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Buying Great Sounding Guitar Gear, CHEAP!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Buying Great Sounding Guitar Gear, CHEAP!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

The Cheapest Good Guitar or Bass is the One You Already Have


What do I mean by that?  I’ll tell you.  Although the wood and construction of a guitar or bass do play a part in the overall tone equation, a HUGE percentage of what an instrument sounds like is determined by the electronics.  Simple things like upgrading the pickups, pots and other electrical components can make an incredible difference in your guitar’s tone.  Luckily, this is also relatively inexpensive, at least when compared to buying a new guitar! 

The initial quality of entry-level guitars and basses has never been higher.  25 years ago, a $200 instrument was pretty much unplayable. These days, with advances in CNC technology and the proliferation of automated instrument factories overseas, you can get a pretty decent instrument for not a lot of cash, and for a small additional investment in parts and labor, your budget guitar can play as well as an instrument that costs 5 times as much!  The areas that usually can stand to be improved on are tone, tuning stability, and playability.
Making sure that your instrument reliably stays in tune is dependent on two things: quality tuning keys and a perfectly cut and installed nut.  99% of all tuning problems originate at these two often-overlooked locations (and of the two, 90% of tuning problems happen at the nut).  Again, these are relatively inexpensive upgrades that will make your instrument infinitely better.
Once you have purchased your upgraded pickups and electronics, quality tuners, and a properly sized nut blank, remember these words: 
TAKE YOUR INSTRUMENT TO A REPUTABLE REPAIR TECH, AND HAVE THEM DO ALL THE INSTALLATION WORK, INCLUDING A FULL SET-UP AND FRET-DRESS.  DO NOT SKIP THIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

 

Leave this to the pros, or put in the time and effort to become a pro yourself.  This part, unfortunately, isn’t so cheap.  However, when you play your perfectly set-up guitar for the first time, you’ll know it was money well spent.
A set-up includes setting the intonation (adjusting the bridge saddles so each string plays in tune up and down the fretboard), adjusting the truss rod (the metal rod inside the guitar neck that counteracts the tension from the strings and keeps your neck from warping), setting the guitar’s action (the height of each string from the fretboard), and a general check up of the electronics.  This should be done every few months on guitars that get played often.
A fret-dress (also known as crowning or leveling) isn’t necessary every time you get a set-up, but should be done at least once a year on guitars that see a lot of action.  As you press the strings on the fretboard (hundreds of thousands of times throughout the course of a year), the strings start to make small impressions in the frets.  We all have our favorite chords and keys, and you’ll notice that certain areas become more worn than others (if you have never had a fret-dress on your guitar, take a minute now to really look at your frets and be horrified).  When this fretwear goes unchecked long enough, it will be very difficult to get your guitar to intonate properly and play in tune in certain spots.  A fret-dress shaves a microscopic amount of metal from each fret and reshapes it so every fret is perfectly level with the rest.  There are only so many times frets can be leveled and crowned before they are just worn out, in which case you’ll need a re-fret.


Resources: Parts


www.guitarfetish.com:  a full line of quality replacement parts of all kinds for guitars and basses.  GFS pickups are an excellent value.
www.callahamguitars.com:  Super high end stuff.  This is the place for upgrade CTS pots, switchcraft jacks and switches, high quality capacitors and vintage style cloth covered wire.
www.seymourduncan.com:  The gold standard in replacement pickups.
www.rsguitarworks.net:  Pre-wired electronics upgrade kits for most guitars, as well as individual parts
www.tonepros.com:  The best in replacement parts for Gibson-style guitars

Buying Used:  The ONLY way to go!!!


In all honesty, you’re going to need to sink some money into any used OR new piece of gear that you buy in order to make it play and sound its best.  Just remember to factor that into your decision making.  It’s better to pay for better quality used gear that has depreciated a little than to buy less expensive stuff new.  Musical instruments are relatively simple things, and with proper care and maintenance they will be useful for a long, long time.  While there is definitely good, inexpensive gear that can be purchased new, remember the most sought after gear is VINTAGE gear, because it has stood the test of time. 
There are lots of places around Vancouver and Portland that specialize in quality used gear at fair prices.  Here are a few…
Briz Loan and Guitar: 506 Washington St., Downtown Vancouver.  AWESOME shop.  I always find the weirdest, coolest stuff here.  The guys that work there are always listening to Sleep or Neurosis, and they have cute shop dogs.  
Trade-Up Music: 47th and Division and 19th and Alberta in Portland.  Cool people, tons of cool gear.
Centaur Guitar: 28th and Sandy in Portland. Lots of great used stuff, and the best selection of boutique pedals in town.  Kelly and Jason are awesome dudes.
Old Town Guitars: 55 SE 11th Ave. in Portland, around the corner from the Doug Fir.  Specializing in vintage guitars, pedals and amps.  Hank is the man.

Buying Used: Craigslist and Ebay, and Reverb


Vancouver and Portland have thriving music scenes, and our local Craigslist is TEEMING with great deals.  I’ll admit it, I’m a Craigslist junkie.  I check it 20 times a day at least, whether I need gear or not.  I always find killer deals, and I’ve bought and sold thousands of dollars worth of gear over the years.

