Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Backwards Guitars & Gypsy Rainbows: Jimi's Unique Strat Setup

For all we know, Jimi Hendrix may have been from another planet; there was no one like him before, and hasn't been anyone like him since. While many guitarists have unique tones, I reckon that Jimi's playing technique might be the most recognizable of all, with his quirky double-string bends, unique chord-melody style, and incredible use of the whammy bar and volume knob with his fuzz pedals. By all accounts, particularly that of Eric Clapton in his autobiography, Jimi was an unassuming genius, possessing the technical ability of someone who practiced incessantly, yet never acted like it was a big deal at all; it was just something that flowed so naturally, it seemed effortless, almost embarrassing him. Of course, that coy shyness disappeared when he went on stage, and a larger-than-life flamboyance as bold as his love for music exploded like a supernova, enrapturing anyone in sight.

I'd always chalked up the tangible aspects of Jimi's technique to his large hands, as he was described by many as having the hands of a basketball player; I need two fingers for some of those double-string bends that he did with just one, and the thumb-over-the-top chording style is crucial to many of his tunes as well. Aside from stretching a bit, we can't enlarge our hands, but after doing a bit of research, a few things jumped out at me that I felt were worthy of mention here, and hope they help others as much as they've helped me.

The most obvious difference between Hendrix and everyone else is the trademark righty-Strat-turned-upside-down; he may have done this out of necessity at first, as lefty instruments were incredibly rare at the time, but even later on when he could afford to custom order a lefty from Fender, he chose not to. Restringing a Strat and flipping it over has some residual effects which certainly played into Jimi's signature sound, as i'm certain he and equipment tech Roger Mayer understood.

Standard Strat headstock (left), reversed headstock (right)

First, and foremost in my opinion, is the string tension; with the headstock now reversed, the low E (actually Eb) is now the longest string, giving it a slightly looser feel, while the tension tightens gradually as we move higher up, string by string. Contrary to how it sounds, this actually allows for easier bending on the two highest strings, as they don't have to be bent as far to reach a half or whole step in pitch now. Combine this with tuning an already light set of strings down a half step, and Jimi could bend to Mars and back for days.

To begin talking about string gauge, we have to understand a few basic concepts: plain steel strings generate a stronger magnetic output than nickel-wound strings, and in the early days of electric guitar, a typical set of strings included a wound G. As Fender fretboards were curved at a radius of 7.25", the pickup pole pieces were set to compensate for this, with the G and D poles raised highest, and the low A and E following the radius curve downward. The treble side didn't follow this pattern though, as both pole pieces were lowered almost flush to compensate for the stronger magnetic field of the plain strings, with the B slightly lower than the high E to make up for the difference in thickness. Now, take everything I just said and flip it around; Jimi didn't reverse the pickup orientation when he restrung his Strats, so the pole pieces for the higher strings are now underneath the lower strings, and vice versa, providing a weaker magnetic field on the bass side and slightly stronger output on the treble side. 

Pickup polepieces on a standard Strat (left), compared to the reversed pickups of a Hendrix Strat (right).

As lighter string sets with plain unwound Gs became popular (originally by guitarists using two high-Es for both B and E strings, and shifting the rest of the set down by one, as Jimi did initially), the plain Gs combined with the raised pole pieces to create G-heavy imbalances in pickup output. Enter Roger Mayer, who believed that the electrical output of the strings could be determined by squaring the diameter of each string and matching them accordingly. In a Guitar World interview, Mayer stated that "Many times people use a set of strings that are completely imbalanced and they just don't sound that good. Most people would say a .010 to .013 is the correct jump. And the .015 is much better for the G than a .017. An .015 squares out at .225 and .017 is .289. So you're going to get 28 percent more output just with a two-pound different in string size." (as I'm no physics engineer or mathematician, I'll take his word for it, just as Jimi did). The lighter G surely helped in dealing with the raised pole pieces, and Jimi's string set was .010, .013, .015, .026, .032 and .038, according to Mayer (also a popular Fender set in the late 60s).

