Thursday, December 22, 2016

Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays!

Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays from Voodoo Guitar!

Thanks for a fantastic year everyone! We're taking a short holiday break and returning with some great topics in 2017, including:

- The best $99 I ever spent
- The rare & unique "top loader" 1959 Telecaster
- Building a tweed Princeton amp at home
- Profile: Jamie Simpson of BOOYA! Amplifier Services
- More great reviews & tips

Looking forward to a great 2017!

Monday, December 5, 2016

My Dad & His Guitars

My father was the reason I ever picked up a guitar in the first place.

Wayne's World had a lot to do with it, too, but if my dad hadn't had guitars in the house, it might've just passed like any other adolescent phase, leading to another summer of basketball camp or Little League rather than trying to look like Angus Young in front of my bedroom mirror. Although I had taken violin lessons as a young kid, followed by a few years of piano, some things happened in the summer of '92 that changed the game for me: my grandmother, whom i was very close with, passed away, and Eric Clapton's Unplugged album had just been released, which proved a far better outlet for my grief than the usual Metallica or Guns 'n' Roses cassettes in my Walkman. I wanted to express my feelings by playing those songs, not just listening to them, and asked my dad to teach me how; big moment.

My dad, Paul Sheganoski, had been a musician since he was 13 or so, starting out on guitar, and later moving to bass. Taking after my grandfather before him, a self-taught mandolin and harmonica player with a great ear, music dominated his young life growing up in Bayonne in the early '60s, taking lessons at Piero's (where I would hang out 30 years later), bringing his guitar on family trips, playing in The Electras and The Deltairs with his best friend Steve Zazenski, covering everything from '50s doo-wop to early rock'n'roll (the two forged a friendship that would last a lifetime). My grandfather bought him his first real guitar, a '62 sunburst Stratocaster, from Stark's Music store in Bayonne.

My dad & grandfather jamming, circa '60

The Electras, featuring Steve Zazenski (far left), and my father (far right), circa '62.

As a typical impulsive teenager, possibly trying to differentiate from his bandmate's identical guitar and having no idea of it's future value, he had that original sunburst Strat refinished at an autobody shop; the result was a cool metallic blue flake finish with a black pickguard, although he eventually traded it in anyway (Also, if anyone happens to come across a '62 Strat refinished in metallic blue flake with a black pickguard, call me!). The Ampeg Gemini I combo amp was also his, while the Jaguar and blonde Tremolux head and cabinet belonged to Steve and resided in his parents' basement rehearsal space.

(Seriously, e-mail me if you recognize that Strat)

My dad (left), and his friend Steve (right), looking as cool as possible in Buddy Holly glasses and beatnik berets.

The Deltairs even made a trip into New York City to cut a 45rpm vinyl demo, lugging all of their equipment on the bus and subway, tracking live to acetate master. With Steve's future wife Kathy Ambruzs on lead vocals, along with Chester Hodyl and Larry Suchac, the young group recorded a cover of "Earth Angel", the 1954 hit by The Penguins (and the same song Marty McFly played with Marvin Berry & The Starlighters at the 1955 Enchantment Under the Sea school dance).

Eventually, by about '64, my father realized that a band with three guitarists might benefit from some low end, so he saved up for a Jazz Bass, and fortunately for me, anticipated the value of this instrument, to the extent that it's still in incredible shape over 50 years later (aside from some minor belt buckle rash). Along with his next purchase, a '66 blonde Telecaster that replaced the Strat as his preferred guitar for rhythm playing, he continued to gig locally, most notably with Mark Stein, eventual vocalist and keyboardist of the highly influential rock group Vanilla Fudge.

He also traded up to a Fender Bassman head and cab around this time, something he could use with both the Tele and Jazz bass, and eventually an Ampeg B-25B stack by the end of the decade, which I still have (If you look closely at the background image of this site, you'll see it at my rehearsal space). Kinda wish he had kept the Bassman too... and Strat... and Gemini...

My two favorite heirlooms, and one exhausted Pekingese.

Closeup of the '64 Jazz, my dad's pride & joy.

Playing my dad's Tele at B.B. King's in NYC last February, a special guitar for a special gig.
Photo by Anthony Galasso.

He continued to play throughout the '70s in various bands, including Peace Train with friends Pete Henderson and Vinny Demitus, and also in a duo with my incredibly talented Godmother, Bernadette Golden. Speaking of Bernadette, it was my father who first placed a guitar in her hands, leading her towards a life of singing and songwriting, a degree in music education, and helped her parents pick out a cherry red '67 ES-335 for her as a graduation gift, a fitting instrument for a fantastic jazz vocalist. She still treasures that guitar to this day.

My dad in the 70s, if that wasn't already obvious.

Then, after a 20-year hiatus, he decided to start up a cover band in his mid-50s, Flashback, for which I proudly served as roadie and soundman. It was payback for the concerts and rehearsals he drove me to as a kid, the loud music coming from my bedroom, my first guitar, school for sound engineering, and turning the garage into a recording studio; a free demo session was the very least i could do. The man sure had patience, as I often tested.

Although my father was never much of a lead guitarist, he loved to both compliment and harass my playing, as he marveled over how I could perform all of the fast, tricky lead licks of guys like Clapton and Hendrix, yet lacked the "feel" that he had for rhythm and slower lines, which drove me crazy. For years, I couldn't understand what he was talking about... maybe it took some growing up on my part, feeling the blues a bit for myself, or maybe it'll be a constant quest and source of inspiration. Maybe it's that he's no longer around to hear me play, and that's the feeling I have now when I pick up a guitar, especially one of his... not a gig goes by that I don't wish he was there in the crowd.

In loving memory of Paul Vincent Sheganoski, 12/10/46 - 4/29/09

Monday, November 28, 2016

Keef's Favorite Guitars & How He Got 'Em

The man known as "The Human Riff" has over 3,000 guitars at his disposal, filling up a warehouse and maintained by one of the best techs in the industry... but just like anyone else, he's got his favorites, and a few of them have great stories. While there are many blogs and websites dedicated to Keith's guitars, I'm focusing on a few favs with some interesting origins.


