to tone, according to your ears' preferences.

41

1) my main interest in acquiring some "boutique" amps has more to do with serviceability than with tone; especially since I'm a DIYer and like fixing my own stuff if at all possible. Soldering PCBs is no fun.

2) Like Proteus, I don't believe "vintage = better" automatically, and in fact that mindset is silly. I've played some DOG vintage gear, and some wonderful new gear. And vice-versa.

3) as for the reissues sounding harsh, I agree.... and while old filter caps and such can help "mellow out" an old amp, I think 90% of the equation with "vintage amps sounding sweeter" is the speaker:

-it's old. It can't get any more broken in.

-it's likely got a bigger magnet on it... a good example is the PRRI: the new ones come with a Jensen C12R... while the originals (the ones with Jensens) came with C12Ns. That's a huge differemce in the warmth and tightnes of the bass (no farting out). Jim Campilongo routinely replaces speakers with either reconed Jensen C12N's or Celestion G10 Vintage. He says "the Celestion makes the amp sound old already."

Having owned a PRRI, and doing a few mods to it, as well as trying several different speakers, I can say the speaker is the key. That C12R just can't handle what the PR circuit puts out. I ended up preferring a Greenback in mine.

I won't lie and say handwiring doesn't matter- altho I DON'T think it matters to TONE, and it certainly DOES matter to serviceability, there's just some cool, undefinable "mojo" that comes from a handwire amp. And I think it exists between my ears, but that's just fine. :)

42

There's more to it than speakers. I've done plenty of speaker swapping and testing.

43

The output transformer matters as much to the tone as the speaker. I don't know the science of what makes a better transformer better, but as it's wired directly to the speaker, half of it sort of is the speaker

It's funny how often the Classic 30 is coming up in a discussion of "high quality amps". I have some mixed emotions about that thing. It was my first tube amp, purchased due to some recommendations I got here as a teenager. That amp really taught me a lesson about the "serviceability" aspect I expounded upon earlier in this thread. It spent about as much time being repaired as it did being played. And with its Escherian circuitboard, no good tech would touch it. So off to Meridian it went, time after time. As a college student at the time, I spent a lot of money shipping that thing back and forth to the factory. I do recall the repairs being relatively reasonably priced, as Proteus mentioned. The reason why, I learned, is they just replace that 4-dimensional monstrosity of a circuit board. No sense in diagnosing the problem, no money spent on labor, just replace it. It's only fiberglass and resistors.

One thing I will say about that amp: while the distortion circuit was not great (it adds another tube gain stage, taking you to JCM800 territory), the clean channel, IMO, did the edge-of-breakup thing very well. Which is good, because it didn't do clean very well.

My next amp (a Silverface Twin) taught me how good a good amp can be. I think I left the Peavey at an apartment somewhere when I left Texas

44

I'm not in love with the Peavey classic series Otter, putting it mildly. Just didn't feel like getting tarred and feathered here.

45

Funny how experiences differ.

First, you should probably discount any references to the C30 as a high-quality or "good" amp, as I think I'm the only one who drags it into discussions, and I obviously do it too often and extensively, for which my apologies. Clearly qualified mavens of amp goodness consider it marginal at best, and probably bite their tongues when I mention it just to humor me and prevent my wasting still more pixels rhapsodizing about it.

It's not so much that I promote it as a good amp as that it's just a reference point for me - the amp I keep going back to between stops in my search for something I like better.

So let's not say it's a good OR a high-quality amp, just that it's an amp I like. Don't mean to mislead anyone or force my opinion.

In that connection, I wonder if I was one who recommended it to you years ago and am thus partly responsible for your unhappy experiences with it. If so, I apologize.

I'm doubly sorry yours had such service problems. That's been counter to my own experience. I can't say how well they'll fare when they're as old as my Fenders, Ampegs, and Music Man - but they're of 90s vintage and still ticking. So far, so good. (And, of course, all the older amps have had multiple rounds of service.)

I'm really surprised yours had to vacation so often in Meridian; as I said, mine was one and done. I like your description of the Escherian 4-D construct of circuit boards, which does look fragile and precarious. But whether it's some kind of nefarious cost-cutting or a clever way to pack more circuitry into a confined space while minimizing the length of circuit traces and keeping components in optimal proximity, I'm not qualified to say. It's funny-looking, though.

And, again, different experiences: neither of the guys I had work on it here (Dave Baas of Roadworthy in Bloomington, and Uncle Albert's in Indy) complained of serviceability issues. (It must be added that neither definitively solved the problem, and it took the Meridian trip to do so.)

