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Thread: So you want a great guitar sound?

  1. #1
    That Video Guy crgtr's Avatar
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    So you want a great guitar sound?

    Here's a great article I read by Tal Bachman (She's So High) about great guitar tone. He's got some very good points.

    So, You Want a Great Guitar Sound...
    Want a great rock guitar sound? Do everything "wrong". Allow me to explain.

    For a variety of reasons - some of them understandable, some of them daft - many aspiring rock guitarists think that a "great guitar sound" means buying a guitar with a "hot" (high output) pickup, a large amp cranked to the max, and maybe a distortion pedal in between. But if a "great guitar sound" is one that sounds more pleasing to the human ear than other possible alternatives, what I just described is not a "great guitar sound". Here's why.

    What we hear as a sound is a wave of pressure through the air. The speed, or frequency, of these waves, we measure with a unit called a hertz. A hertz tells us how frequently the wave is cycling per second. So, a wave of 500 hertz means that the sound wave is cycling at a frequency of 500 times per second.

    Human beings can hear sounds which range from about 20 to 20,000 hertz, but crucially, we cannot hear all those frequencies with equal ease. In fact, our ears are designed so that there is a bump in our sensitivity to frequencies around 3000 hertz (also known as 3 kilohertz or 3k, a kilohertz being equal to one thousand hertz). This makes sense, as the primary frequency in human voices is around that range. Now, virtually any sound or noise is an array of different frequencies, with some being more audible than others. But the more frequencies in 2 to 4 kilohertz range in any sound, the more we will hear that sound as harsh and unpleasant, simply because our ears are so much more sensitive to frequencies in that range.

    Now, back to your guitar sound. The particular wood used to make an electric guitar will have a measurable effect on a guitar's tone, but the primary determinant of a guitar's sound is the pickup. A pickup is the device in an electric guitar which senses, or "picks up", the vibrations of the guitar strings, and converts them to an electric signal, which can then be amplified. Naturally, different kinds of pickups affect the characteristics of that signal in different ways.

    One determining factor in how a pickup affects sound is the number of winds that the pickup has. (Pickups are made by winding metal wire around magnets). Essentially, the more winds a pickup has, the louder (or hotter) the output of the pickup becomes, and the less the pickup picks up high and low frequencies from the strings, and thus, the more the pickup broadcasts "mid-range" frequencies, in the - you guessed it - 2 to 4 kilohertz range. Which means, the harsher it sounds.

    Further, as the output from a hot pickup is distorted, the more the signal from the string itself is clouded over by harsh, white noise (since that noise is in the same 2 - 4k range, and is therefore boosted by the pickup). This doesn't happen with low output pickups, at least nowhere near as much, because they pick up more of the highs and lows, while slighting the mid-range frequencies. In short, up to a certain point, a lower wound pickup gives you a better guitar sound. If your output is too low, you simply turn your amp up more; or if you want more volume running into the amp, so as to get a more distorted sound, you simply run your guitar through a volume pedal or volume-boosting EQ pedal. The pedal increases the guitar output without increasing the "noise"that a higher-wind, higher output pickup would have.

    Does this sound too simple, or too good, to be true? It shouldn't. This is just how you get a more pleasing guitar tone, and certainly how you can get a great distorted rhythm sound through which you can still hear string clarity.

    Consider one of the greatest power-chord rock songs of all time: "Won't Get Fooled Again", by The Who. Millions of people envision Townshend in the studio playing a Les Paul with souped up pickups, standing in front of a wall of Marshall amps, to get that sound. The truth is that Townshend played the song on a hollowbody Gretsch 6120 which Joe Walsh had given him, fitted with Gretsch's standard (low wind) Filtertron pickups (the same set up Brian Setzer used for his classic Stray Cats material). Townshend then ran the signal through a volume pedal and into a Fender amp, thereby distorting it. Presto - a truly awesome distorted power chord sound, which retains a lot of string clarity.

