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Stringed Guitars

Created by a passionate guitarist, containing a bit of gear reviews and news

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Taming a big boy’s Marshall Amp

Marshall 8080
Marshall vs100
Marshall JCM 900 combo
Marshall JCM 900 head 5881 tube version
Marshall JCM 900 EL34 version
Marshall JTM 30
Marshall JCM 2000 TSL601
Marshall Class 5
Marshall 8040
Marshall VS102R
Marshall JMP 2200
Marshall JCM 800
Marshall ministack
Marshall 1987x
Marshall 5005 (lead 12 no reverb)
Marshall 5005 (bass)
Marshall JTM45
Marshall DSL15H
Marshall 2201

Those are all the Marshall amps (heads and combos) I’ve owned over the past 20 years, I’ve sold some of them and I must have around 8 or 9 at my home studio now, I’m only listing them so you have an idea of what my Amp Journey has been.

Once you enter the tube/valve world you don’t look back (sometimes you do :p) but this tube/valve world is complex, confusing, expensive, loud and heavy!!

Let’s talk about the Loud characteristic most of these amps posses, you can buy a 5 watt tube amp and it’ll still blow your pants off, there’s a number of reasons this happens, the speaker efficiency also plays a huge part of this, but let’s stick to the amp.

The guitar signal moves through the inside of the amp getting powered up and ready to come out of the speaker ready for you to enjoy, on this journey the signal acquires distortion, volume and EQ, now… valve amps have a “power section” which is where the famous power tubes come into play, this is where things get out of control on tube amps (mostly vintage jmp styles with no master volume) because this stage not only gets you the volume but it also gives you more distortion and a specific tone that you might be after.

Some Marshalls will have a Master Volume, and this controls the amount of voltage that gets routed to the power tubes, it also allows you to play with distortion at “bedroom levels”, but the most exciting Marshalls to play (plexi style) often don’t have a master volume…. what does this mean? Well… it means that you don’t have a gain control, so all the distortion comes from the volume, which means… you need a ridiculous amount of volume to get the distortion we all look for, this is THE distortion.. Page, Hendrix, AC/DC, etc. This is what we all want to hear from a Marshall.

So… why am I writing this? Because I’ve found ways to obtain this sound without going deaf, and believe me when I say…. these amps are loud! I wasn’t around in the 70s so I’m not sure how loud these bands would play in pubs, but it would’ve been deafening loud.

What you need is an attenuator, to attenuate the signal that the amp spits out before it hits the speakers, now… this is critical to remember. The Master Volume controls the voltage to the Power Tubes but the attenuator, lets the amplifier be and it attenuates the audio signal that goes to the speaker after it leaves the amp, so the amp tone is genuine… everything you want it to be. And why do we want this? Because power tubes are a component of the sound too so we need to let them be a part of the tone. The attenuator is a genius invention and gives us the ability to run these genuine marshall tones at bedroom levels

There are a lot of attenuator brands out there but I’m going to talk about the one I have but also give some pointers of what to look out for.

  • Don’t buy an L-pad attenuator. These can be found for like 30 bucks on ebay, they do work but they also catch fire quite easily if you overload them. Trust me.. I built one and once I tried to use it with a 100W amp and smoke started coming out even though it was for 100W. If you do use an L-pad attenuator get at least double the rating of the amp
  • Don’t buy attenuators that only work with one speaker load combination, THD hotplates, Palmer and some others offer attenuators at decent prices (£250) but they are designed for 4, 8 or 16 ohms, so you’ll need a new piece of equipment if you ever change your speaker combination.

I bought the Two Notes Reload, why? Because I found it at a good price and it has an ohm load selector along with other things, it’s a great piece of gear, it also has cab simulation and some other fancy stuff that I’ll never use.

Guitar volume pots are important!

This next experience is related to a few gibson SGs and humbucker pickups.

Do you know what’s inside your guitar? It’s safe to say that we all know more than before… you can find anything on the internet about your guitar specs and whether they are good components or not.

Pots are often ignored, we look at wood, pickups, tuners and of course guitar brand, however pots are critical, think about them as the wheels of a car, you can have the best and biggest engine ever… but if your wheels are worn out or cheap quality then your car will just spin out of control.

