Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Hell Yeah, I'm Building An Amp!! Part 3: Booya!

When last we left off, I was living in fear of flicking the "ON" switch and firing up my project... a friend even suggested I use a 10-foot pole and videotape the entire extravaganza for the internet's amusement.

Enter Jamie Simpson, owner/builder/the effin' MAN at Booya! Amplifier Services of New Jersey. Jamie builds incredible-sounding point-to-point custom tube amps, designed specifically for his client's needs and tastes. He also does great repair, restoration, and modification work on amps as well as keyboards and organs; some of his clientele includes John Medeski (Medeski, Martin, & Wood), Neal Casal (Ryan Adams, Chris Robinson Brotherhood), Marco Benevento (Benevento/Russo Duo, Trey Anastasio), Adam Smirnoff (Lettuce, Aaron Neville), and Neal Evans (Soulive).

Funny story, I originally met Jamie about a year ago via a mutual friend outside of the music industry, and it turns out I'd already unknowingly played thru one of his designs, a combo built for Scott Metzger that resides at Hometown BBQ in Red Hook, Brooklyn, for Scott's weekly residency gigs. I've got a monthly slot there with The Voodoo Blues, and discovered early on how incredible Scott's amp sounds with my Strat. Since then, I've had my Groove Tubes Soul-O 50 head modified by Jamie (frequency response under high gain, plus mid-shift switch), and recommended him to a friend for a complete restoration of an old Gretsch 6162 Tremolo/Reverb 2x10" combo amp (came out incredible, Link Wray in a box!).

The Man inspecting my work

Jamie was incredibly kind enough to take the time from his work to give my project an inspection, and proud to say, my amp passed the test! He showed me a few things, like how to clean up the grounding scheme for lower noise, isolate components better using heat shrink tubing, create an artificial power transformer center-tap for the 6.3v heater lines, and also get everything seated nicely in the chassis. We popped in the tubes, fired up, and it worked great immediately! I was not expecting that at all.

On a more technical note, the schematic called for an impedance switch with two speaker jacks, included with kit... however, the chassis was only drilled for one jack and no switch. As we were planning to drill the extra holes and wire up the switch, Jamie noticed on the data sheet that the yellow secondary winding of this particular output transformer (Hammond 125ESE) could handle the full range of output by itself (4ohm-8ohm-16ohm). We tried it thru a variety of speaker cabinets at different impedances, and it sounded great.

The first power-up

Yeah, he's one hell of a guitarist, too.

After a few hours of coffee, King cake, and gear talk, we planned a couple of future projects to help get me on my way with amp repair, including restoring my dad's old Ampeg B-25B and improving my little Peavey Classic 20 (I'll be documenting all of it right here, naturally). Jamie likes to teach, and I'm hoping to learn as much as possible from his years of experience and expertise. In the meantime, this little guy sounds great thru my Avatar 2x12" while we wait for it's permanent home to arrive...

No fancy playing, just exploring the range of tone.

Addendum 2/6/17:

About a week later, my built-to-order cabinet arrived from Weber, and it's absolutely beautiful. The chassis fit inside perfectly with no alterations needed.

Then, after a wonderful week in sunny Los Angeles (documented here), I returned home to find my Warehouse Guitar Speakers waiting. I opted to combine a G10C and G8C wired in parallel in the same cabinet, and had no issues installing them (fitting two widths of speaker cable into the barrel of one 1/4" jack was slightly tricky, but a fun challenge). Both speakers are 8ohms, which will create a 4ohm total load in parallel, and both are rated at a sensitivity of approximately 96dB, the best match of any 10" and 8" that WGS offers. Since the G10C is rated at 75 watts power handling, I'm hoping it stays a bit cleaner while the G8C breaks up faster (rated at only 20 watts), creating some nice contrast to the sound.

(For more info on the technical details, check out Everything You Ever Needed To Know About Speakers)

And finally, the finished build...


And, if you need any repair work or want to discuss a custom build, the number is easy to remember...

