Hunting " THE " tone
Vintage versus Modern
by Eric Kraft
It's as elusive as big foot or a UFO. The quintessential electric guitar tone is a blend of wood, magnetic pickups, and an amplifier. Does it come from a '57 Strat, a '59 Les Paul, or an Ibanez 540S? Is it created with a tweed '59 Fender Bassman amp or a stack of Marshall JCM 800's? It is the author's opinion that there is no answer! There is only a short term solution. Some marriage of guitar and amp that satisfies one's present needs. It is obvious that "THE" tone is a purely subjective animal. To quote the late Ricky Nelson, " You can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself."
I grew up in Kansas City in the 1960's. There were many excellent blues and jazz players in KC in that time period. Almost without exception every player I respected played a Gibson ES 335 through a Fender Twin, Super, or Deluxe Reverb. I found out many years later that the high output Gibson pickups were overdriving the Fender amps ( designed to be compatible with the much lower output, single coil Fender guitars), thus giving the guitarist the singing sustain these guys were getting. I'm sure they didn't have a clue what the mechanics were, they just knew when they had "THE" tone. If you couldn't afford a good guitar you bought a Gibson SG, a Fender Strat, or if you liked Country, a Fender Jaguar. I didn't know anyone who played Country in Kansas City, that was a side of town I didn't frequent. I have a brief anecdote about a country western bar to relate here.
It was a hot June evening in 1970 or so. My phone rang. It was Don Price with Action Artist Agency. They were my bands booking agency. He said he had a band that was bombing out in a club on Troost Avenue and could my band start there the following week? I said I'd let him know. I knew the clubs in that area were primarily Country and Western. Later that night I pulled in the parking lot of the club. I hoped the sound coming out the door was the jukebox, it was too good to be live. I entered the club to see a violin player, a Hammond B3 player, two guitar players and a drummer. Every member of the group was outstanding on their instruments and the vocals were as good as it gets. The guitar players were playing old Les Pauls with humbuckers and were using horse bridles for straps.
Two drunks sprawling over the bar atop their barstools were gurgling " play Tiny Bubbles." A lady at one of the tables near the dance floor cried out " you guys know'Tie A Yellow Ribbon'?" I listened to three songs absolutely in awe of this band's talent. Before I left I found out they were out of Lawrence Kansas where I attended college at Kansas University. The band was named "Kansas". This was before they hit it big. I remember thinking if a band of this caliber doesn't satisfy this club, no way my band is going to follow. I also realized even the Beatles would have probably bombed in a country western bar in Kansas City .
Kansas was using Les Pauls, but it was still very much that thick, creamy, ES 335 through a Fender natural violin type sustain tone I loved. The Duane Allman-Dickey Betts tone. That was "THE" tone for me. Most of my professional career I played a flame top 1959 Les Paul Standard through various tube amps. I thought I would tantalize vintage buffs by mentioning my Les Paul was purchased by a friend of mine in 1964 at a pawn shop in downtown Kansas City for $150. It was in excellent, all original condition with the original caramel colored case. It can be seen in "Burst:1958-'60 Les Paul Standard" by Jay Scott and Vic Da Pra and is called "The Marin".
This pawn shop had a row of Strats on the wall in every color for up to $100. for the very cleanest. The pawn shop's name was Main St. Pawn and they are still in business today. Their prices have gone up considerably since then! The guitar always gave me a tone I liked, but it was definitely colored by the amp I was using. In recent years I was quite reluctant to take that guitar to local clubs because of it's extremely high vintage value. I started trying out many guitars and amps to find a tone that moved me as a replacement.
I owned at least five different Mesa Boogie amps. I went from there back to Fender Blackface Amps, and from there to Fender Tweeds of the 1950's. I played through Marshall Stacks and combos. I tried a HiWatt an Orange, a Vox AC 50 and many other tube amp variants. I played old Strats, new Strats, Tele's, 335's......Was there no end in sight? Many of these guitars and amps sounded good together, but good wasn't good enough. I longed for some controlled feedback to end that gutty heart wrenching blues song!
