So, the title of "The world's luckiest guy who's employed by a Gear Company" probably went to me last week, actually, a few weeks ago but let's just say it wasn't completely obvious until Saturday night.
First, let's get a little perspective here. A lot of people think I get given gear all the time, I don't really - I have stuff here for work, that I have to use for promotional purposes - it's not mine and I have to hawk it round to various places, photographic, promote it - yeah I know, sucks to be me doesn't it. But it's not mine - I have to test run everything (in a live situation where possible) and one of the reasons I am still here after all these years is in part I never bullshit Brian, if something sounds great I tell him, and if it doesn't, I tell him twice. I don't tell everyone blindly how great our gear is, I will advise stuff that I think fits the player - I mean, anyone who is connected to me on social media knows I am very unflattering about tube screamers, which probably doesn't help our sales of the Clarksdale (our version of the 808 with expanded EQ and clipping options) much... but those people also know I am honest and I understand that each to their own... How many people do you know who love TS circuits? ;)
Getting back to the main part of this piece, I received the Wampler Bravado here at Wilding Towers in the UK on December 19th (which is actually my daughter's birthday so it stayed in the box that day while I was trying to be SuperDad). When I opened it, I must admit quite excitedly, I was surprised to see an America power cable in the box, so I looked on the side and saw the dreaded.... 120v. D'OH. Great. I had an un-useable amp. As you may expect, I text'd Brian and said "Well, that's a bit silly" (or something like that) and what do I do now, seems insane to send it back to the US... Over the next couple of days Brian had spoken to the transformer people, and the people who finalise production on the amp and I was told that it's a simple fix, the change over of a couple wires inside. That would be great, except I can't solder for shit. Great x2. Armed with explicit instructions on how to change it I dropped the amp off at my mate Bob's house, who is an audio electronics engineer, with the instructions and £20 later I have a 240v amp... This was December 23rd.The date of our last gig of the year - I got the amp fixed, I went over to my friend Ray's house to borrow an old yet delightful 2x12" cab with the view of giving it a run out that night. And then, 2 hours before I'm due to leave to the gig my car decided to die. Great x3.
So, I didn't have the opportunity to test it that night, I borrowed a car from my lovely friend Kate and I went to the gig with my usual gear (which is a stock Fender BDri with a WGS Veteran 30) and as usual, my tone was lovely, mostly thanks to this little board of delight.
So, after Christmas I had time to play. I tested it with the Orange 2x12" (Celestion Vintage 30's inside), it wasn't great as they are designed to break up WAY early in the sweep, and I needed it clean. Unfortunately, they were soldered in so I couldn't swap then out (remember, I can't solder at all). Great x4. Here is where it becomes interesting. I have 4 WGS speakers here: the Veteran 30, ET-65, Reaper HP and the Blue Alnico thing, can't remember its name. So, I tried the Bravado plugged into the speaker in the Fender, first with the Veteran 30, then the ET-65, then the Reaper - all the time, comparing it to the 2x12" with the Vintage 30s. It quickly became a geek fest of tone, response, articulation, break up and everything else. Let's just take a moment to pass our good wishes onto my long suffering wife who had to listen to my crap playing, really loud, ALLLLLL day.
Here is what I found.
The Celestion Vintage 30's are fabulous for that dirty thing, when using an overdrive to push it, the sound is incredible. But that's not what I want - I play in what is effectively a country/blues/rock band in pubs, so I need clean headroom. One can't play Brent Mason solo's when the amp and cab is clipping... So, I'm keeping that tone in the bank for when I need something more aggressive... The real magic arrived when I put the Reaper in.
The Reaper. WOW. I just can't begin to tell you how perfect it is to my ears, for my style of playing, for my rig, in the places I play in. The Reaper is based on the G12H30 Anniversary edition, and it's perfect for this. Gone was the high end edge of the Veteran 30, gone was the break up of the v30's and here was the full spectrum tone of clarity and cleanliness of the Reaper. It would appear that my speaker choice was made and I set off to the gig.
