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Archive for the ‘Tone’ Category

5 Tone Bones - Gear has stellar performance, value, and quality. This is definitely top of the class, best of breed, and it's a no-brainer to add this to your gear lineup!
Reason Amps Bambino
Reason Amps “Bambino”
Summary: Don’t let its diminutive size fool you. This 14lb amp packs tone for days! Capable of sweet cleans to massive overdrive, the Bambino is sure to keep you rockin’!

Pros: Even at 8 Watts, this amp will give you stage volume for small venue gigs. 2 Watt mode gives you the same tone as the 8 Watts, but will keep your family and neighbors happy.

Cons: None.

Features:

  • Preamp Tubes: Three 12AX7’s
  • Power Tubes : Two 6AQ5’s in a push-pull configuration.
  • Output Power: 8 Watts, switchable to 2 Watts
  • Channels: Normal (Push-pull Fat Boost), Bright (Push-pull Treble Boost), StackModeTM
  • Built-in Speaker Load Box Simulated Line Output with Level Control
  • Separate Headphone Output

Price: $699.99

Tone Bone Score: 5.0. The Reason guys did it again! This amp simply rocks the house! Yeah, I know, I’ve only had the amp for a day, but I’ve been playing with it since this morning, and I just had to write about it! It’s spectacular!

Having the gift of gab is not a very good thing when you want to talk about something and can’t. I mentioned in previous posts that I knew about this amp when it was in the planning stages months ago, but Anthony Bonadio asked me not to mention it until it was ready. So imagine wanting to blab about this new amp, and not being able to! Oh well… At least I know I can keep a secret! 🙂

A little history…

When I first talked to Anthony about the amp (it didn’t even have a name yet), he mentioned that it was going to be a 1-Watt bedroom/practice amp for under $700. But Obeid Kahn (Reason’s genius amp designer) being who he is, thought the better of it and decided to create a voltage-switchable amp that could be used in and out of the bedroom. I’m glad he decided to go that route, because even with my very short experience with the Bambino, it has versatility written all over it. Don’t let the 8 Watts fool you at all. 8 Watts is plenty for stage volume in small venues and churches. Keep in mind 1 Watt at 3 meters through a 1 X 12 is as loud as a jackhammer!

When Anthony mentioned they were ready to launch the Bambino, I got real excited, and was even more excited to be able to get a test unit to evaluate. As I mentioned in my previous post about the Bambino, I just got it yesterday, but haven’t been able to keep myself from playing it today. I’ve probably logged about 8 hours on the amp between late last night and today.

Fit and Finish

What can I say? Reason Amps are freakin’ gorgeous. There are no voids in the tolex and the cabinet is quite sturdy. The control panel is easy to manipulate and very easy to figure out. Hell! There are only seven knobs! The test unit I got sported navy blue levant tolex, just like my Aracom amps! Lined up together, it looked like a color-coordinated set! HA! The beige front panel really creates a nice contrast to the blue tolex. The Bambino just looks great. But, of course, it’s following the pedigree of its bigger siblings.

How It Sounds

As I mentioned in my first impressions article, tonally, the Bambino, with its 6AQ5 power tubes, sits right between the EL-84 and the 6V6. Its cleans aren’t as glassy as the EL-84, and not as fat as 6V6. It truly does reside in the middle. Overdrive is more like a 6V6, with an open and airy quality that retains note clarity, even at high-gain settings. I’ve heard mention that the Bambino sounds like a couple of different amps, but from my perspective, the 6AQ5 has a voice all its own.

The Normal channel is the clean channel, and it’s actually tough to get breakup on this channel until you get the volume past 2pm. I love playing a Strat through this channel. You get that classic Strat tone, but expressed completely differently by virtue of the power tubes.

The Bright channel is actually not that much brighter than the Normal channel, though it does have that treble booster to get more top-end sparkle, and instead of a single tone knob, you have treble and bass knobs, so you can tweak the voicing a bit more. In this respect, the Bambino’s channels are set up very similarly to Reason’s SM40, where the two channels are fairly similar in tone.

StackMode, which combines the two channels in series and adds an extra gain stage is just simply to die for! The StackMode volume acts as PPIMV, so you can absolutely crank the first two channels and not blow out your ears. But when you have the ability to really open up the amp in StackMode, very very cool things happen with respect to overtones and high-order harmonics. The amp really comes alive when you’re running a lot of juice through the tubes!

Here are some clips I recorded of the Bambino (all were recorded in 8-Watt mode):

Clean fingerstyle in neck position of my Strat:

Clean, blues progression, with Strat in neck/middle position with just a minute amount of breakup:

All out, wide open with channels 1 and 2 dimed and StackMode volume at 3pm. I’m playing my Prestige Heritage Elite with ‘buckers in the bridge position:

OMFG! I love that last clip. The harmonics are incredible, and as you can tell from the clip, even though the overdrive is absolutely snarling and the gain is way over-the-top, the clarity of the notes is just amazing! Obeid had mentioned that good things start to happen when I could play the amp all out, and based upon my experience, he was right on the money. This amp just sings when you can let it breathe!

