Today I would like to talk about something that is hotly debated amongst guitarists all around the world but before we do that, I want to take you on a trip down memory lane to the moment when I first decided to be a guitarist. I was watching the movie ‘Varsity Blues’ and in one of the pivotal scenes, the AC/DC soundtrack – Thunderstruck came on and it just transformer, what was for me a, pretty drab movie until then into something fun and exciting. Instantly, I had goosebumps and this was the first time a piece of music had such an impact on me. It took me a bit of asking around (this was before Google was a mainstream thing) and that is how I came to find out about the glorious years of rock music that started somewhere in the 60s. As I became older, I wanted to sound like all the guitar legends I had come to love and like many aspiring guitarists I started to do some research into the gear they used and that’s when I discovered that almost all of them used tube amplifiers.
My first tryst with tube amps:
Of course, back then I had no idea what tube amplifiers were and I just assumed that they were just a type of amplifier used by guitarists and so I decided to go to my local musical instruments store and check what was so special about them. The first thing that blew my mind about them once I actually got up close to one wasn’t the sound though, it was the price tag. I was still a student back then and there was no way I could afford it nor could I bring myself to ask my parents to get me one. So, I reluctantly asked the owner of the shop if there was anything else I could use that was a lot cheaper but still sounded just as amazing and I was pointed in the direction of a solid-state amp. Keep in mind that back then, I was still quite inexperienced but I could still tell that there was a night and day difference between the sound I got out of a solid-state amp and the one I got through a tube amp. The tube-amp sound was just so warm and exciting. However, my financials (or the lack of it) won the battle that day and I had to settle for a solid-state amp. It would be years before I could own a tube amp but once I did, I thought that my journey as far as amps were concerned was over until I came across two solid-state amps – The Boss Katana 100 and the Fender Champion 100.
Have solid-state amps become just as good as tube amps?
Back when I went shopping for my first amp, the choice was simple. Go for the tube amp if you can and only buy a solid-state amp if you just cannot afford a tube amp. However, if someone starting out as a guitarist went shopping for an amp today, they would simply be confused. Solid-state amps have gotten so much better and they actually offer excellent tone, are powerful enough to be gigged with, are much more versatile, and so much more affordable. So, is the tube amp still worth all the money it commands, or is a modern solid-state amp just as good?
I myself was caught in this dilemma recently as I had to go for a small gig and I had to choose between my versatile solid-state Katana 100 and my trusty Marshall DSL 40. Both have similar dimensions but I could have all my tones saved on the Katana 100 while I would definitely need to bring pedals as well along with my Marshall. Again, I would like to reiterate that this was for casual playing as I always prefer to use pedals as opposed to inbuilt effects in amps but the point I am trying to make here is that this decision would have been a no-brainer 5 years ago as the only reason I would have even owned a solid-state amp along with a tube amp would have been for sentimental reasons.
After a lot of deliberation, I decided to go with my solid-state Katana 100 as it was just so much more practical and I sounded quite all right at the gig later that night. So, which one should you choose I hear you asking? Well, the answer is quite complicated and convoluted. If you are someone who is just starting out and is looking for something dependable and something you can use without worrying about it hampering your learning phase then go for a solid-state amp by all means. Boss, Fender, Vox, Yamaha, etc all make some excellent solid-state amps that are more than capable of powering you through the first few years of your life as a guitarist. However, if you love that classic overdriven sound of classic rock and metal then a tube amp still is the king. While many solid-state amps can emulate a tube amp and many pedals do a pretty good job in coming close to that iconic sound, they still aren’t there yet and a tube amp is still the crème de la crème among amplifiers as far as I am concerned. If I were to perform in a situation where the tone really mattered to me then there would be no doubt in my mind – I would still choose a tube amp.
Why every guitarist should own a tube amplifier:
For those of you who don’t know, tube amps get their names from the vacuum tubes they use for amplification as opposed to the integrated circuits that solid-state amps use. Both were initially used in computers and the vacuum tube is considered to be an obsolete technology in front of its solid-state counterpart. The vacuum tube in itself has many flaws but when put inside a guitar amp, it creates some of the most amazing sounds in conjunction with an electric guitar. It responds so well that it feels like this is a match made in heaven. Bands like AC/DC had all the money in the world but they still preferred to perform with a wall of Marshall tube amplifiers and they should know a thing or two about guitar amplification considering how pivotal the guitar was to their music.
