Need more headroom or gain? Spin the bottles.
[Originally published: 9/2/2019]
You might guess from the title of this column that I love Fender amps. And you’d be right. From a musical and engineering perspective, I think vintage Fender blackface amps are the best ever made. With bright, American-style speakers, they deliver pure and natural tone. Their channels, with volume and EQ, are intuitive for any guitar, bass, or keyboard player. It’s impossible to not find a decent tone in less than 10 seconds. From a technical perspective, their handmade tube-based circuits are simple, and they were built with high-quality components. And today, there are easily available parts and schematics, and an abundance of other online technical information, which makes it possible for many techs and players—including you—to service these amps.
Classic Fender blackface amps have been an inspiration for an entire industry. They’ve appeared on countless stages and an incredible amount of great albums by legendary performers. Why? Mostly tone and clean headroom. So, for this debut column, let’s discuss what we can do to make those two factors work best for you via tubes.
Reverb and tremolo were the main functional innovations in Fender’s blackface line. The king of blackface amps, the Twin Reverb, produced 85 watts from four 6L6 tubes and had enormous power and output transformers, a non-sagging diode rectifier, and two powerful 12" speakers. The 4x10 dual-6L6 40-watt Super Reverb has half that power, a softer tube rectifier, and smaller transformers. Still, the massive array of four 10" speakers is screamingly loud and sometimes difficult to handle for its weight (65 pounds), size, and volume. A 4x10 is more directional and scooped in the low mids than a 2x12. So a guitar plugged into a Super Reverb can end up competing with the bass. Experience is required to tame these amps. Once you know how to handle them, you will be rewarded with an overwhelming and physical sonic experience.
In the blackface world, the 1x12, double-6V6 22-watt Deluxe Reverb’s advantage is that it’s small and light, at 42 pounds. It breaks up earlier than its bigger relatives due to the less powerful 6V6s, small transformers, and a small speaker cabinet. Additionally, the original Oxford 12K6-5 speaker farts out early and is very weak, although it also delivers a true signature vintage Fender sound. And who doesn’t want their amp to break up easily these days? I have kept the Oxfords in my Deluxe amps. Before the internet, few people knew they could replace the 6V6s with 6L6s and replace the Oxford to double the Deluxe’s volume.
The V6 12AT7 phase inverter tube can be replaced with a 12AX7 to reduce headroom in large 6L6 amps.
Via my website, fenderguru.com, I often get questions about how to achieve different tones in blackface amps run at lower volumes. The answer often lies in the tubes. So let me share some simple tube tricks that will help you develop an understanding of how tubes function—and how they can be used to affect changes—in the typical two-channel AB763 circuit in the Twin, Super Reverb, Vibroverb, Pro, Vibrolux, and Deluxe amps of the original blackface era.
The tubes in these circuits are typically identified as V1 through V10, looking at the back of the amp from right to left. Here are some tricks:
- The V1 12AX7 tube in an amp’s normal channel can be removed for more preamp gain and reduced headroom in the vibrato channel. It can also be replaced by weaker tubes, like 12AY7s or 5751s, for less volume/gain. I always pull out this V1 since I use the vibrato channel and want solid preamp gain, which the single V2 delivers.
- The V3 12AT7 reverb driver for the vibrato channel can be replaced with a 12AU7 for less reverb and improved reverb knob control.
- If you’re only using the normal channel, think about removing the V2 through V5 tubes for the vibrato channel. That will give you more gain and headroom in the normal channel. (FYI, the 12AX7 in the V5 position is the tremolo tube.)
- The V6 12AT7 phase inverter tube can be replaced with a 12AX7 to reduce headroom in large 6L6 amps.
- Several alternatives to 6L6 power tubes exist. I mostly use 6L6GCs. In a Twin Reverb, you can pull either the V7 and V10 or V8 and V9 tubes for half power and earlier breakup. Ideally, but not totally necessary, you should disengage one speaker to match the impedance change.
- In a blackface Deluxe, the GZ34 in the V9 slot is the rectifier tube. If I want reduced headroom and more sag, I use a 5U4GB.
And there you have it: You’re on your way to becoming a Fender guru, too!
A 1979 Gibson Les Paul Custom gets caught in the collectability zeitgeist.
In the vast galaxy of used and vintage Gibson Les Paul models, no star is rising quite like that of the Les Paul Custom. The eternally slick variant—which debuted in its original Black Beauty form in 1954—has been in a certain vogue over the past several years, and prices on used and vintage examples have gone up. For context, average Reverb sale prices on used or vintage Gibson Les Paul Customs increased about 10 percent in 2020 compared to 2019 and have risen nearly 30 percent since 2017. This pattern plays out with Epiphones as well, where Les Paul Custom models have gone up by about 24 percent over the past four years. Comparatively, prices on all used and vintage Gibson Les Paul Standards remained more or less flat over this same time span.
Within this general rising tide of Les Paul Custom popularity and value, today's focal model, the silverburst Les Paul Custom, has seen an even more pronounced jump. These guitars were produced by Gibson starting in 1978 in very limited numbers and underwent a few spec changes before being discontinued in the mid-'80s. Sale prices on this specific group of guitars surged 28 percent in 2020 over 2019, with a 52 percent increase in prices since 2017. Just a few years ago, original silverburst Customs were selling comfortably in the $3,000 to $5,000 range. Today, we're seeing the best examples go for more than double that.