Maybe most importantly, the slant of the bridge pickup is now 1/2" away from the bridge on the treble side, allowing those higher strings to bloom a touch more, while picking up the bass strings 1/2" closer to the bridge for a brighter, more biting tone. Combine this with the flipped pole pieces, and you've got a whole new world to explore in this position, resulting in tighter, clearer bass notes and warmer, fuller highs. Seymour Duncan has recently offered a loaded Hendrix "Voodoo" pickguard (no relation), covering both of these important pickup variations.

Standard Strat bridge pickup (left), Hendrix Strat bridge pickup (right)

Another factor that gets little discussion yet is extremely important (in my opinion) is that of the electronics cavity now being on the bass side of the instrument, as opposed to it's usual orientation on the treble side. That massive hollow cutout may not typically effect the higher strings much, but on the bass side, the heavier Eb and Ab would certainly resonate more in that space, especially combined with their now-longer scale length from bridge to tuning peg, resulting in an increase of harmonic overtone resonance and an almost semi-hollow quality. Of course, the only way to simulate this would be to take a lefty Strat and flip it righty, or find the 1997 Hendrix "Mirror" Strat, which did not sell particularly well and was discontinued after one year. 

A point can be made about the neck pocket now making more of a connection on the treble side rather than the bass side; I believe this may be a slight detriment, if anything, as the bass strings might benefit more from the extra wood contact and resonance, but ultimately the heel joint itself is the most critical point of transference in a bolt-on instrument, and that remains the same. 

The not-so-popular Fender Hendrix "Mirror" Strat, which may have gotten everything right in the first place.

Lastly, a quick look at Jimi's tremolo and bridge setup... he routinely used 4 or 5 springs to keep the bridge pulled back as tightly as possible against the body, with no room to pull "up" on the bar at all, and a lot of tension to fight when diving downward. The bar itself was bent at such an angle that he could pick the strings while easily manipulating it, leading to some very cool vibrato effects like the very end of "Machine Gun" from Band of Gypsys. After trying the left-handed tremolo on an SRV signature Strat, I completely understand how having the bar on the top of the bridge can lend itself to some creative playing ideas while picking, but can be hazardous to long-sleeve shirts, also. 

Stories vary about Jimi's string height, from Jeff Beck's claim that it was the highest action he'd ever seen and barely playable by anyone else, to super-slinky and low on his Woodstock Strat, to medium-low and comfortable on the last Strat he ever played... as this is more personal preference than anything else, i'd aim for high enough action for clean fretting and avoiding whammy fret-flap (aside from the most extreme of divebombs), while not killing your hands otherwise. Getting the action just right so you can catch two strings in a bend is my personal setup, and for my fingers, that's about 5/64" at the 12th fret.

5 springs and a mouthful of strings

Personally, I've tried a reverse headstock neck on a Strat, and agree that the feel is quite different, although I haven't tried the customized string gauges or flipped the pickups yet. The newer Fender Jimi Hendrix Strat, modeled after his '68 Olympic white Woodstock guitar, combines the reverse headstock with flipped pickups (I kinda wish they had flipped the tremolo too), and i'm curious to try one soon. Recently, Jeff Beck has adopted the reverse headstock on his Strats for the same reasons of string tension and feel, sighting his reignited love of Hendrix as the inspiration. The reality is, none of us have Jimi's hands, mind, or soul, the most crucial elements of his sound... but that doesn't mean we can't try to capture everything else.


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Monday, October 24, 2016

A Brief History of Fuzz

In July of 1947, a "weather ballon" crashed on farmland near Roswell, New Mexico. By the end of that year, the transistor was invented, a revolutionary device unlike anything before it, made of a strange crystal substance called "Germanium", sparking a period of exponential technological advancement and paving the way for the semiconductor and microprocessor industries we know today. Coincidence? Conspiracy theorists like myself think not. But I digress...

Fine, you tell me where Third Stone From The Sun came from...

