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Blue Collar #7: Amps - Crank It Or Go Sit In The Corner!
By Mick Polich - 08/25/2007 - 11:58 AM EDT

Amps : Grab A Slab And Crank Yo’ Groove!

(Apologies to the Most Reverend Billy F. Gibbons For The Wordplay Swipe)

Long, long ago (April, to be exact), I outlined with our website’s lovely, esteemed, and illustrious leader, Jodi, the sketch foundation of subject ideas I had for my column. Anything and everything, I exclaimed – big wall o’ gumbo, baby! Well, in reviewing and musing over what I’ve written, what I thought about writing, and what I think I should be writing at this point, I’ve decided that it’s time for the left hand turn, and enough (at least for this installment) of waxing nostalgically forth -  dammit, we gots to git technical, and we gots to do it NOW!! ( Gots, git – I love to screw my Word spellcheck thing….)

I became an electronic music instrument/ amplifier tech purely by accident. My old man would say it was planned destiny, since I used to take apart every cassette player and radio he bought for me when I was younger, but I say I took the detour because I couldn’t decide between art or music for college. Plus, the ad for United Electronics looked very appealing, “Become a RECORDING ENGINEER!!!!” Yep, lemme see how that stuff is put together, Pops – sign my life away on student loans !!! Student orientation at U.E.I., 1979, well, uh, hem, Mr. Polich, we don’t EXACTLY have on-site recording facilities, BUT electronics is the basis for sound-on-sound recording! O.k., I’ll do it anyway ! A trip up to Ankeny State Bank with the old man to get the necessary jing ( which I promptly spend part of it on a new amp rig ), and we’re set : a year later, I get a diploma, in spite of my math phobia, in Digital Electronics – golly gee, Sgt. Carter, can I get a gig at the studio NOW ?

Nope, son, you’re going in green to fumble your way as an in – house repair tech at Music Connection in Urbandale, Iowa, which might as well been another state at the time. A year later, a firing later, I start Polich Electronics in the basement of my folk’s house in Ankeny, Iowa, ending up with a couple of accounts ‘round town, one of which, Rieman Music, turns out to be my longest tenured gig ever – 13 years ( thanks, Paul, thanks, Frank, thanks, Pam, thanks, Dorothy!!). Then, I meet my future bride, we move, and I keep Polich Electronics going thru two states and 12 more years. But now, a new state, a new path, a new day dawns – fly the flag majestically in front of a silhouette of the gleaming, morning sun, raise your beer cans high, and salute all the b.s. I just PROCLAIMED !!! Yikes –such tangents I go off on (snore), HEY! Wake up, people –there’s mo’ !!

Now, there are folks that are a lot more adept at the guitar/ amp technical end than I – I was always amazed when somebody rattled off the turns ratio for a particular type of output transformer needed as a sub for a 1964 Fender Deluxe Reverb amp, then proceed to install the part, and fix the darn thing (this was back before commercial amp part venues, other than the manufacturer, were birthed to get parts from, so thusly, you had to figure out how to sub stuff….). If I had the correct part, with a wiring diagram, then I was cool with the whole process. But, I did learn a lot, and continue to do so. I’m no longer working commercial accounts or contracts for warranty work, but God has blessed me so far in the big ol’ state o’ Texas with some cool old tube type amps to whip into shape and make some greenbacks on for the cause. Basically, what any Average Jane or Joe wants to know about a guitar or bass amp is, “What can I get to make me sound COOL?” ( using dated terms, here, Generation X,Y, and Z ‘sters – hang tight wif me !!!). So, given that factor, what’s a mother AGIN to do?  We’ll explore, in brief, the benefits and drawbacks between solid-state, digital, and tube amps, the whyzas and the howzas. And, you know, if it takes more than a column, well, poop, so be it, because WE’RE CARTOON CHARACTERS AND WE’RE MAKING THIS UP AS WE GO ALONG!!!!! (Can’t remember which cartoon I heard that from, but it’s a great ‘enpowerment line’, don’t you think?

I’m a tube amp guy – have owned solid-state amps, worked on ‘em, some I really like, others are bogus. I guess part of the allure and aura of the whole tube mystique is akin to the ’57 Chevy Syndrome – part boomer nostalgia, the ‘calming’effect of simplicity on a tech-fed society, yadda, blah, blah. Well, the big reason is I like tube amps is because of the SOUND!! And, I will go on record to state that there will no way in bloody blue blazes that any amp company will make a solid state or digital amp sound like EXACTLY a tube amp. O.k., before the eye-rolling and ‘old codger’ comments arise, let me state some facts: the components and function of said stuff are COMPLETELY DIFFERENT !!! I mean, a glow stick gives off light like a light bulb, but do they work the same way to get the results? NO!!!! Thus, solid state, digital, and tube components work differently to amplify. What’s best? Depends on if you like peas, carrots, or corn, my friend – all veggies, all taste DIFFERENT.

I’m pretty safe in a prediction that one day, there will be a generation that will not know what a RE-ISSUE  Marshall 1959 amp or a RE-ISSUE Fender Bassman sounds like (that generation is slowly creeping in that doesn’t know what the ‘real deal’ sounds like….), but the feel, technology, and attitude from those amps will carry on in some fashion throughout the music equipment industry. I mean, rock and roll, jazz, country, and blues have a sound base that was built on the backs of such stalwarts as Fender, Ampeg, Mesa-Boogie, Marshall, and a host of others, so as long as the music carries on, the blueprints for the SOUNDS will carry on.

