Wednesday, September 28, 2016

American Muscle: The Ampeg SVT

In the late 60s, England was clearly in the driver's seat of the high-powered tube amplifier game. Fender designs had topped out with the 100-watt Dual Showman, while bands like Cream and The Who were filling arenas with 200-watt heads by Marshall and Hiwatt, and walls of 4x12" cabinets stacked behind them. The Rolling Stones, however, weren't too keen on the British rock sound at the time, after their initial endorsement deal with Vox expired, and preferred the "American" sound of Fender amps like the Twin Reverb and Showman. When they arrived in America for their massive 1969 world tour, one thing was certain: they needed power behind them.

The original Ampeg HQ, Linden, NJ

Ampeg built it's name in the 1960s with their flip-top Portaflex bass combos, becoming an industry standard for bass amplification with the B-15 used in studio and live by Motown's James Jamerson, Stax' Donald "Duck" Dunn, and countless others.  Their ReverbRocket guitar combo amps were also the first to include built-in reverb, beating Fender to the punch by about two years. Along with the Jet and Gemini amp models, Ampeg competed neck-in-neck with Fender in the early 60s, but despite these great products, the original owner of Ampeg, Everett Hull, had a strong aversion to rock'n'roll music and treated it as a passing fad. The company never evolved the way Fender did, and by 1968 was sold to Unimusic, where Dan Armstrong and Bill Hughes would push Ampeg into a new generation, with some bold new designs.

The incredibly innovative and still hip Ampeg B-15N Portaflex combo

Meanwhile, the Stones were rehearsing in Hollywood, getting ready for their biggest tour yet, and their entire backline of Fender amps had been fried by the change in voltage from Europe to the US. Their road manager, Ian Stewart, reached out to Rich Mandella of Ampeg, who had a regional office nearby, and he came to the rescue with several prototypes of a brand new design, the only units in existence at the time.

An original "blue line" SVT head

The SVT, or Super Valve Technology amplifier, was Ampeg's answer to the high-powered English amps of the day, yet delivering a unique tone of it's own. Featuring 14 tubes, delivering 300 watts RMS, and weighing 85 pounds (just the head alone), the SVT was unlike anything before it, and changed the game for everything after. Originally using six 6146B power tubes, the heads required two cabinets to function properly, until proper speakers were designed to handle the amp's power. The amps offered the cryptic warning label on the back, “This amp is capable of delivering sound pressure levels that may cause permanent hearing damage”.

Original SVT doublestack; Hurts just to look at.

As Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, and Bill Wyman all began using these new amps, the volume grew louder and louder... and Keith loved it. The sound was thick, muscular, and powerful, with both guitar and bass. The Stones kept the prototypes for their entire tour, including the infamous Altamont festival, and Rich Mandella accompanied them as official Ampeg babysitter along with a team of techs to prevent the new designs from meltdown. These original SVTs can be heard on the Stone's fantastic live album Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out, and also in the Gimme Shelter concert film

The Stones on tour with Ampeg SVTs behind them

Keith taking a break in front of his Ampegs

After this beta-testing period with the Stones concluded, the SVT went into production, first with the original 6146B power tubes plus an extra delay relay tube (which was quickly omitted, only 50 or so amps made with this), and by mid-'70, switched to the more stable 6550A power tube. Although still technically requiring a pair of cabinets for full power, most were paired with a single 8x10" cabinet designed specifically for bass, remaining a classic partnership for decades. The square-back cabinets featured custom-designed speakers by Bob Gault, originally manufactured by CTS, later by his offshoot Eminence in 1972 (An upcoming speaker post will explain this in greater detail). The combined surface area of eight 10" speakers, along with the faster reaction time of smaller drivers emphasizing the attack and upper harmonics of the tone made the 10s a much better option than larger 15- or 18-inch speaker options.

The SVT's popularity among the Stones led to the development of the V4 (100w head), V2 (60w head), VT-22 (2x12" 100w combo), and VT-40 (4x10" 60w combo) guitar amps, all featuring the same preamp circuit with a power section based around 7027A tubes, and available with a 6550A upgrade kit for more power as well. There was also the V4B 100-watt bass head, B-25 55-watt 2x15" tube stack (although more closely related to the B-15 combo in circuit design), the BT solid-state series, and the very rare SBT solid-state preamp with a pair of self-powered 2x15" Altec-Lansing cabinets delivering 240 watts RMS. Later on, the V9 amplifier and even larger 9x10" cab were introduced for guitar, featuring the same 300-watt power section as the SVT (the amps would even share the same chassis, labeled SVT/V9 on the back panel), but with a similar preamp and tone circuit as the V4, and reverb. 

