We guitarists love to get noticed. When we’re rocking out onstage, we just can’t help being the center of attention, whether we’re playing foot-on-the-monitor rock ‘n’ roll, headbanging metal or something softer. But getting noticed over all the other guitarists – well, that takes inspiration, creativity and thinking out of the box. So what can you do to get the crowd’s attention without getting arrested? Well, you could start by thinking about some basic modifications to your act – and your amp…
It’s funny how often amps get overlooked by guitarists who are desperately trying to breathe a new lease of life into their style and sound. We’re always looking for things to pimp our tone: new band, new clothes, new hair, new guitars, new pickups for our old guitars, new FX pedals – the list goes on.
And sure, new amps are often on that list as well. We might consider a new cab to go with our head, or a bigger (or smaller) combo, or a dinky and versatile practice amp just to play at home in front of the TV. But, in our experience, the vast majority of players are far more likely to tinker with every other aspect of their sound before they look at maybe doing something to their amplifier.
We find this kind of funny, because amps are one the absolute key factors in determining our guitar tone, along with us – the players – and our instruments. This could be something to do with the fact that amps can be complicated things, with way more wires and fiddly bits that can go wrong than on a guitar.
But of course we can ask our techs to look after things like this for us. In fact, unless you’re very sure of your skills – or you’ve found a great online guide somewhere and you’re feeling lucky – it’s probably best to trust any mechanical mods to a trained professional.
To get you on your way, then, today we’re sharing three simple ideas on things you can do to your amp – mods, if you will – to take it one step away from being the standard box thousands of other guitarists rely on. And the first thing you can change is…
Your amp’s looks!
OK, this might seem like a cop out. After all, changing the aesthetics of your rig is not going to make you sound any different. However, it can be a great and simple way of starting you on the road to more significant experimentation later on – and you can make sure you’ve at least got the coolest looking amp around before you make it sound that way!
There’s actually a surprisingly large amount of stuff you can do here. We’ll start small: change your amp’s jewel light, if it has one. Believe it or not, those bright little on/off switches can be one of the most noticeable features of your stage show to uninitiated audience members. Why not go for a brighter, more powerful color, or change to a shade that fits with your band’s look? New jewel lights can be had for little money, and are pretty simple to fit too.
Next up is your amp’s knobs. Again, this is an easy and cheap that can raise your coolness stakes by a factor of 50 – if you do it right, of course. There’s all sorts of choices out there, so shop around, choose your favorites and make your amp personal to you.
The most significant thing you can do on the looks front is getting a new, custom grille cloth. There’s plenty of places that’ll create and fit them for you, and some will even make a design that covers the whole amp.
This is something you see quite often with pro players. Big cabs can be a great place to stencil on a band logo, and it won’t affect your sound in the slightest. Don’t forget, you don’t necessarily need to go for a garish design here – just fitting a unique colored grille cloth to your amp can work wonders.
Now we get to the sound-based mods. We’re actually really surprised that many guitarists we know have never considered changing the stock speakers that come with their amp, because they really do have a huge influence on tone.
There are loads of factors to consider here, and even more options when it comes to buying speakers. First, take into account why you would want to swap your speaker(s) out, and what you would want to achieve with the new one(s) you’re getting put in.
The primary reason to swap speakers is that many stock options are simply average. For not a lot of money, you can have a replacement that really gives your guitar sound something extra.
Want a bigger low-end? There’s speakers out there that’ll do that. Want more distortion at lower volumes? There’s speakers out there than can help. In fact, you can find a new speaker somewhere that can give you pretty much any tonal edge you want.
There are things to look out for when you’re on the hunt for new speakers. For example, you’ll need to make sure you pick a replacement speaker that has the same impedance and a suitable power rating compare to your old one.
If you’re worried about the sheer variety of speakers out there, take your guitar to a decent store and try some different amps and cabs out. Or, if that’s not an option, there’s plenty of plugins and modelers today that let you choose the speakers in your virtual rig. They might not always be totally accurate, and of course they’re not the real thing, but they can definitely get you in the right ballpark.
One other good place to see and hear different speakers in action is YouTube. Check out this short demo of a few different speaker types and brands as an example:
Our third tip of the day is perhaps the most obvious, and it’s a subject close to all our hearts. We’re talking, of course, about…
Ah, yes. Tubes, that great talking point among guitarists. Are they still worth it now digital modeling’s got so good? Do they really sound better? Do different types of tubes really help produce different tones? Well, for the sake of argument, let’s say the answers to those three questions are Yes, Yes, and a resounding Yes.
So, where to start? Well, there’s two different places where you should consider a tube change: your preamp, and your power amp.
Your preamp tubes (generally the smaller ones, if you’re looking at your amp right now!) are actually more responsible for shaping your amp’s tone. The most common preamp tube used in amps today is the 12AX7, which generally has more gain than others you might consider replacing yours with.
