IT ALL STARTED HERE...
Maybe I’ve always been weird, I don’t know. For my 9th birthday I only
wanted one thing, a soldering iron. I know … weird, right? I still own this
magnificent magical tool, pictured here. It doesn’t see much in the way
of real action, but I take it out every now and then to remind me of who I
am and where I came from.
As soon as I got that magical solder-melter, I went to work. First was an
electric guitar … sort of … it had four strings and a scale set to my 9-year
old preference. Good God, what ever will I use to amplify this stringed
abhorrent thing? I did what came natural (to me) and proceeded to tear
apart my poor little unsuspecting Lloyds cassette tape player and solder
a ¼” jack to the input section. It was awful, but it made noise and I LOVED
it. My mom, not so much; she grounded me. Mom had no idea what was
Soon afterwards it occurred to me that mom’s Magnavox tube-type console record player sounded a lot louder and better than my little cassette player. You see where this one’s going, don’t you? Yep, I tore that puppy down, big time. By the time my mom figured out what I was doing I had the amp removed and installed in a metal box from Radio-Shack. The woofers came out and were installed in a box of my own making. It was an ugly contraption, but it actually sounded quite respectable. I’ve still got the amp. Again, it doesn’t ever get switched on, but I keep it around to remind me. You all can guess what happened when mom went to play her Elvis records …
And that’s pretty much a trajectory I’ve maintained all these years. In my 20’s I was a bit too busy actually PLAYING guitar to do much building, and my 30s found my soldering Iron mostly under patch-bays and studio consoles. It was in my 40’s that I returned to my first true love, amps. The success I’d encountered in the music biz afforded me an opportunity to amass a nice collection of vintage and boutique amps. I really, really began to compare circuits and the resultant tone. I found that hot-rodded gain stages generally sucked fat juicy tone like a pig sucks slop … ugly. Simple, but sound circuits like those found in tweed and brown Fenders (including the early Marshall Bassman “copies”) were by far the most rewarding to play. To me, it’s no wonder that the narrow-panel Bassman and Deluxe (along with the early JTM 45’s) are among the most prized and highly valued amps of all time.
And so I spent some time resurrecting some old basket-case tweed Fenders, and built a few modified “clones” of vintage Fender designs. I found that I really liked a circuit that had the cathode biasing of say a tweed Deluxe, but with the more robust filtering and output transformers of say a bassman. I won’t give away all my findings, but it really seemed as though I had stumbled on to a magic combination that was the best of both worlds. Then I discovered the linage of the “Bernie” amps. These designs were modified “Filmosound” amplifier chassis from the 1950’s-1960’s. These designs run cathode-biased PP output stages at bias settings at or near class-A operation and use more filtering than Leo Fender could ever have imagined in a 20-watt amp. This has become an integral part of the sound of a Vaughn Skow amp. I’m not alone, a number of folks have produced incarnations of the original “Bernie” designs, including the highly regarded Texosound amps. I feel it’s important that I give a shout out to those folks, as they were part of the impetus for my moving forward with my own amps; in fact, If I ever get so far behind on meeting orders that someone just can’t wait any longer, I would suggest a Texosound , as they are as close to my amps as any out there. They may not be as “pretty”, but well … maybe I’m “biased”.
Another BIG piece of the puzzle is, of course, the speaker and cabinet. I’d like to talk about these items a little bit. For me, this story also started several decades back when both I and the other guitar player in my high school band bought new Fender Twin Reverbs. They were the same amps, but his sounded like mule turds, and mine rocked … plus it was EASILY twice as loud. The difference was that mine had those glorious JBL/Fender D120F speakers; his, I presume were probably Utah or early Eminence speakers. I never forgot this lesson. The speaker matters … it is of paramount importance, this fact cannot be to strongly emphasized. Fast forward to about five years back. I was reviewing a speaker for Vintage Guitar magazine, and I don’t believe I’ve EVER been so impressed by a guitar speaker. It was, in a word, perfect! The company was Warehouse Guitar Speakers (WGS), and soon I was contracted to be the official “Tone Guru” for WGS. In these five or so years, I have acquired what I honestly believe to be a PhD level knowledge of speaker designs, and how they interact with various tube stages and cabinet designs. This knowledge is at the heart of the tone of my amps.
So let’s talk cabinets. As far as I am concerned, the finger-jointed pine cabs with light-weight floating baffles and open backs … what we now usually refer to as the “narrow-panel tweed” Fender amps, has never been topped. These amps sing, and when properly tuned resonate in a way that truly interacts with both amplifier and player alike. It’s a glorious thing. Here is where I need to give a shout out to my cabinet maker, Jim Lundin. I knew I wanted unfinished cabs constructed more-or-less like narrow-panel tweed cabs, but Jim really knew how to take it to the next level. So, once again, we find an essential ingredient in the making of the Vaughn Skow Sound.
And so, the real “secret” as to why my amps sound as absolutely gorgeous as they do is quite a number of pieces coming together to form the “Perfect Amp”.
After many years as the "Tone Guru" at Warehouse Guitar Speakers, I've now turned my attention to the "other" guitar transducer, the pickup. I truly believe that nothing dictates the voice of an electric guitar as much as the pickup does, just as nothing dictates the voice of an amp as much as the speaker does.
I will always remember my first trip to the
Country Music Hall of Fame, where they had
Les Pauls historic proof-of-concept guitar,
"The Log" on display. The guitar had no body,
and was intended to prove that it was the
pickups that influenced the sound in an
electric guitar more than the body, wood, etc.
That's a lesson that has stuck with me,
Thank you Mr. Les Paul.