So, in conclusion, if you cannot afford a tube amp right now, do not be discouraged. We live in amazing times where even the affordable solid-state amps are quite excellent and will keep you very happy throughout your formative years as a guitarist. However, once you get to the point in your life where you can afford a tube amp, do get one as playing through a tube amp that is turned all the way up to 11 is something every guitarist deserves to experience on a regular basis.
I recently stumbled upon some old gear and that took me down memory lane to my first ever pedal – a distortion pedal and all the questions I had about it back then. Over the years, I have come to learn a few things that I wish I had known back then. I am sure there are many who are starting their effects pedal journey now and would like a concise yet precise guide on how to proceed. This one is for all of you. So, without further ado, let us begin.
A couple of things to remember before we begin:
Usually, people tend to pay a lot of attention to the pedal itself but almost none of it on other things like patch cables and the power supply. Let us talk about patch cables. This is the cable that you will use to connect the pedal to the guitar on one side and the amp on the other side. The tendency for a beginner is to get the cheapest cable out there which can have several problems including affecting the sound quality of the pedal. Get a decent set of cables even if it means spending a little more money.
Even more important is the power supply. The question of whether to go for a battery or a dedicated power supply might seem confusing. Batteries might seem cheap at first but their cost can add up very quickly. When it comes to a dedicated power supply, your best bet is to spend some money and get one from a reputed brand. The dreaded noise when using a distortion pedal has driven many guitarists mad and I was one of them.
My guitar on its own wasn’t noisy but with the distortion pedal connected, there was this constant hiss that just ruined the whole experience. I tried everything from changing audio cables, amps, and guitars to no avail and then it hit me like a ton of bricks. I borrowed another power supply from a fellow guitarist and the noise just simply vanished. The point I am trying to make is that this part of your journey as a guitarist is a delicate one. The last thing you need is something that constantly annoys you. When buying the pedal, research and get a dependable power supply and patch cables as well.
One last thing is to ensure that the power supply you get is compatible with the pedal. Ensure that it matches the voltage requirement exactly and the minimum current requirement. The other attribute that should match exactly is the polarity. Usually, pedals will have three sockets. The smallest in diameter is the one meant to connect the power source. If you observe closely, there will be a symbol somewhere near this socket consisting of circles and horizontal lines. Ensure that the power supply has the exact same symbol somewhere on it or on the box that it comes in. If you are buying the power supply online, this will usually be provided in one of the pictures.
Assuming you have done all of that, let us take a look at how exactly you can connect the pedal to the amp and the guitar.
Things you will need:
- A guitar
- An amp
- The pedal itself connected to a power source
- Two audio cables or patch cable with 1/4″ jacks at both ends
Step by step procedure to connect a distortion pedal:
- Step 1: Ensure everything is turned off:
This is important for two reasons. The first is to protect your equipment. There can be a sudden surge in current or voltage when the cables are first plugged in which can cause damage to the circuitry inside the amp and the pedal. Most modern audio gears are designed to withstand such fluctuations but it is still a good practice to avoid the risk completely by turning everything off. The other reason is that it will help avoid the popping sound that can be heard when plugging the cables in. This can be extremely annoying while also being detrimental to the speaker.
- Step 2: Some precautionary steps
Turn down the volume knob on your amp to 0 and the all the knobs on the effects pedal to its lowest value. This is also a precautionary step so that you can avoid any unsavory loud sounds such as screeches and howls as soon as everything is turned on.
- Step 3: Connect the audio and power cables:
Begin by connecting the connector of the power source to the pedal. Then connect the power cable to the amp. Again, ensure that everything is turned off at the main power outlet level. Take an audio cable, connect one end of it to the guitar and the other end to the input socket of the pedal. This will be marked usually with the word ‘in’. Take the other audio cable, connect one end of it to the ‘out’ socket of your distortion pedal and the other end to the input of the amp.
