Perfect Sound Forever

The cult of musical equipment

Photo: Vintage Silvertones

by Gary Gomes
(April 2006)

Well, I did it. Finally took the plunge. After forty years of sitting on the fence while playing the keyboard, I finally decided to get a guitar. A cheap one (actually I was talked into it by my wife and friends who could not figure out why I wanted a bass guitar instead of a lead guitar). So I did it, and I am pretty bad, but armed with a knowledge of bar chords, I can already play "I Can See for Miles" and "Purple Haze" and "Smoke on the Water" and wait... those are all pretty much the same three chords...

That is enough about me. I would go on, but Perfect Sound doesn't pay for me to do personal psychotherapy and in any event, I wanted to do an article about why we make the instrument choices we do when we are young and even older. This came to mind when I was looking at guitars, amplifiers and sort of puts the head on a series of observations about human behavior that I noticed through the years of being an instrument geek. I know most of the instruments that can be obtained, and even a lot of the obscure products and instruments out there, because I thought it would be valuable to know about the tools involved in making music. So I learned these things in a way that really only shows that I need to get a life.

First of all, let's get one thing straight--guitars really are planks of wood (unless they have plastic or graphite bodies); synthesizers and other electronic and electric keyboards really are amalgams of wire and electronics wrapped up in a packages that uses a limited twelve notes as triggers; drums really are membranes stretched over frames (pianos are really tuned drums, because the strings are hit, right?), woodwinds use wood or metal to amplify wind forced through a reed, violins are stretched wire that uses a friction producing device to make noise--you get the idea. The means of noise production available to humans usually fits one of these patterns--even voices are combinations of strings (vocal cords), winds and percussion. And electronic amplifiers are devices use to increase the volume of electronically produced or captured sounds. They allow for extra adjustments of sounds through effects devices, but these are essentially ways of modifying sound through filters of varying sophistication, and like all filtration, these color the sound of the sound source--the instrument.

Yet we are enraptured by the tools, by the makers of these tools, whatever their names may be. This is where the art of the tool maker starts to dominate the tool, and our relationship with it.

We are slaves to the brand name--and for some things that is good. But why are we enraptured by Fender, Marshall, Gibson--the big boys? There have been other big boys, and there are some fine musical instrument manufacturers out there--but these are big time, sexy names, almost iconic. They make fine products, but why is the budding musician usually attracted to these?

It is (as if you did not know) the fact that the STARS used these products. Hendrix' Marshall stack and Fender Stratocaster ARE rock; Clapton's Gibsons (in the 1960's) and Fenders are well known; the late Stevie Ray Vaughn also had a predilection for Fender. Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck also shared Clapton's split loyalties for the big makers. In the 1980's brands, like Charvel and Ibanez also started being used extensively, but I can remember looking at some excellent guitarists and saying to myself that the guitar looked like a toy, so I was a willing participant in this process from a very early age. My classmates used to joke about my obsession with such things when I was in high school.

The lure of the pop star, of the brand name that promises so much, has been a constant in our culture. And certainly one can plank down what they wish for any plank of wood and get a reasonable amount of mileage out of it.

BUT... we tend to forget that Jeff Beck's Yardbirds axe was a Fender Esquire that he bought used for $60 and modified. Randy California of Spirit (who influenced, among others, Phil Manzanera and Jimmy Page) worked with a cheap Dan Electro guitar made for Sears! (I have seen pictures of Jimi Hendrix' first guitar and that looked like a Dan Electro Sears model too!) John McLaughlin's first electric was a Fender Mustang (which Fred Frith praised as "gloriously gritty" in an email exchange I had with him once), as was Lee Jackson of the Nice's bass in the early history of that group. Eric Clapton started on a Kay, and John Alec Entwistle made his first bass guitar by hand, while Ginger Baker of Cream made one of his drum kits out of Perspex plastic that Jack Bruce said sounded incredible. The same Jack Bruce used a cheap Dan Electro Longhorn bass on Disraeli Gears--the Fender VI was used on Fresh Cream and the famous Gibson EB-3 was used live usually.