Monday, January 16, 2017

The 1959 "Keefburst" Les Paul & The Start of A Craze

In mid-1958, the Gibson Guitar Company tried something new to drum up sales for it's Les Paul Standard model, the latest evolution of what began as "The Log" in Lester Polfus's workshop; still utilizing the same design and construction as the "Goldtop" Standard model's mahogany neck and body with maple top (including the Patent-Applied-For "PAF" humbucking pickups invented a year prior), but now featuring a transparent cherry-red-to-yellow "Sunburst" finish on that maple top, inspired by the company's acoustic and archtop jazz models. No two guitars were alike, as the original dying process brought out varying degrees of depth from the maple wood grain unique to each instrument. Some models had rather plain tops, in comparison to the curly figured maple bookmatched tops found on some of the most valuable and desirable instruments of the era. As the original dye would fade rapidly over time when exposed to UV light, a new technique was employed in 1960, resulting in a bolder, more reddish-orange "tomato soup" look, with slightly less transparency (the neck thickness was also slimmed down a bit by then). Generally speaking, 1959 models are considered the pinnacle of the line, but all three years provided some of the most collectible, beautiful, and best-sounding electric guitars of all time.

Great examples of 'Bursts from '58 (left), '59 (center), and '60 (right), showing variations in figure and color.

A 1960 Gibson catalog page featuring the Sunburst Standard (right)

Despite all this, and rather ironically, the heavy, expensive Les Paul was considered a commercial failure at the time, and only 1,712 Sunburst Standard units were produced from 1958 to 1960 (Even Les himself preferred the tuxedo-like all-mahogany "Black Beauty" Custom model).  By '61, the Les Paul guitar was redesigned by Ted McCarty of Gibson as a thinner, lighter shape, with easier access to the upper frets; we now know this model as the SG, but until 1964, it hadn't changed titles. At that point, Les asked for his name to be removed from the newer design, which he never cared for, and as he was entering a state of semi-retirement and no longer retained his popularity of a decade prior, Gibson obliged. There would be no more Les Paul models in Gibson's immediate future beginning 1964.

A very young, innocent Keef, with his 'Burst, circa 1964

That very same year, across the pond in London, a young English guitarist named Keith Richards walked into Selmer's Music Shop with a few quid to spend before his group, The Rolling Stones, embarked on their very first tour of the U.S. He spotted a sunburst Les Paul Standard which had been retrofitted with a Bigsby vibrato, and since it was previously owned, he could afford to buy it. He played it extensively on that tour, including the Stones' debut appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and used it to record many of their early hits, most notably "The Last Time", "Time Is On My Side", and "Satisfaction". Keith owned and played a sunburst Les Paul before any of his contemporaries, including many of whom became famous for their use of the instrument: Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Peter Green, Paul Kossoff, Mike Bloomfield, Billy Gibbons, Joe Walsh, Duane Allman... Keef had 'em all beat to the 'Burst.

That particular instrument, serial number 9-3182, turned out to be a '59 model, purchased brand new in March 1961 at Farmer's Music Store in Luton, UK, by John Bowen, guitarist of Mike Dean & the Kinsmen. Bowen had the Bigsby vibrato installed at Selmer's shop in London, where he eventually traded in the guitar for a Gretsch Country Gentleman in late '62. It waited there a year and a half before it's serendipitous Rolling Stones future.

John Bowen (far right), playing that infamous '59 Les Paul circa '61-62.

As Keith played the 'Burst more and more, it's popularity grew on the London blues/rock scene. Jimmy Page used Keith's new guitar on a recording session in July of '64, as he was a busy session musician in London at the time, and Keith and Mick were honing their craft as songwriters. A version of "Heart of Stone" from these sessions featuring Page and the "Keefburst" can be found on the 1975 Stones compilation album Metamorphosis, and Jimmy went on to purchase several 'Bursts of his own over the years, including a '58 and '59.

Jimmy Page with Keefburst, July '64.

Clapton famously used a 1960 'Burst on the John Mayall Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton recordings of early '66, known widely as the "Beano" album, and the guitar subsequently referred to as the "Beano Burst". That guitar was stolen or left behind by Clapton shortly after the recording, and he is known to have borrowed at least two different 'Bursts during the early days of Cream, including one that looks suspiciously similar to Keith's. It's unconfirmed, but some experts believe it to be the same guitar, as Keith was favoring a Black Beauty by then and looking to sell his original. If true, that would mean the Keefburst may have been used on the Fresh Cream recording sessions, as well as with Cream at the Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival in July of '66.

