To get inspired by someone’s guitar playing, I need to bond with their tone. Perhaps other guitarists and tone nerds feel the same way? I believe most people will appreciate and recognize a great guitar tone even if they’re not into guitars and not able to express what they like.
Not even the best boutique guitars sound good when played through poor amps. But cheap, simple guitars can sound good with a great amp. I use amps as clean tone platforms and then get specific tones by choosing different guitars and pedals. This is why I love vintage Fender amps. They are transparent and pure. What you hear is really the guitar and the fingers. Clean Fender amps can be brutal in how they reveal even the smallest playing mistakes. You won’t get any help from saturated distortion or even effects. But this makes you a better guitar player, like it or not, and is a good reason for playing clean.
Now, let me share my favorite amp and guitar combinations.
• Princeton Reverb and Telecaster: My ’65 blackface Princeton Reverb with a Jensen speaker is my go-to amp for twangy country Tele licks, which I think can be used in all kinds of genres. The small cabinet and the lack of a bright cap enhances the mids and gives a less-scooped tone than bigger Fender amps. Turn up the reverb and the powerful tube bias tremolo and you’ll make the audience shed a tear during the set’s last ballad. In older blackface and silverface amps with Oxford speakers, you might consider swapping in a more powerful speaker—possibly a 12"—for a bigger low end and more volume.
• Super Reverb and Stratocaster: This combination will give you a powerful, bright, scooped, funky, chunky tone. The Strat’s neck position will never sound better, with bright sparkle and a full low-end. Not to mention the liquid-clear and quacky second and fourth pickup positions, which make you sound like early Mark Knopfler. For some SRV, set the amp carefully in its cranked sweet spot without farting out the speakers, throw in a Tube Screamer or similar overdrive with a little gain, and tilt the EQ toward more bass and treble. Depending on the brightness of your guitar, flick the bright switch on. Firm and punchy loudspeakers will take an SRV-style beating from your picking hand and provide a tight low end from even a half-step down-tuned .056 E string.
• Deluxe Reverb and ES-335: If effects pedals were forbidden, I’d go with this pair. The ES-335 sounds brilliant and nuanced through a Deluxe Reverb. The amp has no bright switch, meaning the bright cap is always on and lets fingerpicking or pick details shine through. The amp’s brightness and 1x12" medium-sized cabinet will provide great EQ balance to mellow and dark humbuckers. The Princeton Reverb is slightly small and boxy for an ES-335, but the Deluxe provides full tones with nice, clear treble. This combination excels at jazz, soul, and blues soloing with bell-clear single-string tone, and at dirty chords and multi-string licks. You’ll easily get a fat, sustained, and cranked tone at lower volumes with this guitar and amp complement.
• Bassman and Stratocaster: If you like Hendrix but prefer Fender amps, you should try the narrow panel 5F6-A tweed or blackface/silverface 50-watt Bassman. Think of Hendrix’s tone on the compilation Blues, where he occasionally tuned down to D and had a slightly cleaner sound. For this, you need an amp that can distort more than the typical Fender Deluxe, Super, Pro, or Twin. The Bassman’s extra 12AX7-fueled preamp gain stage will provide a good amount of distortion with volume at 6 and beyond. Sadly, at this level the volume is intolerable with the matching 2x12" cabinet. Luckily, we have a solution. Get a semi-closed 1x12" and put in an 8-ohm 20- or 25-watt Celestion G12M. You’ll get a fabulous Hendrix tone, just between a Marshall JTM45 and a Bassman, for the best of both worlds.
Trying these combinations with a variety of effects pedals should give you plenty to experiment with until my next column.