CTS. I’m sure you’ve all heard of this brand, it’s probably on 90% of guitars out there, and they are the best of the best, however… they can be even better… there’s a company called RS Guitarworks that worked with CTS to develop a more authentic vintage taper and a more realistic value of the pots, humbuckers almost always are installed with 500k pots, however… they are not always 500k, they can be 450, 510, 460, etc. And even though the number is not really important… there’s a reason why they need to be 500k, and this is how the pickup was designed to work, with a 500k pot, because that’s just how it sounds like the developer wanted.

I was tired of having different tapers on the guitars I use live, the taper defines how steep the volume increase/decrease is when you turn the pot. This can be ok for your home guitars because they can all have a different character and you might actually like this, but for live performances you want to be able to switch guitars and at least for me… hoping for a similar performance when using the volume, I manage how much distortion the guitar gets by using the volume on it.

So I bought 4 RS Guitarworks superpots for my main SGs, after 2 hours of dealing with my not great soldering skills I was able to test the first guitar, I was blown away and I don’t say this lightly, I don’t often go around changing things in my guitars. The guitar sound just became more clear and more alive, the old pot probably with a below than 500k reading was holding the pickup down.

The volume taper was amazing, the sound of the pickup was amazing instantly, I was now able to get a crunchier sound by setting the volume to around 5 and then getting an angrier sound when I turned it up to 10.

By the way… I’m not associated with them in any way.

I play in an AC/DC tribute band called Meanstreak, and being able to use the volume on the guitar to control distortion is key and absolutely necessary, to cut a long story short… I can’t recommend them highly enough, they are a bit more expensive than regular CTS but they are totally worth it! Give your guitar a treat and get one of these to try out.

Playing with tone

Don’t be a knob snob, that is my advice and second advice is… follow suggestions to prove them wrong or right.

I don’t have much patience when it comes to trying things out, usually I just try to plug in and play, I have little time to play during the week and I sort of think that I waste time when I find myself fiddling with gear for hours.

However I’ve decided to start locking some time in and try to record a few things (I also don’t like recording) just to see if I could come at peace with this tedious and boring task. To my surprise… I still found it tedious and boring… but… it helped me re-discover my amp controls and equalization, I know this sounds obvious and most of the amps have had those 3 basic eq controls since the beginning of time, but I’m sure that most of you keep everything in the middle… (noon).

We all know what they do… but we often play with treble or bass controls and leave the mids in the middle right? I learnt what the mids does when I started playing heavy metal… I had one of those valvestate marshalls that had the “contour” control which scoops the mids, scooping the mids means taking out mids, remember that U shaped eq on your dad’s hi-fi system? Well it’s the same thing.

What does this does to my tone? Well… it adds “tightness” it changes the way distortion sounds, it’s an awesome thing to play with, suddenly everything sort of sounds better, the problem is that if you scoop them too much your sound will not cut through the mix, but a little bit of it can get you to that sweet spot you’ve been waiting for.

Even though I knew about mids (of course… I’m not a rookie… right? :p) when I finished my recording tests I found that the guitar was too much in my face… like a gritty sound, I tried mic placement (another art) which it changed the sound but I still wasn’t happy, so I went to the Eq section and started moving things around until I remembered that U shape!!, so now even though I mainly play AC/DC I still scoop the mids a bit… if listen to “Shoot to Thrill” you’ll see that mids are heavily scooped.

Long story short…. spend time playing with the knobs, try recording and playing with the eq on the computer/ipad, you’ll be surprised how closer you’ll get to the sound you are after and then you can try yo mimic those settings in your amp. Remember that all the records or live concerts you hear have a myriad of experts sorting out every detail of the sound until it’s perfect. Remember that old story “guitar straight to amp”? Well… it is true… but remember there’s a team between the amp and the sound you finally hear.

Recording guitars at home

I’ve read so many forums about recording at home… there is loads of info out there.. but as always… I can’t find someone normal with a normal budget who is not a purist and is just trying to get some decent tone out of his gear.

I’ve decided to just buy a few mics and an cheap interface to get me started.

Interface: Alesis IO2

Mics: SM57, SM58 and SEX1R Ribbon.