Sorry, I don’t have anything in between clean and in your face overdrive – I’ll record some more later.

Re-amp Anyone?

I also tested the balanced line out with the Bambino, running it into my Aracom VRX18, then into a 1 X 12 cabinet. Talk about a great, bright tone. The VRX18 “inherited” the grind from the Bambino, then added its own voice! The result was incredible. In fact the VRX18 helped to smooth out the highs from the Bambino. I’ll see if I can record some clips with that. But in any case, it really demonstrated the possibilities of how you can use this amp!

Overall Impressions

The Tone Bone score of 5 says it all. This is a great amp, period, and I will soon be adding it to my growing collection of low-power amps. Yeah, it’s a low-power amp that may not work for medium to large venues, but for small venues and for recording, this amp is spectacular. And at a street price of $699, it’s definitely a great value proposition to boot!

Okay, I want one… How do I get a Bambino? It’s not even listed on their site yet!

Contact the guys directly either through e-mail at info@reasonamps.com. They also hang out at the Gear Page (http://www.thegearpage.net/board). Search for “bambino” or find the users “Reason” or “OKahn” and send a private message. There will probably be a bit of a wait time to get the amp as it has create quite a buzz and they’re already getting orders. The amp is just out of prototype and review for goodness’ sake! It’s amazing!

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cablesAs much of a gear slut that I am, I’ve realized that I’ve completely overlooked one incredibly important piece of gear at GuitarGear.org that can have a huge effect on your tone: The guitar cable. Actually, I’ve shied away from this subject, much like I shied away from talking about speakers. Why? Because like speakers, there’s really no definitive way to classify cables as “good” or “bad,” no matter what materials are used. It’s a very subjective thing; that is, you have to use your ears to make the determination of what sounds good to you and what doesn’t.

Lots of manufacturers and gearheads will spout off terms regarding cable materials and electronics, and while those things are important, ultimately they’re only contributing factors and not one single thing will make one cable better over another. As I said, use your ears.

What’s in a cable?

A cable consists of four basic, discrete elements: A conductor, a dialectric, a jacket, and the plugs. The conductor is what transports your electrical signal end-to-end through the cable. Most conductors are made of copper, though some are coated with silver. There are pure silver conductor wires that some audiophiles swear by, but they are typically incredibly expensive. A colleague of mine wired his entire home stereo system with pure silver wire, costing him hundreds of dollars. But he swears by the purity of sound that this conductor produces. Regarding copper, the more pure the copper, the better the signal conductance, so in a sense, a cheap wire using cheap copper, will probably not sound as good as one that’s made from more pure copper.

The dialectric is a sheathing around the cable and is an essential component in that as the electrical signal flows down the cable, a large amount of the signal travels along the outside of the conductor. As you might think, some of that signal may “bleed” off, and indeed that is what happens. This is where the dialectric comes into play. It basically absorbs the electrons that break off the flow, then puts them back into the flow. Different materials are used as dialectrics, though teflon tends to be regarded as the best dialetric material.

The jacket is the visible layer of the cable that you see but typically, just underneath the jacket are insulators and shielding, to protect from transmitting signal out or letting external signals in.

Finally, we have the plugs. These are made up of a variety of materials from unplated brass to gold, nickel or silver plating. Each of these materials provide a different tone. Mind you, gold is not necessarily the best conductor, but it does provide excellent protection against corrosion, which will have a serious effect on your signal.

So what’s the big deal about capacitance?

Capacitance is probably the most common term bandied about by alleged pundits of cables. Essentially capacitance is a measurement of how much signal a conductor stores. At first blush, a lower capacitance number should indicate a much more efficient signal. But from what I’ve come to understand, capacitance, while important, is only part of the picture with respect to the overall tone of a cable. Throwing about this term without context is akin to throwing about a frequency response curve for a speaker. In that case, it gives you an idea of where the tone is delivered, but until you put that speaker in a cabinet, you’ll never know how it really performs. It’s a similar thing with capacitance. It’s only part of the whole picture. For me, though I mean no disrespect, I tend to ignore people who bandy about capacitance as something that should affect one’s decision to purchase a cable.

I asked a friend about this, and he said that yes, capacitance is an important consideration, but if a dialetric material is used that’s fairly absorbent and doesn’t return electrons back into the flow, what you’ve gained in capacitance, you’ve lost in the dialectric. I’ll be the first to admit I’m no electronics wizard, but that seems plausible enough to me.

So what do I look for?