The VT-22 and VT-40 combos became favorites of the Stones in the studio for some of the best recordings of their career, and when they embarked on their even bigger 1972 world tour, exclusively featured an entire backline of Ampeg, particularly SVTs and V4s (Keith was also playing the Ampeg Dan Armstrong see-thru guitar quite a bit at this time). The entire amp lineup became very popular throughout the 70s, and is still favored by some for it's thick, muscular midrange tone, like Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, who uses a wall of VT-40s on tour, and others in the studio. Early 70's models were non-master volume designs, with independent volume controls and reverb, while beginning in 1976, models featured a switchable distortion circuit as well as reverb.

Keith Richards playing a Les Paul through an Ampeg VT-22 while Mick Jagger observes,
at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles finishing up Exile On Main Street

Keith's Ampegs doubled as a wet bar

An early 70s Ampeg ad featuring the Stones

An early 70's V4 head (top) with separate volumes,
and a later 70's V4 (bottom) with distortion circuit

Slight variations on the front panel design of the SVT include the change from "blue lines" to "black lines" around the knobs, coinciding with the company's purchase by Magnavox in 1971, shortly after the switch to 6550A power tubes (blue line SVTs with factory-installed 6550As are considered the rarest models, but originals that haven't been converted from 6146Bs are growing scarcer, as most users have this procedure performed by an amp tech). Circuit-wise, there were no major changes at this point. Later in the 70s, the black lines became curved, along with the change to more modern three-prong AC cables and loss of the polarity switch. In 1980, Ampeg was purchased by MTI, a Japanese company, and the look was changed to all-black with white lettering; still the same basic circuit, and great sounding amps. MTI declared bankruptcy and was acquired by St. Louis Music in 1986, bringing the Ampeg name back to America. A "Drive" control was eventually added to the circuit in 1992, the first major design change in years, enabling preamp tube saturation at lower volumes.

An original "blue-line" SVT head on top of a late 70s "curved line" head
Great example of a 1974 Magnavox-era "Black line" SVT

An 80s MTI SVT atop a monstrous V9 cabinet (left),
while a V4 head sits atop a smaller cab, possibly 2x15" (right),
with an Ampeg Dan Armstrong guitar resting in front of it.

Ironically, it was an SVT bass head cranked to the hilt that Elliot Randall used to record the famous guitar solo on Steely Dan's "Reelin' in the years"; for a band that spared no expense in the studio, it was the only amp available that day, and "worked a storm" according to Randall, as the thick tone along with his incredible performance became the signature of the tune. The influence of the SVT can also be found in many rare Dumble amps, particularly the Dumbleland Special and Steel String Singer power sections; Stevie Ray Vaughan's Dumble was once crudely described as a Twin Reverb preamp with an SVT output section, although this is a gross oversimplification of a great design.

The SVT amp & cabinet has been the industry standard since it's inception, used by countless bassists across all genres, from hard rock and metal to funk and indie, even some blues and jazz players (although the B-15 is still very popular for those styles). Robert Trujillo of Metallica, Cliff Williams of AC/DC, Sting, Tony Levin, and Juan Alderete are just a few famous SVT users over the amp's history. Ampeg ownership has changed hands several times, but the popularity of the SVT has never showed any signs of decline, with the original design still in production today as the Vintage Reissue (VR) model, along with several variations over the decades to meet the needs of the day, such as master volume circuits, the SVT Pro series with rackmountable chassis, and the SVP preamp. It's a testament to great design and a forward-thinking business model that wanted to be the best and loudest in the world.

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Monday, September 26, 2016

Guitarists You Should Know About: J.D. Simo

A few years back, while attempting to play some faux-country guitar for the first time with my singer/songwriter friend Josh Patch, he came back from a trip to Nashville absolutely raving about a guitarist he had just seen. Now, if you've never been to Nashville, the first thing to understand is that the guy delivering your pizza is a better guitarist than you. So is the guy driving your taxi, or pouring your beer. The town is just overloaded with exceptional musicians, especially the six-stringers. So for Patch to be this excited about one cat in particular, he had to be something special.

Next thing you know, I was watching YouTube video after video of the Don Kelley band, a longtime fixture at Robert's Western World on lower Broadway in Nashville, the kind of honky-tonk joint where you expect to hear some Merle Haggard or Marty Robbins songs expertly performed by the best around. Playing guitar with Don was a bushy-haired ginger named J.D. Simo, dressed like half Woodstock hippie, half Carnaby Street mod, effortlessly ripping incredible chicken' pickin' runs on a white Telecaster that looked like it belonged to Michael Bloomfield.

