I have spent 35 years in search of the perfect guitar tone. This is the third, and final, in a series of articles describing the journey to date, and how I reached the conclusions about the gear and techniques I now employ. Grab a large brandy and let's reel through the years...
[Editor's note: this article was written in January 2010 and I change my rig regularly. To find out where I am right now with video and audio content, I have created a new series of articles. Read part four after this one]
My sound may not be to everyone's taste but hopefully the following blurb will give you some ideas and pointers to develop your own unique tone, learning from the tens of thousands of pounds I spent on getting here! Before you start, you may want to read editions one and two.
For those of you living the Isle of Man, I am giving a 'Tone Workshop' at
Peter Norris Music on Sunday April 11, 2010 at 1900. I will be discussing and demonstrating all the stuff I talk about in these articles. If you fancy coming along book on the free workshop!
OK. After all the technical mumbo jumbo in the previous articles it time for a bit of fun. So we will look at where my thinking came from over the years, investigations of my previous live rigs (I have left out many of the other amps I have owned) and finally, an in depth look at my current rig...
There was Wishbone Ash Their third album, Argus, was released in 1972. I was 14 and remember listening at school, in awe, at the playing and sound. When I picked up the guitar at 16, the first thing I learned was 'Throw Down the Sword'.
Amazingly when we recorded the Little Brother album, Survival in 1991, Derek Lawrence and Big Jim Sullivan produced us. Derek had produced Argus and the early Deep Purple albums - can you imagine how I felt!
My 18th birthday present was a Gibson Flying V, which I still own.
I couldn't afford the 'Orange 120' that was synonymous with the band, so had to 'make do' with an original 70's Marshall Super Lead 100 which was supplied with a diabolical 1x12 Powercell cabinet (I set fire to this in a week).
This amp was fiendishly loud but was struggling to recreate the tone of Andy Powell & Ted Turner (the guitar players from Ash): I couldn't understand how they created the smooth tone and sustain on the records.
I was told that this was created by a 'distortion' pedal, so I went down to my local music shop, Harker & Howaths, in Bolton and tried a bunch: they all sounded totally shit, and to this day I don't use them extensively.
I had also heard that amps sounded better the louder they were :-)))
Of course I wasn't just listening to the mighty Ash but devouring albums like they were going out of fashion, recording them on my reel to reel tape machine and then slowing them down to half speed to 'get' the licks, practising about eight to 10 hours a day.
Jimmy Page, Richie Blackmore, Paul Kossoff (Free), Rory Gallagher, Alvin Lee (10 Years After), Carlos Santana, Dave Gilmour, Justin Hayward (Moody Blues), Eric Clapton, Robin Trower, Mike Bloomfield, Peter Green (in fact all the guitar players from John Mayall's Bluesbreakers) and the amazing Jan Akkerman (Focus) were always on my turntable. Note: no Hendrix, never really liked him that much...
I always preferred live albums though and my collection is extensive.
Early on I had three guitar lessons by an amazing guitar player called Simon Lilley, who to this day, still teaches in Bolton and taught me many licks that I still use.
Whitefire played a support at Sheffield Hallam University. By then I was using an original Marshall JTM45 and 4x12. This, with the Fender Strat and Flying V made a fearsome noise achieving the sustain by turning it up. The sound was more Blackmore / Page than Ash but pretty good.
We became pretty popular, doing bigger gigs and one amp wasn't enough (remember PA's were pretty poor then) and I bought another JTM45 and straight front 4x12.
I was using these on volume setting of 3-4 (which is almost full volume; any more nob rotation only results in more distortion) with the normal and bright channels linked. We were fucking loud.
I started to get into pedals at that point and my units were an MXR Phase 100, Cry Baby, a Dan Armstrong Red Ranger (pre amp which I converted to a stomp box) for solos and an H&H tape echo...
I finally managed to get enough money together to buy Orange 120's, not one, but two of the rascals along with the Marshall 4x12's. By this time we had the EP out, which was doing really well, we were on the same circuit as Tigers of Pan Tang and Saxon.
The excess of this era culminated at the Deeply Vale Festival where we were supporting Steve Hillage. Here I used four Orange 120's, on full shred, two Orange 4x12's, an Orange 8x10 and a Marshall 2x15.
My leather flares were literally flapping in the air moved by the sheer volume and when I hit a 'big E' it was like someone hitting me in the back with sledgehammer!
Even though I cant quite remember it too well - drugs are terrible things - it sounded tremendous!
The tone was definitely closer to my dream, but never satisfied, I purchased a Burman amp which was built like a brick shit-house and had another stage of gain in there (sadly not switch-able).
