The Tone Zone
Facts, Opinions, and Mythconceptions
“I can tell you every little piece of gear I’ve ever used, and you’re still not going to sound like me. You have to reach inside yourself.”
— Carlos Santana, Guitar Player, June ’05
“The weird thing about tone is that everything tends to revolve around knowing how to play your instrument. Good tone is that simple.”
— Pete Anderson, Guitar Player, July ’98
Here, leading amplifier experts have an opportunity to sound off about maintaining perspective when it comes to tone. Contributors include Hartley Peavey; Bruce Zinky, Zinky Electronics, formerly of Fender; Groove Tubes founder and author of The Tube Amp Book Aspen Pittman; legendary amp designer Alexander Dumble; Ritchie Fliegler, formerly of Marshall, a former Senior Vice President of Fender, and author of The Complete Guide to Guitar and Amp Maintenance and Amps! The Other Half of Rock ‘n’ Roll; Andy Marshall of THD Electronics; Paul Rivera of Rivera Amplifiers, formerly of Fender; tube amp tech and designer Blackie Pagano; John Sprung of Parts Is Parts; Mark Baier, Victoria Amplifiers; Steve Carr, Carr Amplifiers; writer/musician/radio host Andy Ellis; and studio engineer Alan Douglas. Italicized comments are those of the author.
Ears and Interactions
What are some of the most common misconceptions about tone?
Hartley Peavey: We want to believe that somewhere there’s an old hermit on a mountain top who winds pickups and soaks them overnight in swamp water to give them some soul. That’s all bull.
And Leo Fender himself would have been more surprised than anyone to see how many myths and misconceptions now surround his early products.
Hartley Peavey: That’s right. He was such a practical man. That’s where all his success came from. All he wanted to do was to sell reliable equipment to the working man at a fair price, which is what I wanted to do 40 years ago when I started out.
For most of us, one powerful motivation is getting the tone we hear on a particular record.
Bruce Zinky: I came to realize that the recording process had a lot to do with the sounds we came to know and love, which also explained, “Why doesn’t my guitar and amp sound like the record?” We weren’t hearing just the player, guitar, and amp. There were microphones, EQs, etc., doing a number on the sound. The first thing I discovered [when designing the Fender Tone-Master] was that if you wanted an amp to sound like the record, you couldn’t copy the schematic of the amp used on the record! That can never work, as there’s just too much in between the speaker and your ear that is having its way with the sound.
What are some of the most common misconceptions about amplifiers in general?
Aspen Pittman: This drives me crazy — people who focus on just one thing, like the only reason Fender amps sound good is the Orange Drop capacitors. Orange Drop caps! Gotta have ‘em! That’s ridiculous. It was the capacitors, plus the really nice Mullard 12AX7s in the front end, plus the 6L6s, plus the transformer, plus the phase inverter, plus the rectifier, plus the cab, plus the way Leo Fender put it all together — plus plus plus! Orange Drops are pretty crappy caps, they have slow transient characteristics, and they probably slowed down the top end, but you can’t just pull out one piece of the puzzle and say, this is the whole picture right here. Those caps do not explain the difference between a very nice vintage Fender and an average amp. If you pull the caps out of a ’58 Bassman and stick them in your amp, you are not going to get a ’58 Bassman. They’re not the Holy Grail. There is no Holy Grail.
Alexander Dumble: One item that does seem to trick players a bit concerns impedance matching between the amplifier and speaker loads. A second item seems to center around the “voodoo” aspects of different tubes and cables. A third item: Relying on pedal effects to arrive at a great tone is a defeating pursuit in itself. Most pedal effects filter out the more ephemeral entities that are contained in the sound of a guitar string, especially the subtle, instantaneous peak components. Keeping the sound of the string within the note is paramount. Good guitar playing is conceptual and is in the touch.
Ritchie Fliegler: Speaking of cables, something to think about – you can spend hundreds of dollars on low-capacitance cables now, and indeed they work: The lower the capacitance of the cable, the more high frequencies will come through, especially if the guitar’s volume control is backed off at all. However, just remember that whether you’re talking about Fender or Marshall or Mesa/Boogie or whoever, the guys who designed these guitars and these amps did not use these expensive low-capacitance cables. So your basic 20-foot Pro Co cable with your Les Paul or your Strat through your Fender or your Marshall — that’s the sound the designers wanted you to hear. That doesn’t mean if you prefer the sound of the expensive cables you’re wrong. Not at all. We all have our preferences. But it’s worth remembering what the designers were using when they put it all together and said, “This is the sound we want.”
