#PlayAlternative: The Search Begins

#PlayAuthentic … Or Else!

By now, you’ve probably heard of Gibson’s notorious #PlayAuthentic PR and legal stunt.

If you haven’t … basically, Gibson published (and then pulled) an official video saying that the only authentic Les Paul is one made by Gibson, and that they were coming after other people who make similar guitars. Very shortly afterwards, there was a lot of publicity about them suing the owners of Dean Guitars, and then their failure to trademark aspects of the flying V body shape in Europe.

It was the beginning of a PR nightmare that’s still continuing to this day, as the new Gibson management continue to lurch from one PR misstep to another.

There’s been some backlash, especially in the form of ridicule. As always, there’s been some folks loudly declaring that they’ll never buy another Gibson, but mostly it’s served to knock the shine off the mid-2019 relaunch of the Les Paul.

Is Only A Gibson Good Enough?

In the midst of all this, Gibson’s been using another PR slogan: “Only A Gibson Is Good Enough”. It started under Henry J, and is still in use today by the new management team. You’ll often see it on their Instagram photos.

When the #PlayAuthentic thing blew up, it got me thinking about this slogan. Do Gibson really make the best Les Paul-type guitars? Or are there perfectly good alternatives out there if (for whatever reason) you don’t want a Gibson. Are there better Les Paul-type guitars out there?

I know the answer is yes because I own a couple of them. But are there more?

Self-Confessed Les Paul Fan

Let’s not pretend otherwise: I absolutely love my Gibson Les Pauls. They’re not my desert island guitar, but I’m more likely to be playing a Les Paul of some kind than anything else on most days.

I’ve never agreed with all the Internet claims that Gibson has only (or mostly) been making poor quality guitars for years now. There have been increasing design mis-steps since 2015, coupled with pricing themselves out of the market and the self-destruction of their dealer pool … but that’s different to saying that they have been doing a bad job of constructing and finishing guitars.

I’ve lost count of the number of Les Pauls I’ve played since 2012. Many of them haven’t been for me, but every single one of them was well made and perfectly usable as an instrument.

And whenever I’m in a guitar shop that stocks Les Pauls, I’m always trying what’s hanging on their wall, to see if they’ve got anything I want to add to my collection.

So why am I publicly looking for alternatives?

So Why Look At Alternatives?

For now, Gibson seems to have wound its neck in a bit, and calmed down on the whole #PlayAuthentic front. If that changes, and they become lawsuit-happy, I’ll want to vote with my wallet and take my money elsewhere.

But even if things stay as they are now, there’s another good reason to start looking into what else is out there …

I love trying out gear that’s new to me. It’s my way of learning more about what’s possible … and more about the gear that I’ve already got and already love.

But today, if you asked me what I would recommend instead of Gibson Les Paul, I wouldn’t be confident enough to recommend anything right now.

So here’s what I’m going to do.

The #PlayAlternative Plan

When I’m out at guitar shops, I’m going to start looking at what Gibson / Epiphone alternatives are out there. If I find something that I think will be a good choice, I’m going to buy it so that I can spend enough time with it alongside my Les Pauls to form a solid opinion.

That way, I can put these guitars through the rig I know best, and really get to know them.

I’ll write blog posts on them as I go – just like I do with all the pedals I buy – looking at why I bought them, how I get on with them with various rigs, and ultimately if I feel they’re worth an entry on the #PlayAlternative list.

There’s going to be alternatives out there that I personally wouldn’t buy – just like I’ve passed on the vast majority of Les Pauls I’ve tried over the years. That’s down to personal preference. You can go to other blogs – and almost any forum – if you want to read trash-talk about brands or guitars. I’m going to try and find a way to discuss these guitars that’s also fair to the people making them, and to the people selling them.

And there’s going to be plenty of guitars out there that I wouldn’t buy because I don’t think they’re close enough to be considered a viable Les Paul alternative. I might maintain a list of these (if I’ve tried them in person), just for reference, mostly noting what they’re missing compared to a Gibson Les Paul.

What Makes A Les Paul, Other Than The Name?

So what am I looking for? What are the features on a Les Paul that make it a Les Paul?

Vintage-voiced dual humbucker or equivalent: A Les Paul typically has two humbuckers, two P90s, or a single P90 in the bridge. Gibson has used a range of humbucker flavours over the years, but the quintessential humbucker for a Les Paul is one that’s attempting to recreate the magic of the old PAF pickups.

Independent volume and tone controls: on a Les Paul, each pickup normally has its own volume control and tone control. This control layout is an essential part of the Les Paul experience. Most of the great Les Paul tones come from working these controls in tandem with the 3-way pickup selector.

24.75 Inch scale length: an important part of playing a Les Paul is the feel, and that comes (in part) from using a shorter scale length than Fender does on Strats and Teles. It doesn’t have to be exactly 24.75 inches, but it does need to be in the ball-park.

Tune-o-matic bridge: the shorter scale length moves the bridge closer to the centre of your body, making it easier to play closer to the bridge, and to use your right hand at the bridge to control string noise and string muting. The Tune-o-matic style bridge is a big part of making that easy and comfortable to do.