Pick a lower gain preamp tube to replace your 12AX7s, and they’ll distort the early stages of the amp less – perfect if you love your clean tones. The 5751 is widely used in this context. And yes, despite the 12AX7’s dominance in amps, there are many other options out there to try – and many tube experts who can let you know which tube does what!
There’s also a bunch of power tubes available to the mod-minded guitarist, the four most popular types being EL34s, EL84s, 6L6GCs and 6V6GTs. As their name might suggest, power tubes are less about pure tone than the preamp tubes, and more about sheer power and volume – although they all go about their business slightly differently.
Different types of power tubes are suited to different types of players and sounds, with the 6L6s and 6V6s being more associated with American style amps and tones, and the EL34s and EL84s being seen as giving a more ‘Brit’ sound. If you crave the tones from across the channel then, it might just a case of swapping out those tubes!
Just like with speakers, though, there are simply hundreds of different tube types out there, and we really recommend you talk to a pro before taking the plunge and buying new ones. There are a bunch of great online resources too, and some simple Googling can really help you expand your knowledge on the subject.
Now, we’ve taken pains to keep everything simple in this post, but we really hope this trio of tips has opened your mind to making some amp-based changes in the future. If you’re stuck in a rut with your playing, or your sound’s just not quite where you want it to be, some simple amp mods – rather than rushing out and buying a whole new setup that you don’t actually need – could be the answer.
One last repeated word of warning, though: even simple mods are best done by pros! If you don’t know what you’re doing, let a tech make the changes for you. It might cost a bit more, but you’ll have no worries about what you’re doing, and your amp will be all the happier for it.
So, what mods have you done on your amp? We’d love to know how you’ve changed things up in the past, or what you’ve got planned…
First published: October 02 2014. Most recent update: September 21 2015.
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Can I replace preamp 12ax7s with 12ay7s in my Statesman Quad EL84 without harming the amp. Does it need to be rebaesed? Can I combine ay and ax at the same time?
Hi Lou. First off, like we always have to say, we always recommend a tube tech does any stuff like this. But technically yes, the 12AY7s should work. We generally don’t bother with re-biasing preamp tubes. Some do, some don’t, and it seems to alter by tech and by experience. But they’re not like power tubes in that they must be in biased pairs.
One other thing to say is: we haven’t tried a 12AY7 in that amp model. So although technically it’ll fit in the amp, we’re not sure what effect it will have on your sound and tone! The 12AY7 is known as a less gainy tube than the 12AX7, so that’s one thing to think about…
Thank you….love this tubemeister 36…..great amp….sounds thick and creamy with some mullards….
Thanks Michael! Yep, we’ve heard lots of good things about Mullards, definitely worth a look if people are thinking of changing tubes…
Can someome give me the correct preamp tube location for each…pi, and cf, locations please? For the TubeMeister 36.
Hi Michael. Sure, when you’re looking at the amp from the front, the left preamp tube is the phase inverter, and the middle tube is the cathode follower!
Thanks, and yes you are naughty 😀 but I am really ok with the switchblade.
At the end I didn’t need to use the fx loop or even the ‘X’ connection, the NS2 is in the front of the amp. I also decided not to give up my distortion pedals at the end and run them in the NS2 loop (a tube screamer and a big muff). I just reduced the channel volume (and increased the master), decreased the gain a little bit, and use the volume pot of my guitar consciously. That made things way better.
When it is not enough, i just feel in peace and embrace the noise; at the end we are a heavy metal band 😉
Sorry, it was worth a try though 😉 And there you go, you found a good solution anyway – you’re not a quiet folk band, after all 🙂
Rock on, good sir!
I am an happy owner of a Switchblade 100 TSC combo but recently i got some problems with feedbacks when using the ultra channel (especially in palm-muting-then-silence stuff). I know, I should lower the volume, lower the gain, try not to be so close to the amp (difficult in our rehearsing room) but I was wondering what’s the best use of a BOSS NS2 noise suppressor in this situation…here’s my experiences:
1 – In front of the amp (I don’t use any additional distortion/overdrive, only modulations): Sounds better, less feedback, it’s the only configuration that I tried succesfully.
2 – In the fx loop: Do I have to activate the serial loop? Never tried this one
3 – X connection: Guitar in the input of the noise gate (after modulation effects) and then the preamp section in the loop of NS2. They say it’s the best option but I tried once and I heard an annoing squealing sound, maybe I forgot to put the serial loop? Maybe this configuration won’t work with the switchblade due to input levels?
I wouldn’t try other solutions (if there are more) because I don’t like having many cables lying around….
Our rehearsal room is far and at home I cannot test it at full volume (obviously!), It would be good to have some advice before experimenting there 😉
Thanks in advance and keep up with the awesome work!