Keef & Micawber, a love affair 46 years strong.

Keith's #1 and most iconic guitar, a '53 butterscotch blackguard Telecaster nicknamed "Micawber" (after a Charles Dickens' character from David Copperfield), has been profiled at great length by just about every guitar publication in existence, so I won't be getting too crazy here; I will point out, in keeping with the theme of this post, that an early-50's blackguard Telecaster was presented to Keith as a 27th birthday gift in December 1970 by none other than Eric Clapton himself, at a time when EC made a habit of gifting Fenders to his mates (see addendum below for updated info). While on tour in Nashville, Clapton purchased six Strats from the Sho-Bud music shop; three as gifts for George Harrison, Pete Townshend, and Steve Winwood, then took the best parts of the other three and had Nashville luthier Ted Newman-Jones III assemble what would become known as "Blackie", Clapton's signature instrument throughout the '70s and '80s. But why is this part of a blog post about Keith Richards?

Keith with pre-op Micawber in original spec, circa early '72

Newman-Jones would go on to work for the Stones after showing up unannounced at Keith's Nellcôte villa in the south of France, where the band was recording Exile on Main Street in 1971. He convinced Keith that he should have a freshly-tuned guitar ready for each song when touring, and after a strong referral by Clapton, became their first official guitar tech. He was the man who added the backward Gibson PAF humbucker to the neck position of Micawber in late 1972, replaced the bridge pickup with a late-'40s Fender lap steel relic, and modified the Tele specifically for 5-string open-G use, something Keith had been experimenting with but hadn't found the perfect guitar for until then. Newman-Jones worked on many of Keith's other guitars, including the backup to Micawber, a similarly-modified near-identical natural ash '54 Tele named "Malcolm", and built several custom instruments for him as well throughout the '70s and early '80s.

After all these years following and reading about both musicians, I never knew of this connection between them and their signature guitars until now, and personally think it's pretty damn cool that two of those most iconic instruments of the era were the result of the same luthier.

Addendum 1/11/17: Per the first-hand account of Jeff Smith, current head of Newman Guitars, the original EC birthday gift Telecaster was in fact stolen from Keith at the Nelcotte villa during the recording of Exile, and he requested that Newman-Jones find a couple of similar replacements for the upcoming tour; he brought Keith a pair of blackguard Teles, a '53 and '54, which would soon become known as Micawber and Malcolm, respectively. The original humbucker route was performed on Micawber by Newman-Jones with a screwdriver and ball-peen hammer during the '72 tour. So while Micawber was not the birthday gift it was rumored to have been, it was still very much part of the Clapton/Richards/Newman-Jones guitar triangle.

Micawber in it's current form, with backward Gibson PAF in neck
and brass bridge with low-E saddle removed.

'72 Black Telecaster Custom

Keith with his black Tele Custom in '82 (Ronnie Wood to the left).

Another favorite of Keith's is a '72 black Telecaster Custom, purchased at the Caldwell Music Company in San Antonio, Texas, on June 5th, 1975, for $364.00. How do we know the exact date and price? Because the man who sold it to Keith said so, with evidence:

"I had gone to the Monday evening (Stones) show, and was back in the saddle at Caldwell Music store on Tuesday, selling gear, and nursing a bit of a hangover. A young kid came running into the store, yelling 'the Rolling Stones are over at the liquor store!' San Antonio, at that time had five music stores in about a two block stretch. We were at the end that was closest to the liquor store. After getting some fortification, the Stones started making their trip down "music row".

Sure enough it wasn't long before Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and a roadie sauntered into the store. We didn't go nuts, we needed to stay cool, and just treat them like any good customer. They were quite personable, and easy to talk with. Keith wore a blue work type shirt, with a hole cut out over one of his nipples. Ron and Keith went straight to the guitar wall, while the roadie placed an order for some drum heads. Keith mentioned a 'Tele with a bucker' in his British accent, and soon had it in his hands. I don't think he ever plugged it in, just noodled around on it. I don't believe Keith ever put the black Custom down, but held on to it until he got over to the counter to complete the transaction.

Our owner Ed Fest, published a small monthly newspaper, that had pics of many different customers posing with gear they had just purchased. It was the duty of the salesmen on the floor to grab a camera that was always loaded, and take the pictures for "The Caldwell Happenings". I had read in the news of incidents between camera flashers, and members of the Rolling Stones. I decided I should ask first, and shoot later. After explaining why we wanted the pic, Keith said "do it". I took one shot, and he kind of posed for me, holding up the fat white pay envelope, and reaching in for bills to buy his Tele.
Someone asked where Jagger was, and Keith said 'He's probably in the bloody jet, setting at the end of the runway cursing us'."
- Gene Warner, forum (paraphrased), 3/29/2010

The original sales receipt (left) and photo of Keith & Ronnie (flanked by crew members, right)
purchasing the Tele Custom (Photos courtesy of Gene Warner & Oscar Fernandez).

This guitar spent it's first decade or so with Keith in standard tuning as one of his favorites for stage and studio, including use as a weapon against a stage-rushing fan in '81, and the infamous 1987 "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n Roll" concert film with Chuck Berry, reappearing later in life with an open-G setup and the pickup toggle switched moved to replace one of the tone controls. The unique sound of the Fender Wide Range hi/lo humbucker in the neck, along with 1meg volume pots, set this Tele apart from Micawber and Malcolm, and may have interacted better with Keith's Mesa/Boogie amps of the era. There is a rumor that the original neck and/or body (or even the entire guitar) was replaced at some point, possibly with the original pickups transplanted into a newer model, but this is unconfirmed.

Oh, he definitely got some Satisfaction out of that...

Keith with his black Tele Custom in '78 (left), and more recently in '06 (right)

Monday, November 21, 2016

Gig Survival: Blown Amps, DI Guitars, & Fly Rigs

For the second time in a month, a guitarist's worst nightmare occurred: the house amp that I was relying on to get me thru the gig died after a few songs. Ironically, it worked perfectly fine for a friend the week in between my two follies, lending a false sense of security to me after the first debacle.

