february 2012

Editor’s top picks from Anaheim—the cream of the crop in cutting-edge gear.

By the last day of the four-day Winter NAMM show in Anaheim, California, you see a lot of exhibitors, journalists, and gearheads walking around with rather glazed looks in their eyes. Believe it or not, this is a good thing. See, Winter NAMM 2012 was busy ... hoppin' ... cookin' ... happening. And that means business is good -- so good, in fact, that it's just plain hard to take it all in.

But blasted and dazed as we are when we emerge from the buzzing confines of the Anaheim Convention Center, there's a lot you don't easily forget. So here are some of the guitars, amps, pedals, and basses that blew us away, in full color for you to see for yourself.

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Lutherie provides the opportunity to meet and get to know a whole bunch of interesting people who are sometimes quirky, but never stupid.

If you’re not in a great hurry to make a living, you can do some wonderfully creative work.

In this country, the culture of the modern guitar really started to come into its own with the folk music movement of the ’60s. In fact, that’s when I began my own love affair with the guitar. Many of us who grew up with Peter, Paul, and Mary, the Kingston Trio, the Beatles, and so many other exciting musicians of those days, went out and bought guitars in an effort to emulate our musical heroes. This was also about the time when American lutherie—the making of guitars by individual craftsmen rather than in factories—got its start. It was a time of great musical ferment, optimism, and for many, the beginning of a love affair with this particular musical instrument.

Then, for most of us, life got in the way of that love affair. We were overtaken by jobs, marriages, children, mortgages, careers, and all the rest. Though that early love affair with the guitar may have been placed on the back burner, for a lot of us, it never died.

I know this because I’ve taught guitar making for many years now. I’ve not only seen the cycle—I’ve been a part of it since the guitar crowd has kept up with me insofar as age. More specifically, my students have been more or less my own “youngish” age for many years. Because I’m part of the first generation of Americans to embrace this work, there really wasn’t a pool of like-minded older people to draw from. While I do have some younger students these days, most of my students continue to come from my age and socio-demographic group. Furthermore, unlike the younger students I’ve had, they are at the retiring points of their various occupations. With that, these folks are very open and eager about finally having the time and energy to return their attention to that first love— playing and making the guitar.

Like reuniting with an old flame, these retiree-age individuals don’t want to waste time. They have much less of it than they used to, and they don’t want to spend 20 years learning the basics by making lots of mistakes on their own. They’re eagerly throwing themselves into the work by taking classes, reading books, going to guitar-making schools, watching DVDs, and taking advantage of other resources that weren’t available way back when. Also, because they’ve had “real” lives, they’re adept problem-solvers in a number of ways that younger people are not. They have a huge variety of work and life experiences to draw on towards engaging a chosen pursuit that challenges them—rather than one that has been thrust upon them. In a word, they’re motivated.

I haven’t retired yet and probably never will. But I’ve met enough retirees to know that things like playing golf and traveling don’t have enough staying power for everyone. So for those who are looking for something that has a different kind of staying power, and one that challenges them by using their hands and critical intelligence, guitar making may offer a solution.

In fact, guitar making is a remarkably complex, challenging, and satisfying occupation. And one that can be done at one’s own pace. The learning curve in lutherie is set by a number of variables, including the need to master various handskills and the ability to use and maintain specialized tools. One must understand the choices and availability of a wide spectrum of materials and the tonal potential for each. There are the never-ending design challenges in artistry, engineering, and architecture, and a builder has to sort through the different existing techniques and theories for conducting any particular procedure. Along with developing an understanding of acoustics and dynamics, there are the challenges of mastering a new language to be able to speak with other luthiers—as well as the musicians who play their creations—and continually find ways of improving one’s work and craftsmanship.

Lutherie certainly has its share of frustrations—especially if one is trying to make a living at it. Though if retired, or close to it, one normally doesn’t need to make a lot of money at anything any longer. If one did need to bring in significant money, there are the additional challenges of running a shop, streamlining the work, and the marketing and promotion of one’s work. There’s also dealing with the trade-offs between production problems and the need for artistic creativity and personal expression.

Lutherie provides the opportunity to meet and get to know a whole bunch of interesting people who are sometimes quirky, but never stupid. This can play into vacations and traveling, where one can visit other guitar makers in other places around the country or world. In reality, once one’s shop is set up and the tools are acquired, overhead is reasonably low. So expenditures are pretty much limited to purchases of wood, electricity, and sandpaper.

After a lifetime of chasing other people’s goals, making musical instruments offers a world where one can organize a space that is really one’s own—a space to play in and be reasonably happy in. Lastly, but just as important, there’s the simple love of wood and of making real things. All in all, making a guitar— or mandolin, banjo, ukulele, or other stringed instrument— presents an irresistible combination of challenges and pleasurable intangibles.

