Guitars, Amps, and Tubes
by Fenris Wulf, KDVS Studio Tech
Do you know why certain vintage guitars command astronomical prices? It's because they are built with a higher level of craftsmanship than most of today's guitars. They play better and sound better. In order to get the same craftsmanship today, you have to buy a custom-built guitar for three times the price of a production model. Japanese-made Fenders are loved by players because they deliver vintage quality at a lower price.
A lot of cheaper guitars suffer from out-of-tune harmonics. This causes a warbling sound with distortion, because the string harmonics beat against the distortion harmonics. They have other problems like excessive pick noise and ringing harmonics when you change chords. Mass-produced guitar strings are inconsistent in quality and contribute to the problem.
Once you've found a playable guitar, you have to plug it into something. Most players prefer tube amps, for their natural compression and low-order harmonic distortion. The best amps I've heard were all 25 years old or more. No amp currently in production, except for a few high-priced boutique models, has quite the same tone. Most "vintage reissues" sound nothing like the originals. The manufacturers have cut too many corners; even the components used to build them have declined in quality and variety. I've heard cheap department-store guitars and amps from the 1960's that are better than modern guitars and amps in the $1000 range!
A lot of great guitar tones happened by misusing or modding the amp. When the manufacturers try to make an aggressive amp, they get it wrong. A heavy guitar tone isn't about gain or low end, it's about midrange crunch.
Discerning players use NOS (New Old Stock) tubes in their amps, often military surplus tubes made in the 1970's. (You might have to upgrade your output transformer to hear the difference.) Modern tubes made in China or Eastern Europe sound mushy or fuzzy compared to NOS tubes, are less consistent, and last one-third as long.
When tubes were replaced by transistors for most applications, the demand for tubes fell by 95%. Tubes have become a niche market, the manufacturing base has disappeared, specialized materials are no longer available, and it is simply impossible to make a tube to the same standard. A modern "12AX7" isn't really a 12AX7; it doesn't meet the minimum specifications for output voltage and noise, and in the old days it would have gone in the reject pile. It doesn't matter if it's gone through a "proprietary selection process" or if it's a "vintage reproduction"; it's still junk. There are no high-quality tubes being made today.
A distortion pedal clips the signal and generates high-order harmonics with more "bite." Vintage distortion pedals tend to be more "hi-fi," with simple clipping and tone circuitry that doesn't mangle the sound. Vintage reissues don't sound quite the same, because the original components are no longer available. Many distortion pedals can be improved by mods that back off the overdrive slightly or simplify the tone circuitry.
The speaker cabinet acts as the body of the instrument, providing resonance and tone shaping. A good cab has a balanced tone. Mass-produced cabs are cheaply built and tend to fall into two categories: peaky midrange or exaggerated bass. You can build your own cab for half the price, and experiment with mass, rigidity, internal volume, different woods, and different drivers. Blown speakers can easily be fixed with a recone kit. You don't have to be an expert carpenter to build a great-sounding cab.