Bruce Zinky: For me, the amplifier must accurately replicate what the guitar sounds like acoustically, no amp at all. Sure, you can add distortion, or tons of bass or make the high end brighter, but it starts with an acoustic guitar sound — well, the sound of the electric guitar before the amp. If the guitar doesn’t sound good without an amp, it will never sound right with one.
Andy Marshall: A lot of these things that supposedly contribute to the sound of this or that amp are overrated, but sometimes manufacturers have to deal with public opinion. Before we introduced THD’s interpretation of the 4×10 Bassman, which was the first “reissue” style of any amp by any company, we did a ton of research. Those old Fenders all used solid pine cabinets. We looked at solid pine, mahogany, and various plywoods — birch ply, apple ply, all kinds of stuff. Some of the pine ones sounded quite good; some didn’t. They were inconsistent. We would take a chassis from one amp and put it in another cab made out of a different wood and do listening tests. We recorded all of these things, trying all the different cabs and woods. We took a scientific approach and concluded that it was very difficult to generalize. Some of the pine cabs sounded better than other pine cabs. Or this plywood one sounded better than that solid one, but this solid one sounded better than some other plywood cab. Even the grain in the wood can affect it terribly.
So we ended up going with plywood because it was more consistent. We used finger joints — frankly for marketing reasons. The fact is, there are stronger joints, but people seem to think that finger joints were the best way to go because that’s what was used on old Fenders. There are other kinds of joints that are less expensive and hold up better, but we were trying to do exactly what Fender had done, wherever reasonable.
Paul Rivera: One thing that worries me is that there’s a whole generation who did not grow up with a Fender amp, or with a great Magnatone, didn’t really know what a Vox AC30 sounds like. Their reference standards are lesser amps, cheaper solid state things, whatever. I think there’s an analogy in popular music. We are accepting audio standards that are absolutely declining. People listen to compressed MP3 files or streaming audio off the web through these dinky little speakers on the side of their computer, and they think it sounds okay. People go into this warehouse-like store and buy a box with a 1,000 watt system in it and they think that’s hi-fi. I remember going to the audio salon, where they’d have a listening room and a couple dozen speaker systems you could A/B. Does anybody audition speakers anymore, other than audiophiles who spend a fortune? I worry about people becoming less discriminating, eating so many McDonald’s hamburgers that they don’t know anymore what a good meal is supposed to taste like. I mean, if you listen to a stereo hi-fi with an all-tube McIntosh amplifier, you’re in heaven. My own generation was fortunate to be raised with some really righteous equipment.
Measurements That Matter
Albert Einstein once said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Aspen Pittman offers an update.
Aspen Pittman: Measurements and specs are important, but some people make a big deal about measurements that are inaudible. So which measurements are worth paying attention to? The ones you can hear. Dick Rosmini was a virtuoso guitarist and also very technical, part of the team that developed the Portastudio [in 1979]. He wrote audio manuals and taught musicians how to become engineers and was one of the guys who got me into this business. I think Leo Fender would have liked what he had to say about all this, because Leo was not formally educated. He was an intuitive, self-taught man. He had great respect for people who had experience, whether they had degrees or not. Dick Rosmini told me one time, “Many things that matter can’t be measured, and many things that can be measured don’t matter.” When it comes to audio, that’s one of the truest statements I’ve ever heard. That’s why it’s so important not to let anyone else tell you what sounds good to you. Just plug in, trust your ears, and listen.
The Hand of the Artist
Much of the guitar business is built on an assumption as common among players as beginners’ calluses: If I had the same gear as Stevie Ray (Eric, Kurt, Jimi), then I would have the same sound. Well, the same gear is a start. A Tele can put you on the road to Gattonburg, a Strat to Claptonville, but the journey from there is a long one. (If you agree with Carlos Santana — you’re not supposed to sound like anyone else — then the gotta-play-my-hero’s-gear mentality is a road to nowhere anyway.)
Whatever your goals, picking the right amp is essential, and examining every component from caps to cabs can be useful, but it’s a mistake to think the sound of our favorite player can be reduced to specs and schematics. Some of the very people who make their living building the most expensive amps for the most discriminating players caution against overvaluing gear at the expense of appreciating an artist’s influence over his or her own sound. They are the first to say, don’t let anyone, including us, tell you what sounds good to you.
Many of us get deep into the details of our gear, and yet some of the greatest artists seem to do just fine without classic vintage guitars and amps and without extensive knowledge of tubes, pickups, and so on.