Ultimately, for me it boils down to tone. I’ve recently taken a real liking to Monster Standard 100 cables. To my ears, they provide a great balanced tone. No, they don’t have gold plating or any silver, but it’s a good, versatile, all-around cable that I think sounds great. They also have great shielding which is really important in protecting against RF. But that’s me – to my ears they perform great. However, after trying out both the Acoustic and Rock models recently, I’m seriously considering of making an investment in those cables. I know there are others out there. I just have to find a place to try them out.

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I was sniffing around the Internet for some juicy tidbits of information, and ran across a great demo by Johnny Demarco demonstrating the various capabilities of this awesome amp! I have a Cube 60, and this amp totally kicks its ass with built-in tap tempo delay, a looper, and 10 amp models. I’ve always contended that the Cubes are just fantastic amps, and the Cube 80x is simply a great amp. And at $349 street, you just can’t beat it for the price. Here’s the video:

That video was a great demo of the amp’s capabilities, but I really dig this one done by Alex Hutchings at Musikmesse 2009. He’s a great player!

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Creation Audio Labs Mk.4.23 Boost

Creation Audio Labs Mk.4.23 Boost

If you read this blog with any regularity, you’d know that I have this thing about overdrive and distortion pedals. Not that I’m a shredder or let alone a virtuoso at guitar. I just love tone, and there’s something about overdrive that never fails to bring a smile to my face. But ever since I started playing with some great amps, and now that I’ve got a great new speaker in my Hot Rod, I’ve been relying less on overdrive for my grind tone, and much more on the natural breakup of my amps. Enter the Creation Audio Labs Mk.4.23, what I consider to be the best clean boost on the planet.

A lot of pedal manufacturers claim to have transparent boosters, and I’ve tried several that come close, but the Mk.4.23 totally delivers true transparency. You get the natural tone of your guitar and amp – just a lot more input gain that will send your pre-amp tubes into saturation. Mm-mm-good! I already wrote a review of this pedal, but thought I’d do a follow-up on how I’ve been using it over the past few months.

I’ve been using the Mk.4.23 in a few different ways (in order of how much I apply it):

  1. First, I use it by itself with the volume dimed on the pedal into my drive channel to slam the front-end of the amp, and seriously overdrive it. In this mode, I usually don’t use any other effect in front of it, though I might use a compressor with my Strat to fatten up the tone. That way I know that I’m getting my guitar’s and amp’s true tone.
  2. Then I use it by itself to boost my clean channel when I need just a bit more volume when I’m doing a clean lead break to get over the band. In this mode, the volume’s set just past unity gain. I also set the volume knob on my guitar to about it’s midpoint so I can fine-tune the volume via my guitar.
  3. Finally, I use it in conjunction with one or more overdrive/distortion pedals to add even more gain to what the other pedals have to offer. Using it this way doesn’t really add any appreciable volume, but the effect is that the overdrive tone gets super thick and raunchy. It’s not all the pretty when playing chords, but single notes absolutely scream!

For such a simple pedal, the Mk.4.23 has really changed the way I approach achieving different tones. For more information, check out Creation Audio Labs’ web site!

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Fender Hot Rod DeluxeAfter having my Fender Hot Rod Deluxe for a few years now, I finally decided to swap the stock speaker for an Eminence Red Coat “The Governor,” which is a moderately-priced ceramic speaker. What’s difference now? The Hot Rod Deluxe is a very mid-rangy amp in the first place, but at higher gain, the tone became a little flabby. In fact, when I knew I was going to play at gig volumes I had to dial down the bass to about 9 or 10 o’clock, and set the mid and high around 3pm to get a more crisp sound. I was able to alleviate a bit of that flabbiness with better tubes than the stock Groove Tubes, but I always suspected that the speaker had a lot to do with the flabby bottom end. I don’t know why I waited to do this simple, simple modification. It literally took 10 minutes to swap it out.

So why the Eminence Governor? Mainly because I wanted a nice mid-range focused speaker that had a smooth bottom end, and slightly sparkly highs. I had also played the Governor in a couple of different amps, and was really impressed with its brighter voicing. Here’s a frequency response chart for the Governor:

The Governor Frequency Response Chart

As you can see from the chart, the bottom end portion of the curve is a nice, smooth line. In the mid-range, the frequency response is fairly complex, then in the highs, you get some nice peaks in the 2-3 kHz range, finished off with some subtle motes above 10 kHz. The tone in the amp reflects this well. The bottom end is there, and very tame, and the mid- and high-freq response creates a gorgeous, and spacious tone. I’ll probably have some clips in the next few days, but here are clips directly off the Eminence site:

Clean

Heavy Distortion

Overdriven

All in all, this has got to be the most significant improvement to my Hot Rod’s tone!