J.D. Simo at Robert's Western World, Nashville


I'd never heard country guitar played like this before... this was Jimi Hendrix meets Johnny Cash. As a country novice, I was just trying to get some of the basic James Burton and Waylon Jennings licks under my belt, while the more technical playing of Johnny Hiland and Brent Mason was more frustrating than inspiring for a blues/rock player like myself. Now, along comes a guy with the feel of a blues player, the tone of a '60s rocker, and such incredible technique that you don't even notice it as technique, it's just pure personality coming through the instrument... I mean, that's the goal of all this, right? 

After listening to damn near every clip available online, an iTunes search yielded the then-just-released debut album by his new trio, simply called Simo, featuring Adam Abrashoff on drums and Elad Shapiro on bass. Much to my surprise, this wasn't country guitar... this was BLUES. This was ROCK. This was Disraeli Gears meets Zeppelin I meets the Allman's Live at the Fillmore.  This was an ode to Bloomers, to Clapton when he plugged his "Fool" SG into a Plexi, to Duane's slide, and to Zep when they were the New Yardbirds and just steamrolling over everyone with the most powerful rhythm section around. And the vocals! J.D. can sing, man. Warren Haynes might be the closest example of someone who can do both as well, and that's a tall order. Besides the original tunes, there's a cover of Muddy Water's "That Same Thing" that inspires sounds of Truth-era Jeff Beck sitting in with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, a reworking of Howlin' Wolf''s "Evil" that could be on Zep's debut, plus the beautiful "What's On Your Mind", a Bloomfield-jamming-at-Stax dream session masterpiece. Needless to say, this album was on repeat for months in my earbuds. 

I soon discovered Simo's vintage blog and rig rundown video, and became immediately impressed that the majority of his playing both live and on record is done with just a guitar and amp, maybe a wah or fuzz occasionally, but that's all. Just crank up a good amp, be it his '67 Deluxe Reverb & Tele with Don Kelley, or '62 ES-335 and purple Marshall Plexi with Simo, and all the tones are right there between your hands and guitar knobs. As someone who has always relied on pedals, this was a new approach, and it was incredibly eye-opening. Simo is a vintage connoisseur, and has an eye and ear for detail that few can match. Much can be learned from the insight in his gear demo videos. 

Simo rocking out on his '60 Les Paul
J.D.s favorite guitar, a '62 ES-335, and purple Marshall Plexi 100-watt stack

Simo's insightful Rig Rundown video for Premier Guitar

For the next album, Let Love Show The Way, Simo ended up cutting most of tracks at The Big House, the Allman Brothers' former home in Macon, Georgia, which is now a museum. J.D. played Duane's old Goldtop Les Paul on much of it, along with his own '60 Les Paul and an original '58 korina Flying V (currently owned by Joe Bonamassa). Couldn't wait to hear the results, and it did not disappoint... as much as I love the first album, they topped it, as the band has grown tighter in the four years between, and the songwriting has developed quite a lot, especially on tunes like "Long May You Sail" and "I'll Always Be Around". It's got a bit more of a raw blues-rock sound, likely influenced by their surroundings, and a little less 60's psychadelic, but still contains all of the elements that make them a unique and killer power trio.

Naturally,  I couldn't wait to catch them on tour when they hit NYC, but then something else happened... my buddy Patch noticed they had a night off before their Mercury Lounge show, and contacted them to offer a gig at a great spot he books talent for, The Strand Smokehouse in Astoria, Queens. He'd booked some great touring acts there before, like Sturgil Simpson and Hellbound Glory, and since his band was scheduled to perform that night anyway, they just became the opening act. We got an incredibly spontaneous Simo show, and a great hang with J.D., Elad, and Adam before and after. Not gonna lie, I was geeking out pretty hard. 

Simo at The Strand

J.D. with his '55 Tele and Deluxe/Showman stack

Simo joining Josh Patch & the Hell Dwellers for the barnburner "Life's Fool Again"

Aside from the incredible show, the real surprise came when Simo joined my buddy Patch for a couple tunes, including an original, "Life's Fool Again"... J.D. even said he hadn't played that fast since the Don Kelley days. In a guitar geek moment for me, he showed up without the usual purple Marshall stack, but instead with his old '67 Deluxe from the Don Kelley days, a Showman 2x15" cab (with original JBL D130Fs), and a vintage '55 Telecaster he had just acquired that same day. And what did he do, being one of the nicest guys I've ever met in this industry? He simply handed it to me to check out...

