Hi-diddly do fair blog neighbors! In my first couple years of this blog, I often featured amps that I considered “sleepers” … amps that could be bought for fairly cheap money and deliver more than expected. I think it’s time to revive the sleeper-amp concept! Let’s dig in with this week’s choice, the Bogner Alchemist. Ready? Let’s go!
I clearly remember when the Alchemists first appeared in stores like Guitar Center, and the supporting ads in the guitar mags. Man, they really caught my attention, at over a grand or so, they certainly were not inexpensive, but they WERE a lot less than any other amp to bear the Bogner badge. I’d played other Bogner models and knew they were truly top-shelf amps. However, at the time I already had a stable plum packed full of vintage Fender and Marshall amps and had just started making my own glorious tube amps, so I just couldn’t justify purchasing an Alchemist.
Fast forward to 2015. The $1000+ Alchemists now routinely sell used for in the $400 range, some as low as $250 to $300 … now that’s a DEAL! An Alchemist head showed up in the local Nashville Craigslist for cheap money “or trade”. A deal was struck and I finally had an Alchemist! The amp had a highly microphonic pre-amp tube and a tired set of 6L6’s, so I did a total re-tube and bias. While I was inside her, I checked for sloppy solder joints or anything else that looked sketchy, and found everything looking excellent. I’ve heard stories of these things looking kinda sloppy inside, leading to failure, but I can attest to the fact that this one looks excellent, with a layout and design that seems very tech-friendly; more so than most modern PCB construction tube amps. If reliability is a concern, I’d say just take an Alchemist to a decent tech for a quick look-see, but don’t expect him to find much to “fix”. It’s a good solid design and implementation.
By this time Bogner/Line6 had ceased production on the Alchemist line, and I noticed that Bogner was blowing out empty Alchemist 1x12 combo cabinets for a hundred bucks, so I bought one. I figured having the option of a head or 1x12 combo was a plus. As it’s turned out, I put her in the 1x12 and haven’t looked back. As you might imagine, I tried every speaker imaginable in the cab, and I chose the WGS ET65. This speaker really brings out the uber-rich honest and organic vintage vibe of this amp. It really tips the scales towards making this amp a true top-shelf boutique rig. I can’t help but feel as though the Vintage 30 speakers, with their overly charged upper-mid spike, that came stock really did a disservice to these amps.
Okay, so … apart from the afore mentioned poor stock speaker choice, let’s talk about why the Alchemist never really got the respect I believe it deserved, and still deserves. In a word, the Alchemist is a race car, and those accustomed to driving more pedestrian vehicles just couldn’t handle it. Let’s talk about that.
I’m a Fender guy through and through, and I love the way you can take most any vintage Fender amp, set all the controls most anywhere, plug in, and sound great. The Alchemist ain’t like that! Here is a quick quiz to see if an Alchemist is right for you. If you answer “no” to any of these questions, stick with something simpler!
There ya go! The long and short of it is this: be prepared to WORK a little more for your ultimate tone. If you get an Alchemist, plan to spend a fair amount of time learning the amp before you take it out on your first gig. Here’s what I have found. Yes, channel one in the “clean” setting CAN nail a super fat-n-juicy blackface Super Reverb tone, but ya can’t be afraid to twist some knobs. In the “crunch” setting it can totally nail a Marshall Plexi … but again, don’t expect to simply flip the switch to crunch and expect it to be there. Same goes for channel two; this channel can go from slightly driven singing Dumble Overdrive to full on Scooped Metal … but again, don’t be afraid to do some serious knob twisting and switching.
On to effects. Personally, I find the delay with tap-tempo and digital reverb with hall, plate, and spring settings to be the ultimate choice for a gigging amp … I consider Reverb and Delay to be the “meat & potatoes” of guitar effects … with things like tremolo, phase shifting, etc to be “spice”. One area where folks dis on the Alchemist is in the fact that the Reverb and delay intensity changes with the input gain settings. Personally, that doesn’t bother me a bit, because it’s exactly the same as running a verb & delay pedal in front of a driven tube amp … something I do all the time!