I didn't like the way Celestions coloured the sound, too much hi-mid for me and this is still my thinking. I wanted cleaner speakers which didn't colour the sound that much, so I had my mates Wigwam Acoustics make me 2 x 4x12's loaded with H&H speakers which was, in hindsight, a mistake.
Anyway, the days of a heavy rock band were numbered and we morphed into a punkish, high energy R&B band, Roadrunner.
This was the same line up as Whitefire: Eddie Taylor (drums), Jim Beswick (bass) and Tim Wright (vocals), but with the addition of my 'young' guitar student, Craig Walton.
Besides playing in Roadrunner, I was teaching a lot and doing loads of sessions in and around the North of England.
Playing stuff that required a deal more subtlety, I bought a new Mesa Boogie MkIIB fitted with an EVM12L: all session guys used Boogies, right?
I never fell in love with the Boogie, it did the job but it never sounded 'right' if you understand my drift: a bit like it was wearing an over tight corset.
At least in the EVM12L, I had found the perfect speaker! It sounded delightful and much closer to the tone I had in my head: I did however, miss the low end of the 4x12's.
It was at this point when I started to use a separate amp and speaker for my echo return.
I used echo from the very beginning and always found they muddied the tone of the setup, particularly at high volume. I finally sussed that if you took a feed out of the effects send of the amp, you could drive the echo unit with the output going into a separate amp and cab which created a cleaner tone.
I was using a Korg SDD2000 delay, small amp and a 1x12, fitted with an ATC speaker, again from my friends at Wigwam.
Sadly, Tim and I parted from the rest if the guys in Roadrunner and decided we needed to become pop stars.
We formed 80's pop band Gilt Edge that morphed into Little Brother. This band recorded the album produced by Derek Lawrence and Big Jim Sullivan (see above) for Polydor's German subsidiary, Line records.
In addition to all the other guitar players mentioned earlier, I was now listening to Jeff Beck, Gary Moore, BB King, Alan Murphy (Go West), Albert King, Albert Collins, Freddie King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmy Vaughan, Brain May, Scotty Moore, Prince, James Burton, Danny Gatton, Chet Atkins, Eddie Van Halen, Brian Setzer, Angus Young and Billy Gibbons.
I didn't really like the Boogie, but I wanted to give it another go: could I use it for lead only and have two amps, one clean and one dirty?
We I tried this and bought a silver-face Twin Reverb fitted with two EVM12L. It was the heaviest amplifier in the world, sounded nice but I didn't think it suited the EV's.
Of course now I was (actually the road crew) carrying more and more gear, wrestling with hum loop problems, tone suck, long guitar leads and other anomalies. I was now also using a Boss Chorus pedal (ahhhh) which was the de-rigour for any respected 80's pop artist and a Samson Radio system (the compression takes all the dynamics out of the guitar - cables are far better).
I was in a tone black hole spiralling into oblivion.
This is where the madness really started as tours were starting to happen. I replaced the Boogie with a Jim Kelly FACS Line amplifier, which was amazing, again fitted with an EVM12L. This was a real amp and I could honestly say I had (and later did) achieved a near tone nirvana with this amp alone.
There were many variations of this setup hence the #5-8...
Unfortunately, I thought a big stereo rig was required. So I developed an new system. The Kelly drove a Groove Tubes power soak, the output of which went into a mixer, Korg SDD2000 echo and Yamaha SPX90 on an aux send/returns with Rockman rack mount chorus - known as RockModules (oh dear) - out into and HH V800 power amp driving two EVM12L's.
I also bought a Rockman Midi Octopus so I could switch everything, (including amp channel) from the front of the stage: the whole kahuna.
The final nail in the tone disaster was a RockModule sustainer as I had used one in the studio.
Tom Scholz and Boston here I come...The tone was, 'More than a feeling' - a pile of bis.
My best mate and vocalist for all my music career, Tim Wright, decided he needed to have a rest from music, so I was left at the mercy of my own ambition.
Every Thursday, I started to attend a jam night in Ramsbottom and found we had a lack of singers, so I gave it a go and realised that I could sing in tune and that was good enough!
I was doing some record production and during my session work I had come across Mike Hehir, the guitar player from 'Sad Cafe' and 'Corey Hart'. We formed a band known as the Method basically doing a load of Zeppelin, Clapton and other guitar based covers.
This was great fun, doing piles of gigs, guitars duelling and general fret wanking... Mike is a fantastic guitar player and we did develop a large following of muso's.
By now I had ditched the hideous stereo setup and used the Jim Kelly through an Orange 4x12. On the side I also had a Fender Bandmaster through a 1x12 EVM12L which I used for tracks with Tremolo.
