Issue # 404 March 2016
“Space – the final frontier.” And since space was what I ran out of in the last column, I have some more important things to say about amplifiers
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” There have been so many situations in my career when my amp of choice was unavailable for a task at hand – whether in the studio, in concert, at jam sessions… What to do?
Strange Amps On Stages
Even some of the most popular groups, when touring internationally, are at the mercy of the promoters to supply ‘backline’. Since amps (even one serial number apart on identical models) can sound quite different, there is a good chance that the player will not necessarily feel sonically ‘at home’ just because of brand and model.
Two memorable examples come to mind. In the early ’70s, Randall’s Island toured Europe & the USA extensively with John Mayall’s USA Union Band. These were not high-budget tours; Harvey Mandel and I shared the same amps nightly (usually Marshall, Orange or HiWatt). In that era, these monsters were built to be played at full-tilt; and when set softer, they didn’t sound very good.
“Are You Ringin’ In The Ears?” Just because it goes up to eleven doesn’t mean ‘crank it up full’ – this often leads to rather un-musical experiences. If you’re at eleven, just how much of the rest of the band are you able to hear? How well are you able to interact with more subtle musical goings-on? Probably not well.
Helpful tip: When doing a sound-check, I audit my sound(s) in several ways. First, I ensure that I am happy with the tone settings from up close (proximity within a foot or two). Then I listen from the position I will be on stage (usually a bit further distance). The I go out into the venue to hear what the amp will sound like from different locations – both with and without P.A. Finally, I ensure that the monitor mixer gives me the stage balance I need in order to feel comfortable with the mix of the entire ensemble.
Strange Amps In Studios
I suppose the most talked about event in my personal recording history was my solo on Reelin’ In The Years. Upon arrival at Village Recorders in Santa Monica, I discovered, much to my chagrin, that the only amp available that evening was Dennis Weinrich’s Ampeg SVT – a grossly-overpowered beast. I’ve been quoted as saying “not my first choice; not even my tenth choice”. This did not deter us. Roger Nichols and I just looked at each other, chuckled, and simply made it work!
As a general rule, most major recording studios have never supplied amplifiers for guitarists. NYC would be the only exception to that rule. And this only began in the late ’60s. An interesting aside: in the early-mid 60s, NYC’s busiest guitarists formed the “Manhattan Guitar Club”. These players included Vinnie Bell, Bucky Pizzareli, Bill Suyker, Toots Thielemans, Al Caiola et al. They collectively bought a load of amplifiers (mostly Ampeg Rocket models), and placed them in all the recording studios they frequented. Each amp had a lock and key, which functioned as the on-off switch. Members and reputable studio owners had the keys. Wild, huh? This all changed in the early ’70s, when the studios themselves started purchasing amps – which any client was permitted to use.
The Guitar Club amps left much to be desired, so with the introduction of many more models to choose from (including Fender, Roland and Marshall), a much broader palette became available to us. Of course, many sessions involved 2, 3 and sometimes 4 guitarists, so one couldn’t be sure they’d get the amp they wanted.
So what to do if the amp you’ve been assigned is not to your liking? In many cases, you grin, bear it, make the most of your circumstances, and often push yourself to sonic heights you didn’t think achievable with a particular ‘tool of the trade’. Let’s face it – that’s what amps are. If you’re a carpenter, you can’t always have your favourite hammer, and there is no room for excuses. If there was one thing I learned well from my friend and mentor Tommy Tedesco, it was that no matter what the axe, no matter what the amp you are using – make them ‘yours’ – within minutes!
In closing, remember that that your amplifier is the last link in the sound chain. It must give you the satisfaction you deserve. While it may take a few minutes to ‘get it right’, it’s totally worth it in the long run – as long as you don’t take precious time away from the other instruments who may need that little bit of extra tine to achieve the same goals that you want. So know your amps (in the most general terms), and how to get the most out of them quickly and efficiently. Understand the frequency spectrum, and be able to talk to your sound engineers in frequencies – it’s usually more helpful to them than saying ‘a little more highs please’ or other vague descriptions. This is all part of your job!
Tune up (using your ears, not a tuner) and groove on…