    My dad, on "Takin' Care of Business", used a hollowbody Gretsch with Filtertrons as well, and got another classic dirty rhythm sound. Malcolm Young, of AC/DC, has always used Gretschs with Filtertrons for the same reason. His brother Angus plays a Gibson SG with humbuckers - but the humbuckers are also low, or "vintage", output. Add to this the fact that producer Mutt Lange (who produced "Highway to Hell", "Back in Black", and "For Those About to Rock" for them) regularly twiddles the EQ knobs so as to zap out the 3K range entirely from his mixes, and you have an explanation as to why the classic AC/DC guitars sound so good. (I should add here that while Filtertrons are great for distorted rhythm, they are less suited to lead work. They use a fairly strong magnet, which gives them that great attack, but detracts from sustain).

    Speaking of lead work, consider what most historically-minded rock 'n roll aficionados and guitarists consider the greatest lead sound ever: Eric Clapton's sound on the John Mayall and the Bluesbreaker's "Beano" album. And, guess what? It was a '59 Les Paul, with relatively low output humbuckers, through a small Marshall combo amp. Clapton reportedly regularly turned his guitar's tone knob all the way down, and according to some reports, ran his guitar through a treble booster to restore some of the treble lost on the way to the amp. But even so, we're talking about a set-up which maximizes tone and string pitch, over harsh noise.

    Another great lead sound was the solo on "Stairway to Heaven". People think it's a hot-rodded Les Paul through a Marshall stack. It's actually an old '59 Telecaster, outfitted with its standard (relatively low output) single coil pickups, through (by most accounts) a small Supro amplifier. Add in a tiny bit of natural room echo/reverb, and boom, there's another classic sound.

    What Townshend, Page, and other pioneers of classic rock guitar sounds had was tone; and they had it, because they weren't using hot-rodded, high-output pickups to play through three different distortion pedals and gigantic stacks, boosting their noise to signal ratio. They were, for the most part, using older guitars, with lower output pickups, to get subtler, sweeter distorted sounds, which paradoxically, make their guitars sound far bigger than most modern distorted guitar sounds. And certainly, those vintage sounds were far easier to listen to - not because there is something "magic" about their age, but simply because the set-ups were, in effect, reducing frequencies in the 2 to 4 kilohertz range, and accentuating string pitch over noise.

    For those interested in experimenting with achieving tone, as opposed to white-noise-style distortion, a few recommendations.

    Lollar offers a great sounding low output humbucker pickup called the Low Wind Imperial. Kinman also offers spectacular sounding, lower output humbuckers. Seymour Duncan offers an Eric Johnson-designed low output humbucker as well, and while I have heard good things about that, I have never heard it myself. And then, of course, there is the Filtertron, the pickup that Townshend used for the great rhythm sound on "Won't Get Fooled Again". I suggest going to the TV Jones website if you're interested in that; they make a wide assortment of Filtertron reproductions of varying hotness. (Remember, though, that if you're looking for a lot of sustain for rock leads, a classic Filtertron may not be your best choice).

    In any case, good luck with your quest to get a great guitar tone. Send me an email if you want to discuss.
    Chris Reynolds...Nashvegas TN
    CR Guitar Demos
    More guitars than I can afford!
    #1 fan of Doug "DA MAN" Sewell!!

  2. #2
    Senior Member sergiodeblanc's Avatar
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    A great guitar tone begins with a great song.

  3. #3
    deus ex machina
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    All I can say is that it's a good thing that this guy majored in political science and not engineering.

  4. #4
    That Video Guy crgtr's Avatar
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    I found it interesting. It's really all a matter of getting the tone on your head to come out of your speakers.
    Chris Reynolds...Nashvegas TN
    CR Guitar Demos
    More guitars than I can afford!
    #1 fan of Doug "DA MAN" Sewell!!

  5. #5
    Senior Member veinbuster's Avatar
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    I had no idea Tal was a student of sound.
    I thought he was just the son of an honest to goodness rock star, with a surprisingly good voice, a decent guitar player and a few good songs.
    I'm happy to hear his thoughts.

  6. #6
    Senior Member Rango's Avatar
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    Interesting stuff Chris - I've heard stores of many other classic rock distortion sounds being recorded with 5 watt Champs and such...

