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Monthly ArchiveJanuary 2007

Class A Tube Amps: Marketing Hype vs. Reality

(From The Pet Peeve Dept.)

Class A tube guitar amps. Everyone’s heard the term. It’s generally associated with higher-end amps in support of an amp maker’s claim that their product sounds “better”.

I’ll leave the debate as to which is better to others. What I want to discuss is what Class A really means and, from the pet peeve perspective, to debunk many amp manufacturers’ claims that their products are Class A when clearly they’re not! You may be surprised at how many amp makers falsely claim Class A operation. So, let’s review, in practical terms, what Class A really is and learn a simple rule of thumb you can use to spot operating class BS!

There’s no denying that Class A amps have different tonal characteristics when compared to the more common ClassAB amps. However, as with anything related to tone, “better” is in the ear of the beholder. There are plenty of butt kickin’ amps out there of both classes.

What does “Class A operation” mean? Technically, it refers to where on a tube’s operating curve, it’s biased. That’s it. Bias a tube one way and it’s operating in Class A, change the bias and it’s in ClassAB.

Of course, there are always technical details that complicate things. In this case, the complicating detail is that tubes biased to operate in the Class A “zone” require a lower voltage supply. Otherwise, they’ll quickly fail. Enough tech stuff, no need to worry about that. I mentioned it to avoid a misperception that you can simply take your amp to a tech for a 5-minute re-bias job and you’re in Class A land. Can’t happen. Fundamental changes to your Class A/B amp would be required to lower the voltage and otherwise set it up for Class A operation. Back to regular programming!

Fixed vs. cathode biasing is another “Class A” related misconception. Many believe that if an amp is cathode biased it is Class A. Not true. An amp can be A or A/B and fixed or cathode biased. Again, it depends on where the tube is biased on its operating curve not how it is biased.

Another factor in the myth is that if an amp has a “single-ended” power tube configuration it is Class A. Conversely, so the myth goes, if an amp has a push-pull power tube configuration it is Class A/B. Once again, the operating class of the amp is not defined by the power amp configuration. It is true that many (most?) single-ended amps are, in fact, Class A. But, on its own “single-ended” does not define an amp’s operating class. An amp can be Class A push-pull or Class A/B single-ended or vice versa.

The technical difference between single-ended and push-pull power amps are perhaps a topic for another article; I mention it here because they are common terms and often enter into the Class A vs. Class A/B confusion.

I mentioned above that Class A amps sound different from Class A/B amps. To review, Class A means the tubes are operating in a different part of their operating zone as compared to Class A/B. Two important things happen as a result. First, tubes operating in Class A produce more even harmonic content. Second, they produce less power.

Tubes biased to operate in Class A/B produce more odd order harmonics. Generally, even order harmonics sound more pleasing than odd. That’s why Class A and Class A/B sound different. However, as I mentioned earlier there are MANY GREAT sounding Class A/B amps. Don’t get unnecessarily biased toward Class A amps (amp builder’s humor – HAHA!).

The fact that a Class A amp with the same power tube configuration as a Class A/B amp produces less power leads us to the simple rule of thumb you can use to check whether an amp is really Class A: just compare the power tube configuration to the claimed output power rating of the amp.

Here are the guidelines I use to tell if an amp’s manufacturer doesn’t have their facts straight:

Power Tube
EL34, 6I6
15 watts A/B
20* watts A/B
40 watts A/B
30 watts A/B
40 watts A/B
80 watts A/B

*Some smaller Class A/B Fenders (e.g. early Princetons and Deluxes, etc.) that feature two 6V6s are rated around 15 watts – later examples are in the more typical 20+ watt range.

If the marketing hype shows output power near or above these ratings and it says the amp is Class A – there’s something wrong! If the output power is a fair chunk lower, the amp is most probably Class A. Simple!

Next time you read a guitar mag have fun by checking the tube configuration, power rating and operating class claims of your favorite amps. You may be surprised at what you find!