The interface was recommended by my guitar teacher who said “I’ve used this for years and has never failed me” and he records a lot… so I just bought it without hesitation.

The microphones… well.. the SM57 is just a must have according to everyone out there… the SM58 is more for vocals and I just wanted one, but the unusual one here is the Ribbon mic. Don’t know about you but when I recorded in the past I always found the guitar to be too dry… too much “in your face” creating an unnatural Tone… I believe that sound should have enough space to develop itself before it reaches a “reverb” ish state.

The Ribbon mic does this.. it picks up signal in an 8 shape giving you loads of space for the sound to develop, and the SM57 gives you that “in your face” sharp guitar tone, the combination of those two gives you an awesome result, a very natural tone without any effort, I downloaded Audacity which is a free recording environment without too many tricks but it gets the job done and did I mention… it’s free!

The interface is as simple as it gets and it’s very sturdy, I also use it to listen to music from my computer, it’s got 2 inputs and a separate gain control for both, it’s got phantom power, stereo/mono and master volume, very simple.

“Recording” is a very “scary”/”tedious” process… every time we see that red light suddenly our fingers get nervous and they don’t want to play as they always do… very frustrating, however.. having the interface at home means you can get used to this feeling.. of being recorded.. you can also do as many takes as you want or just leave it recording for hours without spending money on a studio. the other very useful aspect of Audacity + Audio Interface is that you can play along recordings/songs with great quality through your headphones… getting the true tone of your microphones wherever you are sat in your room, it also allows you to experiment with mic placement.

Conclusion… buy stuff and try… there is just too much information out there and too many good salesmen trying to get you to buy the expensive stuff.. talk to normal people.. approach your teacher or someone at the rehearsal place and ask them what they use, you’ll be surprised by the results!

I love what I achieved with all the little gadgets.. I bought everything 2nd hand except for the ribbon mic.. spending  a total of USD $370 (interface + microphones + cables) which is very cheap compared to what a lot of people spend on this first approach.

Instant Angus

This is the reputation the SD Storm earned, a pedal that you plug in and Angus Young sound comes out of the speakers… so, is it true?

Yes!, definitely the pedal gives you that extra bite that Angus achieves with his tone, this is not a distortion pedal, in my opinion it’s a combination of an aggressive booster and a compressor, allowing you to have sustain and overdrive without loosing clarity on your tone.

The pedal is simple… 3 knobs, Power, Storm and Snap, which I think they mean Input, Output and Compression, I could be wrong though but to my ear this seems to be the effect they cause on the tone.

The achieved tone from the pedal is very affected by the Amp setup (duh) but really… you can’t just set your amp to clean and plug and play like a distortion pedal, because it’s not a distortion pedal… so it needs the right level of gain and volume from the amp.

IMG_2555 (2)

I tested it using my 71 Gibson SG and the Eric Clapton Stratocaster. I’ll comment on both separately:

Gibson SG: I used the OD1 channel with very little distortion (3) and on volume on 7 on the Marshall TSL, with the overall master on 1 (Yes, I got neighbours), the pedal configuration was: Power:10, Storm:7,Snap:5. I loved the tone that came out of the speaker but I was missing something… and it was volume… as we all know, great guitar tone is achieved by volume so I switched to my Blackstar HT1R using the emulated output straight to my headphones, used the clean channel with gain on 6 and master on 9, and it just blew my mind, everything was there the clarity of Angus’ tone but also the heavy “distortion” he has, Angus has a very distinctive E Chord sound.. it just sounds so bassy but clear… and you get just this with the Storm, using the guitar volume on 6  and 10 for the solos.

IMG_2541 (2)

EC Stratocaster: Marshall TSL on the clean channel, with gain on 5 and master on 1.5,the pedal: Power:10, Storm:7 and Snap on 5. SRV instantly came hrough my amp, using the neck pickup I fell in love all over again with my Strat, (tuned half step down), that classic glassy sound you get on the Strat but slightly overloaded it’s a very addictive tone, and again the clarity remained there, every note and string sounded as clear as it would be coming out of the clean channel.

Overall I liked the pedal very much, it’s very hard to describe the sound, sometimes I think it is similar to what you can achieve with a distortion pedal, but it’s also far away from it, because the clarity that your tone has with the Storm can’t be achieved with a normal distortion pedal. If you are after a classic rock sound THIS is the only thing you need to add to your rig.

