Friday, November 10, 2006


Here is an article I wrote for The Tonequest Report in 2000. Some of the links will be out of date, and the amps have gone way up in price since then. Also, the U.K. Hiwatts are now being sold by Fernandes in the U.S. and there are reissues being made by Reeves amps as well.


I have always wanted a Hiwatt. I may not have known it for much of my life, but it's true nonetheless. Over the years I've bought custom amps, hot rodded Fenders, Boogies, Marshalls, Matchless, and a few others, but it was a Hiwatt that I needed - I just didn't know it yet. This is my story, and it is a quest for tone indeed. These truly unique amps have added so much to my
ability to express myself musically and I will always be grateful for having had the chance to learn more about them. One note though - I'll leave the detailed specs and production details to the vintage experts; I'm more interested in the sound of these amps as a player and a recording engineer. To me, they have no equal.

It's all my buddy Dan's fault. He'd actually played a Hiwatt years ago, and since he builds and repairs my guitars, he really knows what sort of sound I like. He knows why use I use only hardtail guitars, he knows why I use large strings (wound thirds only please) and the biggest frets available, and he understands why I use Tom Anderson and Lindy Fralin pickups.

It's the sound and the amazing tone that makes a great Hiwatt amp so special. Big, clear, true, and bold like a pipe organ or a 9-foot Steinway. No funky little over-effected-pedal-boarded-to death squeaky little gnat tones for me! No trashed-out death metal preset amps, no smirky modelers, no "good enough for rock n' roll" old-standbys. Hiwatts have soul...huge soul. It's a sound that I had always heard in my head - like heaven's bells - clear and sweet, yet powerful, articulate, and totally responsive to natural playing techniques and the true acoustic character of the guitar. If that description doesn't move you, perhaps you're not a Hiwatt player. If it does, well, I urge you to hear one soon. Oh, and bring your checkbook…

My story began when I demonstrated the clean sound on my new Marshall JCM2000/DSL100 head for Dan. He responded by saying, "Not bad, but you gotta hear a Hiwatt." "Wait a minute," says I, "how can that be? I just put NOS Telefunken tubes in the front end of this thing -- listen! It sounds great don't it?" Dan replied, "Don't get me wrong, that's the best clean sound from a Marshall I ever heard, but it ain't a Hiwatt." So I put the guitar down, got real serious and asked him if he thought I would hear a real difference given my musical tastes, with a Hiwatt. "Yes, there's no doubt," he replied. "Why? What is the deal with those amps? Aren't they just a big, loud, clean, tube amp - kind of like a Twin on steroids?" "Well, no, actually…nothing like that at all…"

Thus started my journey. As I write this, there is a 1969 Hiwatt DR103 100 Watt amp a few feet behind me. It cost 550.00, and it's the best guitar amp I have ever heard, period! Now, I'm not saying that this is the amp for everyone, and I'm not selling my other amps. But everyone should play a Hiwatt at least once. If all electric players would do that, there would be many more Hiwatts out there making music instead of sitting on dealers' floors or forgotten in closets. Of course, old ones wouldn't be $550.00 any more, would they? Let's just keep this between us for the moment, shall we?

After this bit of enlightenment from my pal Dan, off we went to the local music store on Hiwatt Patrol. Now I must say that my wife Chris is a great human being. No, she doesn't jump up and down with joy at the thought of me buying more gear, but she loves music, and she's pretty darn patient with her gearhead husband. Besides, she thought the sales guy was real cute...Anyway, we found a nice Hiwatt Custom 100 DR103 with the requisite "Hylight Electronics" plate on the back. Sounded good too, except for the fact that it distorted at surprisingly low levels - no where near the huge clean output that I'd heard about, but I figured it was due to weak output tubes, and my tech, Tim Pinnel, the amp-genius would have it cranking in no time. We agreed on the price, and off to the repair shop we went with my first Hiwatt.

Let me stop for a moment and tell all of you that you really should take the time to find a great amp tech if you are going to buy old tube amps. Who knows what indignities have been wrought upon old amps? Bad mods, trashy components, cold solders, mismatched tubes, spilled pints of beer, and just plain bad work could easily be found under the hood. Oh, and don't forget the frauds floating around either…In the immortal words of Hans und Franz, "Hear me now, believe me later!" Most players need an amp tech to safely buy vintage amps.

With that caveat in mind, the phone rang a few hours after I'd dropped off my first Hiwatt. It's Tim, and the amp is a fake. "What, it's not a Hiwatt?" "No, it's a Hiwatt all right, but it's a 50 watter with fake ID plates." "But I saw four output tubes!" "Yeah, well two of them are just mini space-heaters, or lava-lamps for ampheads - no audio connections at all, just filament power to make 'em light up." Swell. Now how would you like to receive that tidbit of information about 6 months after the purchase? Did I mention that you need a good amp tech when buying old amps?

There can be advantages to buying from a large, established dealer. Not that they are more ethical, but they certainly have more to lose. I sat down with the store manager that same night and I told him what I had found. "No way" says he. Then he found out whom I had taken it to, and that I had documentation, and he starts in with the "you bought it as-is" routine. But what exactly did I buy "as-is"? A Hiwatt 100 Watt amp, right? This amp is a fraud, and an "as-is" statement will not cover you for selling me a misrepresented product, will it?

Ahh, mates, they got real helpful and cooperative then. Isn't that nice? They asked me if I would take their other Hiwatt instead, but I had already passed on that poor old trooper. It was a raggedy mess with a grafted-on Home Depot-orange extension cord jammed through the hole in the chassis where the power socket should be. The insides were dirty, dull, and faded, the cabinet was pretty badly frayed, and the plastic logo plate and control panel plates were cracked. Oh, and it sounded just awful. But they were willing to give me some of my money back plus this amp, so I called Tim up and asked if this tired old soldier could be saved. He felt that as long as the original transformers were there it was probably something he could rescue. So I got some money back, and off we went with one very tired old Hiwatt. A few days later Tim called and it turned out that it was actually a pretty good amp. Except for a goofy "make it sound like a Marshall" mod some misguided nimrod had performed, it was in better shape than it looked. Tim cleaned everything, took out the mod, and set it up for Svetlana EL34's. To my surprise, the filter caps were fine, so we left the originals in. Tim also installed a US-standard IEC power cord socket so I can buy a power cord anywhere. When I got the amp home and plugged it into my 4X12 Matchless cabinet the tone and the sheer power of the amp floored me! The musical, expressive, aggressive tone this thing generated just amazed me, as it does to this day.

