(Except for this blog of course…you can read that. )
So a few years back, we’re at worship practice. And let’s see, this is about 4 or 5 years ago, so we were probably playing something by David Crowder, and I was probably replacing all the signature guitar riffs with either pseudo-ambient (whoa! wordpress didn’t underline ‘pseudo-ambient’! That’s a word? Score.) wanna-be keyboard swells that did succeed in shaking the room, but no so much in meshing with the song or with…what’s that other thing you usually like to do as a musician…oh ya…sounding good, or with U2-dotted eighth delay riffs…without the dotted eighth part. See, I’m just trying to get you a picture of the sound that was filling the room at that time. It was right in that weird in-between time for me when I had just realized that forcing a much less talented version of a Michael-Landau-meets-John Petrucci-solo into every worship song was not doing as much as say, a Johnny Buckland 3-note Coldplay riff. But I wasn’t sure how to get there yet. Couple that with my newfound discovery of the ‘warmth’ of tube amps, and for a few months you got this cacophonic mesh of every note in the scale just delaying into each other unstoppably, drowning out all sense of harmonic progression in the song in what I proudly called ‘ambient swells.’ It did sound ‘warm’…I have to give myself that.
Anyway, we’re practicing at our drummer’s work (a metal shop…kind of fitting), and this was the time when we were all young, single, practicing our Dream Theatre riffs and beats and how we could fit them into I Can Only Imagine, in a sweaty warehouse every Friday night from 6 pm to 2 am, and wondering why were single. (Except for me, because remember, I’m just moving out of those riffs and into, what were we calling them? Oh ya! ‘Warm ambient swells’. And also, somewhere, and sometime, the thought finally breaks through that perhaps sweat and metal are not as attractive to the ladies as certain movies make them out to be.) And through the wall of phased-delayed mud and metal-shop man sweat, comes this burning smell. And I look up at our drummer, who’s facing me, and he gets the Orlando Bloom frightened look on his face, and just lifts his drumstick to point behind me at my amp. Which is on fire.
(Here is the patented ‘Orlando Bloom frightened’ look. hehe Everything he does is so over-the-top. You can see it in his eyes. ‘Okay, act frightened! Is this right? I hope it’s right. Maybe a little more intensity will help!’)
(Oh, yes. The Orlando intensity. This is ‘confused.’ You gotta say, though…he is trying really hard. Really, really hard. Just relax a bit, Orlando. It’s not 1930. There’s actually color and sound in these films…you don’t need to over-act anymore. We get that Legolas is confused.)
So I kind of saunter over there, pretending that these things happen all the time, and that I know tone and gear so well, that this is all just part of it and I’ve got it under control. Remember, I’m totally in that in-between stage, which means I’m reading about tone and gear and musicianship like crazy, but have very little real-world experience. Yet I still feel like all that reading and research and knowledge should be worth something, so I’m kind of putting on this pretense of being a tone-head. But inside, I thought my amp might explode onto my face. But I’m able to switch it off, and get the fuse out, and we can see where the fire came from, but it’s all on the inside, so the structure of the amp still looks generally fine. And then, in my infinite genius, I say, ‘Oh, it’s just a bad fuse. Happens all the time.’ Because fuses definitely start fires when they blow. So our drummer says, ‘Well great! This is a metal shop, so I’ll just go get you another one.’ So he goes and gets me another one. ‘Yours said .5 amps, and this one says 1 amp. Do you think that’ll matter?’ And in my best ‘I know tone’ voice, I say, ‘Nope!’ So we put the new fuse in, turn on the amp, and proceed to re-start the fire. At which point the drummer looks and me and says, ‘Do you even know what you’re doing?’ And with a smoldering circuit board of an amp staring me in the face, I am forced to say, ‘No.’
So I end up taking the amp to get fixed by Jerry Blaha. He lives in Hollywood, was the guy who apprenticed Mark Sampson of Matchless Amp fame, used to be the guitar tech for Black Sabbath, and has fixed amps for Aerosmith. And that all sounds awesome, and like I must be really special or famous or something to have him be my tech…and that’s honestly how I like it to sound (oh, the honesty again). But in reality, he had an ad in the Recycler mag, and I called him. How I wish my band was opening for Aerosmith at the Hollywood Bowl, and he was there to check and make sure his mods on their amps sounded good, and heard my tone, and came up to me and said, ‘You have the best tone I have ever heard. It made me cry. Please let me be your tech.’ Which is how it happened in my mind. (There’s this really cool world in my mind, where everything works like that, and I have the greatest tone known to humanity. It’s not real.) But nope. I found his number in a used junk magazine.
