Sunday, November 15, 2009

Hot Rod Tube Amp

upgrading the Fender Hot Rod Deville and Deluxe
In our relentless pursuit of tone, musicians like us may search for vintage effects pedals because we think they sound better, buy expensive low-noise cables, and stay up late listening to old Pink Floyd LP's thinking "how did they make it sound so good?" Everyone has a specific sound they are trying to achieve and everyone's is different. If you're serious about warm tone and lots of volume, then eventually you're going to want a tube amplifier.

There are lots of options out there for any budget, but one of the best amps you can get for the money is the Fender Hot Rod Series. The 40 watt Deluxe and the 60 watt Deville are some of the worlds best selling amps because of their good tone and their fair price, but many people don't know that they can be easily modified, and the tone will be improved upon dramatically.

what the Deville has to offer

The Deville comes with some nice features: footswitchable clean, drive, and "more drive" channels, reverb, 3-band EQ, individual volume controls, presence and drive dials, a brightness switch for the clean channel, an external speaker jack and an effects loop. I found the Deville, with its 2x12 speaker cabinet, to be pretty good on the clean channel. Clear true notes and a fairly even tone, but this required the bass to be turned down all the way. It seems that the tube/speaker combination in this amp was producing a ton of bass, and this was causing the speaker to lose mids and highs. Part of the problem lies in the two Eminence 12 inch speakers. I suspect that in order to fit this amp into a particular price bracket they cut costs with the speakers. Another problem with the clean channel was that it had to be turned up really loud to reach the "sweet spot," the point where the tubes start producing a natural overdrive.

The drive channel is a little disappointing. It's flabby and heavy on the lows and lacks sparkle, I would usually run my Ibanez Tube Screamer pedal in the drive channel to give it a little more life and help cut through the mix on stage. I found the "more drive" channel to be unusable, it just sounded cheesy.

Anyone who has used this amp knows that this thing is LOUD. I play in a garage band and on stage I would find myself keeping the volume in check to avoid drowning out the other players (this thing can even overpower a loud rock drummer). The 6L6 tubes give this thing a ton of headroom, which left me wondering, "do I really need 60 watts?"

The circuitry in the 60 watt Deville is identical to the 40 watt Deluxe. One of the major differences is that with the Deluxe you get one twelve inch speaker, it's intended to be a good all around combo amp for small bars and clubs and practicing, the Deville gives you a little more volume and an extra speaker.

replacement parts

I decided to go through with a speaker/tube replacement and to rebias the tubes, in this article I'll show you how to do it yourself. Keep in mind, you can also do this kind of upgrade with the 40 watt Deluxe.
First I decided to go with a JJ 6V6 tube kit from According to their website using 6V6 tubes cuts the power down to 30 watts and lowers the headroom. I chose the "normal clean channel - High Gain lead channel" kit, that would give me a little more growl where before it was lacking. The kit comes with two matched power tubes, and three ECC83S tubes for the preamp. Interestingly enough, If you are putting 6V6 tubes in a Deluxe it will cut the power down to 30 watts as well. It may seem strange that both the 60 watt and the 40 watt amps will produce 30 watts with 6V6's, but Eddie Pletka from Eurotubes explains:

"The Deville really isn't going to make 60 watts of clean power and the deluxe (in stock trim) can actually make more than 40 watts. It's all relative and with the 6V6's you're going to be at about 30 watts. None of this is exact and keep in mind even a difference of 10 actual watts hardly makes a difference in the amps physical ability to move air."

Update 12/02/09

I have since replaced all three preamp tubes with the original fender 12AX7 tubes. These tubes are made by Sovtek in Russia and I believe they sound warmer and more even in the gain channel. The ECC83S tubes from Eurotubes have too much gain for my taste and tend to sound brittle.

For speakers I wanted something with a vintage style alnico magnet, for its smooth compression and the sweet tone, rather than a harsh and aggressive ceramic magnet. I read that the Jensen P12N is a popular speaker in a lot of old amps and is well liked. I heard some good things about Weber speakers and i know that they do a pretty good job reproducing that old tone, so I ended up buying a pair of the 12A125-O rated at 8ohms and 30 watts. These speakers are well matched for the tubes and gave me much brighter mids and highs and transformed the amp from a docile sloth to a snarling beast. If you are looking for something with a little less breakup and cleaner tone, or If you're looking for a single 12 inch speaker for the Deluxe I would recommend the 50 watt 8 ohm 12A150-O. You can also check out their British Series for tone similar to Marshall amps.