That Is Not My Guitar Until It Is Setup To My Specifications

Hello there in guitar land, thank you all for your comments and feedback to my column and to the WEBCAST hosted by Eastwood guitars.

This month I will be discussing a much overlooked aspect of guitar playing and appreciation, the professional setup. As I always say – this is not MY Guitar until it is setup to my specifications. I think perhaps 90% of today’s guitar players do NOT have a personal guitar repair technician that they work with. People have a favorite video / music store with a favorite clerk that helps them with selections, a tailor, a banker, a doctor, a dentist, a lawyer… yet they don’t have a favorite guitar tech. Why? Here are three scenarios that will exemplify this point.

Scenario #1: My Seagull sounds better then my Martin!

How many times have I heard this story, “I bought this cheap guitar at a local music store for $200 bucks, and it really needed a good setup and strings, and afterwards it sounded amazing!” The truth is that this is no urban legend – the professional setup is the real deal – and can make a decent guitar play and sound very good and sometimes even great. This is true for electrics and acoustics equally, although the most obvious is the acoustic as they are usually more prone to neck and body adjustments due to heat and humidity (or lack thereof). But, the electric guitar also needs a good setup as well.

Scenario #2: Music store guitars.

In my 30+ years of perusing music stores I have rarely entered a music store where the guitars were maintained w/ fresh strings and a good setup. As a matter of fact they are rarely even in tune to concert pitch (A440). I know – the profit margin, the man hours, blah, blah, blah – the truth is Mr. Music Store owner you will sell more guitars if they are maintained. Truth be told unless you are talking about a high end guitar shop where they have to sell guitars to pay the rent, guitars are usually hung up on the wall and expected to sell themselves.

So if you are really interested in buying a guitar in a music store, ask them to restring it and set it up for you. I mean don’t be an idiot and jerk the guy around for no reason, but you should know what it sounds like before you buy it. For a guitar under $1,000? Probably not. But for something more expensive, you bet.

For all you vintage guys out there how many times have you picked up that prehistoric Strat and were disappointed with how it played, knowing full well that it probably has been sitting for a long time without the benefit of some needed tweaking. Most dealers will say, “dude I left it as I found it” like that is a favor to you, how convenient! It’s really a disservice to those who’ll plunk down 20 G’s for a piece of guitar history, because these fellas know as well as we know, that just because it was made 50 years ago don’t mean it’s a good guitar, and the only way to know is? You guessed it, if it’s setup professionally.

Scenario #3: Online Purchases.

Online mega stores, Ebay auctions, direct sales, mom and pop sellers, third party sellers, yes my friends this is where a majority of guitar and guitar related commerce is done, online.

I must confess that I was one of those “I ain’t buying what I can’t play” guys. The idea of paying for a guitar that I had not seen gave me chills, and even more frightening to this paranoid guitar buyer was the fact that I was buying one of many guitars in that model that they had in stock. Who was going to pick the one I was getting? Beavis or Butthead? Or what does “very good condition” mean? Now we deal with words like “vibe” “correct” and “players” guitar – and are supposed to know what that means. I know what new means, it means new! I know what a demo is, it’s a demo! Alas, now I have learned how to buy guitars that I cannot play, one way is to buy from someone who is reputable and has a track record. Another is to buy what you know, a 1970 ES 335 (if it has no issues) is a 1970 ES 335, you will pay for it, and 99 times out of 100 get what you expect (from a reputable dealer or seller).

BUT… Now please my friends, pay attention here because this is the gospel as I know it. Never take a guitar out of a box after it has been shipped to you, and expect it to play right. To me that’s an unreasonable expectation. You buy a guitar on the merit of its sound, playability and pedigree (where and who it comes from). Like I said earlier, you can’t expect the store owner to take a lower cost guitar, re-string it and setup to your specifications, just for you to try it out. All players have different ideas about string gauges and low action etc, etc. That is why you need to find your own local technician, who will begin to understand your personal preferences and expectations. These guys can make a $500 guitar play like a $5000 guitar, and the more they know about you the better a job they can do for you. So, as soon as you get your guitar, inspect it for shipping damage and for flaws. As far as flaws are concerned, be reasonable, as far as I am concerned my expectations on a guitars fit and finish are directly related to its price.