Eric Clapton, possibly with Keefburst, performing with Cream in the summer of '66.

With Keith looking for a buyer, he eventually found one in the young 17-year-old blues prodigy Mick Taylor. In 1967, Taylor was invited by John Mayall to replace Peter Green in The Bluesbreakers, following in the footsteps, err, fingerprints of Clapton, and he jumped at the great opportunity, having filled in for Clapton once before with Mayall a year prior (and played the Beano Burst before it was lost). As Clapton defined the sound of the Bluesbreakers and British blues in general with his Beano/Marshall amp combination, Peter Green followed suit accordingly with his own 'Burst, a '59 with a reversed and polarity-flipped neck pickup, yielding a haunting, piercing out-of-phase tone in it's middle position, drenched in reverb, taking the blues towards a psychedelic direction and eventually forming the group Fleetwood Mac (articles have been written entirely on Greeny's '59 'Burst, which was later passed along to Gary Moore and currently owned by Kirk Hammett of Metallica, who paid over a million dollars for the instrument).

Back in America, Gibson took note of the newfound popularity of it's discontinued instrument, and in 1968, reissued the Les Paul Standard and Custom models, with none other than Keith Richards as their advertised endorser. Keith was playing black Customs almost exclusively at this time, including one that his girlfriend Anita Pallenberg painted a colorful psychedelic dragon on. The SG design that initially replaced it was very popular and has stayed in production to this day, but the Les Paul became THE rock guitar of the era, thanks in no small part to Keith.

1968 also saw Jeff Beck using a '58 'Burst for his seminal and incredible solo debut Truth, and it was the same year that Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top acquired the infamous Miss Pearly Gates, a '59 model which he was recently offered five million dollars for by a Japanese collector.

As the newest Bluesbreaker, Mick Taylor knew he'd need the right instrument to fit the sound and style Mayall had become known for, and the Keefburst did the trick, recording the great albums Crusade and Blues for Laurel Canyon with the instrument. Circumstances came full circle when Taylor was asked by Mick Jagger to join some recording sessions with the Stones in June of 1969, and then in July, two days after the tragic death of Brian Jones, Taylor made his live debut with the band at London's Hyde Park in front of approximately 250,000 people in what became a tribute to the fallen founding member of the group.

Mick Taylor with the Keefburst (left) at Hyde Park, July '69.
(Also, Keith in the back with a Korina Flying V!)

Mick Taylor played the Keefburst throughout the '69 Stones world tour, even sharing it with Keith for the odd tune now and again. It's featured all over the Sticky Fingers album as well. The guitar then disappeared in '71 under mysterious circumstances; one story claims it was left in a closet at London's Olympic Studios before the Stones fled the country as tax exiles, another says it was stolen at their farewell show at London's Marquee Club, or from the Nellcote villa in France during the recording of Exile On Main St., along with a few other instruments such as Keith's Telecaster. Regardless, the Keefburst would eventually surface in the hands of Cosmo Verrico, guitarist of The Heavy Metal Kids, in the mid-'70s; he claims it was given to him by a "Stones representative" as payback for a guitar of his that was stolen. Cosmo removed the Bigsby and pickup covers (which have since been re-installed), and at some point the Kluson tuners were replaced by Grover machines, possibly by Mick Taylor.

The guitar began changing hands after this, with Cosmo selling it to Bernie Marsden of Whitesnake. who turned it around in a week for $50 profit to collector Mike Jopp, who then held onto it for nearly 20 years (and much greater profit). It was bid up to $340,000 at a Christie's auction in 2004, but did not meet reserve... rumor has it that $600,000 was turned down for it privately around the same time. Most recently, it was purchased by a private collector in Europe in 2006 for a rumored $750,000. Considering the increasing value on the vintage market of such guitars over the past decade, it would easily sell for over a million now.

The Keithburst, in it's aged, faded glory.

