More guitar talk.

So, earlier in the week I decided that I needed some new blue jeans. I’m down to two pair after having degenerative knee failure on one pair, and a zipper misalignment on another. I asked Jaime yesterday if she wanted to head out to the Salvation Army/Goodwill stores to look for some jeans with me, and she agreed. I have to admit, I was looking for more than just a pair of jeans. I was looking for a tube amp.

See, Savannah, like much of the south (from what I’ve seen) is riddled with pawn shops. They’re everywhere. If you have something– anything– someone will pay you a tenth of what it is worth to take it off your hands, and in a less-than-comfortable retail environment to boot.

I’ll also readily admit that I’m not very experienced when it comes to pawn shops. I’ve been to maybe a half dozen of them in my life, and have never bought anything. They seem like semi-legitimized flea markets. I imagine that most of what they have on their sales floor is stolen.

Well, we did the rounds for about 5 hours yesterday, and I still bought nothing. No jeans from the thrift shops, and nothing from the pawn shops. But, I did find something interesting.

My main goal in stopping at the pawn shops was to look at music equipment. My attention could certainly be grabbed with a sub-$200 American guitar, or a decent tube amp. Who knows– I may even be interested in a banjo (I am in the south, after all).

My main focus, though, was a tube amp. I really, really want one! I’m coming to the realization that while I am capable of learning how to build a tube amp, I may not be daring enough to do so. Every website I see that discusses tube amps comes with a standard disclaimer like:

“Warning: Tube amps contain enough voltage to kill you. Several times over. Even if they are unplugged. Seriously, don’t mess with tube amps if you don’t know what you’re doing or you could die. Really.”

That means that if I want a tube amp any time soon, I need to find one that is (a) already built and (b) cheap, and therefore (c) used and (d) probably pretty old.

I was kind of surprised that the pawn shops don’t deal more in older amps. Just about every pawn shop we visited sold amps by a manufacturer named Kona. These amps look very crappy. Sure, they have a nicely polished circular faceplate on them, but it seems that they are junk. Searches for Kona brand amps at American Musical Supply, Musician’s Friend, and Sweetwater all turn up nothing. I would imagine that these amps are made overseas out of poor quality components, and yield an unacceptable tone. Any way you look at it, they are solid state, and therefore off the table for me.

I did stumble across an amp that I am actually considering. It’s a Peavey Delta Blues. I know, Peavey isn’t typically known as the best amp maker, although they do seem to sell a lot of them. But this amp really looks pretty good.

It’s a 30 Watts all-tube amp, using three 12AX7 and four EL84 tubes. It comes in a nice vintage-looking package. I haven’t actually heard this amp yet, and I can’t find any sound samples online, so it’s hard to tell if I’ll like it or not. Having played a huge solid state amp for years, though, I have a feeling I will like it.

My only concern is that the amp has a 15 inch speaker. Holy cow! I used to have a couple of speaker boxes that had 15s in them. They were EV Force15s, I think. Man, these speakers had some bass! It was way too much bass for me. I know that the tone I seek is light on the bass, moderate on the treble, and heavy on the midrange. So, I’m a little concerned that this amp’s single 15 might cause problems. The good thing is that the amp has an output so I can hook up to an external speaker cabinet if I’m not happy with the tone of the 15.

The other concern is that the tubes are reported to be cheap, unprotected, and to rattle at high volumes. As for the tubes being cheap, I have no idea. I’m sure they can be easily and rather inexpensively replaced. The tubes can be protected with a tube guard for about $26. It looks to be high quality. The tube rattling problem can be addressed for another $24.95 with one of these.

The amp was listed at the pawn shop for $349, I think. I can’t believe I don’t remember the specific price. I’m pretty sure it was $349. I’m hoping to deal down on the price. The folks at the pawn shop made it clear that the price on the tag was not final– “Those prices are just suggestions. Just ignore them.” I’m hoping to talk them down about 20%. That would take the price down to about $279, which seems to be about right based on other used versions I’ve seen sold. Still, that $279 is about $100 more than I can spend on this amp.

