amp diy

Why Fender + Fender (or other brands) = more than the sum of their own signature sounds.

This column is not for the faint of back, but the rewards of such potentially heavy lifting are great. In my previous columns "Like Peanut Butter and Chocolate: Classic Guitar & Fender-Amp Pairings" (May 2020) and "Finding Perfect Tones in Imperfect Amps" (January 2021), I've discussed classic Fender amp and guitar pairings and how to EQ and tweak amps to get ideal tones. Let's take it a step further and discuss how to combine multiple amps to achieve even more complex, richer tones.

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Find the sweet spot between volume, sanity, and sonic happiness with classic-style Fender amps.

Well, hey you over there/Turn that damn thing down!
Ain’t you been taught before/You don’t need it that damn loud?
Hey, I’m the soundman/And I’ll pull your plug right out.

Aynsley Lister, an English musician and guitar player I happily discovered a few years ago, speaks to all of us in the second verse of his song “Soundman.” We’ve all been told to turn down and have become frustrated by not getting a good tone from our amps onstage. This is why guitarists love playing big stages. Walking around and feeling the kick drum and bass guitar through the shaking stage floor gives you the elation of freedom, joy, and power. And as a guitarist, I have the time of my life when I can crank my bigger amps seriously loud, hardly needing any help from pedals.

Most of us, unfortunately, don’t play arenas on a weekly basis. Small stages are much more common, and they are more difficult to play because of the volume from our guitar amps. In this column, I’ll share some things you can do to tame your amp and get a decent tone for yourself and your bandmates on smaller stages.

First, you need to take complaints about volume seriously—from bandmates, the sound engineer, or, worse, the audience. A loud bass or guitar amp will ruin the performance for everyone. Each musician needs to hear himself/herself in balance with all the other instruments. Otherwise the band will lose dynamics and control, and sound loud, flat, muddy, and uninspiring.

A balanced stage sound is achieved by a combination of amps and monitors. I don’t like being dependent on harsh-sounding monitors to hear my own guitar. I like the tone of my amp’s speakers—they play an important role in creating the sound I’m looking for. I play better when I have a strong physical relationship with my amp and the sound waves it produces. Sound good, play good, as I like to say. And since I mostly play Fender tube amps, it is also important to crank them up. If not, guitars and pedals will seem edgy and lack dynamic sensitivity. So playing tube amps in their sweet spot is essential.

We’ve all been told to turn down and have become frustrated by not getting a good tone from our amps onstage.

After gaining experience playing various stages, we learn how to pick the right amp for the job and how to position it to achieve an optimal spread, volume, and balance. You’ll be surprised how much better you’ll hear a small 1x10" amp if you raise it about 12" off the floor by putting it on a chair or a box. Sometimes I use the tilt legs on larger amps if I’m really close to the amp and need a better angle, or I need to spare the ears of the people in the front rows. Be careful though—too much tilt can easily cause too much volume for yourself and your closest bandmates, particularly for amps with directional speakers. I find that just a little tilt is more than enough. Or try placing a 2"-thick book or wood block under the front of the amp. It will send the sound waves to your ears instead of your knees.

Big amps are often too loud for small stages, so for them I recommend low-efficiency speakers for reduced volume and more breakup. But in the smaller amps I use on gigs, I prefer bigger, efficient speakers. Using an efficient, loud 12" speaker in a Deluxe Reverb or Princeton Reverb gives me more spread and almost doubles the volume compared to a vintage speaker. Spread comes from the lower mids and bass. Extension cabinets are also great at improving the spread without necessarily increasing the volume. You can also point an extension cabinet in a different direction, as a monitor.

Using plexiglass amp shields is a drastic yet necessary solution for those who play 80- to 100-watt amps. These can cost around $100 to $150 and are very effective. A simpler and cheaper trick in practice environments is to place any kind of object in front of your amp. The other day I placed a Deluxe Reverb in front of a Super Reverb that I plugged into. The front amp absorbed the sound waves from the back amp. I lowered the volume even more by disengaging the Super’s two upper speakers. This also reduced the clean headroom because of the impedance mismatch. A general rule with speaker impedance in Fender tube amps is to stay within the 50 percent to +100 percent range.

To reduce power and clean headroom even further in Fender tube amps, there are several tube swaps that you can easily do. Check out my September column “Simple Tube Tricks for Beginners” or my website fenderguru.com for more details. Happy gigging!

