Either/Or?

When a guitar sound is described as “British,” or “American,” what do you think the differences are?

Perhaps it’s just a clever way of distinguishing between the two giants of production amplifiers, the UK’s Marshall, and Leo Fender’s American monolith. Of course, we shouldn’t forget about the amps heard on more British Invasion records than probably any other: Vox. There are the other competitors and offshoots, as well: Supro, Gibson, Orange; and the “boutique-gone-big:” Hiwatt, Mesa…I’m sure I’m missing a few.

This broad distinction seems to be one of the many dichotomous views that govern our tastes. For example, I’d say that I’m a British sound kind of guy. I like early breakup, I like growl, and yes, I like volume. Many of the guitarists whose sounds I admire were guys who used Marshall or Vox amps. At least they did onstage. Who knows what’s on the recordings (paging Mr. Page)? I wonder, though, how does the distinction stand when one thinks that the first Marshall, the JTM45, was basically Jim Marshall’s attempt to duplicate the legendary 5F6-A Fender Bassman? And what of the irony that the “Holiest of Holies” Bassman was designed to be a bass amplifier? Besides that, I’ve certainly played through Fender amps with earlier breakup, plenty of growl, and volume has never been a problem for amps like the Twin and Super Reverb.

Then we have the question of what makes an amp sound either British or American. Marshall favored EL34, KT66, and EL84 power tubes, and the Fender amps tend to lean towards 6V6 and 6L6 bottles. Marshall used British Celestion speakers, Fenders often used Jensen or Eminence ones. There are some differences in electrical components, too, that have become the stuff of voodoo. It doesn’t take too much research to determine that different stuff was available on either side of the Atlantic, and the builders used those things which were readily on-hand to them. American amps used tubes made by RCA and Panasonic, British amps have Mullards. There’s no mystery in that. Over 50+ years, these things get distilled into these hard-core positions about what our preferences are, and I’m certainly not immune from those kinds of prejudices.

That being said, I’ve found myself time and time again letting go of those firmly held beliefs, and now, whenever I’m tempted to define my ideas about guitar sound in terms of the kind of preferences I think I have (single coil, Telecaster, head+cabinet, no reverb, few pedals, TUBE AMPS ONLY!, EL84s, low-wattage, whatever), I find myself making an effort to question that. I’m fine with the idea of having preferences, but I think it’s important for me to realize whether or not something is truly a preference, or whether it just conforms to an idea that I think is a preference. It’s a subtle distinction, for sure.

Beyond that, I think it is very important to keep in mind that any individual make-a-guitar-louder device is a complex and chaotic (in the scientific sense of the word) system. The total interaction of all the parts together is what makes any amp sound and feel the way it does, and it shouldn’t take much thought to realize that a strict prejudice about one or two details of an amp design might be something worth investigating.

Check out these videos.

I tripped upon them by accident back when I was looking for information for So Many Tubes, So Little Time. What do you think?

I think I’m going to build an amp. Did you know that the earliest Fender Bassman design (the 5B6) was a cathode-biased 5881(or 6L6*) beast that ran at about the same voltages as the Deluxe with its 6V6, and is surprisingly close to what’s being supplied in your People’s Amp?

The working name is the People’s Amp Octal (5581, 6V6 and 6L6 tubes have 8 pins, the EL84 in your People’s Amp has 9), but maybe I should change it to “The We the People Amp…”

As always, I welcome your thoughts. Please fill up the comments section below as you see fit. Thank you for reading.

*I know, the 6L6 isn’t exactly the same as the 5881.

3 thoughts on “Either/Or?

  1. I’ve always favored amps that have a broad balanced tone across the range of the guitar, and ones that have enough power to give truly clean cleans when played with a drummer. This can be difficult to find, especially when most amps seem to be designed with some kind of characteristic sound in mind. Sometimes it’s nice to have boosted mids or easy power tube breakup or whatever, but it can be pretty limiting when that tone is hard-wired into the amp. I’m having a love/hate relationship with Vintage 30 speakers for that particular reason, those mids cut, but they do not go away.

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  2. I haven’t, but I might consider it if I’m ever feeling like experimenting with the mysterious magic no-no parts of my amp. My current amp is a big ol’ fifty watter, so clean isn’t usually a problem for me, but I really have to rely on preamp distortion or pedals: not so great for crunchy tones, though. Thanks Karl!

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