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A LESSON IN AMPOLOGY with Marcello Grassi

When Australian Musician needed to talk to a genuine amplifier aficionado for a general overview on amp use, we headed straight to Melbourne’s Eastgate Music to chat with Marcello Grassi. As Greg Phillips found out, Marcello knows his amps!

March 6G: To many, the first thing they think of when you mention amps is loud rock played by shredders, but there’s so much more to amplification isn’t there?

M: There is loud and shred but there’s also loud and BAD! A lot depends on the amp build, the components, the amp’s voice and what the amp builder requires. Many amplifiers are only 15 watts. They may not be necessarily small, but if a builder succeeds in getting good bottom end out of a small amplifier, then they are generally a very good amp. There are lots of class amplifiers that are only 5 watts, but it depends on the shell too as to whether you’re going to get a good sound or not. You really know if you have a good amp or not (whether it’s Class A or Class AB, has good components and good engineering) if when you are on axis (standing in front), and it’s slamming you in the back of the head, you move to left or right and it thins out and doesn’t sound as good. That’s not candy to the ear. The bass player is next to you going ‘that sounds shithouse’. But if the guitarist has a well made, point to point, high quality amp, that may only be 15 watts, you’ll be heard loud and clear. The sound will be the same to the left and over to the right. So it’s important to invest in quality amplification, particularly when you are playing with great musicians with good ears. You can have three muscle amplifiers blaring, but it’s not ear candy. If you move off axis and the sound isn’t as good, then it’s bad for the other band members too. So imagine what it’s like for people in front of the stage.

What about Class A and Class AB amps … what’s the difference?

Class A, is an amplifier that when you turn it on, it’s one hundred percent at you all of the time. When you engage the standby, no matter where you have your volume levels, it is always producing an output stage of one hundred percent. Class AB is a push/pull in the output stage and it only supplies the power you require. If you push the amp it, will push out. If you don’t, it pulls back. That’s basically it without going into technicalities. So Class AB only draws the power as you require it. Class A are slammin’ at ya all the time, and that’s why you burn more tubes.

Let’s talk about the difference between tube amps and solid state and why tubes are so revered.

With tube amps, depending on how they are made, they generally sound warmer than transistor amplifiers. In defence of transistor amplifiers, depending on the circuitry, a transistor amp can sound really nice at low volumes. You get good bottom end and generally the whole fingerboard is even with a transistor amp, but a good valve amp is really preferable. You can’t get that out of a muscle valve amplifier, you really can’t get a bottom end and the EQing out of them. If they are low wattage Class A amplifiers or Class AB, a well made 5 or 10 watt amplifier, generally they’re great at low volumes. So it’s a juggle. if you are on a budget, a low wattage transistor amp is great for the loungeroom. If you can afford it, a high quality, point to point, Class A, Class AB amplifier will provide better sound.

What about digital amps. In your opinion are some of the sounds getting pretty authentic?

I have read about some of the people who get to dig up the old, original amplifiers and copy the curves and digitally record them, and emulate them with a digital amp. Some of them have gone to a great deal of trouble to emulate those amps exactly the way they sound. I remember when Fender made a digital modeling amp. Everyone said, well this Blackface setting on the amp is noisy! The ‘65 Blackface has that inherent distortion noise, so they created it true to what that amplifier actually sounds like. So I thought that was a good reproduction of that amplifier. So the digital modeling had that inherent noise incorporated in the sound, but then the re issue of the Blackface was a lot cleaner. It’s a modern era and new components so it quieter, but that noise was part of the magic of the original sound.

What about acoustic amps, do they serve a purpose today when everyone just goes straight into the desk?
I believe they still do. Acoustic amplifiers really help you as a good monitor. Especially if you’re on a bill with a few different acts using different mixing guys. In fairness to those sound guys, they may not know your band, how you play, your volumes, so they could set up your guitar to sound like a dulcimer with a humbucker in it. There are many good acoustic amps now and at budget prices too. I think the AS50R from Marshall, synonymous with electric guitars, is an excellent amp for acoustic guitars for a small amount of money. It is even, flat response, perhaps a little cheesy in the tweeter, but for around the seven hundred mark, is great. The Vox has a valve and non-valve pre, so you can choose between the two or combine together and it’s around five hundred dollars. If you have one of these as a polite monitor next to you, it inspires you to play because it sounds like an acoustic guitar.

In regard to amp maintenance … any tips?