Low action: Les Pauls feel great to play because they come with a much lower action than your average Fender does. Combined with the shorter scale length, they just feel like they take less effort to play.

What Isn’t Quite As Important?

What about the other things that make up a Gibson Les Paul? Are any of those must-haves for my #PlayAlternative recommendations?

Tone woods: a Les Paul Standard is a mahogany neck, mahogany body, maple cap, and rosewood fingerboard. Are these all essential? After all, it’s a formula that Gibson itself keeps deviating from. Two of the best Les Pauls I’ve ever owned used different woods, as does my Desert Island guitar.

Nitro finish: most manufacturers today use a poly finish of some kind, rather than the nitro finish that Gibson Les Pauls are famous for. Is it an essential part of the Les Paul tone? After all, PRS don’t use nitro finishes, and they make some of the greatest tone machines around today.

What matters, at the end of the day, is the quality of the tone we can get out of any alternative to a Les Paul. Does it sound like a Les Paul when we play it?

Flame maple cap: playing a Les Paul isn’t just about the tone; it’s also about the iconic look. I’m guilty of that: I went out hunting for a Les Paul specifically on looks. For many people, the pretty maple tops are a big part of that look. But, while I’m an absolute sucker for great looking wood, I’m very happy playing Les Pauls that don’t have a very flamey maple cap.

The single-cut body shape: a second part of the iconic look is the body shape. It’s synonymous with rock-n-roll like no other. Many people are going to feel that a guitar isn’t a Les Paul alternative if it isn’t a single-cut shape. I get that.

The headstock: there’s something about the shape of the Les Paul headstock that completes the iconic look of a Les Paul. Many people won’t buy an Epiphone because Gibson won’t let them use the same headstock shape.

But that’s the thing: the only way to get a 100% Les Paul look is to buy a Gibson Les Paul. Any other guitar is going to look different in some way or another.

Made in America: one of the big appeals of a Gibson Les Paul is that it’s made in the USA. America doesn’t have a monopoly on making great instruments, and it’s unlikely we’ll find many viable alternatives that are American-made. If you want to #PlayAlternative, you have to be open to playing something made somewhere else.

My Final Criteria

Away from the guitar itself, what other criteria am I going to use to help me in my search for a #PlayAlternative list of guitars?

Try-before-you-buy: I wouldn’t buy a Gibson Les Paul without trying it first. For me, the magic of a Les Paul is about finding the ones with their own distinct voice. Practically, that means that any Les Paul alternative has got to be hanging on the wall in a music shop that’s within travelling distance for me … which is basically any music shop here in the UK.

That does rule out Thomann’s in-house brand Harley Benton, along with several other brands that are only available through Thomann. If you’re comfortable buying a guitar without hearing it first, there’s plenty of YouTube videos from Thomann themselves, the Guitar Geek and Henning Pauly on the alternatives you can get from Thomann.

If we manage to stop Brexit, maybe I should celebrate by going shopping at Thomann’s store? 🙂

Current production model: I’m not comfortable recommending a guitar if you can’t get it yourself. I think it’s easier to satisfy that if I only look at guitars that are brand new and still being made.

Does that disqualify boutique guitars, which are typically one-off instruments or made in small batches? I’m going to say ‘no’, because boutique guitar makers are often at the forefront of making the very best tone monsters today.

It does disqualify second hand instruments. As a general rule, a recent factory-made guitar is normally better made than one from (say) five years ago, especially if the factory is in Asia. Year on year, they’re getting more experienced in how to build instruments, and getting better at how to consistently build them.

By all means, if you like something I recommend but want it cheaper, do look at second hand examples.

Price points: this is an area where we can try and improve on Gibson’s current range. One of the things I love about Fender is how they make perfectly fine instruments at a range of prices – especially more affordable prices.

So let’s see if I can find anything to recommend at similar prices to Fender’s main lines here in mid-2019:

  • Fender Player – around £550
  • Fender american-made – starts at £1000-£1200
  • Top-of-the-line factory made, non-limited edition – between £1800-£2000
  • Custom-shop money: £3000+

That last one is there to basically cover anything that’s boutique or PRS 😉

Especially at the budget end, I’m expecting to have to mod the guitars (pickup changes, for example). These price targets have to cover all the costs of any mods too – parts and labour.

What’s On Your #PlayAlternative List?

I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to build up my list. It’s definitely going to be a work-in-progress kind of thing.

To help me get started, what do you think should be on the list of guitars for me to go and look at? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

First Impressions: Mad Professor Big Tweedy Drive Pedal

This conversation was originally published on my Twitter feed.

This evening, I’m enjoying something a little bit different – a Mad Professor Big Tweedy Drive pedal. Boosting it with a Klon, and running it into a Blackstar Studio 10 6L6.

With the right guitar (a @raghguitar RPJ), this setup gives a good approximation of the guitar tone from A Star Is Born. Such a great film. And Lady Gaga should have won the Oscar for her acting performance. Anyway …

(I need to talk a lot more about the RPJ soon. It is such an utter tone monster, and a delight to play. I have – and have tried – other P90 guitars, inc a very Special (pun intended) Custom Shop model. The RPJ slays them all for tone.)

