This vintage 100-watt Marshall head sports English-made Mullard EL34 power tubes. If you
ever get to play a similar rig—or even own one—you’ll have the luxury of experiencing one
of rock guitar’s most fundamental sounds.
Most everyone has heard the term
“boutique” applied to musical gear.
Though it once signified unique items
made in low numbers by small shops or
individual artists, it’s now merely a marketing
term that even the biggest of the big
throw around at will. The same goes with
having a custom shop, which seems to be a
required add-on for almost every factory.
Yet, above and well beyond the upper
limits of custom, boutique, or limited editions,
there exists an even more exclusive
domain: luxury items. This stratum inhabited
by items that few know—and even fewer
own—is a business model that isn’t taught
in school. Instead, it is driven by the relentless
search for expression. I’d like to think
of luxury as something so well made and
rare, that it is passed down through generations
with its relevance unscathed. One
such luxury item is experience. And while it
cannot be bought, it can be shared.
Not everyone has the luxury of years of
experience to reflect upon when considering
a DIY amplifier (or guitar) project.
This was hammered home when a friend
who wanted to build a tube amp for his
14-year-old son recently approached me
for input. Although the father is both an
audiophile and no stranger to fabricating
bike and motorcycle parts, trying to decipher
the guitar speak found on the various
amp-kit websites was trying his patience.
So, I suggested they bring a guitar over
to my shop’s “tone pit” to audition some
old-school amps. My thinking was that the
first step should be determining the type of
gain structure, and then deciding between
the Euro-style EL output tubes and the
’murican-style 6V6/6L6 sounds. The reason
for the hands-on test was because a guitar
reacts differently with every amp—it was
just a matter of finding a match.
My friend and his guitarist offspring
arrived at the determined time with a gig
bag in hand. The weapon of choice was
a satin-black semi-hollow affair with two
humbuckers and a fixed bridge—the kind of
instrument you’d encounter in a mega guitar
store or online catalog. It played well and
the build quality was very tidy. And while
I half expected the tuning to be dropped
a few tones, it was in standard pitch. Also
to my surprise, the young man’s repertoire
included a host of classic-rock styles—he’d
obviously raided his father’s music library.
It was marvelous to see a young guitarist
reaching back in time to learn what had
come before he was even born. Zeppelin,
Yes, and a slew of other bands were represented,
along with some more current selections
that fit the pattern as well.
When I asked him what kind of amp
he was currently using, he explained that
his rig was a modeling amp, which offered
a wide variety of sounds. And from the
way he said it, I sensed that he might not
want to be locked down to a tube-fired,
one-trick pony. After spending some time
jumping from amp to amp, he began playing
Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary.”
At that point, I suggested he plug my old
Strat into a vintage 100-watt Marshall.
Eureka! The synergy between guitar and
amp elicited a saucer-eyed response from
our young player, and his dad realized
there was no turning back.
The point is not that modeling amps
aren’t good, or that old stuff is better. It’s
just that some things have to be experienced
to be understood and believed. And
it takes dedication and the will to seek out
practical contact with the facts. Techniques
and solutions that are a mystery to you now
may become clearer through articles like
this one, but they are not a substitute for
real-world knowledge. Instead, they should
serve as a guide that encourages you to try
as many things as possible. Over time, you
will achieve the luxury of knowledge—something
that can’t be found in a boutique.
noted designer, builder,
and player who co-founded
one of the first boutique
guitar brands, in 1973.
Today, as the director of
Dantzig Guitar Design, he continues to
help define the art of custom guitar. To
learn more, visit guitardesigner.com