I should've learned my lesson and planned for backup, but alas, there I was, going straight into the PA system with nothing but a Pedaltrain Nano+ between my Strat and DI box. Fortunately, it helps a lot to have a Fulltone Plimsoul and Strymon Flint on that Nano; the Plimsoul does the compressed amp-in-a-box thing pretty damn well (I'd have been screwed with only a fuzz or boost that rely on a good amp to do their thing), and a touch of spring verb from the Strymon gave my guitar some depth in the flat, fake, plastic-y world of DI. All things considered, it could've been much worse, and actually sounded better than I ever would have imagined. Our screaming crowd (of about two dozen) didn't seem to mind... but it still bugged me.

Vowing to never let this happen again, I began to weigh my options, and digital modeling certainly would not be one of them (unless Kemper creates a pocket-sized Profiler for under a grand someday). Something gigbag-friendly would need to do the trick; a cabinet simulator like the H&K Redbox came to mind, as did the old-fashioned SansAmp pedal, but I felt there had to be something better out there.

With that in mind, I visited the Tech 21 NYC website to check out their latest offerings; a local company, based out of Clifton, NJ, I've long been a fan of their Bassdriver DI, and the PSA-1 rackmount unit was a studio favorite for mangling vocals and drum loops in my recording sessions. I also like the fact that they keep their amp simulation and overdrive circuits analog, with more of a natural feel than many digital modelers have. Knowing their lineup had expanded to feature many specialty products since my first experiences with the Sansamp Classic and GT2 boxes two decades ago, I didn't think it was asking too much to find a cleaner, Fender-style preamp pedal for the blues, maybe even with a switchable overdrive or boost. That was exactly when I came across something that I recognized from a couple of friends' rigs, the Fly Rig 5.

Pretty colors! But really, great to see on a dark stage.

Just last month, my friend and brilliant guitarist Mark Cocheo demoed his new Fly Rig 5 on a Facebook Live post, and although he was using it as an effects pedal thru an amplifier, I thought it sounded great (though with hands and talent like Mark, MOST gear sounds pretty great). Then, literally a week after that, I saw our mutual friend Coyote Anderson playing a gig on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and he was using a Fly Rig, also as an effects unit for overdrive and delay. After asking him about it, he said it was literally the only "amp" he traveled with for the past two years since it's release, including a tour of Europe. With the glowing recommendation of two of the best players I know, I had to check it out, and was not disappointed.

First impressions upon receiving the package: how small and light it is! Seriously, it's the size of two foot-long rulers stacked atop each other, about 12" long and 2" wide. Weighs practically nothing, yet still feels very sturdy. In addition to the front pocket of my Mono M80, this thing fits perfectly alongside the guitar headlock (stuff a rag or cloth underneath to protect the guitar from any dings).

My Fly Rig 5 fit snuggly alongside the Mono M80 Headlock

Powering it up, the illuminated knobs are very easy to see on a dark stage, and indicate which sections of the pedal are engaged. Footswitches are incredibly high quality and silent, no audible pops whatsoever.  I began with the middle Sansamp section, and quickly found a wide range of usable tones, similar to the Tech 21 Blonde character pedal. Although this section can get pretty dirty in a vintage Tweed style, I found the Drive worked best from just past High Noon to about 3 o'clock, giving the otherwise clean tone some attitude and balls, similar to my Princeton Reverb when cranked up. It sounds fantastic as a preamp for my little Champion 600, as demonstrated below, and the simple one-knob Reverb is a nice touch. This will be my base tone to build upon.

Adding the first footswitch, Boost, to this Sansamp setting took me to instant SRV-land with my Strat, but caution: this boost is powerful! Anything beyond 12 o'clock seemed to overload the Sansamp section, but keeping it around 10-11 worked a charm.

Dialing in the Plexi overdrive took a little time, as the controls are very reactive to the Sansamp settings; it takes some balancing of the Drive and Level to find a copacetic pairing, as well as the tone control, which can get a little harsh depending on the Sansamp's Hi setting. I prefer keeping the Sansamp brighter and Plexi darker, that way the extra gain doesn't take your head off; a solid dose of Mids from the Sansamp fills out the Plexi very nicely, too. A/B'd with the Plimsoul, both feeding into the Sansamp, it got pretty close, but I'd have to give preference to the Fulltone (no shock there, as it's been a favorite of mine for some time). Overall, the Plexi is a very usable overdrive, particularly for classic rock and blues playing. The Boost also adds a nice smooth compression and fullness to single-note lead lines, creating a three-stage cascading gain front end that will cover most bases just fine.

The DLA section is a lot of fun, adding a vintage tape echo-style delay to the mix complete with a Tap Tempo footswitch and Drift control to dial in tape-style modulation. Although the delay is digital, it's processed in parallel to the main analog signal, and blended in courtesy of the Level knob. While not as warm as an analog delay, it's on par with any digital delay in the same price range, and excellent for anything from short slapback to longer Gilmour-style quarter notes.

Using it live for the first time this past Friday night at Pinks in NYC's East Village, it took about an hour to get a feel for it through the house PA... eventually I lowered the SansAmp section output level and boosted the signal on the mixing board to prevent overloading. After that, I was comfortable with both the clean and overdriven tones, had a lot of fun with the tap-tempo delay, and had a great gig. At one point late in the night, our friend Lawrence Coleman III from the band Eve To Adam jumped in for a tune, so I was able to stand back and listen to the tone as an audience member, and was very impressed! The next night, I took it to another gig along with my Princeton Reverb as a backup; it wasn't needed, but I like the insurance policy it provides in case the Princeton takes a bump on the Cross Bronx the wrong way.

Overall, the Fly Rig 5 is a much greater value than the sum of it's parts, and costs far less than purchasing each individual item from the Tech 21 catalog. Sure, you could spend much more on boutique standalone overdrives and delays, but without the SansAmp circuit in the middle, you'd be in the same boat I was, just trying not to sink. If you need a quality backup rig on a budget, or just a small, lightweight, convenient pedalboard for gigging, look no further.