So, did Keith Richards unknowingly start the 'Burst craze when he walked into Selmer's Music Shop in 1964? It's fair to say he was the first on the scene with one, and his influence is undeniable. The funny thing is, according to a few first-hand accounts who've seen and played it, that the guitar is rather unremarkable compared to others of it's vintage, likely why it's changed hands so often compared to other instruments of the era, and possibly why Keith wanted to sell it in the first place. It's certainly beautiful looking, but possibly not the most resonant choice of wood, or an off day at the factory for the pickup winder (as opposed to the Greeny 'Burst, which has been described as breathtaking in all regards). It certainly has it's place in rock-and-roll history, though, and that cannot be denied.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Hell Yeah, I'm Building An Amp!! Part 2

Well, the kit arrived, and everything looks great! I decided to use a holiday gift card to upgrade my soldering iron to the industry-standard Weller WES51; cheaper irons are fine for little things like pedals and guitar pickups, but i'm not taking any chances with amplifier connections. I'd prefer any mistakes be limited to my lack of experience and dingus-like tendencies, rather than cheapskate tools.

Step one, make sure everything you need is actually in the package, particularly the small components. I measured each resistor with my Multimeter, checked them off on the parts list, and began dry-mounting them on the eyelet board, followed by the smaller capacitors, and lastly the large electrolytic caps.

In any type of circuit, always note the orientation of the electrolytic capacitors on the schematic and/or wiring diagram, indicated by a + on one end, as they dictate the direction of voltage flow and won't work if wired the wrong way (or maybe explode in your face like a jack-in-the-box if you're really lucky). Also, there are a few components that attach directly to jacks, pots, or switches... be sure to keep them in a safe place for later.

I missed the fine print and didn't realize that this kit does not include any mounting hardware for the chassis... kind of a drag, but nothing a trip to the hardware store can't fix once I'm at that point. Hopefully there's a list somewhere on the internets of nut and bolt sizes for this, and I'll include them in this blog when discovered.

Loaded eyelet board, no solder yet. 

After double- and triple-checking that everything is mounted properly, it's time to heat up the soldering iron, and I was immediately happy that I upgraded. After years of using crap Radio Shack irons, the switch to an industry standard like Weller is HUGE... big league, even. The variable temperature control is incredibly useful, plus it heats up super fast, just a few seconds. Soldering was a breeze with this guy.

No, Weller doesn't pay me to say this, but they should.

Soldered eyelet board

Rear of eyelet board, note connection of electrolytic caps on lower left

Next, I began prepping some of the chassis-mounted components, like the 68k resistor on the input jack, and the 500pF capacitor that connects the volume and tone pots. In order to get the lengths right, you've got to place them in the chassis and line them up with the eyelet board, rather than estimate and potentially waste wire. 

Some chassis-mounted component connections

Shiny chrome faceplate, with one of the input jacks modified into a 3-way boost switch (one of the reasons I chose this kit).

Update 1/12/17: Continued with wiring up some chassis components like the pilot lamp, power switch, and fuse holder, and also prepped the leads from the Power and Output transformers, which mount underneath the chassis. I'm a little nervous that these leads might be too short, but won't know for certain until I mount the tube sockets, which requires a trip to the hardware store (my only gripe about this kit, lacking about $.80 worth of nuts and bolts that would make life a lot easier).

Update 1/15/17: Just about finished wiring! Mounted the tube sockets Friday morning after running to Lowe's for machine screws and nuts, then got to the wiring this afternoon, along with the power and output transformers and all internal connections.

Tube sockets, exterior & interior.

Getting the sockets wired to the board

The entire chassis, with transformers mounted & wired.

Closeups of each end

Using my multimeter, I checked for continuity in all connections, including the grounding scheme; it's fun to hear the little "beep" when you've got a solid connection. All that's left is to wire up the AC cord and flick the power switch, which I'm still deathly afraid to do. Fortunately, I know a great amp tech, Jamie Simpson of BOOYA! Amplifier Services in Lake Hopatcong, NJ, and I'll be taking this project to him for a final inspection before any voltage is applied. I'm sure it'll be a great lesson from a pro, and hopefully I'll pick up a few tips for the future and the final installment of this series. In the meantime, I should probably clean up my workshop...