Dave Westerbeck, "a well respected man about town" (sorry, I just saw Ray Davies 3 hour show about the Kinks last night at the Marin Civic) and a notable vintage collector / authority told me about his meeting with Steve Cropper. According to Dave, Steve played a 1959-60 Fender Esquire through a tweed Fender Harvard amp on the original recording of "Green Onions" with Booker T. and the MG's. In 1963-64, when finances permitted, he purchased a Telecaster and Twin Reverb amp. Dave said Booker T. wrote "Born Under A Bad Sign" and Albert King used Steve's new Tele to record the song. The reason this came to mind was Dave went to the reunion recording session for Booker T. a couple of years ago, and Steve Cropper was playing a custom made Peavey guitar through a Webb amp. The guitar was made for Steve by Hartley Peavey personally and had " 1200-1500 K pickups " very hot! The amp, normally used for the clean sound of a pedal steel player, cleaned up the overdriven sound of the hot pickups. This gave Steve the fairly clean tone he has used for years. Needless to say Dave was crushed. Dave brought Steve a number of vintage guitars and amps to use on the session, but Cropper stuck with his new rig. This is certainly a notable case of new over vintage.
My search continues, a search instigated in the 1960's I might add. There was a local band when I went to Kansas University called 'Pig Newton and the Wizards'. The Jimi Hendrix " Are You Experienced " album had just hit, and my friends were lined up to buy the Beatles " White " album. I heard Pig Newton had a great guitar player so I went to hear them play. The guitarist was playing through an old reel to reel tape deck ( with no tape ) to overdrive his signal preamping it into a huge Sunn amp. He was playing a Gibson SG and he sounded monster. I know there is a famous guitarist who does the same thing to this very day, but I can't remember who. That was another player's idea to find " THE" tone.
I'm back in the 1990's, its Saturday night and my band doesn't have a job. A friend of mine invited me to sit in with his band so I grabbed my rig and off I went. I am now playing a custom made Tele Thinline variation that I designed built for me by Michael Dolan, a talented local luthier of some twenty years. It has a Seymour Duncan "Custom Custom and an Alnico V " pickup in the neck and bridge with a Hot rail in the center position. These pickups ( the Custom Custom and Alnico V ) were one of the closes matches to the old PAF Gibson pickups I could find. The guitar has coil taps and other variations to try to sound like a Strat and a Tele and a Les Paul. It of course sounds like non of the preceding, but it sounds good and plays super.
My amp for club jams was a 1965 Vibrolux Reverb. It's a 35 watt, 2x10 amp, kind of half of a Super Reverb. It has Jensen speakers, isn't very loud, but it has wonderful tone. I sat in a few songs and then decide to check out some other bands with a focus on guitar tone. The guitar player in the band I had just sat in with was playing a 70's Strat through a four foot high rack of digital effects. I gave his tone a 7.5. He had spent a lot of money for a digital mountain of over processed tone.
I hear two more bands with guitar tone not worth mentioning, and then I drive to Cotati, Ca. to a little club where my band performs frequently. I pull in the parking lot, put down my windows, and hear a guitar solo with dynamite tone. I'm leaving out the talent of the guitarist as I write about tone, and, of course, a great guitarist can make beautiful sounds with mediocre tone. This guitarist was excellent, and so was his tone. I couldn't wait to discover his answer to the tone question. Was it vintage guitars and vintage amp or modern guitar and amp, or a combination? I couldn't believe it! What the hell! The guitar was a Casio PG 380 synth guitar plugged into a compressor and from there into a Marshall solid state mini-stack (2x12). The next song they played his guitar did quite a creditable job of sounding like a Hammond B3 organ. What was going on. I found out the guitar was made for Casio by Ibaneze and originally sold for @ $2000. It had on board synth sounds and a built in tuner. I found and purchased two of these guitars after hearing this guy play. I haven't done much with them, but they play great and offer some interesting synth sounds. This guitar doesn't require a rack or pedal board like its Roland counter part, and is a stand alone synth guitar that looks like a Strat. They can be found for around $700-$1000. in good condition.