The price tag on this baby is $335 US dollars, it’s not cheap but you have to think that this pedal is hand built by one guy… not an assembly line in a massive factory, so this impacts directly on the cost of the product.

The presentation was very good, I got a T-shirt and a big picture of Fil and Angus, signed by Fil, there are no instructions manual, which of course are not needed, however I feel that this should’ve included some sort of ideal set up to achieve Angus’ tone, Fil has worked extremely hard to achieve this and I’m sure he has a few tips that we would all love to hear.

Head to www.solodallas.com to get the pedal.

MXR Dyna Comp

Review of a classic… this pedal has been around for ages, more precisely it was released in the 70s and according to Wikipedia it instantly became a “Nashville Standard” I’ve only had this pedal for 6 months or so, so it’s not a classic for me but as soon as I plugged it in something snapped.

I first tried it with my Eric Clapton Stratocaster, as we all know compressors are sort of associated with chicken picking… and so are guitars with single coil pickups, the sound instantly becomes “studio” like, that was the first thought that came into me… everything just sounds tidier… compressed (of course), if you play “under the bridge” by RHCP with this pedal… you’ll think you are listening to the studio version, it’s pretty amazing.

So… first impressions were great I fell in love instantly and I said to my self “I’ll stuck this pedal to the amp with Velcro and never turn it off again”, however not everything that shine is gold, the pedal is a bit noisy, and what happens is there is a lot of noise when you are not strumming the strings and as soon as you strum.. the pedal compresses the sound causing a “volume difference” all the time which is a bit annoying but I do understand that this is the nature of a compressor, but it could have a noise gate of some sort.

I then moved on to the  SG (humbucker guitar) and tone was ok, the best thing about combining this pedal with distortion is the sustain you get out of it… however the sustained note seems to vary in volume as it sustains for longer and longer, making me think the pedal is not entirely designed for this task… however I did hear that Angus Young uses a bit of compression on his Schaffer Replica to get that extra sustain, but we’ll touch on that later since I’ve already pre-ordered a Solo Dallas Storm (mini Schaffer Replica).

I totally recommend this pedal by all means this should be in your arsenal, you can have loads of fun with it but I’m not sure if it would be the 1st pedal I would buy, I think the Ibanes TS9 or a Vox 847 Wah Wah should definitely come in first.

Ohhhh the pick!

I’m not trying to be “picky”  but… plectrums are important.

They are the ones responsible of translating our amazing right hand ability to our strings, and we can never have enough of them.

I’ve decided a few weeks ago to buy all sorts of different picks, I’ve always played with Gibson’s medium/heavy until I discovered the Dunlop Tortex (1.14) they are for me the best picks available, they are very rigid but not thick… the strength of your picking action translates straight to the string without much effort and they last a lot longer than other normal picks, and most importantly they just feel right for me, and that’s the key here… It’s not about what someone else uses it’s about what makes you feel comfortable because when you are on that stage and the pick falls out of your hand in the middle of the solo… You are pretty much living every guitarist’s nightmare.

But… What is it that is right for us? guitarists are usually very mood dependent, anything wrong with our rig can throw off our mood for that perfect solo.

There is a great variety of picks out there, and it’s very hard to choose, so just buy them all! fortunately picks are cheap (compared to your vintage TS9!) and we can test them out as we please.

This is what I got from Ebay.


From left to right and top to bottom:

Carbon Fibre Dunlops, Bone, Beehold (back and front), Coconut shell (back and front), Dunlop Tortex (1.14, 1.0, 0,9 and 0.79)

They are all different and yes… They produce a different sound, I was very sceptical of this but different materials affect the tone.

Dunlop small

The Dunlop Jazz carbon fiber: They are very hard but too small… They have a pattern that helps you keep them on your fingers, but because they are so small they are not very comfortable and it’s very easy to drop them.

 

bone

Bone (made by Steve Clayton): I really liked these the sound is so warm and natural… but you can still get harmonics…they are good for blues and any kind of strumming… so I’m sure they must be a killer for any acoustic guitar, really worth a try!

bee hold

Beehold (made by Steve Clayton): I didn’t liked them as much.. it’s got an hexagonal hole to enhance grip but the hole it’s too high for me… the actual pick quality is decent… but the sound you get is a bit trebly and the pick is flimsy.

