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Archive for February, 2012

The Venerable Gibson ES-175

I was in Guitar Center last week, trading in my Gibson Nighthawk for my wonderful DV Mark Little 40. While I was talking to Nick , the trade-in guy, a gentleman walked asking if he could play an ES-175 that was hanging on the wall. This particular one was a vintage 1952 ES-175, and it was gorgeous. After the guy was done playing it, since Nick was trying to get an appraisal, he placed the guitar on the padded desk in front of me. Of course, I couldn’t help myself. I picked it up and started playing it. It was A LOT lighter than I expected – much like an acoustic, and the action was fantastic! I didn’t get a chance to plug it in, but it had a nice, natural voice from what I could hear from the dude that was playing it before me.

I didn’t think I’d like an archtop, but I was really digging playing that guitar. There was a certain vibe about the guitar, and being that it was 60 years old, really added to its charm. It was in truly great condition! In any case, it had a super fat, gorgeous sound. If I had the $4k to buy one of these gems, I’d jump at the chance.

Here’s a great example of the sound of an ES-175:

By the way, the guitar being played above is a two-pickup version that didn’t come out until 1953. The one I played was a 1952 with a single P-90. Here’s a history of the ES-175.

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Tuesday Meanderings…

I read an interview with Antonio Gallardi, “The Wine Advocate” magazine’s new California critic in which he responded in the comments section following the interview, “A pro has to be able to tune out everything and focus just on what is in the glass. I have had several instances where wines showed better in my office than they did at the properties.”Mr. Gallari was speaking in reference to a question that was asked him about maintaining his objectivity when he tastes wine at an estate.

Since I write about both wine and guitar gear, objectivity has always been an important factor for me. I started writing about gear primarily because I felt that the mainstream gear rags seemed to be beholden to their advertisers; giving more than favorable ratings to gear that my own personal tests didn’t favor as much. With wine, though I don’t feel as if – at least for the ones I regularly read – wine critics don’t fall into this trap. But even when reviewing wine, whether at home or at a winery, having no predisposition towards a wine is absolutely important to me. For instance, I went to a local winery near my home this past weekend, and ended up tasting with a friend who just happened to be there at the same time. He and his wife are wine club members, and they were looking to get a bottle. Though the winery’s Cabernets were popular, and something they mildly pushed, I wasn’t all that impressed with them, so instead recommended the Tempranillo, Terolgego, and their lower price, non-library Zinfandel purely based upon the merits of the wines’ characteristics which appealed to me.

Congruently, with gear, I’ve spoken to lots of manufacturers over the five years I’ve run this blog. Many send me gear to review, but you’ll notice that while there are lots of reviews here, there aren’t nearly as many as I’ve actually reviewed. The reason is that I like to play nice, and I’ll never publish a review that’s less than 4 Tone Bones. When I do review something that I don’t like, I notify the manufacturer, give them feedback, and make suggestions on what could be better. I’m also absolutely honest with them when I talk to them the first time and communicate my process. I do realize that I can get pretty excited in my reviews, but I only publish what I consider to be the best gear.

The point to all this is that objectivity goes a long way. Especially with gear, you hear and read about so much hype that it’s difficult to maintain your objectivity. I know I’ve succumbed to the hype several times, and I have a lot of gear that I just don’t use or have sold off. Luckily I never went so far as to sell everything to get a Dumble amp. Though it is truly impressive (and I know my videos didn’t really capture the sonic and dynamic magic of the amp), my own amps and several others I’ve tested come close enough to those dynamics that there’s no reason to spend over $40k.

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Had a great time with the Little 40 this evening at my weekly church gig. I set the amp to full clean-headroom on the Continuous Power Control, cranked the master, then set the gain to a little before the edge of breakup so that a normal, light strum would still be fairly clean with the volume knobs on my R8 both set to halfway. Of course, at that setting, I had to use my attenuator because while it would work just fine in a club, it would be way too loud for church. But that’s okay because the amp retained all of its dynamics and tone.

Also, with the way I set up the amp, I could strum lightly or play fingerstyle and be clean, then get a nice overdrive by digging into the strings a bit. Then I could get into overdrive completely by rolling on either of the volume knobs on my guitar. Then for leads, I used a footswitch to activate the boost which saturates the power tubes by hitting the amp with 10dB of gain. Like my Aracom amps (and vintage Marshalls, for that matter), when the power tubes saturate, lots of sonic goodness occurs. The signal compresses – with the Little 40, it’s not too much, but the sound definitely “feels” a bit beefier – but more importantly, you get very nice sustain and these subtle harmonics and overtones get added into the signal that are total ear candy!

Once I set up the amp, I didn’t have to do any tweaking. My guitar was my control center, which is how I like it. But it does require that an amp be extremely responsive to dynamics, both from a playing perspective and from volume knob adjustments. It delivered all that in spades!