Your author, in full-on guitar-geek mode with Simo's '55 Tele

Great hang with this guy on the left

A great night with a great band, and can't wait to see them again. An older fella at the Strand mentioned he had seen both the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream back in the '60s, and Simo was right up there with both of them. It's only a matter of time before J.D. is regarded as one of the great guitarists of our modern era, with a respect and nod to the legends of the past. Do yourself a favor and check out Simo's two studio albums, plus their live EP Love, Vol. 1, and by all means necessary, catch them on tour! 

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Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Gigging Guitarist: 10 Essentials

If there's one thing every musician learns at their first gig, it's the difference between being on a stage, no matter the size, compared to playing in your garage or bedroom. It's an experience that can't be taught in any other way... you just have to go through with it, get over the stagefright, take the bumps and bruises, and then go through it again. And again. I average about 2-3 gigs per week, and still learn new things regularly, whether it's a "gig hack" to make life easier, or just a pitfall to avoid. Here's a list of some of the things that can help improve your gigging experiences...

1. A good gigbag. If you're hopping in and out of cabs, subways, buses, or walking a good distance, don't cheap out on this. My life changed with my first MONO case... the price tag may seem daunting, but the first time you put a Les Paul Custom or '78 P-bass in it and throw it on your back, you'll be happy you splurged. The shoulder straps alone are worth the price. The interior is plush and heavily padded, has excellent neck support, and plenty of storage space for cables, strings, pedals, tuners, iPads, sheet music, etc. (I'm still amazed at the amount of stuff that gets squeezed into mine for some gigs). These things are no joke, and worth every penny.


2. A headstock tuner. Even if you have a pedal tuner, it won't hurt to spent $10 on a Snark or similar clip-on tuner and throw it in your gig bag. Odds are, someone else in your band will need it if you don't. I leave one in my acoustic case and another in my electric gig bag, just to be safe. There's no excuse for not being in tune, ABSOLUTELY NONE.

3. Extra strings & winder/clipper. Do I really need to explain this? NEVER play a gig without a backup set (or two). I try to keep my strings fresh, new set every few gigs, and use GHS Fast Fret in between changes, but even with all that prep, stuff still happens. Plus, if you hunt around the internet enough, you'll find bulk deals all over the place (I get my Ernie Balls by the dozen for about $3-4/set). If you're snobby and insist on Pyramids or Elixirs or whatever, then at least keep a cheap backup set handy. When you inevitably break a string on stage, don't fumble around, get it done quickly, preferably while the rest of the band keeps jamming on something. I've got one of these fancy do-dads in my gigbag at all times, as well as one of these for more drastic procedures.

Ready for anything
I swear by it for string life

4. An extra cable. I need two, so I carry three. Never rely on a venue for something like this... if they happen to have extra cables, odds are they're cheap and have been abused. After years of using cheap cables, I realized it's worth a few more bucks for quality (particularly if that quality also comes with a lifetime warranty). I use a Lava Retro Coil cable from my guitar to pedals, then a Monster Rock from pedals to amp, with an extra Monster as backup (Doesn't hurt to keep a short speaker cable in your bag, either).

5. Extra acoustic bridge pins. (Disregard if not an acoustic player) No one thinks of this, and neither did I, until my buddy J.D. Patch mentioned it... he once broke two strings, lost both pins under the stage, and the rest of the show was a disaster. Now he carries six spares in his case. These little things can go flying when a string breaks, and considering they cost about $1/ea for the plastic kind, there's no reason not to keep a few handy.

Yes, those things.

6. An extra slide. (Disregard if not a slide player) I've lost these damn things in every way possible, from shattering on a hard floor, to literally flying off my finger like a UFO, never to be seen again, to rolling in between floorboards under a stage. Whatever kind you like, always carry two. If it's some fancy blown-glass hand-welded free-range also-a-pipe slide, find the closest thing you can for under $10 and throw it in your case. The audience won't notice any difference, I promise.

Two of my favorite Ernie Ball slides and a slide pouch (with room for extra picks)

7. A 9V Battery (or two). Especially if you play acoustic guitar with an active preamp like a Fishman or L.R.Baggs, batteries can short out without warning in a heartbeat, so even if there should be plenty of life in yours, it's better to be safe than dead. For pedals, even if you have a great power supply, it doesn't hurt to have battery backups in most if not all of them. Power supplies die, cables get pulled from sockets, but hopefully gigs won't suffer.

