Thursday, October 12, 2017

50's Russian 6SL7 and new 6SJ7 tubes, review. Nice glass!

Just a brief bit of impressions on some Russian glass I received recently from a great seller in Ukraine.

First up is the metal base Melz made 6SL7.

And the test LPs were Charlie Byrd Trio: Charlie's Choice and Stan Getz's Jazz Samba.

I usually have a set of run of the mill inexpensive nothing special RCA 6SL7 tubes burning away. I know how they sound as I spend hours listening to my setup. I'm also familiar with these records. They spend a good amount of time on my turntable.

My RCA tubes:

So how did they stack up against the RCA? The difference was pretty drastic. First let me say I wasn't expecting them to outshine what I have. I choose my hi-fi tubes carefully. If I don't like something it goes in my box to sell to guitar players.

The Melz has impressively low microphonics. Great for my phono stage. Sonically they are far more aggressive than my RCA. Very forward. Stan Getz's sometimes harsh tenor sound gets harsher, not in a bad way, just more in your face. I find the RCA tubes to be more clear and relaxed. Since I don't listen to much metal these days, the Melz tubes will go back in the box. I like to relax in my tiny universe.

I bet these will kick some ass in a guitar amp. I do have one Magnatone that used the 6SL7 tube. I have a new RCA in right now and prior to that I had a Sovtek there which I didn't find sounded objectionable at all. I have a feeling the Melz will melt some faces. I didn't find it objectionable for my hi fi either, I just prefer the RCA.

A word about 6SL7 tubes. The big octal 6SL7, 6SN7 tubes are my favorite for hi fi. They relax more for me than the more common and sought after 12AX7, 12AU7 which are obviously more in demand and more valuable. I built my own preamp to use 6SL7 tubes in the phono and line stage, 6SN7 for the cathode follower driving the power amp. I do not covet any vintage or modern preamps. I built mine 20 years ago from a Swedish schematic called "Remus". It's a fantastic circuit! Simple and honest. No Marantz 7 for me, this sounds better to my ears!

Ok next. A tube I'm really picky about. The 6SJ7. My 45 power amp uses these as a driver stage. Also my favorite guitar amps use these, Magnatone Varsity and "B" amplifier of my own design. They have something psychedelic about them, a shimmer, when in a guitar circuit. I thought it was an Echoplex I used to have but that's gone and that characteristic is still there on my recordings. I don't get it with other amps that don't use these.

So I have the fancy 5693 red RCA 6SJ7 tubes in mine. I love these for hi fi, guitar I prefer the standard 6SJ7. I have a set of metal base Sylvania 6SJ7s that I rejected in this circuit after 10 minutes. I missed the warmth and euphonic quality of these red tubes:

So I got these Russian babies. Cheap as a bag of fancy chips. No joke. A couple bucks each. How do they stack up?

I wasn't hopeful. But....they are pretty damned good! Again more forward and aggressive but not like the 6SL7 tubes. The sound was nice and round, not cold or harsh like my Sylvania tubes. In a pinch I would gladly burn these up. There is no markings on these, just a #7 in a box on the side. Charlie Byrd's guitar sounded nice and round, the percussion deep and warm with a nice top end. No, they don't beat my RCAs, but they don't offend me one bit either.

So, hope this was helpful! I will try these out in my guitar amps and do a bit about that as well. And remember just because something doesn't work for me doesn't mean it won't work for you. Give these a try if you are curious! I'd love to hear your impressions.


Thursday, October 5, 2017

StayTrem Jazzmaster/Jaguar bridge. Nice!

Just installed one of these today:

British made StayTrem Jazzmaster bridge. This was installed on a Made in Mexico "60's Jazzmaster" by Fender. The correct radius is 7.25". Make sure you don't get the 9.5" one for your Mexican, Japanese or American reissue guitar or your vintage one. It won't work!

My impressions? This is a great product! Super easy to install and the radius is spot on. I may buy one for my '58 myself. I've never had such an easy time setting up a Jazzmaster.

The slots are nice and deep, you can strum nice and hard without the strings popping out. The tone got stronger instantly too.

The big improvement is the string spacing. This is why I'd consider one myself. Mine has custom made brass Mustang style saddles:

Now look at these 2 photos and you'll see quite easily the strings on the StayTrem don't fly over the edge of your fretboard. First mine:

Next, theirs:

Now, I'm so used to mine that it doesn't bug me a bit. But if it bugs you, this bridge is a great solution to a few problems. Better stability, better tone, better sustain and better playability.