All my preconceived notions have been blown to smithereens by this time. No guitar players worth their salt played through solid state amps unless they were Country or Jazz. Tubes were the way to go as they distorted in a smooth U shaped harmonic curve as opposed to the sharp edged overdrive of transistors. If you wanted a clean sound, like Country or Jazz, then solid state was OK. Then I found out Duke Robillard played an old Epiphone jazz style big body guitar through an old solid state Peavey PA head. Now Duke is a jazz player, but he is also a monster blues player. As the story goes, he blew up his amp at a gig one night and had to play through the PA. He liked the tone so much he has played through this old Peavey PA head ever since. Then there was the Casio PG 380 story I mentioned above. Fabulous tone. So what's the answer? I told you when I started this article there wasn't one, but take heart. There are many! You just have to find yours.
Finally I'm here in the present. I have been playing through a tweed 1959 Fender Super with 2x10 Jensen speakers powered by 2 6L6's ( specifically Tung-Sol new old stock 5881's ). John Cola of Huey Lewis and the News told me they used this model amp for recording most of the harmonica and guitar solos on the " Sports " album. Their amp may have been the 6V6 version of the tweed Super, I don't know. Now here is the turn-around. After carefully comparing sounds on stage and in the studio I have switched to a Matchless Chieftain. This is a straight forward, three spring reverb amp. It is a 35 watt class A amp, hand built, very simple controls, two EL 34's and 2x10 vintage celestions. This is quite a departure for me. After trying 4 different brands of tubes I put in a set of old Mullards. I love this amp, though it is as heavy as a Twin Reverb. Then, to get even more weird, I have liked the innovations of the Parker Fly guitar. I bought a black one without a whammy bar, traded it in on a black one with a whammy bar, and finally ended up with a gold one with a whammy bar. These were all the Parker Fly Deluxe.
The one thing I really didn't like about the Fly was the pickup configuration. This guitar has many sounds as it has two Duncan humbuckers and a set of Piezzos in the bridge. One can get a decent acoustic sound, a solid electric sound, and many sounds in between, including a kind of ES 175 tone. The problem was, in the pure humbucker mode, the center toggle position was just the outer coils of the two pickups, a totally useless, thin watery sound. When I called Korg, the distributor, I happened to get the person responsible for this design. When I asked why this was done I was told to "get a unique sound." I agree it is unique and totally useless. Others may disagree, but I had my Fly rewired to a normal Les Paul type setup, i.e. both full humbuckers in the middle position.
A friend had invited me to a Monday night blues jam he hosted at a club called 'The Old Vic' in Santa Rosa, Ca. This turned out to be a great opportunity for trying out guitars and amps. I found out how much I loved my Matchless in short order. Every guitar I played through it sounded great. The third week I played at the jam I went really outside. I brought my Parker Fly to try out. I use several analog pedals for overdrive, edge, chorus and delay and a vintage wah wah pedal. I'd go into detail on these, but that's another article. The Parker was a match made in heaven with the Matchless. I was getting great overtones, super sustain, a chunky rhythm sound, a clean lyrical chorus. It just did it all, plus it gave me two full octaves and weighed less than 4 pounds. Wow. It was a million miles from a '59 Les Paul through a Super Reverb to this. A month later I played outside on the Santa Rosa Plaza and a noted bass player, Paul Lamb-aka 'LAMBO', told me I was getting some of the best guitar tone he had ever heard. This was a huge compliment as Paul was a co-designer of a boutique line of amps that are quite popular in our area.
I have been very happy with this last rig but...I just bought a 1967 Gibson ES355 mono and a blonde 1960 Fender Tremolux top and bottom through my good buddy, Charley Cowles, at Tall Toad Music in Petaluma. The bottom has been modified and houses two Jensen C12N's . I also got an old Fender Pro head, out of a tweed series Fender amp, in a custom built cabinet. I played the Fly through the Tremolux, it sounded fabulous. I played the ES355 through the Tremolux and it sounded thicker, more natural, just totally awesome. I tried the ES355 through the Pro head and Tremolux bottom. It was tone to die for! No reverb, but I stayed in the studio playing that ES355 for an hour and a half. It sounded so good I just couldn't stop. There are many answers to finding " THE " tone. When you're sure you've found what you want, something like this happens to make you think, maybe there is something better... If you have a solution to finding "THE" tone contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know what you've discovered.
Eric Kraft is a singer, songwriter, guitarist from Kansas City. He has played with Sly and the Family Stone and currently writes for several music publications. He can be contacted through The Music Market @ 707-577-0527 or via e-mail, email@example.com
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