Gear Geeks #4. "The Red Ramblers". Tone. Timing. Attitude. & How The Master-Volume Amplifier Almost Killed Rock 'n Roll.

Today's post might be more of a Gear Geek thing, but the inspiration is the songs.  So here goes.  This last month we've been busy recording two new singles at Perks Place Recording Studio.  A studio version of the acoustic number, 'The Old Family Home'.  And a new song, a rocker, called 'The Red Ramblers'.  Inevitably during these recording sessions, the talk centered on the elements that make a good song. 

Tone.  Timing.  Attitude.  A well worn guitar.  An amplifier ready to melt-down.  Finely tuned drums.  A story, and the feeling, something that comes from deep down inside.  You can't put your finger on any of it really.  But when it all comes together, you'll know it.  You can't deny it.  That song is either going to make you sing, dance, or maybe even make someone cry.

You can tune a guitar.  Electronic tuners are a given these days.  Even the greenest of new guitar players has one.  And you can practice beats and timing to a metronome, or a drum machine.  You should practice to one.  These are the things that really must be done to gain proficiency as a musican.  And these days there's more avenues to learning with books, magazines, and that bottomless pit of information, the internet.  Put in the time, and you can learn to play an instrument.  Like a machine.  For better or for worse.

A teacher is a good thing to have.  A good teacher is even better.  Technique, and comprehension come faster when a coach is there to guide you.  The coach will see when you are straying off the path, before you will.  

Utilizing all these things, I learned to play.  Well, all these things, except the internet in the early days.  I utilized a teacher until I developed a sense of pitch, learning to play by ear, and at that point my record collection became my teacher.  Anyways, eventually I played good enough to join a band.  It seemed like a dream come true.  I felt I'd arrived.  Little did I know that the real education was yet to begin.  And the teachers would always be around, when I was ready.

The stage became my classroom.  My teachers, were the audience.  Or sometimes older and more experienced musicians.  Sometimes younger.      

I learned about gear.  Out in the field.  My first real guitar amp was a half-stack.  A master-volume model.  A design that was supposed to provide the "cranked-amp" sound, at a "lower or more reasonable volume".  Great idea, in theory.  In practice, it's actually a bit of an oxymoron, don't you think?  Anyways, I'd learn that this design was a great marketing tool for the amp manufacturers.  But I'm not sure it was good for rock n roll music.  Rock music was born of attitude, of actually cranking it.  Shaking things up.  Make that guitar and amp sing.  That was about attitude.  I believe that buzzy master volume tone, more often than not, had the bartenders telling me to turn down.  In hindsight, a case could be made that a good pleasing tone will keep you out of trouble with venue staff.  After being told to turn down for the umpteenth time, I traded the half stack, for a non-master-volume 'reissue' of the 1963 brown Fender Vibroverb Amp.  It was with this amp that I started to understand tone.  And I saw the positive effect of good tone on audience and staff.  In short order I went even smaller finding a (real, not reissue) 1964 Fender Princeton Reverb Amplifier.  An amp I could actually crank-up to 7 or 8 in any venue.  Loud enough to really get the power-section of the amp and the speaker singing.  Tone heaven.  An amp you could crank with a real rock 'n roll attitude.  You weren't faking it.  For many years I kind of felt like I'd discovered the secret.  That amp was magical.  It's no surprise to me that Fender's eventual re-release the 64, 65, and 68 model Princeton Reverb Reissues is such a success.  Lots of guitar players and the amp guys are in on the secret now.  It's a good thing.

I would take this approach further and gig for many years with a pair of Fender Champs, especially at shows with good sound reinforcement.  

All that being said, a half-stack is still a viable option, for rock 'n roll.  The first requirement for it's use, though, being attitude.  And number two, make it sing.  And sing it will, under the right conditions.  Loudly.  Like I said it, does take attitude.  It's like wearing a hat.  Some guys can pull it off.  Some guys can't.

The real eye-opener about this kind of cranked amp tube tone, came at a jam I was invited to.  I showed up with my diminutive brown Fender Vibroverb, with it's mere 40 watts, and a couple of stomp boxes.  Another hot-shoe guitarist was there, with a half stack, and one of the big digital racks which were in-vogue at the time.  Needless to say I felt a little under-gunned.  We got to playing.  Low and behold, my tone crushed that guy.  I think both of us were surprised.  Me pleasantly, him, not so much.  For me the deal was sealed.  I became an ardent proponent, of the fat and warm sound, of the non-master-volume guitar amplifier.  Salty the doubter became a true believer.

During these years other lessons were learned.  About string gauges.  Various types of speakers.  Class A vs class AB amplifiers.  Maple vs rosewood fretboards.  Gibson vs Fender guitars.  All lessons forged in the cauldron of the gig, the jam, any form of actual real world play.

Some of the most cherished lessons were from other musicians.  Guys who'd decide you were ready to be let into the little secrets they had, about feel, timing, and tone.  Getting a lecture one night after a show from Randy Rich and John Marx about what "swing" is.  In layman's terms.  By guys who really understood what they were talking about.  In terms I could understand.  Getting a primer on the Chuck Berry rhythm feel from Danny Johnson, who got it from the guys in Rod Stewart's band.  Something that seems so simple.  Yet without attention to the littlest details, a knowing mentor, and persistent application, it is almost impossible to replicate.  I watched D.on Darox work a crowd, and learned later on from sharing stories with him on the road, that he'd actually worked as a carnival hawker as a kid.  He wasn't just a natural.  He was steeped in the life.  I never would have learned these things had I not been out there in the fields, fighting for my meals.  In the dives, on the road, being in a band, or just sitting-in every chance I got.  In this classroom.  With these teachers.

And then there's the studio.  Where all that stuff comes into play.  It's like a test at the end of the school year.  Tone.  Timing.  Attitude.  A well worn guitar.  An amplifier ready to melt-down.  Finely tuned drums.  A story.  That feeling.  That comes from deep down inside.  You can't put your finger on any of it really.  But when it all comes together, you'll know it.  You can't deny it.  That song is either going to make you sing, dance, or maybe even make someone cry.  This is the stuff.  Now, get to it.  Class is in session...

Salty Rose, 2020

Donnie Cohen showed me some of his secrets to slide guitar playing.  Secrets that had been passed on to him years before.  This clip mixes a punk rock, half-stack attitude, with the time honored tradition of electric blues slide guitar.

Salty Rose

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