I’m a less-is-more kind of guitarist. I’ve been trying to work my “effects chain” down to nothing. I don’t need heavy distortion, I don’t need reverb, and I certainly don’t need chorus. I really just need a hot guitar with thick strings plugged into a good-sounding amp.

I went through and did an inventory on my pedals last night:

  • MXR noise gate line driver
    • Pot marked 1378013– made in 13th week of 1980.
    • Works very well
    • Good cosmetic condition (minor chips in paint, foam inside disintegrating)
  • Boss CS-3 Compression Sustainer
    • From mid to late 90s
    • Good cosmetic condition (minor blemishes)
    • Seems to work fine, just not for my tone
  • Boss CH-1 Super Chorus
    • From mid to late 90s
    • Good cosmetic condition (minor blemishes)
    • Why the hell did I buy this pedal?
  • DOD FX-80B
    • Origin unknown. It magically appeared in my collection.
    • Bad cosmetic condition (no battery cover, knob missing top piece)
    • I think it works, but I haven’t tested it in a few years.
  • DOD FX20-B
    • Origin unknown– another mystery pedal.
    • Poor cosmetic condition– missing battery cover, and has a piece broken off one knob.
    • Scratchy pots, if I recall correctly.

Yep, that’s right– I have an incredibly crappy pedal collection! The only one worth a dime to me is the Noisegate. It’s one hell of a pedal. Simple to use, effective, and built like a tank. This pedal ways about a pound, I’d say.

I ran the numbers, though, and I think I can conservatively expect $100 – $135 total for all of them. I’ve never sold anything on Ebay, but now is the time. I’m considering selling them as a “lot” so I don’t have to deal with a lot of hassle. I also might see if the pawn shop will take a direct trade.

If you take into account the cost of the pedals, that would bring the remaining cost of the amp to around $179-$200 or so, and that is definitely doable!

I’ll be calling the pawn shop tomorrow (closed Sundays) to see what their best price is. If it’s reasonable, I may be stopping in to test out this amp. If it sounds good, I may try to buy it.

Of course, this could all change. I’m going to scour other pawn shops, and check the classifieds for someone selling an “old guitar amp.” There’s got to be someone in Savannah with an old vintage amp and no clue as to what it is worth. I’ve just got to find them.

Anyway, all this guitar talk has got me itching to go fire up the guitar. I’m considering recording a sound sample so you can see that I can actually play. I’ll see if I can get the laptop configured. :)

Mike

8 thoughts on “More guitar talk.

  1. Just for the record, I’ve been playing gigs through a Peavey Classic 30 for years now, and I love it. I’ve owned and played many amps, and will say that you can’t beat the Peaveys for the price. If you can get the DB for $279, go for it. One note of caution, I’ve noticed that I need to change the power tubes on my classic on an annual basis. So, if you play this thing and it’s got a harsh crappy tone, it probably needs new tubes. Best bet is Bob at http://www.eurotubes.com – He knows Peaveys and all amps inside and out. You can probably retube the DB for about $35 including shipping. Good luck

  2. Thanks for the comments, Mike!

    I actually did end up picking up that Delta Blues for a steal of a deal– $200! According to Peavey, it was shipped in 2001, so it’s still pretty new.

    It does have a power tube problem. One of the tubes on the clean channel is very microphonic, and very susceptible to vibration. The big 15″ speaker will rattle the tube, which amplifies the rattle, which rattles the speaker, which rattles the tube, which ampl– well, you get it.

    I do plan on replacing all of them, and Eurotubes is at the top of the list.

    Right now, I swapped out the preamp tubes with some old tubes I pulled out of an Eico HF-20. It makes the distortion a bit warmer, which is nice.