When I arrived, I set up, level checked and over comes the bass player, Rick - who in my opinion is one of the greatest I've ever heard - he's so far in the pocket it's a thing of beauty, his tone is flawless, everything about his playing is perfect. Plus, I met him when I was about 15 so I've known him and played with him off and on for almost 30 years. He is a real tone chaser... he simply has the best tone of any bass player I've ever heard in a pub/club setting. ANYWAY... he asked about it, so I played a bit and he started to smile - we played with the bright control, the EQ and levels and we settled on position 3 for the bright switch, my guitar is quite dark (PRS Brent Mason) and I don't like harsh top end so my effects aren't set harsh... here are the settings (taken right after the first set):
We found that even at full brightness the tone wasn't sharp at all, it didn't bite, it didn't hurt (which it would have with the Fender), it just sounded a little more VOX like, which was as odd as it was unexpected (at that moment in time I was regretting not playing any Brad Paisley, but that's another story). As the gig went on, my I had a lovely time - my tone was INCREDIBLE. I have never, ever sounded like that before. Everything was clear, articulate and powerful. Everything was perfectly balanced and the levels across the entire spectrum was perfectly balanced. We had a great gig, loads of people danced, drunk people came up to me and were talking incoherently to me, but while shaking my hand and smiling a lot, so I'm guess they enjoyed it. I was a happy boy.
As we were driving home (across beautiful Dartmoor, 1am on a clear winters night but that's just me showing off about where I live, it's outstanding!) my wife said something that made me think. Now, my wife comes to every gig I play - let's face it, she didn't marry a guitar player to be sat at home on a Saturday night to watch the bloody X-Factor now did she - she knows my playing better than anyone - she's a great musician - piano player, and she is a fan of the music we play so if I have a great night, she tells me and if I don't, she tells me. She's always honest and is only interested in my development as a musician, so there is no bullshit.
"I've never heard you like that before, you sounded amazing. You must have known that because you were smiling all night and you played stuff I've never heard you play before". It would appear I'd been more thoroughly inspired by the amp than I realised. I'm pretty certain that this was the Bravado. It sounded SO good. The wife said it was amazing, the drunk people said it was amazing, Rick said it was amazing. I'm pretty certain that basically, the Bravado makes you sound amazing. I put it down to the following. I have 4 basic tones. Clean, Tumnus, and both channels of the Dual Fusion. I run them Tumnus -> c2 DF -> c1 DF. So, I run clean, I run Tumnus, I run c1 DF, I run c1 DF with the Tumnus, I tun c1 and c2 of the DF stacked, and I stack the Tumnus into that... basically, I use a LOT of variations - we are a cover band, and there's not a lot worse than a sole guitarist bands who only have 1 tone. With the PRS (that is extremely versatile) I have so many tones, I can't actually begin to count them and every one of them was utterly perfect. Previously I would have a great clean tone, nice OD tone or a nice face melting tone. I could never balance them all out and them all sound amazing. Not even good. Sometimes, the higher gain stuff was pretty muddy, still nice, but muddy.
So, if you want an amp that is clean, all the way (well, as much as it can be) that EATS pedals for breakfast and can take everything from low gain all the way up to the other end, this is probably the amp for you. It ain't cheap, but if you have a £2K guitar and a £1K of effects (like many players in my postition have), why put it through a £1K amp. By my reckoning, people often buy an under performing amp, just because they have a famous name on them. With the Bravado, you will never sound better, providing you have the right speaker. This is why SO many high end amp makers appear to have own brand speakers, they get companies to make a speaker to their spec and then stick a label over it... Maybe we should do that!
Speaking of all this (pun intended), Rick and I are making a 2x12" - the WGS Reaper is going in as is the ET-65. It's based on the spec of the Wampler cab, can't wait to play it out. Keep an eye out for the amp, it'll be in stores - selected stores - try it with pedals in front of it... Outstanding.
I had a lengthy post regarding all of the things I’ve learned since starting with Wampler over a year ago, but after reaching over 2,000 words, I decided to just condense it into a list of myths about the pedal industry I feel every person should know now that I’ve seen the other side:
- The builders aren’t any different than any other person. They all put their pants on one leg at a time in the morning. In general, all of the builders I’ve had to honor to meet have been nothing short of amazing, speaking as if they’ve known me forever. The key thing to remember? Most of them usually don’t WANT to be thought of any different. They’re tone chasers just like us. They’ve all just found their niche in the trade, just like skilled workers in other areas. When I met Brian and Jason and Max, I was sweating and nervous as could be. I tried to keep a straight face despite screaming on the insane, but they treated me as equals and like it was another day at work. It was all just a blur at the time, but looking back it drastically changed my perception. They don’t want to be famous, they just happen to be in front of a camera or on social media more than other people!I was nervous the first time I walked up to Robert Keeley, but he came up and gave me a hug and we talked like old friends. The pedal industry is by far one of the friendliest groups I’ve ever seen.
