• info@eastwoodguitars.com

Category ArchiveAmps & Tone

Magnatone Amps

Magnatone Amps – The Evolution of Boutique Tone, Yesterday & Today (Part 2)

Last month, we left off with a team in place to design, prototype, test, and market the new line of Magnatone amplifiers. This month we look at each series and model of the new Magnatone line and the features of each, including the world famous pitch-shifting vibrato circuit.

Let me start off by saying that the new Magnatone line of amps is no less than stellar! There are three series: the Studio Collection, Traditional Collection and the Master Collection. All exude tonal quality and craftsmanship, and that is before we consider the features of stereo pitch-shifting vibrato or tube-driven reverb. Between the three series or “collections,” Magnatone manages to offer something to meet just about every player’s needs. From five-watt studio amps to 6V6, American-voiced combos to EL34 British-inspired heads and cabs, Kornblum, Khan and the rest of the crew at Magnatone have produced a line of models that covers all of the bases.

Magnatone Amps

Magnatone Amps

Each collection includes three models. In the Studio Collection, Magnatone offers up three lower-wattage, class A tube amplifiers housed in solid pine, finger jointed cabinets covered in either black or burgundy faux crocodile covering.

The Lyric is a no-frills, 10 watt, Class A combo featuring one 12AX7, one 6L6 power tube and a 10-inch speaker. It’s perfect for studio, rehearsal and small club performances.

The Varsity is the big brother to the Lyric. A 15 watt, push-pull class A amplifier featuring two 12AX7 preamp tubes, two EL84 power tubes and a GZ34 rectifier, the Varsity is the perfect size for stage and studio. The combo houses a 75 watt, 12″ custom Magnatone speaker in a box that’s a bit larger than you might expect. The result is an amp with enough power and bottom end to blow the doors off of most joints. One of the coolest features of the Varsity is the Negative Feedback Switch, which acts as a 8db boost/cut, allowing the amp to take on two unique sonic personalities.

The third model in the Studio Collection is the new Panoramic. Debuted at the 2014 NAMM trade show, the Panoramic is a stereo, 5 watts per side, single-ended class A amplifier with two 12 AX7s, a 12AU7 and a duet of 6V6 power tubes. The Panoramic offers the famous Magnatone pitch-shifting, varistor stereo vibrato. Cabinet options include a 1×12″ or stereo 2-10″ speaker cab.

The Traditional Collection showcases the Twilighter, Twilighter Stereo and Single V models. Encased in a classy, brown tolex with retro style, the Traditional series amplifiers would look equally great on stage, in the studio or as a fine piece of furniture in your living room! All three models are American-voiced, push-pull class AB amplifiers featuring either 6V6 or 6L6 power tubes. All Traditional series amps also feature a tube driven, long pan reverb and true pitch-shifting, varistor vibrato which can be switched to conventional tremolo via the FM-AM switch. Each member of the Traditional Collection is an outstanding, boutique, American-voiced tube amp with a warmth and bloom usually only heard in the finest vintage tube amps of the 1960’s.

The Vibrato effect departs from the original vintage design by producing a much more lush and three dimensional quality that can be slowed much slower than it’s ancestors. The result is unsurpassed, dynamic fidelity with a modulation that is mesmerizing.

The Master Collection offers three models inspired by the British amp companies of the ’60s. The Super Fifteen and Super Thirty are 15 watt and stereo 15 watts per side, respectively. They are EL 84, push-pull class A amplifiers designed with sparkly, British styled clean tones as well as full throttle A class overdrive capabilities. Pair that with the option of Magantone’s true pitch-shifting vibrato and you have an amp that will please any die-hard, class A, British-tone purist!

The Super Fifty-Nine head is a unique model, even though it is listed as part of the Master Collection and aesthetically has the same black tolex and white satin grill cloth as its A class siblings. The Super Fifty-Nine is a British behemoth that features a two EL34, 45 watt, push-pull class AB power section. With two channels, the Super Fifty-Nine has the ability to straddle vintage British tones as well as more modern, gainy rock tones of the ’70s and ’80s. With an input layout similar to a vintage Bassman and the pitch-shifting vibrato circuit available in the classic channel only, one can bridge the two channels to produce a warbley, uni-vibe effect that conjures the soul of Hendrix and Trower. After hearing the Super Fifty-Nine, it comes as no surprise that the model was developed in conjunction with Billy Gibbons and has been the Reverend’s go to rig for the last year or so.

Each model is unique yet consistently voiced in the new Magnatone tradition. Most models come with either Magnatone branded, WGS designed speakers, or Celestion Gold Alnicos (Lyric is supplied with a Jensen P10R). Some models include a two button footswitch, and a 20k expression pedal is also optional for hands-free control of the vibrato speed.

Although Magnatone is currently offering amplifiers only, plans are underway to offer high end Magnatone guitars with the help of Boise-based luthiers John and Jake Bolin of Bolin Guitars.

So while we currently live in the golden age of boutique gear, it may seem an impossible feat to offer up something unique both in aesthetic style and high fidelity that balances the much sought retro tones and looks of the great classics with the needs of modern players. Yet Ted Kornblum, Obeid Khan, and the team at Magnatone have managed to do just that! With great tone, vibe and style, the Magnatone line of amplifiers is a home run, and the redesigned, true pitch-shifting, varistor vibrato is just the icing on the cake.


Written by: David Anderson

Magnatone Amps

Magnatone Amps – The Evolution of Boutique Tone, Yesterday & Today (Part 1)

Magnatone Amps

Magnatone Amps

As a person who has worked in the music retail industry for more than 20 years, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard about how a quality manufacture was acquired by a larger corporation and imploded from bad “business” decisions, ruining the brand in the process. While not the rule, it happens more often than not in most every industry.

So imagine you work for a family-owned company that distributes music equipment. One day, you are looking through some of the old family catalogs and discover that a very cool, unique brand, which has been out of production for years, has a trademark that has expired and is just sitting there for the taking. What would you do?

Magnatone Amps

Magnatone Amps

Ted Kornblum’s grandfather founded St. Louis Music Supply Co. in 1922. Among the many brands that SLM has distributed are Ampeg, Crate, Alvarez, and Knilling. Also on the company’s distribution list: Magnatone.

Magnatone was started in 1946 by Art Duhamell, who purchased the Dickerson Musical Instrument Manufacturing Company. Dickerson was a small, Southern California builder who produced lap steels and amplifiers. Duhamell changed the name to Magnatone a division of his Magna Electronics Company in Los Angeles. Magna also produced record players, speakers, radios and organs as well as amplifiers under brands such as ToneMaster, DaVinci, Pac-Amp, and Estey. The Estey organ’s vibrato circuit was integral in the birth of the famous Magnatone pitch shifting vibrato feature,(but more on that later). Though Magnatone had a good run of building some of the first, high fidelity, innovative, “boutique” amps to hit the market, the company was plagued by mergers and buy outs, poor business decisions, and bad investments. In the end, Magnatone was no more by the end of the 1960’s.

Magnatone Amps

Magnatone Amps

Fast forward to the early 2000’s, Ted is sitting at his desk one day and he discovers that the Magnatone trademark was abandoned — there for the taking! So Ted quietly makes some inquiries and soon finds himself the owner of the Magnatone brand. He doesn’t tell anyone. Not even his buddy, the Rev Billy Gibbons. He just… waits.

After some years the tables turned, and SLM was that company that ended up being acquired by a larger corporation. We won’t get into the details, but Ted Kornblum eventually found himself free to do what he pleased. Maybe start his own company… maybe do something with his secret acquisition, Magnatone.

Now you have to understand, back when Magnatone amps were made, Fender was the utility amp of time, and Ampeg appealed to the jazz market. Magnatone, by contrast, was known as a boutique amplifier, decades before the boutique craze began. Magnatone amps were not cheap. They had great fidelity, reverb and that famous, pitch shifting stereo vibrato. Fender’s dedicated vibrato channel was actually tremolo, not vibrato, changing the amplitude or volume of the signal, not the pitch. To further muddy the waters, Fender incorrectly labeled its guitars’ vibrato unit a tremolo.