Tim had told me that he wasn't sure that the schematic he was working from was the right one, and he suggested that I look around for an original schematic for the amp. This is how I met Steve Gibbs of the Audio Brothers in jolly old England, home of all things Hiwatt. I found him through an Internet search on "Hiwatt" at the Audio Bros. web site. I e-mailed Steve and he was able to date my amp to 1969.

With a bit of yakking and the international exchange of an oddball antique car part or two, Steve was also able to provide me with a proper schematic for the amp. Tim and I ended up settling for a preamp circuit that was somewhere between the two different schematics. (I use a Matchless 4x12 cabinet; not proper Hiwatt speakers, so that may have influenced the sound a bit.)

A great amp tech can actually change things around while you sit and play your guitar - an amazing treat. And Dan was right - this amp compliments my style like no other, and
it sounds like nothing else on the planet. I challenged the Johnson Amplification people at the recent AES (Audio Engineering Society) convention to model it. Now, I like their little modeling box, The J Station, but it isn't even close to the tone of my Hiwatt. We may get together with them and give it a go, but I'm doubtful that creating a convincing model of this amp is possible.

If you have a chance to try a Hiwatt, do this - plug into the "Brill" (bright) channel. Use the lower jack (the high-gain one). The power and standby switches are bass-ackwards -- "On" is down. Now, take a very short cable and connect the upper "Brill" jack to the lower "Normal" jack. Now you have signal in both channels. Keep the amp's master and your guitar volume and tones dimed, and puhhlleeze leave out the pedal board for now! You will get sound from both the Normal and Brill knobs. Turn them both about halfway up and set the Bass, Treble, Middle and Presence at about the one o'clock position. The first thing you should try adjusting is the amazing Presence control. It kinda works like you'd expect until you hit about five o'clock, when it really starts to deliver that zing and chime that these amps are known for. Once you get the zing quotient dialed in, you can produce an amazing number of tonal shades by varying the level between the Brill and Normal channel. The Bass, Treble and Middle controls are really useful as well. Next, using both inputs, try bringing the overall level up until it produces a big, fat roar on power chords. By now, you may notice your hair, pants and shirt flapping about wildly, and anything on a shelf in the room will be gracefully walking itself towards the edge, so don't play near the china.

Don't it just wanna make you jump into "Summertime Blues"? Yeah, me too. Even at these levels, if you back off a bit solely with your pick attack rather than turning knobs, you'll find a genuinely stunning, clean, clear tone. With these amps, you can go from Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze" right into "Won't Get Fooled Again" without touching a single knob anywhere. Try that with your Pod! Simply amazing, and to this day without equal, in my opinion.

I had a chance to chat with Steve Gibbs and Tim Pinnel about my amp and Hiwatts in general. Let's start with Steve Gibbs of the Audio Bros. The story of Hiwatt is a fascinating one indeed, and Steve obviously has his own perspective on this subject, as do all the others in contemporary Hiwatt land. I am not trying to cover all the bases in the Hiwatt saga, and there are three or four more articles that could be written should one wish to do that. The folks I spoke with are simply the ones that helped me with my amp.

TQR Steve, let me start by asking what specifically happened to the original Hylight Electronics, the company founded by Dave Reeves, manufacturer of Hiwatts.

Hylight died with Dave Reeves in 1981. He'd gotten into a lot of debt and was trying to grow the company by making deals with all sorts of people. Hiwatt had a bad deal with their US distributor, who had no real interest in rock 'n roll and the equipment thereof, and as such could not do a good job with the amps. He tried to get into this deal with Sterling Imports and that turned out to be not such a good deal for the amps either. Basically, he had made lots of questionable business commitments, and the company was in debt by the time Dave died and he left it to his employees. They immediately came up against this problem with the American importers that was a similar situation to the Thomas Organ story with Vox amps. The American company was actually making Hiwatts in Modesto, CA and selling them, although they were only supposed to import them and sell them. . Rick Harrison of Music Grounds and Eric Dixon then bought into the group and assisted with getting the American company to stop making "Hiwatts" in Modesto. But, I would say that very few Hiwatts made in England were shipped out during the early to mid 1980's. Some were built on printed circuit boards during this time, and those were the ones that took a slagging in Aspen Pittman's book - the ones with power valve sockets on printed circuit boards and what-have-you.

TQR How did Fernandes acquire with the rights to Hiwatt?

They were sold around 1985 to Fourlife, which was a Japanese company run by a chap who was sort of the godson of Mr. Sato, of Fernandes. Because of various issues, Fourlife got into trouble almost immediately, and Fernandes thus got the rights to Hiwatt from them. Because of all the machinations over the years, there are all sorts of arguments as to who really owns, or should own the rights to Hiwatt, but I don't know how it could be resolved at this point.

TQR What a story!

Good story isn't it? Rick Harrison of Music Grounds claims to hold the rights to Hiwatt now, and he claims to have registered the rights to make and sell Hiwatts in the U.K. and Europe. There was supposed to be a hearing in December of last year to sort out the UK trademarks, but I don't believe anything was resolved.

TQR How did you get into Hiwatt-land with your company The Audio Bros.?

We took this on in 1992, not knowing anything about all this crap with the rights. We just thought that Fernandes had the rights and we would carry on and do it, and it didn't really surface until 1994 that Fernandes didn't have the rights, or possibly their rights were shaky. A meeting to resolve things with Fernandes failed however. We continued to make them, but because the volume dropped off due to all this uncertainty, we actually lost money.

TQR So what years did the Audio Bros. make the Fernandes Hiwatt DR series
Hiwatt line?

From 1992 until 1996.

TQR Can you give us a sense of the general arc of who made what in which years since Dave died?

Sure…anything with a black front and black grillcloth was made after 1979, and until about 1985 was most likely made up north (in England). Any amp with a printed circuit was made by Eric Dixon's company or in California. Dave Reeves was actually working on some printed circuit designs, and there are one or two rackmount 400 units that have transistor preamps. There were also a few PA units - probably only 6 made, which were 2x200 or 400 Watt mono
units. They weigh an enormous amount.

TQR As you know, I'm a big fan of these amps. You say "Hiwatt" to most people, however, and they think "big clean sound, kinda like a Twin," and that seems a little far off-base doesn't it?

They're nothing like a Twin, really. I mean, a Twin is clean in a way, but it has a glassy metallic quality to the treble that Hiwatt's don't have. Anything with 6L6's or 6V6's, to my ears…you can immediately hear the difference between a British amp and an American amp, because of that "fingernails on the glass" sound to the treble. And it just gets out of "clean" in the top end.

TQR I'm amazed with the Hiwatts because they can get so bright, yet the tone remains very pleasant - they don't rip your ears off with it. Are the new Hiwatt amps from Music Grounds in England going to be sold only overseas?