Here is what I believe are the necessary parts of a good setup:

  • A neck adjustment (if needed)
  • Intonation
  • Action adjustment
  • Fret work (leveling if needed)
  • Pickup balancing
  • Nut filing (a way underrated aspect of tuning issues)
  • New strings
  • Cleaning scratchy pots (used guitars)

These tasks should be done by a qualified guitar repairman. You should have a local guy who knows your likes and dislikes. I personally like a flat neck adjustment with almost no bow and a higher action then most would like. You have your own expectations for a setup, communicate these to your local repairman and than enjoy your guitar.

Guitar Tech Setting Up a Guitar

Guitar Tech Setting Up a Guitar

I will say again – any guitar I own is not truly mine until it is setup to my specifications.

So in closing my friends I respectfully say don’t decide whether a guitar is a good guitar or not until it is setup professionally.

So many guitars, so little time.

Celebrating the Chinese New Year, Korean Style (1987 Cort Dragon Electric Guitar)

The writhing, brightly colored paper dragons carried by a line of athletic young men to celebrate Chinese New Year is a sight most of us have seen. If you don’t live in a city with a Chinatown, you’ve at least seen them in a Stephen Segal movie. And if you’ve ever entered a Chinese gift shop, you’ve seen the gift boxes inlaid with colorful pearl and abalone dragons. The dragon is one of the most powerful images associated with East Asia. So, imagine my surprise when I first came upon a Cort Strat copy inlaid with a most spectacular mother-of-pearl and abalone dragon! What had I found?

1987 Cort Dragon Electric Guitar

1987 Cort Dragon Electric Guitar

Well, it’s always best to go to the source when you have a mystery (if you can), so I called Jack Westheimer to get the true story about my find. Jack’s name, unlike Leo or Orville, is probably not on most guitar fan’s lips, but he brought us Teisco (and other brand) guitars from Japan at a time when most folks in America didn’t think much about products from the Orient. There’s a whole lot more to this story that we don’t have time to get into here, but, long story short, Jack transferred from pioneering guitars in Japan to pioneering guitars in Korea. He took his Japanese Cortez guitars to the Peninsula in 1973, partnering with Yung H. Park, to create Cort guitars. Today they are one of the world’s top guitarmakers, and many Cort guitars are quite simply excellent instruments.

However, as you might expect, this quality achievement did not happen overnight. By Westheimer’s own assessment, it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that they felt quality was at a competitive level. But how to show it? He needed a guitar to make an impact on the U.S. market.

1987 Cort Dragon Electric Guitar

1987 Cort Dragon Electric Guitar

It was one day in around 1986 or ’87 while pondering this problem that Jack took a walk through an outdoor market that thrived outside the factory. There he encountered some of those gift boxes inlaid with fabulous pearl and abalone dragons. Maybe this was just the ticket. After a few inquiries he learned that the inlay work was done by craftsmen on a small island. He decided to take some Cort Strat and Explorer copies and have them inlaid with dragons.

1987 Cort Dragon Electric Guitar

1987 Cort Dragon Electric Guitar

What do they say about the litter on the road to success? Despite his best intentions, the project was doomed. The cost of the inlay was reasonable, but Cort had to finish the bodies, carefully pack them up, ship them to the village where the work was done, then have them shipped back, touch up any dings, then proceed to clear-coat and complete the guitar. By the time you added up all the extra handling, the guitars had to be sold for a pretty penny once they arrived Stateside. Dealers wouldn’t pay the freight for a Korean guitar, no matter how fancy.