Back in Atlanta, Steve Pateuk and Troy Kinnamon - my buds, guitar hounds, and Bridge Brothers members in E. Pluribus Groove standing, both purchased Line 6 amps to use for our band neighborhood gigs. Now, this makes sense –you’re doing a shitload o’ different songs thru three or four decades of Top Forty material; you wanna hone in on a cool sound just like the CD or download for your guitar tone – it makes sense. Built effects such as wah wah, chorus, delay , reverb, flange – all programmable. You can’t have a wall o’ sound of twenty different name brand amps ( if so, be prepared to move out to a shed with your gear after the geek storm that happens with your spouse and your bank account…..), so get the digital amp. Back in the day, some of the bands I was playing in four to five nights per week, yeah, this would have worked fine. Now, ask me if I believe the ad blitz that tubes are an antiquated technology that is no longer useful for today’s music market (hey, Johnson Amps-where are you cats NOW???). Why are so many still putting these suckers out in production, as well as hybrid solid state/digital/tube technology? The sound that is reproduced is still wanted and valid. Is Zakk Wylde still gonna sound like his’self thru a solid state amp rather than a Marshall 100 watt? Hell no – Zakk wouldn’t have it, ya wussy (and neither would Ozzy!). O.k., I take PART of that back – tone begins at your fingertips, BUT you need your gear, bro’ and sis!!!

My ONE beef with digital modeling is that you’re getting very good ‘carbon copies’ of the real thing in a compact program. Again, it makes sense for gigging. But, don’t tell me it sounds EXACTLY like a Deluxe Reverb, Ampeg SVT, or Marshall Plexi, because they can’t –they come damn close, but the technology and the amplification means are so diverse, it doesn’t work. Digital modeling and solid state amps will be cheaper than tubes, for sure, but I have heard, worked on, and modded tube gear since 1979, the old stuff, the re-issues, and the new breed, and tube gear has a definite sound. So, before all you tekkies and retro geeks rake me over the journalistic coals, please re-read my words – I think I’m pretty fair. But, designers will work diligently to get closer and closer to replicating the old stuff – I still applaud that effort because it’s just progress and growth, and hey, old farts, it’s gonna happen ANYWAY! So, just be glad a lot of companies like Fender and Marshall still have respect for their history –building ‘retro’ models while, at the same time, jumping on the Good Ship Amp Modeling to compete with the Muzik World…….

Transistor, F.E.T., and op-amp based amps seem the most inexpensive to build, and the technology is light years ahead of even a decade ago for great sound. The Era Of The Throwaway Amp has been here for a few years : build offshore so inexpensive that the warranty plan will REPLACE the amp rather than repair it ( I ended up with a few amps in my shop because it would have cost more to even ship the durn thang back to the company so they could scrap-heap it! “Drop it off a building, I don’t care!” extorted one service department rep to me for a defective amp via the Warranty Plan. Cool – glad I had that option to diffuse a fit of rage when needed!!!! I like to borrow a phrase from my friend and music mentor, Mr. Pat Rouse. Pat was a local hero from Des Moines - employer via his highly successful local band, Colt .45, fellow music store employee, and tall corn philosopher when it came to the Music Biz – Pat would describe certain products for sale at any of the stores he worked at as “a dollar per watt” or “watts per dollar” (not surprisingly, we sold a lot of Peavey gear at one store, which still provides the “watts per dollar” dictum….). This home-spun, corn – fed axiom seems more prevalent today than ever in music retail. Manufacturing in India, Thailand, and Korea is still the norm, with China on a tear as the ‘go-to’ nation (sorry America, but I’ve got a great little 30 watt, Class A amp and a beautiful pre-war designed acoustic guitar from the Country Of The Great Wall And Bad Karaoke, and that this point, China seems bent on a quality tear – it looks and sounds good, plus I can AFFORD it….). 

The main thrust here in choosing amps is which technology works best for you. Don’t buy into game plan given to peer pressure. Trust the old line from Groucho Marx regarding “ being suspicious about any club having me as a member “!  Don’t take my line, or any tube enthusiasts’ line about the ‘superior’ tone of tubes, or, for that matter, why digital modeling leaves tubes in the dust. Sometimes, it’s a quest –be prepared to spend time and money. Ask questions, cull reports, data, interview, and read, read, read! Read the history of music amplifiers –it’s fascinating with quirky characters and one – shot products that made their marks, then faded off like old war horses in Technicolor-green hills and pastures.

Plus, money – yep, always a factor. One thing don’t matter: buying that Marshall half-stack with the EVH Frankenstrat at the price of a fairly good car WON’T make you sound like Eddie Van Halen. One Eddie, one sound. Oh, you’ll come close if you have talent, time, and grit, but again, One Eddie, One Sound. BUT, you at least have to TRY to get the gear if it’s a possible shot, right? At this point, I’m the old dude wishing he hadn’t farted away that non master volume Marshall JMP 50 watt amplifier when he was 19 years old…..

This is a subject that could be construed for many pages, but this is the beauty of this column – we touch on it, move on, then come back to it at some point. My advice is to look to your heroes, see what they used or use, then plan your price point from there. Find out what works LOGICALLY for you. Recently, I set up a beautiful EVH “Van Halen 2” Charvel electric guitar for one of my students. In hindsight, I’m thinking this is the guitar I SHOULD have had 20 years ago, then kept it in the collection even after I stopped the 5 night per week gigage, but I was happy for my student –it is a fun axe to play, and sounds cool as poop, palie!! It was an E-bay purchase at $1,900 – hey, smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em, right? This axe will work out well and provide hours of enjoyment.

Amps – the critical link in the Rock And Roll Equipment Universe. So, to borrow some  word vibeage from Billy F. of that Little Old Band From Texas – grab a slab, plug in, and play me some GREASE!!!

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