While this may sound like a paid endorsement for Tech 21, I promise it's not... my point is to convey the importance of a solid backup plan, and cover all the situations you may encounter as a gigging musician. You may prefer a Line6 or Digitech product for great versatility, something unique like the EHX 44 Magnum, or even a small spare amp if transportation isn't a problem. Preparedness breeds confidence, and confidence leads to great gigs, in my personal experience. It's like Viagra for your guitar; always be ready.

(Disclaimer: i have no affiliation or endorsements with any of the manufacturers mentioned in this blog, it's simply my favorite gear that i've paid for myself)

Monday, November 14, 2016

Everything You Ever Needed To Know About Speakers

They're not as sexy as a new guitar or amp, but they do all of the heavy labor and grunt work for them.

They're the most crucial element in converting your guitar tone from electrons to your ears, yet are often the most overlooked.

How many people buy a combo amp without even considering the speaker, let alone the differences from one type to the next? I was guilty of this for years... whatever came with my amp was good enough, I figured. When I first began working at a recording studio almost 20 years ago, I learned that Celestion Vintage 30s were the preferred upgrade for Marshall cabinets at the time, in place of the stock G12T-75s that many deemed to be harsh. So for years after that, I used a 2x12 cabinet loaded with V30s for just about everything, assuming it was the standard. Recently, I began experimenting with other options, and the results have been ear-opening to say the least.

We'll get to the different types of speakers and some fun rock-and-roll history about halfway down, but first, a little background on the technical terms involved: magnets, voice coils, cones, watts, ohms, impedance, dBs, and sensitivity. Oh, and don't forget: NEVER TURN ON ANY AMP WITHOUT A SPEAKER LOAD CONNECTED!!! It's the easiest way to ruin a good amp, as the speaker completes the circuit, and all of that power has no place to go otherwise, except back into the place it came from... NOT good. Also, ALWAYS use a proper speaker cable between amp and cabinet, never a guitar cable. Yes, there is a huge difference, and a powerful amp can melt the shielding of a guitar cable and short out the cabinet, which is actually worse than having no speaker connected... get it? Anyhow, moving right along...

Anatomy of a speaker:

In this cross-section diagram, you can see the elements of a basic speaker, including the magnet and voice coil, which, when hit with power from the amplifier, generates a magnetic field between the two which moves the voice coil in accordance with the electrical signal. The voice coil pushes the cone, or diaphragm, to create sound waves, relative to the amplitude (how far the cone moves) and frequency (how fast it moves) of the signal. It's the exact same principle as a dynamic microphone like a Shure SM58, but in reverse. So, kind of magic, but not really. 

AlNiCo (Aluminum-Nickel-Cobalt) vs Ceramic magnets is a very subjective comparison, with much to do with the rest of the speaker's construction and circuit. In general, ceramic magnets are stronger, lending to a brighter, louder output with more edge, while Alnico provides a more even compression and warmer breakup at lower levels. Of course, there are exceptions to both of these rules, and the best way to determine which is best for you is to try both in the same amp. I've heard Jensen Alnicos sound warmer than ceramics in Fender tweeds, all other things being equal, while a ceramic Greenback might breakup smoother than an Alnico Bulldog in a Vox AC30. Your mileage will certainly vary.

Watts are the most common term thrown around in relation to speakers, and measure the power handling of a speaker. Rule of thumb, don't exceed the power rating of a cabinet or individual speaker with your amplifier output, or else you could blow that voice coil by exceeding what the magnet can handle (Note: most guitar amp output is measured in watts RMS, not peak; A 100w amp is capable of putting out substantially more at peak power, so providing a speaker with adequate power handling is very important. Especially if you turn it up to 11 like Nigel Tufnel). This only gets complicated when using different types of speakers in the same cab or combo... in that case, you multiply the lowest-wattage speaker by the total amount of speakers (i.e., in a 2x12 cab with 60-watt & 30-watt speakers, multiply 2 x 30 = 60 watts power handling max). Easy, right? Just wait...

Ohms, which measure impedance, are a little trickier, and without getting too complicated with Ohm's law and physics, i'll try to keep it guitarist-simple. In general, it's always best to match the output impedance of your amp with a corresponding speaker or cabinet for the most efficient transfer of power possible, although there are some safe mismatches that you can get away with in a pinch if necessary, depending on your amp. 

With tube amps, doubling the number coming out of your amp is a safe rule of thumb, i.e., a 4ohm output into an 8ohm cab, or an 8ohm output into a 16ohm cab is usually fine, especially on Fenders or Mesas (Leo Fender was notorious for running 8ohm speakers on 4ohm taps in his older amps, and vice evrsa), but older Marshall power transformers are much more sensitive to mismatches, so I would try to avoid it unless you know for sure the amp can handle it. When mismatching up, be extra careful of volume, as it will fluctuate accordingly, and is essentially making your amp work harder. NEVER exceed double the amp's output impedance though, as this can put too much strain on the output transformer and possibly damage it beyond repair. Lower impedance is also tolerated in most well-built tube amps, but no more than half, i.e., an 8ohm output into a 4ohm cab. This will also make your tubes run hotter, and can lead to failure depending on how hot or cold they're biased to begin with (I wouldn't do this with any older vintage-style amps, or anything if I could help it). Play it on the safe side. You can always check with your amp manufacturer, or a knowledgeable tech, as well. 

Regarding solid state amps, higher impedance mismatches are safe, resulting in less output volume, but lower impedances can be hazardous for your amp's health. Again, the best bet is the right match, but if not possible, go UP!

In a cabinet with multiple speakers, all should be of the same impedance. The overall impedance of the cabinet will depend on how it's wired internally: series, parallel, or a combination, and I've borrowed some diagrams from the Eminence website to explain these methods...

In series wiring, the speakers run one into the other as a big loop, and impedance is simply added up (i.e., 2 x 8ohm speakers = 16ohm total impedance). You wouldn't want to exceed 16ohms total, so in the case of a 4x12, you'd need to stick with 4ohm individual speakers. I'm not the biggest fan of series wiring, since the speakers create one big circuit; if one blows, the sound goes completely dead, and could damage your amp since the speaker is no longer connected in the circuit. No bueno.