The pedal sounds pretty good with a Tele or a Les Paul, but a nice, fat P90 seems to bring the best out of it. Haven’t found a tone with a Strat that I like (yet).

I’m finding it a bit of a one-trick pony, and it’s a bit prickly. Dig in too sharply, and it’ll turn that action into an instant attack of the ice pick. To mitigate, I’m rolling the guitar tone off completely, then gradually back up to find min setting that isn’t dull.

On the one hand, I feel that it’s something that should be addressed in a rev2 of the circuit. It’s that annoying. On the other … it certainly gives the pedal a bit of character and dynamics that stops it being dull and lifeless.

It’s what they call a foundation pedal. Which mostly means it needs a bit of help to get the most from it 🙂 So far, Klon-style pedals seem to get the best from it. The Brit Blue also works really well, esp with that Tele I recently got.

I have tried it into the Marshall Origin, didn’t really enjoy the results. Seems to suit the Blackstar very very well though. (And the more I use it, the more I’m glad I have this amp!)

I’m not familiar with actual twin tweed amps; I couldn’t tell you how close this gets to the real thing. If you want this kind of vintage American tone, it’s one for you to check out. But only if.

[Later in the evening – Ed] I dug out the Special to try it through the Big Tweedy. It does sound good. It’s just a delicate kind of sound compared to the kaiju that’s the RPJ.

I forgot to mention. The pedal’s Drive control is also its bass control. Turn the drive down, and ALL the low-end frequencies disappear. Just be aware of that if you decide to try one for yourself.

New Arrivals For March

So March has been and gone. In the end, February’s absolute deluge of available 2nd hand gear wasn’t repeated this month. But a road trip later in the month brought a chance encounter with something a little bit different …

These are my initial impressions of this month’s new arrivals. I’ll do full articles on each of them when I’ve had some time with them.

Fender American Performer Strat – Maple Board

I have two motives for buying this guitar.

My best-sounding Strat isn’t a Strat at all: it’s my American Deluxe Tele. I had the stock N3 Noiseless pickups (shudder!) replaced with a set of Twisted Tele pickups, and it gets very close to that Strat neck pickup tone. I’d just like to have that from an actual Strat. Preferably one with a maple fretboard.

(I do have an Elite Strat with the stock N4 noiseless pickups. With a little bit of help from the right pedal, they’ll give you a very nice Strat tone in a mix. They can sound a little dull outside a mix, especially if you’ve been playing true single-coil pickups first).

The second motive is all about making memories. I’m currently celebrating 4 years of starting my own business. It hasn’t been easy – and thanks to these historic times it’s about to get much, much harder – but it has definitely been one of the happier periods of my life.

Now, it just so happens that the Performer comes in a shade of blue that’s very similar to the colours I use in my business. A guitar that’ll last for decades and remind me of these moments in years to come? Yes, please.

It took a couple of hours to find a sound for me out of this guitar. I’m not sure why. This is not a deep, booming, Brian Blessed kind of Strat sound. It’s punchy, with a bit of bite, without quite straying into that Tele sharpness.

In the end, I found it by rolling the neck tone down to 7, and backing the neck volume off to around 9. Once I found that sweet spot, I didn’t want to put the guitar down for the rest of the evening.

I tell you what – being able to have both the neck and bridge pickups active at once … Fender should make that a standard wiring setup on all of their Strats. It sounds great on this guitar. I think it sounds even better on the American Performer with a rosewood fretboard.

Fender Vintage Tremolo Springs

My playing style relies on a lot of string bends, and that doesn’t fit so well with the new Strat’s floating trem. I don’t want to block the trem off by putting a piece of wood in the cavity to prevent it moving. There’s another way to tackle it.

This is a tip I got from Texas Blues Alley. I’ve used it before, and it worked well for me.

The basic idea is to replace the three stock tremolo block springs with five Fender Vintage tremolo springs. The Fender Vintage springs are lower tension, and if you use five of them, it’ll deck the tremolo and keep it decked during string bends. You can still do dives using a trem arm if you want.

Sadly, the first place I ordered from – Rich Tone Music in Sheffield – didn’t have any after all (grrr), despite their Amazon marketplace profile claiming that they do hold stock for immediate dispatch. Hopefully the next place I’ve tried will have them.

Yes, they did – and they arrived next day. Yay for retailers – Arcade Music in this case – who are transparent and honest about their stock levels.

Bare Knuckle 63 Veneer Single Coil Bridge Pickup

This is going into the new Strat. I’ve already got the matching neck and middle pickups sitting around. They were meant to go into my beloved Charvel, but I didn’t notice up front that the Charvel’s single coil routing doesn’t take standard Strat-shaped pups.

I actually don’t mind the stock Yosemite pickups. In person, they sound a lot better than I’ve heard them on demos. It’s just that – to my ears – they’re voiced to work really well in a live mix. That’s in keeping with this guitar being a gigging workhorse. They don’t quite have the low-end that I want for when I’m just noodling at home.

Will these pickups from Bare Knuckle give me that? I honestly don’t know. I’m much more experienced and comfortable choosing pickups for Les Pauls. The writeup looks promising, especially with talk of delivering a piano-like ring. That’s a property I personally want from any Strat I keep.