Coconut (made by Steve Clayton): it’s ok… I think it might be good for acoustic guitars, the main issue is that it’s curved, they are gorgeous though.. but it takes some time to get used to them and they are fairly big.

Dunlop

And finally my favourites!

Dunlop ULTEX Sharp: oh man, these picks are incredible, I prefer the 1.14 they are very stiff but thin, you get great control of the pick because the size is just right and it’s very hard to wear them out. If you want an ULTEX but you are more of a soft/medium pick guy/girl… I recommend 0.73 or 0.9 they are great as well.. but too soft for my taste.

 

So there you go, get a few picks and try them out, don’t just settle with the ones you get for free at the music store, picks are important to your tone and it will help you shape your signature sound.

My guitar bleeds?? [treble]

Modding… I don’t like that word, mainly because it’s been associated with atrocious modifications to anything… from cars to guitars you name it, however we are always thinking that our guitar can sound a bit (or a lot) better with certain modifications/enhancements.

I’m not a very good solder, in fact… almost 70% of the times I tried soldering something to my guitar it didn’t go well and I needed expert’s assistance, but this time it seemed pretty easy.

We are al familiar with the volume knob, right? if not… go back to your guitar and experience with using the volume knob to get less or more gain, it’s a whole new world. Anyway we might not all use it but we know where it is… but for those of you who use it, I’m sure you all noticed that when you roll down the volume not only you loose volume but the treble goes with it and the tone that we get is not very exciting, it goes pretty.. what’s the word?… unexciting.. yes, it’s just not great, So I started researching a found out that it is a very common “issue” and there is also a very common “mod” for it.

All you need is a resistor and a capacitor… which is basically two very small things that do something to the signal going through cables, this link explains it very well.

You can see in the picture the little blue fella (the resistor) and the green fella (capacitor), this is the inside of my 1971 Gibson SG Standard.

_DSC7918

It’s not very hard to install and if you checked the link above… you’ll see it for yourself, it’s a 5 minute job even for a very bad solder like me.

The results?… well it does it’s job, now when I roll down the volume I don’t loose any treble and I do loose gain and volume, which is my intention… using the volume at 6/7 for rhythm and all the way up on 10 for the solos.

The experience is very rewarding and mainly if you are a beginner on these things… it’s like getting a bit intimate with your instrument, knowing the inside… how everything is connected and understanding how stuff works, you also get some collateral knowledge from the research you have to do to install this little thing and this may sparkle some more exciting modifications/enhancements.

Just be careful when you solder.. don’t burn the wood on the guitar! I’ve done it way too many times.

I leave here a short video of myself doing the mod.

 

 

Emulated what?

This may be irrelevant to loads of people, but it is something I have recently “discovered” on one of my amps.

It’s called “Emulated Output”, I’ve seen this for ages in loads of amps, but it’s a little different on my Blackstar HT-1R, it’s got a 1/4″ standard guitar jack, and this means I am able to use it with my headphones, usually these outputs (at least in my experience) are XLR outputs and they are made so you can connect your amp to a console and get reproduce the sound through other speakers (not guitar cabinets), this is useful for live gigs, however I never liked the sound yo can get out of this. Anyway… going back to the Emulated Output on the Blackstar, I’ve connected my headphones… and I was blown away! you feel that the sound you hear is from a 100W amp at a stadium gig (if you use a little reverb :p).

To my understanding this output allows you to hear the sound that you would get if you could turn your amp to 10 without going deaf or to jail (pesky neighbors) and it is addictive you could just sit and play riffs for hours and still fall in love with the sound, and not only that… you can also plug in your phone to the input and hear the music through your headphones, so you can play along your songs without anyone hearing a thing but most importantly with an impressive quality.

If you don’t have a pair of decent headphones I’ve already recommended in previous posts the AKG K77, they are very decent and dirt cheap. I found that this output did not work well with my Marshall headphones, I think it’s got to do with the amount of power they can take, because it sounds all distorted, so you may need some studio headphones.

Blackstar

 

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