Okay, so is there anything I DON’T like about the amp? Yes, there is one: It’s HEAVY! As a 2 6L6 all-tube amp with big-iron transformers and heavy-duty cabs, these things ain’t light, but the top-shelf tone, combined with the current bargain-basement prices, make it worth the heavy load-in.
Did you hear that loud “Pop”? For Gibson guitar lovers, it was a sweet sound. Word on the street is that it was the sound of Gibson Guitar’s proverbial head popping out of a very, very dark place.
Just in case you, dear reader, are the one guitar player who didn’t catch it, Gibson really screwed the pooch in 2015, imposing “improvements” upon almost every model guitar. It was by all accounts guitar atrocities. The most offensive of which were:
Yep, EVERY 2015 model had those awful e-tuners; and what the heck, an “adjustable” zero-fret nut? Flatter frets?? Man, remember those 70’s “fretless Wonders”? Ugg. And, who the heck this side of 1989 has been calling for wider necks on Gibson’s? I guess the same folks who wanted a compound-radius fingerboard. No one!
To me, the ultimate example of how insane the 2015 line-up was would be the 2015 Les Paul Junior … long the hallmark of striped-down punkish rock energy. Imagine this guitar with its electronic tuners, big adjustable brass zero-fret nut, high-gloss finish, and wide neck with flat frets and a compound radius. Holy crap batman, it looks like an evil guitar villain has been at work. It's like putting automatic transmission, air shocks, and cruise control on a vintage hard-tail Harly!
But today is a new day, as Gibson has just announced a return to the pre-ridiculous 2015 models! Yep, Gibson is gonna scrap such 2015 “improvements” as the Zero nut, Les Paul commemorative headstock inlay and automatic tuning machines on every guitar. The line-up will be similar to that of 2012 including faded finish guitars. Whoo-hoo.
There was one more issue with the Gibson 2015 lineup: the price. All models were priced through the freeking roof, some called it criminal, I just called it stupid, kinda like Gibson saying “we really don’t want to sell any more guitars”. Again, 2016 brings good news; Gibsons will still be a bit pricey, but will be right back on-par with the pre-insanity 2014 models. On average, this will be about 20-30% below 2015 prices. Woo-hoo again.
So there, Gibson fans relax. For now at least, the craziness has subsided.
Okay, this harkens back to the early days of my blog. I’m basically taking you all along for the ride as I search for the best 10” speaker to pair with my new Quilter amp, a MicroPro Mach II. I fell in love with the Quilter stuff at this Summer’s NAMM show in Nashville, and sweet talked them into selling me a head with an EMPTY 10” combo cab so I could choose my own speaker. I’m a tube-amp guy, and I make my own … so my ponying up with some greenbacks on a decidedly solid-state amp is quite a statement! In later blogs I plan to do a full demo on the MicroPro, but for now, it’s all about that speaker!
My main objective is to have the amp be as “gigable” as possible. Here are the key points I’m looking at:
I don’t have to worry about it simply getting LOUD enough, the MicroPro has plenty of power on tap to ensure I’m heard; the question is, will it be sweeeeet?
The speakers I’ll be running through and comparing include:
Okay, y’all watch the video & feel free to gimme your thoughts. I’ll warn ya, this is a 38-minute epic, so settle in for the ride.
Every now and then I get a question on the forum something like this: “Speaker A has a listed sensitivity (SPL) of 99-db, and speaker B is listed at 98dB, yet you say speaker B is the louder one … what’s up with that”. Okay, that’s an excellent topic for a blog, let’s dig in!
In its pure form, Sensitivity is defined as the speakers’ ability to convert power into sound. The standard way of measuring a speakers’ sensitivity is using 1 watt/1 meter, meaning a microphone is placed 1 meter away from the speaker to measure the sound output (in decibels) with 1 watt of sound played through it. Man, so many problems with this … where to start?
