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: preferences, amplifiers, performance, comparison, distortion, @musings info

The end of innocence

It's official. The end of innocence... I've realized that the high-gain, channel-switching modern amps - despite their advanced technolgy - are actually a step backward for guitarists like me.

The VK (closely followed by my '62 brown Pro) has spoiled me for my once beloved Boogie Mark-series amps. After having had the VK for about six months, I put it side-by-side with the Boogies and was simply amazed by the differences.

By themselves, the Mark-series amps are great - the top of the Boogie heap, IMO. But side-by-side with a great Fender amp, there's just no comparison. The Boogie's bass is weak, the treble sounds dull, and the transition into (and out of) distortion is comparatively grainy.

With the Fenders, I find myself playing with less distortion and enjoying it more. My technique is improving because, frankly, the Fenders' articulation makes them harder to play well.

But the Boogies have channel-switching, and the Fenders don't. What about that?

Four years ago, I was hot on channel-switching amps. Now, it's single-channel amps. Still, it's all amp distortion. Yes, the Fenders have less gain than the Boogies. But that gives my playing more articulation.

Ironically, less gain gives me more expressiveness. I prefer being a able to control everything from the guitar. Channel-switching amps drove me nuts - it's damned near impossible to get a good balance of volume and tone when switching channels. The right balance changes from song to song, and depends upon what the rest of the band is doing. Lots of gain takes away pick sensitivity. The volume is set at the amp, and you pretty much have to live with it if it doesn't fit the band mix.

With a good single-channel amp, I can jump out for a quick single note run or pull back in the mix all with my fingers.

<sigh> And this from a guy who up until a year ago never met a Fender amp he liked...

Someone wrote, in response to my waxing rhapsodic about single-channel amps:

What I usually don't do is the classic "get your dirt from your volume knob" bit. Depending on what songs we play, I've always found it too difficult to get a usable clean sound and usable dirty sound BOTH at proper volume for the dynamics of the song. I think this is especially true if there's another guitar player with you. The second you go to roll back the volume knob to clean things up, you often drop out of the mix.

Well, I can understand that... I used to feel the same way about it. It took me a while to figure out how to make it work, and now I'll (probably) never go back to switching channels. The trick is to set up your amp to get a good lead sound with your guitar wide open and really digging in with your picking hand. (Obviously, this isn't going to work if you count on having violin-like sustain on your leads at low stage volumes, or if you have a very light touch and like to play fast metal riffs. But for blues-rock, classic rock, and jazz fusion style, this is the way to go...) Now, once you're set up like this, you know that you'll be able to get your lead tone without being buried in the mix. For the rest, just use a lighter touch with your picking hand. If you really need to clean up the tone, drop the guitar's volume a bit and use a moderate touch.

In the long run, I've had to make some pretty big adjustments in my picking style. I went first to very heavy, rounded picks - the extra thickness makes it easier to control your picking intensity while the rounded edges reduce or eliminate the pick noise that would otherwise be a dead giveaway that your amp's volume is set higher than normal. For the most part, I've stopped using picks - I find that this gives me the best control over dynamics. (Again, not much help if you're into speed riffs, but great for more melodic tunes.)

Like I said, it's not everyone's cup of tea... just thought you might like to hear from someone who started at pretty much the same place you are now and ended up somewhere completely different.

April 04 2004 05:44:48 GMT