He will sell them as I sell replicas of Hiwatts - particularly the little ones which I designed, so I think I've got a reasonable right to do that. I don't think anyone can stop you from selling to individual customers across the world. It isn't the same as marketing and doesn't count as such. I think he will do the same.

TQR I actually found a late 70's Hiwatt DR103 that I did not like the sound of at all. Was anything changed during that era?

There are some wonderful amps from that era, and that was most likely just the individual amp you heard. Dave did change the circuit design around about 1978. There was an American guy who started working with him about that time who said that the players wanted more gain, so Dave went from leaving half of V1 unused as in the early amps, to using the other half of V2 so there is more gain available in those amps. Not lots more, but more.

TQR I think one of the things that some players don't like about Hiwatts is how bloody loud you have to play them to get some crunch out of them.

Absolutely. The gain architecture throughout the amp gives you a lot of headroom. There's a stage in a Hiwatt that isn't in any other amplifier - it sets the phase splitter to run 60 or 70 volts at the cathode, which no other amp does, and that allows an enormous amount of headroom for the clean signal to go clear through. There is no master volume at all. When it says, "master volume" it isn't. It's really just another volume control, and it doesn't work like the master volumes in a Marshall or any other amp - they all squash the signal across the phase splitter. But the Hiwatt doesn't, so there's none of that compression distortion at any point. It sounds great no matter where you set the knobs.

TQR You've spoken of the importance of Fane speakers to the tone. I'm using a 4x12 Matchless closed box, and it sounds wonderful with my amp. Mark (Sampson of Matchless) used the Celestion Vintage-30's that he performed some sort of mod on, but it sure works with my amp. What do you think the Fane's would do for my tone?

There's less mids and more eveness in the overall tone with more definition in the bottom and top end. Also, more resolution of tiny signals and more dynamic range. The Fane is just exactly like the Hiwatt in the way it reproduces music - it does the same things and it has the clarity. Hiwatts couldn't be a better amp to learn guitar through because they tell you what your fingers are doing. If you place an open chord and you can't clearly hear six strings, then you've put your fingers in the wrong place.

TQR For the last ten years I have done almost all my electric guitar practice with the guitar unplugged. It really forces you to learn to play the instrument; the strings, frets, wood, fingers and pick, rather than playing the amp or the pedal or the reverb. I've found that those skills I
have learned from practicing unplugged relate directly to playing through a Hiwatt. It simply gives you what you would expect, only much bigger.

That's just it. Undoubtedly - in many ways it's the best guitar amp ever made.

TQR I agree.

But the Fane makes it classically what it is. They do the same thing the Hiwatt does. The Fane is like an EV without the coldness. EV's have a great coldness that you cannot remove with the tone controls, while the Fane speakers have that clarity with the warmth we all love.

TQR What do you like for tubes in Hiwatt amps? Mine shows a strong preference for the original Mullards in the front end, but it seems to do well with Svetlana EL34's on the output.

I just use the Sovtek WA's. I like the Chinese output tubes. They need to be carefully selected and matched though. Svetlana is my second choice.

TQR If you could, give us a summary of what you believe to be the factors that make these amps sound so good.

The one thing is the headroom through it, and as I said, the special circuits. There's a cathode follower that sets the bias for the phase splitter. That allows not only the signal to work properly, but also the feedback to work properly and the presence control to work properly. In other words, you get headroom through all of those loops. And the transformers play an important part, of course. The space in the box is another important thing. The noise on a properly setup Hiwatt is lower than any other for a given gain position. You get more dynamic range and you can hear more of what is going on dynamically. The solid-core wiring also makes a real difference.

TQR Really?

Yeah. We wired our replicas with different types and gauges of solid core wire and insulation. The stuff we settled on using, again, moves the Hiwatt more towards that sound that we are looking for in these amps - the clarity. I'm sure you're aware of the silly amount of hype surrounding hi-fi cables and all, but it certainly makes a difference in the Hiwatt based on what you wire it with.

TQR That's interesting, because in general, the solid core wire does not make great hi-fi speaker cable. Most of the high-end cable manufacturers are using woven multi-strand and multi-gauge cable.

There are larger currents inside a Hiwatt than you will ever see in a speaker cable. There are enormous currents in there, especially to the power supply caps. Wiring is one of the most important things. Also the thing that differentiates each amplifier from the next is where they set the rising gain. If you think about it, look at your guitar strings. You have fat ones going to thin ones, yet each is vibrating in a magnetic field that is roughly equal. So what you do is to raise the gain at some point to compensate for the falling signal from the smaller strings. Where each designer has chosen to raise that is the single factor that gives the most significant, characteristic difference amongst amplifiers. Put another way, it's frequency from which the amp starts to rise in the preamp. Each manufacturer does it in a different place.

Next I spoke with Tim Pinnel of Top Gear in La Mesa, California, who resurrected my old Hiwatt.

TQR Tim, do you see many Hiwatts coming through the shop here?

We don't see as many of those as we do Marshalls and Fenders because there aren't as many of them out there, they don't break very much, and people don't usually modify them much. We have a couple in here right now, though.

TQR Let's talk about my 1969 DR103 that you worked on, and the first one that was a fake.

Someone had simply put a 100 watt panel on a 50 watt amp, added two more output tube sockets and wired them up to light up the filaments. The two extra tubes didn't do anything other than light up.

TQR Nightlights for gearheads…

Right (laughs.) Obviously it was somebody's scam job there.

TQR Have you ever seen a fake Hiwatt before?

No, that was a first for me.

TQR When I finally got a real DR103 it was pretty tired, but you felt that you could restore it. What did you find when you opened it up?

Well, the older an amp is, the more opportunities for someone to get their hands in there and monkey around with it. Pots and component values were wrong in some places, and it was wired up to make a fairly uncharacteristic sound for a Hiwatt. A lot of the time what I do is undo bad mods. I like to return the amp to it's original state and go from there. When you see a mod, a lot of the time it doesn't make any sense. With your amp, we restored both the circuit design and some components.

TQR I was simply amazed at the transformation. It really came back to life.

Hiwatts should have a characteristic sound. You want to get that amp back to original as close as possible before you know what you have. Also, there can be a lot of drift in old components. Everything needs to be checked.

TQR I was surprised that the original power supply caps were still good since 1969.

I had an original '59 Bassman in here the other day, and the original power supply caps were fine. It's like a car battery - they need to be used and charged up regularly. It's sitting and doing nothing that can age caps the worst.

TQR When you guys finished my amp, did you open it up and get to hear what that thing sounds like?

