A stylish makeover of the SFX acoustic amps yields pretty sounds and sound-tweaking flexibility.
It’s easy to overlook the virtues of a good acoustic amplifier. Having one isn’t essential to enjoying your guitar at home or around a campfire. And any performance space with a microphone (or two, if you sing) and a PA will probably get your performance over to the crowd.
But if you’ve ever experienced the indignities of playing through a junk PA, you know that a little extra control over your performance situation is a very nice thing. And if you’re not willing to incur the inconvenience and expense of your own PA and DI, an acoustic amp is a good way to go.
Fender’s Acoustic SFX is a very good acoustic amp—rich sounding with a functional stereo speaker array and a selection of effects that make it sound downright expansive at times. But it also manages the neat trick of being a sort of all-in-one acoustic performance “mothership” without being bogged down by bells, whistles, and sound optimization tools that are tricky to use on the fly.
The Acoustic SFX is not Fender’s first acoustic amp to feature the SFX (stereo field expansion) technology. Two previous iterations of the Acoustasonic line featured the stereo sound distribution technique devised by Aspen Pittman and Drew Daniels. In brief, the SFX system is based on a forward-facing speaker and a second, smaller speaker that’s situated below and at 90 degrees from the forward-facing driver. The front-facing speaker receives and broadcasts the sum of left and right signals. The second, smaller speaker receives a left-minus-right signal. While the speakers are technically rendered out of phase, what you hear is not thin phase cancellation but a wider signal that’s divided into component parts and redistributed in a wave of sound that arrives at the ear as a more detailed sonic picture.
Fender incorporated the SFX speaker array into the cabinet design beautifully—creating small portholes on either side of the amp and a rectangular port on the rear. Thoughtful design abounds elsewhere. The entire topside of the amp just forward of the control panel is a very confortable, contoured handle. The cavity between the handle and the control panel functions as a cool little stash box where you can put slides, picks, or whatever device you might be using for backing tracks or between-set tunes. The curved 9-ply wood cabinet, meanwhile, looks like it was lifted from an Eames chair.
The control set is a straightforward affair that’s pretty easy to navigate. There’s a single volume knob, a three-band EQ, and reverb and effects-level controls for each of the amplifier’s channels. Each channel has a phase button if you run into trouble with feedback. The third, middle set of controls is for the amp’s effects and the SFX functionality, which, as we’ll see, enhances the sound of the amp in profound ways. The effects set includes a simple one-repeat delay, a multi-repeat delay, chorus, and vibrato. Each is tap-tempo enabled and can be bypassed via an optional footswitch or by turning the effects knob to zero.
The SFX knob is essentially a level/balance control that determines how much sound is distributed to the side-mounted speaker. But its character shifts considerably depending on how you set the effects and at what level.
The back panel has a pretty standard set of acoustic amp I/Os (balanced XLR out, combination XLR/1/4" mic/line inputs), a voltage selector, and a footswitch jack for remotely bypassing the effects.
Acoustic Architecture in Practice
In it’s most straightforward setup and at the lowest possible SFX settings, the Acoustic SFX is a great blank slate for most acoustics. I used a mahogany Martin 00-15 and Gibson J-45 with L.R. Baggs Element pickups. And while the amp seemed to favor the Gibson’s balance of low end and patina’d highs to the Martin’s more compact, sparklier personality, the EQ controls provided ample headroom to dial up very pretty approximations of each guitar’s voice.
Dialing in the SFX function pays big dividends, though, and I often wondered why one would ever opt to dial out the function entirely. While Fender makes much of the way the SFX design works with the reverb and effects to add extra dimension, I was equally—if not more—impressed with how high levels of the second speaker added headroom and flexibility to the EQ controls, which are typically the hardest thing to dial in right on an acoustic amp.
