Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The 1989 Soldano Super Lead Overdrive: The Best Tube Based Guitar Amplifier Ever?

Now inextricably linked with “guitar gods” Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler, is the 1989 Soldano SLO the best tube based electric guitar amplifier ever?

By: Ringo Bones

Whenever you Google the 1989 Soldano Super Lead Overdrive (SLO) electric guitar amplifier on the internet – the number one search result is inextricably Dire Straits’ 1985 era Billboard Chart topping classic Money For Nothing, followed by a host of articles pertaining late 1980s era “Hair Metal” tone. Whether you’ve just heard one first hand or have heard one back in 1989 - does the 1989 Soldano Super Lead Overdrive tube-based electric guitar amplifier reign supreme as the best tube based electric guitar amplifier?

When Michael “Mike” Soldano started his Soldano Custom Amplification guitar amplifier manufacturing company in Los Angeles, California back in 1986 – which later relocated to Seattle, Washington - it is mostly known by it’s close-knit cadre of loyal customers for it’ modern, as in push-pull Class AB tube amps based on the circuit design first used by Dr. Jim Marshall back in the 1960s, high-gain electric guitar amplifiers; Particularly their flagship model – the Soldano SLO-100 – which is rated at around 100-watts, and also of their other product lineup of tube-based and solid-state effects units, pedals and electric guitar speaker cabinets. All Soldano electric guitar amplifiers are tube-based and in Class AB configuration that are a high-gain version / improvement of mid-1960s era Jim Marshall circuits.

Mike Soldano originally worked with an electric guitar amp head technician named Bill Sundt in a California shop – Stars Guitars in San Francisco – by modding as in modifying stock Marshall electric guitar head amplifiers to improve their sound or to modify them to create a tone that’s unique or better suited to the owner / guitarist. Which is not surprising given that the first Soldano amp was a result of a modding session of a stock Marshall Plexi and legend has it was used by Dire Straits’ guitarist Mark Knopfler during the recording the session of Money For Nothing of their Brothers In Arms album near the end of 1984.

Mike Soldano and his line of electric guitar amplifiers has earned the reputation amongst the top professional and studio session guitar players – and even amateur guitar playing hobbyists near the end of the 1980s for putting out products that are very high in build quality. Soldano guitar amps had been known to use audiophile-grade components that surpass many of its high-end contemporaries. Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler “officially” purchased their own Soldano SLOs during a NAMM exhibition back in 1987. Even though Soldano amplifiers are generally priced higher than its competition – i.e. electric guitar amps manufactured by MESA Engineering (MESA / Buggies) or Marshall – Soldano owners / users tend to hold on to and cherish their amplifiers due to their smooth overdrive characteristics. Mike Soldano’s company is also well known for having the best levels of customer support.

Legend has it that the circuit design of Eddie Van Halen’s Peavey 5150 series of amplifiers was “inspired” after Van Halen peeked into his recently purchased Soldano SLO. Though Van Halen’s 5150 (later called the 6505) were based on the plentiful-during-the-Reagan-era (as in 1980s era) 6550 tube and Eddie Van Halen surprisingly made it more “tone-friendly” using his own circuit design. Quite a miraculous design feat indeed because Ronald Reagan era 6550 tubes were not known for their pleasing tonal characteristics – they tend to sound like ordinary sold-state guitar amp designs in the hands of “mediocre” electric guitar amplifier designers. 

In actual use, even though what struck me first was its tonal smoothness even when played at ridiculously loud levels, I was bowled over by the 1989 Soldano SLO’s tonal versatility. In a skilled guitarist, you can forgo your distortion pedals if your fingers are adept enough to allow you to play though a SLO from a smooth legato to a chunky power chord by your right-hand touch and strumming dynamics alone. And if you are a cover-band / tribute band guitarist, you can wow your fans – and your competition – by playing studio version tone accurate renditions of Queensr├┐che’s Revolution Calling followed by Lunachicks’ Spoilt just by twiddling the control knobs of the 1989 Soldano SLO amp in 5 seconds or less.      

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Remembering Deep Purple’s Jon Lord

Even though he’s a “mere” keyboard player of the pioneering Heavy Metal band Deep Purple, did Jon Lord manage to compose one of the most iconic guitar riffs in heavy metal history?

By: Ringo Bones 

Jon Lord passed away last July 17, 2012 aged 71 marking another sad day in the Heavy Metal Music world. Though he left a legacy that would certainly last as long as the Classical works of Mozart and Beethoven. As every under-40 guitarist today who’s getting formal music education, Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water is a much-do in any Heavy Metal guitar masterclass. 

Even though he’s a “mere” keyboard player for Deep Purple when the band started in 1968, Jon Lord managed to compose the most iconic Heavy metal guitar riff of all time – i.e. the main riff of Smoke on the Water. Like many iconic musicians of the 1960s, Jon Lord managed to combine the intricate structures of Classical Music and the immediacy of African-American Blues with the visceral impact of Heavy Metal Music. Making Deep Purple stand out against band that merely want to kick-ass by playing as loud as possible without any musical finesse. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Remembering Dr. Jim Marshall OBE

Dubbed the "Father of Loud" for making rock guitarists be heard in the biggest stadiums, will Dr. Jim Marshall OBE's famed guitar amps continue to evolve without him?

By: Ringo Bones

Maybe its just me, but I always harbored this weird feeling that what Jim Marshall originally wanted was to build a Fender Champ with enough volume that could fill the world's largest arenas and concert stadiums - while keeping the original tone of the 6V6 tube equipped classic. Even though the famed guitar amplifier designer is no longer with us after passing away back in April 5 , 2012 aged 88, Dr. Jim Marshall OBE started one of the greatest "Amp Race" in the electric guitar playing world.

Back in 1962, three extraordinary prototypes were built in Hanwell, England which later became the coveted "Holy Grail" of guitar amplifiers in the electric guitar playing world. The original Marshall amps - the JTM45 Offset Halfstack - used KT66 tubes as the output tubes. Even though latter tube amp versions use 6L6 or the famed Mullard EL34 output tubes, the basic 12AX7 input tube configuration more or less remained the same.

Dr. Jim Marshall's class A triode/pentode switchable amp configuration not only made the amps easier to service while being used in tours and in excruciatingly loud "stadium rock" environments, but also left some room for "improvements" to make it more or less retain the tone of a 6V6 tubed Fender Champ. Famed amp modder Mike Soldano made a name for himself by designing his famed 1989 Soldano Super Lead Overdrive where Marshall left off.

Providing a list of famed musicians and guitarists that made a name for themselves might seem an exercise in yawnarama. But the first ones in the 1960s includes a who's who of the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame, like Pete Townshend of The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath. Even until the 1990s, there are still a new generation of gifted musicians making a name for themselves by using Marshall amps to showcase their guitar playing skills like Kurt Cobain of Nirvana and Louise Post and Nina Gordon of Veruca Salt. And even though it is getting harder and harder for a new generation of skilled musicians in today's post NAPSTER music scene, Dr. Jim Marshall's famed guitar amplifier design will probably and surely continue to evolve.