Everybody needs a Champ: Less is More

I admit, I bought this little guy on impulse because it caught my eye.    Being rough blond tolex with an oxblood grill, it’s a color combination that Fender never used on a champ of any sort, but still has a strong Fender vibe: the Champ that never was.   I am a sucker for Fender Clones in the wrong color (My 5E3 clones are silver and black), I was drawn to this little bugger.   It was built by a guy who goes by the handle of Muchxs, and you can find him hanging out of the TDPRI page in “Amp Central Station”.

The cabinet work is flawless and a peek inside it shows the same careful level of construction:

It has a phenomenal level of workmanship.   It has a multi-tap transformer so you can run  8 or 4 ohm speakers from it and it currently has a 4 ohm Weber ceramic speaker that I’m very happy with.   It’s basically a 5F1 tweed champ circuit, but I will say I think he’s done something to reduce noise levels. It’s dead quiet at the levels I use it at.

The first words that usually comes to mind with Champs are “Little Screamer“, an amp that you can crank without disturbing the family.  You crank this thing in your house and the only way you won’t be bothering your family or nearby neighbors is if they are all either guitar players, deaf, or both.     Six Watts is still pretty darn loud.   If I’m in the mood for distortion, I do have a Weber attenuator that can cut it down to about two watts without making it sound muffled.  Even that will be still louder than you think.  But there’s a lot more to a Champ than simulating “Summertime Blues” by Blue Cheer at bedroom volumes.  You can get that with an overdrive pedal with almost any amp.

Where the Champ excels is in that grey area between clean and dirty that I call the expression zone.  You can conjure up a whole spectrum of tonal change and expressiveness  just by varying your picking attack.  That whole “touch sensitive” thing.  With Fender style single coils, I like to turn the amp up to the point (usually over 3 or 4) where it just starts to add a little shimmer to chords.  This adds a little bite to notes that you really dig into.  If you’re on the bridge pickup, this gives you a great old school country tone, and faux-pedal steel bends sound fairly authentic.  The neck pickup is great for Cornell Dupree, Curtis Mayfield/Jimi Hendrix rhythm/lead style licks.   The 2 and 4 positions on a Strat also sound great and  can produce a an amazing variety of tones.  The Sutans of Swing are in there.  Turning the amp up to around 5 gives you just a little sustain and a little more hair.   Think of Eric Clapton’s tone on the outro solo of “Let it Rain” and you’re on the right track.  You can get it to sing, but you’re going to work for it. Further twisting of the Volume pot adds more compression and distortion, but not much more volume, and with humbuckers you can get nearly infinite sustain, but you do lose a little definition.

With humbuckers you’ll probably want to back off a bit on the guitar’s volume controls as you can very easily drive the 12AX-7 pre-amp tube into distortion, which can be a little buzzy.    I find the best tone is found with the amp set to around five and the guitar’s volume turned up around halfway, so you’re getting a tiny hint of pre-amp grind with some power stage grit on top of that.  Depending on how much hair you’ve added, this works for 50’s jazz tones,  blues, and a very authentic 50’s rock tone.  With my hollow body, I can nail Chuck’s tone on “Maybelline” in a very satisfying manner.

I use this amp like a lot of people use an acoustic guitar, it’s what I plug into when I want to play for my own entertainment.   (Playing my Martin acoustic, however, leaves me with aching and arthritic fingers.)    It’s a little like a microscope as it’s it very revealing of what you’re actually playing, and it’s a little more work to play.  If I’m trying to really polish a part and play it really cleanly, this is the perfect amp.

I think a big part of it’s mojo is that the circuitry is about the least amount you can have between your fingers and the speaker, there’s a directness to the feel of it, an intimacy, if you will.   Most larger, more powerful tube amps don’t really start to sound good (to me) until you get them turned up to where they’re uncomfortably loud to play around the house. With this little guy, the tubes are awake right when you turn it on at any volume.  They add a tube sound at ANY volume.

Before I had the Champ, my  plug-and-go amp for home use was a little Roland Cube.   That amp was voiced for low volume playing and also had some on-board effects.  With the Champ, I rarely plug a pedal or anything into it, and I find I don’t really miss it.

The other thing is that I can hear the differences of one guitar from the next, a lot more clearly with the Champ.  I have two SX “strats” that are set up with twin humbuckers, one with Smits pickups and the other with Dimarzios.  Through most amps they’re pretty close, but through the champ the differences are, while not huge, very audible, with the Smit’s pickups almost sounding like single coils by comparison.  So, if you’ve got a guitar “collection” of any size, you owe it to yourself to get a Champ of some sort.

