January 2016 – The Guitarist’s Friends: Amplifiers and Effects

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Most of my previous articles have focused on the venerable (electric) guitar – the source of the electrical signal that becomes music. This month, while there is probably a bit of ‘preaching to the converted’, it is perhaps worth reflecting for a moment and going back to basics.

 

As may be blindingly obvious, the instrument itself is only one part of the equation when making amplified music. On its own, unplugged, an electric guitar would be no good in front of a big audience. As we all know, electric guitars are dependent on some sort of amplification to convert the low-level signal from the guitar’s pickups to the speakers. Losing your amp mid-gig can be embarrassing and not great for your reputation. Even an acoustic guitar needs to be amplified in order to engage a modest sized audience and there is a whole industry now built around dedicated acoustic guitar amplifiers. This isn’t really my thang, so I won’t pontificate on what I don’t understand.

 

The oft-forgotten component in this signal chain after the instrument is the venerable lead. I express no opinion on this essential piece of kit other than to say that good quality interconnects are vital. If you use RF transceivers, the same principle applies. These items are integral to your overall sound and it is generally worth every penny to preserve your and your guitar’s inherent musical characteristics. They may not be shiny or ‘sexy’ but scrimp on them at your peril.

 

Then we get onto one’s amplifier of choice. These can be anything from a diminutive, battery powered box to an impressive backline of Marshall stacks turned up to 11. It’s amazing to think that the venerable Marshall stack was 50 years old in 2015. The advent of home recording has led to an explosion in digital modelling and even the use of the iPhone/iPad can bestow tone-enhancing functions beyond the dreams of many recording pioneers. The Line 6 Pod brought about a revolution in digital amp modelling, embraced by many musicians who could see the potential opportunities of technology. Interestingly, rather than create something unique and innovative all of its own, the digital world has gone to enormous lengths to simulate the soundscape of our favourite vintage valve amps and cabinets, perhaps suggesting that those pioneers got something right in the first place.

 

So… what’s your favourite sounding amp? And, before you start, yes they do have a sound of their own, irrespective of what’s played through them. Fundamentally, it’s down to individual taste. Personally, I tend to favour the ‘American sound’, such as the classic Fender amps, rather than the stalwarts from this side of the Atlantic, typified by Marshall, Vox and Orange. Gibson, surprisingly, has never been as commercially successful at making guitar amplifiers, leaving opportunities for other US makers such as Mesa/Boogie and Peavey. How about some other classic names from the past, such as WEM, H/H, Roland, Laney, Sound City and Hiwatt, amongst others – some still going while others are history. The differences between the various brands are, unsurprisingly, manifold. Nowadays there is a plethora of amps ranging from the far eastern mass-produced to the US and UK boutique builders. Ultimately, it is down to individual taste and, perhaps, what guitar you play. For info, I currently use a vintage Music Man (click here to see the amp feature…) and a modern Cornford Carrera combining the best of US and UK heritage. It is with much sadness that neither are still in production. I recently purchased the wonderful mid-70s vintage Music Man 210 ‘sixty-five’ amp to use as my main amp of choice. This means that some tranny practice and studio gear may have to become ex-loved CRAVE items soon.

 

Over time, there have evolved recognised and well-accepted guitar/amp pairings, such as the humbucker equipped Gibson Les Paul through a Marshall amp, or the single coil loaded Fender Stratocaster through a Fender amp. However, there are now so many different permutations that provide limitless possibilities for creating one’s own personal signature sound. Why so many guitarists strive to recreate the sound (and style) of others rather than seek a unique, individual signature of their own is probably best left for another debate. For practicality, modern valve amps are safe, reliable and sound great, while digital alternatives give a very good impression of many classics that, let’s face it, most of us will never get to play (let alone own) for real, so let’s not get too snooty. Whether you go for a traditional approach or you adopt a mix-and-match attitude to differentiate your sound, you can experiment to your heart’s content. There is no right or wrong, just what inspires your creativity. That’s the joy of our beloved hobby.

 

Then, in addition to amplification, there is an abundance of effects units (a.k.a. FX, stompboxes, pedals, etc.) from the mass-manufactured giants to the tiny custom-built independents. The choice is plentiful. The history of stompboxes really started in the 1960s with the fuzz and wah-wah, and has flourished ever since. Now, you can create almost any live or studio sound that you want, from subtle enhancement to unrecognisable noise sculpting. Take your pick between analogue, digital or hybrid, whatever takes your fancy. Personally, I have a soft spot for 1970’s lush vintage analogue Electro-Harmonix effects pedals, such as the Big Muff Pi, Memory Man and Electric Mistress. For modern effects, I generally use Boss and Line 6 units. So much choice, so many opportunities, so little time to experiment. One could spend a lifetime exploring the creative tonal capabilities of effects alone without ever really listening to what the guitar itself can do. Again, it is worth investing in quality leads and power supplies to avoid degrading the magic of your performance.

 

One characteristic I’ve noticed is the traditionalism that extends from guitars to amps and effects. Many of today’s designs are either copies of, or are heavily influenced by, the past, for example emulating the classic Ibanez Tube Screamer, Dunlop Fuzz Face/Cry Baby or MXR Phase 90. Occasionally, there is genuine innovation; the Digitech Whammy pedal or Roland Loop Station spring to mind? I wait in anticipation for the ‘next big thing’ to challenge our usually conservative prejudices. In the meantime, there is a growing interest in acquiring vintage amps and effects to add to instruments and therefore (re)create the original setups heard on iconic stages and in countless studios for what seems a lifetime of great music, effectively reconstructing the soundtrack of our lives for new audiences. A subject for a future article.

 

CRAVE guitars are frequently played unamplified to get a feel for the way they resonate and respond to touch without any electronics. Other times, when the mood takes, it is fun just to pile on ridiculous amounts of modification and enjoy the sonic chaos created by rampant knob‑twiddling. Isn’t the electric guitar a wonderful thing, especially when allied to your favourite sound enhancing electronics? Where would we be without them all? Enjoy. Until next time…

 

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “Learn from other musicians; don’t copy them or the best you’ll ever be is an average plagiarist”

 

© 2016 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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