Magnatone Amps

Magnatone Amps

So Ted had been sitting on this brand a while. He had a long time to think about how to revive the Magnatone line. The first step would be putting together a design team that could make the amps a reality. While Magnatone was ahead of its time as far as amp design is concerned, it did have its flaws. For one, the amps were fragile, not up to par to today’s rigorous standards. They also had limited power output — not conducive to today’s rock ‘n roll needs. So the new Magnatones would have to have a balance of both worlds. That luscious, true pitch shifting vibrato, tremolo (yes that FM-AM switch allows for either effect) and a deep, well-like reverb — but with more under the hood, some rock ‘n roll torque for the heavy hitters!

To put this plan in motion, Ted had an ace in his pocket… a guy right here in St. Louis who was responsible for designing practically all things tube that came out of SLM, including the revered Crate Vintage Club series amps. Obeid Khan is not just an engineer with a soldering gun, he’s a player…a serious player! Ask anyone in town, they’ll tell you, Obeid Khan is a monster when it comes to amps and blistering guitar. Khan, splitting time between his own company, Reason amps, and a position repairing vintage tube amps for local vintage gear gurus, Killer Vintage, decided he was up to the challenge of working on the foundation and design on the new Magnatone amps.

Ted and Obeid enlisted a team of engineers including Ken Matthews, Greg Geerling, Dan Ryterski, Chris Villani, George McKale, and the famous Neil Young tech, Larry Cragg to make the Magnatone line a reality. Another ace in the hole was having local cabinet builder and owner of Vintage-Amp Restoration, Gregg Hopkins, involved in the design of the amps, making sure to pay homage aesthetically to Magnatone’s retro look.

Magnatone Amps

Magnatone Amps

So with an all-star team of engineers and the discriminating ears of players like Billy Gibbons, Khan, and Larry Cragg, the team began to prototype the first models of the new Magnatone amplifier and guitar company. Once the first models began rolling off the bench, the decision was made to bring Dave Hinson, owner of Killer Vintage (June 2012 myrareguitars.com) on as sales manager in order to help with dealer placement.

Next month we’ll take a look at the models and features including the magic of the Magnatone Varistor Vibrato!

Written by: David Anderson

Keith Richards with the Ampeg VT 22 Amp

10 Classic Guitar Amps & The Songs That Made Them Famous (PART 2!)

Today, we have the long overdue follow-up to the “10 Classic Guitar Amps” article by Ben Fargen of FargenAmps.com. Ben’s first post has become one of the most popular articles ever published on this site, so we asked Ben another list of definitive amps and songs. Be sure to let us know what you think in the comments section below!

11. Ampeg VT 22

Song: All Down the Line
Artist: Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones)

Ah, Keith Richards and his Les Paul + Ampeg VT 22 combination. It’s like chicken soup/comfort food for the soul of tone. Holed up on the coast of France during 1969/70 to avoid arrest for tax evasion changes back in the UK, Keith and the boys recorded one of my all time favorite albums. Check out anything off Exile on Main Street for reference. The riff and tone on “All Down the Line” is a standout track to me. PURE KEEF!

Keith Richards with the Ampeg VT 22 Amp

Keith Richards with the Ampeg VT 22 Amp

Keith Richards with the Ampeg VT 22 Amp

Keith Richards with the Ampeg VT 22 Amp

12. Carvin X100B

Song: Blue Powder
Artist: Steve Vai

I’ll never forget the first time I heard Steve Vai’s “Blue Powder” on his breakout give away flexi-disc record that was included in the October ’85 issue of Guitar Player Magazine. The sheer melodic content vs. guitar prowess was beyond insane for the time. Steve Vai houses genius, melody and lighthearted feeling in a way that no other guitar player can. The tone and technique offered in the thin piece of vinyl was a small viewing glass into what was soon to become a new era in instrumental guitar technique.

Steve Vai & the Carvin X100B Amp (1986)

Steve Vai & the Carvin X100B Amp (1986)

Steve Vai & the Carvin X100B Amp (1983)

Steve Vai & the Carvin X100B Amp (1983)

13. Marshall 6100 30th Anniversary

Song: Up in the Sky
Artist: Joe Satriani

I had the opportunity to take my stepfather to see Joe Satriani at the memorial auditorium in Sacramento, CA for his birthday on October 29, 1998 during the Crystal Planet Tour. I’ll admit I had stepped outside my earlier hard rock guitar roots at that time and was listening to more alt country and pop stuff then. Seeing Joe on that tour blew my mind and reminded me of why Joe is the KING of all things instrumental rock guitar. I soon went out and purchased the Crystal Planet cd after the concert and was given a heavy dose of all things that inspire rock guitarists to play – including but not limited to – amazing instrumental guitar songs with pure tone and heartfelt performances. In the strange mystery that is life, Joe would later become a client of mine and a good friend. We have talked about how that album was recorded mostly live at “The Plant” in Sausalito. The majority of the core tones were captured with single channel tube amps, including the Joe Satriani staple: Channel One of the Marshall 6100 Anniversary Edition with a Japanese Boss DS-1 pedal pushing the front for the gain. In the hands of the master, even this simple setup can be considered legendary. Check out “Up in the Sky” as a standout track, but every track on this album is pure gold. One of my top ten instrumental albums of all time.

Joe Satriani's 1992 Marshall 6100 30th Anniversary Amp

Joe Satriani’s 1992 Marshall 6100 30th Anniversary Amp

1992 Marshall 6100 30th Anniversary Amp

1992 Marshall 6100 30th Anniversary Amp

1992 Marshall 6100 30th Anniversary Amp

1992 Marshall 6100 30th Anniversary Amp

14. Hiwatt DR103

Song: Comfortably Numb
Artist: David Gilmour (Pink Floyd)

David Gilmour of Pink Floyd has always conjured up jaw dropping juicy tones of mythical proportion for decades. The Wall album feature many classic songs and some of my favorite recorded solo guitar tones ever. It seems Mr. Gilmour’s go-to amp on stage and in the studio is the Hiwatt DR103 100W head with WEM Super Starfinder 200 cabinets loaded with Fane Crescendo speakers. In this case I would say that David’s core tone is crafted from his hands, guitar and the highly elaborate Pete Cornish pedal board that is fed into the amp. More so than the amps stand-alone sound, his DR103 acts more as a clean full range power amp in this setup but is still noteworthy. Check out the solo in “Comfortably Numb” as my standout track. For more great info on David Gilmour and his gear, check out www.gilmourish.com as well.

David Gilmour's Custom Hiwatt 100 Amp

David Gilmour’s Custom Hiwatt 100 Amp

David Gilmour's Custom Hiwatt 100 Amp

David Gilmour’s Custom Hiwatt 100 Amp

David Gilmour's Custom Hiwatt 100 Amp

David Gilmour’s Custom Hiwatt 100 Amp

David Gilmour's Custom Hiwatt 100 Amp

David Gilmour’s Custom Hiwatt 100 Amp

15. Fender Eighty-Five (Solid State)

Song: Creep
Artist: Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead)

When the band Radiohead hit the scene in the early 90’s, I was immediately impressed with the songs and the two unique and original guitar parts on every song. Both guitarists (Jonny Greenwood & Ed O’Brien) seemed to cover so much tonal spectrum, yet always giving way to complimenting the song and never walking over the other players parts. I was surprised to find out at a much later date that Johnny Greenwood used a solid state Fender 85 amplifier as his main set up with pedals (including a Marshall Shredmaster pedal) driving the front of the amp to get his signature overdrive sound. Very early in Radiohead’s career, Jonny’s only amp was his Fender Eight-Five, which he used for both his distorted and clean tones. By late 1993, however, Jonny had bought his first tube amp: a Fender “The Twin” – which is the version Twin Reverb produced at the same time as the Eighty-Five. I think Radiohead is one of the most important and truly original groups to come out in the last 20 years.

Jonny Greenwood's Fender Eighty Five Amp

Jonny Greenwood’s Fender Eighty Five Amp

Jonny Greenwood's Fender Eighty Five Amp

Jonny Greenwood’s Fender Eighty Five Amp

Jonny Greenwood & his Fender Eighty Five Amp (Radiohead)

Jonny Greenwood & his Fender Eighty Five Amp (Radiohead)

Jonny Greenwood & his Fender Eighty Five Amp (Radiohead)

Jonny Greenwood & his Fender Eighty Five Amp (Radiohead)

16. Vox AC30

Song: Apache
Artist: Hank Marvin (The Shadows)

Across the pond in the late fifties & early sixties, The Shadows were cranking out pop and instrumental hits left and right. They achieved over 60 UK chart topping singles during there long and successful carrier. As a result of their success at the start of the 60’s, Hank Marvin had an interesting influence on the current VOX amplifier designs of the day as noted in this interview:

Along with the Fender guitar, another cornerstone of the Shadows sound was the Vox amplifier. According to Hank Marvin:

“Vox was one of the first companies to get onto artists and groups so they could promote their amplifiers. In fact, I tried Fender amplifiers first, but preferred the sound of the Vox with the Strat, because I think it was more of a raw sound. The Fender amplifier, to my ear sounded a little too smooth with a Strat, and I seemed to get more guts out of a Vox.”