8. Extra picks. I can't believe I'm even typing this, but I've actually played gigs with people who had ONE worn down ancient pick on them, and that was all. C'MON, MAN! Go online, get a big bag of whatever kind you like, and grab a few before every gig. Leave a few in your gigbag or case. Keep a couple in your wallet. Again, NO EXCUSE. You can even go to Steve Clayton USA and get custom picks, like these:

Shameless J.P. & the Voodoo Blues plug.

9. A tip jar (or hat). Even if a venue is paying you something, it won't hurt. You might even make enough to cover those extra strings or batteries for the next gig. When performing in public, never be afraid to put a hat out... there's always that one drunk guy who absolutely loves Skynyrd and drops a $20 for callin' him the breeze.

10. Thick skin. This takes time, but you can't let the little things bother you... people may walk out in the middle of a tune, or stick their heads in and decide it's not for them. You can't win 'em all, but you can keep at it and improve over time. If someone requests a song you don't know, keep it in mind for next time... if you're backing someone who launches into a tune you never played before, don't get angry or frustrated, just do your best to fake it for the crowd (then slap him afterward). If you're performing originals that you've put a lot of time, energy, and emotion into, don't be offended when a generic cover tune gets a better response... there's a fine line to walk between artist and entertainer. All of these experiences build character, and will ultimately make you a better musician.

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

Monday, September 19, 2016

SRV tone on a budget

So, I can't afford a Dumble (not many can these days)...

Nor would I want to lug a 100-pound Super Reverb on NYC subways for gigs.

In a perfect world, I'd go for a Custom Shop strat or Echopark '62 model, into a handwired '64 Vibroverb reissue, or a Sebago Sound Texas Flood amp. That would be really, REALLY nice...

But as a working musician playing 2-3 gigs a week, they all can't be elaborate, expensive productions... sometimes it's all about setting up as quickly as possible in the corner of a bar (and hoping none of your equipment grows legs during breaks). Along with my favorite strat, Leia (a Fender 60s Road Worn model, heavily customized with Arcane '61 pickups and a Callaham vintage bridge), my amp for situations like this is a Fender Princeton Reverb reissue, upgraded with JJ 6V6 tubes and a Celestion G10 Vintage speaker in place of the stock Jensen. Both of these upgrades improve the clean headroom and overall tone of the amp tremendously, as the tubes that Fender uses these days are cheap Chinese-made imitations, and the newer Jensen speakers sound good at low levels but can't handle much power without getting flubby in the bass and breaking up harshly. The G10 gives me greater power handling, increased perceived loudness due to higher dB sensitivity (more on this in a future column), and retains the classic Fender sound while adding a bit of British midrange push, the best of both worlds for me!

Leia, my 60s Road Worn strat, complete with cigarette burns, beer bottle caps,
and a few New Orleans stickers (my second home).

Fender Princeton Reverb mic'd up with Sennheiser 609

I also keep a Sennheiser 609 microphone in my gig bag, which has a flat profile and can be hung from the amp handle right in front of the speaker. This setup allows me to cover just about any situation with a decent PA system without pushing the amp too hard, and provides a great clean platform to stack pedals into. It's also nice to have a great spring reverb and tremolo available without taking up any pedalboard real estate.

The J.Rockett Lenny clean boost pedal
Although Stevie loved his clean headroom, he also loved the rich harmonic juice of cranked tubes. My favorite way to simulate this is with a great new pedal from J.Rockett Audio Designs, called, not coincidentally, the "Lenny". It was an attempt to simulate the tone of a pushed Dumble Steel String Singer, and they nailed it in spades (although SRV actually used a Dumbleland Special for the song "Lenny", we'll look past that). Put in front of a clean amp like the Princeton or any blackface Fender, it adds beautiful harmonic midrange content, plus it tightens up the bottom end, and the tone control can be used to push the high end for a little extra cut. You can also use it to boost an amp into natural overdrive, too, but I prefer it for clean color (I believe it's very similar to the FET input stage that most Dumble amps feature, but this isn't confirmed). Before this pedal was available, I used another J.Rockett model, the "Archer" Klon clone, set for a clean boost, but Lenny does this job a little bit better for my needs, and the Archer has other great uses that we'll cover in the future.

