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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.
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