Update: I discovered that the low-end was being spirited away by a (possibly faulty) reverb pedal in my signal chain. The stock Yosemite pickups do have plenty of low-end piano plonk (I can’t think of a better way to describe it). I’m still going ahead with the pickup swap, but only because I’ve already got them.

Mr Black BB-74x Overdrive Pedal

I’ve seen a few of these come up for sale since the New Year, and finally found one at a great price. But what is it?

It aims to create the tones and feel of a “legendary 18W EL-84 combo”. Given the gold and black livery, I am assuming that means the Marshall 1974x 1×12 combo – aka the “mini Bluesbreaker”. It should sit somewhere between the Keeley 1962x Overdrive and the various plexi-type pedals that I have.

This’ll be my very first Mr Black pedal. I’m looking forward to it 🙂

With the new Strat, through the Origin 20H, it was okay but a little on the brittle side. Strap on a Les Paul, and this pedal rips. Of all the Marshall-in-a-Box (MIAB) pedals I’ve tried recently, this one struck me as having the thickest, fattest rhythm tone to date. No idea if it’ll record well, but in the room, it sounded fantastic. I didn’t want to stop playing.

Lovepedal Jubilee Overdrive Pedal

With the release of the new 20W Studio amps, everyone is talking about Marshall right now. And part of that conversation is about the Silver Jubilee – the amp that came after Guns and Roses and the release of Appetite for Destruction. At heart, they’re said to be a two-channel design based on the JCM800. I’ve never played the actual amp myself.

I’ve seen this pedal’s sweet spot described as the crunch channel from the Silver Jubilee amps. I’m hoping for something that sounds like a slightly more mid-forward JCM800, continuing the generational trend of smoothing off the harshness of the highs without becoming dull.

This pedal did not disappoint. Only took a couple of minutes to dial in the sweet spot, and there it is … the sound-in-my-head of 90s rock rhythm. That slightly thinner-than-you-realise, cleaner-than-you-realise rock crunch should sit and breathe so well in an actual mix. And it sounds great in the room through the Origin 20H.

It’s said that the Alexander Silver Jubilee pedal compliments this one very well – that it acts like a compressed Silver Jubilee lead channel. Makes me wish I’d picked one up in January when there were several being offered …

Carl Martin AC Tone Overdrive Pedal

I enjoyed the Carl Martin Plexitone pedal that I picked up in January. When I saw their AC Tone pedal come up at a bargain 2nd hand price, I thought it’d be a good way to dip my toe in the waters.

You can ask the folks over at AStrings, and they’ll happily (and honestly) tell you that I don’t understand the tone of the mighty Vox AC30 amp, and that I haven’t the faintest clue about how to harness it. It’s completely alien to me.

That translates to using this pedal. I thought the Plexitone was bright? Through the Marshall Origin, this thing’ll slice your head off if you’re using a Strat. Dial it back a bit, and the result is one of the most mid-forward tones that I can remember. I can’t think of another way to describe it.

It’s not my thing. And that’s exactly why I need to put some time into exploring this pedal and what it does. How else do we learn and grow?

Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret Mk3 Overdrive Pedal

When it comes to lists of the greatest Marshall-in-a-Box (MIAB) pedals, the Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret is normally at or very near the top. After the Tubescreamer, is there a more crowded market than plexi pedals? And how does this compare to some of the great pedals I’ve already been able to try over the years?

My first few minutes with it were filled with the hum of a grounding problem. Was this going to be my first faulty 2nd hand pedal? Thankfully not. Eventually traced the problem to using a TRRS cable from the pedal into the amp. Swapped it out for a normal TRS cable, and the grounding problem was solved. Phew.

It doesn’t have that immediate sweet spot that both the Mr Black BB-74x or Lovepedal Jubilee had. All the controls seem to be highly interactive with big ranges, and the key seems to be finding the right amount of mids first. I was able to dial in a very satisfying crunch rhythm tone from there.

There’s a clarity to it that’s very pleasing, with great string separation. It’s also more compressed than other plexi pedals, and it resisted my initial attempts to boost it with the Echoplex Pre. It’s possible I just need to use a different balance between the ‘preamp’ and ‘master’ controls on the pedal. We’ll see.

Nope. This pedal has very low input headroom. Even medium-output pickups can be too hot to use with it. That’s a big surprise, and for me a very big disappointment. Most rock guitars today don’t have low-output pickups.

MXR il torino Overdrive Pedal

I’ve no idea what this pedal does. No, really. I’ve never heard it in a standalone demo. It’s a pedal that I’ve seen multiple times on professional musicians’ pedal boards, and that’s enough for me to take a punt on a 2nd hand example.

It’s got two modes – a boost, and an overdrive.

The boost mode has plenty of output, and by balancing the gain and master controls on the pedal, it got the Origin 20H cooking nicely. It sounds like it adds a lot of colour to the tone. I’ll need to compare it against some dedicated boost pedals to form an informed opinion.

As a rhythm tone, the overdrive has a nice balance between crunch and smoothness all at the same time. It’s the kind of sound that I believe will sit nicely in the mix. It won’t stand out – and sometimes, that’s exactly what’s required.