- Despite pedal costs, there isn’t a load of money in the pedal business. The big thing is that from the process of concept to having the pedal on your board costs a lot of money to create. Research and development, prototyping, PCB changes, mass quantities of parts (we’re talking thousands of a single part per order), building in the United States, paint (thousands of gallons of one particular color, per pedal), printing the graphics, boxes and instructions, and free shipping. All of it cuts off of the bottom-end of the money made. Dealers like to make a little on them as well, so you have to account for that cost too. You’d probably be surprised how little we actually get to take in! That being said, it’s more about the experience and the process than the money. Like Brian told me when I started “If you’re in it to make money, you’re better off outside of the music industry.” It’s a rewarding job though, helping people find the tone that they’ve been hearing in their head.
- Working NAMM is VERY different than attending NAMM. It’s mind-boggling. I’ve only been to one NAMM (Winter in Anaheim) and it’s a full sensory overload experience. There’s a noise ordinance at NAMM so vendors and patrons won’t go over a certain dB, and that threshold is usually exceeded as soon as people cut the amps on. If you get too loud, the NAMM police come around and give you warnings. If you get too many warnings for violating the noise level….not good (fines, etc). People are everywhere, where you have to scream over the noise of neighboring booths to talk to tone chasers that walk up to your booth. Working the booth can be very repetitive. You get the same questions over and over again, but luckily if you enjoy it you won’t mind answering them. There’s really no time to sit down, eat, or even go to the bathroom sometimes. At the end of the day when NAMM closes, your ears are clogged like you’ve entered an isolation chamber, and your voice is typically hoarse from talking so loudly all day. Rinse and repeat for the next few days. Some big name guitarists stop by, many of which are just insanely nice people who just excel at their chosen instrument. The same premise applies as the builders; MOST just want to be treated like normal people. It’s a balancing act to meeting your business contacts and creating relationships with new customers, so it’s always hectic. After NAMM is done you break down (several hour job) and head home. There’s one interesting fact I didn’t know existed. Inevitably if you work NAMM, you’ll end up with NAMMthrax. You’re literally shaking hands and talking face-to-face with hundreds of people every day, and everyone ends up catching some kind of head cold or otherkind of sickness that lasts for a few weeks after you get home. In my case, I ended up with a sinus and ear infection, where some people ended up with the full blown flu. It’s just the nature of meeting with so many people in a public space.
- You’d be amazed how hard it is to find an original name and color for a pedal. This process is often overlooked because the end result is what everyone sees. The process involves checking trademarks, and ensuring that no one has a pedal or music instrument out that already has that name or something extremely close to it. Each name has to be applicable to what the pedal is, and has to be able to have imagery to use along with it. There are loads of names that sound great, but there’s nothing graphically that’s feasible to put onto the small space the graphic takes up on the pedal. The goal is to make all of the pedals flow together visually and stylistically with names, so you have to be wary of that too. To give you an example, the cataPulp was originally going to be called the Pulp Friction…but after some searching it was a 90’s porno. Strike that one off!
- Social media content isn’t as easy to find as you might think. Being an international company sounds like it would be a breeze to find content to post every day, right? Not so much. With that many viewers, you have to take into account the varying ages, gender, ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs, political views, and any other thing that might trigger someone to be angry. With so many varying opinions in the world, your list of content gets whittled down before you know it. Content has to be relatable, provide something to the viewer, not tick anyone off, and still be relevant to the brand. So when you see those pictures and posts, give them an extra like :-)
- Guitar pedal companies don’t have days off generally. It’s a 24/7 business. We have customers around the globe, so there are constantly messages submitted to the main page at all hours of the day and night. When most people are on their holiday break, we’re working because the load increases due to people being off and having time to send messages. That’s not to say that we don’t relax some, but most days still maintain a consistent level of work at minimum. Closer to the end of the year and the holidays, it gets a bit crazier. I stepped away from my family getting ready to open presents on Christmas so I could take care of a couple of things. But if you love it, you do what you have to do!