Oh yeah.

TQR To me, it's just an amazing sound with wide dynamics that no other amp really has.

A good musician who can use dynamics well can really use that amp as an instrument like we play a guitar. We don't have a lot of them through here and it is great to remind ourselves of what those things can do.

TQR Are most Hiwatts consistently good?

They are quite consistent on the whole - some of the most consistently good amps there are.

TQR What do you think accounts for the wonderful sound of these amps?

It goes down to the sum of every darn part in the whole amp. The transformers themselves make an enormous difference. 100 watts of Hiwatt is way different than 100 watts of Fender, and the transformer plays an important role there, but everything is important - it all adds up. Also, the folks who designed them obviously had more of an ear for the fidelity, for the detail, than some of the other British amps of the day. A clean Hiwatt does not sound like a clean Marshall from the same era. The driver stage makes a difference too. It can be clean and bell-like without being harsh.

Here are a couple of things I have learned about my Hiwatt. Your mileage may vary.

- Do not change the preamp tubes unless you have to. I have tried new and NOS (new old-stock) 12AX7's, 12AT7's, and 5751's, including Telefunkens, all sorts of Amperex, Mullard, Mazda, GE, Sylvania, JJ, Sovtek, etc, and the only thing that sounds right in the front end of this amp are the Mullards like the originals that came in the amp. Nothing else, not the Telefunkens, nuthin' sounds as good as the Mullards. The one exception in my amp is the driver tube, where a French made Amperex beat even the Mullards, and a Sylvania 6201 beat even that. In general though, this amp is English, and she wants her flippin' Mullards, period. If you buy a used amp, it should have the original Mullards in it, since they seem to last a really long time. If someone has swapped them out (probably to sell separately...) ask for them back, or get a discount. NOS Mullard replacements are about $60.00 each (US) and you need four.

- NOS Mullard EL34 power tubes are a horse of a different color. They run between $250 and $850 dollars a pair and you need four, so listen to my paisan Vinnie and fuggedaboudit. Fortunately, my amp loves the Svetlana EL34's and they are only about $15 each. Get a matched set. I also have a matched set of 4 JJ EL34's that I want to try when I wear out the Svetlanas, but I think the Svetlanas will be hard to beat. As you heard, Steve Gibbs likes the Chinese EL34's from PM. Your mileage may vary, but be certain the amp is checked out and biased for any new tubes. This amp creates a lot of power from its components, and like a finely tuned racecar, you do not want any weak links in the drive train.

· Try the "hookup to both channels" trick as previously described. You'll like it.

· Remember, in addition to the really cool folks I have met in Hiwatt Land, there are also some sharks in the vintage amp world in general. Be careful. There is a certain fellow known for dealing in Hiwatts who told me straight to my face that he will change and forge the "Dave Reeves" signature inside the amp chassis to raise the value on an amp. Think he might pull the Mullards out and sell 'em separately? Think he might sell you a 50W disguised as a 100W and make you sue him to get your money back? Yep.

You do have a good amp tech, don't you pilgrim? It isn't extremely hard to find a great Hiwatt, but be smart about it, and don't get scammed.

There are many Hiwatt resources today. In addition to used ones being fairly available and relatively cheap, there are new ones being built as well by some of the folks in our resources sidebar. The gentlemen who was contracted to wire the Hiwatts in the 60's and 70's, Harry Joyce, also has some new amps out that have a lot of Hiwatt in them.

Hiwatt resources

This is, of course, a limited resource. These represent only those contacts that I have some familiarity with. I'm sure there are many more out there. Run an Internet search for yourself on the name HIWATT and take a look.

Top Gear (repairs, restoration, mods and guitars)
Dan Altilio Tim Pinnel
7293 University Blvd
La Mesa, California 91941


The Hiwatt Story (the motherlode of Hiwatt info)

The Audio Bros. (Steve Gibbs' site) parts - many NOS, and information

Hiwatt Amplifier Tribute

New Hiwatts made in England

The Fernandes Hiwatt Site

The Harry Joyce amps site

Vintage has a great shot of the back of a DR103 (wish mine
looked that good)

Monday, August 21, 2006

Stop Obsessing and Play Some Music

That’s what it says right there on the circuit board of a Blackstone Mosfet Overdrive guitar pedal. There are a couple of trimpots on there to fine tune things and I was adjusting them while playing. When I got done, I was putting the rear cover on when I noticed the writing on the circuit board.

There it is:

I laughed right out loud at how neatly Jon Blackstone had skewered me. And I thank him for it.

What’s harder; writing a great song or getting a great guitar sound?

When I got my first custom guitar, (a Kubicki) back in the early 1980’s I started a long search for great tone. The Kubicki guitar was terrific, but the early Barden pickups in the thing were lousy, despite the fact that they were expensive. I met Tom Anderson a few years later and he showed me his pickups. They were so much better than the Bardens I changed them out immediately. Oh, and they were 1/4 the price.

Sound familiar?

I had a Mesa Boogie Mk IIb back then, with an EV EVM-12L speaker in a Thiele vented box. Nice rig, but the sound I was looking for was more open and less midrangey, so over the next few years, I got a Matchless, several Tim Pinnel/Top Gear customs, a 1969 Hiwatt, a THD Univalve and more. All of them terrific amps.

Sound familiar?

If not, if you wish you could go out and get all these great guitars, amps, and pedals, take my advice and don’t.

Why not?

Because many of us, myself among them, use dialing in our tone to avoid the really hard work of writing great songs. Can I get a witness?

It’s hard to get great sound out of an electric guitar. Don’t believe me? Ok, take a good direct box (to get your impedances matched up) and go into a clean mic pre and then into some good studio monitors? Like it? Me neither. As a matter of fact, it sounds quite lousy doesn’t it? Even a ten thousand dollar guitar sounds like garbage on its own. It depends on the rising shelf EQ curve of guitar amps, and their distortion (whether clean or overdriven, guitar amps have enormous amounts of distortion, try playing a CD through one if you doubt me!) and the inherent color and distortion of guitar speakers to sound like anything good to us. This sound can, of course, be emulated by Pod’s and the like, but it is the same sort of tonal change.

In truth, you can spend a lifetime looking for great guitar sound. Oh, and I haven’t mentioned pedals yet. There are fabulous-sounding pedals out there today to enhance your tone. Some of them are so good, you can leave them on all the time, like the Barber Tone Press. And pickups? Forget about it! The best pickups ever made are being made right now.

So, now I have all custom guitars to fit my hands correctly, I have discovered amazing tricks like chambering the body, intonating the nut (more to come on that) using titanium in the bridge, avoiding wang bars, using stainless steel frets, and much more.