Can it take on lead duties? Although it’s a bit compressed, it doesn’t add anything like as much sustain as I expected. When I’ve got time to sit with this pedal for longer, I’ll try slamming it with a dedicated compressor to see if I can get it to sing.

Suhr Riot Distortion Pedal

After getting Suhr’s Shiba Drive recently, I wanted to pick up a Riot pedal too just to complete the set. I like the idea of having the Shiba Drive as a rhythm pedal (doing the Tubescreamer thing of pushing an amp), and using the Riot to kick over into lead tone territory.

I’m expecting both of these pedals to sound really good into the Synergy Plexi module that I also picked up recently 🙂 Alas though, I won’t be able to make it sound anything like as good as Pete Thorn does. I just don’t have his talent.

Running it straight into my Marshall Origin 20H – a clean amp – I liked this pedal a lot more than I was expecting to. I had Joyo’s clone many years ago, and that didn’t do much for me. It’s a nice thick tone that made me think of the MXR il diabolo that I picked up recently.

Red Llama Overdrive Clone

This is another of the many clones from the same hobbyist who made my favourite boost pedals (and those fuzz pedals from last month). I like the quality of his work so much that, whenever I see something from him that I don’t already have, I’m always tempted.

I must admit though that I’d never heard of the Red Llama Overdrive, and had to go and google it. Way Huge are one of those brands that have completely passed me by. Not a brand I’ve tried, and not a brand that people I know ever seem to talk about.

This is the kind of pedal that suits Les Pauls to a T. Roll back your volume to make this pedal growl. Go full blast for a thick, heavily-clipped, violin-like lead tone. It has a very satisfying wide frequency range, with plenty of bass and that 3D-like upper mids and presence.

Gibson Custom Les Paul Special w/ Maple Cap

I’ve been travelling for work, and I found this particular guitar hidden away in a little shop up in Leeds. I was on the hunt for a 2nd Fender Acoustasonic Telecaster to be my backup / alternate-tuning guitar for the upcoming gigs. Certainly wasn’t planning on buying another Gibson this year.

So what convinced me to bring it back with me? Well, it’s a bit unusual, a bit different to the Les Pauls I’ve seen and played before.

This one’s a Custom Shop model made in 2017. It’s got two P90s – I’ve never had a guitar with that combination before. Normally, LP Specials are all-mahogany. This one has a maple cap, although you wouldn’t know it just to look at it. And it’s got the same neck profile as a Les Paul Custom – perhaps my favourite neck profile of all.

I’m hoping to pair it up (for recording purposes) with Ghost – my 2015 Les Paul Custom – and with Morag – my 2018 Ragh Guitars RPJ. I’m a great believer in finding guitars with complementary tones. Fingers crossed that I’ve done exactly that.

Back home and through my rig, and the tone surprised me. With the factory strings, the tone was bright and harsh in the room – not at all the thick mid-rangy monster that Morag is. Changing the strings (I put a set of NXYL 10-46s on it) tamed the harshness nicely. Still a bright – dare I say vintage – tone? Reminds me of how my Les Paul R0 sounds compared to a modern Les Paul Standard.

I’m left with a question for myself: do I keep it stock, or do I swap out the Gibson Custom P90s for a set that’ll sound a bit different? A decision I’m not making this month.

Single-cut Shootout, 2600EUR+

Henning has been working his way through some of the Les Paul-like guitars you can buy from Thomann over in Germany. (They deliver all over Europe). Today, he’s published the last video in the series, looking at the high-end competition.

This video opens up with a Les Paul R8 owned by one of Henning’s friends, and it’s fair to say that it sets the standard for the rest of the video.

They’re all great guitars – as well they should be at that price!

This video does a great job of making a serious point. These are all hand-built guitars. No two will feel the same to play, or sound the same. If you’re ever lucky enough to shop for guitars in this price range, you have to go and try them for yourself, and find out which one calls to you.

Gibson Or Gretsch?

Darrell Braun has posted an interesting look at two single-cut guitars: the Gibson Les Paul and the Gretch Duo Jet.

I can’t find the Gretsch Duo Jet on Gretsch’s website – or in any UK stores at the time of writing. Darrell’s Playing the G6128TVP model (I think), which seems to be out of production right now.

A shame, because that Gretsch compared very favourably to the Les Paul.

Watch the video to make your own mind up, and then please head over to YouTube to leave a like and a supportive comment.

Dialling In A Classic Marshall Amp Tone

Jeff McErlain has posted a demo of how he dials in his Marshall amp to get those classic tones.

Jeff shows us how he sets up his amp to suit his neck pickup first, with the gain set to leave plenty of room for picking dynamics. From there, he uses the tone and volume controls on his guitars to get the bridge pickup sounding great without sounding too harsh. And finally, he sticks a Klone in front of the amp as a clean boost for lead tones.

This is a fantastic video if you’re chasing these classic tones.

Watch the video for full details of how Jeff does this, and then please head over to YouTube to leave a like and a supportive comment.

First Impressions: Synergy Amps

I’m just back from a visit to Peach Guitars over in Colchester. I went over to try out the Synergy Amps modules in person, and Peach Guitars are the only UK stockist right now.

tl;dr: the Synergy Amps are exactly what I was looking for

What Are Synergy Amps?

