Electric Guitars: Steer Away from the Obvious

Some years back I responded to a newspaper ad that read “lap steel and matching amplifier”. I ventured to the seller’s two bedroom apartment. In a back bedroom stocked with vintage instruments, sat a Magnatone blue/grey “mother of toilet seat” amp and lap steel. Beside the lap steel was a dust covered, beige and brown amplifier unlike any I’d ever seen. It turned out to be a 1949 Fender Champion 600, the predecessor to the famous Fender Champ amp. After a little discussion he agreed to sell me the Champion as well as the Magnatone. Curious, I asked the seller why he was parting with these old gems. He responded that he wanted to buy instead a “harmonica amp”.

This was one of those magic moments about which musicians dream. As it turns out, harmonica is one of my specialties and, in fact, I use it to check out amps on the fly. Immediately, I put down cash for the lap steel and amplifiers. Then I pulled out a harmonica and a small mic and gave my new gear a run through. The vendor was stunned by what he heard from his amps. Perhaps he realized that he had sold two perfectly fine harmonica amps in order to finance a cube solid state amp, which I’m certain wouldn’t have sounded half as good! And here’s the real kicker: I paid fifty dollars for the lot, lap steel and both amps.

My point in relating this incident is that there is a treasure trove of old instruments, amps, mics and studio gear hiding in closets, attics, and garages—more than eBay could handle! I am perpetually on the lookout for these finds. In fact, if you are disposing of any of the aforementioned, contact me through my Web site.

Remember that not all old gear is good. Let your ears be the judge. Remember also that your local music retailer may be able to put you in touch with amazing “custom shop” and boutique amps that are extremely well-made and good-sounding. But I want to emphasize that if you keep your eyes and ears open, you can find the original models on which some of these new custom amps were based. And if you find such an amp for fifty bucks, you’ll save enough to buy strings for life, this one and the next one.

I’ve purchased a fair number of fifties vintage, Fender tweed amps through the years. Invariably they are the right amp for the job, especially in the studio. Each amp has different character when played with different guitars at different volumes and when combined with various front end gear. For example, many years back Lexicon put out one of their first digital delays called the PCM 41. Guitarists discovered that it was a beautiful, warm signal boosting device for electric guitar in instances when crunch, sustain or fat distortion was required. When plugged into one of the old tweed amps it acted as a preamp, introducing warm distortion without robbing the valve amp of its sweetness. Thick, syrupy sustain and harmonic distortion were present without the harsh, brittle distortion introduced by some pedals. You might want to scour around for one of these.

If I need a clean, fat sound, one of my funky retro amps will furnish the correct presence and body. If not, I’ll run the amplifier section from, say, one of the old Tweeds through the speaker section of, say, a modern Fender Deluxe. I have a variety of speaker cabs and can “mix and match” the old with the old or the old with the new, further opening up options for the overall sound of the instrument.

Griffin’s Miking Perversities: A First Glimpse

I’ve noticed that a lot of engineers use Shure SM57s on electric guitar amps as a matter of course. Though these mics do an admirable job, I usually prefer to use a combination of two different types of mics. I often use a large diaphragm condenser mic close—say, six inches to a foot off axis to the speaker cone. I’ll then place a small diaphragm, omni condenser mic up eight feet off the floor and up to fifteen feet from the amplifier, pointing 45 degrees away from the front of the amp, to catch reflections from the surrounding walls. One would think that the small, distant mic would sound hollow and thin and capture too many reflections to be useful, but, invariably, it winds up being the predominant mic in the mix because of the thick and present mid range and those distinguishing reflections.

NB: When using multiple mics be mindful of their phase relationship. Simply switch the phase on either of them to check. The correct result is usually obvious. For example, if one of the mics is out of phase, the low end may disappear. Again, let your ears be the judge.

If I’m searching for a very specific tone and I need options, I’ll throw a DI on the guitar and run through a line/preamp and then EQ into the guitar amp. However, one should exercise extreme caution when doing this type of pre-amping because you can easily blow your amp if you juice the line/preamp too much.

The other reason for using a DI is to obtain a “print” of the guitar in exclusion—no amplifiers or effects involved—and route this to a separate track. This enables me to send the guitar signal to any amp/speaker combination after the session is ended and the guitarist has gone home. I only do this if I suspect that the guitarist has left me with a tone that will be unsuitable for the particular song. With this DI configuration, I can re-mike the new amp set up and print that on another track as well.

When trying out new techniques we can bravely go where no human has gone before. Experiment. Even the slightest movement of a mic can result in a world of different sounds. Often, we develop habits, when miking, and tend to repeat the same old moves and, in the process, can miss out on a magic setup.

More on miking guitars, electric and acoustic, is coming your way next issue.

Gerry Griffin is an independent songwriter, singer, harmonica player of note, and, yes, a guitar player. He owns a studio and will produce your album. Visit his Web site: www.gerrygriffinmusic.com

Comments are closed