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The Technology That Led To Rock and Roll, Part 2: The Guitar Amplifier

What started as a design flaw became an iconic sound.

by
Don Sucher

Bio

June 3, 2014 - 11:00 am
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“Hey mister, what a cool electric guitar! Can I hear it?”
“Sure kid” said the aging rocker, lifting his guitar from its case and beginning to play.
“Awh… it don’t sound like nothing!”

Well actually it does sound like “nothing.”  Almost exactly like nothing.  That is… until you plug it in.

The fact is, a pure electric guitar – one without designed-in acoustic properties – depends almost solely on an amplifier to create its sound. And the sound of the instrument is so much affected by the nature of the amplifier that according to some guitarists it would be more accurate to say they “play an amplifier” than that they “play the guitar.”

In the beginning of the Rock Era, guitarists used whatever amplifiers they could find. Most of the early amps available to them were not originally designed for a guitar. They were basically small, general-purpose, amplifiers originally designed to amplify record players and microphones. Their electronic circuits — made up of myriad resisters, capacitors and tubes connected with a web of wire — were by today’s standards very primitive. And since they were not designed to produce the level of loudness that Rock and Roll demanded, both the electronic circuits and the speaker/driver would create a lot of distortion as well as dynamic compression.

From an electrical engineer’s point of view, those distortions and the dynamic compression were “flaws” that needed to be overcome by better designs. But to musicians those “flaws” came to be seen as integral to the sound of Rock and Roll.

Before long, guitar companies such as Fender and Gibson started making and selling amplifiers specifically designed for their guitars which came to have a sound that was characteristic to its maker.  Fender amplifiers sounded bright, bold and in your face. Gibson amplifiers had a sound that was smooth, dark and smoky — very jazz-oriented. For this reason Gibson’s amplifiers, unlike their guitars, never became a major part of the sound of Rock and Roll.

59 Champ Front

An early Fender “Champ” guitar amplifier — 5 watts of power driving a single 6 inch speaker

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All Comments   (7)
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That bit about how we electrical engineer looked down on distortion reminds me of a story Les Paul told at an Audio Engineering Society meeting about Jim Lansing (founder of JBL) being unwilling to sell him a loudspeaker when he discovered it was for a guitar amp.
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
Whitehall, That was a bit later and (frankly) past my time 'in the biz' as is much that has happened since the early years that "Led to Rock and Roll." (I left off public performing in about 1970)

The Dead's system was way ahead of its time and generally, as I understand it, falls into the category today called Sound Reinforcement.

Much has changed since the early years I am describing. Many performances today, for instance, do not go through a "guitar amp" in its earlier sense at all, but through a system of digital simulation (called "modeling") and are fed directly into the sound reinforcement system, or, when it is for recording alone, directly into the studio panel. Indeed the transition to this was such that for a time bands used phony Marshall speaker systems that were little more than empty boxes to provide the expected look!

Perhaps after I have finished this series on the early technology that led to RnR someone with later knowledge can pick up the time line where I left off.

Fun and fascinating stuff, all of it! Thank for your question! :)
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
Geddy Lee of Rush had an ongoing visual joke where he put commercial dryers up on stage in place of the amplifiers and speaker cabinets. He was using SansAmp analog amp modeling and direct injection into the house sound system. Guitarist Alex Lifeson has a wall of high-end amplifiers while Geddy Lee had T-shirts tumbling in appliances from a laundromat. Sound guys even put microphones in front of the Maytags.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFpZFnJ6ZT8
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
So how does the Grateful Dead's "Wall of Sound", using multiple McIntosh transistor power amps fit in?
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
Writing about rock and roll amps without mentioning Dick Dale is a travesty.

http://www.dickdale.com/history.html
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
And Pete, well, the Who in general.

As far as the digital stuff goes, I find it sterile. Kind of like buying meat on styrofoam instead of hunting for it. It's just too clean and easy.

My amp is always dimed and I use the volume and tone from the guitar which allows the amp to breathe, something digital stuff can't quite do.
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
I find that the newest and best digital modeling amps can "do." -Sometimes to a degree that is startling.

Just yesterday I experienced this again in an interesting way. Going back to my roots in the pre-Beatles sixties I've been relearning, and very much enjoying playing, surf and pre-surf guitar instrumentals. I go back and forth between a classic `50s Strat and a `60s design Fender Jaguar.

The natural choice for amplification of these seemed to an early Twin Reverb amp -- this sometimes with a a touch of slap echo added to the Twin's own quite excellent spring reverb and tremolo circuit. But to my surprise I could get closer to the sound I was looking for with a Line 6 DuoVerb modeling amplifier - this by mixing a Twin Reverb model with that of an early Gibson Explorer.

The Line 6 modeling is touch sensitive -- changing character with subtle changes in pick technique just as did the amps it was designed to model.

Yup, the times they are a changing. But for all that there is something about the warmth of glowing tubes. :)
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
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