A quick introduction to Synergy Amps: they’re an American company making a modular amp system. They make a range of preamp modules, a couple of different housings to put them in, and a 50/50 6L6 1U rack power amp too. Some of the preamps are made by Synergy themselves, and are re-creations of classic amp circuits. Some of the preamps are made by folks like Friedman and Metropoulos. If you’re uncomfortable with the economics of Kemper profiles (basically, the original amp manufacturers get nothing), Synergy is a way to get a range of real valve preamps and for (some of) the original amp manufacturers to get paid too.

The system came out just before Christmas. There’s a whole heap of YouTube demos online. Here’s a playlist of just some of them:

(There are hours and hours of demos there. What can I say? I was ill in bed with the flu over Christmas and New Year, and needed something to cheer me up …)

Why Am I Looking At Synergy Amps?

There’s a couple of reasons.

  1. I’m looking for classic Fender cleans, but I don’t have the space for a real Fender amp.
  2. Some pedals – especially Marshall-in-a-Box (MIAB) types – don’t work well through my existing rig.

I’ve been frustrated with MIAB pedals through the Blackstar HT-100 for the last 4 years now. Yes, frustrated is a fair word there. Nearly all of them have sounded dark or dull through the Blackstar, and nothing I’ve tried has solved that one for me. Many pedals sound fantastic through that amp. Just not MIAB pedals. Not for me, anyway. Having tried everything else, it’s time to try a different amp.

When I’ve seen pedals demoed on YouTube over the years, especially official demos done by the manufacturer, more often than not those demos have been done through some kind of Fender, Marshall, or a clone amp. And that got me thinking. I’m sure that pedal makers test their pedals with a range of amps before launch. But they’re probably designing those pedals through Fender and/or Marshall-style amps. It’s those amps that’ll get the best out of those pedals.

Over the last 18 months or so, our little music project has been moving away from palm-muted power chord riffage heaven and trying to be a little more … well, musical. The very properties that make the Blackstar HT-100 a great pedal amp also make for a very uninteresting clean channel. It isn’t something I’d use for clean tones, and I haven’t found a pedal that can bridge that gap.

What Did I Look At First?

I looked at the Fender Deluxe Reverb Re-issue (DRRI), and the Kemper.

There’s a fantastic-sounding DRRI in my local music shop. Sounds great at low volume, and it sounded even better cranked a little bit for product demo nights. The only reason I haven’t bought it is that it’s a combo.

Combos are simply too big, too bulky, and too heavy for me and my circumstances. I need separate head and cabs, and the head can’t be a 20+ kg monster like the the HT-100 is. I need a lunchbox head or better. Anything bigger, and it’s not for me.

Sadly, Fender just don’t make those kind of amps. I think that the only all-valve head they sell right now is the Bassbreaker, which is basically their take on the JCM800 circuit. No joy there.

I did look at getting the DRRI converted into a separate head and cab; that’s something the folks over at Zilla Cabs do, for example. It’s not a cheap option, and at the time a second-hand Kemper would have cost a lot less. Plus, as Adam once asked me – why not go Kemper, and have all the amps?

So I did more than look at the Kemper – I found one second hand for a good price. I’ll say a lot more about the Kemper in other blog posts. I’m nowhere near as in love with it as some folks online. Buyer’s remorse? It’s more complicated than that.

I think it’s good at what it does, but I don’t think it’s a good dirt pedal platform. If I dial up a clean amp model and run dirt pedals into it, the breakup doesn’t sound convincing at times. That was a real shame.

I’d love to get value-quality tone without the sheer hassle that valve amps bring. The Kemper can do that, as long as you’re plugged straight in. The more you throw at it, the further away you go from what it’s designed to be. That’s just its nature.

(There’s a couple of issues too, but I’ll save them for their own blog posts.)

Has it solved my Fender cleans need, at least? Not really. The Kemper doesn’t re-create the full frequency range of a real amp. It sounds like a very-professionally recorded amp. That’s great, as long as you record everything using the Kemper. The moment I try and mix and match Kemper profiles with recording my own rig … you hear the difference. I don’t have the mixing skill to overcome that. And the Kemper can’t re-create all the tones and textures I get from pedals.

My Kemper sits right beside my desk, and its what I play through most of the day when I’m taking breaks from my work. It’s not going anywhere. But neither are my pedals, and at the end of the day, I enjoy them more.

Why Synergy?

Synergy offers me everything I’m looking for:

  1. real valves!
  2. small
  3. light
  4. Fender cleans
  5. 6L6 power tubes
  6. range of classic preamps

I like that the Synergy system is modular. If I’ve got a pedal that I’m struggling with, I can try it with a different preamp – or even with try it through a couple of different preamps at the same time. That’s awesome for me.

I can get the Fender cleans that I’m looking for, without having a big heavy combo taking up space I just don’t have. When it’s time to get things serviced, I’m not going to have any problems struggling with the weight. I’m dreading when I have to move the HT-100 for its first service. So much, in fact, that I rarely use the power amp on it, just to avoid that day for as long as possible.

