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.
The voice of an amp is determined by a lot of factors: volume and EQ knob settings, preamp and power amp design, transformers, caps and tubes, and, most importantly, the speakers and the cabinet. Throw in a pedalboard and you have quite a few elements in the signal chain that creates your tone. I have learned that I need very few pedals on my pedalboard—a lot fewer than I see in magazines or ads from pedal or pedalboard companies.
My suggestion: Instead of more pedals, add one more amp. Two amps with different speakers and different tone and distortion characteristics will give you layers of sound that you can't create in a signal chain where every factor is added in series. I recommend experimenting with parallel signal chains a lot at home before trying it live. Multiple amps are louder and make monitoring and PA settings more difficult, so you should have your tonal recipe together before testing it on the gig.
Let's quickly mention a few ways to split your signal. The best is using an ABY pedal. ABY pedals with buffering will take your input signal and output two equal, full-strength signals that are as resistant to noise and interference as the input signal. Be advised, this can potentially create some phasing and noise issues in your amps. A simpler way to split the signal in vintage Fender amps is by using inputs 1 and 2 (on the same channel). As usual, plug your guitar into input 1. Then connect an instrument cable from input 2 to a second amp's input 1. The guitar signal is then evenly distributed between the two amps, but only at half-strength. The downside of this method is potential grounding issues, and noise and interference from lights and other nearby electrical components.
Now, let's look at a few amp combinations that I enjoy—some with effects in one or both signal chains. As usual, I use my classic Fender amps as examples, since this column is, after all, called Silver and Black.
Instead of more pedals, add one more amp.
• Fender clean plus Vox wild
I've seen this combination many times onstage—for example, a Super Reverb and a Vox AC15 or AC30. The cranked Vox provides strong mids through 12" speakers, and is lush, bright, and distorted. The cleaner and tighter 10"-loaded Super Reverb is scooped and bass-y. With this pairing you get attack and sustain, distortion and bell-clear chiming notes, and you can select either the trebly, in-your-face Vox reverb or the more subtle Fender reverb.
• Princeton Reverb crunch plus a big Fender amp.
This combination is more Fender-y than the Vox pairing, obviously. The point is to get low-wattage break-up from a mellow sounding Princeton Reverb together with a bigger and fuller sounding Fender amp. The big amp is dialed in at its sweet spot with some—but not too much—warmth, a normally balanced EQ, and some reverb. Then I crank the Princeton volume to 8 or 9, and set the treble at 3 and the reverb at 0. The result is a rich and wide tone. You may use the ABY pedal to play only the big Fender amp on verses, and add the Princeton for more crunch on solos or refrains.
• Two Deluxe Reverbs, one wet/one dry.
Chorus, reverb, vibrato, or delay effects can sometimes make your tone sound thinner and weaker, and undermine its core character and sustain. You can compensate for this by using two amps in parallel, where the effects are only applied to one amp. This yields a more subtle and controllable effect level. To some, having effects in only one channel improves the spread and 3D experience.
• Super Reverb and Vibroverb.
For fun, I want to mention SRV's famous and monstrous combo that he used for the 1983 Live at the El Mocambo concert in Toronto. His tech César Diaz modified his Vibroverb to be louder, firmer, and chunky, with a monstrous EVM 15L speaker, a diode rectifier, and a Twin Reverb output transformer. Both amps were cranked, and the Super's 10s provide touch sensitivity and a scooped tone while the Vibroverb punches you in the face. There's an enormous 3D-spread onstage. Unless you play stadium gigs and have strong, super-controlled hands, I don't recommend this combo, since it will scare everyone away—bandmates, sound crew, and audience. But done right, it is an overwhelming experience. Now, go experiment.
- Develop a better sense of subdivisions.
- Understand how to play "over the bar line."
- Learn to target chord tones in a 12-bar blues.
So, what is bad time? It's when people rush and speed up the tempo or drag and slow the tempo down in an unmusical way. If your quarter-note pulse is uneven, you can't lock in with what the band is doing because the time keeps moving. If somebody's fills are all wonky and don't land right, that usually means they are not subdividing and are just stuffing notes into the measure haphazardly. These players don't realize what is happening. Don't be one of these players. To develop your own pocket, you will need two things: your guitar and a metronome. A better groove, and a better ability to subdivide the beat, will lead to better phrasing and more control of what you want to play.
The first three examples are designed to eliminate your reliance on the first beat of the measure. Practicing with the metronome on all four beats of the measure is a very common way to practice scales and chord progressions. Remember that in most styles of music, the snare drum is on beats 2 and 4 of the measure. Practice with your metronome as if it's a snare, where the click is on 2 and 4. (A note about tempo markings: Usually the tempo is listed at a quarter-note level, but with the metronome on beats 2 and 4, it's marked as a half-note. So, if the half-note tempo is listed as 120 bpm, the quarter-note tempo would be twice that, or 240 bpm.)
Ex. 1 is a G7 arpeggio played in 3rd position, with half-note tempos of 100, 125, and 150 bpm. The recording of this example has a count off with the clicks on 2 and 4. If these tempos are initially too fast, start with a slower tempo where you can play the example cleanly, putting each note directly in between the clicks of the metronome. You can even start with just a single note at a comfortable tempo, getting used to what it sounds and feels like to put a note directly in between the metronome clicks.
Ex. 2 is the A minor pentatonic scale (A–C–D–E–G) in 5th position, played first in half-notes and then again in whole-notes. This example is designed to help you switch gears between different rhythms.
Ex. 3 is the C major scale (C–D–E–F–G–A–B) in 7th position played in half-notes and whole-notes, but at faster tempo. If you practice different types of scales and arpeggios in this way, you'll discover spots where you may rush or drag the notes.
The last three phrasing exercises are intended to eliminate your need to play on the first beat of the measure. Played over a 12-bar blues in A, each example uses a different rhythm or phrasing structure where you will need to count a lot of empty space to play these rhythms correctly. Ex. 5 is deceptively simple, where you play only on beats two, three, and four of each measure. It takes more concentration than you would think, so be careful that you don't fall back into playing your usual stuff.
Ex. 6 will develop your ability to play over the bar line, which is simply not starting or ending your phrases directly on beat 1. There's a lot of space to count, starting each small phrase on the "and" of beat 3, and finishing on the "and" of beat 1 in the next measure.
Ex. 7 aims to expand your phrasing, creating longer lines by playing a two-bar phrase almost entirely in eighth-notes. The challenge to this exercise is beginning on the "and" of one in the first measure and ending on the "and" of four in the second measure. In each of these examples, practice each rhythm by itself on a single pitch with a metronome, focusing on counting the spaces and playing that specific rhythm. Then, try adding different chord tones or scales when that rhythm becomes internalized.
After working on these examples, play over a track and focus on one concept at a time to see if you really have it under your fingers and in your ears. Always remember to keep things simple to begin with. There's plenty of time to make things complicated later on. Cheers!