David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
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location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: amplifiers, comparison, distortion, opinion, preferences, @musings info

Blackface vs. Tweed

Last night at rehearsal with one my bands, Gradience, I had one of those "Oh, now I get it!" experiences.

I used my Fender Cyber-Deluxe amp because I didn't want to lug the Vibro-King up and down the narrow staircase to our practice space. I have the C-D set up with my usual presets, all based upon a mid-gain tweed sound with a bit of bright spring reverb. Since we were recording last night, I spend a minute matching all the knobs to the base preset, then switched the amp into manual mode. I don't footswitch different presets, and I figured it would be easier to tweak the sound if I had the amp on manual.

We jammed for a few minutes to warm up, and I noticed that something was wrong - not just with the way my guitar sounded, but with the way it felt. I normally have a pretty light touch on the strings, but I found myself working way too hard to get any edge on the notes - they sounded thin and percussive. I reached down a few times to adjust the controls - cut the treble, boost the bass, mids and gain. I figured I might have tweaked the base preset the wrong way at home, despite A/B'ing with my Vibro-King at performance volumes. When the jam ended, I asked for a couple of minutes to figure out what was wrong. Standing in front of the amp, I finally noticed that I had captured all of the settings except the amp model, which had been accidentally bumped to a blackface model.

Now, I've understood for a while that Fender went to the blackface design to get more clean headroom out of their amps. Cutting the mids gets rid of the strongest part of the guitar signal, which in turn makes the amp less likely to distort. The blackface tone stack also has a higher overall insertion loss than the tweed tone stack, which cuts the sensitivity (and touch response) of the amp. But I'd never had the chance to compare a tweed- and blackface-era amp side-by-side. All I knew for sure is that I didn't particularly care for the blackface sound.

Hearing the difference "side-by-side", made possible by switching the models on the C-D, emphasized to me just how different are the two philosophies - if you will - of amp design. The tweed-era amps can go from a clean to a really nice overdrive with a combination of playing intensity and the guitar's volume control. All the guitar's frequencies are reproduced, so changing the pickup selector, guitar tone controls, and picking-hand position are all rewarded with musically-useful changes in the amp's response to the guitar. There's really no need for a distortion pedal with a tweed amp. And there are some higher-powered amps based upon tweed designs for people who really need the headroom: Fender makes the Vibro-King and the new '57 Twin, while Victoria has a few designs in the 30- to 50-watt range.

And it really makes sense to me why players of blackface amps can't get by without some kind of distortion or sustain pedal. The blackface tone stack scoops out the fundamental frequencies of the guitar's notes, leaving the harmonics more prominent than the fundamental. The problem with doing this is that the harmonics decay faster, leaving you with a percussive attack and limited sustain. And let's not forget about the lost gain. What do the most popular overdrive pedals do? They boost the gain, and further boost the same midrange frequencies that the blackface tone stack scoops out! Seems to me like it'd be easier to just plug into a tweed amp (or a modern take on the tweed design).

To be fair, there are some musical genres where the blackface sound excels. But for blues, blues/rock, traditional jazz, and other styles that benefit from a warm sound, excellent sustain, and terrific touch sensitivity, you simply can't beat a tweed-era amp design.

February 12 2004 07:28:57 GMT