In this 4-part feature I’m going to look at the grandest and most difficult topic of them all – tone. Just what is tone? What is a good tone and how do you achieve it? I’m sure there are as many answers to this as there are guitarists. In this third part of the feature, we’ll look at amps. Which amps you should choose for your setup and how to get the tones you want.
In the previous parts, we’ve looked at how we perceive tone and that tone is a very subjective experience. We also looked at the importance of choosing the right guitar – not only for your technique and rig but also for inspiration to play and create music. Check out part 1 and part 2.
People tend to prioritize guitars and a bunch of pedals and forget the importance of a good sounding amp. An instrument amplifier isn’t just a box amplifying your playing. Choosing the right amp for your setup is crucial for getting the tones you want from your guitar and pedals. I strongly suggest that you buy a guitar and amp before you spend all your savings on pedals. This will ensure the best fundament for your tones and playing.
Let’s stick to tube amps. A tube amp consist of a pre-amp section that takes the small signal from your guitar and amplifies it enough to drive the power amp section. Most amps allow you to manipulate the pre-amp signal with a number of gain and EQ controls. The signal is then fed into the power amp, which gives the power to drive the speakers. The amp could either be a head with one or more speaker cabinets or a combo, with the amp section and speaker cab combined.
My best tip is that you spend some time checking out different models. Bring your guitar to your local guitar store, check out reviews and YouTube clips to get an idea on what’s available. How will you be using the amp? Are you mostly playing in your bedroom, a small studio, clubs or bigger venues? Do you use a lot of pedals or are you more of a plug-and-play kind of guy?
Although fairly consistent with Hiwatts in his live rig, like most guitarists, Gilmour has always experimented with his recoding setups. He’s using the Hiwatt and WEM setup too but in recent years especially, he’s often employed a wide range of smaller amps like the Hiwatt SA212, Fender Bassman, Twin and Princeton, Gallien/Krueger etc. All for getting the tones he needs for that particular song. Another great example is Brian May, who is well known for his wall of VOX amps on stage but many of his trademark solos were recorded with a small home made 10w solid state amp with a 10 inch speaker. Another tone freak, Billy Gibbons, swear by his Marshall JMP-1 rack units for recording.
Wattage and size
Wattage doesn’t necessarily say anything about how loud the amp is. The actual volume is a combination of many things, including the amp’s construction and design, the speakers and their output level, tubes and not least the frequency spectrum of the amp. We perceive sound differently and our ears will either enhance or compress certain frequencies and transients, making us believe a sound is either lower or higher than it really is. Also, a common misconception is that a 100w is twice as loud as a 50w. That may very well be, considering the points above, but technically, a 100w is twice as loud as a 10w.
Likewise, size doesn’t say much about how loud an amp is. A handbag-sized ZT Club would surely blast a Marshall MA50 stack to pieces. However, size and wattage do matter in terms of how the amp operates. In general I would say that for playing at home and studio recording, I’d go for a 5-30w combo. These are much easier to both tame and mic properly. A combo will also go nicely in smaller clubs but usually you’d want something bigger like a 50-100w 2-4×12 stack for 500 seats and above venues. This will allow you to get a more balanced monitoring (mixed with front stage monitors) and you’ll also be more able to incorporate the huge tone into your playing with feedback effects etc.
Speakers and cabinets
The speakers are perhaps the most important component in an amplifier. I’m sure many will disagree but it is crucial for your tone that the speaker is able to correctly translate the signal coming from your guitar, pedals and amp. Although all speakers have the same basic design principle they differ in what components that are used and how these are “tweaked” in order to get a specific tone.
Choosing speakers is a bit like buying a distortion pedal. Different models will have different impact on your tones. The rule of thumb is that low wattage speakers that approximately matches the amp’s wattage will distort earlier. This is common for a typical Marshall-ish setup where you need to crank the shit out of the tubes and speakers to get that creamy distortion. High wattage speakers that exceed the amp’s wattage like a typical Hiwatt and Fane combination will give you much more headroom and a later break up. My best tip is that you experiment with different speakers/cabinets and listen to how low VS high output speakers and speakers with different tonal character affect your overall tone. Personally, I prefer high wattage speakers with a distinct scooped mids tone. This allows me to have rich headroom and a transparent tone for my pedals.
ALWAYS make sure that the speaker cab is matching the impedance/ohm of your amp head!
ALWAYS make sure that the head is connected to a speaker cab!
Doing otherwise could seriously harm your amp!
Regardless of whether the amp is a combo or stack with a separate speaker cabinet – different shapes, sizes and construction of the cabinet will have a dramatic effect on your tone. A closed back cabinet will often sound tighter and more focused while an open back cabinet will sound slightly darker and not as punchy but slightly more transparent. Straight cabinets are more directional while cabinets with a slanted upper half tend to sound bigger but not as focused. As with a guitar, the wood used in a cab will have an impact on the details and frequencies in your tone. This is really a topic of its own, so do some research if you’re looking for a new amp or speaker cab.
It’s not a question of if the tubes will need to be replaced but when. Some tubes will work for 10mins while others can live a life time – although rarely. Some tubes are defect from the manufacturer and could go any minute but it’s usually a combination of how hard you push the amp and how you treat it. Do also check the tubes in your new amp and consider replacing these if you want a slightly different tone. It may seem redundant but you do restring a new guitar with your preferred gauge and brand, don’t you?
Replacing a tube is an easy operation you should learn how to do. On most amps it’s as easy as changing a light bulb. A power tube that doesn’t work will usually blow the fuse. If this happen, I recommend that you replace both (50w) or all four (100w) at the same time in matching pairs. This to ensure correct bias and a balanced tone. A pre-amp tube that doesn’t work usually goes microphonic. This is recognized by a vague high pitched ringing from the amp, even if the guitar is unplugged. Tap gently on the tubes with a wooden stick to determine which tube you need to replace. Dying tubes can also be recognized by a blue glow, very bright yellow/red glow, white frosting inside the tube and a generally weaker tone with flat bass response and volume drop. Mind though, that this can also be signs of something far more severe.
There are very few tube manufacturers left. Most tubes are made in Russia, Eastern Europe and China and rebranded and sold by others with licence. Personally, I find JJ Electronics to be the best match for my setup. These have a bit more headroom and a warm, smooth compression. Others may find these a bit too mild and prefer Sovtek or Yugo, which will give you a slightly brighter tone and a bit more bite.
Bias is a topic in its own but in short – Underbiased (too little voltage) means that the tubes will overheat and the amp will get noisy and hard to control. Overbiased (too much voltage) can cause internal damage to the amp. There are different opinions on whether and how often you should check and adjust the bias. A good rule of thumb is to get it measured every time you replace a tube – at least the power tubes. If this is overlooked, you might end up with an amp that sounds like shit when you record and worst, it may damage the amp. Measuring and adjusting the bias require some instruments so you’re probably best off taking the amp to your local tech.
All technical details aside, an amp can be manipulated to produce a variety of tones. While pedals are rather static in how they operate, an amp is very much about physics and how we perceive the signal coming from the amp. One often talks about a sweetspot, which is a reference to the perfect combination of the driven tubes and speakers and how these interact with your playing and the tone from your guitar and pedals. Obviously, a sweetspot is very subjective and it requires a great deal of getting to know how your equipment operates in different situations. As you will discover, the sweetspot is quite different when you’re on stage compared to when you’re recording.
Focus on getting the best possible tone from your amp, then set the pedals. This will ensure a minimum of noise and allow your pedals to sound their best.
I always start a rehearsal, gig or recording session by allowing the amp to heat up in bypass for 5-10 minutes. Then I roughly set the controls, plug the guitar straight into the amp and change between strumming and picking to hear how the amp responds. Most tube amps will have good days and bad days so getting to know today’s mood is a useful exercise. I wander around and listen to the amp from different angles. If something isn’t right I try to change the position of the amp. For a recording session, I usually end up placing it near a corner. This seems to help focus the tone. Do not place the amp near a window, as this will disturb the lower frequencies. Also, try to place the amp slightly above ground on a riser or flight case to allow the tone to breathe.
My sweetspot is when the amp is at the very edge of breaking up. I can add Tube Drivers, Big Muffs and fuzz pedals with a very mild gain setting and everything just explodes out of the amp. The tone is wild and shaking with feedback but still very easy to control. I love it when you sustain a note and you hear this sweet feedback comes creeping. The slightest move or change in positing can create a total mayhem or a tone that sounds incredibly dynamic and rich with harmonics.
Playing at home
There is a huge variety of low wattage and small sized tube and solid states on the market. I believe you’ll get the best tones, regardless musical preferences, with a tube amp. You should be able to find one that I’ll suit both your setup and a tight budget. See this Buyer’s Guide for recommended budget tube amps.
A home or bedroom setup require a different approach than when you’re playing with a band and/or on a stage. Trying to replicate David’s, or any other guitarist’s, huge stage setup with a Vox Cube or a Laney Cub, will probably drive you mad from having tried all sorts of settings and pedals that just won’t sound right. We’ll talk more about this in the next part of this feature but is essence you should try to keep it simple. It is much better to buy a 5w tube combo, cranking it and placing a delay in the effects loop rather than trying to force a whole pedal board into an amp that just can’t handle it. It’s not the pedals alone that create David’s unique tone. Without his hands, guitar and not least his amps, the pedals would be quite redundant.
Volume is always an issue when you’re playing at home. For some reasons, neighbors (and wives) doesn’t approve of loud guitars… A 50-100w tube amp is quite redundant because you won’t be able to get anywhere near heating the tubes for a mild compression or break up. You want a clean tone but tubes that aren’t responding sound flat and dull. A 15-20w has the headroom you need and you’ll be able to drive the tubes enough to get the right basis for your pedals – or full blown tube distortion.
Each amp and setup will require different settings of the EQ and volume controls. Trying to replicate settings you’ve seen on pictures or given by some self acclaimed guitar guru is pretty pointless. A Marshall JCM800 has a very different character compared to a Fender Twin. Likewise, differences in choice of speakers, tubes, individual tone differences between two seemingly identical amps, placement of the amp and speaker cabinet, cables, guitar and pickups, your playing and technique will all require different settings. But, I know you want it, so here are some settings!
David Gilmour Hiwatt Custom 100, 2006 stage setup 1
linked input (upper normal and lower bright, guitar into upper bright)
normal 2:00, brilliance 1:00, bass 11:00, treble 10:00, middle 1:30, presence 3:00, master 9:00
This seems to have been David’s main settings throughout the 2006 On an Island tour – most likely with small adjustments depending on the venue. The amps are set at the very edge of break up with the master lower than the pre-amp volume. This produces a powerful and fairly bright tone with natural compression and a mild mid boost.
David Gilmour Hiwatt Custom 100, 2006 stage setup 2
linked input (upper normal and lower bright, guitar into upper bright)
normal 2:00, brilliance 1:00, bass 11:30, treble 8:30, middle 12:30, presence 3:00, master 8:00
These settings seems to have been used for some of the low scale TV appearances during the US leg of the 2006 tour. Very similar to the main stage setup but slightly lower in volume and a tad darker with the treble rolled way down – possibly to compensate for some of the natural compression and mids boost caused by higher volume.
My main Reeves Custom 50 stage setup
linked input (upper normal and lower bright, guitar into upper bright)
normal 2:00, brilliance 11:00, bass 11:30, treble 8:00, middle 12:30, presence 3:00, master 8:00
This is very similar to David’s 2006 stage setup 2. The combination of the Reeves and Weber Thames speakers that I use is very bright, so this rather dark setup adds a warm, mild mids boost to balance the signal. Rolling down the treble this much may seem strange but there are lots of high frequencies and attack left. Demanding effects like silicon fuzz and UniVibes also sounds a lot smoother. Depending on the placement of the amp, I will sometimes toll down the mids to about 11:00.
My main Laney CUB12 15w stack home setup
presence/tone 7.5, master volume 5, bass 4, middle 4, treble 2.5, gain/pre-volume 2
This is basically the same setup as my main Reeves stage setup and similar to David’s Hiwatt settings. The JJ Electronics tubes provides a bit more headroom, which allows me to increase the gain slightly without any breakup. The boosted tone/presence and lowered treble also adds a very mild compression and mids boost, even for the lowest volumes.
Laney CUB12 15w, suggested high gain setup
presence/tone 0, master volume 5, bass 10, middle 10, treble 2, gain/pre-volume 7-10
I’ve always loved Billy Gibbon’s crunchy humbucker tones. The dirt comes pouring out of his amps with so much saturation and dynamics that only he can produce. The principle is to roll back all the treble, which may seem crazy but by increasing the bass and mids, you get a super smooth tube break up. Increase the treble slightly if you think it’s way too dark but remember that the louder you play, the more transients will peak and make the sound brighter. Plug your fav Les Paul into your tube amp and listen for your self!
Peavey Classic 30 combo, suggested Gilmourish settings
Clean channel – normal volume 4.5, bass 9, middle 7.5, treble 4
The Peavey Classic 30 lack a couple of controls to give you the same options as a Hiwatt. Still, it is easy to dial in some really punchy clean tones in the normal channel mode. The amp has a distinct bright Fenderish tone that will require a fair amount of rolling down the treble and increasing the bass. The settings above is based on plugging a Strat into the Peavey and emulating David’s Hiwatt setup above.
Fender Super Twin, suggested Gilmourish settings
Normal channel – volume 7.5, treble 4.5, middle 5.5, bass 3.5, presence 7, master 4
The Fender Super Twin is hated by some and loved by others. The tone is somewhere between a Twin Reverb and the old Bassman heads – dark, creamy and insanely loud. The settings should apply for most Twin/Bassman models with some adjustments. This amp was used for most of my guitar parts on the first Airbag album, Identity. Including the solo on Sounds That I Hear. I think I used a Telecaster and a Boss BD2 for a mild crunch. An Shure SM57 was placed one or two inches off the grill but way off center, creating this very dark, muddy tone.
The settings above should apply to most amps, although you might need to tweak them some. The idea or principle is to get a clean tone with a mild bite and natural compression. Solid states and modelling amps will perhaps require a bit more fine tuning. Be careful with the typical bright transistor treble and either switch off any amp simulations or at least use one that is as transparent and clean as possible.
I’m sure that by now you are scratching your head and wonder why the hell this should be so complicated. Well, choosing which amp to buy isn’t any harder than deciding on a guitar but the more you are aware of how you’ll be using the amp and having some basic technical knowledge, will help you in getting the best amp for your setup and ultimately the tones you’re looking for.
In the next and final part of this feature we’ll tackle the myths and legends of the wonderful world of pedals. What’s the best way of arranging a pedal board? What’s boosting all about? Are there any pedals you should avoid? Please feel free to share your tone tips, settings and experiences in the comments field below!