Most of these measurements are taken at 800Hz or 1000Hz. That only tells you what the speaker’s efficiency is in THAT frequency (the heart of midrange). A speaker with an enormous bottom end may have a very un-impressive looking sensitivity spec … but still be VERY impressive in actual use … because a measurement at 800-1000Hz just doesn’t address the speakers real strength. In my perfect world, we would use white noise (consisting of all frequencies from 20Hz-20,000Hz in equal amounts) for the SPL measurement … that would help.
Because today’s solid state amplifiers do a good job across the board of maintaining a voltage output of 2.83 volts, many companies consider this as their standard of measurement. Here again, 2.83 volts are inputted and measured at 1 meter. [Note: 2.83 volts into an 8 ohm load is equal to 1 watt. Ohm’s Law: Power (watts) = Voltage (V) x Current (I) or Power = V_/R (impedance in Ohms)] In the good old days, 1-watt was always 1-watt RMS … today, ya gotta watch out, it may be 2.83 volts! Because a speakers’ efficiency in transforming (transducer) power into sound is greatly determined by the impedance of a speaker, (see more on impedance below) 2.83 volts becomes greater … about 1.5 watts at 6 and 2 watts at 4 ohms — a 3dB increase, which to our ears sounds significantly louder.
This is huge, because a speaker’s impedance is never a static number; it changes given the frequency it is attempting to reproduce … and it especially fluctuates in tube amps, which “reflect” the speakers impedance to the tubes and vice-versa. Some speaker companies give frequency-specific impedance charts, but this can get confusing, and it still doesn’t address the issue fully.
And last; how many guitar players gig using about 1-watt RMS anyway? I’m going to say absolutely none! This is probably the most important of all my points. You see, audio follows a logarithmic, not a linier scale. Check this little chart out of an “AVERAGE” speaker with a rated sensitivity of 97dB:
Power in watts
Volume in dB
At the bottom end, adding just ONE watt (going from 1 to 2-watts) gives you that noticeable 3-db increase in actual volume (Sound pressure level) … but by the time you get up to actual stage levels of say 115dB or so, you are needing to add an extra 60-watts to get that same 3-dB increase. Wow.
Well, first, a guitar player should always take all T/S specs with a grain of salt! Beyond that, we should be more concerned with the sensitivity of a speaker at average gigging levels and at the actual entire frequency range of out instrument. The T/S specs were birthed in 1925, and haven’t been updated since 1972. Yes, they still are of some aid, especially when building and/or tuning a speaker cabinet to complement a given speaker … but to consider any T/S spec as the holy bible of speaker performance is a mistake
See Ya’ll next week, it’s gonna be BIG!
Hi fellow tone seekers, great to be with you once again on this fine day. Hey, hows about we talk “partscasters”? In particular, let’s talk about the value of a partscaster in cold, hard cash. Cool, let’s dig in.
As I pen this blog, in the summer of 2015, I can say without reservation that the partscaster phenomenon is in full-tilt boogie. From boutique “builders” charging multiple thousands of dollars for their beat-up and bolted together “custom builds” to the average Joe having a little fun in his garage, this trend is huge. Some online music retailers even have a business model based merely on buying complete guitars, dismantling them, and selling the pieces individually. It’s hard for me to understand why a guitar … especially an EXCELLENT one like, say, an Eric Johnson Strat, is worth more in pieces than it is as an entire, exquisite instrument, but hey, that’s exactly the way it is as of 2015. Go figure. What’s up? Let’s talk about it.
Least you think this shaping up to be a general bashing of the partscaster movement, now would be a nice time for a confession or two. First, I am currently working with a quality boutique builder, Rock Road Guitars on my own Tele-style build. Not exactly a “partscaster” since he actually carves his own necks, but … Second, I am seriously considering the purchase of a Strat style partscaster from a local hobbyist who simply bolts parts together. So there! No snobbery here, we’re just going to ferret out the facts as best we can. And, the two options I just laid out in essence comprise the biggest question: Is it a guitar made by a for-real builder who does some actual woodworking, or a hobbyist who bolts readily available parts together? Either can wind up with a nice guitar, but chances are better with the former.
