Are you a fan of vintage amps? Those tonal legends that automatically inject a dose of mojo into your guitar sound? Well, read on to find out why one of Blog Of Tone’s esteemed and experienced writers tends to think otherwise: that the voodoo magic of old tubes and dusty hand-wired harnesses doesn’t automatically equate to the best guitar tone you can get…
Here’s a philosophical question for you: what’s a legend, really, but a yarn of fantasy spun from the fact of compounding coincidences?
Some legends are grounded in history, with a grain of truth to be found at their roots. Over the centuries, though, someone here exaggerated events to heighten the drama, another there embroidered the tale to make a point, and still others elsewhere gilded the lily just for the sheer joy of making stuff up.
Eventually the story takes on an alternate reality of its own, the historical facts embellished with random splashes of fiction.
Everything was better in the old days
Yet we still love our legends.
Add a pinch of wishful thinking, a dash of sentimentality, stir for nostalgic effect; voila, there you have a drink that makes us more misty-eyed with every sip. Then, when we look back, our view of the past gets a little hazy.
Our befogged minds start to think that everything was better back in the day. A few things may have indeed been more agreeable.
Perhaps life was a little less hectic and time passed at a more leisurely pace. And very few things may even have been a little better, but certainly nowhere near everything.
The best cautionary tale that comes to mind is that of elderly musical instruments, especially guitars and amplifiers, which are held in absurdly high regard.
Hey, I love the vibe and feel of a broken-in axe and amp just as much as the next guy, but there’s a point where I have to side with Napoleon I, who said: “From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step.”
Sorry folks; however it may pain purists, our cherished myths don’t stand up under scrutiny.
Stradivarius or strapped for cash?
I offer you this in the way of acoustical evidence: Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris conducted two studies, one in a hotel room during a violin competition and another four years later in a playoff under more controlled conditions where blindfolded professional musicians – we’re talking top-notch soloists here – were asked to play and rate a dozen violins according to playability, tonal quality and the like.
The first test’s instruments ranged from an affordable student model to an obscenely expensive Stradivarius.
Well, only 8 of 21 subjects preferred an old violin. Surprise, surprise. Somewhat more astonishingly, most chose a new, relatively inexpensive entry-level model.
In the second test, the maestros preferred recently made instruments to the vintage models on the order of six to one.
Only three opted for historic gems. Granted, violins are not guitars, but the point is still the same.
And it hurts.
The mind matters and dumb luck rules
So what are the implications of this for those of us who love vintage guitars?
Well, there’s the psychology of perception to consider. If you ask people to judge the quality of a wine, they’ll rate it higher when they’ve been told it’s pricier.
If we know that a musical instrument has a unique history, that it’s very old or expensive, we like to believe there’s something special about its tone, an ineffable essence that we’re sure we can detect in there somewhere.
At least that’s what our minds are telling us.
We fall into the trap of our own making. Old guitars and amplifiers are not good per se. Some are outstanding, but on balance, many more to be had on the open market are stacked towards the dreadful end of the scale.
Old is not always good
Their often roughshod quality had a lot to do with yesteryear’s production methods.
The first mass-manufactured electric guitars were the result of a conceptual experiment driven by the need to ramp up production to unprecedented quantities. A simple, efficient design had to be developed to this end, and the choice of materials was primarily dictated by availability.
Today’s certified standards were a long way off yet.
If this wood was to be had cheap from that source and some supplier was offering copper wire for pickups at a bargain price, then a run of such ‘special’ guitars was made.
When variables as important as this change at random, you’re likely to end up with a few hits and many misses. The law of randomness ruled the business of early electric guitars.
But the law of supply and demand has made yesterday’s lemon today’s legend.
When guitars went electric, most musicians were happy that you could buy anything at all, and were ecstatic if it was affordable.
Even in the golden era of electric guitars in the ’50s, most of these instruments were exactly what most are today: an industrially manufactured commodity.
Now, I’m not immune to the seductive charms of a time-tested guitar.
The patina of a much loved and often played axe; the living history oozing from its pores; old wood resonating in mysterious molecular harmony – all that’s sweet melody to my ears when I get my hands on a vintage specimen.
The voodoo charms of old wood
But when that first storm of enthusiasm subsides, it’s often a sobering experience.
The playability and tone, dry or amped, may be fine, but is it really that much finer? Does its response make me feel good because it’s a great instrument or because I drank the Kool-Aid and believe it has to be a great instrument because it’s vintage?
And, most importantly, does the difference justify handing over thousands of hard-earned bucks when I can drop by my favorite shop and buy a great-sounding, wonderfully playable new axe, produced to today’s far more exacting standards, at a fraction of the price?
After all, many of us would love to tool around town in an early ’50s Porsche 356, but none of us would claim that it accelerates and handles anything like a latter-day 911.
Unless we’re crazy, of course. Because although the oldie sounds sweet, smells good and looks great, the new model is by any standard a better engineered, safer and faster ride!
The curse of the legend
It’s the same story with amps. Much has been written about the pros and cons of hand-wired, point-to-point-circuits, but the fact is that random chance contributed a great deal to the mythmaking.
Yes, those (in)famous harnesses were hand-wired, but a harness sloppily patched together on a Monday by hung-over Jack was not identical to the harness meticulously crafted by exacting Jill on Thursday, and an amp wired on Wednesday might be another animal entirely.
Geography matters a lot more than many would care to admit.
The position of conducting components in the amp certainly affects tone. A few millimeters difference in the wires’ pathways can determine if an amplifier sounds great, good, or merely mediocre.
And on top of those tolerances attributable to relatively crude assembly methods, vibrations and temperature-induced changes tend to add up so that an amp’s tone can change markedly over time.
The same, but different
This explains why two identical amps can sound so different. I speak from experience because in my younger days players would do just about anything to get their hands on as many guitars or amplifiers of the same type for comparison so they could be sure of finding that elusive good one.
Each sounded different and it took a bit of luck to get exactly what the manufacturer promised. The select few that rose above the dross stood out like skyscrapers amid a cloud of mediocrity.
These rare instruments are the stuff of legend, the rest its curse.
Three chords and the truth
Some might say that there’s just one amp-based path to tonal heaven: a point-to-point layout with hand-wired harnesses.
I beg to differ, because this antiquated technology is, even under the most favorable conditions, very susceptible to variations. And in manufacturing, quality is inversely proportional to variation. As it increases, product quality decreases.
That kind of variation just doesn’t trouble a well-designed and made circuit board.
Some 21st century engineers aren’t guided by the dictates of logic and math alone when mapping out circuitry. They fiddle and fuss with layouts, moving this here and that there throughout the development effort to find the arrangement that delivers the best tone.
They’re duty-bound to experiment.
Why? Because today’s guitarist expects an amp to put the best tone, from vintage to modern, at his or her fingertips every time and everywhere.
And the amp maker is expected to deliver the goods at an affordable price. That’s a gauntlet we at H&K gladly take up, even if our way of doing things doesn’t lend itself to mythmaking.
But then again, the Technology of Tone is no mere legend. Plug into a Hughes & Kettner amp, strum three chords and see if you don’t agree that it’s the truth.
First published: April 10 2015. Most recent update: April 10 2015.