Where would I even begin to start talking about Joe Morgan? He gets it. He just gets it. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Joe and his wonderful family and friends and there’s nothing about what a guitar player needs that Joe doesn’t understand. To that end, he’s founded a company that makes killer amps that are exactly what you want them to be.
Sure, there are a bunch of guitar players out there that are looking for quirky- I get that. However, the most popular amps designs in history are so popular because there’s no tomfoolery involved. For most of us working musicians who love the rich lexicon of great guitar sounds, we just want damned good sounds with minimal knob turning and switch flipping.
First off, every Morgan amps I’ve ever heard sounds just great out of the box with all knobs straight up and down. That’s an awesome sign. Second, all the knobs do exactly what you want them to do. You ever play an amp that sounds way too bright? You ever reach for the “tone” knob or the “high” knob and start turning it down, only to find that the frequency it’s changing just isn’t the frequency that’s killing you? Boy, I have- all too often. The range of each control on a Morgan amp does exactly what you hope it would do and that’s a really beautiful thing. In fact, it’s one of my favorite things about Joe Morgan’s amps and one of the common threads through all of his designs that makes his company a great one.
Lastly, the amps are all simple in design, compact, light, and priced better than just about all of their competitors. When you’ve got all that going on, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find me a brand I’d be likely to recommend over their line. I personally own an AC40 and an RCA35 and as I said, though the amps are wildly different in their lineage, there’s a similarity to the frequency spectrum and gain structure that makes them both distinctly Morgan in just the right way.
Some time in early 2014, I pulled the trigger on buying a HiTone DR HT30/15 and it was one of the best gear decisions I ever made. For many, the sounds of a classic Hiwatt amp are simply out of reach. Original Hiwatts are getting absurdly expensive and hard to find and the range of other amps meant to cover those tones has been bleak since the early 80’s. Having spent a little time with some real vintage examples, I can tell you that the amps I’ve heard from modern Hiwatts, Reeves, and others are just not it- not it at all. The Harry Joyce amps from the early 2000’s nail it but they’re even harder to find and afford than the old Hiwatts!
HiTone, however, has put in the time and the research to bring back the sound and for great “big amp” classic rock guitar tone, they are my favorite. The company has partnered with the son of Dave Reeves (Hiwatt’s original amp guru from the glory days) to ensure that HiTone’s new builds live up to the standard of the originals and Clayton (the builder) over at HiTone does phenomenal work. The result is both bulletproof and toneful and I just can’t recommend them highly enough. The sound is extremely aggressive without being harsh and with a wide, full range that allows for an incredible thickness to your tones. The market is currently saturated with low wattage designs that are extremely saggy and compressed. Don’t get me wrong- those are GREAT sounds but HiTone has come to give you the other side of the rock and roll coin. They have incredible clean headroom, making them fantastic platforms for the pedal lover (like myself) and you’ll be amazed at just how rock and roll they sound without having to slather on the distortion. There’s an authority here that small amps with squishy circuits just don’t offer. There are several models to choose from that all sound amazing and all have the same inherent, core sound. The model I personally use is the 30 watt version of the classic 4 input series. I usually jump the channels together and have my channel volumes both up to about 2 o’clock and it’s still remarkably clean and incredibly musical. Clarity is a beautiful thing.
I’ve always been a big proponent of making good speaker choices for your amp and your style. I think way too many people are unaware what a huge difference speakers make in their overall sound. As a result, I’ve ended up a big fan of head and cabinet set-ups. I do feel that there are some speakers and amps that definitely go together better than others but to limit one amp to one speaker seems akin to only being allowed to use one guitar with one amp. Anyone would tell you that’s crazy, right? So that said- I like having a bunch of cabinets available that are loaded up with different speakers for a variety of options.
There’s a couple of problems with that- first and foremost, the cost. I realize that every company has their own motives for their price points. I’ve bought good wood and I’ve tried to tolex a cabinet once or twice (and man, is it miserable work…) so I realize you’ve gotta make money on them but the prices that most amp companies charge for their cabinets is absolutely outrageous highway robbery. I’m sorry. It’s true. They always have some claim about the exact dimensions of their cabinet being the perfect dimensions for the best sound in every single situation, yadda, yadda, yadda… I have compared the same speaker in different cabinets and yes, there is a perceivable difference but it’s way slighter than every cab company out there would have you believe. It’s certainly not more of a difference than a different speaker or spinning the amp knobs would make. Cabinets just need to be made of good, solid, resonant wood that holds the speaker well, sturdily jointed, attractively covered, and devoid of rattles and buzzes. It’s never seemed to me to be rocket science.