1987 Cort Dragon Electric Guitar

1987 Cort Dragon Electric Guitar

Their loss was my gain. This is a swell little guitar with neck-through construction (my favorite) and even if it didn’t play well, which it does, it would be fun to stare at all day!

The Cort Dragons are pretty rare, uh, dragons. About 400 Explorers and 100 Strats (StoStats) were built in 1987. Most were Corts, but some came labeled Lotus. Of those, most were made with laminated bodies like this one; only 50 were made of solid timbers toward the end of the run.

In the long run, it only took time, consistency – and a mature global economy – to secure Cort’s reputation. They didn’t need the Dragons. But this one, at least, ended up in my treasure hoard, and every time I open the case it’s like Chinese New Year to me!

Preview of NAMM 2007 in Anaheim, California

Looking back over the past 4 years – especially 2006 – I am amazed at the growth of Eastwood Guitars. We have doubled in size every year since the first Eastwood Guitar was shipped. Most of this growth has come by word-of-mouth – empowered by the Internet. In fact, only a small percentage of our sales are from our loyal dealers throughout the world. That is about to change!

We will be exhibiting at the 2007 NAMM show in Anaheim California

We will be exhibiting at the 2007 NAMM show in Anaheim California

For the first time since we started Eastwood Guitars in 2002, we will be exhibiting at the NAMM show in Anaheim California. For those who don’t know, NAMM is the National Assc. of Music Makers. This trade show is a once a year event where music industry people meet to share their knowledge and check out “what’s new” in the world of music.

NAMM 2007 in Anaheim, CA

NAMM 2007 in Anaheim, CA

For many store owners and guitar dealers, this is their once-a-year trip to stock up their shelves for the coming year with some new and improved goodies. Although predominately a North American event, dealers come from all over the world to this 4-day convention. Since we have never exhibited at the show, this will be the first opportunity for most dealers to check out EASTWOOD. We will have most of our 30+ models at the show, including some new releases. Here are some sneak peaks at the new stuff:

Eastwood EEB-1 Bass (like the Ampeg AEB-1)

Eastwood EEB-1 Bass (like the Ampeg AEB-1)

Full 34″ scale tribute to the AMPEG AEB-1 from the late 1960’s. Yes, those F-holes go right through the body! Available this month. Black or Sunburst.

Eastwood Red Special: our tribute to the beautiful Brian May model

Eastwood Red Special: our tribute to the beautiful Brian May model

Here is our tribute to the beautiful Brian May model. Set mahogany neck, bound mahogany body, replica switching system. Red or Sunburst. Available this month.

Nice huh? We also have a few other goodies up our sleeves for NAMM. We finally gave in to the pressure, and have created a “correct” 30 1/2″ scale model of the Hi-Flyer BASS. This might be the most powerful short scale bass on the market. Also, we are ready to release the production model of the MAP guitar. It will have all the standard components of the other AIRLINE models in that family, and will be available in Black, White, Red or SEAFOAM Green. $799. We will have the pictures ready in 2 weeks. Here is a picture of the LIMITED EDITION version that SOLD OUT last year:

Eastwood Airline Map Guitar (Surf Green)

Eastwood Airline Map Guitar (Surf Green)

NOTE: The new MAP production model will NOT include the case or the upgraded VVSC pickups.

So, if your are planning to attend the NAMM show this year, please send us an EMAIL to schedule an appointment or just drop by booth #`1151 to say hello and to test out some of these new beauties!

See you at NAMM!

1966 Lectrolab S 400 Guitar Amplifier

Recently, I was at a writer’s conference and there was another guitar player there and we started talking about amps and guitars and pedals and such, but mostly about amplifiers. And someone there (not a guitar player) asked me: “How many amplifiers do you have?”

I pride myself on only keeping equipment that I play, – I don’t have any collector’s-only pieces. Still, I have the cool gear disease. I did some quick math. “Five,” I said.

