july 2010

Chad Weaver gets the show back on the road despite losing nearly everything in the floods

If anyone saw the pictures I sent in place of last month's column, you know why I wasn't able to write. National media didn't talk about the flooding as much as our local news showed it but I've got to (thankfully) say I've never seen anything like that before. On Saturday May 1st, the streets began to fill up with water. As you may have read about in this month's cover story, one of those streets was Cowan Street, the location of Soundcheck rehearsal hall/gear storage and rental. It's located in downtown Nashville and housed storage lockers for more names in the music business than I have space to write in this column. Since the end of Brad Paisley's American Saturday Night Tour, we had placed all of our road gear there but were due to load out of on May 3rd. Unfortunately, it was about 36 hours too late. When I woke up on the morning of May 2nd, Cowan Street was completely flooded and Soundcheck had about 3 1/2 feet of water inside the building.

After breathing a sigh of relief that Brad's Trainwreck and all of his old Voxs were at home, I immediately started thinking of what I had on the floor of the locker, what was stacked high and wondering how I was going to pull off a brand new tour rehearsal that was set to begin the following morning. I called Brad and told him that I was going to assume a total loss until proven otherwise because we didn't have the time frame to wait and see. The first shows of the tour were in three weeks.

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Classic tricks to use common pedals to their fullest

Greetings, fellow gear gluttons! Welcome back to Stomp School. In last month’s column we discussed matching pedals to the rest of your rig, and we discovered that the various components in your setup, such as the type of pickups and amp you’re using, can influence how a particular pedal will ultimately sound.

With this better understanding of the way each individual piece of gear interacts with the others, let’s next look at some popular ways to combine them to achieve specific sounds. Part of our discussion here concerns overdrive and dirt tones and the interaction between your pedals and amp. But before we get into that, I’d like to take another look at using the controls on your guitar to elicit different tones from the same pedal.

Germanium Fuzz Face Clean up Trick
This one may already be pretty widely known, but I still think it’s worth a mention because it works so amazingly well. I had actually been playing for quite a while before I discovered that you can get a surprisingly useful, totally clean tone from a good germanium Fuzz Face pedal simply by rolling back the volume on your guitar. In comparison, most other fuzz pedals, including a Fuzz Face with higher gain silicon transistors, won’t quite get totally clean. Again, this is nothing new, dating all the way back to early Hendrix, but it’s a good one to keep in your bag of tricks.

Roll Back Tone on Neck Humbucker with Fuzz Pedal Trick
Here’s one of my favorite fuzz pedal tricks. This isn’t really a big secret either, and I’m always surprised that more players aren’t aware of it. Ready? Use a pedal with thick, saturated fuzz tone and play the neck pickup on your guitar with the tone control rolled all the way back. This works especially well on a dual humbucker guitar, such as a Les Paul. What a great sound! Think early Santana, or Robert Fripp with King Crimson.

A Big Muff-type fuzz is ideal to use for this effect, but most any fuzz pedal with enough gain will work reasonably well. Steve Hackett of Genesis employed this technique to great effect using the neck pickup of his Les Paul Custom through a Colorsound Supa Tone Bender. This was also the method Eric Clapton used to create his infamous “woman tone” on the Disraeli Gears album by Cream. Clapton rolled back the tone on the neck pickup of his psychedelic Gibson SG. The fuzz of choice this time was a Tone Bender MKII, which was then run into a 100-watt Marshall. Strange Brew, indeed!

It’s a super-simple trick, and it works like magic every time. Rolling off all the high frequencies eliminates any noise and hiss created by the fuzz, which results in a singing, violin-like tone with super long sustain. It’s also the best way to coax a more prominent upper octave out of an Octavia. And it works just as well on other octave-fuzz type pedals, such as a Super Fuzz, a Tone Machine, or an Ampeg Scrambler.

OK, moving along to the other side of the signal chain, let’s discuss some tried and true classic pedal and amp combinations.

Tube Screamer with a Blackface Fender Amp
The smooth, medium-gain overdrive sound of the Tube Screamer (and its variants) is a well-loved classic. Though it gained its initial notoriety as the OD of choice for blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan, this ubiquitous green wonder has withstood more stomping than nearly any other pedal. A Tube Screamer-type OD can work with just about any amp, but it has a distinct midrange “hump” that perfectly compliments the scooped mids of the Fender Blackface amp. Classic combination!

The Vox AC30, on the other hand, is quite a bit more mid-heavy. So a Tube Screamer, while not necessarily a poor choice, might not be the best fit for that amp. That’s okay, we can address that with our next classic combination.

