A Brief, and Incomplete History of Guitar Amplification

My recent purchase of a Quilter 101 amp head has made me think a lot about guitar tone and how it has “evolved” over the years.    One thing that sticks out to me is that MOST of the amps that have a “signature” tone, achieved that sound mostly by a happy accident.

quilter101I think the first recorded incident of a guitar amp being created with the idea that users would deliberately drive it into distortion was the Mesa Boogie in the late 60’s.   You can see Marshall advertisements in the 1960’s touting “distortion free sound”.

By the 50’s pickups and amplifiers evolved around each other, as did speakers, which in the early amps, were off the shelf items, rather than devices especially created for electric guitar.   None of these devices seemed to be designed with the idea of a “flat response” in mind.    Pickups, amps and speakers were all considerably “colored” and all evolved rather slowly: but everyone who designed a pickup designed it with the idea it might be plugged into some other manufacturer’s amplifier.

That said, the electric guitar never does seem to actually be an attempt to just make an acoustic guitar louder.    Right from the start, you can hear 1930’s and 40’s guitarists driving their amps into distortion and using that capability as a creative tool.      At the same time, the quest for a clear, undistorted rhythm sound lead to increasingly powerful amplifiers.   The Fender Blackface series of amplifiers hit the market just as baby boomers inspired by the Beatles exploded into garage bands, and needed amps.     These amps had a big dip in the midrange response which was a psycho-acoustic slight of hand designed to make the amps seem louder and more powerful.

Since most of the information in a guitar signal is concentrated in the 100 to 2,000 Hz range, “scooping” the mid range area had a HUGE impact on the perceived volume the amp was capable of.       A Fender “Dual Showman” with two D-130F speakers (you could see the bright aluminum cones through the grill cloth) was considered, (at least in my circle of friends) as the ultimate guitar amp.

As Fender was one of the leading amp manufacturers for professional musicians, this sound, however colored was taken as “just how an amp is supposed to sound” to most of us.   All we knew is that those “tweed” amps we saw in pawn shops got fuzzy at low volumes and sounded rather “dull” in comparison.

Looking at these photos generated by the “Tone Stack Calculator”  on the Seymour Duncan page it’s obvious how scooped the mids were on a Blackface amp.     If you look at the photos, you can see the response curves generated by various positions of the tone controls, which are shown to the lower left corner.  Look at the positions of the controls in the photo that shows a relatively “flat” response.  To this very day, Fender is still selling replicas of this series of amps (along with ones that feature “tweed tone”) by the thousands.   They’ve undoubtably sold more “re-issues” of both the black and Silver faced amps than they did back in the day.

Curve FenderThe above photo shows the response curve of a typical fender Blackface amp with all the tone controls set at “five”.  The “scoop” is quite severe, something around 12 dB in this case.

Below is a more typical tone control setting for a black face amp, in fact, this is my starting spot for my own Fender.

curve fender typicalThis one is what one would need to do to the tone controls to get a flat response out of  a Fender amp from this period.

curve fenderflatFinally, a graph showing a rather extreme setting with the treble control turned fully up.

curve fenderextreme

Most Baby Boomers will remember walking into a pawn shop and  discovering lots of old amplifiers sitting around and remember some that were actually painted or dyed black or maybe even covered with black vinyl in an attempt to make them more “modern”.    The period I’m speaking of was the early to mid 60’s and we all wanted to sound like Dick Dale or the Ventures.    When listening to amplifiers in music stores we determined that the ones that sounded the most like a Showman were naturally the best ones.

At this point in time it wasn’t common for rock & roll acts to show the actual guitar amps they were using.  (Also well before the “Guitar Hero” era)   I remember the first time seeing the Beatles on TV with these strange looking amps with a three letter name that I couldn’t quite make out on my parents B&W TV.   (A friend of mine thought they were VOC amplifiers)

Later on in the 60’s and early 70’s, most of the Guitar Heroes seemed to use Marshall amplification.  Most of us know the first Marshall amps were heavily based on the tweed Fender Bassman.     If you look at the control panel on an early Marshall it’s a dead ringer for what you’ll find on a Tweed Bassman.    The amps didn’t sound like the tweed amps, particularly when coupled with two 4 X 12” cabinets with British made speakers in them, but the sound was a lot closer to a tweed amp than a Blackface Fender. Below is a typical Marshall amp response curve.

curve MarshalThe mid bass dip is far less extreme than the Blackface ones.

Below is a typical curve out of a Vox amp.

curve voxVox amps fall somewhere in between and you also have the “Top Boost” option on the AC-30 to add it’s own personality.    The result of all of this is that people usually purchase a guitar amp with a particular “personality” in mind.    Mesa Boogie, Marshall, Blackface Fender, Vox AC series, Tweed Bassman all conjure up sonic signatures of one sort or another.   It’s not at all like purchasing a PA or Hi-Fi amplifier where the standard is fidelity to reproduction of the original signal.    A guitar amp is seen as a tool for the production of sound, as important as the guitar itself in determining the overall sound and many guitarists “play the amp” as much as they play the guitar.

