Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Death of an Iconic Guitar Store

As the management of New York City’s Hotel Chelsea jacks-up their rent to attract more up-market clientele, will this force the smaller shops renting their place to close – i.e. guitar stores?

By: Ringo Bones

Another iconic landmark of New York City is now set to close shop due to the recession and their landlord’s decision to jack-up rent in order to woo more up-market clientele. A few years ago it was CBGB’s, the ancestral birthplace of Punk Rock. Now it is Dan’s Chelsea Guitars located at the ground floor of the Hotel Chelsea. This hotel has served as a prime destination for Bohemian artists as far back as when Mark Twain was still writing masterpieces. And Dan’s Chelsea Guitars had served clients as iconic as Bob Dylan and Sid Vicious during the store’s long history. It probably even inspired big wigs like Jon Bon Jovi to write songs about the iconic hotel.

Now forced to perform a Bernie Madoff-inspired fire sale in order to get rid of their excess inventory. Dan Courtney, owner of Dan’s Chelsea Guitars is now deciding to close down his venerable guitar shop because there is no point in running it when the rates are so high, the shops earnings will go to the landlord, ruining the economic viability of the once iconic shop. The axe merchant has now fell victim to an axe of a more lethal kind – business wise. Which is kind of sad, given that the electric guitar had since become a part of post-World War II Americana and ushered in the birth of Rock n' Roll.

New York City has been famous the world over for having esoteric-item shops being run by an eccentric shopkeeper who could care less about selling you anything if you harbor a bad attitude about their wares - Even if you have the commensurate amounts of dosh. Given the number of years it’s been around, Dan’s Chelsea Guitars have served quite a diverse clientele. From a Hassidic Rabbi trying out a Gibson Les Paul caught on Dan’s mobile phone camera to probably lesser known but equally iconic New York City based guitarists like Gina of Lunachicks. Given that the shop has probably been selling classic used and broken-in Gibson Les Pauls and Fender Stratocasters at reasonable prices, will the skillful guitarist who don’t have more money than sense be able to afford decent-sounding new ones with prices approaching 10,000 US dollars each?

Using Aging Tubes: A Dangerous Guitar Tone Tweak?

Though very, very rarely mentioned in interviews by superstar guitarists, is the use of aging tubes to create your very own unique guitar tone very dangerous to your very expensive gear?

By: Ringo Bones

I’ve probably lost count since 1997 on how many guitarists around my neck of the woods explored in finding ways to make their renditions of Veruca Salt’s Earthcrosser intro sound more “soulful”, especially by resorting to tone tweaks that could irreparably damage to their extremely expensive (3,000 US dollars MSRP) electric guitar amplifier. From connecting four 8-ohm speakers in series to a push-pull based tube electric guitar amp – which could result in a very high voltage build up of the output power tubes – to using aging tubes. Though by far, the use of aging tubes is the most common. Given that tubes are becoming very scarce compared to latest generation mobile phones – especially in the US – the “poor” unsigned amateur guitarist is more than likely be using output power tubes in his or her electric guitar amplifier that are past its prime.

I’ve read an article about the summer NAMM 1992 in Guitar Player magazine about a company introducing a digital electric guitar effects processor - with an effects setting - that emulates the sound of an aging tube, such tone never became popular. Even during the guitar-heavy musical genre of Seattle Grunge that went mainstream a few months after reading that feature.

Given that I’ve only began building and owning tube-based amplifiers in the mid 1990s, I’ve asked some veteran audiophiles on how an aging power tube sounds in a “hi-fi audio setting.” Most of them pointed out the “quirky acoustics” of the Tori Amos song China from the Little Earthquakes album as what music would sound like when played through a tube amp with output power tubes past its prime and will be arcing anytime soon.

Back in April 2009, I was asked to help an amateur unsigned guitarist who wants his performance to be video recorded for You Tube posting. He was using a family heirloom 1965 Fender Twin Reverb with aging 6L6 tubes. He did manage to conjure up a very unique tone until 30 minutes into the session when one of the 6L6 tubes started to arc and fused into its tube sockets, though it did manage to emit a very cool apocalyptic-sounding high-pitched squeal when the final chord was struck.

Given that equipment of this vintage still uses plastic / phenolic resin output power tube sockets for the 6L6 output tubes / valves instead of being upgraded to military-spec porcelain tube sockets with silver plated contacts when it became widely available during the mid-1990s. Fortunately, only the output section of his Fender Twin was damaged. But it resulted in a very expensive repair bill, especially when you live in a place where most people live on slightly less than a dollar a day.

