One of the age old dilemmas faced by guitarists is: “How do I practice at home and get a sound I’m happy with?” Amplifiers for guitars are as much a part of the sound as the guitar and many professional guitar amps are based on vacuum tube designs, most of which are 40 years old or more. Many modern guitar sounds were originally created by guitarists who played their guitar amplifiers at higher volumes than the amps were designed for and accidentally discovered the distortion the amplifiers produced could be used in musical ways to add expressiveness to the sound, once they learned to control it.
These sounds ranged from the mild singing distortion used by early blues, rockabilly and country guitarists to today’s metal sounds, and everything in-between. Some guitarists “play the amp” as much as the guitar: controlling the sound by changing the way they pluck the strings. The problem is doing that with most guitar amps will produce sounds loud enough to get you evicted from most anywhere that isn’t zoned industrial.
One might ask the question: “Why not just turn down the volume knob?”, as most guitar amps do seem to have a knob for just that purpose. Turn the amp down below a certain volume however, and that useful distortion ceases to exist.
Over the years, there have been a number of devices designed to simulate the sound of a distorting guitar amplifier: distortion boxes, digital amp simulators and devices called “attenuators” that take the output of a raging amplifier and reduce it to more manageable levels. All of them have some audible problems and some of us feel none of these approaches are satisfactory. The trick is to make a little amplifier that sounds like a big one, but at a lower volume. However, little amplifiers, unsurprisingly, tend to sound like little amplifiers at any volume.
Recently, Fender released a little low-wattage (two watts) tube amp with it’s own 4″ speaker that looks sort of like a table radio. At first glance, I thought: “Aw, isn’t it cute?”. I noticed that it had two actual tubes in it, but the price ($199 street) and the look of it made me dismiss it as an expensive toy. That impression was reinforced when I plugged into one at a guitar shop and had to play over some guys playing death-metal. The amp sounded buzzy and thin sounding. I quickly forgot all about it.
A couple months later I was spending some time on a guitar discussion page (The Telesacter Discussion Page) and ran into a thread about this little amp. Some of the participants were claiming that the Greta was a great amp for home use that responded to changes in picking attack in a touch sensitive and expressive fashion.
They also stated the sound could be further improved by replacing the stock Chinese tubes with something better and by plugging the amp into a larger extension speaker. Having plenty of both of these things, I began to get a bit more interested. The amp also had a line out you could use to run the output into another amp and use the Greta like an all tube overdrive distortion unit. When I also discovered I could purchase a Greta on sale for $99, I had to have one.
Taking a look at the back panel reveals the guitar input, an aux in, a Line Out, Extension Speaker jack and the power switch. The aux in is for something like a I-Pod, although I’ve yet to plug anything into it.
When it arrived , I took it out of the box, sat it on a coffee table and plugged a Strat style guitar with single coil pickups into it. It sounded better than I remember it sounding in the store, and by backing off the volume control on the guitar could get a decent clean sound out of it at a level that didn’t disturb my wife, who was hard at work on her computer in the same room. As I already have amplifiers that could easily do this, the real test was turning the amp up to see what it sounded like at higher volumes. At a certain point, it started to get a little buzzy and metallic sounding rather like a Pignose (a small, inexpensive, portable amp popular in the 70’s that produced a slightly nasal sounding distortion) at a similar volume.
Not yet convinced the Greta could be a keeper at this point, I connected it to a Jensen P12R 12″ speaker in a small open backed cab, using the Greta’s extension speaker jack. This improved the tone of the amp considerably. Much, if not most, of the buzzy sound I heard playing the amp by itself is due to the little 4″ speaker inside the cab, which is disconnected whenever you use the extension speaker jack on the amp. This was very encouraging.
The amp is very touch sensitive and responded to picking dynamics with a sprinkling of rich, musical harmonics. I find you do need to back off the volume on the guitar just a hair. Doing this, the transition from clean to fuzz is very gradual, (and thus easily controllable) with all kinds of useful tones available just by changing your picking attack and manipulating the guitar’s volume control knob.
This is what the amp looks like inside with the metal cover removed. The quality of construction seems very good for the price of the amp and the tubes are easily accessed after removing the 14 screws (!) that secure the cover in place.
I replaced the pre-amp tube with a JJ 5751 tube, a lower gain version of a 12AX7, which is the factory tube in this position. For the output tube, I used a Tung Sol 12AT7W. These are both tubes I’ve had good luck with in other amps and my hope is to tame the amp’s tendencies to overload with a hot input signal by using the lower gain 5751 and see if the Tung Sol would work as a power tube. Both of these tubes are currently in production and readily available at reasonable (Around $30 for the pair) prices.
The new tubes made a instantly audible impact on the sound of the amp. I can now run my single coil guitars at full volume on the guitar’s volume pot and the transition to distortion is even less abrupt. Now the amp is seriously fun to play and expressive as all get out. I turn a T-Bone Walker backing track up to a comfortable level on our stereo and play along with it: the amp works perfectly at this level and sounds best when I set the amp volume so I have wide array of tones I can produce by altering picking attack and the guitar’s volume pot.
I got out a couple of pedals, not being any sort of “purist”. An overdrive pedal or two and a little delay and reverb worked great and I found I could use the overdrive as an EQ as well as a way to add some distortion at extremely low levels, and both overdrives integrated quite well with the amp’s basic personality.
I briefly tried the Greta as a preamp, using the “line out” into the 5E3 and the initial results are encouraging. The output of the amp when used in this fashion seems to be a little less bright than when it’s powering a speaker, and I imagine that we’re only hearing the pre-amp section, but I’m not sure of this. I didn’t spend much time here and with all the knobs to twiddle there is room for a LOT of experimentation. I’ll let you know after I’ve had more time with the amp.
I’ll see how it works with other speakers, guitars, tubes and pedals, and report any new developments.
When I asked my wife if I can just leave it on the end table or at least tuck it under the table to hide it a little, she replied: “No, it’s cute, leave it out.”. That’s not going to happen too many times with most amps which generally look like electronics lab equipment. Fender must have done some serious market research here.