Simultaneously to the Method, I formed the Disciples, again through a production connection, and was certainly the best band I have ever had. Ed Horrox (guitar), Dave Gilmour (not 'the' but 'a' on drums) and Julian Brooks (bass). Again we did some recording, releasing a mini album and started to become very popular indeed.
Height of excess here was headlining the International II in Manchester using the Kelly, Orange 4x12 linked to a lovely 60's Marshall JTM45 (which I picked up for next to nothing) through an old Marshall 4x12 plus the Fender Bandmaster setup (as above). No echo, no pedals, just the superb tank reverb in the Kelly.
This was an awesome live tone indeed; probably the best I had, up to that point.
The rest of the guys were young and we sadly split up. I was very upset...
During this period I did a number of Eric Clapton 'tribute' shows (the biggest being at the Albert Halls in Bolton and used the same gear. Great sound...
I carried on with the Disciples name but now employing my old mate Steve Dowd on keyboards (from Little Brother), a great, young bass player, 'Dancing' Dan Fielden and another new face Roy Taylor on drums.
Still not satisfied (and at this stage I cant think for the life of me why), I bought a Groove Tube Trio preamp and the Dual power amp, trying this initially through two Orange 4x12's. This didn't work live so I sold the Dual and bought two new Fender SuperAmp's. This was a good sound but frankly, had no real bollocks and sounded very 'processed'.
I was now listening to Larry Carlton, Jerry Donahue (and the Hellecasters), Robert Cray, Jeff Healey, Tom Morello, the outstanding Neil Young, The Edge, Daniel Lanois, Jonny Greenwood and more Jeff Beck.
My new mate Paul Wright asked "Have you heard Talk to your Daughter by Robben Ford". I bought the album and fell in love with his tone and playing. It was musical and expressive and really where I would have expected Andy Powell to have gone with his sound.
Paul and I formed another version of the Disciples, two guitars with Dan on Bass and the very excellent Kevin Whitehead of 'Dare' and 'Barclay James Harvest' on drums.
Paul and I bought two of the TwoRock Sapphire amplifiers with 2x12's. The first time we gigged them one of the audience said. "Wow that just sounded like Wishbone Ash" - job done...
The cabinets came fitted with 'Tone Tubby' speakers which sounded good but still not quite right, I swapped them fro Webbers eventually replacing them with guess what? Correctamundo, a pair of vintage EVM12L's.
I was fired up and again started to really get excited about playing. We were at blues festivals all over the UK and felt I needed some additional effects to supplement the sound and this is where I started to build the current system.
In the previous articles you can see detail of how the setup is built.
Diving overtook my life in early 2002 and apart from the weekly jam night at the Stanley Club in Accrington and occasional song-writing, I didn't pick up my guitar in anger for a number of years.
Moving to the Isle of Man started it all off again!!!
As mentioned in edition one, I have a number of guitars fitted with Lindy Fralin. I have included on this shot my sons Fender 51 Custom Shop Nocaster (which I am using, it sounds great :-)
This a very new addition to my setup and is required as with the addition of my Van Weelden Twinkleland and Bludotone Bludodrive I will be using multiple amps again :-0
This unit switches between them in a seamless way but also allows two effects loops to be run in a clean balanced way; one remote loop to the pedal board and another local loop to the Skrydstrup switcher.
The other cool thing is you can use the SGI44 to run a line back through studio tie lines to the main studio which allows you to sit in the control room and play using multiple amps and checking the sound as you go!
In a live setup, the SGI44 drives the tuner also.
For years I used a Cry Baby (latterly the 535Q model) that served me well, but sometimes sounded a little thin. The Fulltone has a very resonant tone which does 'sing'. It is also very adjustable allowing you set the 'Q' of the boost internally and provides three settings available externally. I just like the sound of it :-)
This is a lovely smooth pedal cleanly varying the volume right down to zero without loading the pickups. Very sturdy, low tech and sounds great. More accurately, it doesn't 'sound' at all!
This is a distortion box and if you have bothered to read the huge amount of text above, you will see I don't use distortion boxes. So what is this all about?
Well I use this to occasionally 'tone shape' my 'Fender' style guitars. As I use to guitars with humbuckers and two with single coils, I find this rounds off the edginess of the single coils and apply a little drive. This unit does have a more 'British' tone which no matter what you do with the TwoRock, you cant achieve with the amp alone.
This unit does have a great drive sound it you need to go away without your amp. It can be set so it is touch sensitive and responds in a similar way to the Dumble style amplifiers. I don't use this at all in my current set of songs.
Excellent basic Fuzz unit that sounds great for those Jeff Beck tones and really fuzzes like a fuzzing thing with an additional helping of fuzz sauce. Back off the guitar volume and it cleans right up. I don't use this at all in my current set of songs.