The matching power amp uses 6L6’s. I think that, at heart, I’m a 6L6 person. Since I got the Kemper, I’ve been making profiles of my rig. I’ve switched from software emulation of power amps to using the HT-100’s real power amp and its quartet of evil-glowing EL34s. I just prefer the tone of a 6L6 myself.

And because it isn’t a digital system, the Synergy amps should last decades, if not the rest of my lifetime. Other than the TV, I don’t think there’s anything digital in the house that has lasted more than 5 years. Even if the device itself doesn’t fail, manufacturers drop support, and eventually you upgrade your computer’s operating system and the old drivers stop working.

Digital gear has a built-in obsolescence. It’s one area where analogue gear still has a clear advantage. My music gear is a hobby. It doesn’t earn me money at all. I’d rather spend money on gear that’ll last the longest, all other things being equal.

What Did You Try?

I played three modules:

  • B-MAN
  • Metro Plex
  • T-DLX

through the Synergy Syn-50/50 out into a Friedman 1×12 loaded with a G12M Creamback. For guitars, I used a 2018 Les Paul Standard fitted with Burstbucker Pros, a Suhr Strat and an Xotic Californica Classic Strat.

My main cab at home is a Victory V112-C 1×12 loaded with a G12M Creamback. The Friedman cab is physically larger, and seemed to put out more bottom end than my cab at home does. It was very helpful to play through something that’s in the ballpark of what I’m used to.

I picked a 2018 Les Paul Standard because I own a 2013 Les Paul Standard. There isn’t a lot of difference between the two models. I turned down the chance to use a Tom Murphy-aged Custom Shop True Historic 59 Les Paul. Gear at that level always sounds different from instrument to instrument, making it harder for me to assess what the amp might sound like with my guitars.

The staff at Peach Guitars selected the Suhr Strat and the Xotic California Classic for me. That was very kind of them, as it gave me a chance to try both brands for the first time. I grew up playing Strats and cheap knock-offs, and I’m more comfortable trying different ones than I am with Les Pauls.

I had the choice of running the SYN-1 modules directly into a Friedman FRFR cab instead. I went with the power amp because it’s one of the things I’m interested in. Very glad that I did.

I picked the B-MAN module because the staff thought it was the only Fender-type module in stock. I went with the Metro Plex module partly because they didn’t have the Synergy Plexi module in stock, and partly because it was too good an opportunity to pass up. All the demos have said that the Metro Plex module is something special, and they weren’t kidding. The staff found a T-DLX module out the back whilst I was trying the other modules.

(I’m saying “the staff” because I am crap with names. If you’re reading this, I’m really sorry. You looked after me really well.)

I started with the Les Paul into the B-MAN module. Not unsurprisingly, a lot of bottom end. Way too much. Splitting the coils, playing with the dip switches and bass knob on the front … still too much bottom end. Was it the cab?

Best way to find out was to switch modules. Man, the grin I had on my face from the first chord. Les Paul into the Metro Plex module … oh yes. IIRC, I said straight away that I was sold. I wasn’t even there for a Plexi module! It was just so easy to dial in my kind of crunch tone. And no boomy bottom end problems at all.

Switch back to the B-MAN module, and tried it with a Strat. This was my first time playing a Suhr Strat. I’m sorry, I didn’t catch the exact model. Still lots of boomy bass, and a lot of high end too. Maybe that was the stainless steel frets? I think that’s the first guitar I’ve played with stainless steel frets, so I don’t have much experience to help me out there.

The Suhr Strat was very nice to play. Loved the neck carve and fingerboard radius. Action was right where I like it. I’m definitely interested in playing more Suhr guitars one day.

I can’t remember if switched to the Xotic California Classic Strat at that point, or if we switched to the T-DLX module first. I think we switched modules first. Either way, the Xotic into the T-DLX was just as much home to me as the Les Paul into the Metro Plex. Instantly found the tone I was looking for. And what a guitar.

It had a beautiful baked flame maple neck and matching baked flame maple slab fingerboard. A 2-piece neck. Perfect neck carve. Lower-output pickups than the Suhr. They reminded me of Abigail Ybarra’s work, they were that good. If I wanted a top-end Strat, that would have been the one.

Did You Get Anything?

I got the T-DLX module, the Metro Plex module, a SYN-1 for each of them … and the SYN-50/50 power amp.

You’ve always got to be careful with going on YouTube demos alone. Many of those demos are made by professional musicians who can make a rusty tin can sound amazing. Us mere mortals, strumming away at home, don’t have those skills.

In person, the Synergy amps sounded great. That’s with me playing through them! (It isn’t false modesty. My enthusiasm makes up for a serious shortage of musical talent and technical ability). To my ear, they had the sounds that I was looking for.

I’ve a lot going on right now. It might be Easter weekend before I’ve got time to sit down with them, hook them up to my pedals, and really get into what they can do for me. I’m already looking forward to it.

Some Thought On Gibson QA And Pricing

Over on Facebook, Spectre Sounds shared a link to an article about the risk of Gibson going bankrupt this year. Glen’s own tagline was “If you build crap, nobody will buy it” and, predictably, the comments include a lot of complaints about Gibson (and Epiphone’s) quality.

It isn’t just here. Forums have been complaining about Gibson’s quality for many years. It’s a line that seems to have stuck. But just how true is it?