Here’s another extremely important tidbit that I hadn’t mentioned yet: The amp weighs just under 16 pounds! Dammit! That’s lighter than my attenuator! This is something that Marco De Virgiliis (DV Mark’s designer/owner) is known for in the bass world. For instance, my bassist uses a Mark Bass Little Mark II as his go-to bass amp head. That amp produces BIG sound, and it weighs less than 6 1/2 pounds! The Little 40 and its smaller and larger brethren follow the same pattern.

To top all that off, the amp looked so damn cool as DV Mark installed orange LEDs on the board that you can see through the amp grille-work. I tend to be fairly utilitarian about gear, not really putting too much stock on looks, but not only does this amp sound and play killer, it looks great on stage!

And speaking of stage, I actually did two gigs with the Little 40 today. The first gig was a mother-daughter church service at a local high school. Since there were lots of people attending, the service was held in the performing arts center, so I was up on stage. Before the gig, I had to run home really quick to pick up some sheet music that I left in my printer. When I returned, I looked at the amp on stage from the back of the theatre, and just smiled when I saw the extremely cool orange glow emanating from the amp. It was TOTALLY SICK!!! For that gig, I played all clean: Max headroom, Master full-on, then Gain set to pretty low. I controlled volume with my Gretsch’s master volume. The difference with that gig was that since we were doing a few different styles of songs, I adjusted the EQ to fit the songs. This is yet another area where the amp shines. You can dial up all sorts of different tones with the very-usable EQ! Nice!

Finally, if you happen to do some research on the Little 40 or other DV Mark amps, you’ll notice that it has just a single pre-amp tube (ECC83), which indicates that there are  solid state components in the amp. There are. You can see them; plus everything’s mounted on a PCB board. But who the f$%k cares when the amp sounds this good and performs so well? Besides, he does list the other ECC83 in the power section – which I totally missed at first. The important thing to note is that while there are solid state components being used, the important parts involved in the amplification are valves.

But solid state components? I know, we all suffer from cork-sniffing; especially with tube amps. But I’ve gotten over it. As JKeith Urban’s guitar tech said in an interview, “If it sounds cool, then it is right…” Especially with the DV Mark Little 40, I’m getting the level of performance and sound quality that I get out of my Aracom Amps, and like my Aracom gear, I paid less than half the price for the features I got with the amp compared to other boutique gear manufacturers’ wares. The Little 40 retails at $799.

So what about my Aracom Amps? Well, I will definitely still be using them. The DV Mark has a completely different tone than my Aracoms, which are based upon vintage Marshall amps; specifically the Plexi style, Blues Breaker amps. While I most probably will use the DV Mark the most on stage because of its flexibility, my other amps will still get lots of use in the studio, though the VRX22 will also get lots of stage time because it too is extremely flexible. As for the other amps, no other amp does creamy-smooth overdrive like my PLX18. When I need high-end bite, which I like to have for funky rhythm lines, I can’t think of any better amp to give me this than my VRX18. And thus far, none of these amps is collecting any dust as I’ve been using them all this past week to complete the demos for my new album.

Damn! It just occurred to me that I’m really trying to justify why I have all this freakin’ gear… 🙂 Or maybe I’m just rehearsing what I’ll be saying next to the wife when she queries me about my gear. Ha! ROCK ON!

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The DVMark Little 40 ROCKS!

No, this is not one of those excited-puppy-dog-with-a-new-toy types of posts, though with the way I’m feeling about the Little 40, it could very well be. But excitement aside, I did another test of the amp early this morning. I’m not a big believer in doing demo clips for demo clips’ sake. I do them because people ask for the raw sound, but when I started GuitarGear.org, I did it with intent of evaluating gear within the context of its application; specifically, how I might apply it to my own rig. My thinking has always been that unless you’re actually using the gear, you never really know how it performs.

So this next test was done to get a feel for the dynamics of the amp within the context of a song. I recently finished demo production of a song I wrote several months back called “I’m in Love with You Lord,” but hadn’t gotten around to create a finished recording until this past week. The one thing about that song is that it has a gradual build-up in feel and intensity as it progresses, and the electric guitar track plays an important role in this as it is the instrument – besides my vocals – that drives the emotion of the song. And my personal requirement was that I needed to do the entire electric guitar part in a single take, which means the amp has to be ultra-dynamic.

Originally, I recorded this with my Aracom VRX18, which performed flawlessly. But I wanted to try out the DV Mark with the song to see if I could achieve the same level of dynamics that the VRX18 had. Not only did it deliver, I’m probably going to use it as I love the snarling dog growl it delivers. 🙂 Here’s the song:

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Wow! Is all I can say… This is simply a killer amp!