“What does your wife think?”

“Well, she has three amps,” I said.

“So, you only have two?”

“No,” I said. “Those are in addition to mine. She’s a bass player, so she doesn’t need as many. I have five.” Whoops. I’d forgotten my Deluxe Reverb. “Actually, six.” I said.

This non-guitar player turned to the other player. “How many do you have?”

He shrugged. “Four,” he said. “Right now, I think it’s four.”

The non-player looked confused.

“You need at least three,” I said. “You need your single-ended, your mid-power and your high-powered amps.”

“Right,” my guitar-playing new friend said. The third person shook his head, laughed and walked away.

“They all sound different,” I called after him. “You don’t understand!”

1966 Lectrolab S 400 Guitar Amplifier

1966 Lectrolab S 400 Guitar Amplifier

But you, dear reader with several amplifiers, you understand. And this month, I sing the praises of another obscure and beautiful amplifier, in this case a 1966 Lectrolab S 400. I’ve seen a few Lectrolabs over the years and they are all pretty cool amps. The 400 series seem to be (and this is based only on observation and scattered information. No one seems to know very much about these) all single-ended small amps with a single EL84 for output and one or two eight inch speakers. The 600 series are more in the 15-20 watt range with either two 6V6’s or two EL84’s (driving a twelve inch speaker), depending on the year. And the 800 series, which I’ve never seen in person, I haven’t been able to find much about, other than that they seem like later versions of the 600’s. The 900 series are El84-equiped heads (very rare).

So who was Lectrolab? As I say, there isn’t a lot of information out there about these. The chassis/labels tend to read “Lectrolab: Sound Projects, Chicago, Illinois/Venice, Florida.” The Chicago location leads some people to speculate that Lectrolab had something to do with Valco. And they do have a sonic texture much like the great Valcos (big midrange, great distortion, slightly dark sound). Yet, the rectifiers in these are usually a 6X4’s (not used much, if at all, in Valcos). The preamp tubes are frequently 6EU7’s (again, not often in Valcos), and the output tubes are often EL84’s (which most American amp companies didn’t use in the 1960’s’Gibson being the notable exception).

So, whoever Lectrolab was, we don’t know. But they probably were their own company, and almost certainly not Valco, or Gibson or any other well-known maker.

1966 Lectrolab S 400 Guitar Amplifier

1966 Lectrolab S 400 Guitar Amplifier

Whoever made these, they knew how to make an amp sound good. I have never heard a bad sounding 60’s Lectrolab. My S 400 has become my number one practice amplifier. I’m so in love with its tone, I added a ‘line out’ so that I can use it as a preamp for rehearsals and gigs. Coupled with a Magnatone 213, and it’s an awesome gig amp (and you get the added bonus of tremolo and vibrato’rad!).

This S 400 is from late 1966 and had two CTS 8″ alnico speakers. It’s got the 6X4 rectifier, a 6EU7 for the preamp and a single EL84 for output A 6AU6 takes care of the deep, pulsing tremolo. The control panel has four knobs: Volume, Tone and Speed & Intensity for the tremolo. This is a superb recording amp’a rich, complex overdriven tone that sounds huge with a mic. It reacts really well to the picking attack and cleans up as you roll off the volume. The tremolo is very musical and thick. For a small practice amp, it has a very nice bottom. With an overdrive pedal, it thickens and deepens even more and nails tones from the early 50’s Hubert Sumlin to the early 70’s Ronnie Wood Faces’ tone (one of the great, underrated guitar tones of the 70’s).

If you can find an original 60’s Lectrolab, you should snatch it up. I’ve played this next to a Supro Twin Eight and it held its own (and the Valco-made Supro Twin Eight is an awesome little amp). The twin eight inch speakers sound much fuller than your traditional single eight (like a Champ), and it’s got a superb tone for guitar or harp. A hard-to-find sleeper of an amp, but worth the hunt. And happy hunting!