And you know what? Not one bit of it helped me write a great new song. As a matter of fact, usually it got in the way. I have written and recorded great tunes only by ignoring the tone, forgetting that another amp would work better, and concentrating on reaching people with my song.

Can a new sound help you write a new song? Absolutely. My new National Tricone sure has. But there is a fine line there. You have to be aware when you are working on your tone so that you do not have to the hard work of writing lyrics or working on the melody or coming up with a better chorus.

Now, when I want to work on music, I refuse to play with the gear until the work I need to do is done. Also, remember to record your ideas and work on your lyrics and melodies without playing an instrument. This frees up your mind to wear a different hat. That new hat has “songwriter” or “arranger” or “lyricist” on it, and won’t you be stoked (California-speak for thrilled) when you write something really good?

Finding that you actually deserve to wear those other hats is a beautiful thing to accomplish, so quit tweaking the darn gear and make some music!

Thanks Jon


Thursday, June 22, 2006

Great Ears Part 1

Every great company, (and by that I mean an outfit that produces something that just sounds terrific) has someone with great ears either running it, or designing the gear. There are no exceptions that I know of. Find a great amp, a great guitar, a terrific effect box, and you will find someone with great ears.

Of course great instruments and gear only start with great ears; they must still be manufactured, but without great ears, there will be no great product.

In this series I will present people I know in this biz who have great ears.

First, I define great ears as someone whose hearing / brain system is so finely calibrated that what they think is “good sound” will impress most people. Obviously, you can’t please everyone, but in general, great ears are required to design gear that a lot of people will like.

The first outfit I am going to speak of is Top Gear Guitar Pro Shop in La Mesa, California. (San Diego, if you live in Sydney). Waayy back in the mid-1980’s I was driving down University Avenue (I lived in San Diego for years) and saw this new little shop that had opened. A guitar pro shop? What a cool idea! So, in I went and met Dan Altilio the proprietor. Dan had been one of the founders of DiMarzio and had been designing guitars and parts for years and years. Turns out he had designed my favorite non-trem Strat bridge which I had on all my guitars. Cool! We talked gear for quite a while (my wife is a patient soul). Over the years Dan and I have become good friends, and he does all my guitar work, in addition to building me a guitar from scratch and assembling and modding many others. I used to do my own building and repairing, but honestly Dan is a lot better.

There is also one of the best amp techs on the planet at Top Gear. Tim Pinnel has worked on almost all my amps, and made everything he has touched sound better. He has even built several totally crazy customs I dreamed up, like a Matchless DC30 in a Vibrochamp and a Hiwatt DR504 in a Princeton! Crazy. He never threw me out when I came up with these ideas, which says a lot about both his skills and patience. Several friends of mine have also had amps repaired and/or modded by Tim with uniformly terrific results.

Dan has done the following guitar work for me (and much more that I have probably forgotten)

Built a wonderful guitar utilizing a Turner Horse Shoe pickup and a Fralin single coil. This thing into the Hiwatt sounds like a huge, and very loud, grand piano.

Dan turned a 1987 Tom Anderson strat into a 12-string with only 6 of the strings tuning in the headstock. The other 6 tune in the body via a Steinberger tuner.

Replaced frets on almost all my guitars. I wear them out pretty quickly, so it is good to have someone who does frets well. Fretting is difficult to do really well, and Dan is great at it. Recently he did myfirst set of stainless steel frets (on my favorite guitar in the whole world, my 87 Tom Anderson strat) and I absolutely love them. SS frets are quite difficult for the luthier to work with however, so I appreciate his efforts on this project.

Dan has added steel inserts to the necks on several of my guitars. Guys and gals, you would not believe how much better this makes guitars sound. Going to machine screws and inserts solidly anchored into the neck makes the guitar/neck joint very rigid and this just makes the guitar sing. Truly an impressive upgrade.

Dan saved a Heritage custom I had ordered that they buggered the neck up on. The neck actually had an S-curve in it, and could not be straightened with the truss rod, and they had installed the wrong frets. Brand-new custom Heritage HC-150! I gave Heritage 2 tries and 6 months to get it right and they could not. I told them that either Dan fixes it, or I get a refund. He nailed it. the first time, and it is still right more than 10 years later.

Dan assembled a new SG-style guitar from W*rmoth parts for me. (W*rmoth is not someone who I will do any business with in the future, but that is another story) This guitar has a strat scale, ebony fret board, mahogany neck and Lindy Fralin P-90 pickups, a TonePros/KTS Titanium bridge, and it just rocks.

I’m sure there is much more, but I can tell you that these guys are always my first choice when it comes to guitar and amp work

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Coolest Guitar in the World

This is a National Tricone in Vintage Steel finish. I have always thought they were the most wild-looking and cool-sounding guitars anywhere. They were designed in 1927 (!) and still look modern to this day. I first saw one back in the 1970’s on the cover of Johnny Winter’s “Nothin’ but the Blues” album and was amazed at the design and look of the things. I would ask friends in the guitar biz about them only to find that the company was long out of business and the remaining originals cost a fortune.

You can read a brief history of National and Dobro here:

Years later, I met one of the owners of OMI who made the Dobro resonator guitars and bought a “Hula Blues” wood bodied single-cone Dobro from them. I asked him why no one made the tricones anymore and was told, “oh, the dies were lost and no one will ever make those again, it is just too expensive”. Since I consider the tricone to be one of the triumphs of great artistic industrial design, this saddened me greatly. But then one day at the NAMM show in the late 1980’s I rounded a corner and there was a bunch of brand-new Tricones! Well alright! Looks like someone resurrected the National company. The instruments were, and are made like a Benz with vastly better construction and finishing than the old ones and even a truss rod in the neck (something missing on the old guitars) Looks like the “insurmountable missing die problem” was not such a big hurdle after all.

The new National has thrived since then, offering more models and finishes of Tricones, as well as lots of single-cone and wood-bodied instruments every years. Pro players have taken to them like a tomcat to a can of tuna, and you can hear greats like Doug MacLeod, Bob Brozman, Catfish Keith, and Steve James playing the daylights out of their Nationals on one CD after another. Tricones are back, and better than ever.

Here’s the inside story on how they work:

The strings sit on a T-shaped aluminum bridge that sits on three small, inverted, aluminum speaker cones. It’s a mechanical amplifier! The sound projects from both the backs of the cones out through the top cover’s grilles and also exit the body through the large openings in the upper bouts. There are square-neck tricones for slide-only playing, and round-neck tricones for slide and regular fretted playing. The steel body, aluminum cones and bridge really color the sound making for a totally unique tone. The tricone, having smaller cones and less mass than the single cones, seem more sensitive and sustain amazing well.