When I get the amp to him, I explain to him what happened, and he seems mildly to not-at-all interested. He tells me that amps usually do not catch on fire, even Peavey’s. And this amp was a Peavey Classic 100 head, which incidentally, is a very good amp. It’s one of the early ’90′s incarnations, and though I no longer own it, it still had some of the best cleans I’ve heard. Anyway, I left the amp with him, wondering if maybe I just dreamed the fire. I mean, Black Sabbath’s tech told me it was near impossible, so maybe…
A week later he calls me, and he goes, ‘There was a fire in your amp!’ I said, ‘I know!’ So it was kind of a good ice-breaker, and we got to talking, and he told me that one of the power tubes had not just blown, it had caught itself on fire, and burned out a whole piece of the circuit board. ‘I’ve never seen these tubes before,’ he says. ‘Where did you get them?’
(You can kind of catch the Peavey Classic 100 in the background here. And you can also catch my unfortunate ‘in-between metal and indie’ stage here, too. I’ve got the EL84-based Classic 100; but I’m still playing the snake skin guitar. I’ve got the tight indie shirt; but I’ve still got the very ’80′s cross necklace. I’ve shaved my ‘metal-roadie’ beard growth; but I still have the stringy long hair. Ya. So awkward. And this band was actually a really good one. Very talented members. But this was one of our first shows…at the uh…mall. We thought we had arrived. Yikes, this is like, the most embarrassing picture ever. I’m like, 20 here, and I look like I’m 45. Please learn from my mistakes. Yep…look at the picture again. Do you understand my passion about this now? I say again: Please!)
So okay. Awesome. A chance to tell the big Hollywood veteran about my tonal findings and subsequent tonal genius. And unfortunately…yes. I did. I told him how in Russia, in the late ’60′s, Sovtek had sold one of their tube plants to the military, who used it to make top-secret tubes for this new type of advanced war-time computer, and how the tubes were of superior power, life, and tone, than any ever seen before, and how there were only a few hundred left in existence, and how these tubes in my amp, were some of those few hundred. And he said, ‘Ya. These are the worst tubes I’ve ever seen.’ And then he asked me where I had gotten my information. And I said, ‘Um…the guy on e-bay who sold them to me said it.’ But then I quickly added, ‘But the story checks out on a couple other tube sites and amp tone sites.’ Which was true…I had definitely done my research.
But then he told me something I will never forget. He said, ‘I have a friend like you. You know, one of those guys that reads too much?’ ……Oh. And then he proceeded to tell me of this friend he had, and how he never actually played anywhere, but just read up on all this tone stuff, and how he would always pontificate on everything to his actually working musician friends, but then sound terrible. But I wasn’t listening. I was still stunned that Black Sabbath’s former guitar tech, whom I had hoped to impress with my immense tonal knowledge, had just completely and unapologetically put me in my place; and had also given some of the best musical advice I have ever had.
I still continue to read and do research on tone…it’s important. But it can never suffice for, and should never be looked at as more important than, real life experience. If you’re really worried about if the MJM London sounds exactly like an original Dallas Arbiter, research it for sure. But go somewhere where you can try them out; buy one; talk to people who know more than you do. And if you’re really not sure how your 36 watts will react at a small club, than book yourself a coffee house gig or club gig or small church gig (I know, I hate the word ‘gig’ for church, too…but for the purposes if this article…), and try it out.
There is nothing that accounts for more or that makes you grow in your musicianship faster than real life experience. Reading and research can be very helpful, but if left on their own, you might end up feeling stupider and stupider with every word as you explain to your amp tech that the guy on e-bay told you that your tubes you bought for $5 apiece are really some vintage Russian top-secret weaponry research that breeded the best-sounding tube in history. Ya……yikes, that sounds really not true.