Two 2 ohm speakers = 4 ohm load
Two 4 ohm speakers = 8 ohm load
Two 8 ohm speakers = 16 ohm load
In parallel wiring, each speaker is hooked up to the input jack independently, and impedance is calculated by dividing the common impedance rating by the number of speakers (i.e., 2 x 8ohm = 4ohm total load). I prefer parallel wiring for 2x12 cabs, because if one speaker blows, it won't affect the other, and you can make it through the gig safely with a proper mismatch, since an individual speaker will always be of higher impedance than the cabinet total (power handling may be an issue though, depending on the speaker).

Two 4 ohm speakers = 2 ohm load
Two 8 ohm speakers = 4 ohm load
Two 16 ohm speakers = 8 ohm load
There's also series/parallel wiring, a hybrid style used in 4x12 cabs when needing to reach a specific impedance. In this wiring, which is like having two series 2x12s wired in parallel with each other, the overall impedance matches the common impedance of the four speakers, i.e. 4 x 8ohms = 8ohm total load. I like this wiring for 4x12s, as it allows for 8ohm or 16ohm total impedance much easier than in parallel, plus it's a fun way to mix two different pairs of speakers in the same cab.

Four 4 ohm speakers = 4 ohm load
Four 8 ohm speakers = 8 ohm load
Four 16 ohm speakers = 16 ohm load
When using multiple cabinets on an amp with a pair of parallel outputs, you want to double the selected output impedance, i.e., with a pair of 4ohm outputs, like an old Fender, you should connect cabinets rated at 8ohms each (because those cabs will be in parallel with each other, and total a 4ohm load. Because science!). Most Mesa/Boogie heads feature a single 8ohm output and a pair of 4ohm taps for this very reason. If attempting to use two cabs of different impedance, here's a fun math problem to do first:


R1 is the impedance of cab 1 (let's say 8ohms), and R2 is the impedance of cab 2 (16ohms). That means 8x16 = 128, 8+16 = 24, 128/24 = 5.3ohms total impedance, so use your amp's 4ohm outputs (Or, if you don't like doing math, buy gear that matches). 

There are some rare instances of external speaker jacks wired in series rather than parallel, such as some MusicMan designs of the late 70s... it's always worth double-checking this with a manual or local tech before risking any damage to your amp. 

Much more can be said of impedance, but I'd like to keep things as simple and guitar-centric as possible here.

Now that we've covered all that, it's time to talk sensitivity, measured in decibels (dB). A speaker's sensitivity rating tells you how much of the amp's power gets converted into sound, basically; the higher the sensitivity, the greater perceived volume. Most guitar speakers are rated somewhere between 94 and 103dB; this may not seem like a huge range, but dB is a logarithmic measure of relative loudness, and a 3dB increase is essentially a doubling of power (and vice versa for a -3dB decrease). I learned this the fun way when trying to combine a Celestion G12-65 speaker (16ohm, 65 watts, 96dB sensitivity) with a G12H-30 speaker (16ohm, 30 watts, 100dB sensitivity) in the same cabinet... the H30, although rated at less than half the power handling of its partner, completely dominated the 65 to the point where I could barely hear it. I'd never taken notice of speaker sensitivity before this, but that 4dB difference proved to be a massive disparity. The G12-65 now resides in a 1x12 box by itself, while the H30 has been paired with an equally-sensitive partner, an old Vintage 30, in a 2x12 configuration that now has incredible 3-D depth and articulation, much nicer than the pair of V30s I had used for years. The H30 compliments what the V30 lacks and vice versa.

Speaker sensitivity doesn't necessarily have to match, as a 4x12 with two pairs of speakers of different sensitivities can sound great (generally, with the louder speakers in the bottom, and the lower sensitivity pair on top, angled up). Also, if you're mic'ing up the speakers to feed a PA or recording console, the disparity difference is moot anyway, and the only matter is when standing in front of the cab... do you like what you hear? Maybe a brighter speaker like an H30 will sound great to you with a warm, crunchy G12-65 filling in the mids in the background, whereas I prefer the 65 to be in the forefront. 

A Vintage 30 (left) and Heritage 30 (right), living happily together, in parallel & equal sensitivity, inside an Avatar 2x12

G12-65 mounted inside a Seismic 1x12 open back cab. 
Low-mid crunch for days, with plenty of clarity to boot.

"American-style speaker" is a broad-ranging category, which usually starts with Jensen, the speaker of choice for Fender in the 50s, and also includes Altec, Oxford, JBL, CTS, Eminence, and ElectroVoice in that category. As a huge generalization, the "American" sound can be defined as "hi-fi", with clean, tight, powerful bass, crisp, bell-like, glassy highs, and a bit of a dip in the midrange frequencies. 

You'd typically find a Jensen P12Q in an old tweed Deluxe, or a pair of P- or C12Ns in a tweed Twin (P denoting alnico magnet, C for ceramic). Fender began using Oxford speakers in 1961, during the blonde and brownface era, and Oxfords are also associated with smaller blackface models, such as a 12K5 in a Deluxe Reverb, or a 10L5 in a Princeton Reverb. CTS were a fixture in Ampeg amplifiers throughout the 60s, and although not as popular in Fenders as Jensens, a Super Reverb with four Alnico CTS 10"s is quite an impressive beast. Due to demand for even higher fidelity, particularly in the higher end of the tonal spectrum, Fender also began offering 50-watt JBL speakers as an upgrade in it's higher powered amps, such as D120Fs in a Twin Reverb, and D130Fs in the giant, hellacious, Dick Dale-inspired 2x15" Showman cab (the D130 was in fact created specifically for Dale's huge surf guitar sound). JBLs could also be found in both Duane Allman & Jerry Garcia's 70's cabinets, and as mentioned in our SRV Gear Guide, Stevie Ray Vaughan was a big JBL fan early on, until a more powerful option came along. 