    I sold off my 100 watt 5150 III after I discovered for myself what he is saying . I'm playing mostly through 5 watts at home and 30 (or less) out.
    And since we're here - one of the great things about the 53/10's is you still hear individual strings ringing in the mix - even when playing dirty. I don't know what they ohm out to but I'd guess they are not what you'd consider "hot" .

    I had not put together that Tal was offspring of Bachman of BTO fame... Sounds like his Dad saw to his "education".
    Last edited by Rango; 07-16-2013 at 06:39 PM.
    If I thought I was going to live this long I'd have taken better care of myself!

  7. #7
    The results of various approaches speak for themselves.

    I rarely turn my guitar volume above 6-7, even with vintage style pickups, and even when playing gainy stuff. The sound becomes too wooly and harsh - for my taste.

    But these things can be very subjective.

    So many of the players that are looked to as examples of great tone have used vintage pickups, used the volume controls on their guitars, and have run relatively simple amplifiers. But at the same time, players that a different audience regards as examples of stellar tone have taken an opposite approach. A guy like Tremonti is also admired for his sound, and he uses a hot pickup, etc.

    There aren't (and shouldn't be) rules, but it is interesting to read this point of view.
    I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken...

    Website: http://www.elfxi.com

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    Chris - where was this article originally published? I'd like to link to it from Facebook. Great nod accurate stuff in it.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Bob

  9. #9
    deus ex machina
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    Quote Originally Posted by crgtr View Post
    I found it interesting. It's really all a matter of getting the tone on your head to come out of your speakers.
    I found the 2K Hertz to 4K Hertz information to be interesting. However, a lot of the pickup-related information is pure conjecture that is not supported by the laws of physics. I covered basic pickup physics in gory detail a few months ago in the "Help with Capacitors!" thread.

    *** Reposted from the "Help with Capacitors!" thread ****

    "Contrary to popular belief, the pickup tone capacitor does not pass any signal components to the amp or to ground. What the tone capacitor does is shift the resonant peak of the circuit down in frequency as it is brought into the equation. The Q factor (a.k.a. “Q”) of the circuit is also reduced as the tone potentiometer is rolled down because doing so reduces the total resistance of the circuit. In layman's terms, the tone capacitor moves the frequency at which the pickup circuit is loudest down in frequency and flattens the overall frequency response of the circuit.

    The pickup coil and the tone capacitor form an inductor-capacitor (LC) network. An LC network is what is known as a "tuned circuit." Every tuned circuit has a resonant frequency F0, which is equal to 1 / (2 x Pi x SQRT(L x C)), where Pi ~= 3.14, L = inductance in henries, C = capacitance in farads, and SQRT is the square root function. At resonance, a tuned circuit becomes purely resistive. The output amplitude of a tuned circuit is highest at its resonant frequency. This amplitude peak is known as the "resonant peak" of the circuit. The resonant peak is the frequency at which the pickup circuit is loudest.

    The value of the volume potentiometer in a guitar sets the Q of the circuit. It does so by combining with the LC network formed by the pickup inductance/self-capacitance and tone capacitor capacitance to form a tuned circuit known as an RLC circuit. The volume potentiometer is wired in parallel with the pickup and the tone capacitor; therefore, we use the formula for a parallel RLC network to determine the Q of the circuit. The Q for a parallel RLC circuit is equal to R x SQRT( L x C), where R = resistance in ohms, L = inductance in henries, C = capacitance in farads, and SQRT is the square root function. As one can clearly see, Q increases as we increase the value of R in parallel a RLC network. Increasing the value of the volume potentiometer increases the amplitude of the resonant peak while narrowing the passband (the range of frequencies that are passed unattenuated), which has the effect of making a dull sounding pickup sound brighter. The upper bound for how bright an increase in the value of the volume control potentiometer can make a pickup sound is set by the resonant frequency of the pickup.

    Many people believe that the output of a pickup is determined by its DC resistance. Paraphrasing Bill Lawrence, attempting to determine a pickup's output level by measuring its DC resistance is akin to attempting to determine a person's IQ by measuring the size of his/her feet. The output of a pickup is determined by its coil inductance and the strength and shape of its magnetic field. Pickup inductance is determined by coil dimensions, winding pattern, number of turns, and wire diameter (including insulation). The only time that one can use DC resistance as a measure of output is if both pickups use the same coil form, wire diameter, winding pattern, and magnet structure. Most seriously overwound humbucking pickups are wound using 43 gauge or smaller magnet wire. The resistance per foot rating of any given type of wire increases as its diameter decreases.