At high stereo SFX settings, the amp’s intrinsic high-end sensitivity was more apparent, but so was an extra bit of presence and air that made the high end of both guitars sound less boxy. Dialing in a high/mid setting that eliminated crispy, clacky picking artifacts without totally diminishing the sparkling overtones was relatively effortless. And bass sounds took on a warmer, more atmospheric edge that enabled me to reduce the already ample bass response. If you move between performance spaces of varying size, the added headroom and dimension the SFX function adds to the EQ controls can be invaluable. And if you use a lot of low-tuned alternate tunings, that extra dimension and enhanced frequency balance can enliven overtones in beautiful ways.
The effects, while not spectacularly rich, deep, or colorful, work well with the amp’s basic voice. The reverb, in particular, is quite nice at mellower settings. I especially enjoyed mixing it in with a little of the multi-repeat delay for atmospheric chord arpeggios. If you like things especially spacy, the Acoustic SFX effects will go there, although they sound less warm at higher levels.
There’s much to like about the Acoustic SFX. It’s stylish, functional, and delivers ease-of-use and true sound-sculpting potential at a price that’s still well south of many other professional grade acoustic amps. There’s room for improvement here and there: The high midrange could be a little softer and more contoured, for instance. But the ample headroom and cool SFX-derived sounds make this amp a very solid and reliable gigging partner.
The power of positive thinking is the best adaptor for the voltage flow of life.
The energy I have in my early 30s is fleeting on my best days—spread thin between ventures and responsibilities, my dreams and hobbies, and even the responsibilities, dreams, and desires of those closest to me. I need and want to help with those, too.
And then there’s what everybody else in the world is doing. Which, I think, is what this article is about. Maybe you’ll get a brief glimpse into a guitar pedal company owner’s brain and thought process, as scattered and full of bullshit as it may be.
Us and them. It’s easy in this industry to think about what everyone else is doing and be affected by it—make decisions because of it, have hurt feelings or a sense of encroachment based on previous products, ideas, or marketing. It all feels like fair game to find offense. We mostly know each other. We at least have a sense of our peers’ backgrounds: if they’re a new kid, if they’re a seasoned veteran, if they’ve made some good decisions or made some questionable moves.
Most of those judgments are subjective. How I see one manufacturer varies from the next. This is a huge part of my business that has nothing to do with my company, products, or sales. Or it could, because I have that choice. And here’s the juice: I don’t want to spend precious energy worrying about, critiquing, or mentally fighting what other companies do. As a consumer and pedal user/hoarder/appreciator, I would much rather be excited about the next great pedal or improvement on an existing pedal. I want people I know to create something awesome. And then I want to play it.
I’ve been fighting off this example the last couple of weeks when thinking about this article, but go with me, because I couldn’t squelch it. Let’s take an appliance that almost everyone uses—a refrigerator. Fridges have been in homes since 1913. So there have been a lot of fridge makers and many improvements upon the initial design and principle: to keep food cold. Some people prefer one fridge over another. Maybe it’s the brand, maybe it’s an additional feature, maybe it makes ice quicker, colder, or in different shapes. Stupid analogy, sure, but there are a lot of pedal makers out there coming up with good, innovative ideas and getting their ideas made and into the hands of players. That’s great. We seem to be in the “Golden Age” of pedals. I’ve heard that said. I don’t want to believe it, because I think the age that comes after “Golden” is usually pretty dismal. And that’s my future. Bummer.
Accentuate the positive. As I write, I’m in the midst of the holiday takeover, fielding a Black Friday sales stretch into the bulk of late December. So now we scramble. We build. We organize. We build. We sleep a little. We build. And hopefully we ship everything in time for people to be happy. Then we sleep a lot.
If you’re reading this column at the end of January or beyond, all of the new pedals and musical toys have been rolled out at NAMM. When that happens, do I get jealous, petty, nitpicky, critical, or harsh about what other manufacturers are putting out? Or upset that I didn’t come up with the same idea, or that maybe it’s close to an idea I had, executed or not? Or do I try to see these pedals and toys as innovations and exciting developments? It’s a big struggle, but celebrating cool things that others made is how I want to expend my energy.I’m working on this in myself—to not react to what other companies do, to not revel in their perceived failures or be bitter about their perceived successes. Sure, it’s all business and we’re all competing, but I use pedals, too. Mostly not even the ones I make. It is the “Golden Age,” after all. Why not share in the excitement? Put the positivity out there. Let other companies be responsible for their decisions and I’ll be responsible for mine. I have the energy for that.