Some guidelines…

 

  • If you are underage, ALWAYS have your parents make the deal.  There are creeps out there!
  • Know what you’re looking at, and test it thoroughly before you buy it.  Once the cash changes hands, it’s YOURS.
  • HAGGLE.  ALWAYS.  You might not get the person to come down in price, but it never hurts to ask!

Ebay is a different story.  There are auctions and Buy it Now listings, and it takes a little while to get the hang of it.  I suggest just lurking on there for a while until you kind of get the lay of the land.  I do tons of research on Ebay to know what the going price of used gear is looking like at any given time.  You can literally find almost anything on Ebay.  It’s much more involved once you actually want to buy something, however.  You need a PayPal account, and there is shipping involved, plus you never actually get to check out the gear before you buy it.  It has its risks, but overall it usually works out great.
Reverb.com is the newest entry into the online used gear market, and it’s pretty awesome.  It’s kind of like Ebay, but strictly for musical instruments.  Both private sellers and music stores around the country sell on Reverb, and you can find a LOT of cool stuff.  The site also features great articles on gear and interviews with all kinds of musicians.  Highly recommended!

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Tube Amp Basics

Tube Amp Basics

Preamp…

The preamp is the “front end” of the signal path in your amp.  It determines most of the tone characteristics of your sound.  This is the section of the amp that the EQ knobs control.  It is also the part that determines the amount of distortion in your tone, usually controlled by the “Gain” knob.  Preamp distortion is characterized by words like “grind”, “crunch”, etc.  The tubes that are generally used in the preamp are 12AX7s, which are the little tubes in your amp.

 

EQ Section…

EQ stands for “Equalization”.   These are the knobs on the amp that let you shape your sound, and the “center” of your signal path.  Some small amps only have a Tone knob, which simply rolls off high end as you turn it down.  Other amps have what is known as a Baxandall Tone Stack, which consists of separate bass and treble knobs (turning the knobs past halfway scoops mid frequencies, while turning the knobs less than halfway accentuates the mids).  The most common EQ is the traditional TMB (Treble/Middle/Bass) Tone Stack, which is sometimes also paired with a Presence knob, and less frequently, a Resonance knob.  Treble controls high frequencies, Middle contols midrange frequencies, and bass controls the low frequencies.  Presence accentuates high-mids, while Resonance accentuates low-mids.

 

Power Section…

The power section is the “back end” of your signal path.  This is the part that actually AMPLIFIES the signal sent to it from the preamp, then sends it to the speakers.  The “Master” knob controls the power sent to the power tubes, which are the larger tubes in your amp, thereby determining the overall volume.  The EQ knobs do not affect this section, but the “presence” knob determines the midrange voicing of the power section. 

As the volume increases, the power tubes will begin to distort.  THIS is the magic of tube amps.  Power tube distortion is rich in complex, musical harmonics.  It’s not crunchy, but sweet.  It gives an amp “guts” and “oomph”.  You HEAR preamp distortion, you FEEL power amp distortion. 

 

 

Power Tubes…

Different amps use different kinds of power tubes, and they all have a different musical character.  Play them all to determine what suits your musical style best.  Certain tubes are associated with certain amps, so find out what your favorite bands play.  Almost everything is some variation of a Fender, Vox, or Marshall.  Here is a short list of power tubes…

6V6: Low power Fenders, such as Champs and Princetons, up to the medium powered Deluxe.  6V6s distort quickly, and have a growly midrange.

6L6/5881: Mid and high powered fenders, such as the Bassman, Super, and Twin.  Mesa Boogies also use these for high gain.  6L6s have a glassy clean sound with a scooped midrange.  When they are overdriven, they have a very aggressive, tight character.  This is the classic “American” power tube.

EL84:  These are closely associated with the British VOX sound of the AC30.  For cleans, think of the chiming sound of the Beatles.  Distorted, think of the warm, boxy midrange of Brian May’s rhythm guitars in Queen.

EL34/KT77:  British muscle, the sound of a wide open Marshall.  EL34s are warm in the midrange, and loosey-goosey and forgiving in the bottom end.  The sound of ROCK.  Even the clean sound has a little hair on its chest.

6550/KT88:  The most powerful power tube.  Very even harmonic response, with the tightest low end of any power tube.  When overdriven they have a beautiful, woody character, but they are DEAFENINGLY loud.  These can be used in some Marshalls, but they are most associated with the Ampeg SVT, the mother of all bass amps.

 

Master Volume…

The Master Volume control is incredibly useful.  It has two parts; the “gain” knob, and the “master” knob.  Think of the “gain” knob as the distortion control for the preamp.  When it is low, the sound will be clean.  As you turn up the gain, the sound becomes increasingly distorted.  The “master” knob controls the output volume of the power section.   By using these controls together, you can achieve distorted sounds with lowered volume, or very loud clean sounds.