Enter Avatar cabinets. They are making the best, most affordable, no-nonsense speaker cabinets out there. From their shop up in Idaho, they make models for all combinations of speakers in closed and open back designs for guitar or bass and with a myriad of tolex and grill options. They also stock a huge variety of speakers and you can get your cabinet with any mix of them you want. I’ve used their stuff for years and never had any problems or complaints. The wiring and speaker mounting is solid so I’ve been able to switch speakers a bunch of times with nothing wearing out or stripping. They’ve always sounded great to me and worked reliably. I have an Avatar Traditional 2×12 out with Hunter Hayes right now (it’s painted to match the set but it’s an Avatar!) and a couple of their 1×12’s at home for club gigs and sessions. I find myself hard-pressed to think of why I would use any other cabinets out there and I’ve never heard a good reason from anyone else.
As a final note, I recently got to meet Avatar founder Dave and his son Eric while on a gig in the area and I can tell you that when you buy from them, you are supporting a really cool family business that takes pride in what they do. Who doesn’t dig that?
Dr. Z is one of my favorite amp builders out there. I’m consistently impressed with the build quality, sound, and price points of his models. I own a few of his amps and they are some of my favorite instruments I’ve ever heard. They’ve been fantastically reliable and have ended up on a lot of my gigs and the records I’ve worked on. I first got it in my head that I wanted a Carmen Ghia years before I ever even got to hear one. I grew up in a small-ish town in Virginia and didn’t really run into much modern, ’boutique’ (though I really freaking hate that word…) gear. The store that had all the coolest stuff that I wanted was just a state away in Cary, NC. Though I’ve still never actually gotten to go to Fat Sound Guitars (www.fatsoundguitars.com), I still check their website every now and again as I’ve found they consistently carry the best of the well-known modern gear and also the coolest new gear around. If they think it sounds great then I can pretty much promise you it rocks. Side note here is that the majority of it is ridiculously out of my price range but that doesn’t mean it isn’t awesome. However, one brand they’ve always stood behind is Dr. Z. After reading about the Carmen Ghia head on their site, I knew it was something I’d need to own. A few years later, after I made it to Nashville, I got the chance to buy a late 90’s Ghia 1×12 combo at a good used price so I snapped it up. I’ve since built a really funky headshell for it since I couldn’t get Dr. Z to sell me a real one (bummed me out, man! If anybody at Z ever reads this- any chance you’ll reconsider?? It’s for a real Z- no faking here, promise!)
So let’s talk about the amp. Again, I won’t bore you with specs you can read on-line and plus, there aren’t many to talk about with a Carmen Ghia. Volume, Tone, Input, Power switch. Mine is an older one and only has a single 8 ohm speaker out and a hard-wired power cable so it’s ridiculously simple but damn, it sounds good. It is absolutely, incredibly dynamic and pickup sensitive. It’s one of those amps that truly sounds like whatever guitar you plug into it. You can hear your guitar, your pickups, your pedals, and especially your hands- for better and for worse. It is NOT a forgiving amp that smoothes stuff out for you. If you have a bad right hand and smack the strings harshly then you are gonna sound like a freaking wall of glass through this amp. Just a fair warning. It’s a mirror to hold up on your playing and therefore definitely not the right amp for everyone. But, it’s been great for me (including times when it taught me how NOT to play and what other gear I own that sounds like total crap). Likewise, the Ghia is extremely sensitive to what sort of speakers you use with it. Mine sounded absolutely miserable with an Eminence Red Fang AlNiCo speaker and pretty bad with Webers and the newer Celestions from overseas. This is not because these speakers are inherently bad! They just have characteristics that get accentuated by the Ghia in a bad way. The AlNiCo’s add additional sponginess that the Ghia really doesn’t need and the other speakers I mentioned have a lot of spiky high end that may help some other amps or just may not even get heard with other amps. Anyway- I love it with my older Celestion Vintage 30 and with my go-to favorite speaker around these days, the WGS Reaper (please, please, please check WGS out at www.wgs4.com- they rock.)