Do consider one! I'm a certified Jazzmaster fanatic and it gets a big thumbs up!

One more improvement......

Jazzmasters can gobble strings. Particularly the skinny E and B. I solder the ends on them cause they tend to unravel. Easy and quick trick I learned from Stevie Ray Vaughn's tech in an article about him. I haven't broken a string on mine in a long time and I'm a brute!


Monday, October 2, 2017

The Stratocaster "Base" or "Bass" plate

This simple mod isn't for everyone. But I like it. The bridge pickup on a Stratocaster can simply vanish into thin air. I believe it was Lindy Fralin who started making these steel plates to fit under your bridge pickup. The Telecaster has one and my favorite guitar, the Fender Esquire, I don't miss having a neck pickup cause that bridge pickup is so full.

Installation is easy...

I scraped some wax from a candle I have onto the back of my pickup:

Step 2, sit plate on top of wax and melt with a soldering iron:

It's important to get the plate as flush as you can on the back of your pickup. Heat it up and press it with 2 objects like chopsticks or screwdrivers until the wax cools. If there is too much of a gap you can run into feedback issues. I've experienced this before....

Step 3: solder wire to the - or black wire and cut off excess:

Step 4. Put your guitar back together and rock out!

It's a fuller sound. Bass is a bit tighter but what I do notice is there is a Telecaster / Lap steel quality to the tone. More roundness to it. Try one! They only cost about ten bucks. If you don't dig it, carefully unsolder, re-heat and remove.

Buy one here:

Happy soldering! JB

Update, 10/5/17. I've been playing with this for just under a week and here are my impressions:

I'm not sure that it adds bass. But what I do hear is a rounder tone. It's definitely a bit more complex and stronger. Though, the contrast between the bridge pickup and others is reduced a bit. I can totally get behind the player who doesn't desire this as well. It's a bit like when you run a sound through an EQ and you turn the low mid dial back and forth. It has more body to it. I'll keep it in a while, take it out and see what I think then.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

1958 Fender Jazzmaster. So....good......

I only have one old Fender left, it stays cause I know I cannot do better. It's my 1958 Jazzmaster.

The story of this guitar? How did it come into my life?

I moved to Portland, Oregon from Baltimore in 1995. One of the first people I befriended there is my friend Ben who now owns Southside Guitars with his brother Sam. He was a college student and I was a Baltimore ex-pat starting a new life. We both liked the same music. The previous generation grew up on Stratocasters and Les Pauls, their heroes were Clapton and, well, Clapton. Okay, Jimmy Page too. Our heroes were Sonic Youth, Elvis Costello, J. Mascis, PJ harvey, Robert Smith, Tom Verlaine etc. The music that was anti-establishment before if became establishment like any other art form. The Jazzmaster symbolized this. I was for all intents and purposes, a bit of a failure. Few jazz players dug it (I've seen one and another who played a Bass VI with guitar strings!) but the surfers dug it. Lawrence Welks guitarist Buddy Merrill (badass!) enjoyed one for a time as well.

And in todays world:

Ok, I grew up on Jimi. Played a Stratocaster myself for years until about 1991 when I bought my first Jazzmaster, a 1964 Sunburst model for $750 in Catonsville, now owned by my friend Peter Holstrom. And I was a bit motivated by this intriguing photo:

That's the young Jimi rocking out with Little Richard on a '64 much like mine. Kinda had to have one. Part of my struggle was as a Jimi head I couldn't find my own voice on a Stratocaster. I knew I was a Fender boy but needed to break from that. I played some Jazzmasters back when they were $200 guitars and already liked them. They were weird and funky with an odd sound. There were things I didn't like though, they were a bit bright for me and that sad bridge always went out of adjustment.

But I also liked that is was an outsiders guitar. When I took to my first one someone actually chided me for playing 'that hipster faggot guitar'. I fucking loved that comment from a guitar bigot! I knew I was on a better path. Keep going..!

So back to Ben and Portland. Ben was as much of a fan of the Jazzmaster as I. He was buying and selling guitars out of the trunk of his old Dodge Dart. We bonded over guitars and cars fast. He spoke of this 1958 Jazzmaster in a pawn shop that he was trying to get the money together to buy. It was $900. I had about $57 to my name at this point, just started my job at Denny's Music, so the point was moot for me. And alas, someone else got it. Gone..... Oh well, it happens. And this was before the internet was such a thing. To find another first year Jazzmaster? Much more difficult than it is today with Reverb, EBay and GBase.