My own experiences first …

I’ve had 7 Les Pauls in recent years – a mix of Epiphone, Gibson USA and Gibson Custom Shop. Most were hand-selected, which just means that I’ve spent a lot of time going round guitar stores and playing their stock to find the ones that personally connected with me. Since 2012, I’ve probably played at least 50 Gibson Les Pauls. That’s a tiny number compared to how many Gibson make every year. I’d wager that it’s a lot more than most of the ‘Gibson quality sucks’ commenters have ever played.

In terms of manufacturing quality, none of those Gibsons had a manufacturing flaw that would have stopped me buying them. Not one. Yes, flaws in the nitro finish were common – especially around the neck joint. I don’t remember any other manufacturing problems with any of those guitars.

So why have I played so many? Apart from the fact I’ve fallen hard for the Les Paul …?

The thing about Les Pauls – and it’s something I haven’t found in Fenders or PRS to the same extent – is that only the bad ones sound the same. Every great Les Paul has its own voice. I don’t always like that voice, but that’s a preference thing. Doesn’t make it a bad guitar, just makes it the wrong guitar for me. I played a lot of Les Pauls because I was hunting out ones that worked for me, and that offered something different and complimentary to what I already had. Not because they were bad guitars.

Over the same period of time, I’ve also bought Fender and PRS guitars – an Elite Strat, a Deluxe Tele, and a Wood Library PRS. Line-wise, the two Fenders were the equivalent to top-of-the-line Gibson USA, and the PRS is equivalent to Gibson Custom Shop. I’ve had more QA trouble with them than with any of my Gibsons. As I’m writing this, both the Tele and the PRS are in the shop to have issues resolved – issues that affect their use as musical instruments, not cosmetic issues. My Gibsons have only ever gone into the shop for mods.

That’s just my experience, here in the UK. It isn’t the same as the overwhelming number of commentators online. Why is that?

The cynic in me does wonder how many of these folks have actually played a Gibson Les Paul, and how many of them are simply parroting what they’ve read in the comment directly above their own. Gibson’s one of the biggest-selling guitar brands on the planet. They’ve also been shedding dealers at quite a rate in recent years. Unless you live near one of the big outlets, or are willing to make a special trip to one, most people don’t have the opportunity to try out a Les Paul on the rack before buying. I suspect the numbers don’t stand up to scrutiny there.

Folks don’t buy Gibson Les Pauls direct from Gibson. You buy through a dealer. And if there’s no local dealer, you have to buy mail-order and take your chances on what the dealer sends you. So if there are a lot of badly-made Gibsons out there, not only is Gibson making them, but dealers are sending them out to customers. WHY?

Why isn’t the dealer catching these QA flaws and sending them back to Gibson in the first place? Are dealers really just box-shifting any old crap out to their customers? If they are, then they’re as much to blame as Gibson on this. Maybe my experience is different here in the UK because our guitar shops do their job, and do it very well.

I think, though, that there’s another aspect to all this … and that’s pricing.

The Les Paul has become an expensive guitar to buy. Over here in the UK, their USA line starts at more than Fender’s top USA factory prices, and ends well into Fender Custom Shop territory. Let me say that again. I can buy brand-new Fender Custom Shop guitars for less than some Gibson USA factory-line models.

It’s no different at the higher-end of the market. I’ve just taken a look at the website for a guitar shop I’m going to visit later today. Out of the 40 most-expensive guitars that they have up on the website right now, 26 of them are Gibson. This is a shop that also stocks PRS Private Stock, Collings, Knaggs, Fender Masterbuilt, and other expensive boutique brands.

Gibson has priced itself at the top end of both markets – factory-line, and boutique. That is going to affect how critical genuine buyers are. At these kind of prices, buyers are going to expect guitars with no QA issues at all. That pricing is going to magnify how anyone feels when they do find a flaw.

Combine that with the times we live in, full of financial uncertainty and hardship for many, and it’s clear that Gibson has made a rod for its own back. Gibson’s charging top dollar, and has to live up to the expectations that come at that price point. Or something has to give.

What’s More Important For Les Paul Tone? Saddles Or Bridge?

Johan Segeborn is back with another of his comparison videos – and minus his beard. Today, he’s comparing the difference between bridges and saddles from the 50s and 2008.

There are whole sections of major Les Paul forums devoted to the endless discussion – and decrying – of trying to capture that legendary 50s Les Paul burst tone with modern instruments. (Yours truly might be a lurker and occasional contributor *cough* to those debates …)

Johan’s comparisons are always interesting, and certainly add fuel to the debate 🙂

I don’t chase that 50s tone per se. I’ve never played an original Les Paul burst, and likely never will. And if I did, I’d need to have it through my rig (that I’m most familiar with) and have the chance to A/B it with my own Les Pauls to really understand the difference anyway.

The key thing I chase is the 3D aspect of those old vintage tones. That’s the magic for me. My own experience is that sometimes a pickup upgrade will unlock that without any other changes at all. How much of it is the pups, and how much of it is the guitar they’re going into, I don’t know.

Please head over to YouTube to leave a like and a supportive comment if you enjoyed Johan’s video. Or if you miss the beard – which seems to have generated the most comments so far!