One thing I want to make really clear is that you do NOT need to play slide, nor use an open tuning, or even like the blues to really enjoy these guitars. I had not touched a slide in 20 years and immediately wrote 2 new songs on mine. Both sound like sort of a Who / Moody Blues hybrid. I have started experimenting with open-G tuning. lighter strings, and even a slide, but you can easily set these up to play most any style of music on them. It has a stunning bell-like tone that is so different than any other guitars that it takes your playing and songwriting in new directions. Very cool.

They are not cheap, but are reasonable with the painted steel Polychrome Tricones around 1,500.00 street price, and the shiny brass-body nickel-plated ones in the high 2K region. Fancy engraved models may be had with prices going well above my budget.

My Vintage Steel tricone is a new model with a steel body and a satin nickel finish that I think is the most attractive of all the metal guitars. The steel body is supposed to be a bit more midrangey than the brass guitars, but I have not compared them directly. Street price on these in the low 2K range. There is a cutaway version for a few hundred more.

I also want to say that these guitars are a perfect example of what I was talking about in “The New Rock Guitar Manifesto” (read it here) as great design growing organically from the instrument rather than the mediocrity we so often see glued onto tired designs in the form of gold fittings, ornate inlays, frills, curlicues, F-holes, super-fancy paint and wild quilted maple tops.


was designed in 1927 and still looks like the future.


is what is popular today with many players and represents a move backwards from great design to the esthetic of ornamentation, nostalgia, and strip-mall jewelry stores, and it already looks like last week.

I recommend National guitars as highly as possible. I do not know how they could be improved. Try one.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Richard Zeier - CD Review

I just got a new CD Phenomenation in the mail from Richard Zeier. (Richard is one of the remaining EMU-Ensoniq PARIS DAW holdouts. PARIS is an obsolete computer-based recording system that sounds startlingly good considering it has been dead for years now. I am another PARIS hardcore holdout myself, so when I had the chance to meet Richard and see his beautiful studio, I jumped at it.)

I was expecting good audio, but honestly I was even more impressed with the heart and spirit of his music. This disc sounds like a lifetime of passion, faith and love poured into a little shiny disc. Very impressive.

The music is progressive, well-composed, with touches of fusion and lots of classical elements. There is a touch of new-age feel throughout as well, but the music rarely loses its muscles. I have been recovering from a painful leg injury and this made me want to jump up and go run for a mile or two!

Richard is clearly a first-rate musician, both on guitar and keys. He never shows off, but you get the feeling he could if he wanted to. Very tasty and always the right part.

I really like this disc.

Phenomenation also sounds really good. Richard proudly announces in the liner notes that the whole thing was recorded in PARIS and mastered by Gavin Lurssen at The Mastering Lab and the audio quality delivers. Everything is very clear and sweet sounding, the bass is granite-solid and in just the right proportions, while the Vienna Symphonic samples sound like real orchestral parts.

The CD is professionally manufactured, not duplicated, with great graphics throughout and on the disc itself. The art is beautiful and moody, and he included one of my favorite touches; a clear CD tray with more art behind it. Yeah!

Gripes? Well, ok, a couple of times I wished for a bigger guitar sound. (Maybe a Hiwatt and a 4x12, but then I am a hard rock guy)

Richard has a terrific CD here, one I recommend heartily. I have always said that I care less about big-time success than I care about knowing that my very best is there on the disc. After that, it is out of my hands. I wish Richard great success with the disc, but in the end, no matter how many he sells, (and he should sell millions in my opinion) he surely knows that he pulled it off, he ran the race, and he won.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Star Amplifiers - Blues Star

Mark Sampson is a car guy. The vintage Cadillac outside the front door to Star Amplifiers is a dead giveaway. Actually most of the amp designers I have met are car guys. Anyone who spends serious amounts of time trying to win races or car shows knows how you learn about design from wrenching on your own car. As you become close to your car, you discover little hidden beauties that amaze you with their perfect approach to solving a mechanical problem. You also discover small and large stupidities so curious that you suspect either the designer had a bad day or bean counters decided to show those snotty punks on the design staff their AutoCAD chops and now you get to pay for it. Whether it is the rear oil seal on a Chevy 235 or the profile gasket on a BMW Z3 motor, you discover things you wish someone had done better.

In a car, Bad Design, (sometimes called “monkey motion” if it is especially pointless and silly) will leave you stranded in Bakersfield in August. Not a good thing. Bad Design in guitar amps will occasionally blow up the amp during Inna Gadda Da Vidda or Livin’ La Vida Loca, (not necessarily a bad thing) but when Bad Design doesn’t actually blow the amp up, it can create some very interesting sounds. A starved and under-rated power supply, in the case of a JTM45 for instance, will produce a nicely sagged (compressed) singing lead tone, as long as you don’t mind the extra notes playing below some of the ones you are playing. Kind of an “instant-harmonizer”, and it is included free! There are all kinds of bad designs in guitar amps that have produced wonderful tones. Jim Kelly amps produced a great tone by running voltages that made the output tubes scream “uncle” in an occasionally loud and fiery protest. (they were called hand grenades by the techs)

Of course, there are tube guitar amps with proper audio circuits in them. Hiwatts are a great example of an extreme-headroom, stout power supply, well-designed circuit that sound terrific as are the old original Williams Amplifier-based tube Standels (and the reissue ones made by Requisite Audio). But many amps are either based on badly regulated, noisy, non-linear public address amps from the 1940’s, (the original Fender Champ was derived from a Western Electric circuit for a PA head) derivations thereof, or totally unique circuits.

Mark Sampson had to deal with bad design and execution in many Vox AC30’s and their brethren that have produced many hit records playing somewhere on radio even as you read this. Mark came up in the audio version of Navy SEAL training fixing those tired old pieces of moldering solder and wood while the band ate dinner and the producer watched him nervously. Mark became the go-to guy to get a session to sound great, and in time he unearthed all the monkey motion in our favorite guitar amps. We want the cool sounds of course, but no one wants the amps to break, so eventually, he had replicated all of the parts that broke so regularly with parts that kept the great sound, but did not break. It was time to make his own amp. So, back in the early 1990’s, with his partners, he scraped together enough money to get a NAMM booth and brought the result of those years of wrenching to the public.

I was there. I played one. They were called Matchless, but I simply called them “the amp from hell” because hell is where I wanted to send all my amps once I heard one. It was that good. I thanked all of the Matchless folks, profusely, and as soon as I could work it out, I owned one; a gorgeous DC30 in shower-curtain grey. Stunning. And what a tone.

