Boutique tube amps demystified. Part two: which boutique amp is right for you?

In part two of our “boutique tube amps demystified” series, we’re going to talk about how to figure out which boutique amps are right for you. Without some help, it’s not an easy thing to get started on: at last count, I logged more than 200 builders of boutique amps.

But, as usual, we’re going to figure out a way to simplify. We’ll link the type of guitar you play to the vintage amp it was meant to be paired with, and then we’ll look at some of the core components of that vintage amp. All of that will lead us to a short list of boutique amps that have a good chance of being in the sweet spot for your guitar. This is where you’ll start your search.

If you recall, in part one of this series, we talked about the “primary colors” of the vintage guitar amp world. These are the sounds of classic VOX, Fender, and Marshall amps. When you listened to the clips, you got a chance to hear what each sounds like.

We chose those clips for another reason: each amp you heard was played with a guitar that’s a classic pairing for that vintage amp.

For the VOX clip that featured the Beatles playing “Taxman,” it’s a Rickenbacker. Is that what you play? Or a similar lighter-weight guitar with a sound chamber and single-coil pickups?

Rickenbacker guitar with a VOX AC15 amp.

Rickenbacker guitar with a VOX AC15 amp.

For the Fender clip that featured Derek and the Dominoes, it’s a Fender Stratocaster. Is that what you play? Or a similar mid- to heavy-weight solid body with single-coil pickups?

Fender Stratocaster with a Fender Bassman amp.

Fender Stratocaster with a Fender Bassman amp.

For the Marshall clip that featured AC/DC, it’s a Gibson SG. Is your guitar like an SG or a Les Paul – mid-heavy to ultra-heavy in weight with humbucker pickups?

Gibson SG's with Marshall amps.

Gibson SG's with Marshall amps.

Now that you’ve picked the guitar most like yours, I want you to keep it in mind. We’re going to briefly digress into another quick lesson. But when we bring it all together, I promise you it’s going to help make a lot more sense out of the world of tube amps.

We’re going to talk about power tubes. In amp jargon, power tubes are the tubes in your amp that generate the energy needed to make your speaker move. Of all the tubes in your amp, they do the most work. Because they do the most work, in general, their behavior defines the sound of your amp more than any other tube in your amp. Power tubes also generate the sweet overdriven distortion tones that guitarists like you seek.

So if you’re looking at a boutique tube amp, and you don’t know a lot about it, the power tubes can tell you a lot. You see, it’s likely that in designing their boutique amp, the amp designer is “paying respects” to a vintage amp design – and the power tubes are going to be a giveaway for which one it is. This chart sums it up:

Power tube modelVintage ampReference guitar
EL84VOXRickenbacker
6V6 or 6L6FenderFender Stratocaster
EL34MarshallGibson Les Paul or SG
So how does that help you? Remember what we talked about earlier – each of these amps is classically suited to different guitars.

So, assuming you’ve already got an electric guitar, you can look at the tube type of the boutique amp you’re interested in, and take a guess at which amps may be best mated to your guitar’s characteristics.

Now, we look at the tubes behind some of the best boutique amps out there, and match them to your guitar type. Here’s where it all comes together:

Reference guitarWhich boutique amps would be a good place to startPower tube model
RickenbackerMatchless DC-30, Valvetech Hayseed, JMI Amps, Kingsley Deluxe 30EL84
Fender StratocasterDr. Z Z-28, Top Hat Super Club Deluxe, Tony Bruno Cowtipper6V6 or 6L6
Gibson Les Paul or SGMatchless Independence, Metro Superbass, Divided by 13 LDWEL34
Now you know how to figure out some good places to start. And you have tools to help figure out which amps you might want to take for a test drive.

Of course, there are other reasons to choose a particular boutique amp. But we’ll cover that in another story!

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Boutique tube amps demystified. Part one: the primary colors of guitar amplification.

If you’re considering buying a boutique amp, you’re probably going to make a considerable investment. So you’ll have lots of questions to ask and tube amps to test out before you make your choice. Very quickly, however, you’ll find that the talk gets pretty technical.

It’s easy to get lost – and a little intimidated – when pros start talking to you about circuit designs, amplification classes, and alphanumeric power tube model numbers. And they expect it all to mean something to you.