In my announcement that I made today about getting this lil’ bad boy, I promised some sound clips. So once got done with my gig this evening, I headed right to my studio to play around with the amp. For this first test, I didn’t want do the standard, here’s-how-it-sounds -clean or -dirty. What I wanted to test was the amp’s dynamics and expressiveness. So I did two tests that demonstrate a couple of different aspects of the Little 40.

One thing that I will mention before I get into the tests is that for a single-channel amp, the Little 40 has TONS of tonal options. Every knob has an affect on the tone, especially the very usable EQ’s. Plus if you hook up a mono foot switch, you can get a 10dB gain boost, so if you set up the amp properly, that boost can act like a second channel.

Dynamics

With this first clip, what I wanted to test was how the amp reacted to pick attack. So I set the amp to the edge of breakup. Master was set wide open, with the gain at about 10am. I set the EQ’s on the brighter side with the Treble cranked, Mid about 2pm and Bass at 11am. I also had the Continuous Power Control open all the way for maximum headroom. The clip is in three parts: First, I start on the “clean” side of the overdrive point. Then I dig in a little harder to get it past that point, then I engage the boost, which gets the amp into some serious crunch, and loads of sonic content (besides being dirty, with boost engaged, the amp grows some serious balls – even set to bright. I’m playing my R8 Les Paul with both pickups engaged and the volumes are both set to 5.

Continuous Power Control

A lot of the magic of this amp comes from the Continuous Power Control. This knob provides an output power sweep from 1 Watt all the way up to 40 Watts, allowing you to adjust the clean headroom of amp. This is an absolutely killer feature!

With this next clip, the amp is set clean, with the Master all the way up, the Gain at about 9am. EQ and Presence are all set at noon. I’m playing my R8 with both volume knobs at five. Again, the clip is in three parts. The first part is clean, bluesy riff. In the second part, I turn the CPC to noon (~20 Watts), and play the same riff. Finally, I engage the boost to demonstrate how over-the-top you can get with this amp. 🙂

Admittedly, I have a lot of dialing-in to do. The tonal possibilities with this amp are immense. Looks like I’ll be spending lots of time getting to know it. 🙂

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I can still recall the first time I ever saw and played this amp at my local Guitar Center. It sounded so damn good, and the price was absolutely excellent that I knew that getting it would be a no-brainer. Then after I got home that day, I looked the amp up on the DV Mark web site, and was astonished at the features for a sub-$800 amp! I’ve written about this amp before, and the two features that sold me on the amp (besides the great tone) were the Continuous Power Control (CPC) and the automatic and continuous biasing of the power tubes.

The auto-bias was a HUGE factor in my decision. As long as you get tubes that are matched within 20% of each other, the amp will automatically bias them to the optimal operating settings. Imagine not having to bias power tubes. Just get a matched set, plug them in, and you’re good to go! And you can use any socket-compatible tubes like 6L6’s and even 6V6’s as long as they can take the plate voltage. Freakin’ awesome!

The CPC was also a kicker for me in that I could lower the power output of the amp to control when I get breakup. But unlike other variable power controls I’ve heard or played with, there was little discernible difference in tone, whether I had the CPC all way up for maximum clean headroom, or dialed all the way back.

I know, I don’t have sound samples – yet. But they’re on their way. I just don’t have enough time before my gig this evening to get clips.

As far as dynamics are concerned, this amp is extremely expressive and super-responsive to pick attack and guitar gain. One thing I noticed when I had the master cranked, and the gain just past 2pm, when doing leads, this amp absolutely sings. I noticed some very very cool high-frequency artifacts that really added some complexity to the tone. I could’ve played this amp for hours, but alas, I had to turn it off so I could release this article and then get ready for my gig.

Check back to hear clips this weekend!

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Coil Splitting vs. Coil Tapping

My good buddy Phil sent me a link to an article that discussed coil splitting vs. coil tapping. For years, I thought they meant the exact same thing. But according to the article, which was written by a Fender tech, they’re completely different animals. Coil splitting is usually associated with humbuckers where a switch is used to turn off one of the coils. On the other hand, coil tapping “means taking the signal from somewhere within the coil of wire rather than from the end of it, thus reducing pickup output (more windings means higher output).” I never knew that.

Taming that Sonic Boom

After I read the article above, I perused other “Tech Talk” articles, and found one that discussed an issue that has been a real issue with my Hot Rod Deluxe: Low-end boom. The article stated that that boom is called floor coupling and is caused by an amp being close to a reflective surface such as a floor or a wall. The reactance can cause a 3dB boost to the low-end. The solutions to this are actually quite simple: Either elevate the amp, or tilt it back. Some Fender cabs, such as the VibroKing come with retractable legs to allow you to lean the amp back. I always thought it was meant to be able to hear your amp. I never realized that there was an actual purpose for this other than being able to hear your amp while the band is blasting. 🙂

 

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