Germanium Treble Booster with a British Combo Amp
In the early 1960s, many British made amplifiers, such as the Vox AC30, were considered by players to be rather dark sounding, especially compared to the American-made Fender amps, which were considered more desirable at the time. Thus is the origin of the treble booster. The concept was simply that a murky-sounding amp could be brightened up using a single transistor “treble boosting” device. The happy, if unintentional, byproduct was the tone that resulted from pushing the front end of the amp into overdrive.

The Dallas Rangemaster stands as the quintessential example of this type of treble booster, and is rumored to have been the secret weapon used by Eric Clapton with a Marshall JTM45 combo to achieve his legendary Bluesbreaker tone. A much better documented fact is Brian May’s use of the Rangemaster and other treble boosters with his Vox AC30. Irish blues guitarist Rory Gallagher used the Rangemaster/AC30 combination with a Fender Stratocaster to create his signature sound, and many have since discovered the magical tones of a treble-boosted British combo.

That’s about all we have time for now, so we’ll see you next time. Until then, keep on stompin’!

Tom Hughes (a.k.a. Analog Tom) is the owner and proprietor of For Musicians Only (formusiciansonly.com) and author of Analog Man’s Guide to Vintage Effects. Questions or comments about this article can be sent to: stompschool@formusiciansonly.com.

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Matchless'' Avalon incorporates partial PC-board construction for more affordable boutique sound

At the beginning of the boutique amp boom in the late 1980s and early ’90s, one of the biggest names being bandied about was Matchless. Original designers Rick Perotta, Chris Perotta, and company co-founder Mark Sampson were huge Beatles fans, and that jangly AC30 sound drove them to start analyzing and repairing vintage Voxes imported from the UK. Eventually, they took the next logical step and began building handwired, roadworthy interpretations of the iconic AC30. Sampson, Rick Perotta, and John Jorgenson (who would later go on to gain acclaim for his work with Will Ray and Jerry Donahue in the Hellecasters) came up with the company’s most famous designs—the now-legendary DC30, Chieftain, and Lightning—which became staples for artists as diverse as Jimmie Vaughan, Hank Marvin, Alex Lifeson, and Toad the Wet Sprocket’s Glen Phillips.

But by 1998, the company had serious financial troubles and had to close shop. Amp nuts everywhere lamented Matchless’ demise and the original amps skyrocketed in value overnight. Just prior to Matchless MK I’s implosion, they hit on an idea that might have saved the company, given time. The idea: offer more affordable amps that incorporate the same quality components as other Matchless models, but in a circuit with limited PC-board construction, channel switching, and footswitchable reverb.

So, they gave it a whirl. The Superliner series was supposed to include three models, but only the 40-watt, EL34-powered Starliner Reverb 2x12 and the 15-watt, EL84-powered Skyliner Reverb 2x10 ever got off the ground—and in extremely limited numbers. According to Phil Jamison—who became Matchless’ production manager in 1994 and helped get the company back on its feet in 2000—fewer than 10 Starliner and Skyliner amps were produced, and several of them were returned due to faulty operation.

For more than a decade now, Jamison and current owner Geoff Emery have kept Matchless going steady and strong by offering most of the original amp designs and coming up with innovative new models for a wider array of players—including those with high-gain needs. They also recently began offering more affordable amps, first the EL84-powered Avalon 30 and now the EL34-powered Avalon 35, that incorporate top-shelf components in a design with partial PC-board construction. It’s a move many boutique builders have made since the beginning of the recession.

Forging Excalibur
Consumer products in general often have names that convey a gross inflation of their true worth, and guitar gear is no different. But sometimes those lofty-sounding names aren’t far from the mark. Look up “Avalon” and you’ll discover that, in Arthurian legend, it was the island where King Arthur’s magical sword, Excalibur, was forged. I don’t know if that’s what Matchless was going for, but I like the possible comparisons the name suggests.

For a lot of players, acquiring the Avalon 35—which retails at $2629 (with reverb, $2599 without)—isn’t going to be as easy as lifting the amp from an enchanted stone, but compared to the similarly featured SC-30 combo, it’s a relative steal. Likewise, despite having a feature set that’s rather primitive by modern standards, the amp isn’t without its magic. Inside, the Avalon combines two EL34s, five 12AX7s (three for the preamp, two for the reverb), a 5AR4 tube rectifier, and the same quality components used in other Matchless amps—including robust transformers— in a class-A, cathode-biased hybrid circuit that uses both point-to-point, turret-style construction, and cost-cutting PC-board elements. The front panel features Hi and Lo instrument inputs, Standby and On/Off rocker switches, and six “chicken-head” knobs—Volume, Bass, Treble, Cut, Master Push/Pull, and Reverb. Like the front panel, the rear panel is simple and intuitive. It features jacks for an extension cabinet and the built-in 30-watt Celestion G12H speaker, a three-position Impedance selector, jacks for the series effects loop and optional reverb footswitch, a fuse receptacle, and a standard IEC power-cord receptacle.