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Hell Yeah, I'm Building An Amp!! Part 1

Like many guitarists, I've always been intrigued by how things work; from the guitar's electronics cavity, where most get their start, to effects pedals, and further down the cable to the amplifier, it still amazes me sometimes that music can travel thru a wire. While I've done my share of guitar experimenting (as documented in my first blog endeavor "Hell Yeah, I'm Building A Guitar!!!" a few years ago) and also built a few homemade fuzz pedals that turned out well, the last element in the chain always seemed daunting to me; even low-wattage tube amps have high voltages hiding under the hood, and I'd prefer to not burn down the house and/or fry myself, only for my BBQ'd remains to be discovered in bathrobe and slippers with soldering iron in hand.

Don't let this be you! Be safe with electricity.

After taking the necessary safety steps and precautions, which you MUST DO before even thinking about doing this, I began looking into kits... MojoTone, Weber, Mission, Ceriatone, and several other companies offer a variety of amp kits from beginner level to more advanced. A tweed Champ seemed too simple, and while the 5E3 Deluxe circuit is popular for beginners, I already have a similar amp that I love in my Echopark Vibramatic 13, and in no way was my first build coming anywhere close to that beauty. A Marshall-style 18-watt EL84 combo would be a great addition to the arsenal, but looked a little too involved for a first-timer, so I narrowed down my choice to a late 50's Fender Princeton 5F2-A circuit; simple enough to learn the basics without being overwhelming, yet great-sounding and useful, with a basic tone control, single-ended Class A output, and most importantly, filling a void in my amp collection if/when successfully completed.

A 1958 5F2-A Princeton and it's schematic; beauty in simplicity.

The MojoTone kits seemed best for a beginner based on many reviews, and I was all set to order a complete 5F2-A kit with cabinet and speaker last month, but missed their 15% off holiday sale by a day. Since there was no rush and I wouldn't even get to this project until after the holidays, I decided to wait. In the meantime, I received this great book as a gift, which turned out to be incredibly serendipitous timing:

This fantastic book, written by Dave Hunter, not only covers all the basics that a guitarist would ever need to know about amps, but also includes a thoroughly descriptive component-to-component walk-thru of the original 5F2 circuit, AND a chapter on building your own amp from his plans, which just happens to be a modified 5F2 circuit. The complete kit for this project, named the "Two-Stroke", is available from Victoria Amplifiers, a boutique company known for incredible vintage-inspired creations, and includes all premium components, chassis, cabinet, and speaker. How fortuitous!

The Victoria Two-Stroke 1x12" combo

This being my first project, I was reluctant to go all in for a $1000 boutique amp kit, so I went a slightly different route: the Tube Amp Network, a site based on the Two Stroke project, offers a basic kit with great components and chassis but no cab or speaker, and for $400, appealed much more to my sensibilities in the case of utter failure on my part. If I got it up and running with one of my own speaker cabinets, I'd get a cab and speaker for it later, with some fun cosmetic options to choose from. Plus, this kit includes a few different power tube options for experimentation, including a 6L6GC, 6V6GT, and EL34; I'm particularly intrigued by this, as two of Keith Richards' favorite studio amps are a 6V6 tweed Champ and a modified single-6L6 tweed Harvard (essentially a 5F2-A with more clean output in a larger cab), both of which are in this circuit's ballpark, especially with the speaker choices available.

A Two-Stroke kit as I ordered, including all components, chassis, and a variety of power tubes

The original Two-Stroke kit was designed for use with two speakers, an 8" and 10" in the same cab, which I find pretty unique and intriguing. While Dave Hunter now prefers a 12" speaker for his circuit, particularly for best response at full volume with humbuckers, I've already got a room full of 12" combo amps and cabs that I can plug into; the idea of an 8"+10" combination gives me greater options for close mic'ing in the studio, as well as disconnecting one speaker or another for different sounds a la the Keef amps mentioned above (using the 8" alone with 6V6 tube for more of a raw tweed Champ tone, or the 10" with 6L6, etc). Plus, I could use my own speakers of choice, which will likely be WGS or Weber based on past experience with both manufacturers. Weber also makes a unique cabinet for this speaker combination named the "Maggie" (also the name of their own similar kit), and since that's only two letters off from my dog Maddie, well, you can tell how my mind works.

I'll be keeping this blog series as up-to-date as possible while working on this kit, beginning with the turret board component mounting and soldering in our next entry once the kit arrives. This will not be a "How-To" guide by any means (especially since I'll likely screw up a lot), but more of a glimpse into the process, and hopefully a successful inspiration for others.