I stopped using real amps 12 years ago and, I never looked back, It works really well, and I am far from the only Jazz guitarist to do so.
For me, actually, the biggest advantage to not using an amp is really not what I expected,but it turned out to make a huge difference and solve a problem I had been trying to fix for years.
No amp, No Nothing.
As you can hear Joe got tired of bringing an amp and then decided to just use a DI, and I think you can sort of tell from his sound here, but he does sound really good in this concert.
For me, it was not about carrying an amp.
This was in 1994, and to be honest, I wasn’t that surprised that Joe didn’t always use an amp, and his very clean tone is also easier to get without a guitar amp in my experience.
I was more surprised that John Mclaughlin didn’t use amps either:
My Issues with Real Amps
At the end of my study at the conservatory, I was getting started playing gigs, both concerts and cafe gigs.
Most jazz club gigs and cafe gigs are played with the backline of the band, so we just bring our amps and there is no PA needed since the place is not that big and the people are not that loud. The advantage to this is that you get fairly good at dialing in your amp so that it
A – works in the band and B – sounds good in the room. And it does make you a bit flexible and used to react to the acoustics of the room.
The thing to remember is that you dial in a tone with your ears, not with your eyes.
At the time, I was playing my ES175
through either my Fender twin amp or my Polytone, sometimes adding an LXP-1 lexicon reverb that I had bought and used on eBay.
I was pretty happy with how this sounded, occasionally if I had to play loud the ES175 would have some issues with feedback, but that wasn’t that often.
The situation where this fell apart was when someone had to get my sound into a PA, usually at festivals and sometimes at bigger clubs. The problem is that I would have one sound coming out of my amp which was a lot of mids and a little treble, but between my rig and the PA there was a microphone, usually a Shure sm57, and a sound engineer that probably loved Toto or something else from the 80s where the guitar sounds like the tone RJ is nailing here:
And that is pretty far from how you want your ES175 to sound and also not what you expect when what is coming out of your amp was completely different!
This was getting increasingly frustrating, but most of the time we just played through our own backline where it didn’t matter. While I was playing gigs I was also developing my sound and my taste which led to looking for another guitar and my first encounter with a modeler which didn’t really work out.
A Failed Experiment?
While I was trying to figure out how I wanted to sound, and how to get that sound I realized that I wanted to try a semi-hollow guitar with humbuckers instead of the ES175.
The idea was to have more of a mid-focused tone and the lack of sustain with the 175 felt very limiting sometimes for some of the things I wanted to play. I also realized from listening to Kurt Rosenwinkel, Ben Monder, and Pat Metheny that I wanted to explore using both delay and reverb together, two effects that I still consider a very important part of my sound. The delay pedal that I had seen much use was the line 6 DL4, and I already had the 2nd hand Lexicon reverb.
It was however sometimes an issue that the reverb was not that practical and felt like it could easily get damaged, being a rack unit. I was right out of school so I did not have a lot of money, and when I noticed that I might be able to get a multi-effect like the Line6PodXT for only 150 euro more than the delay,
and the PodXT had the Line6 Delay built into it, then that was certainly worth exploring. Essentially, I only needed to check if the reverb was ok.
In general, the effects in the PodXT were surprisingly good, especially the reverb and delay. Since it was also a modeler then I did experiment a bit with using the amp simulation in there, but when I used that live then it felt compressed and didn’t sound and feel anywhere nearly as good my real amps, so that was quickly turned off. In the meantime, I had also bought a 2nd hand Epiphone Sheraton and my rig at that point was the guitar into the Pod into either the twin or the polytone, and mostly the polytone because it was not as heavy or big as the Twin.
When I was doing really small gigs then it was using a very small AER compact60 which has an ok sound and an ok digital reverb but mostly is great because you can bring it on a bike.
But of course, with this setup, I was still having the problem of a random sound guy putting random mics in front of the amp and doing strange things with the EQ. This was especially at the smaller jazz festivals which I played really a lot of, but actually also if I was playing pop gigs with my strat. It didn’t really have anything to do with the gear, but it was still a problem for the sound.
Before I throw all sound engineers under the bus then let me just say that course there are great guys out there and I have worked with quite a few that are really good both for live sound and recording albums, but this was very often an issue, and I really wanted to get rid of it. Surprisingly, going to a better modeler setup did exactly that 90% of the time, just not in the way you would expect.
Getting Rid of the Amps
After using the PodXT together with the amps for some time then I was looking for a way to update the rig, the twin sounded great but only if I could play loud and it is 43 kgs which is 95 pounds. I was considering getting two smaller tube amps and starting to build a pedal board, but I was again confronted with how expensive that would be, and then I had a few experiences with recording albums with the twin that really changed things.