Reg Clark worked in the Vox store in London’s Charing Cross Road in the early 60’s, and credits Hank with instigating a major Vox development:

“He suggested we made one with two speakers and it was from that comment that the AC30 came.”

The Shadows had tried the more powerful Fender Twin, but the Vox AC15 provided the sound they wanted, albeit with insufficient volume. Using two amplifiers each was rejected, and Vox finally came up with the legendary AC30, with the group taking delivery of four in late 1959. The AC30 was a 30-watt model with 12″ twin speakers and EL84 output valves. Hank’s amp was modified with a treble booster to provide a cleaner sound at high volume levels and this model was later sold commercially as the AC30 Top Boost.

Soon after, Hank changed his echo unit to the Binson Echorec, and a true legendary combination was solidified!

The Shadows & their Vox Amps

The Shadows & their Vox Amps

Vox AC30 Amp played by The Shadows

Vox AC30 Amp played by The Shadows

17. Gibson EH-150

Song: Stomping at the Savoy
Artist: Charlie Christian

Charlie Christian is the modern godfather of amplified electric jazz guitar. He is credited as a pioneer for taking the humble roll of the rhythm jazz guitar player in non-amplified form and pushing the boundaries to the point where other musicians respected the guitar. He proved the amplified guitar as a viable lead and solo instrument in the context of a large jazz ensemble. The Gibson ES-150 guitar coupled with the very rudimentary Gibson EH-150 tube amplifier paved the way for the future of modern electric guitar. Check out Charlie on the track “Stomping at the Savoy” and think back to how amazing that must have sounded live in the room in 1941 NYC.

Charlie Christian & his 1930's Gibson EH-150 Guitar Amp

Charlie Christian & his 1930’s Gibson EH-150 Guitar Amp

1930's Gibson EH-150 Guitar Amp

1930’s Gibson EH-150 Guitar Amp

18. Modified Marshall 100W Super Lead Plexi (The “Pete” Amp)

Song: Welcome to Paradise
Artist: Billie Joe Armstrong (Green Day)

When Green Day hit the big time on their chart topping Dookie album in 1994, I was immediately intrigued. Dookie was the band’s third studio album and its first collaboration with producer Rob Cavallo – and its major record label debut. Green Day seemed to come out of nowhere with their punk and thrash attitude, yet the songs were tight & concise hit pop/AOR sensations. Not only is Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day a killer songwriter and performer, his guitar tone is super fat and chunky. Wielding his bastard green Fernandez Stratocaster copy and a modified Marshall Plexi Super Lead 100-watt amp head (with the name duct-taped out), Billie Joe has perfected that tight right-hand rhythm and is so locked in with Trey Cool and Mike Dirnt. They create a modern power trio that is highly underrated IMHO. Check out the opening riff to “Welcome to Paradise” and you realize right then and there – this is the fundamental core sound of modern alternative rock as it stands today.

Billie Joe Armstrong on-stage at Woodstock 1994 with his 'Dookie' modified Marshall Super Lead

Billie Joe Armstrong on-stage at Woodstock 1994 with his ‘Dookie’ modified Marshall Super Lead

Billie Joe Armstrong on-stage at Woodstock 1994 with his 'Dookie' modified Marshall Super Lead

Billie Joe Armstrong on-stage at Woodstock 1994 with his ‘Dookie’ modified Marshall Super Lead

19. Kustom K200A-4 (aka the ‘A4’ or the K200A Model 2-15L-4)

Song: Born on a Bayou
Artist: John Fogerty (CCR)

Another solid state transistor amp to make the list! The Kustom A4 amplifier with 2 x 15″ cab. This was John Fogerty’s main live rig for the classic CCR years, but there is also proof that he did use a a silver face Fender Vibrolux Reverb on many of the CCR studio recordings. The Fender provided more of a natural distortion that the transistor-based Kustom just couldn’t provide. John’s Kustom amps on stage always had the Trem / Vib set at one o’ clock as seen in many photos. Check out this classic performance and tone from Woodstock with the Rik in hand. There’s no doubt in any guitarists mind who the player is when the intro riff of this classic rock song comes through your radio dial.

CCR with the Kustom Amp in the background

CCR with the Kustom Amp in the background

John Fogerty's K200A-4 Amp

John Fogerty’s K200A-4 Amp

John Fogerty's K200A-4 Amp

John Fogerty’s K200A-4 Amp

1968 Kustom Ad for the K200A Amp

1968 Kustom Ad for the K200A Amp

20. Standel Amp

Song: Mr. Sandman
Artist: Chet Atkins

In the mid to late 50’s, all the top guitar players and band leaders of the time were custom ordering Standel amps from Bob Crooks in CA. From StandelAmps.com:

Bob Crooks built approximately 75 amps with the first design (knobs on top of the amp), all out of his backyard workshop at 10661 Freer Street in Temple City CA. Chet Atkins couldn’t order one himself because of his endorsement deal with Gretsch, but he bought one from a guitar player friend and used it on thousands of recordings. You can hear the amp during Chet Atkins appearances on “Classic Country” originally from 1957 but rebroadcast in the mid-80’s on TNN, Chet’s White Standel can be seen behind him on a bale of hay on about half of the performances).

Chet Atkins is arguable the most accomplished and amazing guitar player in US history. This performance of “Mr. Sandman” shows his effortless touch and command of the instrument.

Jim Reeves & Chet Atkins with a Standel 25L15 Amp

Jim Reeves & Chet Atkins with a Standel 25L15 Amp

Chet Atkins with a Standel 25L15 Amp

Chet Atkins with a Standel 25L15 Amp

Standel 25L15 Guitar Amp

Standel 25L15 Guitar Amp

Neil Young's 1959 Fender Tweed Deluxe Amp

10 Classic Guitar Amps & The Songs That Made Them Famous

The importance of the choice of guitar amp in a recording session can’t be underestimated. In this article, Ben Fargen picks a Top 10 list of legendary songs that were greatly shaped by the guitar amp used to record them.

Hey everyone! Ben Fargen here from Fargen Custom Amps & Mods. I was asked to write a post for MyRareGuitars.com, so I thought I’d write about some famous songs and amplifiers. I’m really looking forward to your comments, so let me know which songs and amps you would include in this list. Thanks!

10. Fender Showman (Blonde Brownface)

Song: Miserlou
Artist: Dick Dale

The unmistakable sound of surf guitar was created by Dick Dale’s Fender stratocaster and a Fender Showman amp. One of the most important pieces of his signature sound was a custom Fender reverb unit (built by Leo Fender and given to Dick Dale as a prototype) driving a cranked up dual showman into 2 X 15-inch JBL D1 30 speakers. On the opening low E run from Dick Dale’s version of Miserlou you knew surf guitar was born, and that super cool reverb-laden sound would change the history of instrumental guitar music.

Dick Dale's 1965 Fender Showman Amp at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ

Dick Dale’s 1965 Fender Showman Amp at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ

9. Marshall JTM 45 Combo (Series 2, Model #1962)

Song: Hideaway
Artist: Eric Clapton (John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers)

In the mid 60’s – after Eric Clapton left the Yardbirds – he joined with the John Mayall Bluesbreakers. Within one year earned a huge reputation and the nickname “Slowhand”. The Bluesbreakers recorded the Beano album in April 1966 and Clapton used a Marshall Series 2 1962 JTM 45 combo with KT 66 tubes. This amp coupled with the Les Paul guitar created a new kind of sound no one had ever heard before in blues. Some dubbed this the “woman” tone, and players have been chasing it for decades.