A '59 tweed Twin with Jensen P12Ns

Oxford speaker from a '66 Deluxe Reverb

A silverface Twin Reverb with JBL D120Fs

Dick Dale's strat and a pair of massive JBL-loaded 2x15" cabs

Influenced by these high-power, high-fidelity designs, ElectroVoice came onto the scene in the 1970s, and their huge, heavy, 200-watt EVM-12Ls can be found in many of Mesa/Boogie's Mark I and II combos of the day (Altec 417s were also available as a factory option from Mesa, and preferred by Carlos Santana in his Mark I combos). SRV eventually loaded all of his cabinets & combos with EVs for their unmatched power handling and high sensitivity, as he wanted to hear pure amplifier tone with as little speaker breakup or coloration as possible, and was tired of blowing speakers on the road. Nowadays, the "world's greatest guitar loudspeaker" also comes in a 300-watt model, designed for heavy metal biker/viking guitar god Zakk Wylde.

Rear view of a Boogie Mark II combo with a "Made for Mesa" Black Shadow branded EVM-12L

One of SRV's prized '64 Vibroverbs, loaded up with an ElectroVoice EVM-15L

Although we've been focusing specifically on guitar designs, any article on speakers would not be complete without mentioning Eminence and their impact on the music world through Ampeg's 8x10" SVT bass cabinets. Bob Gault, the founder of Eminence, started his company in 1972 after working for Chicago Telephone Supply (CTS) and providing the original speakers for the colossal 1969 SVT beast. Striking a deal with Ampeg as their exclusive supplier, Eminence grew to become the largest manufacturer of speakers in the world, providing thousands of 10" speakers for Ampeg SVT cabs as well as the rare but equally powerful 9x10" V9 guitar cabs (The V9 was the guitar equivalent of the SVT, both head & cab). Like many, I always wondered why 10" speakers worked so well for bass, when conventional wisdom would think that larger 15"s or even 18"s would be preferred, but aside from situations where pure sub fundamental tone is needed, an 8x10" array covers much more surface area than a 2x15" similar-sized cabinet, thereby pushing more air, plus the 10" speakers are able to react quicker to transient attack due to shorter excursion than larger speaker magnets. This adds to the punch and upper harmonic presence in the signal, especially when coupled with the muscular, thick midrange of an Ampeg SVT head. The traditional 8x10" is wired up as eight individual 32ohm speakers in parallel for a 4ohm total load; the V9 was three parallel sets of three 4ohm speakers in series, also for a total load of 4ohms. Both cabinets were designed to handle 300-watt heads. Eminence continues to make a wide range of both guitar and bass speakers today.

A rare Ampeg V9 guitar cab (left) and vintage SVT cab (right), loaded with CTS/Eminence speakers

To say Celestion falls under the category of "British-style speakers" is an understatement, as they single-handedly invented the category, having been associated with Marshall and Vox amps since the early 60s. Known for a forward midrange presence and smooth, compressed crunch when pushed, the sound of 60's British rock is tied to Celestion, most notably Alnico Blue "Bulldogs" in Vox AC30s famously used by the Beatles and Brian May of Queen, and G12M "Greenbacks" in Marshall 4x12 cabinets and "Bluesbreaker" JTM45 combos (the latter's nickname derived from Eric Clapton's use while in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers). Eventually, the G12H was created to provide a Greenback-like tone with higher power handling, as the original 25 watt Greenbacks were being blown nightly by chaps like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck. Since then, many varieties of Celestion have emerged, all bearing homage to the traditional British sound... G12-65s became the 4x12" speaker of choice in the late 70s & early 80s, then Vintage 30s found their way into many Marshall & Boogie cabs in the late 80s and 90s. Nowadays, the H30s and Creamback models are gaining popularity with many boutique amp builders looking for classic tones with modern specs. John Mayer uses combinations of G12-65, Alnico Gold, and H30 speakers in his cabs, and his tone is second to none, in quality OR cost.

A Marshall 4x12 loaded with Greenbacks

Two Bulldogs in a Vox AC30, wired in series 

John Mayer's cabs, with G12-65s (top of both), Alnico Golds (bottom left), and what appear to be H30s (bottom right). Amp heads are a Two Rock (left) and Dumble Steel String Singer (right).

Another British speaker that deserves mention is Fane, who at one point were responsible for 75% of the speaker market in the UK. Found almost exclusively in Hiwatt cabinets, Fane speakers were also used in early Sound City and Simms-Watts products. Considered similar to the Celestion sound but a a bit more hi-fi, with tighter bass, smoother, clearer highs, and that similar pushed midrange, it's been said that Hiwatt's reputation had as much to do with Fane speakers as the amplifiers themselves. At 50 watts per speaker, they could take a beating that Celestions could not at the time, and became a favorite for use at larger venues with Marshall's 200w Major heads as well as with Hiwatts. Just listen to Pete Townshend's tone on The Who's Live at Leeds, and no further explanation will be necessary. 

A Fane speaker in a Hiwatt cab

As for newer names to the speaker game, we must include Weber and Warehouse Guitar Speakers (WGS) in the list. I've got a Weber 6" upgrade in my Fender Champion 600 combo that's just fantastic, and have used both a WGS G12C and G12Q in my Echopark Vibramatic 13 combo with great success. The G12Q helps make the amp a bit more home-friendly, as the high sensitivity and power handling of the C made it the loudest 13-watt amp I've ever played! Great tones, though. I'm looking forward to trying more models from both companies in the future.

So, what's the moral of this story? Have fun experimenting with speakers! Many cost about the same (or less) than a stompbox, so try a new Eminence or WGS to spice up a boring combo amp, or research what some of your favorite players use. Try a Celestion in a Fender, or a JBL with a Marshall... J.D. Simo's '67 Deluxe Reverb sounds incredible with a beat-up Vintage 30 in it, and Duane Allman played his Marshall heads through JBL D120s to much acclaim. My Princeton Reverb took on a whole new attitude when the stock Jensen was replaced with a Celestion G10. Just keep those general rules of thumb regarding power and impedance in mind to prevent a speaker cone from landing on your lap, or even worse, blowing an output transformer in your amp. Good luck and good tone!