So fast forward about 6 years. This dour looking young man who was a regular customer comes into the shop I'm working at with an abused old Jazzmaster. It had humbuckers, Schaller tuners, a black plastic pickguard, tune-o-matic bridge and the finish on the body was stripped and lacquered in natural. He fit the Jazzmaster player type: a bit too serious, black dyed hair, black jeans, his hair drooped over his face. Goth, My Bloody Valentine shoe gaze goddess / god type. He never smiled, kinda grunted and was all of about 24 years old. He needed a setup.

I took the guitar apart and saw the body and neck date, 1958. So I called him and asked if he bought this for $900 out of a Pawnshop back in 1995. Yes indeed. I also told him "I have a set of proper pickups and a proper bridge if you want. He said go for it. After putting that together I took a shine to his guitar. I really liked the thing.

He was grateful that I made the thing nicer and smiled when he picked it up. I said to him "I really like your guitar, if you ever want to trade it for something else this is the place." He said "Thanks, I'll consider that."

In the following months he came around to buy strings and try pedals. His vibe was changing. His hair went from black to brown, down to up, the jeans went from black to blue, the cuffs from short to too long but neatly rolled up, his face from sour to smiles..... he was a good player.... he was also transforming into a rockabilly player. Portland has a big scene for that with the greasy hair, tattoos and big old cars. This guitar was to be mine. It was destiny.

So one day he walks in with the guitar and says "I want that Gretsch Tennesseean!" I said "SWAP!"

But still wasn't convinced and as a guitar store employee with no idea how to save money was still broke. I could trade but wasn't ready to give up my '64 Jazzmaster or my beloved $750 '69 Maple Cap Jimi Gilmour Strat:

Nope. Either may be a mistake. The worst part of being a human can be making a decision. So we put it up on the wall in it's ugly condition for $1800. This was about 2001.

We got calls on it. All questions were about the neck and the neck alone. I was paranoid about this. There was a guy in Portland named Cohn Rude that bought old Jazzmasters and shaved the necks down, put them and as many old parts on a Wood'n Body that he put dowel and nail holes on and would sell them as the real deal with "Parts changed". By my estimation he butchered over 100 old Jazzmasters this way. He did have a family to feed and I actually liked the cat, but didn't like what he did. And seeing as a Stratocaster was an iconic guitar loved by the older blues guys whereas the Jazzmaster was seen as a dog by the guys with money, it felt like a personal assault. Mr. Rude wasn't the only guy calling us, he wasn't the only guy doing this. I even asked one lady "Are you making a Strat?" to which she replied gleefully "Yes!" I hung up on her.

But I can't buy a guitar just to save it. This one was not in the best shape. So maybe it doesn't matter.

One day a client came in and wanted our Japan made Boss DS-1 pedal. He had cash and an original Gold Anodized Jazzmaster pickguard to trade for it. SWAP! I put the pickguard on and the whole thing came to life. I traded my '64 straight across for it.

We had a set of old DuoSonic tuners for it so I installed those. I know they aren't "correct" but I like the plastic buttons on my guitar. I think it looks cool.

I had the body re-finished by a great Luthier in Portland, the best. I won't say who cause he doesn't do re-finishing for anyone, he just did it for me cause we have a great relationship.

Much of the red has faded on the front. Red is an unstable dye. The sun takes it away.

The bridge saddles. Terrible. Use Mustang Saddles or buy a Staytrem or Mastery Bridge. That's the difference between a guitar you want to play and one that you are constantly frustrated by. My vote is for the Staytrem cause they look Jet Age, not Iphone Age.

But I've also installed the Mastery and they do work fantastic. Good for those concerned about the future:

Me? A cat named Eric Patton in Portland was making these lovely saddles in Brass, titanium and bakelite. He gave me his brass prototypes:

He built some for Johnny Marr as well. They had a thing going developing parts and all, but they were too time consuming to produce. So it makes my guitar all the more personal to me.

So yes, my guitar is a bit of a parts caster. Like I said, Fender guitars are the Lego of the guitar world.

One other change I made. There is a 'plinkyness' to the way a Jazzmaster sounds. Too bright and unfocused for me. It has a tendency to get washed out on stage. Some old bands I was in preferred the sound of my Strat or Telecaster right away. I agreed. The Jazzmaster is difficult. The solution? I changed the pots from those 1 meg pots to 300K. That seems to be the sweet spot for me. Everything got warmer and less harsh. I know that's taboo to do to a vintage guitar, but try it and save the parts if you don't like it. I play and gig. I need my stuff to work for me. It's a tool at the end of the day, a beautiful tool but nonetheless nothing more than a tool.

