Darkness on the Edge of Tone or Do Jazz Guitarists Know How Bad They Really Sound?
A couple of years ago the editor-in-chief of Guitar World contacted me about the possibility of penning an article he wanted written on “Why Jazz Guitar Sucks.”
Well, given the infinitesimal coverage that his publication afforded to anyone besides flavor of the month head-bangers and hair bands, I thought that to be a rather parochial, narrow-minded appraisal. However, upon challenging his thesis, I discovered he wasn’t dismissing the tradition. Nor was the issue a question of content or even context, but tone. As in prosaic. As in square. As in unimaginative. As in monolithic. As in, Do you know how bad you really sound?
Slowly it began to dawn on me how many of my favorite jazz guitar archetypes seemed to date back to the days before the fall of Saigon, when vacuum tubes ruled. How many hours did I spend poring over classic recordings by Eddie Lang, Lonnie Johnson, George Barnes, Les Paul, Django Reinhardt, Eddie Durham, Charlie Christian, Johnny Smith, Jimmy Raney, Tal Farlow, Chuck Wayne, Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis, Kenny Burrell, Hank Garland, Grant Green, Barry Galbraith, Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, George Benson and Pat Martino? Yet my more recent experiences were tainted by a sense of sameness, pseudo-purist orthodoxy and exasperation over how few mainstream jazz guitarists seemed to acknowledge the revolution in tone that transpired in the ’60s: from electric bluesmen Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland and the holy trinity of Kings (B.B., Freddie and Albert), to British bluesmen-cum-rockers like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Peter Green and Mick Taylor; their American cousins Mike Bloomfield and Carlos Santana and that quintessential electric improviser and composer Jimi Hendrix.
Of course, jazz musicians such as Larry Coryell, John McLaughlin and Allan Holdsworth got the message, and thereafter something of a schism developed in the evolution of “jazz” guitar. Some embraced the new sounds and techniques associated with electric guitar tone. Others remained steadfast in their devotion to a purist approach where an “amplified” sound was analogous to a louder acoustic guitar. Still others tried to split the difference. I recall how much grief Mike Stern took from the press when he premiered with Miles Davis’ band, even though he was loaded technically and harmonically, and the elite pedigree of Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall rang through his music—particularly in his chordal accompaniments. Meeting up with him one evening at a downtown club, I shared my observations. “Yeah,” he confirmed, “I’m totally into Wes and Jim, but you can hear that, right? How come these other guys miss that?”
“Perceptions and attitudes, Mike. You’ve got long hair and Miles has you Hendrix-ing out on the solos. To some people long hair and distortion equals rock, and therefore you couldn’t possibly be an authentic jazz musician. But if you were to get a haircut, put on a blue blazer, get rid of your Telecaster, cop an ES-175 and roll all the treble off your amp, then maybe they’d get it.”
Perceptions and attitudes. For instance, my intolerance towards bad electric guitar tone is rooted in my background as a member of an obscure Hebrew sect that forbids consort with any guitarist who employs a PolyTone amplifier. Badaboom. Seriously, though, this shouldn’t be construed as a blanket indictment of these popular, portable, solid-state amplifiers, but of the state of mind of those cornballs who mindlessly use them and routinely abuse them. Because every time a guitar player plugs into a PolyTone, he is making an aesthetic statement about himself and some dull, clichéd “jazz” protocol concerning tone, which has evolved into this compressed, constipated, goose-fart sound. None of the qualities you’d associate with a fine acoustic. Fifteen thousand dollars for a handmade arch top guitar, and you’re plugged into an accordion amp? What is that? No transparency, no projection, no sparkle, no shimmer, no luster, no bloom: No sale!
“But it’s not the PolyTone,” jazz guitar virtuoso Jack Wilkins explains. “It’s the attitude of the player. You could give them a ’59 Les Paul and a tweed [Fender] Deluxe and they’d still get that same sound. It’s as if I gave you a custom three wood with a titanium shaft and a Kevlar head, and guaranteed that you’d drive the ball as far as Tiger Woods. Well, if you ain’t got that swing, it won’t mean a thing.”
Perceptions and attitudes. Too many jazz guitarists simply emulate someone else’s set-up without asking Why? or exploring a personal approach to phrasing and tone. That’s like alto sax players employing a plastic Grafton alto and a heavy #5 reed, thinking it’ll make them sound like Ornette Coleman. Or devout Django-ites insisting upon employing an “authentic” Maccaferri, as if that nightmarish guitar was the defining component to Reinhardt’s sound. Thus on gig after gig I see devout young jazzers, square as a M.F., employing an ES-175 with high action, heavy flat wound strings and all the treble rolled off the pickups and the amp. They don’t get it. You’ve got to dig deeper to find your own sound—because ultimately, while good gear is a joy, the human being is the instrument and it is through our tone that we define our individuality.
After Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery’s was probably the most influential sound and concept of phrasing in the history of jazz guitar. Our patron saint of the dark sound, right? Wrong! Montgomery used his thumb for a plectrum, and he made extensive use of octaves, which tended to confer a mellow glow to his sound. However, if you listen to his explosive solo on “The Trick Bag” from Boss Guitar (OJC/Riverside), you can discern the wood and acoustic sparkle of his L-5. Not a dark sound, but a musical one with a touch of reverb. And while his thumb rounds off the leading edge of transients, his attack is so powerful, and the sound of his Fender Twin Reverb so open, that his phrases blossom with a sweetly singing tone—not some steaming pile of compressed mush, in which individual notes lack dynamic distinction and chords collapse into some primeval murk.
So consider this column my opening shot across the bow of hidebound jazzbos, the first in a continuing series with one goal in mind: to get y’all to ruminate more deeply about your tone and to extend your thinking beyond the input jack; to realize that the amp is your friend, and a musical instrument in its own right; that we are now in the 21st century, and a discrete amount of tube saturation and distortion can be quite musical; that there are various signal processors and strategic tweaks that can afford guitarists the ability to deploy a wide array of tone colors and better articulate the synergy between instrument, pickups, cabling, amp, speakers and the wall socket. Why? Because we like you. And because a t-o-n-e is just a terrible thing to waste.
Leo Fender’s classic Fullerton designs helped define modern amplification. But the classic designs tend to be kind of hot and bright, voiced more for the top and the bottom than the midrange spectrum, and that’s why jazz guitarists in search of a warm tonality have always gravitated towards bass amps, such as the old tubed Ampeg B-15 Portaflex and, in its absence from the marketplace, the solid-state PolyTone Mini-Brute and its literal descendants.
Given jazz guitarists’ aversion to bells and whistles such as complex pre-amp gain stages and—oh, the terror—multiple volume controls, allow us to recommend for your consideration a couple of modern retro tube designs that are simple, portable and warmly voiced. The new Ampeg SJ-12T Super Jet, with its top-mounted rotary controls, classic tremolo and reverb effects, simple one-stage tone contour, and dark blue-gray diamond-checked vinyl, evokes the classic tubed combos of the ’50s and ’60s. But cosmetics notwithstanding, this is fundamentally a new design, a single 12-inch combo sporting a pair of matched 6L6 Groove Tubes and putting out a sturdy 50 watts. The sound itself puts me in mind of my ’66 black-face Fender Bassman; that is to say, fat, chewy and dynamic, nothing shrouded or muted about this baby. At a volume of around two to three, I had more than enough gain from my Gibson L-4 to cut through bass and drums, while maintaining a nice warm tone and a smooth, percussive attack. There’s a rounded sense of bloom just before the note starts to break up, which it does in a mellow, controllable manner. Above three, the amp’s overload characteristic became more suited to my gold-top, 30th Anniversary Les Paul, and the Super Jet’s saturation and distortion characteristics were very refined; I got a surging, richly detailed blues cry—very musical and personable, if not quite as thick and creamy as my vintage Bassman. Still, the Super Jet is only 35 pounds, with a vintage jazz tube tone that is warmly detailed, engaging and not overly bright.