Recording Jazz music is essentially a live recording, and always a bit nerve-wracking, I always found it stressful but also very exciting.
When I showed up to recording sessions I often ended up working with recording engineers who wanted to decide how I set up my amp (B-roll: turning up treble and bass, turning down mids), and also put a mic in front of my guitar, and telling me to under no circumstances use any kind of effects. This of course resulted in me having to play on the recordings with a tone that I didn’t like and that was completely different from how I sounded live which felt very strange, not only for me. I might want a sound close to something like this (Kurt) or this (Wes) but when I listened to the recording, I always felt it sound like this (banjo)
Of course, a huge part of the problem was communication, and I did not know anything about EQ and compression, so I could not really explain what I wanted different but I did take part in some mixing sessions where I spent a long time getting rid of the acoustic mic in front of my guitar and trying to get a better EQ and a type of compression that did not make my pick attack louder, something I always really hated.
After this series of recordings in 2010, it was clear to me that I needed to find a way to get more control of how I sounded on albums as well, and it felt like it would be nice to have a different process. Until then I was just showing up and got a Shure sm57 placed in front of the amp that was set up in a way I didn’t like, usually also with a mic in front of my guitar, and that just didn’t work!
At the time, I had a student who had told me how he found the PodXT horrible and disliked everything digital, except for one thing: The Fractal Audio AxeFX. I had never heard about Fractal Audio so I started checking online what I could find and there were quite a few YouTube videos on AxeFX. Most of them on how to get a Metal tone with a rectifier and a tube screamer, or how to sound like Pink Floyd, but I also came across the forum and decided to go to an AxeFX meeting her in the Netherlands. The AxeFX was only available if you ordered it from Germany so you could not go to a store to try one, and I also didn’t know anybody who had one. The meeting was sort of an odd experience walking around among a lot of people who already had an AxeFX, but I did get to try one and dial in a twin tone quickly with the help of one of the guys there, and I really like the result
Even though it was pretty expensive I decided that this was worth trying, and the investment was cheaper than getting tube amps and good effect pedals.
Needless to say, I really liked the AxeFX which is also why I am now on the 3rd generation of Fractal Audio products, both effects and amps in there sound really good and it does everything I need it to, plus that, I actually prefer the control of the sound and the volume when I play live.
I am not going to get into how I set it up in this video.
The Amp Is NOT the Problem
I have already talked about how the problem with my setup with the amp was not the gear, it was what happened afterward. In a way, that should not change when I went to the fractal stuff, but what I have found when playing live in pretty much all situations is that if you give a sound engineer xlr cables instead of having them set up a mic in front of an amp like they usually do, then that is enough of a pattern interrupt so that they don’t just do whatever they usually do and instead listen to what is there and think about how it sounds. To be honest, I did not expect it to solve the problem, but it really did, and doing recordings were similar though there sometimes I still get discussions and I get asked to record through whatever amp they have in the studio. Usually, we can then do both and see what works better. That will also depend on who is making the record. Recording directly to later re-amp has also become much more common even though I don’t think we ever did that. For me, the biggest difference when I am recording is that I can record with a sound that feels like my sound and not an electrified dry recording of a banjo.
An Ironic Development
You probably know my sound from YouTube, and I had already stopped using amps when I started making YouTube videos, but for this, the Fractal was absolutely perfect. It is incredibly easy to record at home and I even did the first few years without having an audio interface, just using the line in on my PC. That was even how I recorded some extra things like double-tracked stuff or added extra tracks for albums that I was playing on.
Lately, I have had fun messing around with delay and reverb plugins trying to learn some tricks from Warren over at Produce like a Pro, and that has meant that often I am now recording some of the solo guitar things without any reverb and delay because I like to have the freedom to mess around that later, which is of course also why I was told to turn off effects in the studio. But lately, that has become sort of sonic playground for me messing around with a few of my favorite delay and reverb plugins, and just something I have fun doing.
For me, it is pretty clear that I can get the sound that I want using a modeler, I doubt if it is really about the brand at most and that there are far more advantages than disadvantages to that, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t like amps, you need to find the solution that works for you. I still have my twin and my polytone even if I don’t use them very often. Who knows, maybe I will check out other options along the way as well,. It is fun to build a pedalboard and maybe get another tube amp probably one that’s a little smaller. It is also about finding things that inspire you and that are fun to mess around with.
Let me know what you think and what you use in the comments!
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