It is still a mystery why guitar digital effects processors still don’t add an aging tube emulator proviso on its menu of effects, especially ones that do advanced 24-bit 96-kHz digital signal processing are now relatively cheap and widely available. An aging tube sound / tone obtained through digital domain physical modeling is a much safer way of doing things compared to using actual aging tubes on your very expensive tube-based electric guitar amp since complete catastrophic failure resulting from such practice is not that far from impossible. Maybe guitar effects manufacturers are ignoring this sector of the market at their own peril since the sound of an aging tube is very interesting and very soulful.

The 6L6 Beam Power Tetrode: An All-American Tube?

Made famous for its use as the output tube of the famed 1965 Fender Twin Reverb guitar amp, does the 6L6 beam tetrode really claim the fame as an all-American tube?

By: Ringo Bones

As the guitar amp that many electric guitar players view as the “soul-mate” of Leo Fender’s late 1950s iconic invention – the single-coil pickup equipped Fender Stratocaster – the 1965 Fender Twin Reverb guitar amplifier has over the years managed to inexorably sneak itself into posterity. But given the venerable guitar amp’s claim to fame of being as American as apple pie and baseball, does the output power tubes that made the 1965 Fender Twin possible – namely the 6L6 beam tetrode power tube – really claim the fame as an all-American tube? But first, let us examine this remarkable vacuum tube’s – or valve as they say in merry old England – history.

A guy called Schottky originally invented the screen grid-type tubes / valves called tetrodes while working for Siemens of Germany during the 1930s. Schottky’s work with tetrode-type tubes eventually lead to the creation of the 6L6 beam power tetrode and the KT66 tube. The 6L6GC tube was first introduced in1936 for a new generation of audio power amplifiers that produced high gain and lower total harmonic distortion with the help of the newly discovered principle of negative feedback. Amplifiers using the 6L6 tube became so popular over the years that it was eventually used in the 1965 Fender twin Reverb guitar amplifier that produces an 85-watt output using an all-tube driver stage. Often equipped with 12AX7 pre-amp tubes for the input stage and phase splitting duties and a12AT7 pre-amp tubes to drive the spring reverb section of the guitar amp.

As major American consumer electronic manufacturing firms made the shift from using vacuum tubes to solid state components like transistors and integrated circuits or ICs - which were reaching the point of becoming cheaper to manufacture than their thermionic counterparts. American audiophiles and electric guitar players who are still reliant on tube-based gear were left high and dry when it comes to acquiring replacement tubes. Some went to buying new old stock (NOS) US manufactured tubes, only to find out that these items slowly crept up in price as the years went by despite of their reliability and wide availability. Especially during the 1980s where everyone in the US seems to be starting their very own Heavy metal band, and you know how this kind of music is very reliant on tube-based electric guitar amplifiers when it comes to getting a good tone and feel.

Eastern Block countries during the eve of the fall of the Iron Curtain became a very important source of vacuum tubes for electric guitar and PA amplifier use almost overnight. Unfortunately, Eastern Block tube manufacturers – especially in China and Yugoslavia – still have a very steep learning curve to conquer in order to produce vacuum tubes that would equal the reliability and sound quality of American made tubes. It was only during the mid 1990s that Russian made tubes finally equaled their American NOS counterparts and China – and other Eastern European countries – had to wait till the very late 1990s or early 21st Century for their tubes to equal American made ones.

Those of us who don’t have more money than our common sense and/or were born a few years after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon. It will be very unlikely that we’ll be using ultra-expensive American NOS versions of the 6L6 beam power tetrode tubes on our 1965 Fender Twin Reverb guitar amp. It is more likely – probably 99.9% - that we’ll be using Russian Edicron 6L6GC tubes if we want for our beloved 1965 Fender Twin to sound its best. Though a Chinese made Golden Dragon 6L6 will provide a little more power if we tweak the power amp circuit so that the cathode resistor voltage readings of the 6L6 tubes will rise to about 35 volts or so with reference to ground.

So is the 6L6 beam power tetrode tube an all American tube especially when used as the output tubes of an all American guitar amp like the 1965 Fender Twin Reverb? Well, it probably depends on how you define what constitutes being American anyway. Given that the American culture has been further enriched each time Americans indulge in the niceties of newly arrived ethnic groups then yes the 6L6 tube does pass muster as an all American tube. Whether it is made in post-Soviet era Russia or the People’s Republic of China. Especially the Chinese made ones, which fortunately haven’t managed to self-destruct during the Free Tibet concert or the Chinese made 6L6 tubes on guitar amps played in a Jetsun Milarepa fundraising. This tube is as American as apple pie, baseball or just “Rockin’ in the Free World”.