No, aliens did not bring us the first fuzz tone pedal (although it would've made a great sequel to Crossroads if Jimi Hendrix sold his soul to E.T. for a Fuzz Face), but as the Germanium transistor began replacing vacuum tubes in gain stage circuits, the smaller size, lower voltage, and cheaper price opened up a whole new world to electronics enthusiasts, beginning with transistor radio kits in the mid '50s. Manufacturers such as GE, Mullard, and Phillips published "cookbooks" of basic circuits utilizing their products in an effort to sell more units (somewhere, I have one of these original books, given to me by my college audio engineering professor). The guitar world owes a great deal of gratitude to these simple hobbyist guides, and would hear the results a decade later.

Although there are prior instances of accidentally (or intentionally) overdriving guitars on recordings throughout the 1950s, there are two competitors for the first use of a fuzz (please bear with me on the timeline, as many of these events occurred near simultaneously); in 1960, producer Lee Hazelwood, known for his work with rockabilly guitarist Duane Eddy, had his own standalone fuzz box built by a radio engineer in Phoenix, and it was used on Sanford Clark's song Go On Home by guitarist Al Casey. Depending on exactly when Hazelwood had this box commissioned, and no one seems to know, it may have predated all others.

Meanwhile, in Nashville, Marty Robbins recorded his hit Don't Worry in 1960, on which bassist Grady Martin played through a broken channel of the Langevin tube mixing board, resulting in an overdriven bass solo that recording engineer Glen Snoddy loved and refused to fix. This eventually led Snoddy to create his own fuzztone prototype, a three-transistor circuit utilizing Germanium 2N270s which he brought to the attention of the Gibson guitar company in 1962. This prototype became the Maestro Fuzz-Tone FZ-1, the world's first commercially available fuzz pedal.

A Maestro Fuzz-Tone ad by Gibson, and an original FZ-1 unit with attached instrument cable.

Inspired by Grady Martin's bass tone, another fuzz box was made in California by musician and electronics tech Orville "Red" Rhodes, a simple transistor circuit housed in a metal box with level knob and on/off switch. While never going into production, a few of these "Rhodes" fuzz tones were built for friends, including Nokie Edwards and Billy Strange of The Ventures, who used it on "2,000 Pound Bee" in 1962, the first known use of a fuzz tone on a rock'n'roll record.

Across the pond, Vox design engineer Dick Denney claims to have prototyped a simple 2-transistor fuzz circuit in 1962, based on transistor cookbook circuits and likely inspired by those American recordings and/or the Maestro unit, but as the Maestro was not selling much in America at the time, Vox did not pursue the production of this design yet. A couple years later, in 1964, English electronic tech Roger Mayer was approached by a young session guitarist named James Patrick "Jimmy" Page to build him something that would capture the sound of The Ventures' fuzz guitar, before anything of the sort was available for sale in London. Mayer's original pedal was rumored to be similar to the FZ-1 circuit (although he claims to have never seen one in person), but used Mullard Germanium transistors as well as several other components more easily available in the UK, giving a richer tone with more sustain than the Maestro. Page is rumored to have used this unique pedal for the next few years, both on session recordings and later with the Yardbirds.

Back in the States, Gibson produced 5,000 FZ-1 units in it's first production run of 1962, initially marketed as a way to imitate the sound of a baritone sax or trombone with a bass guitar, with extremely disappointing sales. So disappointing that in 1963, only three units were made, followed by zero in '64. The pedal was viewed as nothing more than a novelty by most, until Keith Richards stepped on one in 1965 to simulate a horn section playing the melody of the Stones' new song, "Satisfaction". Keith originally envisioned an arrangement closer to how Otis Redding would eventually record the tune and never intended the fuzz guitar version to be released, but the scratch track worked so well, it remained, and modern music would never be the same.

A 1965 Maestro FZ-1A, reissued by popular demand.

Suddenly, everyone wanted a fuzz; Maestro reissued the original Fuzz-Tone as the FZ-1A in America. As the unit was expensive to import and difficult to obtain in England, design engineers in the West End music shops got busy. The most notable was Gary Hurst, employee of the Macari's Musical Exchange on Denmark Street; Upon the request of Vic Flick (creator of the James Bond theme) for more sustain out of the Maestro unit, Hurst swapped out the original transistors for Mullard OC75s, adjusted the bias voltage for a smoother, less harsh tone, built it into a wooden wedge-shaped enclosure, and named it the Tone Bender. The original models, now known as the Tone Bender MkI, were used by Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Paul McCartney, and Mick Ronson, amongst others. Hurst formed Sola Sound Ltd. with Larry Macari, and the first run of metal-enclosed Tone Benders were produced for sale exclusively at the Musical Exchange.

