Lee Hodgeson - All About Guitar Speakers...
I've never run with the masses. I want to stand out from the crowd. At the front though, not at the back!
The thing that actively makes you most stand out (as a guitar player), in my opinion, is the loudspeaker you use, and that's the thrust (sic) of this story – my journey through tone. My journey started when I didn't realise what I had…
I was around 15 years old when I begged my dad to buy me a Marshall amp head from the local music store. It wasn't even a guitar amp; it was a PA amp! But it said Marshall on the front and Ritchie Blackmore, and one or two other guitarists (!), used a Marshall. I begged… And so my dad paid the £37 for a Marshall PA20. It sounded good but I only had a cheap guitar and, well, I didn't realise what I had (this model is, I gather, revered as a little tone monster by amp aficionados). I sold the baby Marshall a year or two later. I was stupid! I was young. I am now much older and wiser. And it is this wisdom that I'd like to share with you if I may.
The next major stop on my tone journey, after owning several Peaveys and a fairly decent valve amp (a British made Burman) was when, in 1987, I purchased a Mesa/Boogie Mk III Simulclass, loaded with an EV12L. I'm still using that same unit to this day and I can't tell you how much I love that amp – it's a monster! I should like to mention that soon after buying the Boogie, I acquired a 1964 Fender Twin Reverb (a ‘blackface') and I A-B'd them: the Fender, with its Eminence speakers, sounded beautiful and, initially, nicer than the Boogie – I was momentarily gutted! Being positive, I messed with the Boogie's tone controls, including the graphic EQ I must admit, and after a couple of minutes experimenting with different tone settings I had a gorgeous tone emanating from my Boogie: it sounded way better than the Fender! You probably don't believe me. Anyway, I soon sold the Twin and I don't regret it. But then, in 1992, disaster struck: my Boogie, along with a truckload of band gear, was stolen. I was devastated. (The one year I hadn't renewed my gear insurance policy…) Oh, I've just remembered that a friend kindly lent me a 212 Peavey combo for a week or so following the theft, and people kept telling me how good I sounded, which was scary! Anyway, I had to buy a new amp and I couldn't decide between a Mesa/Boogie MkIV and a Rivera M60. The Rivera was £800 cheaper and I couldn't ignore that fact. It even sounded slightly “better” in the store where I was trying the amps out. I should've known better than to make a judgement on an in-store experience. Don't get me wrong. The Rivera was very good. But I was soon experimenting with different loudspeakers. (The single 12” Eminence speaker inside the Rivera combo had sounded smooth but it wasn't really cutting it at gigs.) And so my quest for tone began (again!).
I tried a couple of different models of Celestion: a Sidewinder and a Classic Lead 80, the latter sounding very good sometimes (at each venue it sounded different, and I can state with conviction that my Boogie, with its EV12L, sounds great every night, everywhere!).
The next thing that happened, some 18 months later was, miracle of miracles, I found my (stolen) Boogie, in the store where I'd bought it! (I battled to reclaim it – bad experience!) I was one happy bunny! And when I got the Boogie back home I plugged it in alongside the Rivera (the latter with it's “Ninja Boost” engaged and other pull switches engaged) and upon flicking the standby switch on for my Boogie, with all due respect, it just blew the Rivera away!
I soon swapped the Rivera for a Cornell Journeyman, a 33-watt, 100% valve (4 x EL84, featuring an EF86 in the pre-amp) combo, which was fitted with a Celestion Vintage 30.
I had known Denis Cornell for some time already – I live quite close to his workshop in Southend-on-Sea, Essex – but this was when my relationship with this highly respected British amp guru really started to develop. Denis really knows what he's talking about and he has helped me (to understand) a lot over the years. Anyway, I now owned two decent valve amps: my beloved Mesa/Boogie MkIII and Cornell's flagship model, the Journeyman. The Journeyman turned out to be not for me but it did act as a host to many different loudspeakers. On reflection, I have to ask myself: why was I trying out so many different loudspeakers? With the greatest of respect to Cornell, I was obviously not quite happy with that particular combo (combination); it was a fantastic amp but it didn't really suit my needs. Still, experimenting with lots of speakers taught me a lot, as I'm about to explain. It might help you decide upon a speaker that'd suit your needs.