Amplifiers--well that is an interesting story as well. The most famous (and oddest) choice of amplifier had to go to Jimmy Page for his use of a 1950's Supro--a very small, low power amplifier--on the first Led Zeppelin album. In my opinion he never sounded better. Randy California used a Sears Silvertone (I saw Jack White using one on television not too long ago) and the late Randy California claimed that Hendrix used his amp when they played together. Now, the Silvertone is a pretty bare knuckles guitar amplifier. Since I grew up in the 1960's, I saw my fair share of them--but what they lacked in fidelity they made up for in volume and distortion. California managed the longest lasting guitar sustain I ever heard (until Robert Fripp came along) with his Sears guitar and amplifier, and I can recall a good friend of mine managing to replicate all of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" with that same amp and guitar--there was no need for a stack of Marshalls.

As a matter of fact, although Hendrix and Cream (after the Who) have the dubious reputation of pioneering the Marshall Stack, Hendrix used a variety of amplifiers during his life (Fenders first apparently) including Selmers (used by the Beatles in their early days and by the Animals in "House of the Rising Sun"--well before Vox grabbed either group), and Sunns (it is an interesting bit of trivia that Sunn amplifiers were founded by the bass player of the band the Kingsmen. There are also rumors that both Hendrix and Bruce has resistance capacitors added to their guitars to add punch to their sound. What Hendrix did manage to do was set up the iconography of the Marshall stack. Folks would see the Marshall stacks of all the big groups, starting with Hendrix and Cream of course. The Who used American made Vox Super Beatles when they toured the U.S. around the same time, which they apparently hated, but then, the Super Beatle was a solid state amp--more on this a bit later).

Selmer amps: photo courtesy Steve Russell, Vintage Hofner

This led to what I call the Grand Funk Railroad/Aerosmith phenomenon--mediocre musicians with GREAT equipment. Basically, what this meant is that in the late 1960's to early 1970's, it was no longer considered sufficient to have beginner equipment to start a group--one had to have the best stuff. This lead to many kids getting great equipment, but never developing any musical talent (except for the lead guitarist). I remember one journalist, whose name I can't recall, remarking that the bass player for Grand Funk Railroad reminded him of that kid up the street who "had all that really nice equipment, but never did learn how to play." I think this phenomenon of highly amped, bass heavy equipment lead to a generation of chops-challenged bassists in the 1970's. I can't think of any other apparent reason that bass players (especially metal bass players) started to sound like remedial players at this time, with the exception of folks like Janick Top, Colin Hodgkinson, Rockette Morton, you know, the guys that didn't make any money.

Finally, in my never ending litany of players that had oddball equipment, I should never forget Brian May, who had a guitar made from bits and pieces and a small amp wired by Queen bassist Roger Deacon. And let us not forget Fred Frith's famous name brand Ormstron Burns guitar, Mike Rutherford's Watkins amplifiers and Shergold split guitars Whatever else one could say about Genesis, one must say their early sound amplification was beautiful--along with the Mothers of Invention, they figured out that you would get a better sound live if the amplifiers were set to a low level but were all mixed through the public address system (some groups still haven't figured this out). And let us not forget Dave Davies' or Link Wray's slashing of the little green amplifier speaker (a technique used by many old blues players) to get the sound on "You Really Got Me" and "Rumble" that generated a legion of imitators.

The first thing you will notice is that companies like Vox, Fender and even Marshall are not included among the sound innovations listed here to any great extent. That is not because they were not important (they certainly were and many great recordings were made with this equipment). But the fact is that it did not really matter if Hendrix or Page or the Beatles used amplifier "x" or amplifier "y"--they still managed to get THE SAME SOUND!