You’re in this to play guitar – fueled by your skills, your ears, and the music that interests you. Why should you have to know anything about push-pull circuits or other jargon?

Well, you shouldn’t. But unfortunately this is how amp people talk. And if you want to engage them in a conversation to benefit you and your purchase decision – and in the end, the musical enjoyment of your setup – it’ll help you to have a basic understanding of this jargon.

So in this multi-part series about the key components of guitar tube amps, we’ll cover the basics. And we’ll use some handy analogies to help it all make sense.

How many colors do you think there in the world? Millions and millions of them. Infinite colors. The same is true for guitar tones. There are limitless sound possibilities based on all the different variables that can be applied: playing style, guitar choice, pickup choice, amp, effects, speakers, mics, the room you’re playing in, etc. So let’s not start there. Let’s start simple. Overly simple.

Any color can be described by a combination of primary colors. Your computer monitor, for instance, probably uses varying levels of red, green, and blue (hence the term RGB) to make up the colors you’re seeing right now. So you can define every one of the infinite colors by saying how much red, green, and blue is in it. That system kind of makes the world of infinite colors a little simpler, right?

So let’s talk about the primary colors of the tube amp world. The vintage amps the modern boutique amps pay homage to. These amps are the classic models made by:

• VOX
• Fender
• Marshall

What are the quintessential VOX sounds? Think early Beatles, REM, Tom Petty, U2, and Queen.

Here’s a clip of The Beatles’ “Taxman” featuring amazing VOX sounds. Don’t miss the lead playing mid-song and at the end:

This sound has a muted attack but gets its rhythm gusto from an amazing compressed sustain of jangly, spongy grit (we’ll talk about how it achieves this in a later article). The lead playing has a haunting and wild cut: you can just go mad scientist brilliant while playing through a VOX.

What are the classic Fender sounds? Think Clapton, Dick Dale, Stevie Ray Vaughn, The Eagles, later Beatles.

Dig this amazing clip of Derek and The Dominoes on The Johnny Cash show from about a million years ago. Listen closely, I think you can even hear Clapton make a “mistake”:

The Fender sound is all class. Super clean, characterized by an amazingly rich attack that’s springy, complex, and jubilant. I hear rubies and emeralds shooting out of the guitar with every pick and strum. Fenders can “boogie” under rhythm play and they can also wail emotionally under lead play.

And Marshall sounds? Pretty much any band with hair from the 80’s. Also, names like AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, ZZ Top.

Here’s a clip of AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” featuring classic Marshall sounds:

That sound is just bad boy overdrive. It never met a power chord it didn’t like and lets you fall out into arpeggio notes without turning them into mush. Also killer for pick harmonics – just ask ZZ Top. You can feel the Marshall sound in your gonads.

So now you know about the primary colors of the amp world. Got any clips that you think exemplify a particular amp sound? Please share in the comments section.

In the next part of this series, we’ll expand on the classic amps, talk about the tubes that live inside of them, the guitars that were meant to be plugged into them, and how to use this knowledge to start your boutique amp search.

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The Matchless Lightning Amp and a Take on Modeling

I have been looking into lower-wattage amps lately. Like the Matchless Lightning. At 15-watts, you can get a range of sounds without making everyone in your house deaf. I also think a 15-watt amp is ideal for recording. And you can gig with it (with the right PA setup).

During my exploration, I read an article about the new crop of Fender Mustang amps. In contrast to a “reference” amp like the Matchless Lightning, these are solid state modeling amps that are designed to sound like classic “reference” tube amps or modern, more expensive tube amps. In one device, you can dial in dozens of imitated amp sounds. In the article, the author proposed that this kind of amp will eventually make most tube amps obsolete. This notion makes me sad.

But before I explain why, let me share something with you that makes me happy:

Having checked out the clip, you can hear that with a Tele plugged into a Matchless Lightning, and great right hand technique, you can produce a totally different and amazing sound. One of a range that come from a combination of your technique, your guitar, and real amplification.

In contrast, I think it’s bad to rely on a modeling amp to get different sounds from your playing.