The amp weighs a hefty 62 lbs. and measures 21 ¼" W x 23 ¼" H x 11 ¼" D. My construction niggles are very minor. First, though the Avalon’s dimensions are comparable to the original SC-30 1x12 combo, the unusual height may be an awkward schlep for shorter players, who may have difficulty carrying it straigh-tarmed without bumping or dragging it on the ground. Second, though there are labels above the front-panel controls, they’re hard to read without squatting. Otherwise, there’s almost nothing to fault in the Avalon’s construction. The black covering is virtually flawless, the silver piping is cleanly cut and applied, and the salt-and-pepper grillcloth looks fantastic. And let’s not forget the badass rear-lit logo—one of the most iconic looks in all of ampdom.

The Matchless Avalon 35 features a hybrid circuit with both PC-board-mounted components and point-to-point-wired, chassis-mounted tube sockets and controls.

Wielding the Blade
I tested the Avalon with a nice variety of guitars, including a ’60s Strat reissue with Custom Shop Fat ’50s pickups, a PRS Ted McCarty DC 245 with 57/08 humbuckers, a Schecter Ultra III with splittable mini-humbuckers, and a Gretsch G6118T-LTV with TV Jones Classics. With each axe, the tones were dynamic, detailed, and varied. The key to the variety is the Master Push/Pull knob, which enables you to go from needling AC30 glory to higher-gain, Marshall plexi-type sounds at less problematic volumes. For the former, you’ll want Master Push/Pull disengaged (pushed in) so you can experience the open, airy feel that comes when you let the Volume knob control both gain and output. For rock and hard-rock sounds, turn Master Push/ Pull to a lower setting (so you don’t get blasted in the face) and crank Volume toward its upper regions for rich distortion. As with most master-volume amps, this convenient feature is very practical, though it slightly darkens the timbres and decreases some of the to-die-for dynamics. With Volume and Master Push/Pull nearing their limits, things can get splatty and fizzy, but the same can be said of a lot of classic amps.

The Avalon’s EQ is remarkably interactive, too. As with classic Vox and Matchless circuits, Cut shaves off high-end frequencies as you turn it clockwise. When it’s completely counterclockwise, you get those glassy sounds made famous by the Who and the Fab Four. With it maxed, you get a thick, scooped-out tone that could accommodate jazz cats or rock guys looking for notched mids. While jazz cats won’t be the first to gravitate to an amp like the Avalon—and the same probably goes for hardcore rockabilly guys—I got fat, neck-pickup jazz tones and bristling rockabilly bombast with the Gretsch.

The Treble and Bass knobs work like they do on other amps, and the latter in particular has much more impact than many other tube amps. Dime it, and you get more mids for a honkier sound—but in a musical, absolutely usable way. Bring it back a bit, say, to three or four o’clock, and you get muscular, in-your-face tones. My playing runs the gamut from heavy-handed rock/rockabilly riffing and chording to a lot of hybrid picking, so I eventually settled on Volume at two or two-thirty, Master Push/Pull off, Bass at two o’clock, Treble dimed, Cut off, and Reverb—a three-spring unit that adds nice dimension but less depth than I’d hoped—at two o’clock. This let me get the broadest array of tones, from all-out brashness and crystalline detail to full, rounded notes by going from a heavy pick attack to curling the plectrum under my index finger and strumming with my thumb. With the Strat, I got deliciously detailed quackiness in the in-between positions—perfect for Southern rock flavors or funky chording like in Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” With the Schecter, I got raw, in-your-face indie-rock sounds using the bridge pickup. The PRS yielded everything from Zeppelin-esque PAF sounds to fat neck-pickup tones that would make SRV proud.

The Final Mojo
Like a lot of aficionados of high-end anything, guitarists can get pretty hung up on certain details before they’ve even tried a product. They might dismiss an amp for even minimal PC-board construction or because it wasn’t designed during a certain period of the company’s history. There’s a kernel of wisdom in some arguments over such minutia, because the longer you play, the more you realize your sound is the sum of all the little things—from your pick gauge to how hard you fret and what kind of tubes are in your amp. But we all know such obsession can be crippling, too. The trick is to do your homework and find great equipment, and then focus more on your playing and your ear than on your gear. That’s what most of our heroes did (or do). And that’s why I really dig the new Matchless Avalon 35. It offers an excellent balance of flexibility, durability, and quality tone.

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Buy if...
you revel in bristling, dynamic EL34 tones and simplified flexibililty.
Skip if...
you want more sophisticated control of surf-able reverb.

Street $2500 - Matchless Amplifiers - matchlessamplifiers.com