Hi Fabio! Hmm, the best advice we can give you here is to try the three methods out and find the one that works for you. In the FX Loop, you may be able to remove more noise than going through the front of the amp, but set the Loop to serial for this.
The most ideal option is the GrandMeister though – this amp has our IDB (dual breakpoint) noise gate, that measures the signal directly at the input jack and then post preamp (but pre-FX), for the best of both worlds. Which is like your option 3 but way simpler and without any issues. You can also use the power soak to practice with the GrandMeister at home too 😉
Anyway, sorry for being naughty and also trying to tempt you with another amp! Hope this is a little bit helpful, and let us know what you end up using! 🙂
I did replace the tubes in the amp with JJ E34L’s , re-biased it and put lower gain preamp tubes in it as well as swapping the speaker out for a higher wattage Carvin speaker for less coloration. The sound was greatly improved (well…to my ears, anyway)…
Interesting Michael, and good to know! As we often say, tone is subjective, so if you’re happy with it, what more can you ask for? It’s amazing how much these factors can influence your tone…
Hello. I’ve owned both the 100W Switchblade head and the 50W Switchblade combo. The head I sold after a few months because I had too many amps and I didn’t need another 100 watt head. I’ve kept the combo for many years becuase it is so versatile and sounds so damn good. I DID put a 7-pin din jack in the footswitch and bought a cable to use with it because I had a problem with the cable that was hard wired into the footswitch – no problems since. I had the amp quit making sound at a gig once, although it was all lit up and looked ok. It was the high-tension fuse, so I bought a bunch of those and, murphy’s law, haven’t needed them since and that was about 6 years ago. The only thing I have a question about is the channel switching with a 2-button footswitch. It goes from clean to ultra but I would prefer it to be selectable for any 2 channels. Is there a possible way to do this? I am an amateur technician, can read schematics and work on my own amps. If this can be done, please email me the instructions and I will keep you informed.
Hmm, what you really need is an FSM-432 footswitch Michael (or the discontinued H&K FS-4, if you can find one, which lets you switch between all four channels!). These shipped with all new Switchblades back in the day. We asked our techs about the 1/2-button footswitch issue and they said there’s nothing you can do. Basically, the option to be able to switch Switchblade channles using a 1 or 2-button switch was included as a last resort in case you forget your FSM controller for a gig, so at least you can set up the Clean and Ultra channels and go between a clean and a dirty sound.
So unfortunately there’s no real fix there. We hope you can find a solution with a four-way switch or a MIDI board, and that you can continue to get many more years out of your Switchblade! 🙂
Per my post on 12 inch Neodym for TM 18 Combo. Your design team should consider that adding one inch depth to the cabinet will get you where you need to be in terms of space needed to add the 12″. Then the 12″ fits with no additional cutting or width changes. Remember that the whole purpose of adding a Lil Texas Neodym is, so it has the same voicing as the Ceramic versions, with about 5 lbs less weight. You can also use a thinner baffle board as the speaker is much lighter. The idea being to open up the voice of the amp and still get the added value of less weight. Unless you find an issue when you scope the new speaker, there is no need to mod the back baffle / vent board in the rear of the cabinet. Less than 20 lbs and an amp that keeps up in a small club is a real marketing advantage… Rick
More interesting thoughts and advice Rick, so cheers for sharing again! Rest assured that our product managers/designers do read the comments we get here (and we make them aware of them too if they’re falling behind on checking up on the feedback we get 😉 ) so let’s see what happens in future 🙂
I am 62 yrs old and still rocking in Bangkok at various jams. I was tired of hefting around heavy combos so I bought a H&K Tubemeister 18 combo. Great lil amp but the Celestion 30/10″ was as gutless as a rag doll. I took the amp apart, measured the insides and cut a new baffle plate to replace the original one. This plate should be at least 1/4″ thinner. You will still need to route out around the new speaker hole, and bevel the edges to fit properly inside the cabinet. Now for the fun part. I engineered in a 12″ Eminence Lil Texas Neodym, the very best choice for voicing this amp! I used a Marshall type grill covering and stapled it on the back of the baffle with stainless wire staples. I actually had to drill a 1/4″ hole to relieve the interference for one of the driver tube tips on the back hip of the speaker. It all fits, looks great, sounds stunning and performs with the big boys on stage. Good voicing with single or double coil pups. This makes a combo that weighs less than 20 lbs and it smokes all the other amp combos in it’s range. Careful engineering and care to protect the speaker is needed during the fit up, but the outcome is well worth it! Enjoy
Wow, cool story Rick! We’ve heard a lot of good stuff about Eminence speakers – perhaps we should investigate further for future H&K amps 😉 Great to hear how flexible your new amp is, and it wasn’t too much work for someone who clearly knows what they’re doing!