- There’s nowhere near as much guitar playing happening as you’d think there would be. As much as I’d love to say it’s trying prototypes all day and getting to jam on free pedals, it’s not the case. It’s spreadsheets, statistics, insight tracking, blog writing, message responding, email typing, and general businessy stuff. I think we’d all go out on a limb here at Wampler and say that we play guitar LESS because of working, but it’s a tradeoff. We’re not playing, but we’re facilitating other players to play more.
- Just because there aren’t a load of steady new releases, it doesn’t mean they’re sitting idly. New releases take a lot of prep work (see 2nd bullet point). There are many pedals that will reach prototype phase and never see the light of day. There are also some pedals that have just been released that have been ready for years and it just didn’t feel like the right time to release until then. Pedal builders are always looking ahead, whether it’s their planned releases for months down the road, or researching new technology for something they have planned for a few years ahead. It’s all a chess game that requires patience and planning on the whole teams’ part to bring something to the public in a cohesive manner.
- Competitors actually like each other in most cases. Just because various companies are trying to reach the same demographic of players with their pedals, it doesn’t mean that they’re cutthroat and despise each other. Many times builders help each other directly, whether its needing help with a particular issue in a design, or just general chit-chat. The pedal building community is unlike any other I’ve seen. It’s a network of family in a sense, where in most cases they all look out for each other and are friends, and share stories of success and heartbreak. They also discuss customers, ones that are known to have fraudulent activities or sketchy dealings. You’d be surprised what builders have helped out on various releases over the years for other companies as well ;-)
As I wrote this list, I hope it didn’t seem negative, because it isn’t intended that way. I’ve been a tone chaser my entire life and my dream has always been to work in the pedal industry (specifically for Brian). These are myths that I had built up in my own head over the years that I had my eyes opened to and learned along the way. It’s an amazing business that requires quite a bit of work, but it’s unbelievably rewarding. Release day for new pedals is like a breath of fresh air, and is exhilarating to see the work that’s been done reach the people it was created for.
When it comes to pedals, there are endless possibilities of combinations to create the perfect tone for the scenario that you’re in, whether it’s just jamming at home with a jam track or in a live band setting in front of a packed venue.
One secret to finding that elusive perfect tone is to use two dirt pedals stacked together to cascade your gain structure instead of just running a single drive pedal with the gain all of the way up, or running a dirt pedal into a cranked amp. There are several advantages to doing this, including extra control of the nuances of your EQ to how the gain reacts in terms of the bloom of the notes. Here are a few tips when configuring your stacking setup to maximize tone:
- When stacking 2 dirt pedals together, the key thing to remember is that the 2ndpedal in the chain dictates the overall tone of the stack. What does this mean? Let’s use a tubescreamer and the Plexi Drive (JTM-45 style overdrive) as examples. If you run the TS before the Plexi Drive, whatever signal is leaving the TS is going to use the Plexi as a “gateway” of sorts. This means that the EQ and the clipping on the Plexi Drive will change the way the TS sounds. By nature the TS is mid-heavy, which is great for cutting through the mix. Once it reaches the Plexi Drive, the circuit itself will take that signal and adjust the frequencies it sees according to the knob position treble and gain positions. So if you have the mid hump from the TS, but have the natural light mid-cut from the Plexi Drive, that mid-hump will be less pronounced and the gain will just add to the overall level of saturation. This will give your gain a larger, “wall of sound” effect, while placing the TS AFTER the Plexi Drive, the TS will impart that more noticeable inherent mid-hump. If you have a favorite pedal that you like as your “base tone”, you’lll either want to put that last, or put a very transparent boost (even just a clean boost) after it.
- Cranking the volume on the first pedal in the stack will not raise the volume, but will increase the clipping (gain) in the second pedal. When stacking 2 pedals, remember that volume before dirt = more gain, where volume after dirt = more volume. Again, the 2nd pedal acts as a “gate” and dictates the overall volume. Cranking the output of the first pedal will push the input higher and clip the signal harder. This will make a big difference, because if you want a volume boost for a solo, you’ll want to put it 2nd in the stack.