The Marshall Bluesbreaker: The Story of Marshall's First Combo

The Marshall Bluesbreaker: The Story of Marshall’s First Combo

8. Fender Deluxe Reverb

Song: Sweet Dreams
Artist: Roy Buchanan

Roy Buchanan and his trusty, well-weathered 50’s telecaster never abused a finer vintage amp than the Fender Deluxe Reverb. Roy was known for cranking his Fender Deluxe Reverb full blast and facing it toward the back of the stage to cut the stage volume. Roy gave his fans one screaming note after another and some of the sweetest tear-jerking blues you’ve ever heard. If there was ever a player that could wring blood, sweat and tears from a guitar, it was the late, great Roy Buchanan.

1960's Blackface Fender Deluxe Reverb Amp

1960’s Blackface Fender Deluxe Reverb Amp

7. Fender Bassman (Blonde Brownface)

Song: Rock This Town
Artist: Brian Setzer

Brian setzer is the king of cool when it come to rockabilly guitar style. He brought 50’s style blues/jazz guitar back in a time when AOR rock and new wave ruled the airwaves. One of the secret weapons in his tone is a Roland RE-201 Space Echo between his Gretsch guitar and two blonde Fender Bassman amps. That setup creates a great rowdy slap back echo which has become part of his signature tone.

Brian Setzer's Blonde Brownface Fender Bassman 6G6-B Amps setup with Roland Space Echo

Brian Setzer’s Blonde Brownface Fender Bassman 6G6-B Amps setup with Roland Space Echo

6. Fender Tweed Deluxe

Song: Like A Hurricane
Artist: Neil Young

Neil Young is the godfather of grunge. bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana pay tribute to Neil’s wild, unleashed crunchy chords and ruckus feedback swirls in many of their songs. Neil sports his worn black beauty Les Paul, feeding his 1959 Tweed Deluxe on many of his classic tunes live and in the studio. One amazing part of Neil’s rig is the Whizzer. In order to access the Deluxe’s varying degrees of overdrive and gain, Young uses a custom-made amp-control switching device known simply as “the Whizzer,” which consists of 2 parts: the foot pedal and the mechanical switching device that physically turns the amp’s knobs. The Whizzer allows Young to stomp a footswitch on the floor to command the unit to twist the Deluxe’s volume and tone controls to any of a number of determined preset positions. This allows Neil to run a pure tone set up: guitar-cord-amp. No booster, overdrive, or distortion pedals are needed to achieve his classic agro-tone…just the little 50’s Fender Tweed Deluxe and the Whizzer.

Neil Young's 1959 Fender Tweed Deluxe Amp

Neil Young’s 1959 Fender Tweed Deluxe Amp

5. VOX AC30

Song: Bad
Arist: The Edge (U2)

The Edge is one of my all time favorite guitarists. He created a signature sound early on in his career with a Fender Stratocaster, Electro Harmonix Memory Man delay pedal and a VOX AC30 on albums such as WAR and The Unforgettable Fire. This winning combination has served him well from the early days all the way through recent records and live work. The Edge creates complex echo manipulations coupled with the airy chime of the Vox AC30. The Edge has used a massive catalog of guitars and multi FX units over the years, but the AC30 has remained a staple regardless of the other changes. These gear details coupled with his brilliant parts make U2’s catalog of songs distinguishable with just one note of the Edge’s guitar. Very few guitar players in history have created such a powerful and recognizable signature sound like The Edge.

The Edge's 1964 Vox AC30TB (Top Boost) Amp ['64 chassis in a 70's cabinet]

The Edge’s 1964 Vox AC30TB (Top Boost) Amp [’64 chassis in a 70’s cabinet

4. Supro Thunderbolt

Song: Communication Breakdown
Artist: Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin)

There has been a lot of speculation over the years regarding the amps that Jimmy Page used in the studio during the groundbreaking debut release Led Zeppelin. Jimmy will neither confirm nor deny which amp(s) were used in the studio, and there are no known photos in the archives to corroborate my story. But…based on the tones heard on the record, it is entirely possible that the Supro Thunderbolt was used. So in keeping with the mythical ethos of Led Zeppelin, I added it in to the mix.

Supro Thunderbolt Amp (front)

Supro Thunderbolt Amp (front)

Supro Thunderbolt Amp (back)

Supro Thunderbolt Amp (back)

Now, just to add to the mystery, here’s the Supro amp that Jimmy page gave to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s actually a Supro 1690T Coronado, but the features of the amp do not match up with details Jimmy previously provided when questioned about the Supro amp he used on Led Zeppelin. And the mystery continues…

The Supro 1690T Coronado that Jimmy Page gave to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The Supro 1690T Coronado that Jimmy Page gave to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Supro 1690T Coronado Amp (catalog ad)

Supro 1690T Coronado Amp (catalog ad)

3. Marshall Bass 50w #1986 (Head)

Song: Statesboro Blues
Artist: Duane Allman (Allman Brothers Band)

Anyone that loves electric guitar cannot deny the impact Duanne Allman had on the legacy of blues slide guitar. His liquid lines and fluid tone seem to jump from the neck of his Gibson Les Paul without effort. He used a simple rig of two 50 Watt Marshall heads into two 4 x 12-inch cabs. His tone on the legendary Allman Brothers recording Live at the Filmore East is a destination for anyone wanting to capture the ultimate blues tone. Nobody plays it the way Duane did. If you don’t own a copy of this record, I recommend you head to the record store and pick it up immediately because you are missing out on a legendary sound and performance.

Marshall Bass 50w Head Model #1986

Marshall Bass 50w Head Model #1986

Duane Allman's Last Show (Oct. 1971, Los Angeles)

Duane Allman’s Last Show (Oct. 1971, Los Angeles)

2. Dumble Overdrive Special

Song: Josie
Artist: Larry Carlton (Steely Dan)

During the 1970’s and 80’s Mr. 335 laid down over 500 tracks a year as a session player and on his own records. He is definitely one of LA’s guitar royalty. Armed with his trusty ’68 Gibson ES-335 and two Dumble Overdrive Special amps, his monster jazz fusion guitar line are unmistakable and can be heard all over popular music. Steely Dan’s 6th release, Aja, employed a huge jazz influence and was their most guitar heavy record to date. This was mostly in part to the amazingly tasty tones and licks from Larry Carlton. Aja is one of Steely Dan’s best and most popular records for sure. Mr. 335 obviously helped push that record to the top.

Larry Carlton's Dumble Overdrive Special Amps (2005)

Larry Carlton’s Dumble Overdrive Special Amps (2005)

1. Marshall Super Lead #1959 (12,000 Series Metal Panel Plexi 100-Watt)

Song: Running With The Devil
Artist: Eddie Van Halen

With the release of Van Halen I in 1978, the world of rock was changed forever. Edward Van Halen hit the scene with a new guitar sound that was so fast and furious no one had ever heard anything like it before. Eddie was a do-it-yourself kind of guy, always tweaking around with modded guitar pickups, different fx pedals on the floor and different ways to drive his Marshall amplifier into saturated overdrive. In the legend of EVH, many myths about how he created his early guitar tone have run rampant for decades. Speculation about DIY mods like power resistors across the power tubes plates, AC variacs to raise or lower the input voltage of the amp, and large resistant power loads over the speaker out have spawned endless articles and arguments on forums about how the legendary early EVH sound was created. Sketchy details from the era and no solid proof of what was used from EVH or his camp during those days continue to feed the tone chasers fuel tanks. And to this day the holy grail tone from Van Halen 1 has players frothing at the mouth. But you and I know the only real truth: The tone is 95% in the hands, and Eddie’s legendary sound has more to do with the notes he played rather than the tone in which he played it with.

Eddie Van Halen's Marshall Super Lead #1959 100-watt Plexi

Eddie Van Halen’s Marshall Super Lead #1959 100-watt Plexi

Eddie Van Halen's Marshall Super Lead #1959 100-watt Plexi

Eddie Van Halen’s Marshall Super Lead #1959 100-watt Plexi

Eddie Van Halen's Marshall Super Lead #1959 100-watt Plexi

Eddie Van Halen’s Marshall Super Lead #1959 100-watt Plexi

Mack Amps Heatseeker HS-18

How Much Guitar Amp Power Do I Need?

Do I need to have a loud amp? Is it worth buying a 100-watt guitar amp, or 15-watts will do? Our blog will answer all you need to know about how loud your guitar amp REALLY needs to be!

Amp wall

DInosaur Jr’s amps… most people will be fine with much less than that…

I believe that a guitar amp doesn’t need to have more than 50 watts of power… ever!