A very excellent tremolo unit recreating the Fender amp tremolo very accurately. It employes a photo-cell like an old American tube-amp, has a true bypass, LED status and speed indicator, half / full speed foot-switch that stays in tempo. It also has another foot-switch letting you choose between 'soft' smooth or 'hard' square-wave machine-gun effect: I use the pedal a lot and set it quite soft...
Very similar to an original Univibe. Does what it says on the tin, original sounding vibrato / chorus / leslie effects. It is stereo, but I use it mono! I have the switches set to 'dark' and 'chorus' setting. Sounds fantastic and I use it quite a bit thought the set...
A very fat fuzz with a very active tone control and a separate foot-switch that kicks in a searing octave-up: I use it as an 'octave-up' only.
I have the fat / bright switch set to 'bright'. This changes both the distortion and octave sounds from strong thick mids to completely scooped out with no mids, lots a bass and hi-end.
Strangely, you can only use this pedal with the neck pickup (it just doesn't work with the bridge). You can overuse this as it really sounds very dramatic!
Note to Josh Homme (he uses it extensively on the 'Them Crooked Vultures" album): I bought mine first :-)
This stereo unit can be set to two independent mono units. This is the way I use it. It's an old fashioned analogue 'bucket brigade' device and sounds great: rich chorus and flange effects. I use a fast flange effect on one track at the moment. I wont trouble you with the settings as its quite complex. Get the manual and mess with it is my suggestion.
One warning though, it does suck volume out of the signal path so I switch it on with either the 'tone defeat' or the FET boost on the amp to bring back the volume.
A classic digital delay and still one of the best out there. I like it because all the controls are easy to see and operate. It also can be used as a loop switcher if required. I have a volume pedal in one of the loops to control the amount of echo return I hear. See the technical article.
A TC0144 foot controller sits on my pedal board which controls the 2290. This device then drives the MIDI for my Lexicon PCM70 and Skrydstrup effect switching unit..
As intimated earlier in this article I send the output of this delay into a small rack mount Marshall power amp then on to a 1x12 cabinet, fitted with an EVM12L, which is exclusively echo return. This, controlled with the volume control gives me a fully controllable, clean, excellent echo sound.
I have the delay set to 400ms with 30% feedback and occasionally on some tracks 116ms (slap-back) with no feedback.
Again quite an old multi-effects unit featuring the V2.0 firmware. Lexicon were criticised as they 'upgraded' the unit with revised firmware finishing with V3.0. It is recognised that the V2.0 sounds best!
Anyway, it sounds amazing and I use if primarily for reverb and favour the 'rich chamber' preset as a start. Again the programming/parameters are pretty complex and I don't want to bore you (even further) with the details.
This is now my primary amp head. Previously I used the TwoRock Sapphire which I still own and did sound great, but became unreliable.
This circuit design is quite a departure from the 'standard' Dumble clones with more bottom end and low mids. Even though I now achieve, for my ears, a great tone (after a lot of messing and changing tubes) I am still unsure about it, hence the purchase of the Van Weelden Twinkleland and Bludotone Bludodrive, both of which are real clones.
The clean sound is really lovely; clear, shimmering and totally excellent. I set the foot-switchable drive channel so it sounds exactly the same (tonally) as the 'clean' sound when you play very softly. The drive and sustain kicks in when you attack the strings a little harder. Touch sensitive drive is what its al about.
The amp features a foot-switchable FET boost which has a volume control. I use this for clean passages that require a little more volume and to boost the signal when using my TC1210 (see above).
It also features a foot-switchable 'bypass' switch which in traditional Dumble clones simply defeats the tone circuit giving a very 'fat' sound. This amp is little different as it appears to provide a driven 'Fender Tweed' type of tone which I do use on its own occasionally but more often in conjunction with the 'drive'.
I don't use the nice built in reverb when utilised in this rig.
Sounds good, but.....
There is always stuff on the list :-) As I am not using the Fulldrive 2 in the current set, I am thinking of replacing the 'gap' with an excellent Moonphaser.
I am also thinking of trying a Zendrive Overdrive for gigs when I can't take my own amp and have to rely on a rented Fender Twin, which is my weapon of choice in this situation.
So that's it, the full story. I hope you have enjoyed the three articles as much as I have in writing them. Of course I will now keep my blog updated with changes and additions as the quest continues.
Finally I would like to thank those who have helped me over the years in developing my technique and sound. Obviously the host of superb guitar players mentioned in the text but in addition some very good friends and fantastic guitar players.
To see information, review of my past and current gear, take a look at the equipment section of this site!
Of course, if you have any questions why don't you contact me or post a comment below!