    Overwound pickups tend to have less sharp resonant peak amplitudes than vintage-wound pickups because a pickup's coil resistance is electrically in series with its inductance; therefore, a pickup by itself is a series RLC network. The Q of a series RLC circuit is equal to (1 / R) x SQRT( L x C), where R = resistance in ohms, L = inductance in henries, C = capacitance in farads, and SQRT is the square root function; hence, the Q of a pickup decreases if coil resistance grows faster than coil inductance. Pickup inductance is primarily determined by the number of turns of wire that one can place on each bobbin. Most pickup makers are dealing with a fixed set of pickup bobbin dimensions; therefore, the only way to increase the number of turns beyond a certain point is to use thinner diameter wire. As mentioned above, thinner diameter wire has a higher per foot resistance rating; therefore, resistance rises faster per turn with thinner wire, which, in turn, lowers pickup Q.

    Seymour Duncan is gracious enough to list the resonant frequency of their pickups. Let’s use the ’59 and JB to illustrate what I have outlined above.

    DC Resistance:


    • '59 Bridge: 8.13Ω
    • JB: 16.4kΩ



    Resonant Peak


    • '59 Bridge: 6kHz
    • JB: 5.5kHz



    The DC resistance of the ’59 is approximately 50% of the JB's DC resistance; however, the resonant peak is only 500Hz lower. This delta (difference) is much smaller than would be expected if both pickups used the same wire, especially considering that coil inductance is based on the square of the number of turns (i.e., doubling the number of turns quadruples inductance).

    Let’s perform a quick and dirty circuit analysis of the '59 and the JB. We are interested in determining if the inductance of the JB is four times that of the ’59. We cannot determine the inductance of either pickup given the information listed above; however, we can calculate the LC product, which will give us a rough idea of how much inductance has increased with respect to resistance.

    Re-writing the resonant frequency equation to solve for the LC product gives us:

    L x C = (1 / (F x 2 x Pi)) 2, where F = frequency in hertz, Pi ~= 3.14, L = inductance in henries, and C = capacitance in farads

    L x C (’59 Bridge) = ( 1 / (6,000 x 6.28)) 2 ~= 0.0000000007
    L x C (JB) = ( 1 / (5,500 x 6.28)) 2 ~= 0.00000000084

    As one can clearly see, the LC product for the JB is not four times that of the ’59 Bridge, which means that the inductance of the JB is more than likely not four times of that of the ’59 Bridge. The only way that the inductance of the JB could be four times that of the ’59 Bridge is if Seymour Duncan had magically discovered a winding pattern that resulted in an unbelievable reduction in self-capacitance per turn of wire. The small LC product delta combined with a more than two to one delta in DC resistance between the two pickups tells us that the JB is more than likely wound with smaller gauge wire than the ’59 Bridge. The tonal difference between the two pickups is primarily due to the JB having a lower resonant frequency, less pronounced resonant peak spike, and a flatter response curve. The ’59 is brighter than the JB because its resonant peak is higher in frequency and the amplitude spike is more pronounced. The passband of the ’59 is also smaller than that of the JB, which focuses more of the pickup’s output around the resonant frequency.

    We can get away with 250K volume potentiometers with vintage-style Fender single coils because they have relatively high resonant frequencies and relatively low DC resistances. The average vintage-style Strat single coil has a resonant frequency in the 9kHz to 10kHz range and a DC resistance in the 5k ohms to 6k ohms range, which means that vintage-syle Strat single coils have sharp resonant peak amplitudes at frequencies that are one and a half to two times higher than the average humbucker.

    Finally, I would like to correct an error that was made earlier in this thread. P-90-equipped guitars use 500K volume potentiometers because most P-90s have DC resistances and resonant frequencies that resemble humbucking pickups."

  10. #10
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    Great article...thanks for posting!
    Certainly helps put some perspective on what hearing with the "mind's eye" can do to your quest...and wallet
    This kid grew up around tone and his father is as open minded an influence as you could wish for...probably very few sacred cows for them....leading to much clearer experimentation.