Heh! I can hear the clicking of many keyboards preparing their rebuttals to that comment!

It’s never wise to make such a sweeping generalization. But there is some sense behind my comment – at least I think so! My belief that more than 50 watts is a waste has to do with where guitarists play, the type of equipment available in live venues if a guitarist gigs, and how output power affects a guitar amp’s performance.

Guitar Amp Power Requirements Have Changed Over The Years

Back when rock and roll was young guitarists required huge amounts of back line power to fill ever larger live venues. Public Address or PA systems just weren’t up to the task of being used to amplify electric guitars so everyone in the room could hear. So, walls of 100 watt amps became a common site.

Today, if a guitarist plays a venue that would require 100s of watts of amp power to fill the room the venue will have the capability to mic the guitar amp. In that case, a 4 watt Gem or a Fender Champ could work just fine!

There’s also the unfortunate fact that some bands still insist on playing with punishingly high stage volume levels regardless of whether their amps are mic’ed. I’m not going to address this topic here – musicians should protect their hearing and the hearing of their audiences!

So, why aren’t all guitar amps under 10 watts? Because of tradition – that’s a BIG reason why lots of manufacturers still make high powered amps – and because different styles of music require different tones and varying amounts of clean headroom.

Guitar Amp Power Determines Clean Headroom

If you could compare two guitar amps that were identical in every way except one had more power than the other, what would you find?

Well, interestingly, Mack guitar amps make that comparison easy! For example, our Heatseeker amps – the Heatseeker HS-18 and now discontinued Heatseeker HS-36 – are identical amps except that the 18 features two EL84s producing about 18 watts and the 36 features four EL84s producing about 36 watts.

How are they different? The 36 has more clean headroom than the 18. Otherwise, in a ‘blind; testing they sound the same.

What? The 36 has to be MUCH louder than the 18 doesn’t it? After all it has twice the power! What gives??

Guitar Amp Power and How It Relates To Volume

OK, here’s the deal with power and how it relates to volume..

  1. Double guitar amp output power – increase volume by 3 dB. The decibel, or dB, is the unit of measurement for audible sound volume. The more dB, the louder the sound. An increase in sound volume of 3 dB is generally considered to be the smallest change in sound volume that the average human ear can detect!! That’s why the 36 doesn’t produce much of a noticeable difference in volume compared to the 18.
  2. Increase guitar amp output power 10 times – double the sound volume. It takes TEN TIMES the output power to double volume!! That means you have to play through a 100 watt amp to produce twice the volume as your 10 watt amp!!

So, jumping from a 25 watt amp to a 50 watt amp and then to a 100 watt amp will result in higher volume for sure. However, there won’t be nearly as much volume difference between the 25 watter and the 100 watter as you might expect. The 100 watter will be about 6 dB louder than the 25. You’ll hear the difference, but it won’t be huge. 25 watts is already REALLY LOUD! In fact, as you can now guess, 10 or 15 or 18 watts is LOUD AS HELL when you turn it up.

The above information is based on physics and how the human hear translates changes in air pressure – sound waves – to what our brain perceives as sound. It is also based on all things being equal other than output power – primarily that means that to perform comparisons you plugged the amps into the same speaker cabinets and played the same guitar through them with the same intensity.

How Many Guitar Amp Watts Do You REALLY Need?

This is how I help customers decide on how much power they really need. Bascially, we determine together how much clean headroom is required and select the amp on that basis.

Headroom is defined as being the volume at which the amp starts to overdrive or distort the incoming signal from your guitar. Fender Twins are known for producing LOUD clean tones – it’s extremely difficult to get that amp to overdrive. Therefore, it has LOTS of clean headroom.

A 1 watt amp designed to produce overdriven and distorted tones (basically more of a distortion pedal than an amp!) will overdrive at very low volume. This type of amp has very low clean headroom.

So, how do we figure out how much clean headroom and output power is required?

  1. Determine the syle of music. There are two extremes that relate power to music style to clean headroom. AC/DC cover band? Crunch all night with extra distortion for solos. Country band? Predominantly clean all night. The cleans have to be loud enough to keep up with your band’s stage volume.
  2. Determine how to get distortion for solos. Are you going to rely on your amp for distortion or are you going to set up your amp for cleans and use pedals?
  3. Determine the venues where the amp will be played. Do you only play at home? Do you occasionally jam with another guitarist or two? In a garage/basement band? Gig in small venues only? Large rooms? Stadiums? The jump from playing by yourself or with another guitarist to playing in a band is step that may require more clean headroom regardless of music style and method of generating distortion. The jump from a band setting in a small venue (basement, small bar) to a larger venue (bigger bar, halls, etc.) may require another increase in clean headroom. The key is to determine when/if your amp will be mid’ed and your band’s stage volume.

The louder you need clean tones the more headroom you need and the more power you require.

  • Playing music that requires lots of clean tones and you have to be loud enough to keep up with the band on stage? You need more headroom.
  • Do you rely on pedals for overdrive and distortion and your amp to be clean all the time? You need more headroom.
  • Do you want your amp to produce overdrive and distortion and loud cleans are not as important? You don’t need as much headroom – you want the amp to overdrive at lower volumes. You need to drive the amp into its sweet spot at a volume level that won’t make the first 5 rows of the audience look like those guys riding rocket sleds.

Now, not all amps are designed the same. Some amps of equal power are specifically designed with more or less headroom. It’s rare to get the opportunity to play an amp in your chosen venue before buying – whether you buy online or from a local store (ever tried to determine an amp’s clean headroom when the kid next to you is practicing tapping using that 100 watt Marshall?) – so you need to rely on knowledgeable players and the manufacturer to guide you. It also helps to have an unconditional, money-back guarantee so that you can get ALL your money back if for whatever reason it turns out that the amp you bought is not suitable (see Mack’s 100% Money Back Guarantee).

How Much Guitar Amp Power Is Enough?

Getting back to where we started, why do I think that 50 watts is all that would ever be required?

Because regardless of the clean headroom required, you should never be in a position where stage volume demands more power than 50 watts. A 50 watt amp turned up enough to get it into its sweet spot is PUNISHINGLY loud.

So, before you assume you need 100 watts because that’s what ___ uses, think about the music you play, how you get your overdriven/distorted tones and where you play. Then carefully consider how much power you REALLY need!

– Don Mackrill

1960’s Kay 507 Twin Ten Vintage Guitar Amp

I’ve only owned two Kay tube amps, and they were both keepers. One was a pretty standard (for its era) dual 6V6 with tremolo (a really rich and deep tremolo). It had a tone pretty close to the Silvertone 1482, its Dano-made Airline counterpart, the rare 1964 Ampeg Reverberocket with 6V6’s (wow, what an amp!) Lectrolab 600B (though this is the best of the bunch, IMO) and any number of other cheapie versions/variations of a Tweed Deluxe. It’s interesting that all these Chicago and New Jersey bargain companies were churning out these amps that now get called a “poor person’s Tweed Deluxe”—these great 6V6 amps with tons of snarl and growl long after Leo Fender had left Tweed pastures for the cleaner, tighter sound of the Tolex models. By 1964, when Danos and Lectrolabs were still sounding like proto-Neil Young dirt, Fender had long left behind the loose sag and grit of the Tweed Deluxe, replacing it with the much tighter, much stiffer (though still a cool amp) Deluxe Reverb.

Don’t get me wrong. The Deluxe Reverb is a great amp. But the Fenders I love pretty much all fall in the tweed era, where there wasn’t a ton of great headroom and you got into a nice snarl pretty early in the sweep of the volume knob.

1960's Kay 507 Twin Ten Vintage Guitar Amp

1960's Kay 507 Twin Ten Vintage Guitar Amp

You don’t see a bunch of the dual 6V6 single 12” Kays. The models you tend to see the most are the little (and somewhat anemic) single-ended practice amp, the 703. And the Kay tube amp you tend to see the least is the VERY cool duel 6L6 (sometimes) Kay 507 Twin Ten.