 Tone Bender wooden-box prototype (left), and a 1st-run production model (right)

By 1966, everyone had a hand in the fuzz game; the Mosrite Fuzz-rite and Sam Ash Astrotone were fellow American responses to the Maestro, and Vox finally jumped in with the V816 Distortion Booster, a two-transistor unit based on Denney's earlier prototype that plugged directly into the output jack of the guitar itself. There was also a two-transistor Tone Bender pedal under the Vox name, licensed from Hurst and manufactured in Italy, with curious circuit origins; Denney says it's his original 2-transistor design, while Hurst has both laid claim to and denied designing a 2-tranny circuit in separate instances. Either way, this model became known as the Tone Bender Mk1.5, although there was no labeled designation at the time. The circuit was also virtually identical to that of another London-based manufacturer, Ivor Arbiter and Arbiter Music, whose Face line of effects pedals were based on the look of a round mic stand base, and included the Treble & Bass Face, Trem Face, and of course, the Fuzz Face.

A 1966 Arbiter ad featuring the Fuzz Face, and a vintage Fuzz Face pedal

The Arbiter Electronics Ltd. Fuzz Face was made incredibly popular by one James Marshall "Jimi" Hendrix, who began using the pedal in late '66 to overdrive his already-cranked Marshall Super Lead amps. David Gilmour of Pink Floyd was also a fan of the Fuzz Face, using it heavily throughout the late 60s and early 70s on both recordings and live. These early designs, using now-coveted NKT-275 Germanium transistors, varied greatly with guitar output level and pickup impedance, and players like Hendrix and Gilmour preferred Stratocasters for this very reason, cranking the knobs on the pedal and using the guitar's volume and tone controls to vary from clean to over-the-top dirty and all shades in between (the Fuzz Face-Strat combo is just about the perfect pairing, as tonemeisters Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Johnson later discovered as well). Depending on where and when it was purchased, a Fuzz Face could be labeled "Arbiter England", "Dallas-Arbiter", "Dallas Music Industries Ltd.", "CBS/Arbiter Ltd.", or even "Sound City", after the shop owned by Arbiter in London's West End. Nowadays, Jim Dunlop has reissued several versions of the Fuzz Face, including later silicon transistor circuits.

It's important to note at this time that Germanium crystal transistors are incredibly inconsistent, with leakage, voltage, and temperature fluctuations a constant issue. Meticulous designers like Gary Hurst and Roger Mayer would measure the hFE gain of each unit, accounting for leakage and ideal voltage, using the appropriate bias resistors, and still sort through a hundred pieces just to find maybe 30 choice units. Many guitarists even preferred to use 9-volt batteries that were nearly dead, rather than fresh, for a warmer tone. When manufacturers such as Arbiter and Vox began mass producing these designs, that attention to detail was lost, and quality suffered. By the end of the 60's, most designers and manufacturers had switched to the newer and more consistent silicon transistors with great result, although there is nothing quite like a carefully selected and properly tuned Germanium fuzz, in my humble opinion.

A Macari's Musical Exchange ad for the Tone Bender MkII (top), original Tone Bender MkII & Marshall Supa Fuzz units (middle left), two versions of the Vox Tone Bender (middle right), and a sextet of MkIII models (bottom).