Now, I’m not going to name names, but I am aware of quite a large number of boutique “builders” who simply bolt off-the-shelf parts together, “relic” them, and sell them as a multi-thousand dollar piece of artwork. Personally, I don’t get that … and from what I have witnessed, those guitars on the used market bring about 20 to 25 cents on the dollar of what you pay for them new. I.e.: your $2000 “custom” Strat has a real-world value of about $400-500. How about a guitar put together in a garage with components all sourced from somewhere like All-Parts or Stew-Mac? Well, you’re probably going to end up with a minimum of about $400-500 in the parts, and if you do a nice job of putting it together, it’ll be a guitar worth about that much on the open market … especially if you put a Fender water-slide decal on the headstock … or better yet, have your own decals made, and call it a “boutique custom build”.
Let’s talk about that $400-500 price range. Although the sky seems to be the limit when placing an order with a custom builder, from what conversations I’ve had with fellow Nashville guitar players, and what I’ve seen on the forums, there seems to be a consensus that five hundred bucks is about the most people feel comfortable paying for a “partscaster” on the USED market. And, to pay this price, ya gotta be in LOVE with it. In a way that’s too bad, the honest truth is that the average $500 partscaster … even bolted together by a rank armature … is far superior to a “Standard” made-in Mexico Strat. I mean, it’s almost impossible to actually BUY electronics and pickups as poor as what's in a Mexi-strat, unless you buy direct from Chinese mills! But, on the flip side, I get it; once the partscaster hits the real-world, it’s just plain an unknown commodity, even if it is comprised of quality “parts”. Even those with botique decals are often seen as mearly "off-brand" by the vast majority of the general guitar buying public.
Okay, so there, I’ve went ahead and said it: five hundred bucks, pay more than that for a “Tele” or “Strat” that’s been bolted together by someone other than a Fender employee in the USA and you need to be prepared to lose money on it if you ever sell it. So the question is why would you (or anyone for that matter) ever want to pay more than that? That’s easy, because you LOVE the guitar! It speaks to you in the voice of a true love. It whispers your name and gives you inspiration. It’s your one true muse. When you find this instrument, “resale value” has no place in the conversation; you’re gonna be buried with this guitar. Your wife will complain that you “love that guitar more than you love me”, and she’ll be right. So there, I think we’ve arrived at our final value: five hundred bucks max … unless love is involved.
See Ya’ll next week.
I recently received an email from one of my pickup affectionados in Germany asking a question that I realized is of ULTIMATE importance in Strat tone: “what is the best distance from the pickup to the strings for the best results?” Now that’s a question EVERYONE who owns or works on Strat’s NEEDS to know the answer to!
I need to make it clear that I am talking about real-deal vintage pickups and real-deal quality pickups like the ones made by Jason Lollar, Curtis Novak, Lindy Fralin, And myself. Those crappy Ceramic Bars glued next to steel slug things that come standard in so many Strat’s and Strat copies today cannot really be made to sound good, so a trip to the waste-basket is the only course of treatment for them.
I prefer to use a digital caliper to take measurements, but a quality luthier’s ruler will do fine if you have excellent vision! I also should mention that these measurements should be taken from the High & Low E POLE-PIECES, not the plastic cover. Okay, so with no further ado, here are my suggestions and reasons why.
Low E: 3.80mm / 0.149"
Hi E : 4.74mm / 0.186"
Often people will place the bridge pickup too high (close to the strings), with a VINTAGE set this destroys the tone, making it sound too narrow, focused, brittle, and harsh. The reason so many folks get used to placing this pickup as close as possible to the strings is because many of the currently made Strat pickups are muddy and severely lacking in the characteristic chime and sparkle we all love in a Strat! As with all truly fine Strat sets, my pickups certainly do NOT suffer from this lack of sparkle!