So- I’ve used it all over and it always sounds killer but it does have a few characteristics that can limit its usage in some situations. I feel I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t walk you through them. First off, this thing is saaaaaaaggy… If you don’t know much about the circuit design differences between amps that respond tightly and amps that have a ton of sag, then you really ought to do yourself a huge favor and do some research. In my opinion, it’s one of the most major tonal factors in any amp and it’ll really help you in picking great amps for your own needs. Many amps work sorta down the middle for a lot of versatility and that’s definitely cool, but there are some amps out there that go way down to the ends of the spectrum and that’s cool too. My Carmen Ghia is about as spongey an amp as I’ve ever used but that lends a phenomenal roundness to single notes and a very vintage vibe to rhythm rock chording. However, if you’re wanting any sort of TIGHT rock power chords then you’re gonna need to go somewhere else.
Second point of contention for me is that there is a mid spike in my Ghia that the tone cut control doesn’t affect. It’s not too crazy but it’s definitely there and it’s hard to get rid of. You won’t notice it in a lot of scenarios but with MINE, if I use a Vintage 30 speaker and a Les Paul, there’s a tone in there that’s almost like having a stationary half-cocked wah pedal in your chain (by the way, if you’ve never tried doing that then get to it). It’s a LOTTA honk. It sounds freaking awesome but I’m just warning you that it’s there.
The third point that’s a bummer to me about Dr Z amps in general doesn’t have anything to do with the amps themselves. It’s really just their association with dudes like Brad Paisley. I like Brad a lot but let’s be honest, the guy only has one sound. Even in his ballads, he won’t freaking play a slow solo on a 335 into a Fender Super Reverb or something. Jeebus, man, mix it UP a little, brother! We’re all clear on the tele thing. The reason that is a problem for people like me is its affect on producers and artists hearing with their eyes. None of my Dr Z’s sound ANYTHING like Brad Paisley (especially not in my hands…) but there have been many times that I showed up to sessions with one of my Z’s and had the producer, engineer, or artist see it and go- “nah, let’s use [whatever else I brought]” because in their minds they already know what any Dr Z amp sounds like before they let me plug it in and rock. They are convinced it will be that telecaster, chicken-pickin’ sound and they don’t want that as country music in Nashville goes more and more rock/pop/folk/etc.
So- I feel like I just listed a bunch of negatives but I’m just being honest. Don’t let that deter you from checking one out- just be wary of what speaker/guitar/playing style you’re using when you do. The amp absolutely rules and I will use mine forever but I feel like it’s a ridiculously awesome house that sometimes doesn’t show well (most especially because of it’s amazing honesty).
I’m a huge fan of Fender guitars in general and there’s a good reason for that. Actually, there’s all the reasons. Who ISN’T a fan of Fender guitars? Their classic designs are responsible for a ridiculous percentage of all our favorite tones on all our favorite albums- but you know all this already. Fine. So why even interject my thoughts on them? I really could just tell you that I use strats and teles on the road and in the studio all the time. No one would really need me to justify that. However, I think it’s worth mentioning particular models I like and why since they do have a gigantic product line.
I have owned a bunch of different Fenders over the years. My first guitar was an early 90’s Mexi standard strat that absolutely ruled for its incredibly meager price. That’s one of my favorite things about the Fender company. You can go into any guitar store and grab a US or Mexi standard strat for a reasonable and affordable price and it will be great. Sure, you may find you want to change some things on it but that’s part of the beauty of Leo’s design. Easily changeable parts make for an easily customizable guitar to its owner and also for easy repairs and thus a damned near infinite life-span on the cheap. I’ve changed things out on a lot of my Fenders over the years.
For THIS review, I’m concentrating on my Road Worn guitars. I own (and use constantly) a Road Worn 50’s Tele and a Road Worn Player Strat HSS.