Next up would be the mandatory TS-type overdrive pedal, and I've got a few to choose from... First is a late 80s Ibanez TS10, the last model that SRV used (John Mayer's favorite, as well), and although it sounds great, mine is very finicky and noisy, which makes it unreliable in a gig setting. I originally replaced it with a TS9 reissue, which would get the job done just fine with no bells or whistles, but my favorite, after trying many other options, is the Fulltone Plimsoul. At low gain settings, it nails the TS sound perfectly, with a bit more transparency in the top & bottom of the frequency range (this means your guitar is only effected where it matters, with no detriment otherwise), and true bypass switching. The overall tone is a bit firmer than the stock TS, and it also has much more gain on tap, with an additional "Stage 2" knob for more crunch (this becomes useful when doing more than just SRV tones, and as a gigging musician, variety is key). Stacking the Plimsoul into the Lenny is a beautiful thing, as I've demonstrated below, and it's also very interactive with the guitar's volume knob, so setting the gain at the highest you'll need (about 11-12 o'clock for me) and working the volume knob to clean up is very useful. I've included a quick comparison video, as well as the Plimsoul/Lenny combo:

Ibanez TS10 (left), TS9 reissue (center), and Fulltone Plimsoul (right)



Those two pedals will get you pretty far, but adding a few others will be even more fun... gotta have a good wah pedal for "Voodoo Child", right?? I've got a great-sounding Vox, but it's heavy and takes up lots of pedalboard space....the new Crybaby Mini by Dunlop sounds excellent, especially in "vintage" mode (internal switch), and as long as your shoes aren't too heavy, the feel is just fine (don't try it with cowboy boots). It also fits nicely on a Pedaltrain Nano.

Fulltone Mini Deja'Vibe
Next up in the "mandatory' category is a good vibe pedal... mine is a Fulltone Mini Deja'Vibe, which i leave set to "vintage" and 'chorus" modes. I'll use this for tunes like "Cold Shot" and "Couldn't Stand the Weather" in place of a Vibratone cab, and also for Hendrix tunes like "Machine Gun", "Freedom", and "Hey Baby" instead of a UniVibe. I've included a brief demo just to show the settings I use for these tones, as it is capable of much more than just that.  


Now, if you really wanted to push the "SRV-meets-Jimi" thing even further, you'll need a good Fuzz Face clone,  as well as an Octavia-type effect. For a while, I was using a homemade pedal for both of these, although it's a silicon-based fuzz, not germanium. I call it the "High Desert Buzz" (after a very mind-expanding trip I took to Joshua Tree, CA), and the upper-octave overtone effect can be switched on and off separately from the fuzz. It can be a bit over-the-top for vintage tones, but perfect for Billy Gibbons/Gary Clark, Jr/Josh Homme-type sounds (I'll demo this pedal in a future blog). There's also the great Analogman Sun Face germanium fuzz, which is a less intense, smoother-sounding fuzz, and likely closer to the Diaz Square Fuzzes that SRV used. If pedalboard space allows, i'll place the Sun Face or Desert Buzz first, as most fuzzes prefer to see the guitar's high impedance output directly, and kick it on for the occasional solo.

Analogman Sun Face (left), my homemade High Desert Buzz octave fuzz (right)

Well, there you have it. I certainly prefer my strat for SRV material, but honestly, it's way more about how you play it than what you're playing. Learning to nail that Texas shuffle feel is more important than any guitar, amp, or pedal. I've seen guys absolutely CRUSH "Pride & Joy" on a Les Paul, and occasionally i'll play it on a Tele when filling in with my friend J.D. Patch's outlaw country group, the Hell Dwellers. But if you ever have a chance to check out my band, J.P. & the Voodoo Blues, it'll be with the great gear you've read about here, and maybe a '64 Vibroverb someday.

(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, September 12, 2016

The SRV Gear Guide

It is only appropriate to start with possibly the ultimate legend in the valley of the tone-seeker, a fellow Texan, Stevie Ray Vaughan.  As he needs no further introduction, let’s dive right into what made SRV SRV, with a heavy focus on his amps, while establishing some background and dispelling some myths…

SRV with Number One

We can’t begin without talking about his Number One Strat, which Stevie claimed to be a ’59, since that was the date stamped on the back of the pickups… this was incorrect, however,  as guitar tech Rene Martinez (who oversaw SRV’s guitars since 1980) found the stamp of 1963 on the body and 1962 on the original neck (the neck was replaced in 1989 after it could no longer be refretted properly; Rene used the neck from another SRV favorite, “Red”, as it was also a 1962 model). The pickups are also relatively low output, not the hot overwound myth that gained legs during the 80s… all 3 pickups are rumored to be under 6k ohms output impedance, which would be typical of a 1959 set (the neck pickups tended to be hottest, but not by much). Although the Fender SRV signature model uses Texas Special pickups, which Stevie was heavily involved in the making of, they do not accurately represent the sound of his original Number One (For my money, I use a set of Arcane ’61 Experience pickups in my main strat, and they sound incredible, especially in the neck/middle combined position).