- Using an EQ pedal after your drives can help better sculpt your dirt tones. When you add an EQ pedal into the stacking equation, your options open up tremendously, especially based on what EQ pedal you’re using. We live in the golden age of effects pedals, so there are loads of great EQ’s out there, some that just adjust basic 3-band EQ (Bass, Mids, Treble) and there are some that let you fine tune the exact frequency of the signal to add or cut whatever you want in your tone. Getting lost in the mix using a big muff? Crank up the mids a bit. Want a little bit of added depth in a smaller venue? Adjust up the bass frequencies to fill out the sonic canvas. This also applies when using the amp for dirt, by sticking the EQ pedal into the FX loop of your amp, then you have access to a boost and can adjust your amps gain tone to the closest detail to get that perfect tone.
- Stacking dirt pedals into an already distorted amp can add a depth and level of saturation to your tone only capable from stacking. Players have been using this method for decades to achieve their signature tones on classic records. A favorite of many people has always been a Plexi paired with a TS, which is used to boost the mids for solos. Another stack that happens often is using a Fender amp on the edge of break-up, and a Klon-style boost/OD to kick it into the stratosphere. One of the most popular and widely known stacks revolves around running a cranked fuzz face into most any type of amp (especially Plexi-style amps). The fuzz face provides a thick, wall of sound that’s great for fat sustaining leads or for chunky rhythms.
The main thing to remember is there are no wrong ways to stack your gain! Some of the most surprising stacks may lead to the coolest tones. Don’t be afraid to experiment and create unique combinations that can fit any scenario you need, from two low-gain drives to provide a base tone that you can stack on more gain for solos, or a boost hitting a distortion for sustain and saturation galore.
A few fun Wampler-related stacks that work really well together:
- Tumnus into the Pinnacle Distortion. It adds a low-mid presence that just punches through the mix and sustains for days.
- Clarksdale into the Plexi Drive. Reminiscent of cranked Plexi tones that have an added presence and depth from the EQ shape on the Clarksdale
- Velvet Fuzz into Plexi Deluxe.From tube driver-esque tones to full on Hendrix, this is the go-to combo for great classic fuzzy blues.
- Tumnus into the Euphoria. The perfect yin and yang. The Euphoria sounds like your amps natural OD with a D-style amp feel, and the Tumnus’s low-mid presence and warmth creates a 3D tone that works for a plethora of styles of music.
There are a lot more out there. What are some of your favorite stacks?
When you think of tone, what comes to mind? For me it is all encompassing, from the wood the guitar is made of, the pickups, what type of wiring is setup, the string brand and gauge, to the cables, to each pedal and what it does to the signal, the pre-amp and power amp, the speaker, the wood that the speaker cab is made up. For me tone is the culmination of the effort you’ve put into selecting each part of your signal chain, and factoring in the tonality of your individual playing style and how it reacts to different gear.
I’m also 30 and a total gear nerd, and I love that stuff. My thought processes have changed over the years. When I was 15 and learning and playing punk rock and Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against The Machine and Incubus covers, my friends and I always had the same frame of mind: Hottest pickups and amps you could get in your hands, and ALL KNOBS ON 10! Our guitar volume was either on 10 or 0, and there was no in-between unless by accident. At that point we didn’t even see the need to have a tone knob, because it was never below 10 (and we dreamt of custom guitars that included no tone knobs, just volume). This served me well for many years until I grew up some and learned the subtle differences just those two knobs make on you overall sound and some of the amazing tones you can get by adjusting them in small increments.
Today, I set my amps pretty neutral EQ-wise to be pedal-friendly, except for the fact that I add a touch of extra treble and cut the mids a bit to use pedals and my guitar to fill in those tone frequencies. I normally roll the tone knob back on my guitar to about 7.5-8 depending on the guitar at all times (more with Tele’s than my Les Paul), reserving that extra bit of top end for when I really need to get out front in a hurry, or if I’m in the middle of playing and it sounds too muddy I’ll roll it up without having to change anything other than my guitars. This works on the other viewpoint as well, so if I’m changing guitars and something is too bright (my Strat bridge pickup) I will roll it down a bit more. That’s how I approach the tone knob when playing personally, but it’s definitely not a hard fast rule.
When talking with Brian and Jason, they both still keep their tone knobs on 10 and never roll them down, though they do use their volume knobs pretty heavily. How do you use the Tone knob on your guitars?
For the sake of discussion, here’s Joe Bonamassa discussing how he uses the knobs. He forgot to add that the interaction with the pedals is a thing of tonal beauty as well: