I have LOTS of gear. Guitarists of a certain vintage own vintage equipment! I wrote about some of it here. I’ll be writing more about it soon.
Rather than post a list of all the stuff I’ve accumulated over a lifetime of working as a musician, I’d rather explain how I decide what to use in any given situation. (Consumer alert: We are about to travel to Galaxy Guitar Geek. You can go somewhere else if you’d like, but I’ll try to keep it user-friendly for the casual reader.)
To me, the three most significant things about the electric guitar are 1) what kind of pickups it has 2) what the scale length is and 3) whether it has a solid or hollow body. Just about every component of the instrument affects its tone in some way, but the interplay of these three factors dictates my choice of instrument in any given situation. (I expect people to argue with me about this. Have at it!)
Pickups (Gross oversimplification ahead!)
In my opinion, from a playing perspective there are basically three kinds of pickups. If you were an artist you could think of them as the primary colors: red, blue, and yellow.
Fender-style single coil pickups produce a bright, clear, thin sound that cuts through even when the guitar isn’t loud. They are great at translating all the subtleties of pick or finger attack on the guitar string. They aren’t great at generating tones that take up a lot of room in the mix. Call them red.
Gibson-style humbucking pickups are almost the opposite. They create big, rich tones that cover a lot of space at the expense of articulation and highs. Call them blue.
Every other kind of pickup I’ve ever heard falls somewhere on the spectrum between these two poles. For example, mini-humbuckers, P-90s, Filter-Trons, etc. Call them yellow.
This is pretty easy. A short scale length (the distance from the bridge to the nut) is easier to play, easier to bend, mellower, less articulate sounding, and a tiny bit less in tune up the neck. A long scale length is harder to play, harder to bend, brighter, more articulate, and easier to intonate accurately. Gibson guitars are short scale as a rule. Fenders are long scale. Paul Reed Smiths are in between.
Solid or Hollow Body
Guitars with solid bodies have fewer overtones and don’t feed back at higher volumes. They generate a less complex signal that’s easier to manage in loud settings. Hollow bodies are the opposite. More overtones, more complexities, a more refined attack and harder to manage when playing loud.
One of the paradoxes of a professional career is that the busier you are, the less likely it is that you will be playing through your own equipment. (Unless, of course, you become so successful that you can afford to bring it along and pay people to watch it and move it.) With this in mind, here’s a rough guide to amps from a journeyman’s point of view. By the way, in my thirty-plus years of touring I’ve been playing through rented gear easily 95% of the time. Although the show rider specifies particular makes and models, in practice the amp you play through is whatever amp turns up onstage at the gig, which is generally not what you asked for. So I’ve had the pleasure of playing through just about every kind of amp you’ve ever heard of, and a lot you haven’t.
What I Ask For And Why: The JCM 800!
For most of the live gigs I do, I need a high quality clean sound that works well with vocals, blends well with keyboards, and can be heard anywhere on stage without being obnoxiously loud. Believe it or not, the rental amp that I’ve found works best for me is a 100 watt Marshall JCM 800 head with the slanted Marshall 4 x 12 speaker cabinet. The JCM 800 is a hard rock standard (KISS used them live for years), so most people aren’t aware that you can get an excellent clean sound out of them at low to moderate volumes, depending on how you set the preamp and master volume controls. The slanted cabinet is perfect for stage-filling clean sounds. The slant means that I hear the amp well without having to put the cabinet on anything and the sound projects well, even on the other side of the drums.
The JCM 800 is a two-channel amp, so you can set one channel for your clean sound and one for a lead sound. However, most rental companies forget the footswitch, so I always carry some sort of boost or distortion pedal to use for solos. If the footswitch is there, I set the lead channel for a good single note/picking sound and adjust its volume so that when I play single notes in the middle register, it’s a shade louder than the rhythm channel, which I use for chords. This means I don’t have to adjust the controls on the guitar to play a single note intro and then switch to rhythm. The pedal is set to sound good with the rhythm channel for solos, and if I want to burn down the doors I’ll switch to the lead channel and kick in the pedal too. Four useful sounds, two things on the floor, one pedal (which I can keep in my gig bag).
Although I like the sound of some other Marshall models better than the JCM 800 (specifically the older, non-master volume models, the 2000 series, and the silver Jubilee models that Slash made famous), the JCM 800 has several advantages for the touring musician. First of all, just about every remotely serious rental company anywhere in the world has them! So if you ask for a JCM 800, you often get it. Second, they almost always show up in good shape. I don’t know if this is because they are inherently durable or because they are so popular that they get fixed when they break. Third, they sound pretty consistent, which makes everybody’s life easier when you’re using a different one every gig.
I’ve found that just about any Marshall with a 4 x 12 works pretty well for me, including the solid-state and the hybrid valvestate models, except for the JCM 900. For some reason I find these a lot harder to dial in, even though the controls and features are almost identical to the JCM 800. I think the gain structure and circuit values on the clean channel are quite different.
My second choice if I can’t get a Marshall is a blackface Fender Twin Reverb. Fender Twins deserve their own page, as there are several species, each with significantly different characteristics for the working player. Although they sound quite different from Marshalls, they have a lot of the same virtues for live work. The Twin is designed for loud, clean sound, and its 88 watts and 2 x 12 cabinet cut through in a big way live. They can get shrill, but you’ll always hear them. And if a rental company has two guitar amps, it’s a strong probability that at least one is a Twin Reverb, so they are easy to get.
The biggest problem with rented Twins is consistency. Properly maintained, any Twin is an excellent piece of gear. However, when you rent a Twin, no matter what you ask for, they usually send you a silverface one with a master volume control. This is, in just about everybody’s opinion, one of the least desirable variants of the Twin from a tonal standpoint.
So why does every rental company have them? Well, because they are not particularly special and a lot of them were made, they’re cheap for what they do and are easy to find. But their real virtue from the rental company’s point of view is that they are just about impossible to kill. The silverface Twin will produce a useable sound even when there are a number of things seriously wrong with it. So they don’t have to spend much on maintenance to keep them running.
What’s a shame is that a well-maintained silverface Twin is nearly the equal of its more glamorous blackface relative. But because they will still function and sound vaguely like they are supposed to without routine maintenance, rental companies don’t maintain them. Sometimes a poorly maintained amp can sound good if you are using a distorted tone as your basic tone. But tube amps need to be maintained and cared for properly to produce quality clean sound.
That being said, I still ask for Twins as a second choice because I’ve played through so many of them that I know I can make one work, and their cabinets have excellent sound dispersal.
I am not a purist, but if given a choice, I generally prefer tube amplifiers. I like the way they respond to dynamics and the way their overtones work. However, I much prefer a good solid state amp to a badly maintained tube amp. Tube amps require more care and maintenance than their solid state brethren, and most venues and rental companies don’t do anything to maintain their amps. They only get serviced when they break down completely.
To me, the most significant part of the tube amp is the power tube section. There are a few common flavors of power tubes: 6L6s (the Fender Twin sound), 6V6s (the Fender Princeton and Deluxe), EL34s (Marshalls), EL84s (Vox/Matchless), 6550s (some Marshalls, Ampeg SVTs), KT88s (some European amps). Each kind of tube has a characteristic way of enunciating the midrange, where, to me, amplified guitar tone lives. 6L6s have a bright, aggressive treble and upper midrange. 6V6s are a bit softer and break up beautifully but are a bit wooly in the bass frequencies. EL34s have different midrange peaks than 6L6s; to me, they sound fuller, sweeter, but less cutting. EL84s jangle like nothing else and give a nice full sound but break up early. 6550s are ferocious; powerful and aggressive, at the expense of lyricism. KT88s are a full, musical tube, but hard to find and not a lot of amp circuits use them.
Of course, amp designers are constantly coming up with new ways to use tubes, and for any generalization I could come up with, somebody could point to an amp using a specific type of tube brand that would invalidate it. The size (10″, 12″, 15″) and type of speaker used, number of speakers in the cabinet, and the material and design of the cabinet also contribute mightily to amp tone.
I own amps with every kind of power tube mentioned above (except for KT 88s), and I choose which amp (or amps) I use in any particular situation based on the type of music I’m playing, the other instruments in the band, whether it’s a male or female singer, and whether or not there is another guitarist on the gig. The guitar I’m bringing is also a consideration.
Here’s an example: when I play with Derrick Barnett, I bring either my Music Man amp with two 6L6s and one 12″ speaker, or my Fender Twin Reverb with four 6L6s and two 12″ speakers. Derrick likes the sound of these amps, they fit his voice, and they also produce a strong, clear, aggressive midrange and high end and a tight bottom, perfect for reggae rhythm, which I’m playing 90% of the time in that situation.
When I play a blues trio gig, I bring either my 100 watt Marshall with 6550s, or any of several smaller amps depending on the size of the venue. In this situation, I want an amp that breaks up earlier and takes up more room across the spectrum, as I am the only chordal instrument.
For big stages, a Marshall-type cabinet with 4 12″ speakers is the way to go, though a Fender Twin also works well. A 4 x 12 gives a lot of stage coverage, particularly with 60 or more watts. My favorite amp in these situations is a Marshall JCM 800. Though it’s primarily known as a rock amp, it has a very effective and full clean sound when set properly and can go from crystalline rhythm to hard rock at the flick of a switch. It’s also an amp that most rental companies own, no small consideration when you’re on tour and not using your own gear.
Solid State Amplifiers
A lot of guitarists hate solid state amps. I only have a beef with one in particular, the ubiquitous Roland JC 120. Lots of younger reggae and R&B players love them. I find them dreadful. The speakers are harsh, the preamp section squashes your dynamic range, and the onboard distortion circuit is less than useless. They have three things to recommend them. First, for a guitar amp they are reasonably hi-fi. So if you use an amp simulator or multi-effects unit to get your tone and only want the amp to make it louder, a JC 120 is a good choice. Second, the chorus inside the amp sounds tremendous, as does the vibrato. So if you leave the chorus on all the time, you’ll probably like the amp. (Of course, I worked with Toots and the Maytals for over twenty years, and Toots HATED chorus. He said, “It sounds out of tune,” which is exactly what a chorus does—splits your signal and detunes and modulates part of it—so I couldn’t argue with him.) Third, although I hate how they sound, they are an amazingly consistent and practically indestructible amp. So once you find settings you like, you can set any JC 120 the same way and get exactly the same sound.
In fairness, I must say that when I went to Japan (home of the Roland JC 120) with Super Cat in 2007, there was one for me to play at the first show that sounded incredible. Sweet, musical, not too harsh; I loved it. After the gig I looked in the back to get the serial number and noticed that the speakers were black and unlabeled, not the usual orange ones you see in a JC 120 which have “Roland” on them. The rest of the JCs I ran into on the tour sounded exactly as they usually do to my ears: clinical, shrill, and harsh.
When I got back I called up Dennis Kager at Central Jersey Music, my amp guru, and told him about the amp. I asked him if he knew anything about the black speakers and his answer was enlightening. Apparently the original amp had the black speakers, which he said were much better than the orange Roland ones. He had a client whose JC had the black speakers and blew one of them. When Dennis ordered the part from Roland, one of the orange speakers turned up, with exactly the same part number. He was unable to get a black speaker, as the person at Roland insisted that the orange speaker was correct. Dennis’ theory is that the orange speakers were cheaper (they certainly sound cheaper) and that some bean counter ordered them substituted in later production runs after the amp proved popular.
I’ve never seen another JC 120 with the black speakers, but if I found one, I’d have to consider buying it. They are that good.