Low E: 4.75mm / 0.186"
Hi E : 4.13mm / 0.163"
Here, for me, it's all about making the middle pickup truly magical when combined with the neck or bridge pickup (positions 2 & 4). Yes, these measurements sound exquisite when using the middle pickup all by itself, but it REALLY brings out the glassy, airy beauty that folks crave in the "in-between" positions on a Strat!
Low E: 5.25mm / 0.207"
Hi E : 4.37mm / 0.172"
This is actually a very standard placement, and about where most Strats will come set from the factory. There are three goals here. First, we want a great "SRV" type tone that sings beautifully and does not fall apart into mud even with EXTREME amounts of gain added (think dual daisy-chained Tube Screamers). Second, we want to be able to roll the tone back a little and have a truly rewarding experience playing big Jazz chords and lines. And last, we want to ensure it blends perfectly with the middle pickup for that air and glass we mentioned.
Over the decades I’ve owned a fair number of what I call “big Boy” Les Pauls; you know, the kind with full binding, extra-glossy finishes, and multi-thousand dollar price tags. I have failed to bond with any of them in a sufficient enough manner to justify my keeping them. It’s quite possible that the problem is that I’m just downright spoiled. You see, I’ve had opportunity to possess … but never actually own … several 58 and 59 Pauls. That WILL spoil you, they really are THAT good. Okay, let’s cut to the chase … A couple months back a buddy of mine asks me what I know about the vintage “Burny” Les Pauls. All I knew is that they existed, and that there has been some chatter about them being quite good. It just so happened that I was exhibiting at a guitar show that very weekend, and so I asked around, and in fact played several Burnys. It’s hard to tell on a show floor, but yea, they seemed quite nice, and the fact that they had asking prices from about $700 to over a grand indicated that they were not your run of the mill 70s/80s Gibson knock-off. Actually, the fact that they even appeared in the booths of strictly vintage dealers alongside real-deal holy-grail Pauls spoke volumes!
Which brings us to the guitar on display here. After a week or two my buddy acquired a Burney to his liking and brought it over to the studio for me to check out. I was flat blown away. In every possible way, this “les Paul” is magnificent. It’s neck profile is dead-on to a ’59, not as thin as what Gibby is currently calling the “slim-taper 60s profile”, but not as thick as what they call the “50s profile”. No, it’s just plain perfect, it’s the profile EVERY Les Paul affectionado lusts after. Actually, EVERYTHING about the guitar just flat feels right. The weight, balance, action, and intonation are impeccable, and the pickups sound better than anything Gibson’s made this side of about 1965. I wish I could tell you more about these guitars, but they are new to me, and I’m not anywhere close to an expert. However, a little google search will put you in the camp of plenty of experts in a hurry. What I CAN do is tell you a little more about what impresses me so much about this particular example. And by the way, I can’t even tell you much of anything about the pedigree of this particular guitar, as there are no markings inside or outside other than the Burny logo! It was sold as a 1980s model, and so we assume it is. There, that’s about all I can tell ya, PLEASE … y’all feel free to leave some comments if you can shed some light on this instrument!
The first thing that stood out to me was the fact that the binding encased the fret edges, just like a bound-fingerboard Gibson.
The knobs have a magnificent aged amber look.
All the plastic has aged (or came that way) in a most deep and luscious way.
The truss-rod cover looks a little goofy.
She’s sweet. I hope my buddy isn’t looking to get her back any time soon :-)
Hi gang! Sooo, this is a bit of a last minute addition. I just finished a set of fully custom pickups for a Gibson SG-Z bass; it was a TON of R&D to get that design to actually sound good, but man-oh-man did I get there! I was going to blog about THAT … but then in comes this fantastic video of our buddy Daniel at WGS upgrading WGS boss-man David’s MIM Tele, and … well … I just HAD to blog about it. So cool! First, watch this short video, then … let’s talk about Tele upgrades!