1960's Kay 507 Twin Ten Vintage Guitar Amp

1960's Kay 507 Twin Ten Vintage Guitar Amp

As the name suggests, the amp pushes two (ALNICO) 10” speakers powered by a pair of 6L6’s. What’s weird is that a LOT have 7868’s as output tubes and use a 7199 in the circuit. 7868’s have a great tone, in general. They are, from what I’ve read, essentially the same tube as a 7591, but with nine pins instead of eight. 7199’s got used a lot in Ampegs and Sanos and they are very rare and they aren’t made anymore, so they tend to cost a lot of dough. So, buyer beware (especially about the 7199) on this amp. BUT, the model I have has what are obviously original 6L6’s and no rare or obscure preamp tubes (five 12AX7’s do the preamp and phase inverter jobs) and the old stand-by 5U4 for rectification. Mine is all original—as the schematic inside matches what’s in the amp. But there seem to have been some variations on the construction of the 507—so, ask the seller about/check the tubes when buying so you know what your 507 has in it.

1960's Kay 507 Twin Ten Vintage Guitar Amp

1960's Kay 507 Twin Ten Vintage Guitar Amp

Also, it’s one of the coolest looking amps you’ll see. It has two channels (two inputs per channel), a VERY snazzy chrome rear control panel with six knobs (tone and volume for each channel and speed and intensity for the tremolo). And it has a very 50’s-looking two tone appearance (even though it lists that they were made 1960-1963), brown rear and light brown front with a white swirl on brown cloth grill. It’s a great size—not too heavy and 24” wide by 20” tall.

1960's Kay 507 Twin Ten Vintage Guitar Amp

1960's Kay 507 Twin Ten Vintage Guitar Amp

OK, it looks cool, but how does it sound? Pretty freaking cool. It sounds a lot like the other great Chicago amps of the same period. And this is where things get kind of interesting—who made these Kay amps? It has a tone very much like the great Valcos (which ended up branded, at various times, Supro, Airline and, in the 400 series, Harmony). And, like a Valco, it has a tone a bit like some of the great Lectrolabs, too (I’ve seen Lectrolabs branded under their own name and also with Philharmonic and the 300 series of Harmony amps). But, it’s not made by either Valco or Lectrolab (I get this info from a friend of mine who knows more about off-brand amps than anyone I know and has a collection to prove it). It also doesn’t look like a Valco or Lectrolab under the hood. It’s simply made differently (though it is point-to-point like both of those brand—no hand stuffed circuit board like on a Tweed Fender). According to my friend, it was Kay who actually made these Kay amps over these years (go figure). As I say, this friend knows a lot more than me and has written several books on the Chicago giants. Plus, it’s easy to tell from looking that it wasn’t made by Valco or Lectrolab. So, if it isn’t easy to tell who DID make it, at least we know who DIDN’T.

1960's Kay Dual 6V6 Vintage Guitar Amp

1960's Kay Dual 6V6 Vintage Guitar Amp

Whoever made it, though, it’s a wonderful amp. At low volume, you get a VERY rich and textured clean sound. The two ten inch speakers sound great and the cleans are very complex, much like a Tweed Fender Super from the early 50’s. This is one of the richest, thickest (without being overly dark) cleans I have ever heard in a vintage amp. And when you add the tremolo, wow! It moves from a VERY slow, pulsing tremolo, to a pretty fast one—but it never gets totally choppy and helicopter-sounding like a lot of the late 60’s tremolos. Throughout the range of the “strength” control, the tremolo stays watery and smooth. Just a killer sound.

1960's Kay Dual 6V6 Vintage Guitar Amp

1960's Kay Dual 6V6 Vintage Guitar Amp

Turned up, it sounds more like a 6V6 amp than most 6L6 amps I’ve ever heard. Very Neil Young and Crazy Horse. If you push the volume on the channel you’re using to 6 or higher, it starts to really snarl and have a complex great sounding distortion. The volume and tone controls are interactive, too, so you can get some very nice textures of distortion by either coupling the channels with a short cord, or just playing with the volume of the channel you’re not using. Open it up full and put the other channel around 5 or 6 and it sounds VERY much like Neil Young’s tone on RAGGED GLORY—that opening of “Country Home” sounds spot on when this amp is cranked.

1960's Kay Dual 6V6 Vintage Guitar Amp

1960's Kay Dual 6V6 Vintage Guitar Amp

It’s a sleeper. And there don’t seem to be too many of them out there. I haven’t heard the 7868 output tube version of this amp, but I’d sure like to. In any case, if you see one of the 507 Twin Tens with 6L6 output tubes, I’d buy it in a heartbeat. I’m doing a MAJOR purge around here—selling at least five guitars and five amps. And I kept going back and forth on the Kay 507. Then I plugged it in to write this and I decided I’d be nuts to get rid of it. There simply aren’t that many of them. And I don’t want to feel like I felt about letting go of my 4X6V6 Danelectro Challenger with a 15 inch speaker. That was another super rare amp I let go of, and I still get angry at myself. From now on, I’ve vowed to only get rid of stuff I could easily replace if I truly regretted the sale. So this one stays.

Better Now or Then? – The Tone Survey Results!!!

Better Now or Then? – The Tone Survey Results!!
As promised, this month we’ll take a look at the results of The Tone Survey.

Last month, I published a survey that asked questions about the state of electric guitar tone as it is today vs. what I called the “golden age” of rock and roll.

If you missed it you can find the survey here.

Survey Questions & Results:

Mackrill Tone Survey 2010: Question 11) There’s lots of high quality gear available if you’re willing to pay for it, but how has the flood of inexpensive gear affected tone quality in general?

  • 62% – I believe that, compared to the golden age of rock and roll, the average piece of gear’s tone quality has decreased.
  • 38% – I believe that, compared to the golden age of rock and roll, the average piece of gear’s tone quality is at least as good.

Mackrill Tone Survey 2010: Question 2

2) Compared to the 60’s and 70’s, has the glut of inexpensive gear on the market caused a general decline in electric guitar tone as heard on recordings, in live venues and at home?

  • 59% – I believe that, in general, electric guitar tone is not as good as it was in the 60’s and 70’s.
  • 41% – I believe that, in general, electric guitar tone is at least as good as it was in the 60’s and 70’s.

Mackrill Tone Survey 2010: Question 3

3) With all this inexpensive gear at their fingertips, do today’s guitarists spend less time working on their craft and more on finding equipment to make them sound “good”?

  • 74% – I believe that, in general, today’s guitarists spend less time perfecting their skills and more time trying to find gear that will make them sound good.
  • 26% – I believe that, in general, today’s guitarists spend at least as much time perfecting their skills as they did in the 60’s and 70’s.

The results were conclusive and interesting!

In general, the majority of the over 120 survey respondents believe that the electric guitar world was a better place in the 60’s and 70’s.

60% of them believe that gear and recorded/live guitar tone sounded better back then.

However, when it came to how much effort guitarists invest in improving their skills, almost 75% of respondents said that today’s guitarists are slackers compared to the good old days.

Comments ranged from wistful nostalgia and anecdotes from back in the day to virtual shots to the head demanding that guitarists get over vintage envy and take advantage of the cornucopia of gear available to today’s guitarist.

Click here to check out all of the survey comments.

So, are you surprised by the results?

Does it confirm that the gear market and guitarists in general have strayed from the path of tonal nirvana and earnest sweat and toil or that most of us are hopelessly stuck in the past?

Should the gear industry take note and make product development decisions on what appears to be a majority view that, on average, their products just aren’t as good as they once were or should they forge ahead taking as much advantage of technological development as possible?

Email me at Don@MackAmps.com with your thoughts and if I get enough feedback I’ll discuss the deeper issues related to this topic in next month’s article.

Don Mackrill

Better Now or Then? (The Tone Survey!)

Is electric guitar tone better now than it was in rock’s ‘golden age’ in the 60’s and 70’s? A recent article titled “Is It Tougher To Get Good Tone Now Vs. Then?” on Jay Kumar’s fantastic Woody Tone site explores that very question. Quoted from the article, guitarist and producer Dave Cobb, who recently recorded a new album with Black Robot, believes that “Everything was better back then.”

Says Dave:

The guitars were American-made and made at the height of American craftsmanship, the Marshalls were made with quality parts, and you had quality players – you couldn’t record a record unless you had a high level of ability.  Plus studios had the best mics in the world, they had good consoles and tape. Now we might have more stuff available, but it’s not as high-quality.

Jay goes on to ponder the current state of electric guitar gear and whether it is actually more difficult to get what he calls “a convincing, old-school rock tone” than it was when Page, Clapton and Beck were young. So, here’s the deal!  I thought I would ask what you think about this topic…

First, read Jay’s article. Then click on the link below to take a quick four question survey and tell me what YOU think!