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Aracom Amps VRX22 - First in the series

Aracom Amps VRX22 - First in the series

You ever play some gear that from the moment you start playing, you feel like you’ve died and gone to tone heaven? In the last few years, and especially in the last couple since I started writing this blog, I’ve literally played hundreds of different types of gear, covering the spectrum of all things guitar, from guitars to effects to amps. I don’t have enough time to write about all the things I’ve played, but to keep my content fresh, and to satisfy my overwhelming curiosity about different types of gear, I’m constantly trying stuff out.

And in all that time, and through all that gear, I’ve only had some gear totally slay me once: That was when I played the very first prototype of the Aracom VRX22. The back story is pretty cool, so I’ll share it with you…

Several months back, Jeff Aragaki contacted me on my blog asking if he could buy ad space. I replied that I didn’t want to commercialize my site, but if he’d be willing to send me an amp to review I’d put his logo on my “The Dawg Digs” area if I really loved his product. Fortunately for both him and me, he only lives about 40 minutes away, so he delivered what was once called the “RoxBox,” an 18 Watt, EL84-based amp. I had this thing about EL84-based amps for awhile, and was really excited to try a non-brand-name amp; not to mention that I was entirely intrigued by the fact that that hand-wired head cost only $895! That evaluation turned into testing and reviewing several of Jeff’s amps over the next few months from heads to combos with different configurations. Talk about feeling lucky to have so much gear to play with!

Jeff and I have become fast friends. We’re contemporaries not only from our obsession with vintage gear (or any kind of gear for that matter), but we’re almost the same age, and are both local boys from the Silicon Valley. Jeff’s a great guy, and someone I really enjoy spending time with; plus he’s super smart, and I like to be around smart people. 🙂

Anyway, a couple of months ago, Jeff called me up and said, “Hey Brendan, I’ve been working on an experiment with the RoxBox, and popped a couple of 6V6’s in the amp to see what it would sound like.”

“Oh?” I replied, “That sounds quite interesting. I dig 6V6’s a lot. They have a sweet, open distortion when they’re saturated.”

“Yeah, they do,” said Jeff, “Anyway, I was wondering if you’d like to test it out.”

I immediately replied, “Need you ask? Bring it on over!”

A couple of days later, Jeff brought the amp over to the messy garage I call my home studio. We plugged it in, I hooked up my Strat, and Jeff switched on the amp. I took one test strum in the clean channel, stopped and asked, “What did you do? This f-in thing sounds incredible! Let me play a few licks…”

Jeff didn’t say anything. He just smiled, and let me play for awhile. After a few minutes he said, “Okay, try out channel 2, so you can hear the overdrive,” at which point he plugged me into the second channel, then cranked the volume.

The amp literally sang with this beautifully smooth overdrive tone, chock full of overtones and harmonics. The tone was on the bright side, similar to the Reason SM25 that I was testing, but was rich and thick, and ballsy. I just closed my eyes and smiled, luxuriating in pure tonal heaven!

When I came out of my trance, I looked at Jeff and said, “Dude, I think you’re onto something really special here. You know I’ve played tons of different amps, but this one’s special. It’s the best-sounding amp I’ve played of yours to date; and ranks very high on my overall list. Are you thinking of putting it into production?”

“Maybe. I wanted to get your feedback. I still have some stuff to do on it, but I’m really liking the tone of this amp,” Jeff replied.

“Yeah… You’ve just piqued my curiosity.”

Fast-forward a week and I get another call from Jeff. “Hey Brendan! I worked out the power handling of the amp. The one you tested wasn’t outputting at the full 22 Watts, so I made some adjustments and now it’s running at full power. To me, it sounds even better. Anyway, I’m going away on a business trip for a couple of weeks, and I’ll leave it with you to test.”

So Jeff dropped it off a couple of days later, and test it I did. I took it to gigs, recorded some clips with it, and fell in love with it even more. Jeff was right, the power handling adjustments he made turned that amp into a pure tone machine.

When Jeff got back from his trip, we met for lunch, so I could give the amp back, and give him feedback. He asked, “So how did you like the amp?”

I replied, “Uh… the word is love. I’ll keep on testing your other amps, but this is the amp I want to buy. Everything about it is perfect. The clean channel has oodles of clean headroom, and the sag you’ve built into the simulator makes it sound like the amp has a reverb. The drive channel is like nothing I’ve played before. Quite simply, Jeff, this is the perfect amp!”

Jeff just chuckled, and said a very understated, “Glad you like it.”

Since then, I’ve purchased the amp – I got the very first in the series! And while I realize that my excitement about this amp is purely subjective, other people who’ve played this amp – WAY, WAY better guitar players than me – have been just as blown away by its tone. The other day, Jeff asked me to meet him over at Gelb Music in Redwood City to show Jordan, the guitar department manager, my VRX22 (Gelb carries Aracom Amps on consignment – for now 🙂 ). I just chuckled when he plugged a guitar into the drive channel, cranked it up, and let it rip. He didn’t play more than 30 seconds before he said, “This amp rocks! It’s real ballsy and has tons of harmonics. Wow!”