I got my tele first a couple of years back and immediately loved it. It’s good wood with a real nitro finish and solid hardware in a fantastic price range. What more do you need? I DID do a couple mods to it right off the bat but they were easy to do. I need it to be said that there was absolutely nothing wrong with it right out of the factory- I’m just a picky fella. First off, I like black pickguards on blonde teles so that went on. Secondly, I’m a stickler for the sound of brass saddles so I just changed out the whole bridge to a US tele bridge. While I was in there, I dropped in a set of Fralin blues special pickups (and rewired it old school with a CTS switch and pots). They are my all-time favorite tele pickups and they absolutely kill in this guitar. Truth be told, years later I bought a late 90’s US ’52 reissue tele just because it came up for a great price. It was dead sexy and felt great but the road worn blew it completely out of the water. It was no contest. It wasn’t even close. The road worn was light and open and airy and had the distinct classic tele sparkle and twang (and bigger frets- a huge plus for me). I sold the ’52 shortly thereafter.
The strat I just got this past year. I decided I needed the versatility of the HSS configuration for a couple of songs in Hunter Hayes’ set. My experience with it has been much like the tele; that is to say- awesome right off the bat but I still changed a few things to be more to my liking. The Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates Plus humbucker that came in the bridge really kicked ass but the Texas Special neck and middle pickups weren’t quite “classic strat” enough for me. I decided to swap them out for a couple of Fralin blues specials and they definitely got me there. The next swap is kinda hazy for me. I don’t really remember why I decided to change the bridge out but I think it was just me being the tinkering, meddling idiot that I am wont to be. I ended up putting a Dimarzio 36th anniversary PAF in there on the recommendation of another gear nerd friend. I think I just did it to check it out since they’re so cheap. Either way, it really does sound great in there. Check one out if you get the chance. Also- I should note that even though it’s a combination of humbuckers and single-coils, I wired the whole guitar up in the standard strat wiring with 500k pots. It makes the humbucker sound right and doesn’t seem to screw up the neck and middle pickups either. I was scared I’d have to do some real craziness to make the different pickups see different value pots but I found it sounded great without that hassle. Bully for me.
So yeah. Fender Road Worns. They rule.
This is the second in the growing list of PRS guitars that I love but let’s make no bones about it- this guitar is a Les Paul Special double cutaway only way better. I don’t know how the legal stuff works in the gear world and I doubt I ever will. I don’t know which design elements of a guitar you can copy and which you can’t but Gibson has always seemed to be one of the most aggressive companies out there in attacking copyright infringement so something about the Mira must be on the level. It’s not like PRS is based overseas and skirting the laws here- this model was built in the good old US of A. Normally, I’m bothered by copycats but in the case of Gibson, I’m all for it. I make no attempt to keep my opinion of their guitars a secret- they originated nearly all of my favorite guitar designs ever but in the last 20 years, their quality has plummeted while their price has skyrocketed. Frankly, I now love to see other companies building guitars that are, in many main elements, copies but with a quality level twice Gibson’s custom shop at half Gibson’s price. If Gibson’s not going to build killer versions of their classic designs at an affordable price like they used to do, then somebody else should and PRS is the perfect candidate. Otherwise, Gibson’s just a half-dead old man holding those awesome copyrights hostage from the music world. There. Rant over.
So- let’s talk about the Mira. Like the Starla and so many other PRS models, this thing is an absolute pleasure to play. Light-weight, well balanced, great neck, great finish, and excellent fretwork. I find I can play it for far longer periods of time than other guitars of mine with no hand fatigue (something that becomes more of an issue for me the older I get, sadly…) I haven’t directly compared the body shape to an LP Jr double-cut but it feels dead on. Even the neck joint looks and feels right to me. The body might be a touch thinner but it’s probably just an illusion caused by the very comfortable bevel around the edge of the top that is a definite departure from the blocky body shape of its Gibson counterpart. It’s got the same 1 volume, 1 tone, 3-way switch controls that I’m used to and a single wrap-around tailpiece bridge. Aaaaand, let’s talk about that bridge for a minute because I love it. I don’t know what they make theirs out of but it’s very light-weight and resonant. And in STARK contrast to my 2001 Gibson Les Paul Junior, the bridge on my Mira is dead-freaking-on in its intonation compensation and placed correctly on the body for overall adjustment. I’ve found that Paul Reed Smith’s hardware is like the Apple of guitar hardware. Their hardware is simple and eloquent in its design and it JUST WORKS. My Junior’s bridge was so wrong that it had to be replaced with an intonatable one and even that one had to be moved so far back to intonate that it’s almost off the studs. Shameful build quality, Gibson…