 

Transformers…

The transformers are the imposing metal cubes next to the tubes on the amp chassis.  Most tube amps contain an output transformer (the big one), a power transformer (the smaller one), and sometimes a choke (the tiny one).  The weight and size of the transformers can be a visual cue to the build quality and ruggedness of an amp.  Old Hiwatts, Oranges, and Ampegs have MASSIVELY oversized transformers that weigh a ton, and you could drop those amps off a building with no harm done.  Anyway, without going into a dissertation on electrical engineering, here are the basic functions of each transformer…

OUTPUT:  The output transformer is very important, because its build quality and how well it is matched to the circuit affects tone substantially.  Companies like Heyboer and Mercury Magnetics make upgrade transformers for many common tube amps that will make almost any modern amp sound better.

POWER:  The power transformer doesn’t affect tone, but it is responsible regulating the power to your amp.  It is always good to have an overbuilt power transformer to make sure the guts of your amp are getting solid, consistent power.

CHOKE:  Honestly, I have no idea what the choke does.  Some amps have them, some amps don’t.  There are some amps that people modify to have chokes.  Whatever.  If you find out what they do, holla at me.

 

 

Rectifiers…

The rectifier is the part of the amp that transforms the AC power from the wall into the DC power used inside the amp.  Tube amps can use either a solid-state rectifier, a tube rectifier, or both.  The type of rectifier in the amp has a lot to do with the “feel” of the amp.

 Tube rectifiers have a delayed note response, known as “sag”.  When you hit a note on the guitar forcefully, the rectifier tube is temporarily overloaded, which reduces the volume of the attack slightly.  As the tube recovers from the overload, the note will get louder.  This phenomenon is known as “bloom”.   Amps with tube rectifiers are described as “smooth”, “spongy”, and “forgiving”.

Most amps since the mid-sixties have solid-state rectifiers.  They have a more direct, immediate response than their tube counterparts.  They are more articulate, and more aggressive sounding.   They tighten up the low-end response considerably.

Some amps have both features, such as the Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier.  It lets you assign either a tube or solid state rectifier to either channel, which offers a lot of flexibility.

One is not better than the other.  They are just different.  Play a bunch of amps to see what you prefer.

 

 

Effects Loops…

As a rule, all time-based effects (reverb, delay, chorus, flange) should come AFTER your source for distortion.  On a pedalboard, this is pretty easy.  You just put your time-based pedals after your dirt pedals in the signal chain, and all is well.  But what if you are actually using the overdriven preamp section of your amp as your distortion source?  The answer is simple; use and effects loop.

The effects loop consists of two jacks on the back of your amp.  The “send” jack, which takes signal from the preamp and delivers it to the effects, and the “return” jack which delivers the signal from the effects back to the power amp.  A passive effects loop is simply that, two jacks that let you patch stuff between the preamp and power amp.  An active (or “buffered”) effects loop is powered by the amp, and lets you raise or lower the input or output of the loop to compensate for varying volumes on certain effects devices.  Again, one isn’t better than the other, they’re just different.  See what works best for you.

 

Speaker Outputs…

On the back of the amp, there will be either a series of jacks with different impedance markings (4 Ohm, usually two 8 Ohm, and a 16 Ohm), or one or two general speaker output jacks and an impedance selector knob or switch.  Burn the following sentences into your brain:

ALWAYS USE A CLEARLY MARKED SPEAKER CABLE TO CONNECT AN AMP TO THE SPEAKERS.  NEVER, EVER USE AN INSTRUMENT CABLE.  IF YOU AREN’T ABSOLUTELY POSITIVE ABOUT YOUR CABLE, DO NOT USE IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

This is incredibly important.  You can do some serious damage if you mess this up.  Also, don’t ever use a speaker cable for an instrument cable.  BAD BAD BAD BAD BAD BAD BAD BAD.

Impedance (Ohm’s law) is really difficult to keep straight.  An impedance mismatch between your amp and speakers can seriously damage your tubes, transformers, and the voice coils in your speakers.  Most cabinets will either have their impedance clearly marked, or they are switchable to different impedance settings.  Just make sure that your head and cab are running at the same impedance, and you’ll be fine.  If you are not sure about the cabinet or the amp, have someone with some electronics know-how check them with a multi-meter.  If you’re not absolutely sure, don’t plug in!!!

 

Speakers…

Speakers deserve a workshop of their own, but we’ll do a short overview here.  Speakers come in infinite variations, and your speaker choice can shape your tone immensely.  Guitar amps commonly use 8”, 10”, 12”, and sometimes 15” speakers, and each size has different sonic characteristics.  The magnets are either Alnico (warm, chiming, expensive), ceramic (bright, cutting, more affordable), and neodymium (neutral sounding, extremely light weight, expensive).  The cone material and construction also affects a speaker’s sound.  Speakers each have an impedance rating, and depending how they are wired together, that rating changes when you use more than one speaker.  Always defer to a qualified amp tech when you are unsure, unless you are willing to arm yourself with the necessary knowledge to understand all this stuff.  Again, different speakers work in different applications, so check out as many as possible.