This is a rather bold statement when one realizes that most guitar and amplifier makers market to the consumer based on a distinct sound. But let's look at the origins of some of this equipment. The original Marshall heads used the Fender Bassman head as a model, but used different tubes. The Mesa Boogie amp took the Fender Princeton as its model. Vox amps were Class A amps, but so were Selmers. And when push came to shove, even in the old days, one could get a similar sound by effects pedals or hotrodding techniques, some of which are still in use today. And many solid state amps could then and do now, get similar sounds to their tube counterparts. There are only so many directions in which you can go for sound amplification design, and the rest is in the "filters" as I like to call them. Basically, although tubes and solid state systems do distort differently (tubes usually accentuate the even harmonics and solid state causes what is called "harsh clipping"), the differences usually tend to show up at very loud levels. Also, there have been several technologies over the years that emulate tube sounds (field effect transistors come to mind) that only the most sophisticated listeners can tell the difference. Finally, you may have an oddball (like me) who prefers the brittle feedback of the solid state amplifier to the more "musical" (low in dissonance?) sound of the tube. There has been mountains of material written on this that is currently available on the internet, but this discussion goes all the way back to the 1970's when solid state equipment was starting to replace tube equipment in the home high fidelity market. The current discussion on tube versus solid state in the musical instrument market eerily parallels this earlier debate.

The aesthetics that have developed in the past 30 years are really interesting. There have been many, many specialized "boutique" amplifier manufacturers that have developed that cater to the specialized user – very much like the high end audio market I think – that sell high or low wattage guitar amplifiers for $1500-$2500 or more. This is for a 10-15 watt amplifier in some cases. Back in the 1960's when amplifiers were assessed by power ratings, we would have doubled over in laughter. $1500 for a 15-watt amplifier? You must be kidding. Look we have a 300 watt Kustom or Accoustic (the Doors, the Mothers and Traffic used these latter amplifiers) or a 250 watt Baldwin that doesn't cost that much! Given that more power does not necessarily make a piece of equipment better, the price difference is still astounding. Back then, hand made amplifiers would typically cost at most, $500. Many guitarists are just wowed by Jeff Beck's tone, but they don't understand that, back in the early days of the Jeff Beck group, he used Rickenbacker and Kustom amplifiers--both solid state models--and he sounded incredible.

The interesting thing is, those 300 watters in the 1960's, from my memory, sounded pretty good! The tube amps always seemed limited or broke down frequently. I had a 40- watt tube amp by an obscure company called Lafayette, but I always thought my organ sounded better through a Baldwin or any solid state amplifier. The clarity was stunning. And I always liked guitars through clean amplifiers. Tube distortion never did that much for me. But again, these are matters of taste, not objective opinion and I am sure that there is some truth to the assertion that tube sounds different from solid state.

But the tone that many guitarists seem to seek is more a matter of the guitarist's skill than the equipment used. And nostalgia and the desire to recapture past sounds almost always plays a role.

There were so many obscure brands of equipment through the years that had so much potential, but which fell by the wayside because of the consumers' interest in emulating the stars. If you go to the website Combo Organ Heaven you will see literally dozens of combo organs that were never given adequate exposure. Vox organs and Farfisas were the best known, but the Vox was a remarkably limited instrument sonically, the later plastic keys were stiff (I cut the side of my hand open playing one once) and the palette of sounds was pathetic. The ONLY advantage it had over other combo organs was that you could, if you were Terry Riley, tune the organ to just intonation because there were three oscillators that generated each tone. I am SURE that many combo organists actually did this. Farfisas were known for the wide array of voices that tended to sound the same. Other organs, like Baldwins (The Music Machine and Blind Faith used these), Gibsons (the Doors and the Mothers of Invention), and Panthers (the Mothers) along with many other lesser known brands (Rheem, Teisco Del Ray, Phillips, and many more. Fender, Yamaha and Ace Tone--who later became Roland--produced the best combos, in my opinion) were left by history's wayside. Soon, this mighty pantheon would be brushed aside by the ubiquitous Hammond--and not just any Hammond, but the monstrous B-3, a 2,000 pound marvel that is a direct descendant of the traincar weight Teilharmonium, one of the first electronic instruments.