As for strings, SRV used 13’s, as famously rumored, but it was a custom set with an unwound 3rd string… exact gauges, according to Rene Martinez, were .013, .015, .019p, .028, .038, and .058. Stevie had large, incredibly strong hands, but even he couldn’t bend a wound G-string up a full step for an entire night. Also, as he tuned down to Eb, the tension on the strings was closer to that of 12s, but with increased thickness. There is much debate as to the tonal difference with string gauge… I’ve found the biggest noticeable difference when using higher gain amps, as thicker strings retain their clarity a bit more than thinner, and as SRV loved big, clean tones (more when we get into his amps), I imagine this influenced his choice, but perhaps not more than the feel & his playing style… his percussive right hand strumming was acoustic-like, and light strings wouldn’t be able to take that kind of punishment for long.  Late in his career, he did go down a bit lighter to 11s (although it’s total speculation, I’ve gotta believe this had something to do with his getting sober… nerves become a lot more sensitive when you’re not dulling them constantly, and his fingertips took a beating from those 13s).

Although Stevie had several other great guitars in his arsenal, Number One was like an extension of his body & soul, and the others were just variations on the model he played primarily. I’d instead prefer to focus on SRV’s numerous and ever-changing array of amplifiers (I’ll be using a bit of info from this excellent Guitar World article, but have gone even further in depth).

Rear shot of Vibroverb #1

From the start, while cutting his teeth at clubs like Antone’s on 6th street in Austin, it was a pair of 1964 Fender Vibroverbs that anchored the SRV tone, along with an Ibanez Tubescreamer to push them into overdrive. These two amps were both 15” combos (as opposed to the earlier ’63 models with 2x10” speakers), and powered by dual 6L6 power tubes for 40 watts of power each (Fun fact: although the amps were purchased years apart in different states, the serial numbers are one digit apart). Cesar Diaz would eventually mod these Vibroverbs with solid state rectifiers to increase the available headroom and squeeze a few more watts of juice out of them. In fact, Cesar mod’d just about all of SRV’s amps with a solid state rectifier, to prevent harmful voltages from damaging the tubes at such high volumes, and also because Stevie preferred the extra headroom and quicker response feel (Fender even made a special hand-wired '64 Vibroverb reissue with the Diaz mods, including a switchable rectifier circuit and ability to cascade one channel into the other. It is now discontinued). Transformers were also swapped out for the beefier hunks of iron found in Twins & Bassmans, as they held up much better at high levels than the original units. SRV initially used JBL D130 alnico speakers in these combos, then E130 ceramics, but eventually switched to ElectroVoice M15Ls (and stuck with EVs for the rest of his career, for both their power handling and high sensitivity before breakup). One of these combos was also used to drive his Fender Vibratone rotating speaker cabinet for live performances of “Cold Shot” and “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” later on.

Number One leaning against a Vibroverb (left) & rarely seen Marshall Club & Country (right)

SRV's Vibroverb (center) flanked by what look to be a pair of Mesa/Boogie combos, as he had mentioned using briefly around the David Bowie era.

As Stevie’s popularity grew, so did the size of venues and need for more power. Stevie would add a Marshall Club & Country combo (Marshall's answer to the Fender Twin, a 100-watt 2x12 with KT77 tubes & Celestion G12-80 speakers) to his Vibroverbs for more clean power, as well as experiment with blackface Fender Twins and Mesa/Boogie combos (likely Mark IIc+ models, used with David Bowie). This was the beginning of the quest for the ultimate LOUD yet clean tone, retaining clarity and detail along with the beautiful harmonic enrichment of cranked power tubes, and would be a lifelong venture. He also added a pair of Fender Super Reverb 4x10” combos to the stage, essentially the same amplifier as the Vibroverb but providing some variance in tone due to the different speaker array. With all four 10" speakers replaced with EVs, each combo weighed nearly 130 pounds and could take your head off with bite. The Super Reverbs even replaced the Vibroverbs altogether at one point in the mid-80s ever-changing amplifier landscape.

The Texas Flood Dumbleland Special, once owned by Jackson Browne, shown here being used in a recording session by John Mayer (recently sold for $160,000 to a private collector).