Later in '66, Gary Hurst refined his three-transistor design further in the Tone Bender Professional MkII, still manufactured by Sola Sound as well as licensed to other companies in the form of the Marshall Supa Fuzz and again as the Vox Tone Bender. This OC75 (sometimes OC81D) design became one of the most popular and widely-used fuzz circuits in England, due to it's thick, smooth yet expressive sound, incredibly intense at full guitar volume but capable of a similar range as the Fuzz Face when backed down. Being used by Jimmy Page on the first Led Zeppelin album and Jeff Beck on Truth (in the form of a Supa Fuzz) didn't hurt it's legacy, either; the MkII was the pinnacle of Germanium transistor circuits, as it was a bit more user-friendly than the Fuzz Face and less finicky with guitar pickup impedance matching (Page used it with his Tele, Beck with his Les Paul, two instruments not known to be as friendly with a Fuzz Face as a Strat).

Further revisions of the Tone Bender evolved in the 1968 MkIII and '70 MkIV models under the new Sola Sound Colorsound brand, now featuring tone controls and brightly-colored metal enclosures, while Gary Hurst became less and less involved with the company at this point. These fuzz circuits could also be found licensed as the Rotosound Fuzz Box, Park Fuzz Sound, and Vox Tone Bender (yet again). The Colorsound brand was widely popular, although these would be the last of the "vintage" Hurst 3-transistor circuits, and would never eclipse the legacy of the Professional MkII.

Some guitarist doing yoga alongside his original Vox wah, Octavio, & Fuzz Face pedals (Univibe hidden far right).

An original Roger Mayer Octavio (left), a Tycobrahe Octavia (center), and a Mayer Axis Fuzz (right)

1967 also brought us the landmark fuzz tone masterpiece Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, featuring both the Arbiter Fuzz Face and the new Roger Mayer-designed Octavio pedal, the first pedal to produce an upper-octave harmonic ghosting effect in addition to fuzz by utilizing full-wave rectification circuitry (listen to the "Purple Haze" guitar solo for an example of this). Originally using a small transformer to achieve this, the circuit was later altered to use transistors and diodes for the effect. The design was allegedly copied and reproduced in the U.S. as the Tycobrahe Octavia, one of the rarest pedals ever made, with much debate as to it's exact origin; it could have been an employee of Mayer's that went rogue, or a broken Octavio that Jimi dropped off locally to be fixed and never returned to pick up. The original Octavio has recently been reissued by Jim Dunlop, along with the Fuzz Face and Jimi's other favorite effects. Roger Mayer also has a full line of pedals based on his original 60s designs.

Later in '67, Mayer would design the silicon-transistor UFO-shaped Axis Fuzz (see? my conspiracy theory might be valid!), as inconsistency in Fuzz Face components and build quality often led to Jimi sorting through a dozen units in order to find one or two that met his standards. Arbiter would respond with their own silicon Fuzz Face in a blue-grey enclosure, also used by David Gilmour along with the original Germanium model.

Three Super-Fuzz pedals, an original '68 Univox (left), a '70s Univox and Ibanez Standard Fuzz (right) 

Japan jumped into the fuzz scene in 1968 with the Univox Super-Fuzz, a silicon-transistor design manufactured by Shin-Ei incorporating similar qualities of both the Tone Bender and Octavia, as it provided a thick, rich fuzz tone with the additional upper octave harmonic. This became Pete Townshend's fuzz of choice throughout the next decade, including the infamous Live At Leeds album, and is currently favored by Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age. Later in the 1970s, the Super-Fuzz circuit was licensed to Ibanez and rebranded as the Standard Fuzz

Around this same time, the Fender Blender and Ampeg Scrambler octave-fuzzes also came onto the scene as their respective manufacturers' first forays into the fuzz world. Although not very popular at the time, both developed strong cult followings and were later reissued.

Two early Muffs, the first "triangle" version (left), and the "Ram's head" 2nd version (right).

The shift to silicon transistor circuits paved the way for America's next massive contribution in the form of Mike Matthews' Big Muff in 1969. Manufactured by Matthews' Electro-Harmonix brand, this 4-transistor circuit was the biggest, thickest-sounding fuzz to date, and ushered in a new era of tone. David Gilmour became a Big Muff aficionado in the mid-70s and lasting for the rest of his career, using many of the various circuit revisions (particularly the v2 "Ram's Head" model) both in studio and concert, including their epic The Wall album and tour (the "Comfortably Numb" solo is pure Muff). Hendrix is rumored to have purchased one of the first models before his death, and Carlos Santana used one throughout the 70s. Muffs saw a resurgence in the early '90s by alternative groups like the Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, and Dinosaur Jr., and again in recent years by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and Jack White. 