- Step 4: Turn everything on:
Turn the main supply on. Turn the amp on. Ensure that the volume level of the amp and the guitar is turned all the way down.
- Step 5: Engage the pedal:
Your pedal will have a footswitch. Step on that lightly. You can use your hands as well. This will engage the pedal and this will be usually indicated by a LED turning on.
- Step 6: Let there be sound
Turn the volume one-thirds the way up on the amp. Turn all the knobs on the distortion pedal to the 12-o clock position. Slowly increase the volume on the guitar until you can hear it at an acceptable level.
- Step 7: Fine-tuning and finding your tone
This is perhaps the most important step of all. Depending on the distortion pedal you have, you will have different knobs but they all usually control a similar set of parameters. There will be a level knob that acts as a volume knob. Then there will be a tone knob that works similar to the tone knob on your guitar, there is the ‘dist’ knob which controls the amount of distortion you have. There could be other knobs as well. Here is where a spirit of exploration comes in handy. Keep mixing and matching different values for each knob until you find a tone that you like. Do this enough times and you will get a fair idea of what each knob does. Eventually, you will get to a point where you will be able to dial in the exact tone that you want. Trust me, this journey of exploration and learning is a highly exciting one.
Once you are done, turn the volume down on the guitar and the amp, switch off the amp and then switch off the main power supplies to the amp and pedal. You can then proceed to disconnect the different cables.
There you have it. By now you should be equipped with all the necessary know-how to use a distortion pedal and get started on an incredibly fulfilling journey.
Even though guitars have been around for a long time, the electric guitar is relatively young in the world of musical instruments. Yet, it has seen a lot of innovation and advancements over the years. There is a huge plethora of brands available to guitarists these days but there are three ‘big’ brands that ultimately shaped the modern electric guitar. As a guitarist, I always wanted to own at least one guitar from each of these brands. Two of them, Fender and Gibson, happen to be quite well-known with the third, Gretsch, being not as popular but still significant. Today, I will take you along on a journey that looks at Fender, Gibson, and Gretsch and see what makes each of them special. This will also help you make a decision as to which guitar you should get if you are on the fence about them. Do keep in mind that these are just my thoughts and not strict rules and you should always get the guitar that speaks to you the most.
Fender: Ask any non-guitarist to describe a guitar and in all likelihood, they will describe a classic double-cut Fender. It is the guitar shape that has pretty much become synonymous with the word electric guitar and with good reason. The original Stratocaster was the guitar that made the instrument cool. It looked great and sounded even better. No wonder some of the greatest guitarists ever like Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Yngwie Malmsteen, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and countless others preferred a Fender. The solid-body construction and bolt-on neck make it any easy guitar to manufacture and repair.
So, it definitely has a lot of prestigious history attached to it but what does it mean for someone looking to buy a guitar. That’s where you have to understand that Fender does not make one type of guitar. The most famous one is the Stratocaster or Strat. Then there are the Telecasters and the Jazzmasters. Each model further has many variations but for the purposes of this discussion, let us only look at the most popular variation. When it comes to the Strat, the triple single coil pickup configuration or SSS is the most popular. In my experience, I have found that Strats are great for any sort of music where you need to use a low amount of gain. It is excellent at rhythm stuff. The tones are brighter and have a sort of twanginess to them. This is even more pronounced if you use a Telecaster. The Strats come with a tremolo system which again is something that boils down to personal preference. It does come at the price of a bit of sustain but I like having the option though.
The other thing to consider is the price. Fender has a subsidiary called Squier and you can get a Squier Strat for less than $100 and they play just fine. The cheapest full-fledged Fenders you could get would be the Mexican made ones and these offer excellent tone and are more than adequate for most guitarists. However, if you want the true USA made Fender experience then you will have to shell out upwards of $1100. I find it to be the coolest looking of the three brands and the build quality even on the cheaper Strats are quite good.