Jordan had to help customers on the floor, so he gave the guitar over to another customer named Chris with whom Jeff and I had been chatting while waiting for Jordan. Chris sat down, and started to rip it up! He played with this hybrid picking technique that was just amazing to observe, and he made the VRX22 absolutely sing! I knew it sounded good, but in the hands of a truly gifted player like Chris, it was other-worldly!

Jordan returned a few minutes later to listen to Chris play. Mind you, it was loud. Chris was plugged into a 65 Amps 2 X12 cabinet and had the amp cranked. Jordan turned to me, and with a quizzical look on his face asked, “This is YOUR amp?”

I just laughed because I knew what he was thinking – he was hoping that it was an inventory amp so he could buy it himself. I said, “Yup. You thinking about getting one for yourself?”

Jordan just smiled and nodded his affirmative. We finally had to turn down the amp, and Jeff and I had to go, and as we were leaving, Jordan asked Jeff, “So what’s the turnaround time for when we order?”

Jeff said, “Between two to four weeks.”

“Cool. That’s just about right. Hey! Thanks for bringing the amp over, guys! Man that thing has f$ckin balls…” with a huge grin on his face, “That’s all we ask…” and he laughed.

I laughed with him. Jordan is a real bad-ass player himself, and when he has this type of reaction, I know he thinks it’s special. I told Jeff he better build two: One for the store, and one for Jordan.

Folks, I realize you might think I’m full of it when I say that the VRX22 is the perfect amp. But Jeff is really onto something with this amp. I’d put it head to head against a Dr. Z MAZ or a Buddha any day. I actually played a Dr. MAZ the other day. It’s a great amp. But guess what? The VRX22 is only $895 for the head! That’s almost half of what other hand-wired, boutique amps cost! Yeah, it doesn’t have a tube rectifier – the VRX22 is designed with a solid state rectifier for extra punch and it has a sag circuit to provide the vintage vibe. And in case you’re concerned that a solid-state rectifier means lower quality, I just have one thing to say: So what? Lots of vintage amps such as classic Marshall Plexi’s and many Fender amps use solid-state rectifiers. Besides, it’s the tone that matters, and compared to the MAZ, which is really nice, expressive amp, the VRX22 has a much bigger sound.

Fantastic sound for an unbelievable price? SOLD!

Disclaimer: I want to make it absolutely clear. Jeff doesn’t pay me to do reviews or pay me to give nothing but positive feedback. He calls me up to say he’s got some gear for me to test, and I test it, then write a review. To date, I haven’t received any bad gear from him, so I haven’t given his gear a less than stellar review. You might think this from the rave reviews I’m giving the VRX22, but just to alleviate any concerns about me having an affiliation with Jeff other than being a friend, remember that I clearly stated that I bought the amp. What I’m sharing is my excitement. And showing it to the folks at Gelb? That was purely a favor. I simply had the fortune of being able to play with the prototypes. It is truly a magical amp!

Click here for more information on the VRX22 and other excellent Aracom amps!

Share your slayer experience!

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Seymour Duncan Twin Tube Blue Image c/o Seymour Duncan

Seymour Duncan Twin Tube Blue Image c/o Seymour Duncan

Seymour Duncan is known for its outstanding pickups, and I’ve known they’ve made pedals for awhile, but haven’t really paid attention until they came out with the Twin Tube Blue (SFX-11). This is a very cool little preamp/overdrive box that sits – gain-wise – right in the middle between their Twin Tube Classic and their Twin Tube Mayhem.

Run by two 6111 mil-spec, USA Philips-Sylvania tubes, the Blue can get you some nice, pre-amp snap, to sweet, sustained gain. Here’s the description from the Seymour Duncan site:

Too often, inexpensive tube gear runs in “starved plate mode,” where the tubes function like clipping diodes and do not actually amplify. The Twin Tube Blue’s high-plate voltage and 100% vacuum tube signal path allows the tubes to operate at their fullest potential and provide maximum dynamic range. This means you get the most gain and all the smooth tone you expect from a high-quality tube preamp. Two channels provide versatility. Like all Seymour Duncan stompboxes, the Twin Tube Blue is true bypass and features a fully encapsulated toroidal transformer for quiet operation. Heavy duty steel chassis.

Sounds impressive, huh? Here’s a video:

At about $229 street, it’s a bit on the pricey side, but it sure sounds good. Check it out at Seymour Duncan!

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Red Bear Style "C"

Red Bear Style "C"

Imagine a pick shaped like the one to the left, but at 4 mm thick! That’s the Super Thick Gypsy Jazz Pick!