I don't know what kind of effect this mod will have on your warranty, but if you are like me and bought your amp used and it's over five years old then the warranty has expired anyway. The good thing about this mod is that it can be reversed just as easily to return it to its original state. Save the boxes your speakers came in just in case some day you want to sell the old ones online.

suggestions on how to do it yourself
If you don't know what you're doing, then don't open up the amplifier, it could save your life!

The first thing you need to do when performing this upgrade is drain the filter caps. Even when the amp is not plugged in it can carry enough voltage to kill you. If you don't feel comfortable working on amps then take it to a professional, if you're not qualified to work on an amp then don't open it up in the first place!!

To drain the power caps simply turn on the amp and let it warm up with standby in the "on" position, then turn the power off while the standby switch is still in the "on" position. This lets the tubes drain the power naturally. Remove the back cover and test the voltage with a multimeter at the third pin of the power tube as shown in the picture, you should see voltage draining off. You can also individually test the filter caps using the method shown, they are the big gray things that look like AA batteries and say 350V and 500V on the side, the negative end is marked on the side of the filter cap with an arrow pointing to the end.

When you are sure there is no voltage remaining you can remove all of the tubes by gently grasping the end and wiggling them straight down.

Remove the speaker cable. Remove the entire amp assembly by removing the screws in the cabinet, careful, it's heavy!
Remove the speakers by unscrewing the Phillips head screws.

Carefully install the new speakers with the screws. Hand tighten in an X pattern. I found that the upper speaker will not fit between the amp assembly and the cabinet with the bell cover on, simply pull the bell cover straight off the speaker and it will fit perfectly. Reinstall the entire amp assembly into the cabinet, I find it's easier to work with when you turn the cab on its side.

Hook up the speaker wires (the wire with the little white letters is the positive, it should have a spot of red paint on the connector as well) and install the new tubes in their appropriate locations. I like to spray some DeoxIT pot and switch cleaner on the tube pins and then pull them in and out of the assembly to clean the connections this keeps the amp sounding clean and free of crackle. Once the tubes are installed, leave the back cover off so that you can bias the tubes.

Biasing the Deville with 6V6 tubes
Turn the power on and wait for the amp to warm up. The bias pot is a little blue potentiometer in the middle of the circuit board (see red arrow) with a slot for a screwdriver in the middle. Remember to only have one hand inside the amp at a time, that will keep deadly voltage from passing through your heart if you touch something inside the amp. With a plastic handled screwdriver turn the pot all the way in each direction and then all the way to the other to get a feel for the pot, then set it somewhere in the middle. Turn the standby switch to "on," then test the bias with a multimeter. The bias test point is marked in the photo and is clearly marked on the circuit board. According to you should bias the Deville at 30 to 35mv and the Deluxe at 40 to 45mv when using 6V6 tubes.

Secure the back cover and the amp is ready to play. Enjoy!

how it sounds

Everyone has a different idea of what's good, but I'll give you my honest opinion of how this setup sounds to help you decide what might be right for you. When I set the EQ at treble 10, bass 4, middle 7, presence 8, it seems to have a pretty even tone on the clean channel. It sounds warm and bluesy and has nice breakup when you get above 3 on the volume dial, it's still a loud amp but not bone shaking like it was before. I do notice a little bit of distortion coming from the speakers but I kind of like that raw sound. If you desire tone that's cleaner, try a pair of 50 watt speakers.

The overdrive channel is closer to a Marshall tone now, with aggresive growl and a nice sparkle to it. I've always liked Marshall amps for overdrive but thought they were just a bit thin. The Fender has warmth and low-end where the Marshall is lacking. I also noticed that this amp sounds better at low volume than it did before, making it nice for practicing at home.

remember how before I said the "more drive" channel was unusable? It's now the thunder of the gods. I no longer need to use my Tube Screamer pedal, I just use the "more drive" channel to achieve my heavy rock sound. The High Gain kit from Eurotubes really did the trick, there is a noticeable increase in overdrive. I usually keep the drive around 7 or 8 and experiment with the presence between 8 and 11 to find the best sound. Experiment with your own sound and have fun with it, you'll probably learn something along the way.

useful links
Weber Speakers
Harmony Central forums
Telecaster forums
Fender amp and guitar info

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Modifying the Jazzmaster Tremolo

before upgrade

after upgrade

The Jazzmaster has been a favorite guitar for lots of artists for a long time now. Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., the Smiths, just to name a few, use this guitar almost exclusively. I love this guitar, it has an interesting body style, a 25.5 inch scale length (just like a Stratocaster), and a fantastic tremolo bridge. The Jaguar has a similar bridge with a shorter scale length. The only drawback that I can see is that you get a lot of noise from the bridge. Since the strings are so long from the saddles to the tail, you get a lot of vibration and ghost notes that come throught the amplifier. I've heard other Jazzmaster users complain of this issue as well. Fixing the problem is extremely easy, with a simple screwdriver you can install a "buzz stop." This mod does not negatively effect the playability or tone of the guitar, and it's 100% reversable.