  11. #11
    Junior Member Molly's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Em7 View Post

    The pickup coil and the tone capacitor form an inductor-capacitor (LC) network. An LC network is what is known as a "tuned circuit." Every tuned circuit has a resonant frequency F0, which is equal to 1 / (2 x Pi x SQRT(L x C)), where Pi ~= 3.14, L = inductance in henries, C = capacitance in farads, and SQRT is the square root function. At resonance, a tuned circuit becomes purely resistive. The output amplitude of a tuned circuit is highest at its resonant frequency. This amplitude peak is known as the "resonant peak" of the circuit. The resonant peak is the frequency at which the pickup circuit is loudest.

    The value of the volume potentiometer in a guitar sets the Q of the circuit. It does so by combining with the LC network formed by the pickup inductance/self-capacitance and tone capacitor capacitance to form a tuned circuit known as an RLC circuit. The volume potentiometer is wired in parallel with the pickup and the tone capacitor; therefore, we use the formula for a parallel RLC network to determine the Q of the circuit. The Q for a parallel RLC circuit is equal to R x SQRT( L x C), where R = resistance in ohms, L = inductance in henries, C = capacitance in farads, and SQRT is the square root function. As one can clearly see, Q increases as we increase the value of R in parallel a RLC network. Increasing the value of the volume potentiometer increases the amplitude of the resonant peak while narrowing the passband (the range of frequencies that are passed unattenuated), which has the effect of making a dull sounding pickup sound brighter. The upper bound for how bright an increase in the value of the volume control potentiometer can make a pickup sound is set by the resonant frequency of the pickup.

    Many people believe that the output of a pickup is determined by its DC resistance. Paraphrasing Bill Lawrence, attempting to determine a pickup's output level by measuring its DC resistance is akin to attempting to determine a person's IQ by measuring the size of his/her feet. The output of a pickup is determined by its coil inductance and the strength and shape of its magnetic field. Pickup inductance is determined by coil dimensions, winding pattern, number of turns, and wire diameter (including insulation). The only time that one can use DC resistance as a measure of output is if both pickups use the same coil form, wire diameter, winding pattern, and magnet structure. Most seriously overwound humbucking pickups are wound using 43 gauge or smaller magnet wire. The resistance per foot rating of any given type of wire increases as its diameter decreases.

    Overwound pickups tend to have less sharp resonant peak amplitudes than vintage-wound pickups because a pickup's coil resistance is electrically in series with its inductance; therefore, a pickup by itself is a series RLC network. The Q of a series RLC circuit is equal to (1 / R) x SQRT( L x C), where R = resistance in ohms, L = inductance in henries, C = capacitance in farads, and SQRT is the square root function; hence, the Q of a pickup decreases if coil resistance grows faster than coil inductance. Pickup inductance is primarily determined by the number of turns of wire that one can place on each bobbin. Most pickup makers are dealing with a fixed set of pickup bobbin dimensions; therefore, the only way to increase the number of turns beyond a certain point is to use thinner diameter wire. As mentioned above, thinner diameter wire has a higher per foot resistance rating; therefore, resistance rises faster per turn with thinner wire, which, in turn, lowers pickup Q.

    Seymour Duncan is gracious enough to list the resonant frequency of their pickups. Let’s use the ’59 and JB to illustrate what I have outlined above.

    DC Resistance:


    • '59 Bridge: 8.13Ω
    • JB: 16.4kΩ



    Resonant Peak


    • '59 Bridge: 6kHz
    • JB: 5.5kHz



    The DC resistance of the ’59 is approximately 50% of the JB's DC resistance; however, the resonant peak is only 500Hz lower. This delta (difference) is much smaller than would be expected if both pickups used the same wire, especially considering that coil inductance is based on the square of the number of turns (i.e., doubling the number of turns quadruples inductance).

    Let’s perform a quick and dirty circuit analysis of the '59 and the JB. We are interested in determining if the inductance of the JB is four times that of the ’59. We cannot determine the inductance of either pickup given the information listed above; however, we can calculate the LC product, which will give us a rough idea of how much inductance has increased with respect to resistance.