(Disclaimer: i have no affiliation or endorsements with any of the manufacturers mentioned in this blog)

Monday, November 7, 2016

Reelin' Thru The Years: The History of Tape Echo

If you turned on the radio in 1951 to the tune of Les Paul & Mary Ford's hit single, "How High the Moon", you'd have heard sounds unlike anything prior... harmony vocals in perfect synchronization, layer upon layer of overdubbed rhythm, and that unmistakable lead guitar tone, bouncing right back at you like a rubber ball hitting a wall; no big deal by today's production standards, but seemingly impossible to be accomplished by only two people at that time, with only a single mono tape machine at their disposal; this was innovation and ingenuity at it's absolute finest, ushering in a new era of recording techniques that would become common practice for decades.

While books have been written on the many technical innovations of Lester William Polsfuss, aka Les Paul, it was a simple discovery while experimenting with his first tape machine that led to one of the most-used audio effects of the past 60 years. While Les was collaborating with Bing Crosby in the late 1940s, an innovative German tape machine called the Magnetophon was brought back by an Army engineer as a spoil of war, using magnetic heads to record sound directly onto a reel of tape. After witnessing a demonstration of the machine at MGM studios in Hollywood, Crosby funded the initial development and production of the Ampex 200, a mono reel-to-reel tape machine based on the German machine. Bing kept the first unit for himself, and dropped #2 off at Les' front door. 

Paul soon discovered that the playback head reproduced the incoming signal milliseconds later than the record head captured it, and by varying the space between the heads, this delay time could be made shorter or longer. Blended with the direct sound of his guitar, it created a single repeat "slap-back" echo effect, which became a signature of Les' guitar tone on his many hits of the early '50s. The duration of the effect only lasted as long as the tape length, however, so Paul would shorten and "loop" the tape reel, making the effect infinite.

An original Ampex 200 tape machine

Les & Mary in studio

Musicians and record producers everywhere were scrambling to achieve this sound on their own, and by 1954, producer Sam Phillips of the famed Sun Studios in Memphis had two Ampex tape machines installed for this very purpose; one built into the console for recording, and another dedicated solely for slap-back echo, which became a staple of the Sun Records sound, most notably with the guitar playing of Scotty Moore on Elvis Presley's first big hit, "That's Alright", and subsequent releases that would shape the sound of modern music.

Sam Phillips working on one of this Ampex 350 tape machines at Sun Studios.

Guitarists still couldn't obtain this sound in live performance, though, until Illinois electronics wiz Ray Butts modified a Gibson 15-watt combo amp with a built-in tape echo at the request of his friend, guitarist Bill Gwaltney.  Named the EchoSonic, it featured a fixed delay time, optimized for the popular slapback sound, and was eventually bumped up to a punchier 25 watts using 6L6 output tubes (as opposed to the 6V6 circuit of the original modded Gibson). Butts took the second unit to Nashville, looked up Chet Atkins in the phonebook, and talked him into trying it out; Atkins used it at the Grand Ole Opry that very night, and agreed on a transaction for his new favorite amplifier. Atkins used the EchoSonic to record his first hit single, 1955's "Mr. Sandman", and on countless gigs and sessions to come. Butts worked with Atkins on the construction of his home studio, and also created a humbucking pickup for Chet's Gretsch guitar that may predate the Gibson PAF; it was later named the Filtertron and featured on Atkins' signature "Country Gentleman" model.

After hearing Atkins on the radio, Scotty Moore called up Butts and ordered an EchoSonic for himself; Carl Perkins soon followed suit. By all accounts, these amps were built impeccably well, with point-to-point wiring and military spec components throughout, and aside from the normal wear-and-tear of the tape mechanism, held up well over the years. Although less than 70 units were produced, the legacy of the EchoSonic was long-lasting, and influenced the standalone tape echo units that followed soon after.

Two EchoSonic combos, an early model (left), and a later build (right).
EchoSonic control panel (left), and interior rear view (right). Note the tape echo unit on the bottom.

1958 saw several major developments in the world of tape echo; first, in England, where Charlie Watkins developed the first portable self-contained tape echo, appropriately named the Copicat. It featured a tube circuit with three fixed playback heads, individually selectable with ability to be combined for multiple echo options. The very first unit was sold to Johnny Kidd of The Pirates, who scored a number one hit in 1960 with "Shakin' All Over" and influenced many British Mods to come over the next few years. Watkins soon formed the Watkins Electric Music company (WEM), building very popular PA systems as well as other musical equipment, and the Copicat became a hit in England, particularly after switching to less expensive transistor circuits in the mid-60s.


An original Copicat with partially open lid (left), and a slightly later version, fully open (right)

Around that same time, in Hollywood, the Ecco-Fonic was invented by Sunset Strip electronics shop owner Ray Stolle, the first to feature a variable delay knob to control the timing of the echo. Stolle quickly teamed up with fellow Californian Leo Fender, and although the original design was rough and a bit premature, was rushed to market in 1959, as the demand was clearly evident. The unit proved to be unreliable, requiring constant maintenance and tape replacement, and although many revisions came to pass (including the switch from tube to transistor many years before the rest of the industry), the Ecco-Fonic never caught on as widely as hoped; it's quirky design merely teased and influenced what was to come.

Original Ecco-Fonic advertisements, 1959.

Also in 1959, Akron, Ohio electronics tech Mike Battle and guitarist Don Dixon began modifying the EchoSonic circuit in a standalone unit, also featuring a variable delay time via slider control of the playback head, and eventually named it the Echoplex by the time the first prototypes were available in 1963. The real jem of this design was a removable cartridge for the actual tape reel, protecting the tape from dirt and damage, and enabling easy replacement when necessary. This propelled the Echoplex to the forefront of the industry, earning a patent for Battle in 1964 and large-scale production and distribution by Market Electronics of Cleveland, his place of employment
. Originally using all-tube circuitry, the full, warm sound of the unit, combined with reliable engineering, was vastly superior to any prior or current competition. Revised in the later 60's as the EP-2 (thereby designating original units as EP-1) and adding Sound on Sound to it's features as a primitive form of looping based on the length and speed of the tape, the Echoplex quickly became an industry standard (Fulltone currently makes a modern recreation of the EP-2 unit called the Tube Tape Echo).