An original fuzz-covered fOXX Tone machine (left), and fOXX Fuzz&Wa&Volume pedal (right)

Timeless designs like these rarely go out of style, and the Big Muff quickly influenced it's competitors, the most notable of which was the fOXX Tone Machine in 1971, a purple fuzzy velour-covered 4-transistor fuzz with a switchable upper octave that was much stronger and (in my opinion) more usable than the Octavia or Super-Fuzz as a stand-alone octave effect. The Tone Machine was and still is a big favorite of ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, and has also been used by Adrian Belew and Peter Frampton over the years. The same octave fuzz circuit can also be found in the fOXX Fuzz&Wa&Volume Machine pedal, including (you guessed it) wah and volume with a treadle foot controler. Justin Chancellor, bassist of the prog-metal group Tool, uses one of these original pedals in his massive rig, along with a Tone Bender MkIII. 

Three silicon Tone Benders: a Supa, a Fuzz, and a Jumbo.

Sola Sound/Colorsound also responded to the Big Muff with the silicon 4-transistor Supa Tone Bender in 1973, as used by Steve Hackett of Genesis. The same circuit would also be labeled as the Tone Bender Fuzz, and a simplified variation as the Jumbo Tone Bender in 1975. Aside from the Tone Bender name, these were purely Muff clones and beared no relation to the classic Gary Hurst Tone Bender circuits.

My friend Kurt Martin's Experience pedal; he was smart enough to grab an original.

Although the fOXX company didn't last very long, the Tone Machine inspired the Prescription Electronics Experience pedal of the early '90s, one of the first true boutique pedals of the modern era, hand-built and custom painted (each pedal was unique), featuring a separate footswitch for the octave effect as a much-needed improvement over the original toggle switch of the fOXX. The Experience also featured a Swell circuit to simulate Jimi's backward guitar, based on the rare Boss SG-1 Slow Gear pedal of the 80s (I'm still kicking myself for not purchasing an Experience pedal in 1994 when I first tried one at a Sam Ash store). The custom one-of-a-kind psychedelic paint jobs were gone by the end of the 90s, replaced by solid-colored enclosures to increase production. Prescription Electronics eventually went out of business, but not before paving the way for other boutique builders such as Fulltone, Z.Vex, Menatone, and many others.

Each of these designers and manufacturers could warrant a blog of their very own, and many do exist, but for the sake of brevity, I've kept this timeline limited to the more poignant and influential models throughout the 60s and 70s. While there are many other incredible pedals out there, most are derived from and owe a debt of gratitude to the models featured here. A few current manufacturers make excellent modern interpretations of the classics in addition to the Jim Dunlop reissues, particularly Analogman in the US and D*A*M in the UK. I've got one of each, an Analogman Sun Face with 2SB Germanium transistors that sounds like pure Hendrix heaven, and a D*A*M Tone Bender Professional MkII that can wake the Gods like the hammer of Thor when cranked. Gabriel Currie of Echopark also makes a great Germanium fuzz, the F-1, reminiscent of the original Maestro and Mosrite Fuzzrite designs, but with it's own unique character and incredible interaction with guitar volume. Most importantly, the original designs that helped shape modern music are still alive and well in these great products.

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Friday, October 21, 2016

Oddball British Hi-Fi: Sound City & Simms-Watts Amps

During the musical explosion of the 1960s in London, it was common for music stores to design and build their own equipment for sale at the shop;  each neighborhood retailer would try to outdo the other, along with a good bit of copy-catting, of course. This is essentially how Marshall, Orange, and Vox all came to be, and as happens in most free-market industries, competition would arise. Two of the rarest, loudest, and best-sounding competitors were Sound City and Simms-Watts, and both are profiled here.