Did I say thick and creamy? From the folks who brought you that parfait of multiple gain stages, the little amp that could—the Mesa Boogie—comes the more straightforward, classically-voiced Mesa Blue Angel. Classic as in loads of vintage tone with a lush, elegantly articulated midrange. This purely class A, dual-rectifier design is a veritable soda fountain of sweet, creamy aural confections. Designer Randall Smith takes two sets of output tubes, a full-bodied pair of 6V6 (as featured in lower-powered Fender designs such as the Princeton and Deluxe) and a quartet of sparkly EL84 (that idiomatic Vox AC30 sound) and allows you to run them separately or together, through a common output transformer—a patented mode of operation he refers to as Progressive Linkage. In this circuit, the 6V6 put out 15 watts of warm power, but when pushed really hard they kind of growl and get indistinct; with their clear open mid-range and crystalline presence, the EL84 put out close to 30 watts, but they can grow thin and start snarling when driven to their limits. Progressive Linkage allows you to achieve a nice jazz balance, with a tight low end, bubbly highs and a creamy mid-range emphasis. To fine-tune the Blue Angel’s different voices you have a fat/bright emphasis switch, volume, treble, midrange, bass and reverb. That’s all. With the volume around nine or 10 o’clock, and the tone controls conservatively contoured well below midnight, I was able to roll back the volume on my L-4 to around four or five, for a clean, solid rhythm sound, then gradually push her back up to 10 for a controlled surge where the onset of clipping was so linear and polite that I was able to maintain a solid, focused fundamental on single-note phrases; my picking dynamics were greatly enhanced, allowing me discreet control of harmonics and overtones on two and three note chords as notes blossomed gently into distortion, rich in even harmonics. When you crank the Blue Angel’s 38 total watts to between 10 and one o’clock, and push the tone controls (particularly the mid-range) beyond midnight, they begin behaving in more of a gain-saturation mode, and with my Les Paul I was able to achieve several variations on the kind of glorious mid-’60s British blues tone I’ve always coveted. If you want to bring the tone in one 12-inch, two 10-inch or four 10-inch combos or as a separate head and speaker cabinet, you should give the Mesa Blue Angel a listen.
But then you could make your current rig sound way more hi-fi and articulate if you’d just pay more attention to the signal chain: how you plug into the house current, and how you interface with your amp. It’s amazing how much a grungy electric matrix and a cheap cable can veil your sound. As an experiment, I had a jazz guitar friend come over with his rig, and we listened to his customary rig, then kicked it up a notch with a pair of Jazz and Monster Rock Guitar Cables from Monster Cable, and a Power AC Outlet Center from JPS. Employing tried and true technology from the world of high-end audio, these tweaks can confer a level of enhanced resolution, timbral accuracy, inner detail, harmonic complexity and dynamic that is shocking. The cheap guitar cables we’ve grown accustomed to over the years compress the amplified sound of your instrument. These new Monster Cable guitar cords are first-rate musical instruments. They restore the sparkle, complex overtones and true harmonic series of your instrument, commensurate with its actual acoustic character. In allowing your pickups to reach their full potential, all the nuances of your left and right hand are more pronounced—each string behaves as a singular entity, its true character revealed—particularly apparent on big chords. Instead of the notes blurring together, each string is an event occurring in its own acoustic space, surrounded by air. The sound signature of the Jazz cable is round and full, slightly rolled off in the top end, with a smooth open mid-range and solid bass. The impressive Monster Rock is not as bestial as the name would suggest; it displays a more linear character, with a sparkling, extended top end, plus greater mid-range presence and detail—though slightly less punch on the bottom.
Even more impressive was the look on my friend’s face when I unplugged his amp and the Blue Angel from the JPS Power AC Outlet Center and went direct to my wall socket. His jaw dropped as the soundstage collapsed, and his guitar signal grew appreciably boxier, with less detail, openness and extension. “It’s so depressing,” he moaned, in dull disbelief. “We just went back to mono.”
The JPS Power AC Outlet Center is essentially an eight-gauge custom power cord with large conductors and sophisticated shielding, designed to handle the immense, instantaneous current demands of amplifiers. It comes in any length, though two meters is standard. Unlike a regular custom power cord, with a male outlet and female IEC inlet, this cord terminates in a hospital grade four-outlet box, so that you can plug in any of your hard-wired amps or electronic gear. This is customary aural protocol in high-end audio. Rated at over 40 amps continuous current, the Power AC’s Optimized Field Matrix (O.F.M.) design has just as profound an effect on the synergy between you, your amp and your guitar. When you clean up the grungy matrix of wall current, filter out all sorts of noise and run RF interference to ground, it’s as if your amp was suffering from tuberculosis, and suddenly all of the sonic congestion is gone. Dynamic range is vastly increased; the rise time of individual notes is smoother and more natural; the speed and attack of transients is faster; there’s way more distinction between individual notes, between soft and hard touches; bass response is more extended; mids and highs are more open and transparent. Take it out of the signal chain, and everything seems more closed in and sluggish without it. In tandem with a hi-res cable like the Jazz or Monster Rock, the Power AC Outlet center offers guitarists an uncommon degree of resolution, detail and spatial dimension, even from a single mono source. And when your guitar rig isn’t plugged in, run all of your audio equipment through it, and hear your stereo soundstage open up like an arch proscenium.