More pics:

So that's my story. I always wonder who owned this guitar back when it was new? What hippy stripped the finish in the 70's? Did they like natural foods and play good jam band rock? Did the first buyer play jazz? Surf? Soul music (these are STELLAR guitars for soul, R&B)? How many owners? I only know me and the Bloody Valentine Kid. One day I'll be gone and the story will continue. Will someone appreciate is as it is or part it out for cash? Will vintage guitars be a thing at all in 20 years? Will this generation care? A collector would snub this beloved guitar. Will their be such a thing in the future?

Everything is temporary. That is a beautiful thing.


Friday, September 22, 2017

My "64" Stratocaster next to Dave's real one!

So I have this opportunity to sit and play my good buddy Sonic Dave's real 1964 Stratocaster. He bought it back in the 80's out of someones closet in Rochester. I've known Dave for 30 years now and I've gotten to play this workhorse many times. It's been around the block and arrived with a fresh re-fret from Division Street Guitars in Peekskill. His guitar is the one that inspired me in the first place.

So how does mine stack up? First some photos....

Aside from some little visual things, location of the 'football' jack cup, where the tuners sit on the headstock, I gotta say Musikraft did a stellar job making this neck. The body by Guitar Mill is first rate as well. The contours are a little deeper, more like an early 60's body. People obsess over the whole "One piece body" thing and that cracks me up. Mine is 2 pieces, the real one I count four!!! But, who really cares about those things. How do they play side by side?

Really I can sum it up quite easily. His is old. 53 years old. It sounds 'experienced'. It's warmer, lacks a certain glassiness to the tone. Acoustically as well as electrically. This is to be expected. Wood mellows with age, pickup magnets mellow with age.

Other than that I'm still delighted with mine. I don't feel the need to obsess over an old one. Give mine a few more years on the planet and it will sound as warm. Really, the difference is splitting hairs. Impossible to quantify but I'd say it's just a bit warmer than mine.

And understand, his may possibly be my personal favorite Stratocaster. It's a truly great one.

I have faith that mine will grow into that warmth. My Esquire was kind of awful the first year but last week I got to play some great old ones. I came home and played my Esquire and forgot all about those expensive guitars.

How does the neck play? They are quite close. Mine is slightly bigger but if I actually had a career in music and one was my backup, I'd make the switch in 30 seconds flat.

Only other differences will happen with age. Yup, his pickguard is greener. Mine is the same color as his on the underside. People can't smoke in clubs any longer so that is a factor. But give it time.

Both are fantastic Stratocasters. Both feel rather hand made, hard to describe. A lot of new ones feel factory, something missing. I've felt that way about them for a long time now. If you can roll your own I think you are making a better guitar. So get out there and give it a go! It's fun and worth it. And now I have something I coveted for a long time in replica form, and I dig it.


Friday, September 15, 2017

1978 Traynor YGM3 revisited. Well, that didn't work!

So my last post was about this lovely Traynor YGM-3 and specifically what to do about that high EL84 eating plate voltage.

The solution I tried was to use the Sovtek EL84M, rated for higher current and a whopping 500V on the plate. The amp left here sounding lovely.....

But, well, that didn't work. In this business one is always experimenting, largely to keep the cost reasonable. This is an expensive business. And I don't like seeing a customer return for a long time. It's not ideal for them especially.

And I'll just say it. I'm not here to sell anything, not even my services. So I can be honest here.

New tubes suck. It's just a fact we need to live with. The world will never produce another RCA, Mullard, Tung Sol, Western Electric, General Electric, Mazda, National Union, Amperex, Brimar or genuine Telefunken tube again. There is absolutely no incentive to do so. We need to live with the mediocre in this world now. Music is changing, the world is changing. There will be no exceptional tubes ever made again much like there may never be another platinum record again. It's over. Music is free, the population of guitar players and audiophiles is diminishing. I love tube amps. I find them fascinating so I carry on. And I will play music till the day I die and I will sound my best till then so that is that.

So what happened? My client got home and rocked it out for a couple rehearsals. It sounded great then it ceased to sound great. One tube totally died, the other test about 1/2 on my TV7 tester.

Not acceptable.

There are several ways to drop voltage. Zener diode, dropping resistor. But I don't like those methods. Since my client wants this to be road ready we opted for the most expensive route: changing the power transformer.

I used a nice Canadian made Hammond, part number 270DAX. I write this so I can have a record of it. If I see another amp I can just tell them their options if they want reliability.