Ritchie Fliegler: One day Mick Ronson and I were planning a guitar that was a replacement for his Telecaster. To me, Mick personified the almost clichéd simple, soft-spoken “bloke” who turned into a Leviathan when he strapped on his guitar. We were talking about the pickups for his new guitar, and he didn’t know the term “coil.” He called them “rounds.” He said, “You know how on a Gibson the pickups have the two rounds? And on a Fender there is only one? Well, since this guitar is to replace a Tele, I would like the kind with only one.”
A few years later, and only weeks before he passed away, I was working at Marshall, and Mick and I and our wives were enjoying a barbecue in my back yard. We got onto the subject of his Marshall Major. This amp was one of the first ones with the active tone controls and the different knob setup. I had seen it a number of times at both his house and at the home studio of Ian Hunter. This amp was a true rock relic. It had stickers and stencils identifying it as gear for MOTT, Hunter-Ronson, and SPIDERS! I plugged into it once for a second and true to the common wisdom, I thought it sounded like crap! Remember, this is not the Ritchie Blackmore amp, but a different, earlier design. I commented on what a piece of crap it was and how much better things were today. I didn’t let up. This thing was junk — so say I! Mick leaned over right in my face and in the most fabulous, Yorkshire accented sotto voce said, “Well, I played that amp on all of the Bowie records and concerts with the Spiders, ‘Panic in Detroit,’ ya know. It’s the main amp on the Hunter-Ronson record. Used it with Dylan and a few other reasonably successful endeavors. You may be right, but I guess it was good enough, eh?” May he rest in peace. His album title, Play Don’t Worry, are words to live by. He was the best.
Blackie Pagano: I used to mix concerts for musicians straight out of the bayou, from around New Orleans. They would come up here to New York and do these singles dances at the Louisiana Community Bar & Grill on Broadway. These guys would come up with a U-Haul and their beat-up ’80s Buick, and they’d all pile out of there, and what would come out of the trailer? Pawnshop stuff. A Cort guitar. Univox. Stuff that was rescued from the Dumpster. The lowest quality, least expensive gear in the world. And they would sit down and set this stuff up, and they rocked harder than anybody. How did they sound? Amazing. It didn’t matter what they had in their hands. They could make music with anything.
So it’s important to keep it in perspective. The most common misconception about tone is that its primary source is hardware. Tone comes from the heart of the musician. These tools exist to communicate the emotion of the musician, so what counts is what is in his heart, his intent, and his artistic perspective. As a musician, you have to have something to say.
John Sprung: As far as I’m concerned, any amp sounds as good as the person playing through it. I have heard some really crappy players using a 5F6-A tweed Bassman. They still sounded crappy.
Mark Baier: I feel sorry for guys who obsess about components. “Do I go with the Mullard GZ34? My buddy’s got an Amperex! Maybe I should get one, too!” People sweat this stuff too much. I want to shake these guys and say, why worry about a $150 rectifier or a $250 transformer? You want to sound better? Listen to the proper records. And practice your guitar!
Blackie Pagano: That’s right. As designers and builders, we are practicing our art, too. So of course we’re going to build the best thing we possibly can. We’re going to build you something that’s going to knock your socks off, but it’s so important to keep it in perspective. The most important thing is that you sit on the edge of your bed every day with your guitar.
Steve Carr: I had the good fortune to hang out with Eric Johnson and to talk to him about sound. He likes his amp to sound a certain way. On the clean side, he likes it extremely bright — make-your-teeth-fall-out bright. If you took an amp like that and put it in a store, no one would buy it. People would think it was broken. But when he plays it, he can control it. His hands can make it sound dark if he wants it to, but all that top end is there for him to work with. We all have to remember that guys like that are phenomenal; they get the sound they want with their hands. That amp is not necessarily going to work that way for the rest of us mortals.
Andy Ellis: I once had the pleasure of taking a guitar lesson with Eric Johnson. In addition to laying the groundwork for a Guitar Player master class (May ’96), this encounter proved the truth in the old saying, “Your tone is in your hands.” Eric was camped out at an extended-stay hotel in Burbank, and throughout our session he played his faithful ’54 Stratocaster through an old blackface Fender Champ at bedroom volume. No stompbox, just straight into the input jack via a red, slightly kinky Bill Lawrence guitar cable tipped with solderless plugs. Eric’s single-note leads sounded warm and buttery — like a Gypsy violinist — while his chords rang with the clarity of silver bells. Hearing him so casually produce his million-dollar tone, I realized how all that shimmering detail and sweet sustain came from his touch and attack rather than an elaborate, multi-amp rig.