    I’ve got a couple of mods planned. One is a footswitch. I know, I can buy the $20 Peavey plastic special, but I want something a bit more durable. I’ll be using a couple of dpdt switches, a nice aluminum project box, and a couple of 1950s-model jewel lights. I also plan on replacing the jewel light on the amp with one from the 50s. Why build a beautiful amp only to stick a cheap-looking power light? I’m also going to pickup a Tube Tamer from Ebay to eliminate the vibration, as well as a tube guard to protect the tubes in the event that I move the amp. I’ve also got to make some sort of a cover.

    All in all, it’s a nice amp. You can hear me play it in this entry.

    Thanks again for stopping by!

    Mike

  3. I’m on my 3rd Peavey Amp.
    Bandit 65 solid state – sold it
    Blazer 158 transtube solid state – still have
    Delta Blues 210 all tube, yeah! – just bought used,
    and re-tubing with eurotubes.com.

    Check out Freebird The Movie, Lynyrd Skynyrd
    used a wall of Peavey’s. Now that’s Rockin’ Tone!

  4. Mike
    I wanted to encourage you to give amp building a try. I build custom tube amps as a side business with a friend of mine, and we find it very rewarding. I used to work for Peavey, and while they have good stuff for working musicians I wanted something more. I know what its like to have a tone craving and not have the bucks to satisfy it.

    There were times that I’d visit every music store in a city just to find the tone I was looking for. I could identify it if I heard it, my fingers and my ears were looking for something that the mass produced tube amps could not provide. I have only found one amp that even comes close to my tone, and I bought it several years back. Its a Splawn Quick Rod head and I have had cars that don’t cost this much (&1750 USD). I opened it once and to my chagrin it has a printed circuit board inside. This doesn’t affect tone in my opinion but it sure affects the ability to quickly modify an amp.

    As for the voltage warning, you are more likely to slip and fall in the shower than you are to get killed while working on a properly isolated and prepped tube amp. The power supply caps and mains power are the only thing that this warning refers to, unless you are working on the amp live, or leave the AC Mains cord plugged in. Yes these voltages can kill you, but only if you are not a smart tech.

    I have built about 14 amps and sold them so far, and have been bitten more than a few times. The only reason I got bit on those occasions was because I was stupid and worked on them live while being in a hurry. If you follow a few procedures, like unplugging the amp EVERY time you make a component change and remember to discharge the power caps through a suitable power resistor to ground, you will be ok.

    Some things, like setting fixed power tube bias must be performed live, as with the B+ voltage checks involved in this. What I do is I make sure everyone here is aware that I am working on a live amp before I start. I do all my calculations beforehand and write them down and place them right beside the amp in easy sight. I put my pet cat Lenny (who loves to be in my way when working on an amp)in his crate temporarily for his safety, then I power everything up and use one hand, with one behind my back or in my pocket.

    The one hand rule will keep voltage from going across both arms in a short through your heart. Before you shudder in fear, it doesn’t take much current to mess up a heartbeat. With one hand though, the way I was trained as a radar tech, this gives a current a place to dissipate through something besides your other arm. I know this sounds scary but the scariest thing I do all day is not troubleshooting a tube amp, its driving on the freeway to get parts.

    As a matter of fact, since I started putting 220k 2W resistors across each of my power caps I don’t even have to physically discharge them any longer. I just turn the amp off, wait for a minute or so, then pull the power plug. Then as a safety precaution I measure DC volts across each cap to ensure that they really bled off. That is all there is to it.

    The most dangerous thing in a powered off tube amp is the high voltage caps. Everything else is just signal related. The big blue (or green or black) canisters are the power supply caps, and can be easily discharged to ground through a 220k ohm 2W or similar resistor with a test lead. If you don’t use the resistor you get a loud scary pop.

    As for pricing, there are some good kit sites out there that will give you everything you need to build a diy amp in one place. Mojo Musical Supply has great kits for most price ranges, as with Nik Azam’s kits at Ceriatone.com. I have done the math based on the many amps I have built and sold, and I have come down to a base cost (retail pricing) for a Plexi 50 build, using modest off the shelf parts and commercial suppliers (Mouser, Antique Electronics Supply, Mojo, Hoffman).

