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Recording Mythology, Pt. 43 / The Scenic Route to ‘Vintage’

In 1996, Fender introduced a new model of low-wattage tube amplifier called the Blues Junior. I was wanting to trade up from the Pro Junior which I’d bought four or five years earlier, and it just so happened that the timing was perfect, because now I was working in musical instrument sales at a well respected retail outlet.

At 15 watts, the Blues Junior qualified for the power rating I was needing for recording purposes. The circuitry of both amps was pretty much the same, except that the Pro didn’t have a seperate preamp gain, nor a reverb. I don’t rely on the reverb much, but I like to manipulate the pre drive against the power section drive. Also, everyone’s ears have a unique response curve, and some ears like the tone of a 10″ speaker, but it’s too crisp for me. The Blues came with a Jensen 12″ rather than the 10″ which the Pro ran, so I paid the $289.50 (10% over cost ya heard me) and took it home.

After burning up the first set of preamp tubes, I considered the amp broken in. The first thing that I did was reconfigure these preamp tubes. I pulled the 12AX7As and installed a 12AY7 in v1, a 5751 in v2, and v3 gets the 12AT7 since that’s the phase inverter.

The tone was noticably improved.

It seems amp manufacturers had begun using the 12AX7A for everything, but it really isn’t the best choice for the phase inverter. I don’t like the way that the 12AX7 goes into saturation, either, which is a little too abrupt for my ear, of course, being I’m outgunned by the Mass Distortion Army, the 12AX7A gets the majority vote. Besides, it’s cheaper and more plentiful.

Next thing to go was the lame plastic surface-mount 1/4″ input jack. Whoever invented the plastic jack needs to be dug up and shot.

One of the things that I wasn’t crazy about when I purchased the amp was that it was a fixed-bias design, so you can imagine my chagrin when I noticed that the EL84 power tubes were running hot, and thus underbiased. After the third set of power tubes, a resistor replacement was in order.

The tone was noticeably improved.

Then I found billmaudio.com and was in heaven. Bill does amp mods, and his mods are devised for the Blues Junior exclusively. He even shows how to do these mods right on his website, just in case you happen to be so inclined, which of course, I am.

He showed how to lose the molasses-thick stock reverb and rewire it to achieve the bright ring of the original Fender. He explained how to recap the power section to stiffen up the flubby bass response. Needless to say, the tone was noticeably improved in both instances. Thanks Bill!

He even posted the schematic for his famous and beautifully simple ‘twin stack’ mod, which allows the owner to completely scoop out the mids in order to get the ratty Marshall sound that one may require on occasion. (This mod does not improve the tone, but it, coupled with a Boss OS-2, will save you the $3000. that it otherwise takes to cop that industrial grind.)

Earlier in that same year, I had decided that I needed to quit destroying my acoustic guitars by removing the finish, installing knobs and pickups, et cetera, so I decided that a good, utilitarian electric guitar was in order. The Telecaster appeared about as plain-jane as they get, and Fender’s Japanese plant was importing an especially impressive build for the price, so I ordered one. Left-handed, to be sure. ($329. Ya heard me?)

I almost immediately set about altering it. First I installed compensated saddles so that it would intonate properly.

After carefully weighing my options, I replaced the stock pickups. A Seymour Duncan Quarter Pound went into the bridge position to provide more beef, and his Vintage Stack was chosen for extra pork in the neck position. The QP was tapped so it could be wired for a vintage Tele tone, or a meatier midrange with the flip of a switch. I then installed a push/pull pot so that I could run the VS in either parallel or series mode. After more playing with schematics, I routed a cavity for a center position PU and opted again for a Duncan, the reverse wound, reverse polarity Quarter Pound Stratocaster model with staggered pole pieces. (Can you say ‘oh heww yeah’?) I added another mini toggle switch so that I could flip it in or out of phase and then wired it and the bridge pickup to a stereo pan pot, and soldered that lead to yet another pan pot to which the neck pickup was wired. Now all three pickups were part of a continuous circuit which I could tweak in wee increments to my heart’s content. This wiring scheme took me three years to dial in. A small adjustment in any of the three pots affected the impedance and inductance of the circuit and would completely alter the sound of any of the three pickups. In other words, I was capable of achieving any single coil tone imaginable, even that of a P90, or that of a Filtertron, as I’ve demonstrated to more than one doubting Thomas. I didn’t want to turn into a guitar collector, I preferred to remain a guitar player. And the one instrument took the place of several for me in my search for tone. Lastly, after the cable jack got yanked out for the umpteenth time, I replaced it with a roadworthy alternative.

So last week, after I’d finished refretting the Tele for the third time (note: my guitars do not receive names nor do I refer to them in gender), I caught a glimpse of my ‘new’ guitar through someone’s else eyes as I wiped it down. It appeared terribly road worn, although I’d never played a single live gig with it. The butterscotch finish had taken on a nicotine-brown patina and was riddled with nicks and dings. The top edge of the lower bout where my arm rubbed against it was devoid of finish. The brass saddles were brown, and the maple fingerboard was a roadmap of my favorite box scales down it’s entire length. The nut was yellowed and the nickel plating on the tuning keys was half worn away, with dull copper showing through.

The Japanese plant where my instrument was built closed down in 1998.

I turned to look at my trusty amplifier with the same eyes, and saw a tweed nightmare, discoloured with cat vomit, stained by body oil (adjacent the preamp knob which I constantly tweak to get the phasing right), with edges and grille ripped to shreds by the claws of cats long having passed. At $699. they’ve begun making NOS yellow-board ‘reissues’ of this amplifier now, but I’ll put mine up against the new ones any day of the week. It won’t win the beauty contest, but mine stands head and knobs above the stock units in terms of tone and response.

My rig is closing in on its twentieth birthday, and becoming ‘vintage’ equipment. Man, what a ride!

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About Johnny Nowhere

Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter/composer and owner of Hell Paving Company, music publisher. Johnny doesn't really exist outside of the music industry and Facebook. He is simply a figment of my imagination.

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