“It never was about the musician or the instrument— it was about the laser notes in a hall of mirrors, the music itself. It was going to change the world for the better and it has. Maybe not as fast or as much as we wanted, but it has and it still will. Whether your name is Mozart, or Django Reinhardt, or Robert Johnson, or Jimi Hendrix, or whoever is next; who you are doesn’t matter so long as you can open that conduit and let the music come through. It is the burning edge, whatever it sounds like and whoever is playing it. It is the noisy, messy, silly, invincible voice of life that comes through the LP on the turn-table, the transistor radio, or the Bose in your new Lexus that makes you want to get up out of whatever you are stuck in and dance. It is Dionysus and the Maenads all over again. No one can control it and I pity whoever tries. I am old now and only a house cat sunning herself in the window— but I was a tigress once and I remember. I still remember.”― G.J. Paterson, Bird of Paradise
Back from a sunbaked week at Pawley’s Island, our only fine son sent off to Mercer University in Macon to embark on the next chapter of his young life, your guide in the Quest has been loading up with cool new old tools to tantalize and tease the senses. What’s the secret to the Quest for Tone? Buying and selling with an open and inquisitive mind. That’s it. With a modest stake of maybe $5,000 you start acquiring stuff and experiencing it. Keep the rare keepers and unload the rest so you can buy more. After 14 years we still find things yet to be experienced, and sometimes we’ll go back to a familiar place just to see if our first impressions held up. Without the internet this would be impossible. Who has the time to hop in a car and drive for weeks searching for gear? It’s all being sold on the internet now anyway— the few remaining pawn shops in America sell used power tools, worthless watches, broken cameras and bad stereo equipment— you aren’t gonna find a ‘56 Strat or a tweed Bassman in no pawnshop… Thank God for the internet, where everything made by man can be found, not to mention love and marriage or just hot sex if you’re feeling noncommittal.
Successful scoring on the internet has a lot to do with attitude. If you think you won’t find what you want, or if you do it will be flawed and oversold by a lying weasel, well, that’s not exactly what we would describe as a successful shopping strategy. We find amazing stuff all the time, perhaps because we expect to. Perhaps our internet strategy is a kind of self-fulfilling prophetic exercise in searching for and finding stuff when no one else is looking. It certainly seems that way. The point is, anything we pull off in these pages you can pull off too, as long as you believe you can. Remember that. It’s the whole point behind the admonition we so frequently plant at the end of an article to ‘Quest forth…’ Put another way, get your head out of your ass and go get you some tone.
The Best Amp Ever Made?
The Fender 5E3 tweed Deluxe is the best guitar amplifier ever made for rock & roll. No, yours isn’t unless it’s a real tweed Deluxe. Replicas and copies don’t count because they don’t sound or feel the same for all kinds of reasons related to transformers mainly— how they are built today, the materials used, and how they were built and the grain-oriented iron that was used 50 years ago. They weren’t deliberately trying to create magic back in the day, but they did. The tweed Deluxe is especially appropriate today, since so many guitarists have become whining old pussies who can’t lift more than 38 pounds without hurting themselves, and audiences and club owners can’t stomach more than about what an 18 watt amp will spew. Which isn’t to say that you couldn’t pull off an arena tour with a Deluxe, right? Of course you could, properly miked and run through a sound system. Did you see the Crazy Horse Ragged Glory Tour in 1991? Among the best and most ass-kicking rock & roll concerts we have ever witnessed, with Neil lobbing screaming notes off the cavernous roof of the Omni all night long. Fucking amazing is what it was, and we have never heard anything like it since. I want to live with a cinnamon girl… I could be happy the rest of my life with a cinnamon girl. Yes, I could. That little tweed Deluxe ripped a hole in the sky and we can still hear it echoing in our mind today.
The Deluxe is equally worthy as a blues amp. Do we need to say this? For that matter it sounds pretty damn good with an acoustic guitar in a pinch, but like we said, the 5E3 Deluxe is the best rock & roll amp ever made, and that’s why we scored another one— just to ram the point home to you in case you had forgotten… 1960. In 1960 Jimi Hendrix played his first gig, John F. Kennedy launched his campaign for president, Elvis was discharged from the Army, and there were no real rock & roll records in the Billboard Top 100 yet. The Everly Brothers scored #3 with “Kathy’s Clown,” but that wasn’t quite what we would call rock & roll… A nice syrupy ballad perhaps, but rock & roll hadn’t quite made it to top 40 radio. The Black Crowes “By Your Side” featuring a vintage Fender Esquire and 5E3 is a great example of a tweed Deluxe… But it’s Neil Young’s body of work recorded with the tweed Deluxe he first bought at Sol Betnun’s Music in Los Angeles when he was with Buffalo Springfield that truly captures the versatile nature of this classic amp. Young used the same Deluxe on nearly all of his albums recorded over a span of 40 years. Whether you like Young’s music or not, it cannot be denied that the man has a stunning tone that is absolutely, unmistakably his alone. But that’s not to suggest it’s the only tone you can get from a Deluxe… Not by a long shot.
We scored our 1960 5E3 Deluxe on eBay for just under two grand. It was entirely, completely original except for a recovered cabinet, which we would have recovered again by the great Gregg Hopkins at Vintage Amp Restoration. The previous owner had done the recover, which turned out to be OK but inside out with the tweed reversed, but no matter. Hopkins would work his magic, expertly applying and aging the tweed with such skill that it would be unrecognizable from an original. Seriously, you would never know.