The above is a huge oversimplification with all sorts of factors one can’t account for by frequency response alone.  We’re just isolating one factor.

Obviously, the above response curves are then added to the ones generated by the pickups and further on down the line by the speakers they run through, effects used and even the cable the guitarist is using to connect his guitar to the amp.  And on top of this, every guitarist has his own tone to add to the equation.   Plug Carlos Santana into Eddie Van Halen’s amp and he’s still going to sound like Carlos.

Introducing a new amp head in today’s market is a rather brave proposition as it has to sound like other guitar amps, particularly TUBE guitar amps in order to fit into the signal chain that’s been developed for use with those amps.    Indeed, Quilter has provided a “Voice” knob on the 101 to emulate the sonic signature of several common amp sounds: “Surf”, “Tweed” and “Jazz”.  They have accomplished this to a degree that would seem to be regarded as a breakthrough.

I’ve been using the Quilter for a while now and it is a veritable “swiss army knife” able to get most of the amp tones I regularly use and some I’ve not been able to make previously.

The Trunkslammers, (the band I play with) only do a couple of covers, so the Quilter works well for me, I only have to sound like me.    Once I convinced myself the amp sounded “tube like” I relaxed and started to explore the wide range of tones that ARE available.  The amp’s lack of a “sweet spot” that most tube amps have where they sound best and the fact that the distortion level is totally independent of the amp’s volume give one  a big advantage that the tube amps I’ve owned don’t have.

On the Quilter Facebook page, there have been posts from people who are not satisfied with some aspect of the 101’s performance.    I would be amazed if this was NOT the case, given the amazing variety of guitar amp sounds out there and all the possible combinations of guitar, pickups, speakers and cabinets, not to mention a range of tastes.   The odds of making all guitar players happy are not too great.

When someone purchases a Fender, Vox, Marshall, Mesa Boogie or Dr. Z amplifier, it’s often done (depending on amp model) with the idea of getting a few specific tones being paramount.    One doesn’t buy a Marshall stack with the idea that it also would be able to sound like a Fender Twin Reverb or a Vox AC30.   While some amps do have a reputation for being versatile, most brands do seem to have certain tones they are associated with.

Given all the attempts of manufacturers to make amplifiers without vacuum tubes sound “like a tube amp” over the last 40 or 50 years, it would seem at this point that arguably Quilter has managed this to an unprecedented  degree with several lines and models on sale.

Sounding “like a tube amp” is only the first stage, and we’ll discover if Quilter is “here to stay” when someone describes an amp as “Sounding like a Quilter”.

 

 

The Doors of Perception: Making Peace with a Solid State amp.

Vacuum tubes are a romantic concept, in addition to being electrical circuits.    There is a lot of near mystical pseudo-science surrounding them.   For many people, they are left-overs from another era: when it became common knowledge in the 1970’s that Russian military aircraft were still using vacuum tube technology it was taken as proof they were behind the USA in technology.

rig3In most arenas, transistor technology rapidly replaced tube technology during the late 60’s/early 70’s era with two notable exceptions: high end audio and guitar amplifiers.    Google “Tube VS Solid State” and you will busy for eternity sorting through 11 million entries.

I’m not going to attempt to sort all this out here, as it would go on for pages, but for the guitar world at large, (even if it is a couple years out of date) this is a good primer on the basics of the history of the conflict:  Tube vs Solid State

Reading the comments will tell you this is a controversy that won’t be settled soon.

Unless one is in a band that becomes famous, spending thousands for a guitar rig is beyond the reach of working musicians, yet there is an entire cottage industry of “boutique” amp builders who are building  $2,000 to $3,000 amps to power handbuilt $5,000 “Custom Shop” replicas of guitars were built by hourly workers in a factory.

Fender also makes fairly close replicas of most of the famous amps from it’s past, some of them are even hand wired, and costing up to around $3,000.

On the face of it, this sounds like a snarky comment, but I’m just trying to make a point.     These trends are driven by mostly baby boomers who played in garage bands when they were kids and have turned their guitar playing into a hobby of sorts and play at home for their own pleasure or have regular jam sessions with friends.   A lot of them now have the money to buy the guitars and amps they lusted after as kids..   (And not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Working musicians tended to use much less exotic fare and some of them mock the “cork sniffing” that goes on amongst victims of “Gear Acquisition Syndrome”, otherwise known as “GAS”.

Part of this hobby is the instruments themselves:  pride of ownership and that sort of thing: a little bit of your identity .  (A little like Hi-Fi people who derive as much pleasure from owning the equipment as listening to music on it)  I used to host a jam session in a local tavern, and for some people the jam session was also a place to show off one’s pride and joy.