A couple of weeks ago, I was having a conversation with Dave Skowron, maker of Red Bear Trading picks, and said, “You know Dave, I just dig this Gypsy Jazz thick pick that I just bought. But as you know, for electrics, I play with a V-Picks Snake because I love the 4.1 mm thickness.” As background, I had just purchased a standard GJ thickness to replace the Heavy that I gave to a friend so she could try it out. I continued, “Do you have anything that is even close to that thickness? I would love to have that kind of thickness for playing acoustic.”

Dave replied, “Yeah, I have a sheet of the Tortis material that is pretty close to that thickness at about 4 mm. I did something even thicker for a guy once.”

“No, no any thicker, Dave, and I think it would be too much. But if you have a 4 mm thick pick, I’m all over it!”

“Okay, I’ll make up a prototype and send it to you to evaluate.”

All I can say after playing with “the prototype” for a couple of days is I hope that pick goes out of prototype because it is an incredible pick! You know how I love the feel and sound of Tortis, especially on acoustic guitar. In fact, I love the sound of Tortis with acoustic guitar that I won’t play any other type of pick on my acoustic. On electric, I dig my V-Picks Snake for its speed, tone, and thickness. Put all that together in one pick, and what you’ve got is a “Super Pick!”

The thicker you go with picks, the deeper and richer the sound. It’s not that you lose the highs; you don’t. It’s just that the thicker picks also bring out the lows, so what you get in a nice, even tonal presentation. That’s why I dig thick picks! On top of that, there is something magical with the way a Tortis pick interacts with an acoustic guitar’s strings. With me at least, playing a Tortis pick on acoustic evokes a certain visceral feeling that makes me want to close my eyes and just soak up all the tonal goodness. Not only that, Tortis, being made of a natural material, just feels natural. It’s the perfect complement for playing acoustic guitar!

So what about this super-thick Gyspy Jazz gauge? OMG!!! I am in guitar-playing heaven with this pick! It has the thickness of my beloved V-Picks snake, but all the feel and tone that I’ve come to love with my Tortis picks! To just call it “awesome” would be a complete understatement.

I first played the “Super Thick” last Friday at a gig that was primarily acoustic guitar. It started with playing some dinner entertainment music before a re-enactment of Christ’s passion. I was playing my Ovation Celebrity directly into a Genz-Benz 100 Watt upright. When I struck the first chord of the opening song. I actually had to pause and let the chord just ring and hang in the air. It was quiet enough in the room where I was playing that I could hear my guitar, as the amp was there for simple sound reinforcement. I thought my original GJ as awesome at 2.3 mm. What this pick did to the natural tone of my guitar was otherwordly!

I spent most of the day yesterday playing guitar, much to the chagrin of my wife! It feels so incredible!

In any case, if you’re interested in getting one of these, contact Dave Skowron at Red Bear Trading. I’m sure he’ll make one for you. Mind you, this thickness of pick won’t be cheap, but it’ll be well worth the investment!

5 Tone Bones - Gear has stellar performance, value, and quality. This is definitely top of the class, best of breed, and it's a no-brainer to add this to your gear lineup! If I could go higher, I would with this rating. But this pick gets my highest rating!

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I learned a really important lesson yesterday while I was recording some ideas in my studio: Where you place your amp; specifically, the speaker cabinet is very important. I never placed too much thought into this until I got my new amp. I had always had combos, and they just sat on the floor, so I never noticed the difference between having the amp on the floor and elevating it. But with my new amp, an Aracom VRX22, I got it as a separate head and 1 X 12 combo. Last night, I put the cabinet on top of a couple of PA speakers to prop it up, and I couldn’t believe how bright it sounded. Then I remembered Jeff saying that the bass response would be way better with the cab on the floor. He wasn’t kidding! Later this evening I’ll have some sound samples to prove the point.

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5 Tone Bones - Gear has stellar performance, value, and quality. This is definitely top of the class, best of breed, and it's a no-brainer to add this to your gear lineup!

Aracom Amps VRX22 22 Watt Combo Amp

Aracom Amps VRX22 22 Watt Combo Amp

Aracom Amps VRX22 22 Watt Head

Aracom Amps VRX22 22 Watt Head

Aracom Amplifiers Vintage Rox 22 Watt Amplifier (a.k.a. VRX22)

Summary: This brand-new 22 watter is the newest in the Aracom low-wattage amp series now called the Vintage Rox or VRX series, which includes the original RoxBox 18 (now called the VRX18). Loaded with a pair of 6V6 power tubes, this amp oozes vintage American clean and dirty tone ala Stevie Ray Vaughn.

Pros: More clean headroom in Channel 1 as compared to its EL84-based 18 Watt sibling. And despite its lower wattage rating, this amp is capable of getting LOUD! Plus the VRX series sports what I think are the best power switching and master volume in the business!

Cons: None.

Price: $895 Head / $995-$1095 for Combo (dep. on speaker)

Specs:

– (2) 6V6 Power Tubes
– (3) 12AX7 Preamp Tubes
– S.S. Rectifier with “sag” circuit
– Hi/Low B+ voltage switch (22/10 watts)
– On/Off Switch
– Indicator Lamp
– Custom Heavy Duty Aluminum Chassis
– Custom Wound Transformers
– 4, 8, 16 ohm Speaker Jacks
– Custom Handcrafted
Turret Board
– HandwiredTone Bone Rating: 5.0 – Jeff Aragaki has hit the ball out of the park with this amp! I loved the original RoxBox 18, and gave it a 4.75, but with this amp, Jeff “fixed” the harshness of the breakup at lower volumes. To me, it’s the perfect amp!

Let’s roll back the clock a couple of months. I get a call from Jeff Aragaki. The conversation went something like this…

“Hey Brendan! How’s it going?” asks Jeff.

“Not bad. Howzit with you?” I ask.

“It’s going good. Listen, I’m experimenting with a new tube compliment for the RoxBox and put a pair of 6V6’s in it to see how it sounds,” says Jeff.”

“Oh REALLY? Kinda tryin’ to get an American voicing, are ya…”

“Yeah, plus the output rating should be bit higher at around 22-25 Watts,” Jeff states.

“Okay,” I say, “Now you’ve got my attention. When can I try it out?” I ask.

<chuckle> “Well, I called to see if could bring it over to you for you try out and give me some feedback,” replies Jeff.

“Brand new amp? Experiment? Need you ask to see if I’d like to try it out? I’m free Saturday morning!” I exclaimed.

Fast-forward to the following Saturday, and Jeff lets me try the amp for a couple of days before he has to take it back, and I immediately start taking it through its paces. I even gig with it. I’d instantly fallen in love with it! I call Jeff and tell him that I think he’s onto something with this amp. He’s glad for the feedback, then a couple of days later, he picks it up to finish it out.

A few days later, he calls and tells me that he had to tweak the circuits a bit to handle the increased power. Uh-oh. So I asked, “Did it change the tone?”

“Hahaha… not at all. In fact it was actually running at way below 22 Watts. Since I reworked the circuitry, it has tons of power now, and it sounds even better. I even adjusted Channel 1 so you get even more clean headroom, and Channel 2 breaks up real nicely now. In any case, I’m going on a business trip to Indonesia and you can play with the amp for a couple of weeks while I’m gone.”

And play I did! That was one of the most exhausting two weeks of my life because I was up till late (like 2-3 am) playing that amp. I just couldn’t get enough of it, especially playing “Goldie” (a Saint Guitar Goldtop I recently reviewed) through the amp. And in all that time, I wanted to write a review of it, but I had agreed with Jeff to not talk about it (though I hinted a lot) until he got back from Indonesia and turned it into a production amp.

Once he returned from Indonesia a couple of weeks ago, he came over to pick the amp up. He asks me the usual questions about how I liked it, and I just said, “Jeff, this is a PERFECT amp! I can’t say anything bad about at all. Channel 1 is gorgeous and works great with pedals. Channel 2 just rocks the house! It’s the channel I used the most, and it’s also real pedal-friendly. And for once in my life, I’m at a total loss for words; that’s how much this amp affects me to the core.”

Jeff just laughed, and said, “Well, I’ve got a couple of other amps for you to try out…”

I cut him off, and told him that it’s fine if he wanted me to review them, but as far as what amp I’d choose to go with for my personal amp, the VRX22 was it. Search over. He laughed again, and said he’d get started on it….

Okay… fast forward to yesterday…

Jeff called me up to give me a status on my amp, and that he talked to someone this past week who is also getting one, choosing the VRX22 over a well-known boutique manufacturer. So it was definitely going into production, and he was almost done with the web page and announcement. Of course, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut and immediately wrote an announcement, despite his recommendation to wait until today). 🙂 I just promised I wouldn’t say too much, which I didn’t because I wanted to write a review.

What’s in a name…

To create alignment in the series, Jeff has renamed the “RoxBox” line to the “Vintage Rox” or VRX series. If you recall, the original RoxBox 18 sported a pair of EL84 power tubes and is now called the VRX18; and the only difference between the two amps is that the VRX22 employs 6V6’s and circuits that can deal with the increased power. In essence, with the VRX series, Jeff is providing both British (VRX 18) and an American (VRX 22) voicing options. The EL84-based VRX18 breaks up very similarly to a VOX AC15, with a lot of high-freq shimmer. The VRX22, on the other hand, breaks up like a classic Tweed. Frankly, once I have the bucks, playing both together will sound absolutely awesome!!! And priced at $895 each for the head models, that’s A LOT cheaper than a single hand-wired amp from most boutique manufacturers.