The basic configuration of the single-cutaway Les Paul has remained no nonsense for more than 60 years, with two pickups, four dials, a 3-way toggle, and a Tune-o-matic bridge at its core.
While there are always a variety of drivers behind such a jump in the pricing of a vintage collectible guitar, an artist or stylistic association is certainly part of the equation. Customs claim a certain reputation as metal guitars—think Metallica, Mastodon, and Zakk Wylde—and while plenty of classic-rock titans have employed them over the years, it could be that there are more metal and hard-rock fans getting into the vintage market than in previous periods, driving up prices. For this group, a dapper Les Paul Custom makes a lot more sense as a guitar splurge than something like a sunburst or goldtop Standard.
With no belt rash or other notable dings or scrapes on the back of its mahogany body, this guitar was handled with care. Note the well-defined back binding and lack of chipping along the edges, too.
This column's featured guitar is an original 1979 in very good vintage condition, listed on Reverb by Nationwide Guitars of Cumberland, Maryland, at $8,999 as we go to press. It sports the specs typical of its year and model: a 3-piece maple top with a mahogany body, a medium C-shape maple neck, an ebony fretboard with white binding, a bone nut, mother-of-peal block inlays, a Tune-o-matic bridge, a pair of humbuckers, a 3-way pickup selector, and a black version of the usual Les Paul dual volume and tone controls. Note that the finish shows some greening, which is typical of vintage silverbursts.
True to its roots, this Custom sports a larger headstock, which identifies it as a product of the era when Gibson was owned by the Norlin Corporation.
In the case of this month's silverburst, we can confidently point to the 2020 launch of a Custom Shop reissue of Adam Jones of Tool's trusty '79 as the culprit. This sort of high-profile reissue often has the effect of spurring collector interest in its vintage counterpart, and this can be even more of a factor when the new reissues are sold at prices that are similar to or higher than the originals, which is the case with this model. The Adam Jones 1979 Les Paul Custom VOS was also teased for a long while before going into production, creating more sustained silverburst hype, and this publicity was only amplified by news of a batch of these guitars being stolen this past November. While our guitar has some of the aforementioned finish greening in its center silver section, it's retained its original silverburst glow better than many of its brethren, which is appealing to collectors and players alike.
This 4-pickup Kawai Kimberly Deluxe carried the torch into the ’70s for players wanting a space-age axe.
I think it was primarily a Northeast thing, but there were these amazing catalogs back in the day that were put out by a company called Lafayette Radio Electronics. These catalogs are such a cool flashback for radio geeks and electronics tinkerers that I still get giddy and buy up old examples every chance I get. Lumped in with all the CB radios, hi-fi stereos, and shortwave receivers were electric guitars, amps, and effects. The Lafayette catalogs even sold the same Rotovibe and Uni-Vibe pedals used by Hendrix.
When you peruse a bunch of these catalogs spanning the '60s, you start to see the transitional path of tastes and styles in electric guitars. It's like you're viewing the history of the business unfolding, as American guitars get replaced with Japan-made instruments and the designs move towards a more constricted approach by borrowing from familiar Fender and Gibson models. For whatever reason, however, the Kimberly Deluxe (Photo 1) continued on into the 1970s in all its gold-and-green glory.
I've written my share about the insanely adventurous Kawai-made electrics from the '60s, but even Kawai had scaled it way back by the end of the decade—except for this 4-pickup monster. It's in my favorite guitar color, greenburst, and is a true throwback—a psychedelic leftover that refused to move on. Its design is similar to that of the Italy-made Eko Kadett I wrote about a few months back [“A '60s Solidbody That Would Make Sergio Leone Smile," December 2020], but the Kimberly Deluxe was a little more out there in almost every way.
I'm sure part of the appeal of the Kimberly Deluxe rested in the imaginations of us radio and electronics geeks who salivated over gadgets and widgets with a space-age flair. The guitar's pickups (Photo 2) are a variation of gold-foils that all read in the mid 4k range. But typical of Kawai wiring, it's all in series, meaning that the output increases as you switch on the pickups. For instance, with only the bridge pickup turned on, the output is 4.57k. Add the second pickup and it goes to 9.17k. But bring in the third pickup and it flies to 13.77k! And with the neck pickup engaged, the output is a whopping 18.43k, which is a lot of output for a 1960s Japanese guitar. The KD is a super-aggressive affair, and there was a time I actually owned and used five of them. They sound so interesting with fuzz and gain. Plus, switching on a Deluxes's pickups turns into a master class on how to boost your tone on the fly and scale back your pedalboard at the same time.
Also referred to as a “Bison" model, these instruments went by “Deluxe 4 Pick-up Solid Body Electric Guitar" in the Lafayette catalogs, with a corresponding model number of 24599WX. By the way, the guitar was priced at just $44.95 brand new. An optional case would set you back an extra $8.95. To further the deal, Lafayette also offered complete “guitar outfits" that paired the Kimberly Deluxe with an amp, cable, strap, strings, picks, pitch pipe, and an instruction book with a record—all for $148.75! Yep, those were the days.
Lafayette branded the majority of their guitars Kimberly, but the same model and variations of this guitar were sold elsewhere with different colors and pickup configurations. I've seen them branded as Sekova and Clear Sound as well, but in the end, all the coolest stuff was found in the Lafayette catalogs. Unfortunately, the Kimberly Deluxe ended its run by the mid-1970s, and Lafayette went bankrupt a few years later. Though I was only old enough to catch the tail end of all the Kimberly coolness, let's all give it up today for the last of the original space-age guitars!