With the original transformer the B+ sat around 425-440vdc. With this part depending on bias its between 329-345vdc. About the same range as your Blues Jr. Those run hot but they are reliable. I think this is a safe range.

You do lose a few watts. But the amp sounds as good as it did before, a tad warmer my ears say.

Nice thing about this part is it's the same size as the original. You need to get creative with some washers to run the heater wires around to the chassis hole, drilling is not an option here, and with that I had no need to drill anything. It's a 520 vCt transformer so you'll need to take out the 2 diodes going to ground and put the red/yellow CT wire to where the diodes terminated otherwise you'll have some seriously high voltage problems!

Once that's done you'll need to change the bias resistors until you get an acceptable range. In this case I changed the 18k coming off the AC feed to a 10k and replaced the 22k  with a 7.5k tied in series to my 20k trim pot. Now the amp is sitting at 329vdv with 22ma on the output tubes. That's about where a Blues Jr sits.

So in conclusion, if you have one of these this is a good path to reliability unless you have the dough for genuine 7189 tubes. It's worth doing. I still maintain this is a great amp. Now it's a great amp for modern times.


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

1978 Traynor YGM3 Guitar Mate from our northern neighbors

Here's a bargain amp. A late 70's Traynor YGM-3 Guitar Mate!

These were built in Canada. I've worked on plenty of Traynor amps before and am quite fond of them. They are built to last and can be had for a cheapish price. Much like Jim Marshall who was motivated by building a cheaper amp than the Fender amps around London, Traynor did the same thing in 1963: let's build local, high quality affordable amps for the new music being made. All in the name of problem solving. All in the name of service. The best stuff is motivated by those 2 very important human things.

This amp is all hand wired just like a boutique amp. My client bought this on Craigslist for $400....

I believe this to be the Canadian response to the Fender Deluxe Reverb. It has a single 12" speaker, tremolo and reverb with a bright switch. The biggest differences are the lack of a power choke, no reverb driver transformer (cheaper to use a capacitor!) and a pair of 6BQ5/EL84 power tubes rather than the American 6V6. The result is it sounds like an English Deluxe Reverb, more chime and accented mids like a Vox.

Hand wired guts:

One of the nice things about working on these old Traynor amps is you don't even need to pull the chassis. You can remove the 4 bolts holding the top on and simply pull the hood off. Then you're ready to get to work! Though I can't help but think of brain surgery....

These amps boast the famous Mullard "Mustard" capacitors. Those are almost always still good so I'm leaving them alone. The amp hummed badly and sounded harsh. I knew right away what was up: bad filter caps and one dead power tube. Turns out one tube was completely dead, the other was very weak.

So a word about the tubes in these. They tend to get eaten alive. The new JJ or Sovtek / Electro Harmonix glass? You may experience shortened tube life. Those tubes are rated for around 300 volts. This amp boast around 420 volts! Luckily my client wanted more headroom so I just ordered some EL84M tubes from Sovtek. They are rated for 500v. They are the modern version of the 7189 tube. More for hi-fi like my old Fisher SA-100. Linear and clean. I find them to be very punchy, strong sounding tubes. They are a bit maligned by the guitar crowd, people prefer the sweeter tone of an EL84 but just keep in mind these are an option.

Cool Russian boxes!

 I re-capped it and added a bias pot. Due to the layout Traynor made the job so easy.... I used a 20K trim pot and changed the 22k bias resistor to a 15K cause the EL84M / 7189 biases a bit differently than a JJ EL84.

I also added a couple 1 ohm resistors from the cathodes (pin 3) of the EL84 tubes to ground. You'll read millivolts there which correspond to milliamps. 25mv=25ma. Easy and convenient:

I hate the bright switch in these. They use a .001 cap. It's like shaking a can of nails by your ear! I replaced that cap with a 100pf NOS silver mica cap. Now it adds a bit of smooth bite:

I ran it tonight with a set of JJ tubes running at 25ma each. I didn't get any red plate stuff but don't really trust them to last. The amp sounds great now. No hum at all unless you add that beautifully lush but humtastic reverb.

So if you want boutique quality at a crappy new amp price, don't turn your nose up to one of these. They can truly hold their own with the best of them. I actually like the rather mod styling too. Fender, Marshall and Ampeg went full industrial unattractive by this era. But these Traynor amps still have a touch of class. They look nice, and looks matter to me. If you buy one do keep in mind you'll want to get it checked out and possibly set it up with the beefier tubes. Unless you don't mind burning them up that is.