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I recently purchased a Fender Super 60 1x12 with red knobs. I love this little monster’s clean sound and power, however, I’m not happy with the high-gain channel

The Fender Super 60 packed a 60-watt, dual-6L6 power section into a compact 1x12 cabinet. Other features include switchable clean and gain channels, treble, mid, bass, and presence knobs, and spring reverb.

Hello Jeff,
I just started reading your articles and really find them down-to-earth and informative. I recently purchased a Fender Super 60 1x12 with red knobs. (Maybe this was produced during the Rivera era?) I love this little monster’s clean sound and power. It’s perfect in smaller venues. However, I’m not happy with the high-gain channel—it’s not as tight as I want it. I know the gain on Fender tube amps is much different from Marshall amps, but I’m hoping that by replacing the preamp tubes I could get a little more saturation when the gain is pushed. But I might be way off and replacing preamp tubes may not be the answer. Any suggestions? Thanks!

Hi Gerry,
Thanks for reading my columns and I’m glad you find them informative. Your red-knob Fender Super 60 was designed in 1988, but it does not appear to be a Paul Rivera circuit, as the schematic credits C. Kobylarz as the engineer on the project. The amp actually came in three configurations: head, 1x12 combo, and a rackmount unit with a state-of-the-art “Zootometer”— an LED bar graph for power output. Just in case you didn’t know how loud you actually were!

As far as the gain structure of the amp, as I recall the gain channel on these amps can be a little loose and grainy. In looking at the schematic, there are some modifications I’d try in an attempt to change these characteristics, but there may be a downside to this. (More on that in a moment.) First, let’s explore your question about preamp tubes. This is something you can easily do and it keeps the service fee in your pocket.

Changing preamp tubes can definitely change the characteristics of an amp, and if you don’t know the age or condition of the tubes, it’s probably a good idea to change them anyway. An old worn preamp tube could be responsible for part of the bad tone you’re experiencing now. When changing tubes, sometimes the audible difference is subtle, but sometimes it’s much more noticeable. And that‘s where the fun comes in.

Different preamp tubes from different manufacturers sound different. A Chinesemanufactured tube is typically considered a brighter tube with a good deal of gain. A Russianmade tube is typically fuller sounding with just slightly less gain. Most new-old-stock (NOS) preamp tubes are thought to be the best sounding of all, due to the quality of the materials used back in the day.

My suggestion would be to do your research by searching preamp tube characteristics online. There’s plenty of information with descriptive adjectives of different 12AX7 tubes. If possible, purchase a few different types and experiment yourself by playing each one of them.

In your particular case— where you’re interested in getting more saturation and tightening up the overdrive characteristics—I believe the tube that will affect that the most is V101. This is the tube closest to the input jacks and is responsible for most of the amp’s gain. Plugging in each replacement tube here will give you a good idea of its characteristics and if it’s capable of accomplishing the sonic change you’re looking for.

Tube prices range from $10 to well over $100 for some NOS items, so get what you can afford to experiment with. Remember you can also use these tubes in the V102 position, which is the tone stack and pre-driver tube. Trying different tubes here can affect the overall tone and response of the amp.

By the way, there’s nothing wrong with mixing different types of preamp tubes in an amp. In fact, sometimes you get the best results with different brands in different positions. As an affordable suggestion, I’d recommend auditioning a Sovtek 12AX7WB, a reissue Mullard 12AX7, and a reissue Tung-Sol 12AX7 in the V101 position and see where that gets you.

If tube substitution doesn’t yield the result you’re seeking, there may be a couple of circuit modifications you can try, but here’s where the rub comes in. You mention really liking the amp’s clean sound. Since almost all the Super 60’s circuitry is shared between both channels, almost anything done to improve the quality of the gain channel will affect the clean sound as well.

As with most mods, there’s usually a tradeoff, but here are a few suggestions if you’re willing to give them a try. Important: These mods should be done by someone qualified and familiar with working on tube gear, as hazardous voltages can be present.

Change the value of power supply resistor R167 from 120k to 82k. This should raise the voltage supplied to the V101 plate resistors by approximately 60 volts, increasing the size of the signal at the plates for more saturation. The increased voltage often tends to tighten things up a bit, too.

Substantially decrease the value of R103 from 390k to 100k or less. This will allow more saturation of the second gain stage.

Change the value of the capacitors in the tone stack. While the traditional Fender values work well for clean tones, they don’t always sound good for overdriven tones. Change C6 and C7 from a 0.1 μF and 0.047 μF respectively to .022 μF caps. This will give the tones more of a British flavor. If the tones are a bit too bright or harsh, you can also experiment with changing the treble cap C4 from a 100 pF to a 250 pF value.

These, of course, are only a few of many possible mods that could get your amp closer to what you expect. But, as with most amps, each mod will almost always do one thing best, so you’ll need to experiment to understand the tradeoffs.

I hope you’re successful in making your Fender 60 combo really Super.

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