As always, I’ll share the results next month!!


Don Mackrill – Don@MackAmps.com

PS: Check out another article on Woody Tone: “Mack of Mack Amps on EL84s and Tone Controls”. In this two part interview I explain why I like EL84s, how the Heatseeker line of amps came about and why I don’t like TMB tone stacks!!

PPS: Join the Mack Amps mailing list and take advantage of the current Member’s-Only discount on Heatseeker HS-18 and Skyraider SR-15 boutique amps!

Getting Great Guitar Sound On Stage

Guitar, check. Amp, check. Cables, check. Effects, check. You’ve got all the gear necessary to get a great sound on stage. Aside from the guitar player’s skill, why do some sound better than others?


This month we’ll look at a few aspects of getting a good live sound. While this article is mostly aimed at those of us with who have don’t have much or any stage experience, there may be something of interest here for almost anyone.

Last week I had the genuine pleasure of attending a League of Rock ‘dark stage’ rehearsal night at Toronto’s famous Chick’n Deli night club. This was an opportunity for the six bands in the current session to rehearse their three songs on a real stage – and in this case, somewhat unexpectedly, in front of a real audience.

League of Rock is the creation of Terry Moshenberg, a dynamic entrepreneur and experienced marketer and promoter – who also happens to be a guitar playing musician.

Each LOR session, of which there are three per year, some 26 to 30 amateur musicians – ‘regular’ folks, some of whom have never before been in a band let alone performed live – are formed into six ‘bands’ and, over a 12 week period, work up three songs. Each session culminates in a recording date in a pro studio and the final gala gig at a major Toronto live music venue.

So, how did I end up at a LOR gig? Well, Mack Amps is pleased to announce that it is now the official guitar amp sponsor of LOR, Toronto!

Along with meeting a bunch of great people and having a blast, witnessing 18 songs being performed by a diverse group of guitar players who, for the most part, used various Mack amps (2 guys brought their own amps!), was a tremendous live guitar sound learning experience.

Here are some thoughts about what I learned.

The Guitar’s Place In The Stage Mix

I think of live guitar ‘sound’ as being comprised of two concepts: how good is the tone and can it be heard by you and the audience?

Consider what is going on when a typical rock band performs live:

  • Drums: A drum kit produces a tremendous amount of sound energy with fundamental frequencies that range from the bass part of the audible frequency spectrum to mid range. Harmonics of fundamental tones reach all the way into the high midrange and even high frequency portions of the spectrum. You might be surprised at how much high frequency sound energy is present in a kick drum thwack not to mention toms!
  • Cymbals. Of course, cymbals produce lots of high-mid and high frequency sound energy. However, their fundamental tones are centered in the mid range.
  • Bass. True to its name, the bass produces fundamental tones in the bass to mid range frequencies.
  • Vocalist. The vocalist is producing mid range fundamentals with high-mid and high frequency harmonics.
  • Keyboards. If your band includes keyboards, they can be pumping out sound that spans the entire frequency spectrum from sub-bass to highs.

The guitar’s fundamental tones span bass to mid range frequencies and the guitar’s harmonics add energy in the high-mid range.

If you simplify each instrument’s frequency range to be generally characterized by its fundamental tones you can get a fairly realistic picture of what’s happening on stage:

  • Lots of bass and low-mid energy from drums and bass.
  • Lots of high-mid and high frequency energy from cymbals, vocals and often keys.
  • Lots of mid range energy from low frequency instrument harmonics and lower fundamental tones from vocals and keys.

There is a LOT of competition on stage fighting to be heard!

Obviously, guitars are a critical part of a band’s sound and are known for being heard, but how do you obtain that ideal combination of stellar tone that is easily heard by both you and your audience?

EQing guitars in a recording mix is a topic of many books and is well beyond the scope of this article. However, there are a few simple things that any guitarist can do to get good live sound.

Analyze Your Guitar Tone

Your tone may sound great when you are practicing at home or playing along with recordings. However, it may not translate well to the live stage.

A fairly common characteristic of what I heard the other night is guitar sounds that seemed muffled and lost in the low-mid wash of sound booming from the stage.

In these situations the guitar players usually increased the volume at the amp in an effort to hear themselves, further adding to the general pandemonium going on in the lower half of the audio spectrum.

What to do? Here are two very basic, but critical suggestions:

  1. Turn your guitar volume to 10. Many, but not all guitars feature a ‘volume control bypass capacitor’. No, that’s not something from a Star Trek episode, it’s an electronic component wired across a guitar volume control that prevents your tone from becoming muffled (reduction in high midrange frequencies) as the volume is turned down. If your guitar does NOT have one, whenever you turn down its volume your tone will generally lose presence and recede into the mix. In this case keep your guitar’s volume at 10 to help you stand out. If your guitar does have a volume bypass cap, it’s still a good idea for you to have all of your guitar volume pots full up when you hit the stage and adjust your sound before the first song’s count-in. This will ensure that you are tweaking your sound with the most signal possible coming from your guitar and gives you the best chance of avoiding a gear adjustment that will actually fight against getting a good stage sound.
  2. Turn your guitar tone to 10. Guitar tone controls have one function: they roll of high and high mid range frequencies. Since we are trying to achieve optimum ‘sound’ – the combination of great tone that is easily heard by you and your audience – and since guitar tone ‘lives’ in the upper and high mid range frequencies, it makes sense to hit the stage with tone on 10. As with guitar volume, this gives you the best opportunity to properly adjust your gear and it ensures that you do not inadvertently roll of the highs and cause your sound to recede into the mix. Having said that, there are times when a tone control adjustment is certainly warranted: for example, removing the ‘ice pick’ quality from some Teles or getting Eric Clapton ‘woman’ tone from a humbucker guitar. But, generally tone on 10 will help you cut through the mix.

3 Ways To Get Clean Electric Guitar Tone On-Stage

The term ‘clean headroom’ is often used, but having spoken to many guitarists over the years there is generally some confusion as to what it means.

The practical definition of clean headroom is the volume level at which your guitar signal starts to become distorted. The volume at which your tone just starts to breakup or overdrive is the point of maximum clean headroom. How loud you can get a clean tone depends on many variables such as how hard you pick, pickup output level, amp design and settings, etc.

There are three ways to achieve a clean tone:

  1. Guitar volume 10, amp clean. Your basic sound is clean and, if you use overdrive and distortion it will come from pedals.
  2. Guitar volume less than 10, amp dirty. In this case you set up your amp for a distorted tone and roll off your guitar volume to get a clean tone. Your distorted tone is only a flip of the guitar volume away. Note that this contradicts my earlier recommendation to leave your guitar volume on 10. “Switching” from clean to overdrive and distortion via your guitar volume control is a great strategy if your guitar volume pot is set up properly (see above) and your amp is sensitive enough to changes in guitar volume. Some amps do a great job of changing their tone with guitar volume changes and some don’t – check our your amp to see how it responds.
  3. Guitar volume 10, amp channel switching. If your amp has multiple channels one is usually adjusted for a clean tone and one for an overdriven or distorted tone.

Any of the above methods of achieving a loud clean tone is valid. The one you choose depends on your gear, the music you play and whether switching tones within a song is a necessity.

Note that a clean tone will most likely have a better chance of cutting through the stage mix. Generally, the balance of upper and high mids will be greater than an overdriven or distorted tone and your guitar sound will be less compressed allowing your picking and playing dynamics to be heard.

Distorted Electric Guitar Tone On-Stage

Whoever came up with the phrase “Less is more” must have been referring to distorted electric guitar tone!

You will likely have heard this before, but some of the heaviest electric guitar tones feature relatively little distortion.

For example, Keith Richards, ACDC, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, etc. have recorded some of the heaviest rock guitar sounds ever – and many of these iconic ‘heavy’ tones are really not all that distorted.

I realize that LOTS of great guitar tones feature LOTS of distortion, but to achieve the best stage guitar sound for classic rock and blues music styles, dialing down the distortion is almost always beneficial.

While there are many flavors of distortion – overdrive, fuzz, etc. – I generally think about it related to two needs: rhythm and lead.

If a song requires a distorted rhythm tone, often referred to as ‘crunch’, the ‘less is more’ credo is critical. Richards and the Young brothers are the masters of getting incredibly juicy, resonant and HEAVY crunch tones that are, when you listen closely, amazingly clean relative to their impact.

