Premier Guitar

The Amp Quest, part 1

March 16, 2007

Amp Quest
the Amp Quest
One Player’s Search for the Perfect Amp. Pt.1

I’ve been an acoustic guitarist almost all my life, so imagine my surprise when I fell in love with an electric guitar. Sure, it’s a hollow-body electric, but electric all the same. I knew they were different animals, and made to do different things; the setups were different, the strings were different – and they certainly make a songwriter write differently.



I had no earthly idea, however, what awaited me as I began to look for an amp to go with the thing. Admittedly, I’ve never had to know about electric guitar amps because I had a box that was really pretty self contained – you pick it up, it makes noise; you find the best pickups you can to represent the sound of the guitar and plug into a decent acoustic guitar amp or PA system and bada-boom, bada-bing, you’re in business. How naive I was to expect this to be as uncomplicated as that.


THE SETUP
Frankly, as an acoustic player, I’m spoiled. I love the sound of my guitars, and early on in my career LR Baggs sent me some of his pickups – they captured the sound of my Gallagher acoustics perfectly. Crate made one of the first acoustic amps back in the early 90s, and I had one of those; I switched over to a Peavey Ecoustic 112 after a couple years; I even used an AER Acousticube for a while, and am now using an Ultrasound.

They are all very different amps, but they all have one thing in common: when you turn them up, they get louder. They don’t sound any differently at 7 than they do at 3, just louder. I thought that an electric guitar amp should do the same thing – if you like your sound, why can’t you have it in a range of volumes?

I consulted experts, I went to stores, I played more amps than I can count, and in the first round I ended up with a Crate GT-212. It had a great clean channel, and it did, in fact, just get louder when you turned it up. It was warm and rich sounding, and it made me pretty happy, except for the fact that it was really big and weighed far too much.

Amp Quest Then one day, I turned on my Crate and it made a noise worthy of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I took the amp to the store where I had purchased it to see about getting it repaired, and learned that a new company had acquired Crate and they weren’t authorizing repairs anymore. They sent my amp back to the factory and I got a new amp, which sounded nothing like the one I had originally purchased. I knew I was going to have to start the search over.

I decided this time I was going to get an amp with a great clean sound, soft or loud, that didn’t weigh a ton and would fit comfortably in the back of my VW Beetle. I need to be able to use it for recording, so it has to be clean – I record with only a drummer, so it’s critical that the sound of the guitar is what gets recorded, not hum, buzz or hiss. I also need to use it live, so it’s got to have the guts to allow me to be heard over the top of my drummer, Eric Douglas, and let him stretch out and get into the groove without having to worry about stepping all over me. The other application I need is for my son, who is 15 years old and plays punk rock on his Parker Fly Classic with lots of distortion.


THE QUESTIONS
I knew I had to ask a lot of questions, and I’d like to share a few things that really helped me in this search. Ask yourself what you really need: a stage amp, a studio amp, or a practice amp? What are you looking for, tonally? How much money do you have to spend? Do size and weight factor into your decision? Do you want tube or solid state? What kind of guitars will you be playing through it? Do you have pedals or will you need built-in effects? What style of music do you play?



Listen to people whose music you like – if you can ask them what they use, get their input. If you can’t ask them, they often have links or blurbs on their web pages about their rig. Do the research. Ask people that you know whose ears you respect for their opinion. When you begin to narrow your search, pick up a gear mag and start going to the web sites for the amps you think you are interested in. If you really feel drawn to something, call the customer service people and ask them specific questions about your applications and whether their amp might be a fit. When you narrow it down to the ones you’re really interested in, be sure to try them out in a store if at all possible – and bring your guitar and any pedals or effects you use along. Try it and leave. If you really liked it, come back and listen another day with fresh ears.

Ask if you can take it home to try overnight. See how it sounds and works in the environment that you are most familiar with and that you have the most control over. One of the most important things is to use your ears – you have to hear what you like.


THE RIG
I have an Ibanez Artcore AF-105 Custom, and I love the feel of it but wanted a little more brilliance, richness and balance in the sound, so I asked Seymour Duncan to make some custom pickups for it. He took a SH-11 bridge pickup and wound it as a neck pickup, which he paired with a handwound Duncan Custom SH-5 bridge pickup. I had Bill Hook at The Guitar House in North Liberty, Iowa, install them and change out the pots, switches and wiring with higher quality components so the signal is perfectly pristine. After testing it out at Bill’s shop, I knew I needed a spectacular amp to capture this gorgeous new sound.

I also have a couple pedals from Aphex – I use a Punch Factory compressor and a Bass Xciter. These two pedals add incredible depth, richness and life to the sound and I won’t leave home without them.

My husband Curtis, the engineer tasked with recording Eric and I, had some requirements of his own. He was less concerned with price than he was with sound and function, but he was adamant about the amp’s self-noise – it had to be minimal. He also didn’t want me compromising on something vital and ending up having to find something else six months or a year from now.

I tried a lot of amps and talked to a lot of people. I quickly learned that every guitar player has their own unique idea of what constitutes good tone, and there are big differences in what is desirable between jazz players, blues players and rock players. A lot of times I almost felt like I needed to apologize for loving the sound of my guitar and just wanting to hear that. Sometimes I’d tell someone I wanted an amp with minimal self-noise and I could hear the hum and hiss from across the room. “This is the quietest amp in here, lady,” they’d say.

As an acoustic player, I developed a style that’s very aggressive on the attack. I play with a lot of articulation and rely on the sustain to make the sound bigger and fuller. Often, I was advised to put a gate into the chain to get rid of the amp self-noise, and that’s not a bad thought, but you lose a lot of the exact things that make me sound like me by doing it that way.

In the end, I don’t think I played a bad amp - there are just a lot of amps out there that don’t do what I want. That’s okay. I eventually found one that does. We’ll talk about that next month.

Click here for part 2