    Re-writing the resonant frequency equation to solve for the LC product gives us:

    L x C = (1 / (F x 2 x Pi)) 2, where F = frequency in hertz, Pi ~= 3.14, L = inductance in henries, and C = capacitance in farads

    L x C (’59 Bridge) = ( 1 / (6,000 x 6.28)) 2 ~= 0.0000000007
    L x C (JB) = ( 1 / (5,500 x 6.28)) 2 ~= 0.00000000084

    As one can clearly see, the LC product for the JB is not four times that of the ’59 Bridge, which means that the inductance of the JB is more than likely not four times of that of the ’59 Bridge. The only way that the inductance of the JB could be four times that of the ’59 Bridge is if Seymour Duncan had magically discovered a winding pattern that resulted in an unbelievable reduction in self-capacitance per turn of wire. The small LC product delta combined with a more than two to one delta in DC resistance between the two pickups tells us that the JB is more than likely wound with smaller gauge wire than the ’59 Bridge. The tonal difference between the two pickups is primarily due to the JB having a lower resonant frequency, less pronounced resonant peak spike, and a flatter response curve. The ’59 is brighter than the JB because its resonant peak is higher in frequency and the amplitude spike is more pronounced. The passband of the ’59 is also smaller than that of the JB, which focuses more of the pickup’s output around the resonant frequency.

    We can get away with 250K volume potentiometers with vintage-style Fender single coils because they have relatively high resonant frequencies and relatively low DC resistances. The average vintage-style Strat single coil has a resonant frequency in the 9kHz to 10kHz range and a DC resistance in the 5k ohms to 6k ohms range, which means that vintage-syle Strat single coils have sharp resonant peak amplitudes at frequencies that are one and a half to two times higher than the average humbucker.

    Finally, I would like to correct an error that was made earlier in this thread. P-90-equipped guitars use 500K volume potentiometers because most P-90s have DC resistances and resonant frequencies that resemble humbucking pickups."
    That's just what I was thinking.... :-(

  12. #12
    Senior Member veinbuster's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rango View Post
    I had not put together that Tal was offspring of Bachman of BTO fame... Sounds like his Dad saw to his "education".
    I've seen them play together - very nice on older jazz tunes.

  13. #13
    Quote Originally Posted by veinbuster View Post
    I've seen them play together - very nice on older jazz tunes.
    I wonder if Randy named Tal after Tal Farlow?
    I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken...

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  14. #14
    deus ex machina
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    Tal is talking about the Fletcher-Munson equal loudness curves. The human ear is indeed very sensitive in the 2K to 4K Hertz frequency range.



    As one can clearly see, the human ear remains sensitive in the 2K to 4K Hertz frequency range even though the curves flatten as sound pressure level is increased.

    With that said, the Fletcher-Munson curves do not tell the whole story. A lot of people like the blackface Fender equalization curve, but it looks nothing like the curve that Tal discusses in the article.

    Blackface Fender equalization curve with the tone controls at noon



    The reason why a blackface amp is all top and bottom is because the tone stack basically scoops out the fundamental notes, allowing harmonics to dominate the signal. The fundamental frequency range on a standard-tuned 22-fret guitar is ~82 to ~1175 Hertz. The Fender tone stack results in a -26dB insertion loss at 500 Hertz, which is roughly the B two octaves above low E. This equalization curve was chosen because it allowed Leo and Company to build simple amps that did not distort when turned up.

    The reason why Tube Screamers and Tube Screamer clones go together with blackface amps like peanut and jelly is because the Tube Screamer equalization curve is almost a mirror image of the blackface equalization curve. Boosting the midrange frequencies and the overall signal level before entering the amp allows us to offset the signal losses that are incurred in the tone stack, which, in turn, restores the frequency components that cause overdrive in the preamp and phase inverter (which was what Leo and Company were trying to prevent when they designed the blackface amps). The Klon works on the same principle in that it is a guitar midrange frequency booster.

    In the end, Les is on the money. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to good tone.

  15. #15
    Senior Member sergiodeblanc's Avatar
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    One of my favorite guitar players uses a DI box.... and that's it.

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