Do you believe in Magic?

Every culture on the face of the planet has music of some sort, which is a fact I find most curious.   The fact that musical harmony is related to mathematics is also mind boggling in that musical harmony existed prior to Pythagoras discovery of hamony’s mathematical foundations. (Yes, the same Pythagoras of:  “The Square of the Hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the two adjacent sides.”)

The point is that music and the associated scales existed well before any mathematical, physical or acoustical theories concerning their existence.   One doesn’t have to know musical theory or even math to understand that   “A” and “D” notes played together on a piano sound “good” where an “A” and a “B flat” sound “not good”.   A six year old doesn’t need a sound understanding of musical theory to sing “Do Re Mi”, any more than one would need to to understand ballistic theory hit a mail box with a beer bottle thrown from a moving vehicle. (Or so I’m told.)

Old Pythagoras was evidently struck by this same phenomena and created an entire religion and cosmology based on the mathematics of the musical scale.

However, it’s the mysteries of why music has such an emotional impact on people that I find fascinating.   Traditionally, most religions take interest in music and  impose various restrictions on the proper place for music in one’s life.   There is a musical interval known as a “The Devil’s Interval”  (a flatted fifth in musical terms, commonly known to us as the introductory notes to “Purple Haze”), that was frowned upon in medieval circles as sounding “sinister”.   Some religions ban all secular uses of music.

I’ve  long suspected human beings are hard-wired to respond to music.   Why else would it have such an effect on our emotions?  Music can make you sad, happy, energized or relaxed.   Low frequencies have a particularly high emotional impact: think pipe organs.   “Minor” chords seem to induce sadness in people even outside of our culture.   The mere existence of dancing tells me a lot.   The fact that many people are eager to do something that, for most people makes them look pretty silly, if they just hear a particular piece of music that makes them “wanna dance”; should convince anyone of the power in music.

I haven’t even mentioned rhythm, but it’s even more mathematical than harmony, although anything that’s involved with the regulation and measurement of something as slippery as time is also bound to be mysterious as well.   The “beat” is also something that people who  feel that certain types of music might appeal to the more primitive aspect we all have inside us might object to.  Much of the criticism of early rock and roll was due to this aspect: the “jungle” beat.    You can say one thing about the devil: he’s got the beat.

Anyone who’s played music in a bar knows the symbiotic emotional lift you get from playing to a roomful of people who are dancing along with you.  (And what a bummer it is if people just sit on their hands.) It’s a powerful feeling that is as close to tribal as otherwise modern humans are likely to get.    The young guys in the band I play in are somewhat amused at the idea of people dancing to “Sunshine of your Love”, “Purple Haze”, or “Whipping Post”.   (I do remember people in Bend trying to dance to the Pink Floyd song “Money”, which is in an odd meter and not easy for most people to dance to: the crowd looked like a Grateful Dead concert where people did eat the brown acid.) They just can’t think of “Classic Rock” as the sort of music that people would dance to.

Remember back in school, in the first or second grade, when we’d all sing?   I’m not too sure at just what grade level that stopped, are any of you?  I can still remember the tunes in the books they’d hand out: “Little Red Caboose”, “This land is your Land” (total evidence of commie influence in the schools), “Old Dan Tucker”, “La Cucaracha” (I had no idea it was about insects), “Roll On Columbia”, etc.   Do kids still do this?

They probably have karaoke machines.

Sortacaster?

Friends of mine who’ve been on my E-mail list will find all of this old hat as I’ve been posting about my Chinese guitars for around four years.  I’ve received enough questions from people about these guitars after looking through the Gallery, I thought I’d take a few words to explain more fully.

This particular guitar is an SX SST and it originally sold for $109.95 and was purchased from Rondo Music.  The guitar has a three piece, alder body and the neck is maple, with a maple fretboard.   The guitar weighs 8 1/2 pounds.   It has medium jumbo frets and has three single coil pickups and is wired like a conventional Strat.  Stock, it’s actually a fairly decent guitar and WAY better than it has any right to be for that sort of money.  This particular model is not available at present, and it has a different shape headstock than what comes on the current SX product now being imported by Rondo.    The lineup from Rondo is in constant flux, depending on what comes over on the boat at any given time.

For me the guitar is just a starting point as a modification platform.   Here’s a list of the stuff on this guitar that’s not stock:

  • SST from Rondo Music                                               $109.99
  • Schaller Locking Tuners                                                $64.95
  • Graph-Tech graphite saddles                                        $34.95
  • Nico’s Vintage 60’s pickups                                           $89.95
  • 7 Way Strat wiring harness from  pickers parts             $49.95
  • TOTAL                                                                         $349.79

So, now I have a $350 guitar that’s worth $110 on the open market, which is certainly one way to look at it.   The reason I buy these guitars is for the body and the neck, both of which are high quality.  The fret work on all the guitars I’ve purchased from them (5 guitars and 1 bass)  has been very good.   I have heard stories, but Rondo has a very liberal return policy so you won’t get stuck with a lemon.

I pretty much install locking tuners on all the guitars I  own.    I had a Fender Strat Plus Deluxe back in the 80’s that had Sperzal locking tuners and became addicted to them for both tuning stability and ease of replacing strings.  I use Schallers on the SX’s as they fit right in to where the original tuners were with out the need to drill any new holes.  They look like they were factory installed.  They also allow you to get rid of string trees, which have always been a source of tuning instability.  Since you don’t wind strings around the post, you  end up with less string you have to stretch out, and a new set of strings needs much less stretching to stay in tune.

I typically fit graphtech saddles on guitars that sound a little bright, as this one did out of the box, even when un-plugged.  They take a little of the edge off and help a lot in terms of preventing string breakage.

The pickups are from Pickers Parts and not only are USA made but they’re a lot less money than what you might pay for Dimarzio, Seymour Duncan, Rio Grande and others, and I think they sound amazing.  One of the places where SX saves money is with the electronics inside the guitar: the the pots, switches and wire itself are not at the same standard as the rest of the instrument.  Replacing them when you replace the pickups just make sense.

I bought the wiring harness pre wired as it saves me time since I’m going to replace all the pots and switches anyway, and whoever did the soldering job was a lot better at it than I am.   You could buy the parts yourself, however, and save about $20 bucks.    Or you could go the other route and get a pre wired pick guard for not that much more money, if you don’t want to have to solder anythng.

I always wire up Strat type guitars with what’s called 7 way switching, and it gives you the ability to use the neck and Bridge pickups together, (It also gives you the ability to use all pickups at once, which I never do) so you can get that both pickups on at once Tele sound.  I also have the treble pickup wired to one of the tone controls, as having a tone control can help cut the icepick effect as i find the bridge pickup can be sort of brittle sounding at times.

I do invest some sweat equity in the guitars.  I re cut the nut, (some people replace the entire plastic nut with bone or corian, but I don’t hear the difference they claim it makes) do a fret level and polish the frets, as over the years I have acquired set up skills.  I prefer a low action with very little relief in the neck and I set them up for 10-56 gauge strings. I also sand off the poly finish on the back of the necks and replace it with an oil based one, as I like the feel.

I can’t go out an buy a guitar I like anywhere nearly as well as this one for anything close to this kind of money.   I’m totally happy with it, it’s a very traditional sounding “strat” and it sounds and plays exactly the way I like it.

People who pick it up are always shocked when I tell them how inexpensive it is, and if you were blindfolded and have it handed to you, I’d wager you’d also think it’s a much more expensive instrument.

The fact that I own more of them should tell you I find these guitars to be considerable bargains for anyone who has some skills in terms of set up and doing modifications.  I’ve got tools like fret files, dremels, drills and routers, and have decent soldering skills.  I’ve built bolt on neck guitars from parts before, and taking this approach works at least as well, for a lot less work and money.  The main thing is that the relationship between the neck and body has already been established.  Often there’s a bit of work to make these two pieces fit together exactly, and in alignment.

As for the stock guitars, you could buy one for a beginner, and upgrade it and/if needed as the player advances.   Will Ray (of the Hellecasters) has reviewed a couple of them for Guitar Player and Premiere Guitar and generally has positive things to say about them.

Please feel free to E-mail me any questions or comments you might have.

Where “fauxsuper” comes from.

This amp started life in 1968 as a Bandmaster Reverb.   I’ve owned it around 20 years and it’s been housed in various cabinets, including one that looked like a flight case, causing a friend of mine to dub it the “Bandmonster”.

A decade or so ago,  when it first became popular to convert Bandmaster Reverb amp heads to “Vibroclones” (The Vibroverb was a Fender amp often used by Stevie Ray Vaughan) I noticed the Bandmaster chassis was exactly the same as a Fender Super Reverb, except fot the output transformer.

I got the bright idea that you could convert Bandmaster Reverb amps (then selling on E-bay for about $200) into replicas of Super Reverb amps (Then selling for $800) and then sell them.  I was semi-retired at the time, and living in Mesa Arizona.

I managed to find a cabinet supplier and cheap sources for speakers, replica faceplates and transformers, then built a couple of amps.  One of them used the amp chassis that is in the above photo, and the other a chassis that I bought off E-bay.   They sounded very close to the “real” Super Reverb amp that I owned  at the time and I advertised them as “Fauxsupers” in the local alternative press.

There were several flaws in this as a business plan:

  1. People weren’t exactly eager to buy them.
  2. It took a couple hundred words to explain the concept: guitarists have the attention span of rabbits.
  3. Fender had just come out with the Super Reverb Re-issue
  4. The amps were too labor intensive and low profit, I was working for about $4 an hour.
  5. I was living in a travel trailer at the time, and had no room to move around with all the amps in the way.

FAUXSUPER WORLD  HEADQUARTERS 2006

 

 

 

 

The “fauxsuper” name I used for my E-mail address lives on as does the amp in the photo at the top of the page.   It now lives in a Pete Newell cabinet with a 15″ Weber Blue Dog Speaker.   It was totally re-built by local San Diego amp guru Chill Boy a couple of years ago and actually fits in the front seat of my Miata.

Walter Trout and BB King (revised)

I had to go back and correct this.   It took me a couple of days to deal the BB King show.  It was just such a different experience that it really took the time to process.

BB King is a deep experience.  It had much more impact than I’d expected, but in a different way.   I didn’t experience BB King as a guitar player, with my analytical mind trying to figure out what he was playing.   I wasn’t trying to figure out how he gets his sound or any of that.

I had to just let go of all that and sit back and enjoy what he was doing.

The thing with BB, is that he connects with his audience.  It’s just amazing to watch.  The best way to describe it is like being in a church.  That has a really good choir.   I know that’s a cliche, but it really fits here.   You leave feeling like you’ve all shared some wonderful collective experience, and you have.

 

BB King tonight!

I’m going to see Walter Trout and BB King tonight at the Belly up in Solana Beach.

http://www.bellyup.com/show/detail/51416

This will be the first time I’ve seen him.  This is procrastination on an epic scale no matter how one looks at it.  I’ve always managed to have something else to do when he’s came around.  Well, better late than never.

Actually, I’m almost giddy.   The last time I was like this was when I went to see Albert King.  Just hearing him play the first note was a revelation, just as it was with Jimi Hendrix.  Watching someone play music that has had a profound impact on my life is always an event for me.  I don’t know how anyone can play electric guitar and not feel like you owe some debt to Mr. King.

So, this is in some sense a pilgrimage.   But the only expectation I have is to sit there and listen.

 

Royal Street Bachelors

I spent the summer of 1969 with my cousin Bonnie and her husband Al in Villa Park California.  I look back on it now as a formative period in my life: it’s easier to find who you are when you don’t have to conform to what those around you expect from you.   Especially when you’re from a small town where that “who” fossilized around whoever you were at around 13.

One of the things that stand out in my memory was an afternoon and evening that I spent in Disneyland.  Among the highlights, (which included seeing the 1910 Fruitgum Company and the pre Donny-and-Marie Osmond Brothers) I’ve always remembered the guy who played a 6 string banjo (the first I’d ever seen) with a “Dixieland Trio” in “New Orleans Square”.

I probably spent the better part of an hour watching him play.   He is easily the smoothest guitar player I’ve ever seen.  (I know it was a banjo, but it was tuned like a guitar and had six strings.)  He played with little effort:  the most complex passages with an otherworldly fluidity.    There was never any hint of “Hey, Kid, watch this!” or any other kind of show off displays of technique.  Out came flurries of chords I didn’t recognize, unfathomable arpeggios and all sorts of jaw-dropping maneuvers I’d never seen before.   I never saw him play even one “clam”.  All this delivered with a calm demeanor that made Jerry Garcia look like a nervous twitch.    I kept saying to myself:  “This can’t be happening, he’s in an act at Disneyland.”   It would have to be among the top five displays of total instrumental mastery I’ve ever seen.