Since then, the retired drag racer has earned a reputation among the great amp designers of all time. People all have their favorites, and “best” is a dangerous word, but I can think of no one I consider to be better at this, and that is saying something. Mark has peers, in this wonderful age of superb guitar amps, no doubt about it, but he has no superiors. Not in my book at least.

Which brings us to Star Amplifiers. Since leaving Matchless, Mark designed amps for Bad Cat and SMF, and now brings us his new Star Amplifiers. What, I wondered could he bring to the table at this point? Where can we go with so many perfect plexi clones, reissued Hiwatts, immaculate tweed Fenders, and lovingly recreated Voxes? Well, I was surprised again. Wandering that most interesting of Halls at NAMM (the basement) I turned a corner and there was Mark in a small booth with a bunch of new amps to show. Cool! While chewing the fat and telling stories, I heard a couple of players trying out the Blues Star and was quite impressed with it, so I tried it myself, and discovered a clean tone that is probably the best I have ever heard. The Boost sound is great too, but the clean sound is so articulate, so sweet and nuanced that the notes you play seem to sit there in space rather than issue forth from a little box over there in the corner. Very nice indeed, and yes, I liked it even better than my old Matchless, (which is now wowing them in Hong Kong after a nice gentleman made me a spectacular offer for it)

So, I went home and sold all the vintage tikis, mics, and compressors I had lying around. (well, ok, I kept the tikis) My rule is that if I don’t use something in 6 months, out it goes. So I sold a bunch of stuff and now I have a new Blues Star, and as we say in SoCal, I’m stoked!

The Blues Star has the usual volume, treble, mid, bass, presence, and master controls, all of them very effective, but it also has something they call Trim. This knob, which I understand works at the driver/inverter stage almost changes the character of the amp as you turn it. Ever find that to get enough treble you get too much mid, but the mid control doesn’t help? The trim control brings the upper mids either forward or relaxes them without reducing the higher timbres until you get really extreme with it. It allows me to get exactly what I wanted, and no other amp has ever done that so perfectly. All the sounds are good. There are no bad tones here, but if you spend a little time learning the interaction of the controls and how the Trim control affects them, you will find tones that will knock your socks right off.

Despite its name, the Blues Star works great for country and classic rock as well as jazz. To my ear, the trim control pulled back quite a bit produces just stellar jazz sounds. He also has one called the Gain Star and the Sirius Reverb and smaller amps called Novas.

This one is a keeper.

Check out the website here.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Manifesto II

Kim wrote such a great, well-reasoned response to “The New Rock Guitar Manifesto” that I want to make it, and some responses to it, the second article here at the Guitar Journal.

If you haven't read The New Rock Guitar Manifesto, you should read it first and this will all make more sense. It is here.

Kim is clearly speaking about music rather than hardware. This is extremely relevant and connected to the guitar and even more important than hardware issues. How we see music will affect how we see the guitar in profound ways.

Kim said...
Let me give you my general thought on the whole question of where rock is at first.

Firstly I should make the comment that I, myself, am pretty much over rock. Mind you I'll still enjoy a good Beatles album, Zeppelin, Floyd, Queen, late 80's and early 90's U2 etc etc, but I've heard little of interest in the past ten years, and I'm spacing out my rock in the hope that I'll still like some of the classics in 2040 when I'm 68. Overall though, I've given up on rock.

To me. it’s like hearing an audiophile complain about the sound of CD’s. If you ask them if there are any good-sounding CD’s, they will either say yes, or no, and if they say no, then you can play them a good-sounding CD and they will change their mind. There are, without a doubt, good-sounding CD’s to be found. Once they agree that there are good-sounding CD’s, it becomes clear that it is not CD’s that sound bad that is the problem, it is people making bad-sounding CD’s. They could have made good-sounding ones, but didn’t.

If you still enjoy great old rock, then you still like rock. Unless of course, you believe that what made it great, was it’s newness. I do not.

I think the newness of it was only a small part of the attraction. I also think it was less new than it seemed at the time. The Beatles sounded like the Everly’s, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly all rolled up, and Buddy sounded like country mixed with blues and some Elvis, and Richard sounded like Gospel and stripper music thrown together, and etc etc. It was new to us because we were young (a point Kim makes later on) but also because it was done well, with a solid artistic vision behind it.

It seems that you have the opinion that rock itself still has life in it, it's just that those playing the role aren't filling in all the required criterion. I, on the other hand, tend to think that the genre wore itself out, much as I hate to accept that. In fact I often wonder if the genre wore out, or whether in fact I wore out. Perhaps my listening to so many hours of the style caused me to eventually recognize the patterns. Indeed that is, to some extent, my thinking.

I figure music, in one aspect, is patterns. There's more to it, but patterns are an integral part. There's also different chords, scales, sounds, and, well I don't need to tell you of course, as you know all the ingredients. Point is that you can only hear any one of these characteristics for the first time once. Only once in your life do you come across the first song you hear playing every 3rd 16th beat on the toms. For me it was Bon Jovi's Lay Your Hands On Me. Then, not long after, U2 released Desire. Since that point I have discovered that, in fact, the beat U2 used has a name and dates back to I think some jazz tune in the 20's or something. Either way, those two songs hit their mark with me. Anything that comes now will sound stale.

But if it came from the 1920’s then it should have been stale by the 1930’s at the latest! How in the world did U2 get away with retreading this pattern?


And someone else will find a way to retread that pattern again, and if they do it well enough, it will join your list after which everything shall sound stale. It’s not the pattern, it’s the song! A great song will both lift the pattern to seem new, while making the pattern transparent at the same time.

While I hear your desire to further the development of guitar, I don't think it will greatly assist rock to be rejuvenated. I think, at some point you hear a song with every 3rd 16th note on the toms, and having somebody do it with a different metal in the bridge ain’t going to revolutionize it for you. Once you've heard that sound that's it. It only has to sound good enough for you to be able to absorb the moment as if it's the best thing ever. If it can convince the listener of that then it's won.

Good point, but still, it’s not one thing, (such as a great new bridge) it’s the totality of long-overdue changes needed in the instrument. I contend that a truly contemporary instrument will inspire new songs. I know how many times I have picked up something totally different, say a Dobro, and immediately written several new songs on it. Multiply that times the number of songwriters out there.