Here’s a demonstration of a clean and cranked Super Reverb. These tube swaps and mods were made to cause the amp to break up earlier at a lower volume: The V1 and 12AX7 phase inverter tubes were removed, the tremolo was disconnected via the trem intensity pot, and the two upper speakers were disengaged. Here’s the sequence of what you’re hearing:

  • Clean with the bridge and middle pickups.
  • Cranked with the bridge and middle pickups.
  • Clean with the neck pickup.
  • Cranked with the neck pickup.
  • Clean with the bridge pickup.
  • Cranked with the bridge pickup.

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This Princeton sports a Warehouse 10" G10C replacement speaker, giving it more headroom and transparency than its OEM equivalent.

An easy way to get better response, higher headroom, and more punch from your vintage Fender.

Let’s talk about one of my favorite topics: speakers. I love experimenting with them. Swapping speakers is an extremely easy way to drastically change your amp tone. I’ll explain some of the basics, like efficiency, construction, and power. And, as usual for this column, the focus is on vintage Fenders.

The most common question I get is, “What speaker goes best with my Deluxe Reverb.” If I lack time or energy, I simply answer “the Jensen P12R.” It sounds fabulous and vintage-correct, and is also easy to obtain new or used. There is much information and many sound clips available to support this decision. However, when I have more time I reply that there is no single answer to that question. The answer depends on personal preferences and what tone you seek from your amp. Talking about speakers and tone can be confusing, since we may lack a common perspective to describe guitar tone precisely.

Those of you who gig regularly and heavily with vintage amps should consider replacing the speakers with modern equivalents. Most speakers from 1950 to 1970 have a low power rating (power is measured in watts). Additionally, their already fragile paper cones have become even weaker due to moisture, dryness, oxidation, and aging. But please show care for these vintage speakers and always keep them intact if they’re removed. They are important to an amp’s second-hand value and are essential to true vintage tone.

Older speakers are also inefficient and have modest volume and bass response, which allows you to push an amp more and reach the sweet spot at a lower volume. They do not sound as fat and chunky as many modern speakers, which can sometimes make the guitar bass-heavy and dominating onstage. This works well in a power trio, but not in a larger band with several instruments. In general, vintage speakers are also bright, unless their paper cones are heavily saturated with dirt and dust. Then they will sound muddy. However, I do like some old-speaker dirt because it dampens treble and allows me to open the bright switch on Fender amps.

Typically, vintage speakers have a balanced tone, making it easy for the guitar to blend naturally in a mix. That’s why I like them—and particularly in bigger amps, with several speakers. Since these amps are more than loud enough, I prefer them with speakers with low power and low efficiency. Low-power speakers have a smaller and lighter construction. The magnets are smaller and lighter, and the copper voice coil is smaller in wire thickness and coil radius.

A low-power speaker will have better transparency and touch sensitivity than a stiff, high-power speaker.

The cone is lighter and more flexible and moves more easily. A low-power speaker will, therefore, have better transparency and touch sensitivity than a stiff, high-power speaker, which requires more power to vibrate and operate. A general recommendation for vintage tone is to stay as low as possible on the speaker power handling. A 40-watt Super Reverb will distribute 10 watts to each of its four speakers, so therefore 20-to-30-watt speakers are more than enough in this amp. In loud amps, I also prefer speakers with alnico magnets. They will create sag and compression and make the amp softer, with less attack.

In some cases, I want more power and headroom from a speaker—particularly in smaller, single-speaker amps like vintage Princeton Reverbs and Deluxe Reverbs, which were poorly equipped from the Fender factory. The speakers were clearly the bottlenecks of these amps. Many players swapped the OEM speakers for more efficient and powerful 12" speakers with ceramic magnets, to get more clean headroom and firmer bass handling.

There are even more elements to consider when choosing speakers. Check out “How to Select Speakers” on my website, fenderguru.com. You will find some guidance based on the following questions:

• Do you play at modest volumes or extremely loud, pushing your amp and speakers?

• Do you want to achieve maximum volume and clean headroom? Or do you want more breakup at lower volumes?

• Do you have a bright or dark sounding guitar?

• Do you have effects pedals with high-frequency fuzz?

• Do you have a bright, dark, muddy, or mellow sounding amp with few EQ options (like tweeds)?

• What is your playing style? Do you have a hard pick attack or a soft finger touch?

• Do you want a chunky, fat tone or a snappy, quick response?

• Is weight an issue?

• Are you mixing different speakers for a more complex tone?

Until next time, may the tone be with you.

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