Sound City

An early Sound City SC105 "One Hundred" head

To begin discussion of Sound City amps, we must go back to one of several London music shops owned by Arbiter Electronics, half of the Dallas-Arbiter, Ltd. musical conglomerate. The original music superstore chain, they sought to cover the bases of all the equipment a band might need, from guitars and amps to drums and PA systems. In 1966, Arbiter began producing the Fuzz Face Germanium fuzz pedals that Jimi Hendrix made extremely popular, as well as Dallas with the Rangemaster Treble Booster a year prior, used by Eric Clapton, Ritchie Blackmore, and Brian May, among others (both of these products were answers to similar Vox units, as well). Depending on where and when it was purchased, it could be an Arbiter-labeled product, or Dallas Music Industries, or that of whichever shop sold it. In the back of one of these West End shops, appropriately named Sound City, Dave Reeves would design and build the SC105 "One Hundred" model amplifier, a high-headroom 100-watt EL34 answer to the Marshall Super Lead "Plexi" head.

A very early Arbiter-branded Power One Hundred head atop an original SC105 (left),
and Jimmy Page playing thru possibly that very same Arbiter head (right).

Reeves, who started his own company, Hylight Electronics, in 1966, needed capital to start manufacturing his own amplifiers, and agreed to a contract as Sound City's chief design engineer for a period of time. When the One Hundred design went into production as the Sound City L100 in 1967, Pete Townshend and John Entwistle of The Who began using them immediately, as they preferred the loud, cleaner tone of the L100 to the Marshalls they had been using prior. Jimi Hendrix was turned on to them by The Who, and used some Sound City stacks along with his Marshalls for a brief period, along with Jimmy Page, who used a very rare Arbiter-branded "Power One Hundred" head in '68-69. At one point, Townshend had his amps modified privately by Reeves, which began a working relationship between the two that would last quite some time.

Pete Townshend of The Who, with a pair of SC105/L100 heads and matching cabinets

Jimi Hendrix, with a Fender Jazzmaster (!!!), and SC105/L100 stack next to his Marshall Plexi

Reeves, a perfectionist, wanted his designs to utilize the highest-quality military-spec components possible, but Dallas-Arbiter wanted sales, and cost-cutting was often pushed by his employers at the sake of quality. They were interested in competing with Marshall by offering a more affordable product to the working musician, rather than higher quality. Reeves wanted to use high-quality Fane speakers and hardwood cabinets, Arbiter wanted to go with cheaper drivers and particleboard (some of the early Sound City cabinets are incredible, look for the Fanes!); This created a friction that would not be resolved, and at the end of his contract, Reeves left Sound City and began building his own amplifiers, starting the Hiwatt amplifier brand of Hylight Electronics. His first model, the DR103 amp, shared many similarities with the original SC105/L100, but spared no production expense or attention to detail. 

The next wave of Sound City products were based on Reeves' original designs and mirrored his Hiwatt models, as his former assistant, Denis Cornell, would go on to build the Mk2 and Mk3 versions of the L100, as well as the Lead/Bass 200 and 50 heads, using the ideas and techniques he learned from Reeves (The L/B200 was a monster 4xKT88 200-watt beast designed to compete with Marshall Majors and Hiwatt DR201 models; the 50 was a 50-watt competitor of the Hiwatt DR504). Cornell is currently a very well respected boutique amp builder, and has built tweed Twin-style combo amps for Eric Clapton, amongst others.

An early 1969 Hiwatt DR103 (top), and a Sound City L100mk3 (bottom);
the similarities go far beyond cosmetics.

A very clean L/B200mk3 head

The Who stuck with Reeves, having their customized Sound City amps rebadged with Hiwatt logos, and the DR103 would evolve into a custom CP103 "Super Who" model that Townshend used for over a decade. Jimmy Page endorsed Hiwatt from their beginnings thru 1971, with a custom DR118 100-watt "Jimmy Page" model, and David Gilmour of Pink Floyd has also been a Hiwatt devotee from 1969 until present day, briefly seen using a Sound City L100 just prior to the company's start.