This mod fixes three problems with the Jazzmaster:
1. As I mentioned before, it stops the bridge from buzzing.
2. It holds the strings tighter to the bridge so there is no chance of the strings falling off the saddles.
3. It increases the bearing pressure* of the guitar.

*bearing pressure is the downward force of the stings on the nut and the bridge. As the angle of the string over the contact points increases, so does the bearing pressure. The higher the bearing pressure, the more attack and sustain a guitar will have. Fender Telecasters have quite a bit of bearing pressure because after the strings pass over the saddles, they make a 90 degree turn down through the body, this keeps things pretty tight. Telecasters are by nature snappy guitars with lots of sustain.

The Buzz Stop is simply a bracket with a roller. To install simply remove the strings, feed them through the roller, screw down the bracket with the two screws and reinstall the strings. Done! Now play for a while and decide if this is something you like, my guess is that you will.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Potting Pickups

Wikipedia defines microphonics as "phenomenon where certain components in electronic devices transform mechanical vibrations into an undesired electrical signal (noise)." The desired function of a guitar pickup is to turn the vibration of the strings into electrical signal. The pickup is basically magnetic pole pieces wrapped with thousands of coils of copper wire, if the copper wire or any other metal part in the pickup vibrates against itself it creates a screeching noise through the amplifier. Microphonics are not our friend, but they can be minimized by dipping the pickups in wax.

The process is fairly simple, but certain safety precautions have to be taken to avoid being burned by the hot wax or catching fire. Wax and the vapors it puts off are extremely flamable and should never be in the vacinity of open flame, that's why you can't melt the wax over your kitchen stove, and never try to heat it in the microwave. Use good ventilation.

The first thing you'll need is a deep fryer designed for home use, these can be fairly inexpensive and all that is required is that it has an adjustable temperature setting. You will also need a thermometer that measures at least up to 150 degrees.

You will also need about a pound of canning paraffin wax and one-quarter pound of beeswax, you can find these at a hardware store or a hobby shop, call first though because this is not always something stores keep in stock.

Set your deep fryer to somewhere around 150 degrees (mine only has settings for 0-225-300-350-390, so I set it somewhere between 0 and 225 and watched the thermometer.) According to Lindy Fralin, a professional pickup winder, the mixture should be four parts paraffin to one part beeswax, so drop in one pound of paraffin and one-quarter pound beeswax.

When the wax is completely melted and the temperature is consistantly 150 degrees you can drop in the pickups, try to keep them from touching the bottom of the pot because that can be hotter than the wax, so put the pickup in the fryer basket or on top of a layer of marbles a the bottom of the pot.

Let the pickups set in the hot wax for about 10-20 minutes and pull them out. Set them somewhere to cool and when they are cool enough remove the excess wax with a soft cloth. They are ready to install and should play with very little noise.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Be a Smart Consumer

Avoid falling victim to marketing ploys

Do you ever notice when you're in a store or shopping online that products seem to be organized by good, better, best? There always seems to be a clear line between one product and the more expensive one. I used to work for a major chain of musical instrument stores specializing in electric guitars. While I was working there I noticed a certain trend in the kind of guitars that we would sell the most of, they were typically midrange guitars in the 500-600 dollar range.

If you were to put all of the guitars in our store into three brackets, you would have "Bracket C" being guitars cheaper than $299, these are guitars like Squier and Dean (no relation) that are usually made in China or Indonesia and are made of the cheapest components possible. Midrange guitars in "Bracket B" for $300-$999 are still not made in the United States but incorporate better components and carry the same name as their more expensive counterparts, names like Stratocaster, Telecaster, and Les Paul. And finally we have high-end guitars in "Bracket A" selling for $1000 or more. These are your standard series Strats and Teles, American made Gibson SGs, and Ibanez guitars that are made in the big factories in Japan. Everything in this final bracket I would consider "pro" gear, and depending on options prices can go well beyond $5,000. Out of all these brackets, Bracket B by far outsold everything else in the store.