    The base build cost of a Plexi style 50 watt head or JTM45 head using point to point techniques will run you around 1000 USD, including shipping. And that is using the best parts I can find. Of course the kits will be a lot cheaper than that, especially if you build a smaller project like a blues jr, etc. There is nothing more satisfying than firing up your first build and having sweet tone come right out without a pedal or anything to crud up your sound. I still have my first JTM45 build, and I laugh when I open it and see all the mistakes I made. But it sounds unreal, it really does.

    You can’t buy a good sounding amp for that much, unless it is PCB, which I abhor because of the environmental concerns. I used to maintain wavesolder machines (mass production device for printed circuit boards soldering) and I always tasted the dross, no matter how many times I brushed my teeth or how many times I changed my dust mask. That is not environmentally friendly in anyone’s book.

    I love turret boards because they are so easy to modify, and they are bulletproof. I have seen so many broken PCBs that I can’t count them all. I have a demo board that works I keep around to show potential customers. It is built on G10 FR4 Garolite and I have thrown it across the yard, across the room to demonstrate the toughness of turret boards when they are built right. No broken leads or anything even after tossing it carelessly around.

    As for my full take on PCB construction; imagine a roadie at 4 am, he has been on tour for 6 months, wants his beer or whatever and is loading the truck as fast as he can. Perhaps the lead guitarist pissed him off by saying something careless during the show. Well the roadie throws the entire flight case into the truck on purpose with a satisfying thud. With most PCB based amps that is the end of the line. With a good turret board amp however, it has a better chance of surviving our mad roadie. How many old amps are still working today? If those old Fenders and Marshalls weren’t bulletproof, they wouldn’t have lasted this long to be known as vintage.

    Anyway, I like your site and wanted to share with you some of my thoughts on the subject of custom tube amps. If you ever have questions, or want to talk tubes send me an email.

  5. Hi Ray,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

    I really do want to try building tube amps, but unfortunately always find myself lacking either funding or time. Isn’t that how it always goes…heh.

    The amps I would want to build are different than the ones you build, I think. I don’t play in a band or in front of a crowd, so putting together a 50-watt head would be extreme! Don’t get me wrong– I’d love to crank it up. But alas, my property measures 45′x100′, and my neighbors would likely call the police. Heck, even my little Delta Blues is too loud, and it is only 30 watts!

    What I would like to build is a super-small all tube amp that I can use for playing around the house. I have a couple of “jam track” CDs that I pop in the CD player when I feel the need to play a bit of electric blues. When I use the Peavey, it is too loud to get the tone I want.

    Ray, do you have any sources or good links that I may not have seen where I can get a good tube amp primer from a construction perspective, or maybe even a source for plans or kits for very small all-tube amps?

    Thanks for the comment, and I would love to hear some soundclips and see some photos of the amps you’ve built.

    Thanks,

    Mike

  6. The Classic 30′s are superb little amps. Mine finally gave up the ghost at practice last Sat., but it took 8+ years to get there. Had some minor problems along the way — mainly cutting out before the tubes really warmed up (about 10 mins). Other than the mentioned lack of a tube guard, the lack of a standby switch bugged me. My current back up amp is a Classic 50 410 bought used 5 yrs. ago. It’s a bit more amp than I need, but it’s nice to have it in the corner. I’ve ordered an Epiphone Blues Custom 30 to use as a main amp–liked the 15w/30w versitility, the 212 speakers, and the price. (It is after Christmas and funds are, well….) But this was after seriously considered getting either a new Classic 30, a Delta Blues, or a Classic 50 212. Also, I’m looking for a different basic tone to work with. That aside, I’ve used Peavey amps the past 30 odd years and in humble opinion they’re top notch. Will probalby get another one down the road, likely a Delta Blues. Good luck with your search!

  7. I work for a company that makes products with G10 FR4. You are absolutely correct! That stuff is strong as heck and very durable.

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