The distortion required for lead playing is dependent on the song and the player. However, I believe that the ‘right’ amount of distortion for solos is just enough to produce ‘flow’. What’s flow? It’s that musical moment where your tone is distorted and compressed enough and possesses enough sustain that the player can focus on their performance without having to ‘fight’ their way through a solo.

This may sound kind of esoteric, but I am sure you have wrestled with solos where your tone wasn’t quite there – either there wasn’t enough sustain or not enough distorted breakup and compression. Dialing up the distortion to get to that point of ‘flow’ alleviates the problem, but overdoing it will cause your sound to, once again, recede into the stage mix.

I also believe that the amount of distortion needed to obtain flow varies according to the song. Heavy songs with lots of crunch backing the solo requires more distortion; a much less distorted tone is often the perfect fit for obtaining flow with ‘lighter’ songs.

Having said that, I know there are lots of examples of impossibly distorted solos in otherwise clean songs and clean solos in heavy songs – in those cases the contrast is what works. However, I believe that a good rule of thumb is to use just as much distortion as it takes to get you into flow – and no more.

What happens if you use too much distortion on stage?

Your tone won’t fit the song and will negatively impact the quality of your band’s overall sound and its performance. Part of getting a great stage sound is making sure your audience isn’t cringing even if they can hear you LOUD and clear. Since the primary objective of performing live is to provide your audience with an enjoyable experience, this problem should be avoided at all costs!

Worse yet, using too much distortion can overly compress your tone and, depending on how the distorted tone is EQ’d, there can be a dramatic perceived loss in highs and clarity and you end up not blending in with the song and not being heard properly! I suppose that if your tone is negatively affecting the overall performance, not being heard might be a good thing, but I think you get my point.

How do you easily get the right amount of distortion on stage?

So,this is how to best get a distortion sound on stage and still be heard properly:

  1. Crunch. My favorite method of getting good crunch is from an amp – preferably one that features power tube distortion. Richards and the Youngs rely on plugging a great guitar into a great amp and turning it up until they get the tone they want. Although there are lots of overdrive and boost pedals that can get crunch tones, for the most part you will find that amp crunch is more dynamic, resonant and pleasing to the ear. Dynamics are important because a good amp will respond to your picking attack by changing the amount of crunch. Organically altering your distorted tone by playing harder and softer during a song is FUN!
  2. Lead. This is where pedals can really come into play. Stomping on a box to elevate your tone for solos is a classic method. However, you can get great amp lead tone by setting your amp for lead distortion and rolling your guitar volume down for clean/crunch and up for solos. Or, if you have a multi-channel amp it is easy to set up rhythm and lead tones.

There are many more aspects of live guitar sound that we haven’t covered. If there is enough interest in this topic I’ll continue next month.

Let me know how you get great live guitar tone by emailing me at Don@MackAmps.com or simply post your reply, below!

Don Mackrill

The Ideal Guitar Amp: Survey Results

Last month 233 readers filled out the Ideal Guitar amp survey! Based on your responses everyone had a lot of fun, but maybe not as much fun as I had reading all of your comments! Many thanks to all those who took the time to complete the survey.

So, what’s the ideal amp? Let’s find out!

The Ideal Guitar Amp

The following composite descriptions of the Unlimited Budget and Limited Budget Ideal amps are based on the most selected features (in some cases I used the mid-point of a range of selections if they were equal in popularity).

Unlimited Budget

  • Head configuration
  • 50 watts
  • 6L6 power tubes
  • Tube rectifier
  • Treble-middle-bass tone controls
  • Tonality: great cleans and ‘shred’ preamp distortion
  • Two preamp channels
  • $2,500

Limited Budget

  • Combo configuration, 1×12
  • 18 watts
  • 6V6 power tubes
  • Tube rectifier
  • Treble-middle-bass tone controls
  • Tonality: great cleans and ‘shred’ preamp distortion
  • One or two preamp channels
  • $750

Following are the compiled results from each question.

Musical styles:

On average each respondent selected 2 music styles.

  • 80% play rock music.
  • 40% play blues. (DOH! I can’t believe I left this category out. Thanks to all you blues players for using the ‘Other’ category to write in your preference.)
  • 25% play country.
  • The rest are spread out over jazz, metal, fusion, surf, garage, noise, grunge, ska, gospel, swing, “folk noise Americana” and “post-rock biiiing biiiing sounds” (whoever plays that PLEASE send me a sound clip!).


As you can see, it is quite clear that $2,500 seems to be the sweet spot of the ‘Unlimited Budget’ (UB) price point. It’s interesting that there are about as many people willing to pay no more than $1,500 as there are those willing to pay $5,000 for their dream amp!

The ‘Limited Budget’ (LB) sweet spot is wider spanning $500 to $1,000.


When asked “What are you going to do with your ideal amp” the answers were evenly spread across playing at home, jamming, rehearsal, gigging and studio recording. There was slightly more interest in using the UB amp for gigs and in the studio, while the LB amp would get slightly more use at home.

Head or Combo?

The UB amp is slightly more likely to be a head (55%) than a combo (45%). The LB amp is most likely to be a combo as selected by 65% of respondents vs. a head selected by 35%.

Output Power

UB amps will have a fairly wide range of power spanning 30 to 100 watts.

LB amps will be lower powered with 15 to 20 watts being the clear preference. There’s a reason why there are so many amps available in this power range!

Almost all of the respondents who selected the ‘Other’ choice identified a desire for the ability to adjust the power of their UB or LB amps whether that be a continuous adjustment or switching power levels.

Power Tube Preference


Clearly 6V6s and 6L6s are the preferred tube for the ideal amp. As can be seen, V6s are the preferred choice for LB amps while L6s are the UB choice. This makes sense when desired output power is considered: 6L6s produce more power than 6V6s, which matches with the UB vs. LB desired power output.

Power Supply Rectifier
70% of UB amp designers selected tube rectifiers for their ideal amp compared to 50% for LB amps. Of the non-tube rectifier responses most said they didn’t care whether the rectifier was tube or solid state.

Flexibility: Range of Tones

These results surprised me, which makes me think that I didn’t do a good job of selecting the categories. However, the data shows that, regardless of budget, EVERYONE wants an amp that does great cleans and produces shred levels of preamp distortion. That’s surprising because virtually no one said they played shred-type music!!!

Preamp Channels


Predictably, LB amps were designed to be more simple with fewer channels than UB amps. However, there was a strong desire for even the LB amps to have built-in flexibility from 2 channels.

Single Channel Design


These results underscore my belief that the questions regarding tonal flexibility were not well conceived. The above chart shows that in a circumstance where an amp has only one channel, guitarists DO NOT want preamp distortion. That contradicts the Flexibility results shown above where it appears that most guitarists want shred preamp distortion in their amps!

The single channel preamp design question was much more clear than the flexibility question, which leads me to believe that its results are more reliable than the flexibility results.

Tone Controls
No surprises here. Regardless of budget, guitar players prefer treble-middle-bass (TMB) tone controls. They would be found on over 70% of UB amps and 60% of LB amps – 20% of LB amp owners would be OK with treble and bass controls. A presence control was a popular addition for those who selected ‘Other’.


There was widespread response regarding the inclusion of effects. However, no one effect received support from even one half of respondents. The most popular effect is reverb, only one in three think it should be included in their ideal amp.

Thankfully, digital multi-effects were generally ignored by the ideal amp respondents. As can be seen, reverb and tremolo/vibrato were relatively popular, but none of the options provided were wildly popular. That would indicate that guitarists questing after their ideal amp are mostly focussed on tone and not effects.

Combo Configuration
60% of UB amps would feature two speakers and 70% of respondents wanted 12″ speakers in their UB amp. LB combos were more or less evenly split between one and two speakers (49% and 46% respectively), but a strong preference was still shown for 12″ speakers with 65% of respondents selecting them.

The Last Word
When asked what else they would add to their ideal amps, LOTS of ideas were thrown out including:

  • Stand by switch
  • Wheels
  • Various colors
  • Ceramic tube sockets
  • Hand wired circuit board
  • Specific tube rectifier models
  • Switchable negative feedback
  • EF86 preamp
  • Speaker impedance selector
  • Dual power amp – high power for cleans, low power for distortion
  • Fire-spitting jets that flame up during a solo!

Send me an email with your comments about the results of the Ideal Amp survey: Don@MackAmps.com.