Sunday, July 16, 2006

Marshall and Hiwatt Heaven

My blog topics would not be complete without a rant about guitars and amps. Hey, it's what I love dearest. So i'll start out with the amps. Guitar amps, that is. Sure, we all know that tube amps are best, but i've heard some damn good solid state ones, too. That little Gallien Krueger one comes to mind. But for the real daddys, you need the 50 and 100 watt tube heads. For hard rock and roll that invariably leads to Marshall.
The Marshall I was using with Dick Destiny and the Highway Kings I still have...its the JCM800 50 watt, right after they switched back to EL34 tubes (ca. 1986). The amp is absolutely killer. It's got one sound, but it's THE sound. Plug and turn up to 10, that's it. It was a perfect match for Dick's Hiwatt head....which had a different sound, but still killer. Together it was like a nuclear holocaust. I think the live sound the Highway Kings had at that time was like a Panzer division at the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge. It was crushing. All these weenie "alt" bands we would open for had these little combo amps, and we went onstage with like 4 full stacks. If you go to the Dick Destiny homepage ( some of that wattage is captured to tape. Volume is King. I still have that Marshall, and still love it. Kerry King of Slayer is a vocal fan of the JCM800 as well. Now, besides Marshall and Hiwatt there is Orange, which also gives you the British "crunch" sound, and Laney, which Tony Iommi plays all those Sabbath licks thru.

In a different camp are the American high-gain monsters like Boogie, Soldano, Peavey 5150, etc.
A lot of metal players swear by the Boogie Triple Rectifier. These amps have tons of distortion generated at the pre-amp stage....the so-called "cascading gain". The notes sustain for days.
I've played thru all of them, and they are very enticing, but I always go back to Marshall. Sometimes too much distortion just muddies it up. If you listen very closely to any AC/DC record you will notice that the guitar sound is not really gung-ho distorted. It's the sound of a Marshall plexi cranked up to 10, with pure power tube distortion.

Of course then there's the "clean" amps like the Fender Twin, a classic. All the guitar sounds on the Sex Pistols "Never Mind the Bollocks" are supposedly Steve Jones using a Les Paul into a Twin Reverb......obviously with a pedal in front (if anyone knows which one, let me know!!). But there's no denying the guitar sound on that album is killer. In fact the best thing about Fender's is they are very adaptable to any pedal you throw in front of it. I happened to come across a used Bassman head, and snapped it up. If I put a RAT distortion pedal in front of it, look just screams.

A consequence of all this decibel abuse is, of course, hearing loss. And i'm sure I have it.
Fortunately i'm not subject to 130 decibels on a nightly basis like in the heyday. But I could have used the volume to disintegrate my kidney stones, instead of going in for that damn lithotripsy.


Blogger George Smith said...

The Hiwatt was an astounding but cruel amplifier. It was perfect for the Highway Kings.

Hiwatts had one setting: Way too loud. Great for being heard over a powerful drummer, great for theatres, terrifying in small rooms.

They were cleaner sounding amplifiers than Marshalls and very good for rhythm. Initially, I had to goose them (I owned a Dave Reeves-made 50, and a 100-watt, manufactured after his death)with a Rat. But later, I obtained a Scholz Power Soak as a dummy load, turned it up until it sounded right, and adjusted the Soak to bleed off some of the power between the head and the cabinets to bearable levels.

I used the Soak exclusively and still have it. The essential Townshendian Hiwatt roar was tickled with a slight touch of compression from an old Electro Harmonix Black Finger. When the Highway Kings reduced to a trio, it made for a huge sound.

I also used the Gallien-Krueger 250 ML. It was a solid state amp, the size of a big shoebox, capable of driving two cabinets, with an excellent warm distortion. For awhile I used it run into one cabinet which was the wrong thing to do, as it required two for balance on the output transistors.

However, with one cabinet it sounded better than with two. It crunched viciously and screamed in pain. The night it sounded best, it blew up.

It wasn't a critical failure. The GK was exceedingly well-designed and had a fuse in it just for unbalanced situations. The fuse was a simple replacement but I never ran it unbalanced again and subsequently traded it in. While an excellent amplifier, it just didn't have the power and explosion to compete with the Hiwatts.

The reason I say it was because the PAs in the dives the Highway Kings played in weren't friendly to smaller amplifiers. The very purpose of the Hiwatt and Marshall combination was to take options away from the soundman with rotten equipment. The Highway Kings could easily balance the sound from small stages by having the house mike only the drums and the vocals.

This wasn't a problem in larger venues that did require a PA. They always hired professionals and you only had to bribe them with a tip or a case of beer to ensure that they did a good job.

12:50 PM  
Blogger Donnie (aka Shadowtwin) said...

Hmm. This all makes my little Crate amp seem a bit, well, inferior. But what I lack in equipment I more than make up for with lack of talent!

On distortion: In my experience the people who play with a lot of distortion are also the ones that like to turn the mids all the way up. Being that I used to do this, I know why. You crank up the distortion and the mids and not even Christ himself can tell if you are hitting the right notes or not -usually not.

The first time I ever had the opportunity to plug into a Marshall stack, I was hooked. I don't even know what kind of head it had on it, but be it the volume, or the...well okay, it was the volume, I felt like I was a god. And more importantly, even I sounded good through it -something that no amp before or since has been able to accomplish.

Unfortunately, it seems difficult to capture the Marshall stack sound in a smaller amp. I bought a small Marshall amp at one point and wasn't able to make it sound even as good as a Peavey amp with a Marshall pedal (that could be due to my lack of ability though).

When it comes right down to it though, most guitarists spend so much time tweaking their rigs that they completely neglect what is really missing in the band's sound: Cowbell, there can never be too much cowbell.

3:50 PM  
Blogger Andre said...

AFAIK, Steve Jones ran his guitar straight into a pair of silverfaced Fender Twins, upgraded with Gauss speakers, and turned all the way up.

To thicken his sound he ran through the vibrato channel of one amp, with the speed at it's lowest setting.

He's since switched to Marshalls. I think he was playing a silver Jubilee model on the Filthy Lucre tour.

12:03 PM  

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