Ritchie Fliegler: My EICO integrated amp uses 6BQ5s in a classic push/pull, cathode bias configuration — just like a Vox AC30. Try as I might, there is no Brian May or “Paperback Writer” in there to be found. Could it be something else? Indeed, this is the art form, and it has little to do with the bits and everything to do with the designer’s vision and abilities. To place so much emphasis on the hardware is a disservice to the artist. I don’t believe anyone cares what brand of paint or the actual pigments da Vinci used to create the Mona Lisa. We should do the same when we’re blowing our brains out with a cranked Vibroverb — focus on the art and wonder what was the muse.
Alan Douglas, studio engineer, in Guitar Player, June 2001: Almost 99.9% of Eric Clapton’s sound is in his fingers … The first time I worked with Eric, he was demoing some tunes for a film, and there was no amp at the session. I was a huge fan of Eric’s from his Cream days, and I remember thinking, “You’ve got to get an amp — this will never work.” But I plugged him into a tube preamp, dialed up some reverb and delay, and it sounded exactly like Eric Clapton.
Are Old Tubes Better?
Many vintage amp buffs have long believed that whether we’re talking about preamp tubes, power tubes, or rectifiers, old tubes are superior to new ones. For years, virtually all experts agreed. Quality control was the reason. Many imported tubes from the ’80s and ’90s were far less consistent and thus less reliable than their American made predecessors from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Still, at least some new tubes sounded fine. In 2001, Mike Kropotkin wrote in ToneQuest Report: “In general, the production quality of NOS [New Old Stock] tubes is far superior to that of tubes produced today in countries like China, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia. The metallurgy, production techniques, and quality control were vastly superior.” But he added, “This is not to say that all current production tubes are bad. Many have decent to excellent tone.”
We should be clear on what we mean by old. A Soviet tube manufactured in, say, the mid 1980s is more than two decades old, yet it dates to a time well past the tube’s commercial heyday and is hardly old for purposes of this discussion, in the way that, say, RCA black plates from the ’60s are old. At some factories, for some tubes, quality has markedly improved in recent years even though the romance of old tubes still glows.
Aspen Pittman: It’s a general conception that old tubes are better. I’m not sure it’s true at all in certain cases. Are the reissue Strats today as good as the originals? In many ways they’re better. Are they as old? No [laughs]. At Groove Tubes we were able to reproduce the GE 6L6 because we bought many of the machines they made the parts on and enlisted some of the original vendors and bought original plate materials. We make them now on a limited basis in San Fernando, California. We’ve altered the process since we started, and we now outsource some of the processing to keep the price within reach of our customers, but these components are still about 70 percent U.S. made. I think these tubes we’ve “reissued” are every bit as good as the originals. We’ve proved it in side by side tests, and customer demand confirms it. For ninety-nine guys out of a hundred — even guys with “dog ears” — you plug in my GE 6L6 and the original, and they can’t tell the difference. I mean, I can’t tell the difference, and I’ve got dog ears, too.
Mark Baier: I think there’s way too much rhetoric going around about one tube being “better” than another. They’re different, to be sure. I think you have to have fairly discerning ears to hear the difference between a General Electric and an RCA tube. It’s not something that’s immediately apparent. You’ve really got to be into it, and want to hear the difference. There’s too much emphasis on having to have new old stock RCA black plates, or having to have that Mullard 12AX7.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that new tubes aren’t any good. The tubes coming out of China and Eastern Europe now are better than they’ve ever been. The Chinese in particular have been very accommodating to the market, and they’ve made a lot of strides to improve their products. They’ve improved tooling because people like Aspen Pittman and Tom McNeil at Magic Parts and Ruby Tubes have really gotten involved with those factories and made them realize that they could do a better job, and the factories went ahead and did it. Like Groove Tubes’ 12AX7C, which I use, is a Chinese-made tube, and it’s awesome, really reliable, balanced, and quiet. It behaves exactly like a 12AX7 ought to.
You think about what goes into making a 12AX7, all those tiny parts, tight tolerances, the windings — man, I’m happy to pay eight bucks for all that technology. With a couple of exceptions, the tubes coming out of Eastern Europe and China could be as good, or approaching as good, as the tubes from back in the day. It’s heretical to say that. I know people are going to leap all over me, and certainly I would love to be putting vintage 1967 RCA 7025 tubes in all my own amplifiers. That was a great 12AX7. They’re not being made anymore, but many available tubes are excellent. People should not sweat the tube thing quite so much.
Blackie Pagano: What’s odd about musicians is that they’re half creative and half ridiculously traditional. Ironically enough, they’re actually resistant to new ideas. It’s the rare individual who looks at a design that’s really fresh and may have significant design advances over what they’ve seen time and time again, and who will see the value in it right away. It’s just human nature to react with skepticism to something new. The vintage fetishism and all the insane values of these products has also made people resistant to new stuff and encouraged this idea that only the old stuff is good, which is bullshit. It’s affected musicians’ open-mindedness, which is sad. New possibilities come up every single day.
So it’s important to look at a tube, or any component, in the larger context of the amp’s design.
Ritchie Fliegler: Right. A lot has happened since I wrote [in Complete Guide, 1994] that new tubes just don’t sound as good as old ones. There are many differences between new tubes and older NOS stuff. No value judgments here. They are simply different. The old amps sound better to my ears with the tubes they were designed to use: old ones. But over the last ten years or so, the creators of many new amps have assumed the new tubes, and thus those amps sound better with new tubes – surprise. At the least, with new tubes they sound like their designers want them to sound. I find that NOS stuff (very broad brush here) in a new amp sounds harsh and sterile, because most new tubes are “softer” and more “gainy” than the original designs. Remember, NOS tubes were designed for radios and TVs, not for screaming solos, so they are very likely to be microphonic when used in modern amps with even a bit of gain.
Aspen Pittman: NOS preamp tubes can be just fine in a vintage or vintage reissue type amp, but they tend not to work as well in high gain circuits like we see in most amps made today. It’s a mechanical issue. Old tubes usually had heavier or larger plates, and that heavier structure just seems to “ring” more.
And it works both ways, right? Unsatisfactory tone can sometimes result not only from putting old tubes in new amps but also putting new tubes in old ones.
Hartley Peavey: In the old days when tubes were made in the United States, they were very conservatively rated, and you could get by with putting in more voltage than the ratings called for. But you have to be very careful with doing things like putting a lot of newer, imported tubes into old Deluxe amplifiers. They’ll blow up, in a heartbeat.
Rating Transformers, “Logo Inductance”
Is the tonal significance of the output transformer underrated?
Mark Baier: Maybe it’s overrated [laughs]. When I started Victoria Amps, I had to have output transformers and power transformers made for me. I couldn’t get them from a catalog or supply house, but nowadays I can think of a dozen places. Everybody’s making these things.
The transformer is important, and you’ll hear a difference between a good one and a not so good one. The sound may not be better or worse, just different. But you see these bulletin boards on the web where people say if you don’t have this or that transformer you’re not getting the best sound. I guess you can discern a difference, but how can you make any kind of qualitative statement between one transformer and another one that costs five times as much? What are you going to do? Hit a big E chord and then hurry up and unsolder one and solder the other one in and play another E chord? A lot of this expensive transformer mentality is smoke and mirrors, and some of these sellers are just performing a “cashectomy” on guitar players once in a while. Sure, a transformer is important, but it’s just one of many elements.
Ritchie Fliegler: Just as studies have shown that smell is the most evocative of the senses, sound is the most fleeting. You can’t remember the subtleties of what an amp sounded like yesterday, so it’s hard to compare it to the one you’re playing today unless you’re talking about blatant differences. That’s just the way the brain works. To compare two transformers, they would really have to be side by side, and Mark’s right, of course. The player can’t unsolder one and hook up another one instantaneously.
But we can do that in the lab, by constructing a switcher to instantly flip back and forth between transformers. We did it at Marshall, and we’ve done it at Fender, too. When we were re-doing the plexi amp when I was at Marshall, we took an authentic, very expensive transformer over to England and used this switcher to make instantaneous comparisons. We went back and forth and said, “Um, is the switch working? It is? Are you sure? [Laughs.] I can hardly tell the difference!” It turned out the filter caps in the power supply made a huge difference, but the difference between transformers was nowhere near what we expected, actually quite subtle.
That experience begat a term we used in-house at Marshall and we use it here at Fender, too: “logo inductance.” When you put the logo on it, then it sounds right [laughs]. If you doubt that, go to a fine Japanese restaurant and order some raw fish, and see how beautifully it’s prepared. With food, we taste with our eyes as well as our taste buds. With amps, we hear not only with our ears but also with our eyes — and our preconceptions.
Reprinted with exclusive permission from The Soul of Tone: Celebrating 60 Years of Fender Amps, copyright 2007 Tom Wheeler/Hal Leonard Publishing.