An original Maestro Echoplex (left), and EP-2 (right) with larger case for cable & pedal storage.

As transistor circuits began replacing vacuum tubes in the late 60s, Battle designed the EP-3 solid-state model, now under the Maestro brand in 1971. Although not fond of the sound himself (he left the company soon thereafter), this design became the sound of 70s rock guitar, not only for the echo, but for it's preamp circuit; many guitarists, including Jimmy Page, Brian May, and Eddie Van Halen, bypassed the delay and used the FET-based preamp to boost their guitars into their amp inputs as a form of overdrive (modern pedals such as the Xotic EP Booster and Dunlop EP101 provide this in more compact form). The Norlin company, which had just acquired Gibson, took over distribution of the Maestro brand as well, and the EP-3 was soon everywhere, from stage to studio. 

Maestro EP-3 Echoplex (left),  and Jimmy Page literally leaning on his EP-3 in 1975 (right).

Another great tape echo design of this era was the German Klemt Echolette NG51S, and later the Dynacord Echocord S65 variation. While neither model reached the wide popularity of the Echoplex or Copicat, both were quality units that have their own unique sounds (especially a great tube preamp drive) and devout fans. Klemt also made an Echolette amplifier, the M40, used by the Beatles in their early Hamburg Star Club days.

A Klemt Echolette NG51S (left), and a Dynacord Echocord S65 (right)

At this point, we have to mention two other designs that were not actually tape units, but utilized a rotating drum or wheel to generate a similar effect; the drum contained a magnetic wire which acted as the recording medium, and playback heads fixed around the perimeter of the drum to reproduce the signal as it spun. The Meazzi Echomatic was used with great success by Hank Marvin of The Shadows, particularly on their hit "Apache" in 1960, leading Vox to import and rebrand the design as their own Vox Echo (with endorsement by the Shadows). Meazzi would soon switch to a tape loop, as the rotating drum proved unreliable in their initial design. Another Italian product, the Binson Echorec, was used extensively by both Syd Barrett and David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, from their beginnings up through 1977; the Echorec 2 is considered an integral part of Gilmour's sound on the legendary recordings of that era, particularly Dark Side of the Moon, and a highly collectible piece of equipment by vintage enthusiasts. Gilmour also used the studio-grade PE 603 and smaller Baby models. The Echorec 2 was licensed to Guild in the US, relabeled as the Guild Echorec by Binson, but otherwise identical to the original.

Under the hood of a Binson Echorec with rotating drum exposed. Note the heads around perimeter.

A Binson Echorec 2 (left),  and an Echorec PE 603 (right)

Gilmour playing with his Echorec 2 (left), and a live shot with his Echorec 2 atop a PE 603 (right).

The next major player in the tape echo game came from the Land of the Rising Sun; Ikutaro Kakehashi of Osaka, Japan, started the Ace Tone company in the late 1960s, developing a unit called the EC-1 Echo Chamber along with other innovative products like the FR-1 Rhythm Ace electronic preset drum machine. Kakehashi founded the Roland Corporation in 1972, and soon a series of multi-head tape echoes began to evolve, starting with the RE-100 and RE-200 models (the 200 adding spring reverb along with the delay effect). His major breakthru occurred in 1974 with the RE-101 and RE-201 Space Echo models, when Kakehashi abandoned the traditional motorized reel for an open-reel free-running tape loop, letting the 1/4" tape move freely in a "tape tank" cartridge-like enclosure, relying on capstan drive to feed the tape past the heads. This method increased tape life by not stretching or wearing it out as much as a running reel would, and cut down on noise considerably compared to other units with motorized reels. The RE-201 Space Echo was a game changer, still prized by many for it's warm, gritty tone, and ability to self-oscillate in a musically usable fashion.

An original Ace Tone EC-1 Echo Chamber (left), and the first Roland Space Echo, RE-100 (right)

The familiar face of the RE-201 Space Echo (left), and a look at it's open-reel tape operation (right).

Roland went on to produce the RE-301 Chorus Echo, which added analog chorus and Sound on Sound looping to the tonal pallette; Brian Setzer still performs with a pair of original 301s to this day, as they've been a crucial part of his slapback tone since his early days with the Stray Cats. The final Roland tape echo model was the RE-501 Chorus Echo, featuring the same chorus and reverb as the 301 plus a noise reduction system and professional line-level inputs and outputs for studio integration in addition to instrument use. I'm fortunate enough to have a 501 that belonged to my dear friend Nick Lombardi, and I'll treasure it until the day one of his sons might want it. Here's a brief demo of that 501, with a Telecaster and clean amp... starts out with a slapback echo and touch of reverb, then gets into multiple repeats and feedback:

An RE-301 Chorus Echo (left), and Brian Setzer's rig with a 301 atop one of his Bassman heads (right).

Other Japanese tape echoes of note were the Univox (known for their Super Fuzz and Univibe effects) EC-80a Echo Chamber, Multivox Multi Echo MX-201 and 312 (also rebadged as the Evans Super Echo), and Korg Stage Echo SE-300 and 500. These units can usually be found for lower prices than their Roland or Maestro counterparts, and can be lots of fun to play with. 

Although digital delays began taking over in the late 1970s, many guitarists preferred the warm tone of these analog tape units, and the entire Roland family of Space and Chorus Echoes became cult favorites over the years. Roland even kind of reissued the RE-201 in the digital form of the Boss RE-20 pedal, utilizing it's patented COSM modeling technology to replicate the tone of the original. Recently, many boutique stompbox builders have produced incredibly convincing recreations of the classics, notably Catalinbread with their Belle Epoch (EP-3 style) and Echorec designs, and Strymon's wonderful El Capistan delay. While these pedals sound great and are much more convenient than their forefathers, nothing beats the sound of an authentic and well-maintained tape echo, at least not to my ears. Just keep some rubbing alcohol and Q-tips handy.

Nick's beloved RE-501, hanging out in my home studio. A fitting end to this article, RIP buddy.