However, I AM going to give one win in this to the Gibson company. They’re still making some of my favorite pickups on the market. The pickups in my Mira sound great and have a thing that is definitely all their own but it’s just not MY thing. There is a classic sound that goes along with an LP Jr that I have in my head and I just can’t get away from it. I need any guitar of this design to sound like that or else it just seems wrong to me. My assumption from what I was hearing was that the stock pickups were the right type of magnet and construction for the sound I wanted but just way too hot. I decided to open the guitar up to see what the pickups measured and found my hunch was right. The stock pickups came in at about 14-15k or nearly twice the strength of the P-90’s I’m used to. Like I said, they sounded really good but were just too strong to get that classic P-90 sound that I love. The low end woofy fuzz they were putting out wouldn’t clean up on any of my amps. I decided to swap mine out for a set of Fralin stock wind pickups and suddenly everything was right about the Mira. (Weeeeelll, almost everything. It is super, super close but something’s just barely not quite right in the tonal spectrum. To that end, I have discovered that Fralin’s stock P-90’s aren’t AlNiCo magnets and I think that’s part of the classic Gibson P-90 sound. He offers AlNiCo versions though, and I think I’m going to get one to see if that does the trick. I’m betting it does. In the meantime it still kicks truckloads of ass.) Now it does exactly what I want with the build quality and playability I always wanted from my Junior. Well done, Paul & co.
Sure- I get that when you say ‘Fender Bassman’, you’re usually talking about the famous late 50’s 4×10 Bassman combo that is one of the most well-known holy grail guitar amps. However, most folks I know will never own one. There just weren’t that many of them made and if you can even find one in decently original shape then you’re gonna have to shell out a lotta g’s to own it. On that note, there’s one thing you should know about me and that’s that I refuse to pay a lot of money for gear. There’s ridiculous amounts of killer sounding gear that’s cheap so I leave the collectable stuff to the lawyers. Also- you know you’re unhappiest with the gear that you paid the most for. You know I’m right. It’s a mental thing. And I know that Fender has a reissue Bassman. I’ve used a bunch of them and it’s a pretty darned good amp but it doesn’t sound anything like an original and at it’s price range, I think there’s a lot of better gear out there.
Anyway, all that to say that when I’M talking about a Bassman, what I mean are the simple 3-knob, 2-channel heads that they made a slew of in the 60’s and 70’s (mine’s a ’68). They are some of my all time favorite amps and a regular go-to for me live and in the studio. I use the normal channel and set all three knobs to 5 and just play. It rules. Seriously. It does just about everything. It’s fairly tight so it can punch with the right guitar but it’s not overly scooped so if you don’t crank the treble or bass then there’s still plenty enough round midrange information to sound warm and fat. I’ve used mine for a very wide range of styles and it’s always worked well for me.
That said- there’s a little mystery and arguments about them that I think a lot of people I run into don’t understand. I realize I’m often full of shit but in MY experience here’s what I’ve seen and read: in the 3 years that there were blackface models, Fender was concurrently manufacturing 3 identical looking models. You’ve gotta check the tube chart for the model number of the one you’re using. Even then, there’s some classic Fender chicanery going on and sometimes the amp is mislabeled as to the actual circuit inside. I’ve played all 3 and I don’t feel like there a MASSIVE difference in them (obviously Fender didn’t either or I figure they would’ve felt they needed different model names on the front) but there IS a difference. Once the silverface models came around in ’68- I’ve only ever seen the AB165 model. Fortunately, that’s my favorite. Seems like it must’ve been a lot of people’s favorite too since that’s the one they kept around. So I feel like the different models is the reason so many people say that the blackface and silverface models sound different. They must’ve used a different circuit blackface model. In my opinion, if it’s an AB165 then it sounds much the same whatever the cosmetics. That’s my take, anyway. Check one out.
My take on this thing is going to have some serious similarities to my review of my PRS Starla. My experience with Taylor guitars has been of much the same sort. For many years I saw the guitars around and had the same reaction- excellent build quality and plays like a dream but both the sound and the look is too shiny and modern. They just didn’t sound or look as good to me as the old Gibsons, Martins, and Guilds that I’d heard for years and based my palette around (side note though- frankly the Gibsons and Martins that I’ve heard in the last 20 years don’t look or sound anywhere near as good as their ancestors either so there’s that and also- in recent years I’ve come to respect their more modern sound as I’ve noticed what acoustic sounds sit best in modern music tracks.) Anyway- on the recommendation of a friend, I decided to take a closer look at their product line and give them a real chance. I quickly realized a few things about them that had turned me off personally and were the reasons I thought I wasn’t into Taylors.