Celestion's Vintage 30 is, as you may know, a very popular guitar loudspeaker (Denis Cornell fits them by default to some of his amps. It's a surprisingly “pokey” speaker! I respect it but ultimately it's not for me. (I've since learned that it's actually remarkably close to a G12-H – more on which later – but it's not the same.) Incidentally, it was with a Vintage 30 that Denis and I experimented with that ‘secret' process whereby you remove the harder substance around the edge of a speaker cone, which I have mixed feelings about: it makes it smooth for high register single note leads but it creates loss of definition in chords. So, while I owned and used my Cornell Journeyman, I was fitting various speakers… To be clear, I was gigging the combo, so you can trust that I'm giving you professional feedback – a real-world ‘review' of sorts. Whatever, I tried the following speakers, all 12” models, used singly, and I'll give you a brief summary of each:
- Fane Alnico (100-watt handling!) – unremarkable.
- Kendrick ‘Black Frame' – disappointing, although I bet a pair would be great!
- Eminence (“Fender”) ‘Yellow label' (Kentucky) – tasty but rather edgy.
- Eminence (“Fender”) ‘Blue label' – “very Fender-y” (surprise, surprise!)
- JBL M121 – very sensitive, very efficient, very nice but it had a mildly annoying mid-range peak that just wouldn't go away no matter how you set the tone controls (on my amp).
- Celestion G12 Century – incredibly efficient, “too loud” almost! I call this speaker a “teenage EV” if you catch my drift.
- Celestion Blue – everyone knows, or should know about, this legendary guitar speaker… The trouble was and is, it can only handle 15 watts, no more, so I had to run my amp at half-power… I liked this speaker but used singly it wasn't overly impressive. (Digressing, at time of writing I am the UK demonstrator for Vox products and having an AC15 on loan once let me hear how a “blue” in that combo can be incredibly loud!)
Now this is where it gets particularly interesting for me and, I trust, for you too.
Eric Clapton contacted Denis Cornell personally, around 2004, to request that he build him an amp that'd be, in my words, “like an old [Eric's] Fender Twin but louder”. Subsequently I had the great privilege of being allowed, by Denis, to play through Eric's No.1 Twin (not a Twin Reverb, mind you, an early ‘50s model that was, er, 45- watts I think). At first I didn't rate it (!) but just turning up the gain a tiny bit produced the most amazing sound you've ever heard: smooth singing leads with no distortion – well, it seemed like a clean sound to my ears yet it probably had the right kind of ‘clean' distortion if you know what I'm getting at. Denis pointed out that Eric's combo had (reconditioned) Oxford loudspeakers in it, which sounded fabulous! I've never heard anything like them; they sound smooth and silky. Pertinently, Eric's request was to find speakers for the amp project that sounded like the Oxfords. It was never going to happen. Nevertheless, I was asked by Denis to lend my ears to the proceedings and Den had set up something like eight speaker cabs in his kitchen – very rock'n'roll, eh? I won't get into details here; suffice to say that various Eminence, Celestion and Jensen speakers were auditioned. But like I said, none of them sounded like the Oxfords. Well, to be fair, the Eminence Legend sounded reasonably close… Pointedly, Eric had expressed a preference for Tone Tubby loudspeakers so we obviously had to include them in the “tests”… Denis had a hemp cone model and a standard paper cone model – there's a slight difference… The hemp cone – as manufacturer A Brown Soun (no “d”) will rave about – does impart a particular kind of sound; it behaves a little differently… Now here's where I got a bit self-indulgent (sorry, but that Eric bloke could wait another half an hour!).