Certain other organs enjoyed brief forays into rock--the noble Lowrey can be heard on "96 Tears," the Who's "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again", the Beatles "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and pretty much everything Mike Ratledge ever did with Soft Machine--but the Hammond, weighty monster that it is, ensures jobs for roadies to this day. I can recall reading in 1976 that Tony Banks was replacing his Hammond with an Oberheim synthesizer. Although horrified at the time, I have since looked at this as being a wise choice. The Oberheim could pretty much do a nice Sine Wave (which is what a Hammond does) and Tony saved Genesis' roadies years of back problems. Hammond also stopped making tone wheel organs in 1974, thereby ensuring their obsolescence, but also ensuring the immense appeal of these organs and their collectability (used B-3's typically go for at least $6,000 and can fetch much, much more). Most tone wheels organs are quite expensive, but the highest prices are reserved for the B-3, considered the penultimate rock organ. Some manufacturers have developed digital B-3's but these are considered inferior. About five years ago, Al Kooper reported his return to the Hammond, and the guitarists in his group were thrilled--they did not like playing over that synthetic crap! It's those ears again--those Princess and the Pea ears!

"Vintage" synthesizers and Mellotrons (remember, kids these were the earliest sampler kids, using tape loops?) are out there now, and all of the electronics are in wood frames. They are getting phenomenal prices for this old technology (Mellotrons are going for $6,000 - $10,000)--not bad for an instrument with tuning problems, that, in its earliest days was intended to displace musicians. That is gone in the mist of time. Now, $150 instruments can make many of the same sounds that Mellotrons did AND stay in tune. But I recently read a review in which a musician was criticized on a progressive website for not using an inexpensive mass produced keyboard. I thought progressives were supposed to embrace new technology.

In the meanwhile, for every Moog, ARP and Oberheim synthesizer maker there was an EML or PAIA, a little company struggling to succeed. EML's were used on Pere Ubu's early album by Allen Ravenstine to stunning effect--I never heard another synthesize sound quite this. ARP's sounded thin in comparison, and Moogs--even the Mini-Moog--were quite expensive in comparison.

Also, if one wants to look at the pre-synthesizer era, there were quite a few fascinating inventions in the 1960's like the Buchla synthesizer (which used pads as triggers for sound, not keyboards), Al Kooper's ondioline (the same instrument also heard on the Beatles' "Baby You're A Rich Man") and Messiaen's Ondes Martenot (later used by Radiohead), and of course, the Theremin. The last three were (and the latter two still are) heterodyning musical instruments commercially available in the United States, unlike the Trautonium (a similar instrument) used by many composers. Theremins are still being used (some folks actually do put little theremins in their guitars like Randy Califormia did), but these are truly underutilized resources. They are probably underutilized because the only three times most people have heard a theremin in on "Whole Lotta Love" by Led Zeppelin, "Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys, and on the theme from the original Star Trek series. So these remain relatively under explored devices. Even as late as the 1980's, some really interesting sounds were lost when FM synthesis fell out of fashion, mainly because it was more complicated to program than other forms of additive synthesis, but much more flexible.

Drummers have not had as much of a problem adapting new tools, although over the past 20 years, the desire for a hot sound has meant that many drummers tend to stifle their skills and exploration. Bass players, from my experience a largely conservative bunch to begin with, usually end up with variations on the Fender Jazz bass, despite the wonderful inroads made by in body peg tunings from companies like Steinberger and Lane Poor to name two. Active electronics have really boosted the bass signal and made it smoother, but also more annoyingly saccharin, for some reason. Although some bass players have an edge, some of the problems with bass tone can be traced back to the Jaco humming school of bass playing. Too much humming... not enough Jamaaladeen Tacuma.

Yet the most startling thing I have seen lately is the apparent conservatism that seems to exist in the electric guitar community. I have started reading guitar magazines and some writers in these books have noted it as well. Guitarists are the penultimate reactionaries of the music community! They obsess about tone, they want instruments that will give them a tone that will match Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimi Hendrix, or maybe Eric Clapton. They obsess about technique –not a bad thing--but they also seem to obsess about certain types of equipment. So guitars are all Strat-style or Les Paul style. Guitar pickups must be a certain type. Amplifiers have to be tube. It gets insane after awhile, mainly because it ends up as an insane attempt to replicate the past. One of the saddest things imaginable is the idea that Hendrix' legacy is better known by people trying to copy his equipment and tone than by trying to do new things. Hendrix was an innovator. Somehow, I can't help but think he would be using everything at his disposal to make music if he were alive today, and not just working with the effects or guitars or amplifiers he already had used in 1968!