Cool, huh? THIS is exactly why I make pickups. Really, it’s the same philosophy as with WGS speakers, and it goes something like this:
“Budget” guitars are now the best playing they have EVER been. Thanks to cheap yet skilled labor in places like Mexico and Indonesia, coupled with modern CNC machining, $200 - $300 can now buy a really good guitar. The problem is, the manufactures put all their money into what folks can SEE (and maybe FEEL) … NOT what they HEAR! And so it is that the weak link in a modern budget guitar is the part that actually makes the sound … the pickup!”
In a way, that’s okay, because the average 12 year old getting their first guitar wouldn’t know holy-grail tone from holy-crap tone. However, in another way that’s just plain disturbing. I mean, think about it. That kid may just stick with the guitar, get good, join a band, and turn into a REAL player … and then, what? I guess he’s just supposed to buy a more EXPENSIVE guitar if he wants decent tone. Or worse yet, maybe he gets so accustomed to bad tone that he just accepts it as standard fare.
Or … our young friend can take that lovely guitar they have now bonded with and turn her into a totally flat-out pro level tone machine! Yea, how about that, baby?
Thing is, it’s really quite simple to do. It comes down to this: 1. Have a good pro-level set-up done, including fret dressing and precise intonating, and 2. Put in a truly GREAT set of pickups (even most American Made guitars will not include truly GREAT pickups), and maybe replace the tone capacitor(s) and volume and tone pots while you’re in there. What you wind up with in the end is a guitar that can stand toe-to-toe with a $10,000+ vintage “Holy-Grail” level instrument for a total investment of maybe five hundred bucks!
Okay, so here are the few “secrets” … just details really … that I’ve came up with over the decades.
Folks, the truth is, many pro players are now in agreement that instruments like the Squire “Classic Vibe” Telecasters and Stratocasters are as good as an American Standard Fender or better. I agree, at least once you have done steps 1-5 above, and your total investment will be way less than an American Fender. That’s why so many pros riding out of Nashville on big busses have MIM Fenders, Squires, and Epiphones riding in the luggage bay below the buss. Why take a stupidly valuable guitar out when you just flat don’t need to?
Howdy friends! Sooo, today I was researching a couple guitars, to see if the ones I just picked up used were indeed the good buys I thought they were (An Epiphone Les Paul Plus Top PRO/FX and a Gibson Les Paul Future Tribute) . Now, I generally go straight to reviews from places like Musicians Friend and Sweetwater to see what other buyers of a particular guitar have to say about it. And, as is always the case, I felt that some of the buyers/reviewers just don’t understand the whole “mail-order” guitar concept. Let’s discuss that.
First, if you only remember ONE THING from this blog, remember this: If a guitar is shipped to you, you should EXPECT that it will need at least a rudimentary set-up. This is even more so the case in extreme weather conditions (read my blog on cold-weather guitar care).
Man, I get tired of people complaining that a guitar arrived at their doorstep from a thousand miles away and actually needed a setup. DUDE, get a clue! If a guitar spends the better part of a week (or more) in an un-climate controlled truck traveling through massive changes in temperature, pressure, and humidity, chances are good that it will need a little tweaking on the set-up. If by chance it arrives with the setup just exactly the way you personally like it, then consider it a big bonus, but do not take it for granted as what you can usually expect.
Which of course leads me to the next piece of this set-up rant: personal preference. Fact is, one man’s barely playable guitar is another man’s dream set-up. Personal preference is an opinion, it’s not a fact.
So, here are some areas that you can EXPECT a guitar to need a little love in after a long and trying journey to arrive at your door. If you feel insecure addressing any of these, take it to a qualified and recommended luthier.
Okay, so … how about those things that do NOT change in shipping and therefore SHOULD be mentioned in a review. It’s totally okay to be subjective here, since these are all items that folks will like or hate to varying degrees
Oh, and when reviewing a guitar on-line, please list your experience and musical style. And for those reading reviews, take this important info into account. The reviews I give the most weight to are those that come from pro players with at least a couple decades under their belts, and preferably in many genres. The “this is my first guitar and I play metal” review is generally one I skip over! Nuff said, now go buy a guitar.