I'd be surprised that you didn't like the amp's cleans - where I get 90% of my enjoyment from it - if your point of comparison wasn't a silverface Twin. Those are very different amps, in power, tone, typical volume (and weight). Much as I like the quintessential sparkling Fender black-silver tone, the Twin has always packed far too much of it, too densely, for my ears. By the time I've ever gotten a Twin to where I heard depth and dimension to go with the sparkle, it was brutally loud.

By comparison, the C30 would sound positively muted, and it would surely have to struggle unattractively to keep up.

So - different players, different ears, different purposes, different amps, different experiences.

Reading this over, it sounds like I'm being defensive about the C30 and sarcastic in my apologies. I'm not. I truly apologize if I steered you or anyone else wrong in seeming to promote an unworthy piece of gear.

The C30 is clearly not generally accepted as good stuff, and I'll stop talking about it in threads devoted to better stuff. It's just an amp I like.

All other opinions certainly valid.

46

No need for any kind of apology or anything in that vein Tim, it's an extremely popular amp that a lot of people get great use out of and that was a hit for Peavey, so there's obviously a lot to like about it. If you like it and can make it work for your needs, great!

47

Firstly, this is one of the best threads in a long time. I enjoy it a lot.

Secondly, some thoughts about amps. I know many players who never ever cared about them as we do. They should work and "make the guitar loud". Those guys have no idea what's going on under the hood. Tell them their Tweed Blues Junior is no Tweed amp at all and you'll see nothing but confusion. But actually that doesn't stop many from sounding good. History teaches us that some of the greatest tones developed from the stuff that was just there for a reason. Be it a local company easily available, budget limits, a given friend's amp etc. Besides reliability (as an important factor) we are talking sonic qualities like 3Dness, sparkle, punch, dynamics, warmth and whatever. In the end it's all about taste. Why should be anything of those attributes be important to everyone? I sold a 1965 Vox AC 30 trapeze head plus original Silver Bulldog equipped cabinet earlier this year. It was loud, punchy, sparkly and had breakup tones unable to describe. The buyer was more than happy to pay the very reasonable price. Now this: Not only that the Vox was too loud for my needs... it just wasn't MY sound. And believe it or not, it was darn close to a '90s Laney VC30 I have sitting around through a '70s 2*12 SUNN cab. Recently I was trying out the latter to maybe rebond. I was thinking of having GDPer Valdez making me a nice new cab and tried the amp through every housing available, including a pine Tweed Deluxe Mojo cab. Every combination sounds slightly different (oh wonder!) but in the end I was quite frustrated. I think I'll have to consider that the EL84 sound is just not for me. Something always in there that doesn't suit me. On the other hand I never got a "bad" tone out of my Fender '57 Deluxe RI and as much as I wish it had reverb this might be the way to go.

Is there anything in this I wanted to make clear? It is about taste. Proteus is happy with his C30 as his reference point? That's great! Don't look further too hard. It saves money, time and trouble.

I'm still on the hunt for my perfect amp. Unfortunately this is a loooong run. Not enough shops around and most players I know are no help (for the above mentioned reasons). I hope we can arrange another Euro Roundup next year and put the focus a little more on trying out other members gear. Not that I have money laying around but I'd love to find something to admire. Without ever having played one I still think a brownface Vibroverb could be it.

48

It's just that I mention it too often on the GDP; I forget it's a fairly limited audience here and everyone's read my views plenty enough already.

49

I've worked on a few Peavey classic series amps, older and current. Most have been pretty straightforward fixes; tubes, burned out bits, bad ribbon connectors, PCB mounted jacks, etc. But I've repaired several of the current production models that all had the same problem, so I'll post this here just in case anyone else runs into it.

The current production Classic series (2015 build dates) would randomly stop passing signal. Peavey didn't respond to my emails, so I tracked down the problem the old fashioned way. Turns out they installed a positive temperature coefficient thermistor from the cathodes of the power tubes to ground that is paralleled by a 100k resistor. So, should there be an overcurrent condition, the PTC's resistance would increase leaving the 100k resistor between the cathodes and ground...and silencing the amp. Unfortunately, the PTC was not spec'ed properly and ended up being too sensitive, which caused the amps to shut down under normal conditions. After I knew what to "google," I ran across a post by a Peavey rep that confirmed my findings and stated the PTC had been updated. I just jumped across it.

50

Proteus, Do you still have the Excelsior? That seemed like a pretty nice amp, In Kansas at the roundup. I don't see you mentioning hat one in your posts.


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