In short, Fenders are great if you are going for that classic image and want to play the type of music that doesn’t use a lot of gain and distortion like blues, classic rock, modern rock, jazz, etc. Again, these are just suggestions. You can use any guitar with any genre
Gibson: They gave the world the other iconic electric guitar shape – the single-cut design. It too has a rich and varied history. The key differences between Gibson and Fender are that the former uses a hollow-body construction and mostly fixed bridges. Gibsons also feature humbuckers instead of the single coils that is popular on Fenders. There are of course exceptions to this but in general, Gibsons produce a heavier tone and have much more sustain. This has made it the weapon of choice for many guitar legends like Jimmy Page, Slash, Billy Gibbons, Randy Rhoads, Gary Moore, and so on.
So, what does a Gibson mean to a guitar player? I find it to be the classier version of the electric guitar. I also love the sustain and definition it has when it comes to the tone. Add loads of gain and you have a lead tone that will just stop people in their tracks. The guitar is heavier and the neck feels more wholesome which are properties that you will either like or hate but I do not see it as a big problem. It just takes a little time to get used to.
A couple of things that you need to know about Gibsons include its tuning instability and a propensity for the headstock to break if the guitar is mishandled. Gibson’s quality control has been patchy over the years which makes it important to play the guitar and inspect it closely before buying one of these. They also tend to be pricier. You could get an affordable licensed copy by brands like Epiphone but nothing can match the real deal and they come at a premium cost. You would have to spend at least $1200 to get an entry-level Gibson with the good ones costing around $3000. These guitars feature a set neck which is better at increasing sustain as compared to a bolted-on neck. This, however, is expensive to make and that is why the price is higher.
Coming to the musical styles that you can play on a Gibson, it is especially suited for heavy driven sounds and lead tones but just like Fenders, Gibsons are also quite versatile and can be used in all types of musical genres with hard rock and metal being some of the most-suited ones.
Gretsch: Gretsch is a guitar brand that is quite important to the evolution of the electric guitar and like many people starting out as guitarists, even I was unaware of Gretch during my early days as a guitarist. However, it did not take long for me to discover this very unique and yet very cool line of guitars. Gretch is in many ways similar to Gibson as the guitars feature a single-cut design and a somewhat similar profile but it is a lot more flamboyant in a 1960s sort of a way.
Famous Gretsch guitarists might not be as numerous as the other two but they still hold an important place in the history of music. Some famous Gretsch aficionados include Malcolm Young, Billy Duffy, Jimmy Webster, Chris Cheney, Brian Setzer, etc.
Let us now talk about the heart of the matter – what a Gretsch means to a guitarist. It can be thought of as lying somewhere between Fenders and Gibsons. It isn’t as impactful as the Gibsons nor as twangy and bright as Fenders and that makes Gretsch guitars one of the best guitars when it comes to playing rhythm. It has a more wholesome sound that works well with modulation and time-based effects like delay but no so much with gain and distortion. It is definitely a unique part of the guitar world and every guitarist should at least try one and the best thing about Gretsch is that their guitars are relatively a lot more affordable. You can get a decent model for as little as $500. Some of the more advanced models have tremolo systems but these aren’t as good as the ones found on Fenders. They also have a unique look and not everyone is going to like that but one thing is for sure, it adds plenty of variety to the guitar world.
Here is a short summary of everything I have spoken about so far
|Shape||Single cut||Double cut||Double Cut|
|Signature property||Single coils, tremolo, bolt on neck, solid body||Humbuckers, fixed bridge, set neck, hollow body||Humbuckers, Bigsby style bridges as well as fixed bridges, flamboyance, hollow body|
|Tonal quality||Bright and twangy||Good low end and heavier with more sustain||Wholesome|
|Best for||Rhythm and low-distortion leads, feedback driven sounds||Heavy lead sounds with soaring tones||Rhythm, fingerpicking|
|Price range||> $1,100||> $1,200||> $500|
To sum it up, these three guitars can be considered to be the cornerstones of the guitar world and irrespective of the musical genre you are attracted to, get at least one of each if you can as no guitar collection is complete without them. Personally, I love the Gibsons the most despite their flaws. Fender comes a close second with Gretsch being my specialty preference meant for special occasions.