There have been many innovations made in musical technology over the past 40 years. There could be even more if guitarists (who are the main people in rock after all) would be more willing to accept new products like guitar controllers that could trigger multiple sound from a six stringed instrument--this has already been developed from what I understand, but the concept was floated in the 1970's. New pickups have been developed and are being developed that replace and improve on the typical standard single coil or humbuckers that have dominated the market for years. Why does the guitarist need to have technology that was developed 50 years ago? Why not go for the newest thing? This resistance to new technologies goes back to the 1960's at least. There were effects pedals like the Fender Blender that were left by the wayside until folks like Billy Corgan started using them. The Fender Jaguar and Jazzmaster were very well made guitars that never clicked with the public in the 1960's because they did not have the punch or sustain of other more popular models. But when the new grunge rockers found them, they became popular again. You don't see many Roland Guitar synthesizers or for that matter and it is a rare event to see an ARP Avatar, one of the very first guitar synthesizers--essentially, ARP put so much money into this device that it drove ARP into bankruptcy, There were experiments in guitar design in the late 1960's as well. Dan Armstrong developed the first see through guitar (in Lucite), electric sitars were developed, and someone even developed a headless tuning mechanism (similar to a Steinberger) in 1967. Yet all of these innovations did not pay off, and guitar players wanted to stick with that same old 20 year old (now 40 year old) design.

Don't get me wrong; I like the sound of classic rock guitars. I like tube amplifiers for what they can do--but it seems to me that, on the other end, these is very little being done with new technology outside of effects pedals. Also, many of the major manufacturers (and some smaller ones) like Fender, Gibson and Ibanez, to name a few, are providing guitarists with new technologies. But I think, more than this, there has to be a daring acceptance of new ideas. Hans Reichel, a German free jazz guitarist, has cut the bodies out of his guitars and strung two necks together. When he plays, it sounds like an instrument without overtone limits--it rings. Fred Frith, as we all know, used bicycle clips on his guitar in the mid 1970's. And many guitarists aren't afraid to try different guitars that have fallen by the wayside (Sonic Youth anyone, or even Neil Young's amplification systems?).

The sad part is, if we get hung up on recreating a particular sound or a particular technology, it tends to retard our growth. Let's not be conservative musicians anymore, dedicated to preserving or recreating the past. In the words of Nicholas Slonimsky, let's try something new.


To end this, I would like to dedicate this article to the memory of the late, great Derek Bailey, the foremost innovator of modern guitar, who left us December 25, 2005. Despite his use of a very limited arsenal of equipment--he singlehandedly changed the tone of guitar playing with a stunning technique, an Epiphone guitar, and a ton of dedication and integrity. Before Derek, the only avant garde voice on guitar that most people knew was the late great Sonny Sharrock, who adapted the concepts of energy playing to guitar. When Bailey emerged (although he had been employing his unique approach for quite a few years already after playing in dance bands for approximately 20 years), he was noted as having a pensive deliberate unshakeable approach to free improvisation. I can [remember thinking that 1) it sounded totally unlike any kind of improvisation I had heard before and 2) it sounded like moving Webern--an analysis that Bailey agreed with in one interview. His playing was utterly unique and while some individuals did adapt some of his techniques, the relentless integrity and invention of his technique did not allow for easy imitation. He leaves an impressive discography, the legacy of 50 records of the Incus label he co-founded, other recordings, and countless collaborations. But more importantly, he leaves a singular dedication and integrity that to me, ranks him as being among the great musicians of the 20th century and beyond, equal to visionaries like Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Messiaen, Cage and the other great pioneers of modern music. He will be missed, but his spirit of innovation lingers on in those who are not afraid to try something different.

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER