In my last article “THE ELECTRIC GUITAR LEGACY, Part 1” I discussed the endless possibilities of the electric guitar as a musical instrument that can showcase each individual artist’s unique playing style, and how the simplicity of its design has not changed much since its conception in the 1950s. I have now realized that I cannot discuss the electric guitar’s sonic legacy without exposing the utmost importance of its counterpart…the electric guitar AMPLIFIER! It is the amplifier that magnifies the sound and tones produced by the electric guitar’s player. Without its amplifier, the electric guitar would be far less useful and audible than an ordinary acoustic guitar.
Also in the last article, I exlained that the hum-bucker pickup and Tune-O-Matic bridge designs on the Gibson Les Paul model guitars invented way back in 1957 have remained the same unsurpassed inventions that are the industry standard recorded in today’s popular music.
In the same way, the use of a good old fashioned tube designed amplifier also remains the standard practice for recording electric guitars in modern popular music. Over the years, there have been many variations of the electric guitar amplifier, but the basic design invented back in the 1950s era has not been surpassed or improved. This invention came to be known as the “tube” amplifier circuit. Many manufacturers are now trying to digitally model the sounds generated by this old technology, but nothing can truly produce the feeling and expression of a “real” tube amplifier for guitar.
So what is it about the good old 1950s era “tube” amp design that makes it remain the essential counterpart to the electric guitar?
I believe that it is the sound of the harmonic distortion that comes from the overloading of the tube amp circuits, and the flexibility to control this distortion sound with the knobs on the amplifier’s face. Back in the day, pioneering guitarists like Chuck Berry, Link Wray, and B.B. King discovered that by turning all the knobs up full blast on their tube amplifiers, the guitar’s sound got “fuzzy,” and it created all sorts of bizarre overtones and harmonic sounds from their electric guitars. This discovery sparked a new guitar sound, and rock & roll was born.
THIS IS HOW IT WORKS
When the electric guitar is plugged into the amplifier and played, the pickups in the electric guitar produce a small amount of electricity as the strings vibrate. Then that small amount of electricity is increased dramatically inside the amplifier by the use of transformers and several tube circuit stages.
In the first tube stage, there is a smaller preamp tube that pushes the electricity into the second stage, the much larger power amp tubes. When the electricity is pushed by the preamp tube by turning up the knob, it causes the power amp tubes to become overloaded, thus working much harder to drive the speakers. When the tubes work hard together like this, it causes a distortion or saturation effect in the electric signal produced by the guitar, which creates a pleasing sound to the human ear.
Why is it more pleasing to the ears?
Because it is truly an imperfect generation of the guitar’s sound! There is a creative beauty in this imperfection, and it is also affectionately known as “fuzz” or “crunch.” (Note: Before they discovered the tube amp’s ability to distort, some guitarists would slice rips in their speakers cones to create some fuzzy effects.) Electric guitarists could then develop and tailor their playing techniques, using the power of the amplifier and the effects of its tube circuit’s distortion to further create his or her own unique sound. It is truly the use of tubes in the amplifier’s design that provides this flexibility for musical expression. There’s no doubt in my mind that both Carlos Santana’s unique sustain and Eddie Van Halen’s signature tapping techniques were fueled and encouraged by the harmonic overtones of their overdriven tube amplifiers!
Historically, it was the original tube amplifiers built by Leo Fender in the early 1950s era that started the wave of electric guitar sounds heard ever since. All the iconic guitar amp companies like Marshall, Vox, Hiwatt, as well as the successful new generation of manufacturers like Mesa Boogie, Blackstar, Bogner…these amps originate from the basic electric circuits Leo Fender patented many years ago that use tubes to achieve the most pleasing tones and loudest volumes. In the early 1960s, innovators like Britain’s Dan Reeves (Hiwatt), and Jim Marshall (Marshall) started dissecting the old 1950s American-made Fender guitar amps and modifying them to go louder. They eventually started putting more knobs on the amplifiers to control the voltages feeding both the Pre and Power tube stages, resulting in “high gain” circuits that began pushing the limits of distortion sounds. Jim Marshall also increased the amount of speakers used in the old amp designs by building stacks of cabinets loaded with four 12-inch speakers.
Popular guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton would take their ideas to Jim Marshall with dreams of more volume and harmonic distortion, never leaving his shop unsatisfied as he improved the designs by creating more volume and tube distortion than ever heard before! This collaboration created the Marshall Amp “stacks” that still adorn the world’s concert stages. In today’s modern music, both the vintage American Fender amplifiers and the British Marshall amplifiers remain the iconic benchmarks for all electric guitar amps built today.
SOLID STATE AND DIGITAL CIRCUITS:
It’s interesting that throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, many amplifier-makers tried to use “solid state” and “digital” circuits to boost the sound of electric guitars, but the designs generally have all fallen by the wayside because both guitar players and music producers alike noticed that solid state guitar amps just didn’t feel or sound as good in their music as the older tube amps. From the twang of Brad Paisley to the chunk of Avenged Sevenfold, I guarantee you that the electric guitar sounds you hear are being created with a tube designed amplifier.
Stay tuned for my next article!
– Frank Hannon / Co-founder and guitarist for the multi-platinum band TESLA
WHO WE USE
With TESLA, we are now using Blackstar amplifiers, from the great amplifier company started by engineers who worked at Marshall. We feel that the Blackstar “Series One 100” watt tube amplifier is one of the best tube amps made today.
Shane Manning, President
3230 Hogarth Drive
Sacramento, CA 95827