Do you think an improving player would discover the range of sounds that could come from their guitar if they had a modeling amp? Maybe. But more than likely, they’ll become consumed with dialing in any of hundreds of “preset” sounds. Sounds designed to make crummy amp components imitate the real deal. Crummy transistors. Crummy speakers. Often times, crummy construction. And if you keep messing with the endless settings and don’t work on your playing – you’ll be covering up crummy sounds you’re making with your perfectly good guitar.

Yes. You can get a Fender Mustang for a fraction of the cost of a Matchless Lightning. Yes, it sounds acceptable in your bedroom. But gig with it? Your sound won’t hold up. Record with it? Your song will lack for richness and texture. Discover your own sound with it? Modeling amps still can’t pick up on attack. They mush together the individual elements of beautiful chord voicings. And if you’re a young player, I think they are a terrible distraction from your ear, your guitar, and what would otherwise be the sound of your amp.

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What do this Matchless Chieftain Amp Video Review and a Hamburger Have in Common?

I remember the first time I visited a country where I didn’t speak the language. It was Canada. And they were speaking French Canadian. Not knowing what to do, I naturally went where any young American out of his element can go to feel comfortable: McDonald’s.

To learn how to order, I listened to the customers ahead of me. “La quesque se frantsie frauncezerd BIG MAC,” I heard. “Lepew henri McFEEESH! ce va.” And I even heard the magic words I was looking for, “poulet filet avec fromage.” For the record, I didn’t let them put any fromage on my poulet filet.

I tell this story not out of pure randomness, but because it relates very much to this video review. Listen closely, and you’ll learn how the words Matchless Chieftain, drive, and clean tone hold deep meaning across many cultures. Just like the word Quarter Pounder.

Now if only, after listening to Mr.Vinai Trinateepukdee’s phrasing on the guitar, I could play as well as he does.

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My Matchless Amp Story: Matchless DC-30. Love at First Sound.

This is the story of how I first heard the sound of a Matchless amp. Can you believe the sound of an amp could change the course of your life?

I’ve always been a gearhead. My first love was fishing tackle. Then home audio equipment. Then I got into cars. Really into cars. So much so that I went on to build a couple from scratch (that’s another story).

But when I was in high school, I became fascinated with guitar gear. I hadn’t yet learned to play. But I had always wanted to be guitarist for a rock band. Since I’d never even held a guitar for more than just a few seconds, I had no chance at that. Instead, I got a gig running the mixing board for a popular band in my high school. The band was called Rage. They were seniors and I was just a sophomore so that was pretty cool. They did some originals but mostly covers. It was the early 90’s so they were covering Guns ‘n Roses and other popular rock bands of that time. It was fun, and I got to go to shows with them. They built up a pretty sophisticated PA setup with lots of equipment and I ran it. That was fun, too.

The big deal in our high school was Battle of the Bands. I just knew Rage was going to win. Especially with our awesome sound system. But boy, was I wrong.

There was another band from our high school, Old Style. They weren’t really all from our high school. Just two kids in the band were – the drummer, and the guitarist who we all called The Bopper. The other two guys – especially the singer – were ringers. I’d never heard any of them play. (And I thought The Bopper would probably suck at guitar. I was wrong there too).

Instead of playing Dial MTV tracks like Rage was playing, they went old school. They stuck with the Stones, Beatles, Kinks and Clash. Stuff that the crowd could sing to. And they didn’t have a PA. They just turned their amp knobs to the right level to make things sound right. It all sounded so clean and raw. I loved it. So did the crowd. I knew we’d lost. But I got to have a special moment…

The Bopper had an amp I’d never seen before. It was sitting alone near the front of the stage – not towards the back, mic’d up like everyone else’s. In my memory, I see it sitting all alone, with a spotlight on it. It was beautiful! It said Matchless on it. I’ve never forgotten that.

Now that I know the history of Matchless amps, it must have been an early Matchless DC-30 amplifier. I don’t know how the hell a high school kid would have had one back then. It probably makes sense that I even remember it having a spotlight on it, because the Matchless nameplate would have been lit up – that was the signature Matchless look. I remember the amazing rock crunch of power chords. The “cut” it had through the other instruments and the auditorium. And I fell in love with the sound. I promised myself that I’d teach myself to play guitar so I could hook up and sound like that. And I did. But that’s another story!

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