For 42 years, I’ve often pondered the meaning of all this.  Every time the discussion of guitar technique comes up, I think of this guy.  And usually the association with the thought “here he is, just a street performer at Disneyland”.  At one point, I also purchased a six string banjo, which I kept for about 3 days. I can’t play with my hand hovering above the surface of the instrument and the minute you rest it on the top of a banjo, all the sound stops, replaced with a muffled, atonal “thack” sound.  These instruments are a lot harder to play than they look.  It also visibly irritated and frightened the hell out of my cats to a degree previously reserved for the vacuum cleaner.

Then, in the middle of writing an E-mail to my friend Gerry, (About guess what?  Guitar technique.)   I thought to Google “six string banjo player Disneyland” and promptly did so.  A mystery no more, the man had a name, Harold Grant, and the trio was “Royal Street Bachelors” and along with Harold, they featured Jack McVea on clarinet and Herb Gordy on upright bass.

They were all LA  jazz and R & B players with many sessions with famous musicians to their credit.   McVea played sax on T-bone Walker’s “They call it stormy Monday”, and he also was the leader of Jack McVea’s All Stars, who had a hit in 1947 with “Open the door, Richard

They were effectively the house band for Black & White Records, an LA R & B and jazz record label. McVea played with Lionel Hampton’s orchestra in the 40’s.  He also played, along with Les Paul, Nat King Cole, and Illinois Jacquet at the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert..  You’ll notice Jack is the second guy listed.

Herb Gordy played upright bass, most notably with with Red Prysock and Earl Bostic    He was also Barry Gordy’s cousin.

Harold himself played guitar on recordings by Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Percy Mayfield.

I find this to be surreal: these were all players of considerable stature, practically jazz nobility and they spent 25 years playing music in Disneyland.   People are walking by, going about their business on the way to Tomorrowland, and for most they were little more than a diversion.

I hope they knew there were those who stopped and really listened.   I know from playing on stage when some guitar geek is watching me play, I’ve had kids at SDSU come up and ask about the Chuck Berry licks or why I play cheap guitars, etc.   So I know Harold knew I was watching him, and he couldn’t miss the look of amazement I must have been sporting.

I’m just glad I finally found out who he was.

A Guitar Story

I’ve played the guitar since the summer after I turned 12 (1964, to put it in context; the year of the Beatles).  I started playing my step brother’s acoustic and tried to play along with songs by the Ventures, Dick Dale and The Fabulous Wailers (A Seattle band, not Bob Marley’s group).   I was actually pretty good at this because the muscle memory from playing the violin for three years carried over to the guitar fairly easily.  When my step brother moved out of the house, my parents bought me my first electric: a single pickup Kay hollow body archtop ($69.95) $30 of which came from the trade in from my violin.

The guitar was an attempt by my mom and my new step-dad to focus my attentions in some positive direction, as I wasn’t (for various reasons outside the scope of this column) coping well with life in general, and haging out with a bad crowd.   (I was arrested for vandalism: writing vulgarities on seats in the local movie theater with a felt pen.)  The Kay wasn’t really what I wanted in a guitar, but my parents told me that if I continued to have interest in the guitar, showed progress in my ability to play it, managed to avoid another arrest and  stayed out of trouble in school, they would match how ever much money I managed to save over the course of the next year and buy me a nice guitar.  I think this ploy managed to succeed beyond their expectations.

Over the course of the next year I managed to save $150 dollars from various sources: picking beans, my allowance, doing extra chores around the house,  bottle deposits and stealing change from my mom’s purse.     I ended up buying a used 1963 Custom Telecaster (this was the fall of 1965) for the sum of $175, (less $25 trade in for the Kay).   My parents kept up their part of the bargain, perhaps relieved they didn’t have to match $150.   I can’t remember exactly why I settled on the Tele, but I do rememeber I’d chosen it over a Hagstrom III.   I think it may have something to do with how easy it was to play, since the fat neck and high action on the Kay were things I hated even more than the total lack of treble the guitar managed to produce from the pickup mounted up near the fretboard.  I do think I made the right choice, though.

I still have that guitar.   It accomplished what my parents had hoped it would for the most part: my grades improved and I had no further brushes with the athorities.   Moreover, it has given me a rewarding lifetime activity and  provided me with a sense of identity I might ontherwise not have.   Music is a the prism through which I experienced the spectrum of life as it unfolded before me.   It helped me to understand not only myself, but those around me and spurred my curiosity towards many things.