Guitar playing became a “hobby” for me (as I wasn’t in a band) during the 80’s, and I had a wonderful little Fender “Super Champ” and also a Yamaha Rex 50 effects unit.   I had managed to retain two of the guitars from my youth: a 1963 Fender Telecaster Custom and a Les Paul Goldtop on which I’d installed a Leo Quan Badass bridge so I could damp the strings and set intonation.   (Both of these guitars are “players” rather than mint examples of the breed, I’d refinished the Tele when I was a teenager.  I still have both of them. )

I started playing out again in the late 80’s and have always used tube amps.   And I’ve owned bunches of them.     Of all types and sizes.    And nearly all of them had at least one or two amazing sounds in them and I’ve enjoyed nights where all the stars were in alignment and I could hit the amp’s “sweet spot” where it sounded the best.    Tube amps are also temperamental, one night they sound great and the next, well——-

I’ve been through the “quest for the perfect tone” for years.     For the last 3 or 4 years I’ve used the same basic amp: a Magic Valve clone of a Tweed Fender Deluxe, circa 1957.    For the last couple of years I’ve used the amp along with a Badcat Unleash, and attenuator/re-amp device that I’ve reviewed on these pages: http://fauxsuperblogs.com/3383/badcat-unleashone-year/

The reason for the Unleash is to provide scalability.    I finally managed to be able to hit the amp’s “Sweet Spot” and then adjust the volume to what was required in a particular venue.   I could get the rig to sound the same at rehearsal, a small bar, an outdoor gig, or a birthday party on someone’s patio.   No small feat, that.    I’ve got to the point where I’ve taken this ability for granted and really didn’t give much thought to my equipment and for the first time concentrated on playing guitar,  not being on a “Quest for Tone”.

A recent injury (a fall on ice while walking my dog) forced me to re-think about the hassle involved with my current rig, which mainly is the time it takes to set it all up, making connections, finding ways to get AC power to three different places, running wires on stage and making sure I don’t trip over them, ensuring it all works, and doing all this in a hurry while others are tearing down on a dark stage and my bandmates are setting up their stuff.    And then quickly tearing it all down and carting it off.   Many of our gigs are in venues featuring acts doing original material and there are usually multiple acts on the bill doing one set each.  A couple times I’ve had to schlep stuff for several blocks in questionable neighborhoods due to lack of parking.   (One of the reasons I use inexpensive “parts guitars” to gig with.)

The above photo (at the start of this post) shows my current stage rig.   The large black box with the white knobs on the left of my pedalboard is a Quilter 101.    It is capable of 100 watts of power and it’s a class D amplifier.   It doesn’t sound like a typical solid state amp and responds to your touch in a satisfying manner.   It is totally scalable and can make great sounds at any volume I’m ever going to need and the longer I have it, the more useful sounds I’m discovering.

Does it sound exactly like a tube amp?   No.    Does that matter to me?   Not really.   It does make all sorts of useful sounds that fit in with the tunes and styles my band plays.  It does some things better than any amp I’ve played through.  It also responds well to all of my overdrive-boost and distortion pedals.    I’ve had many moments where I find myself thinking: “Damn, this thing sounds good!”   Yesterday at band practice my drummer said to me: “You really are enjoying your new rig aren’t you?” while laughing at my childlike glee.  (He also plays guitar in another band, and has since purchased a Quilter.)

It’s really added a layer of fun to playing guitar and I think I sound better than I ever have.   And there’s not a single tube anywhere to be found.

The bottom line:    You should try one, take the time to learn how the controls work, and make up your mind for yourself.   The amp costs $300 and from my standpoint worth the risk of buying it without hearing it first.  (chances are you already have a speaker to try it with)    There are plenty of examples on you tube of people using one, if you place any credence in that sort of thing,  (which I really don’t) and lots of testimonials from people you might assume have “drank the cool-aid” after reading what they have to say.  It’s replacing about $1,100 worth of gear in my former rig, and it’s more versatile to boot.

My pedalboard weighs 18 pounds as you see it in the photo.   And the Ear Candy Cab with the Texas Heat ($250 total investment for cab and speaker) inside it weighs in at 22 pounds.   All I need to do to set it up is get AC power to one spot, run a speaker cord to the Cab and plug my guitar in.    (The Ear Candy cab sounds wonderful and sonically fits the Texas Heat perfectly and that’s another story altogether.)

If you’ve been doing this for a while, you’ve probably come across some solid state amp at some point in time that sounded good to you, a Roland JC120 or a Lab Series amp, but those usually rivaled tube amps in price and usually were associated with players who tended towards the clean end of the amp spectrum.    The fact that Quilter can do this in a small package that costs less than $300 is a true breakthrough.    Quilter has an entire line-up of amps, most of them more elaborate than the 101.  They just might be worth taking a look at.