Pete Townshend's custom Hiwatt CP103s, with a rebadged Sound City L100 on top

Back cover of Pink Floyd's Ummagumma LP, featuring two L100 stacks behind the band's roadies

While Hiwatt went on to legendary status thanks to their no-compromise quality and high-profile endorsers, the very similar early Sound City amps can be found for a fraction of their cost, and sound fantastic, particularly the Mk1 (original), Mk2 and Mk3 models. Most later models labeled "Mk4" or "Plus" used an active EQ circuit, and begin to diverge considerably from the original Reeves design, as do the 120 and 150 models (not to say they aren't solid amps, just different). Pre-'72 seems to be the range to seek for the best of Sound City, or at least closest to Dave Reeves' original vision.

An original AP100 model

David Simms ran a shop called the Musical Bargain Centre on Ealing Road in London, near both Jim Marshall's original store and where Monty Python would film many classic scenes. In 1968, Richards Watts was named technical director of the shop, and the Simms-Watts brand was born. It's notable that Rick Wakeman worked at the shop while studying at the Royal College of Music, and John Entwistle would drop in to rehearse with him (Entwistle would later endorse Simms-Watts, amidst stints with Hiwatt and Sunn amps, as well). It's additionally notable that Terry Marshall, son of the late Jim Marshall and the "T" in the JTM line of Marshall amps, also joined Simms-Watts in 1968 after a falling out with his father. Like most competing retailers, Simms-Watts sought to outfit the entire band with amplification, from guitar and bass to keyboards and vocals, and they began offering some extremely high-quality products in 1969. They designed two instrument amps, the AP (All-Purpose) 100 and 200 Super models, as well as multi-input tube-powered PA mixers, using only extremely high-quality Fane or RCF speakers in their cabinets. 

A Simms-Watts AP100 halfstack

A Fane speaker, rebranded with the very cool Simms-Watts logo

An AP200 Super head, complete with Monty Python-inspired "POW!" graphic

An AP100 advertisement featuring John Entwistle

A very clean '72 AP100mk2 (Red panels were indicative of EMI Mk2 models)

These amps used massive Partridge transformers, just as Hiwatt and early Sound City, and ran their tubes at an incredible plate voltage of over 600 volts in Ultra-Linear mode, gaining as much clean headroom before distortion as possible. The AP100 used EL34s, while the AP200 used a quad of KT88s, just like the Marshall Major, Hiwatt DR201, and Sound City L/B200 amps, and by utilizing this ultra-linear circuitry, created an even louder, cleaner amp at higher volume levels. While I've never played an AP200, I can say that after my brief experience with the AP100, it might just be the PERFECT amplifier for fuzz pedals, not only due to the clean headroom, but it's warmth... these are ultra-clean amps, but far from sterile. Their tube warmth and optimal input circuitry can take the edge off a Fuzz Face or Tone Bender while allowing the fuzz to breathe, and guitar & pedal to interact without interference. Mick Ronson of David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust band may have agreed with me, as an AP100 can be seen onstage alongside of his Marshall Major, circa '72/73 (Bowie was rumored to have used it for his 12-string acoustic/electric, also).

A 200-watt, 6-input tube "Super" PA head

Matching pair of vertical 4x10" PA cabinets, likely loaded with RCF speakers

A stage backline made up entirely of Simms-Watts, featuring 8 4x15" PA columns and two full 4x12" stacks.
This might have been the loudest concert ever.

PA100 4-channel unit with matching speakers

Simms-Watts made some incredibly unique equipment, with great cosmetic design as well as sonics. In 1972, they were purchased by EMI Sound and Vision, and although staying in production for several more years, a period of decline began, including the cost-cutting move to transistor circuits. Simms held on to his original shop until at least 1978, when a new Dave Simms Music Products store opened up, dealing mostly in PA and DJ equipment. Richard Watts went on to work for several organ and keyboard manufacturers over the years, as well as Electro-Harmonix, but the early Simms-Watts models would be the only tube amps known of his design.

A more modern Simms-Watts user, Jamie Cook of Arctic Monkeys
with an AP100mk2 & matching 4x12"

And perhaps the most appropriate picture of all, three full stacks of Sound City L100 heads atop Simms-Watts cabinets... the perfect conclusion to this oddball thesis.


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