Hand-wired goodness at an affordable price

I can’t stress this enough: The thing that originally blew me away with Aracom Amps was the price of the RoxBox. I couldn’t believe Jeff could sell a hand-wired amp for less than a grand – even with a solid-state rectifier! As I’ve gotten to know Jeff, and I’ve come to understand one thing about him: He’s an incredibly shrewd businessman. As he shared with me this morning, “It’s a matter of philosophy. Some guys make boutique gear, give their stuff a nice paint job, then charge a bunch of money for their gear. Then there are other guys who just want to make a few bucks off their gear, but sell it at a lower price so more people will play it.”

The net result is that we consumers reap the rewards of that philosophy, and probably one of the reasons why Jeff’s amps are starting to gain a lot of traction in the industry. And artists have started to find out about Jeff’s amps. Gene Baker of B3 Guitars fame plays an early-model Evolver, and just recorded his new album using the Evolver in all the songs. Obviously, a guy like this who gigs all the time is a believer. I’m nowhere near Gene’s abilities, but I totally dig his amps – I think you can tell. 🙂

How It Sounds

I’m not going to rehash features here, since the features are the same as the original RoxBox 18 that I reviewed a few months ago. Again, the fundamental difference is the use of 6V6’s.

If you’re looking for a classic American tone, this amp is it. Yeah, you COULD go with a classic Tweed from Fender or other boutique manufacturers. But you’d pay way more for the sound. But I also need to qualify that. The tone is “American-like.” It has a voicing that whether Jeff stumbled onto it or not, is a voicing that is at once familiar, but all its own at the same time. To me, I don’t give a rat’s ass about the power rating of this amp. All I know is that it sounds like nothing I’ve played before. That’s the feeling I get with the Reason SM25, which is another 6V6 beauty, but has a sound all it own.

Channel 1 is bright and gorgeous. It’s chimey as you’d expect from a classic Tweed sound, but it’s amazingly very lush as well – which is where this amp is really distinct. The words that come to mind with this clean channel are “subltely sensuous.” It’s not like a hot chick dressed in a tight mini skirt. It’s more akin to a gorgeous woman dressed in a simple cotton summer dress who doesn’t need any makeup to enhance her looks, and she has nothing to prove. She just looks to be all-woman. The net result is that you’re just drawn into aura without really knowing why – nor caring. The clean channel of the VRX22 has a similar effect on me. It’s just a gorgeous tone with any guitar (though I especially loved play “Pearl,” my Strat through it. The raw tone just draws you in, and when you add effects, it just handles them beautifully.

Channel 2 is also bright and ballsy, but its breakup is incredibly smooth. This is the channel where I think Jeff has really hit the ball out of the park. One of the things that has bugged me about the power tube distortion in a lot of Tweed-types of amps is the harsh grind from the power tubes that you oftentimes have to tame with some filter cap and capacitor changes – it’s a bit too open. Not so with this amp. The “hidden” gain stage that acts as a tube overdrive pedal that’s always on helps smooth out the distortion by making it a bit tighter, but not so much that you lose that openness that you expect from a Tweed-type amp. I loved slamming the front-end of the amp with tons of input gain, and pushing both pre-amp and power tubes at the same time. Talk about compression and sustain!

Here’s a clip I used for my review of “Goldie.” The amp is in Channel 2 for the lead, and I added just a tad of Tube Screamer to get a more punchy midrange response. The TS overdrive was maybe at 10 am – not much at all. Plus I layered on some reverb with my Hardwire RV-7 Reverb. The bulk of the breakup came from the amp. The rhythm track was recorded with Pearl on Channel 1.

Man! I just listened to that track again, and can’t get over how great the amp sounds. Normally I record at bedroom levels, but I wanted the amp to move a bit more air this time, and I recorded it at gig levels (for me, that’s around 90-100db, so it’s fairly loud but not over the top), and I used a  ribbon mic to pick up the ambient a bit better. The mic was placed at a 45 degree angle along the speaker cone about a foot and a half away from the amp.

Overall Impression

I just can’t rave about this amp more! To me, it’s the perfect balance of tone and power for practically all my needs! I’m getting the head with a 1X 12 cab, both wrapped in that awesome blue tolex that you see in the picture above!

Admittedly, the purist in me originally scoffed at the idea of a solid-state rectifier in the original RoxBox series. But as I told Jeff this morning, what people are typically after is the voltage sag you get with a tube rectifier. Jeff has built a custom “sag simulator” circuit that does the job so well that frankly, I can’t tell the difference. Besides, it’s what the amp sounds like that counts, not necessarily its components. Look at the classic Roland JC-120. That has to be one of my all-time favorite amps – even Satch played with one for years. It’s completely solid-state and it sounds freakin’ awesome!

But circling back to the VRX22. You can’t go wrong with this amp. Yes, it’s priced for value, but the tone that you get for that far surpasses anything that I’ve played at these lower wattages.

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