I’m really not a fuzz kind of person. They pickup and amplify all of the noise on the dirty electricity we have here. I don’t enjoy playing through spitty, broken tones. And about the only time I use the bridge pickup on my Strat is to make sure it’s still there.
So what am I doing with one? And what do I think of Fender’s latest fuzz pedal?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m looking for classic Fender cleans, but I don’t have the space for a real Fender amp.
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.
Synergy offers me everything I’m looking for:
6L6 power tubes
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:
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.
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.