If they are tubes, the biggest thing is to always keep a load on the master volume or the pre down. Turn on the amplifier, allow it to warm up. I would allow at least 40 seconds to a minute. Then turn the standby on and gradually bring the volume up. That takes a load off the amplifier and it doesn’t hurt the tubes too much. Also a lot of people set then forget their amp settings. People should memorise them, mark them on a piece of paper because one of the most important things for the potentiometer is that you’ve got to move it. It’s like a self-lubricating thing. When you’re servicing your tubes I think you should get your tech to lubricate the pots, clean the conductors and tracks as well as lubricating them and it will prolong the life of the pots. Now they will die, especially if you area tone junkie and going for certain limits, you will wear a pot and that’s fair enough. A cap will go one day, it doesn’t matter how much money you spend on an amplifier. They’re meant to wear. Those electro carbon caps will blow up, that’s what they do.

There’s a theory of matching certain guitars to certain amps, is there any validity in that?
I think matching a guitar to a player’s personality is more important. There are many great players who have played a Gibson 335 or Les Paul through a Fender Twin or Princeton. There are many recordings done like that from Larry Carlton, to BB King and Lee Ritenour. Even Steve Lukather played through an old 50s Princetons, Deluxe Reverbs or Tweeds. Those guys were famous Gibson players that used Fender amps. Yes, they changed their gear over the years chasing a tone, but yeah, I think it’s more important to match a guitar with a player’s personality. But then again, if you’re looking for a Stevie Ray type tone, then there are amplifiers that do that better than others. You wouldn’t use a Rectifier to get a Stevie Ray vibe, but if you play like that, and try to get that sound, you will probably come up with your own sound that will be magical anyway.

For someone who likes to get a variety of tones throughout a gig, do you suggest getting the tones more through the amp or from pedals?

The way guitar players have evolved and changed over the decades, many more are using two or three different amplifiers to create different sounds. Matching the guitar to the amplifier is one thing but it’s more important to simulate what they what to do. Do they what to a straight ahead tone or do they want a Stevie Ray hot Texas tone. Especially the guys that are pretty dexterous, like the guys who might be working with Madonna one day and Prince the next, they need the flexibility so they would need those amplifiers to reproduce all the different styles of music.

What about a player who tours a lot and maybe even overseas. Are there factors they need to consider with different venues and even foreign voltages etc?
Most of the brands these days have specific transformers for each country. There are reasons for that. Many countries have compliance issues, distribution issues. Manufacturers protect their brands in their territories. The economics in Australia are very different to America. You know, Italy is different to America. Every country has different laws. I think it is good that manufacturers do that. There are ones which are multi-tapped and there are many. Couple of bad things about that .. people can really hurt themselves. Yes, if they go to a tech to get it done properly and certify it, it’s not a problem but if you are buying an amplifier that is 110, they make fantastic step down transformers, or step up, depending on the country, they’re only for temporary use, not permanent. I do honestly believe that prolonged use off a step up or step down will blow an output.

I know that a lot of UK bands that came out here in the 70s, were blowing amps left, right and centre with the different voltages.

Pop, pop, pop, yes! An English voltage is 220. Australian voltage is known as 240/250. A good manufacturer generally makes a swing to 250 or more. This is really important actually because a lot of amplifiers come in at 220 or 230, and you think no problem, but there’s not enough swing on that. A manufacturer from overseas needs to allow a tolerance of more than 20 or 30 percent either way, then it’s built for 240/250. I actually know of one amp manufacturer who has problems with their amps in Western Australia because the electricity can swing up to 265. If the manufacturers and engineers that listen to those complaints, build their transformers according to Australian conditions, then there’s no problem. When I import an amp I make sure it’s got to be 50 hertz, 240/250. I get it measured.

Someone wants to come into music store and test some amps. What advice can you offer? Should they bring their own instrument?

They could bring their own instrument, if they have a quirky instrument. If they are using a 335, Les Paul or Strat, then most good music shops will be able to cater to that. Whether theirs is a ‘58 or 59 Les Paul, well that’s a different kettle of fish. A good sales person needs to be compassionate about what the customer needs and ask the right questions, not how much money they have as the first question! I think they should ask about whether it’s their idols that they want to simulate, do they what to find their own voice or if there’s a particular tone they really like that would maybe help them to find their own voice. They might be into Larry Carlton or Stevie Ray or Metallica and say, I want that sound! Then the sales person can say, there are a number of amplifiers which can do that and then they can try them. The next thing, the customer may notice is that the amp they like is nine grand and ask for something that might be two thousand and then the sales guy can steer them in the right direction.