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This month we’re going to take a deeper look at the connections between the guitarist and the amplifier he/she is using. Last month, we began simplifying the signal chain so you could see how string gauge can profoundly affect your style of playing. We also saw how this influences your hands in the way you play your guitar. Hopefully, you’ve had an opportunity to try a different gauge (and/or style of string) to see how it worked with your own guitar.
For now, I’m going to assume that you at least tried something slightly different. You have just struck the strings and the converted electrical energy from those strings is now racing down the guitar cable towards the input stage of the amplifier. The amp will react to the actual gauges of the strings (and how hard you’ve struck them) in one of two ways; in regards to the first way, let’s assume that you’ve just kerranged a heavier set of strings (13-56) really hard. This “bigger” signal will enter the input stage of a tube amplifier as a high spiking wave that will sound a bit fuzzy. What’s actually happening is that this strong high signal wave (aka amplitude) will hit the amplifier’s input and fall about 20 decibels downward before any real sustain is heard. 20 decibels is a hell of a lot of signal loss!
Now, let’s say you’ve just hit that same exact “big” chord, only this time you’re using lighter strings (9-42, for example). What will happen this time is the initial attack will show up at the amp’s input stage with a much lower amplitude – opposite of the heavier set above – and the decay of the lighter string will also be hovering above that level where the heavier set’s level was dropped to when it came toppling down (about 20 decibels, remember?) from that higher attack amplitude. This means that the lighter string will be heard with more sustain because it is riding higher above in amplitude – naturally due to the mass of the string vibrating more freely, as we discussed in last month’s column.
Still with me here? Now let’s introduce another element to the party. I’ll use Paul Kossoff (of Free with Paul Rodgers featured on vocals) right here as a pointed example of having a very distinct sound/ tone. It’s been said after looking at old footage of Free shows that Kossoff literally “jumped for sustain!” You could see him jump up and down as he would vibrato a note to keep it going. Why was this happening? Paul Kossoff used a Marshall 1987 Bass head most of the time. We can assume that the tubes in Kossoff’s head were fairly fresh and I am told by the Mad Professor himself, Bjorn Juhl of BJFE Electronics, that as a tube ages the gain of that tube stays about the same; however, the inherent distortion will rise and the bandwidth will diminish. Therefore, an amplifier with worn down tubes will distort easier than it would with fresh tubes and with worn down tubes the bandwidth would be narrower.
We can further assume from Kossoff’s playing style that he had to use heavier strings (a 10-52 or 11-52 set) as a bit of stiff tension would be required for the strings to stay within the boundaries of the fretboard. Paul Kossoff was once a salesman at a Selmer’s music store in London and that Selmer also carried their own brand of strings. The Selmer Light Gauge set was gauged 11-14-17-31-42-47 and it would be more than likely that he used this set on his Les Paul during that same time period (ca. 1970 or slightly before). If you listen carefully you’ll notice that, all things considered, Kossoff’s tone was pretty clean. He would literally fight both his guitar and amp to keep that note going by literally keeping the string in motion.
This is a textbook example of how you can develop your own sound by getting to know all of your gear intimately. These days we can easily reverse engineer what must have been a “happy accident” for Kossoff at the time. Back in 1970 the gear dictated what you would play as opposed to today, where we have many more options to sculpt our sound. Different times indeed!
Another thing that can influence the way you “play” an amplifier is whether you have switched the position of the tubes in the amp and see whether they sound better in a different order. Did you also know that preamp tubes will actually can get better as you play them? With some of the New Old Stock preamp tubes (like the famous “NOS” brands/rebrands such as the original Telefunken “waffleplate” 12AX7/ ECC83 types), they have a huge tendency to sound much better after you have played them in for a couple of years, minimum. My very dear, late friend, Ken Fischer of Trainwreck Circuits told me about this piece of trivia as he sold me a couple of these original Telefunken ECC83 tubes several years ago. My profound thanks to both Bjorn Juhl of BJF Electronics, Stockholm Sweden and the late, great Ken Fischer of Trainwreck Circuits who blessed me with 26 years of knowledge about amps and guitars. We’ll see you next month!
Dean Farley is the chief designer of "Snake Oil Brand Strings" (www.sobstrings.net) and has had a profound influence on the trends in the strings of today