The amp chassis was in good shape with very little tarnish on the chrome control panel, and the Jensen P12Q remained intact, although predictably in need of a recone. We would send it to Tom Colvin at the Speaker Workshop in Fort Wayne, Indiana and it would come back to us with the proper seamed and ribbed cone sounding exactly as it should.
The amp sounded pretty good— perhaps a little tired and anemic with all the original 50 year-old capacitors still intact, so we took it to Jeff Bakos at Bakos Amp Works for evaluation. Jeff measured all the components comparing actual measurements to the original 5E3 schematic. The tired filter caps would be replaced with F&Ts (Fischer & Tausche) from Germany. Five of seven other caps on the board had unacceptably drifted far downstream, so we replaced them with SoZo blue molded caps, leaving two original 25 mf Sprague caps and all the original Allen Bradley carbon comp resistors. Most important, both original transformers remained robust. The SoZos deliver true vintage tone, and as the dialectrics form in the caps through use they will sound progressively better.
Of all the potential enhancements you can make to any amp, trying different speakers is the easiest and most effective strategy. The tone of the original P12Q is classic in a ‘50s tweed fashion— not particularly powerful with moderate low end, midrange, and a bright trebly character with a reedy dynamic quality that varies with pick attack. It is a cool ‘50s era tone that is not particularly complex, deep or gripping, but that’s how speakers sounded in 1960. They were kinda weak, underpowered, and prone to blowing. God forbid you should ram a Maestro Fuzztone through them… Very, very few have survived intact, and if you really use them, they are destined to blow…
We lined up several alternatives, including a 1964 Jensen C12N also reconed by Tom Colvin, and a new Celestion Alnico blue made in England. The Celestion is a classic, imparting rich harmonic textures and overtones with excellent low end response, full midrange and treble that is smooth and characteristically chimey and complex. The Celestion Alnico blue paints in Technicolor and is without a doubt one of the truly classic guitar speakers of all time. It is also extremely dynamic and touch sensitive in an amp like the Deluxe. In many ways you can’t do better, and its $279.00 (Sweetwater) price is entirely justified.
The ‘64 Jensen C12N is an old familiar friend— we have kept two of them for years now, pulled from a ‘66 Pro Reverb we owned. It produces a much bigger sound stage than the lighter P12Q, with much stronger bass response, slightly scooped mids, and brilliant treble that is very smooth, round and musical with absolutely no sharp edges. Like the Celestion, it is a much louder and more powerful speaker than the Jensen P12Q, and being a Jensen, the tone is less complex and harmonically rich than the Alnico blue. Still, it’s the ultimate American guitar tone, and for our purposes, we preferred both the Celestion and C12N over the more diminutive tone of the P12Q. For those seeking an authentic old school vibe, the P12Q is absolutely the way to go, but we wanted something a little bigger and more imposing. All three tones are classics in their own style, so we aren’t going to proclaim one as ‘the best.’ They all rock.
Tubes matter, too. We loaded the Deluxe with a fine pair of vintage ‘50s RCA 6V6s, assorted RCA and Sylvania 12AX7s and an RCA 5Y3 rectifier. Of course you can also run 6L6s and a 5AR4 in the Deluxe for an even bigger tone and a little more volume, and it is an impressive sound indeed— even more explosive and imposing. At the very least you should try it.
One thing you need to know about this amp is that it sounds absolutely fine with pretty much any guitar you play through it. The Deluxe is so touch sensitive and responsive that the subtle differences between different pickups seems to be vividly amplified. In many ways this is what separates the tweed Deluxe from so many other amplifiers. It is an instrument unto itself, really. Clean tones below 6 on the volume knob are just that— richly, gloriously Fender clean and shimmering with a vibrant character that features all 6 strings in a choir of stunning detail. Single notes jump from the fretboard and sustain with a percussive character that leaves you feeling completely connected to the instrument and amplifier. The Deluxe responds differently with the Microphone volume turned up when plugged into the Instrument channel, too, with more volume and gain. Slowly turning up the Instrument volume above ‘6’ creates a steady increase in gain, distortion and volume. On ‘8’ the Deluxe equals the overdriven tone of a high gain amplifier but with more Fender fidelity, and beyond ‘8’ the amp delivers a crushing meltdown while still retaining a certain clarity amidst the chaos. No pedal sounds like this. No other amplifier sounds like this.
Naturally, single coil Fender pickups thrive with the Deluxe, and especially a Telecaster… Humbuckers are crushing at high volume levels, yet clear and percussive turned down a bit. Our new Gretsch Powerjet also sounds exceptionally fine with the Deluxe. The TV Jones Filter‘Tron pickups have less output than humbuckers, but aside from Fender and Gibson pickups this is our favorite guitar tone. Finally we have acquired a Gretsch that fully accomplishes everything we want to do with an electric guitar while decidedly avoiding typical Fender and Gibson tones.
If we could only own one amp, the tweed Deluxe 5E3 would be it, and we would never look back with regret. Like we said, the old hands at Fullerton weren’t necessarily trying to create a timeless classic when they designed the Deluxe— after all, they added mic inputs with the thought that it would be used for guitar and vocals, something we would never do today— but the simplicity of the circuit combined with the design, layout and those magical transformers has indeed left us with a timeless classic that truly defines the sound of rock & roll. There are some greedy clowns who try to get $4,000 for an original tweed Deluxe, but there are also more pragmatic sellers who will hoist it with a modest and reasonable reserve and let the market dictate value. Two grand is an entirely reasonable price for an original recover like ours, and with a little patience you ought to be able to find a clean 5E3 Deluxe for just a little more than a new replica or faux Deluxe. You may have to lay in wait for three months watching, but they do come up. All you gotta do is vow to Quest forth… TQ