SRV with his Dumble SSS "King Tone Consoul" and custom Hamiltone strat, a gift from Billy Gibbons.

At Jackson Browne's Downtown Studios, SRV would encounter the Dumbleland Special amplifier head, originally built for and owned by Browne. There’s some debate as to whether this amp was a monster 300-watt model designed for bass, or the more conventional 150w head using 6550 tubes (which SRV’s eventual custom model would utilize), but either way, Stevie loved it, and used it along with his beloved Vibroverbs for the recording of his debut album (This amp was most recently owned & used by John Mayer for a brief period, before selling it to a collector). He would then contact Alexander Dumble and order his own custom amp, a Steel String Singer model, voiced to his personal specs and used on his next album, Couldn’t Stand the Weather (which, in my opinion, contained his best guitar tones ever recorded).  This amp would be dubbed “King Tone Consoul”, and regarded along with Number One as Stevie’s most prized and important pieces of gear (another similar Dumble would be built and added as a backup, with a third model ordered but never delivered due to a rumored dispute between Dumble & SRV, more on this later). After some speaker experimentation, a 4x12 loaded with EV M12Ls became the mainstay. The quest for a bold, beautiful clean tone was complete, and now it was time for some Hendrix-inspired color.

One of SRV's SSS heads, underneath a Marshall. This is from Jimmie Vaughan's personal collection, 
on display at the Grammy museum.

Fender Vibratone cab (upper left), on top of what looks like a Marshall 8x10" cab, two Dumble heads on top of a Super Reverb (being used as a speaker cab), and a Vibroverb (far right).

Vibratone (left), a stack of 4x12s, and Marshall Major on top of Dumble head (right).

As a lifelong Jimi devotee, Stevie began paying tribute to him both on album and in concert, and added a 200-watt Marshall Major lead head to the arsenal, at one point even ditching all of the Fenders and running just the Marshall & Dumble for a bit (You can see & hear this duo in the interview video below). Blowing tubes on this amp was an almost nightly occurrence, according to amp tech Cesar Diaz, as Stevie would walk over and crank it up to 10 for the encore “Voodoo Child” at the end of the set. He was also occasionally seen using Marshall Super Leads and even JCM 800s in the late 80s, but these flirtations rarely lasted long.

In addition to the Marshall, Stevie began experimenting with Dallas-Arbiter germanium Fuzzfaces, but inconsistency in the original units led Cesar to build a custom fuzz pedal for Stevie with matched germanium transistors, known as the Diaz Square Face fuzz. Stevie also incorporated an Octavia octave fuzz and original UniVibe pedal for his Hendrix tributes, along with Vox wah pedals. He famously linked two wahs together for the tune “Say What!”, and also ran a pair of Tubescreamers together at times, one set for the more traditional boost, the other with the gain higher (These pedals would feed into all of the amps simultaneously).

An SRV pedalboard with closeup of MXR Loop Selector used for engaging Vibratone

Another pedalboard featuring the Hendrix-style Roger Mayer Octavia (3rd from left, UFO-shaped), and Arbiter Fuzz Face (2nd from right, round)

During the recording of In Step, SRV had as many as 32 amps at his disposal, running up to 10 simultaneously, including a couple of reissue ’59 Bassman heads.  There’s a great article with producer Jim Gaines on the making of this album for more info.

Studio shot from the In Step sessions, L-R: Marshall JCM 800, Blonde Fender Twin, Dumble Steel String Singer, Fender Super Reverb, Marshall Majors on 8x10" & 4x15" cabs.

Shortly before his death, and likely influenced by Eric Clapton (whom used Soldanos heavily in the late 80s), Stevie began talking to amp builder Mike Soldano about a custom amp that could deliver the kind of tone he loved from his cranked amps but at a lower volume, and without any pedals… they started work on a custom model, but it wouldn’t be completed until after Stevie’s untimely death (See the below feature from Guitar World for more on this amp). 

It is rumored that Alexander Dumble wasn’t happy with Stevie’s flirting with another amp designer, which caused the delay and ultimate non-delivery of his third Steel String Singer (it’s also rumored that Dumble doubled the cost at the last minute, but none of this has been substantiated). This means that in addition to the Soldano, there is another custom-made SRV amp in existence, and unfortunately the world never got to hear it.  It's my understanding that Jimmie Vaughan owns most of the classic pieces, including Number One, the Vibroverbs, and his main Dumble Steel String Singer.

And in closing, after all this talk of amps and equipment, Stevie was still Stevie on an old beat-up Gibson acoustic...