Here’s what I found. First off- I really hate cutaways. I just think they’re ugly almost all the time and that’s just me. I realize that that’s completely personal preference but I just can’t seem to get past it on acoustic guitars. Taylor clearly offers a ton of cutaway models but I have found now that they have a ton without as well. Secondly- I found that they have a ton of models with a combination of specs that I find accentuate the modern punch and brightness that I’m not crazy about. Those features being a dreadnought size with a spruce top and rosewood back and sides. It’s killer if that’s your thing but if it’s not, there are a lot of other options that cover other ranges. For me- I leaned towards the larger body sizes (specifically the Grand Symphony, though they have an even larger Grand Orchestra now that I’m excited to hear). It adds bass and midrange that balances the guitar to my ear. Also, a cedar top takes off even more high end and makes the guitar sound better to me. The GS7 I wound up choosing is an inch or so shorter and narrower than the classic jumbo models I love (Gibson J-200, Guild F-30, etc.) but it reminds me of them very much in feel and sound.
Only negatives I can mention are 1) that I’m not wild about the gold hardware and 2) it’s a little bit neck heavy. Seriously. That’s about it. It’s a great guitar. I got mine without electronics in it and installed a K&K Pure Mini in it myself. I absolutely love that pickup and it’s killer in the GS7.
My in-depth experience with Paul Reed Smith guitars is only fairly recent. I have to come clean and admit that for years I always considered the brand synonymous with bands like Creed, or with fusion-heads who like their guitars finished to look like a bowling ball (a la the Al DiMeola prism model). There’s certainly nothing wrong with any of those tastes or styles but they’re DEFINITELY not mine. That aside, I can also say that I’ve always considered their build quality and attention to detail to be excellent. So- fast forward to this past year and the brand has come to my attention again. I can’t say for sure whether they’ve had models all along that would’ve been so killer for me and I was too oblivious to see them or whether the stuff I love has only been recently introduced but PRS is now making a bunch of gear that I think is absolutely awesome. Enter the Starla. Mahogany, set neck construction, great feeling neck and frets, classic finish, classic abr bridge, and a bigsby. Man, oh man, do I love a bigsby. The extra string length behind the bridge adds overtones that I am all about. I realize that a lot of people like a more focused sound but THEY’RE WRONG. Just kidding, well, sorta. I really like the focused punch on Les Paul’s and Tele’s but that’s not this instrument. It doesn’t sound anything like those guitars. What THIS guitar basically does is everything that I ever wanted my SG to do- only it does it way better.
Now my only downsides on the guitar. I am really not wild about the stock Starla pickups. In conjunction with the stock wiring, I will admit that they have the PRS hallmark of wide versatility and nearly hi-fi spectrum but that’s just not my wheelhouse. I got my Starla with a set of PRS’ new 57/08TM pickups and classic 500K volume/tone pots with no coil tap or any other funny business. I think that is absolutely the way to go with this guitar. Those pickups have a very vintage Gibson-y tone but with a little more power and punch that you need in an all mahogany guitar that is inherently dark and sometimes muddy. I’d liken them to a hotter set of ’57 classics if you need a tone reference. Beyond the pickups, I did find I needed to pop a roller bridge on it for tuning stability and I got my guitar made with the more standard, non-locking tuners. Also, it took me a while to warm up to the bird inlays but I dig them now. They’re very beautifully done and I like that it’s Paul’s tribute to his mom. What a good son.
Side note that’s good and bad in one fell swoop. It’s a 24.5″ scale. That’s the shortest scale guitar I’ve ever owned and it’s a double-edged sword. It is INCREDIBLY easy and fun to play set up with 10’s like I do but I will say that it doesn’t handle being tuned to Eb very well at all. It just doesn’t have enough tightness, even with heavier strings. You can do it but you have to play really gently to coax its best out of it in that realm. Just a word to the wise. Overall- a killer guitar that I love and use all the time.