The reasoning for this is very simple and is no secret. When faced with three different product choices at different prices, consumers will usually choose the middle of the road. They think to themselves, "I don't wanna buy the cheapest piece of crap, but I also don't want to go outside my budget, I'm not a professional anyway. So I'll choose the second-best choice." Retailers have known this for a long time and they do this with everything from microwaves to TVs to cars. It's called "price pointing".

The pros are obvious; the system works, retailers make a lot of money when they use this system. But the cons are pretty serious. First of all you have a major decrease in quality when you manufacture something to be "good enough". This is usually where "Bracket C" resides, products here are the cheapest and are usually just built to be good enough to get by. You can pretty much take all the products in this bracket straight from the store shelf and throw then directly in the local landfill. Realistically it might be six months or it might be two years or it might be ten years, but eventually that microwave for $29.99, that TV for $69.99, or that car for $9999.99 will end up in a landfill somewhere. I'm sure you have fallen victim to Bracket C before, I know I did. You needed a toaster for your new apartment, went to Bed, Bath, and Beyond and saw that sweet deal for $29.99 and thought, "perfect, I'll take it!" One year later, where is that toaster now? It became trash.

Ever notice how people rave about antiques and how good the quality is? I'm sure you've heard the expression, "They don't build 'em like they used to." Well its true, things like kitchen appliances, cars and musical instruments from the 50s are fucking fantastic. The Sunbeam Mixmaster you see to your right is over 50 years old, and it is the best appliance in my kitchen. They didn't have price pointing back then, or at least they didn't use it the same way as we do now. Leo Fender built some of his best guitars in the 50's. He was a skilled Luthier, a genius when it came to building guitars. In 1950 Fender built and released the first solid-body electric Telecaster and it was perfect. He built it with all the right components and sold it for what he though was fair, only a few hundred bucks. Today his guitars from this era are considered the "Holy Grail" of great tone, and are auctioned for tens of thousands of dollars.

Just to give you another example, acoustic guitars are really expensive to make, unless you make them with laminated wood and shitty components. before price pointing nobody could afford an acoustic guitar, but that was okay because back then nobody really wanted one, they weren't popular. As soon as something becomes popular the manufacturers find ways to get it out to the public as fast as possible. You don't see grand pianos selling for $129.99 do you? Well maybe not yet, but when you do you can be sure that the quality will be reflected in the price.

In the center of it all we have Bracket B, the middle of the road, the middle child, half-baked, not really a full commitment but more of a half-hearted compromise. Some sort of mutated twin of the Beautiful American Standard, shunned and cast out into the forest to live in exile. I once bought a used Fender Telecaster. It was the Mexican made version that originally sold for about $400. When I got it, she was a wounded bird, a two-tone sunburst that someone had sanded down with a bench grinder to give it that "road-worn" look. The pickups were a fucking joke. The neck pickup was made of plastic, and when I took apart the controls I noticed the electronics looked like they had been soldered together by a blind gorilla with Parkinson's Disease. It had been sitting in the store for quite some time and nobody really took much notice in her, but after playing it a little I could see the potential this guitar had: a straight neck, good tuners, and a lightweight, resonant body.

I took her in a nursed her back to health. I stripped off all the old paint and refinished her in powder blue. Then I took apart all of the electronics and replaced everything including the pickups with american standard gear. I put it all back together and slapped a white pickguard on her to offset the powder blue body, a fresh set of strings and I was ready to go. The second I plugged it in I knew I had done something right because it sang like never before, since then this guitar has become part of my regular gear that I play on stage, and it all started out as an inexpensive half-mutant.

So I guess my point to all this is that when you're out in the world making your purchases, be an informed buyer. You should know what you're looking for before you go into the store or start surfing the online businesses, especially when it comes to musical instruments. Bracket C is for the cheap-skate who thinks he's getting a great deal, Bracket B is the one that usually everyone falls into because it's halfway between quality and suckage, and Bracket A is the real deal. Bracket A will probably end up saving you money in the long run because you don't have to go through a bunch of Bracket C's before you finally settle on the good one, and it's better for the environment because you won't be filling up all those landfills. You pay for what you get in this world. If you are an informed buyer and you know about the stuff you are looking at, then maybe a Bracket B is good for you and will suit your needs just fine. Just don't be a sucker and fall victim to price pointing the second you walk in the store.