The reason, in my opinion, that nobody has created the same energetic level of quality creation since the Beatles and those surrounding them, is that, at that point the energy flowed. The reason the energy flowed was because it was all new. The Beatles had enough talent, enough technology, and enough musical history behind them to be able to create history in that moment. They had new sounds and avenues to do new things with the tools were open to them. This is the case for most of the greats. And the audience was hearing this stuff for the first time, and hence received it in a highly positive manner, feeding the fire and assisting them to go forth and create even greater music, and so the circle continued.

You can't go back 30 years later and recreate what was. The magic isn't there anymore. It's just not the first time. The first time you capture everyone. 30 years later some of your audience have heard it before, others have lost interest in anything no matter how good it may be, while still others have decided they like some other style instead because the old stuff didn't capture them.

There are teenagers today listening to Nickelback and getting the same kick you once got hearing the Beatles. We all know it's just a cheap copy of something decades old with less soul but more modern recording gear, but they don't. That's just how it goes.

Actually teenagers I know, and my kid knows at school, are generally pretty hip about classic rock and some know it very well indeed. I think teenagers like the Beatles in about the percentage as they did in 1965. Almost all of them like it. They listen to Nickelback for the same reason you or I do; because they want some new music. Not a whole new style, mind you, just new music.

To my mind styles wear out. They always have and always will. They burst to the fore and then recede back from whence they came as another new thing leaps in to take it's place. The difference this time is that what is leaping in to take the place of rock seems to lack soul. The styles that came before rock were all full of soul. To many, those that came after lack some essence, and that lack is growing stronger, if that's something lacks can do. ;o) All styles have come forth and then dissipated, and I see no reason why rock wont do the same. The energy lies with the here and now, and rock is growing old. It will always be a great form of music of course, but people making new stuff well will grow less common, and less easy to find. Tried to find something new in baroque lately? Doesn't mean it's not great of course, just that you can only do so much.

I’m so glad you said that. Baroque, as a new and vital force, lasted for far longer than rock has been around and is still a perennial, attracting millions of passionate fans with every generation. Is there great new baroque music being written? Probably only in theory classes, but it is certainly an influence.

Why is rock running out of ideas so quickly?

Here’s what I think. I think the art movements associated with Modernism have had a huge impact on the style and artistic/social context of Rock. Chief among the ideas of Modernism is The New. Something must be new and different on a fundamental level, it must replace that which went before, and it must not be derivative of older styles. This is why synthesizers were seen as the wave of the future back in the 1970’s. No limits! Any sound you can imagine! Well it was rubbish of course. Synths added a few new sounds, but mostly made either noises (although sometimes interesting noises) or imitated instruments of the past. We who learned about things like the ADSR dynamics envelope, sine, triangle, and square waves, filters and modulation, soon discovered that the designers of acoustic instruments had covered most of the bases hundreds of years earlier. No one thinks synths will revolutionize music on a fundamental level, anymore.

Modernists have always overstated their coming revolution. Always. Whether it be the New Socialist Utopia, Constructivist Art, Atonal Music, Synthesizers, The Machine, The Promise of Eugenics, or The War to End all Wars, modernists always want to see the world in revolutions. The New replacing whatever was hot yesterday; the future continually renewing itself. In reality, it doesn’t ever work that way as the continued existence of things like tubes (valves) in audio right alongside the most advanced of microprocessors, the continued popularity of acoustic instruments, the building of pipe organs today that are hardly different than those of the 13th century, (not to mention obsolete DAW’s making hit records!) and the continual re-issue of absurdities like 1930’s microphones and Mellotrons !

I think it is time to reject the artistic straitjacket of Modernism (along with the smirking absurdity of it’s daughter, Post) and simply accept that music is a continuum and everyone is influenced by someone else.

You do realize where avoiding the old, refusing to use melodic or rhythmic patterns that have been “done already” leads to, don’t you?

Atonal noise, pretentious minimalist drivel, poisoned-brain “academic” music, and finally to John Cage sitting on his chair, silently, for the required time, and then it’s off to the CD-Release Party!


I say, write good songs. Call them derivative if it makes you feel hip, but write them. Write about things you really care about, let the music flow naturally from the ideas and lyrics, don’t arbitrarily put in something stupid to avoid something old, and play them well, like you care about them.

The patterns will become transparent once more.

Too many musicians are tied into knots by fear of doing something derivative, so they do nothing, or worse, do something bad. I do not claim to be revolutionary, but I do hope I write well enough so you don’t notice the pattern too much.

And I don’t care in the least what the painfully hip think of my stuff.

Of course you had many great ideas though in your post. Your points on guitar intonation and bridges are valid, but in a mixed context in my opinion. There is something of beauty in the bad intonation. It's like when I was in year 10 at school, and my teacher told me that 12 string guitars create a natural modulation effect because you could never tune it perfectly, and I said "Rubbish! If you tune it properly it wont modulate at all!" and he simply told me that it always does, because you can't tune a guitar that well, and he was right. Of course my shabby old Ibanez 12 string I bought for $280 in 1989 is far too out of tune with itself, but even on the best guitars you get that little bit of tonal error which just lets you know that you are alive, and the instrument is real.

What you are speaking of is the natural out-of-tuneness of equal temperament vs. the no-beat perfect tuning of just intonation. That wasn’t what I was getting at. I too find just intonation flat and boring (at least on piano, but it rocks with choirs) I just want to actually get guitars to equal temperament! They ain’t even close. I have one guitar that actually intonates at both ends of the neck, matching equal temperament almost perfectly. It sounds really cool! All guitars could be like that. To not even match equal temperament is unacceptable after all these years.

Of course improving the tone of a guitar bridge through better examination of the metals used and greater precision in the building process is a fine idea. I'm sure some manufacturers are giving that some kind of consideration, but I don't hear it talked about much so obviously it's not being done enough.

I pestered several guys, including Tone Pros at NAMM last year and will do so again, but no one really wants to start from scratch with a new bridge design, and that is what is needed. KTS, the Titanium saddle folks from Japan are looking into making a complete Titanium strat bridge. I love their saddles, and they are very nicely-made indeed, but no one knows how much TI is too much until you actually go too far with it. Worth a try though.

Really interested in your neck re-threading experience. I'll stick that in the archives. My brother works in metalwork so if the need arose we could jig something up. Indeed I may consider doing it to my guitar anyhow. I'll sit on it for a bit and see what I think.

I was amazed at the improvement. By the way, inserts can screw into the wood, if the neck is maple, and be pretty secure without gluing them in, but make sure not to make the hole too tight and crack the neck putting the inserts in! With mahogany necks, we left the holes in the neck a little looser, and used JB Weld to keep the insert from backing out. I am leaning towards doing that with the maple necks too.

Do you know about JB Weld? Best stuff since sliced bread.

Thanks again for your great comments!