Create engaging rhythms by combining montunos, claves, tumbaos, and more.
• Understand the difference between a forward clave and a reverse clave.
• Develop a better sense of phrasing over Latin rhythms.
• Create rhythmically interesting parts over short vamps.
Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
The history of Cuban music is shaped through the passion of the people and musicians. Understanding their rich language of rhythms and harmony on any instrument, let alone guitar, is both a deep ocean to explore and an island of soul. Many great musicians grow up immersed in the style and culture. However, even if you learn just from listening and playing you can internalize the sense of groove and pocket, and it will come out in your listening, playing, and writing. I played in a Latin band called Umbalaye for several years in Los Angeles under the guidance of my friend and bandleader Jose Espinosa. I hope to share some of what I learned with you here.
First, a little history. Afro-Cuban music was created when African slaves arrived in Cuba, where the two cultures met, and the richness of Spanish harmony blended with the African rhythms to create what we call salsa music. Afro-Cuban music has had a vast influence globally through Puerto Rico, Miami, New York, and through such South American countries as Panama, Columbia, and Venezuela. These cultures each had their own interpretations that often influenced each other. In the 1930s, Afro-Cuban music had a major impact on jazz, and since then, salsa has profoundly influenced pop music, blues, soul, and even rock styles.
This is soulful dance music that’s focused on the rhythm section and interlocking parts, so let’s check out the various aspects of the basic feels. The most essential aspect of salsa is the rhythmic pattern known as the clave. The musicologist Alejo Carpentier described the clave as “the feeling of polyrhythm submitted to the unity of tempo.” There are a few ways to play clave but we’ll focus on the forward clave (also known as a 3-2) and the reverse clave (2-3). The numbers refer to how many “hits” are in each measure. In a forward clave, there are three in the first and two in the second. Obviously, flip that order around for a reverse clave. In Ex. 1 you can see a simple forward clave rhythm over a Gm–C7–Fm–Bb7 progression. In Ex. 2 I use the same progression over a reverse clave.
Understanding how to phrase over each kind of clave is essential to locking into the band. While the drums and percussion are usually playing different interlocking parts, the bass plays a melodic part called the tumbao, which serves a big role in accenting clave rhythms. Let’s check out a few basic tumbao patterns over a forward clave. We’ll play in octaves to make a fuller sound above the bass. Feel free to attack those notes with a pick and fingers, just fingers, or strike the strings that are fretted while the left hand dampens all the others. Ex. 3 is a basic pattern with a bit of space on every other bar. Ex. 4 adds a bit of energy on the even bars and specifically hits beat 3 of the second and fourth measures.
Ex. 5 adds a bit of chromaticism stepping down to the Fm chord. Another common rhythmic style is to accent beat 4 and anticipate each chord as shown in Ex. 6. This style is the basis of most Afro-Cuban bass lines and found in a variety of feels such as guaguancó, guaracha, rumba, mambo, and bomba.
Ex. 7 is a more dense rhythmic exploration of that same idea.
By contrast, let’s explore some tumbao patterns over a reverse clave. Ex. 8 will show you a basic pattern using octaves. Ex. 9 adds variations to those rhythms by preceding each bar by a quarter-note.
Next, let’s check out some basic montunos. A montuno is a repeated phrase, usually two to four measures long, and is a key element of salsa and Afro-Cuban music. While there’s a vast vocabulary of montunos, let’s explore a basic pattern (Ex. 10) that’s a forward clave—first played in single notes, then in octaves, and finally in tenths.
Now let’s check out a different montuno for a reverse clave (Ex. 11). Again, we’ll play this in single notes, then octaves, and finally in tenths.
Afro-Cuban music will continue to spread and inspire future generations. For top listening suggestions, check out Irakere, Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente, and Ray Barretto as starters. I encourage you to dig for more music to absorb, and to develop an appreciation for other styles, cultures, and genres. Experiment and invent variations on what you hear. Listening, playing, and experience will be your guide.