Have a Tubemeister 5 head, would like to swap some tube combos but can’t find the instruction to break into the case. Is it just the 4 Philips head screws on either end to get inside?
Hi John, that is indeed the way in – but be careful! If you open up the amp like that, your warranty (assuming you still have it) is void.
Prior to receiving your excellent blogs on the huge range of aspects related to guitars and amps I had done some modifications as follows. I have 3 amps a vox ac30 with the standard greenback speakers, a hot rod fender deville 212 and a fender super champ xd. Now my son uses the vox on stage with his band and is serious about the tone no changes here. However I changed the XDs speaker for a 25watt Celestion 10″ greenback of the same impedance. A noticeable pleasing difference not as loud but much more controlled sound with less break up. The Seville which was an ex shop demo model however blew a power tube after 3 years. Some research prompted me to acquire a pair of 6L6GC Svetlana winged C tubes fitted and correctly biased. Lordy how they sing with miles of headroom, superbly controlled distortion, and amazing note rendition. Some would say I have changed the amps character but considering the run of the mill original equipment I have treated them to a more creative performance cos I doubt that they were originally designed to sound as they did
Thanks for the cool story John! We’ve never tried those Svetlanas, so they’re definitely going on our wishlist 🙂 And on the other stuff, it’s cool how these relatively simople changes are overlooked by so many players – especially the importance of the speaker itself in your guitar tone…
The best thing you can do is change your strings. That will get you to love your amp again and that great guitar.
New speaker will change every thing. Be surprised how great that old amp sounds.
A problem with the music people now is vintage! Change out old pots and wiring, they get old and new electronics will make that beauty sound up to its reputation.
All good points, and we’re especially convinced about the speaker thing! It’s amazing how important they are for our sound, and even more amazing how unimportant the choice of speaker is for a lot of guitarists.
When it comes to the guitar, pots/wiring/strings, etc., are also a given, as is general maintenance. Luckily, amps can be easier to take care of 🙂
Great article. I have a Tubemeister 18 head, do the knobs pull off easily? Any suggestions on replacement knob types?
Thanks Mark! The knobs might or might not – it always seems different. Just give them a pull and if they give at all, they’ll come off with some gentle force. If they’re still tight, try wrapping a shirt or tea towel round them, as you would a tight jamjar lid! Otherwise, some gentle pulling with pliers will do the trick, but be aware that you can scratch stuff by doing this.
In terms of replacement knobs, it’s whatever floats your boat! We personally love chickenhead knobs (as well as the knobs we use on our amps, of course) – they look awesome cool and it’s easy to see your settings from across the stage/practice room… Let us know what you decide to go for!
what speakers are in a Attax 200….who are they built by? They have a distinct sound….I own one…nothing else sounds like this amp …great sound but different..
Hi Dave, the Attax 200 was loaded with these: 2x CELESTION RockDriver Vintage (12″, 8 ohms).
If you want more info on your amp, the old manual’s here: http://22.214.171.124/oma/huke/manual/BDA_Attax_200_96.pdf
Happy rocking, and enjoy! It’s a great old amp, even if we do say so ourselves… 😉
We’ll my tone was rather weak. My cab was cheap and my stock tubes in my blackstar were weak. First things first I swapped my stock bridge pickup for a crunchlab. That really brought the guitar to life; but tone from the amp was lacking still. So I rerouted all of my pedals through my fx loop, and it started to really come a live. My boss equalizer pedal really helped with shaping my tone, and not muddy it up like it was in the front of the amp. Also with the noise suppressor in the loop the amp was a lot less noisey when turned up. Well now that the tone sounded okish I wanted more volume, and gain. So I contacted eurotubes.com. they are great guys, and can help you achieve the sound you are going for! I swapped my stock 12ax7’s for their hi gain JJ 12ax7’s their hottest preamp tubes. The gain was finally there but low end was lacking so I swapped my RUBY EL34’s power tubes for JJ EL34L’s, and the amp was finally at the tone I wanted everything was sounding perfect… That is until I noticed the speakers were lacking, and not sounding full as I’d like. So I found a Marshall 1960 loaded with v30’s for about $250. The speakers themselves are $119 a piece. So finally getting the cab I needed my rig was finally complete. The tones I can get are amazing, and with the eq pedal I can shape it anyway I like. So this thread is very true, and I spent roughly less than $400 to get my tone. The amp is 20 watts but with the tube switch I’d put it up against a 50 watt head. Hope this helps someone out!
This is a great story, Nick, and we’re really happy you managed to find your perfect tone in the end! Proves that all the tinkering and experimentation was worth it – and, for less than $400, it was much cheaper than just buying loads of new kit in the hope that something’s going to sound amazing. Thanks for sharing!