Written March 1996, © Howard Roberts.
As with most guitarists I am always looking for the perfect tone from my guitar rig. With the onset of digital effects in the 1980s, many guitarists went out and bought huge racks of digital effects processors to iron out any perceived imperfections in their sound. This lead to a generic and pretty soulless guitar sound with absolutely no individuality at all.
Other than one-off acts such as Guns 'n Roses who plugged Gibson guitars straight into Marshall amplifiers, eschewing digital rack effects, it took the onset of so-called "grunge" music to change musicians' attitudes. Whatever people think of the musical merits of grunge, it did guitarists a favour when they realised that a stripped-down guitar setup (that is, a guitar, amp and a few effects pedals) didn't necessarily sound worse than a rackful of digital effects and, in may cases sounded better because it allowed the guitarist's personality and the natural sound of the guitar to shine though.
Of course, many grunge musicians weren't as good as the LA soft metal poodles, the neo-classical bunch or the Steve Vai/Joe Satriani clones. The point is that, IT DIDN'T MATTER. You could make music that was just as emotional and moving as other variations of rock music on cheap second-hand equipment.
The huge success of grunge started off a chain reaction where many guitarists stopped using much of their racks and just started to use a few analogue effects between the guitar and the amp. Some even went further and used no effects at all and just controlled their sound by riding their guitar's volume control to change between their clean, crunch and lead sounds.
With the re-emergence of this back-to-basics "retro" scene, guitarists have been concentrating on their amplifiers to generate the sounds they want. This has lead to an increased demand for valve-based amplifiers (called tube amplifiers in the US and Canada) and many high-profile companies have started mass-producing valve amplifiers. Companies such as Peavy, Crate and Fender are using their high profile and market share to produce cost-effective amplifiers that give guitarists the sound they want at the right price.
As well as these low-cost amplifiers, there are also the so-called "Boutique" amps made by such companies as Matchless and Fender's Custom Shop who build and assemble amps by hand. Correspondingly, the prices are far higher than the mass-produced PCB based products. However, many people believe that the care taken in building and developing these products is represented in the better tonal qualities these amplifiers possess. Whether the better tone is worth the far higher price is a matter for debate.
There are many many reasons why valve-based amps are considered to sound better and I won't go into them here. Suffice it to say that only now are solid state products being developed which are close in sound to valve-based products. The most well-known of the manufacturers who market these products is SansAmp, but there are alternatives.
Recently, I acquired a very early Vox AC30 amplifier. This amp is one that will be linked forever with The Beatles. Historically, the early Vox amplifiers owe a debt to the Fender Twin amplifier, but they have a clearly definable sound of their own, much darker with more mid-range. Vox amplifiers have been used by many people other than The Beatles; Bryan Adams, The Shadows' Hank Marvin, Queen's Brian May and Crowded House are some of the more well-known names.
The story behind how I acquired my AC30 is a nice one (for me anyway!). A friend of a friend was clearing his garage out and he came across an old amplifier that had been sitting there for nearly twenty years. He was going to throw it out but he knew my friend played the guitar and offered it to him. My friend took one look at it and nearly took his hand off! The amplifier was non-Top Boost AC30 which I have managed to date as being manufactured between 1963 and mid-1964. My friend played it a few times and found that it wasn't clean enough for the pop band he played in. His Gibson ES145 overdrove the amp too easily. He knew I coveted the amp and so offered it to me for the princely sum of £200, enough for him to buy a second-hand solid-state Fender 85.
The amp sounds amazing and is my idea of tone heaven. However, it is a little quiet, probably due to the components degrading after being stuck in a damp garage for twenty years, so I'm having its electronics restored and the valves replaced. In the meantime, I found I couldn't go back to my old amp (a solid-state Session Duette 60) because the sound wasn't there after using the AC30, it just sounded awful.
I started investigating the amp simulators and came across a little wonder-box called the Award-Session JD-10 which was designed for Jerry Donahue, an extraordinary guitarist (currently playing in The Hellecasters) by Stuart Ward, the guy who designed my Session amp. The box is in pedal form and can be used as a pre-amp, a distortion pedal, a line-driver, a humbucker emulator, a DI box and probably some other functions I can't remember. I set the controls to emulate a driven AC30 and plugged it straight into the effects return socket on my amp. It's very close to an AC30 but not quite right yet. However, it's the nearest thing to solid-state tone heaven I have found yet.