I just happened to have my Cornell Journeyman in the car so I dragged it in (to Denis' ever-filling kitchen!) and begged Denis to let me install the Tone Tubby into my combo. Begging didn't work so, being in the kitchen area, I grabbed a kitchen knife and… no, only joking! Seriously, Den kindly allowed me to install the bright red Tone Tubby into my combo and, once fitted, I picked up my beloved Fret-King Corona 60SP (fitted with a Wilkinson P90-style pickup in bridge position) and sat on the floor about eight feet away from the combo… I found that could turn the amp up louder and louder… and louder… I eventually turned the 30-w combo up full and just sat there for about 10 minutes wailing on my guitar: it was heaven! The pleasant surprise was that it never hurt my ears: it was loud, biting, creamy etc. yet, it wasn't remotely ear piercing. Wonderful, I thought. So I begged, I mean really, begged Den to let me keep the Tone Tubby in my combo. Seeing the kitchen knife on the table and the evil glint in my eye, Den agreed. So that was the end of my journey then? NO! My troubles had only just begun. I'll explain overleaf.
I did a recording session soon after installing the Tone Tubby: it was a country type of thing. The engineer/producer, Phil Hilborne, had mic'd up my Journeyman combo and when he raised the fader on the mixing desk in the control room, he said something like, “that sounds horrible”. You know how when your mate kids you? He jokes that your new Ferrari is crap, that sort of thing? But Phil wasn't joking, he really didn't approve of the sound. Truth be told, I knew it sounded lackluster too, but I was overly assertive: it must sound good (because Carlos Santana and Eric Clapton use them…). It did not sound good. Not terrible, just very mediocre. Furthermore, I did some country gigs over the next few weeks and people complained that they couldn't hear my guitar at the back… I sold the Tone Tubby. (Mind you, I'll never forget the sheer thrill of playing screaming leads in Denis' kitchen at full volume!)
I learned a valuable lesson in a short period of time – think about it... Also, here's some food for thought: I had occasionally taken the Cornell Journeyman down to jam sessions near London's Guitar Institute – I've been a teacher there since 1990 – and students plugging their Epiphone Casinos and other humbucker-equipped guitars into my Journeyman sounded absolutely fantastic! But I didn't sound fantastic through my own amp, which was obviously a situation that couldn't be allowed to continue. Therefore, I regrettably (?) chose to sell my Cornell Journeyman combo – it just wasn't for me. (I was continuing to use my Boogie 80% of the time anyway.)
The next stage of my tonal journey was when, upon visiting Denis Cornell's workshop some years later, I found Den working on a repair job: a reissue Fender Deluxe. Once fixed, it sounded awesome! It obviously had a Fender speaker in it but I can't recall what it was, but something makes me think that it was a slightly unusual model; maybe it was standard issue. Whatever, as with any relatively modern Fender combo, it sounded fantastic for clean, sparkly tones but it doesn't really work for over driven lead tones. They were never meant to. (You might beg to differ if discussing vintage Tweed Deluxes but that's another story.) Anyway, by sheer coincidence, Denis was working on a prototype “Deluxe-style” amp – I'd hate to call Den's designs ‘copies', especially when he puts so much time and effort, like all great designers do, into unique features – and he had this new amp just sitting, chassis alone, on his workbench. I asked to try it (plugged into Den's speaker test rig). And this is when my journey picked up speed, so to speak. Initially I couldn't resist A-B'ing it against the Fender Deluxe sitting across the room, but I soon gave that up as what I considered to be a pointless exercise. Still, Denis admitted that his new creation – which he called the Voyager 20 – was indeed “based upon a Deluxe”… Anyway, it turned out that Den had asked me round to evaluate (the sounds of) different components, capacitors mainly. To cut a long story short, I was saying, “well that sounds amazing in a Texas (SRV) kind of way… …but when you swap the capacitor it sounds much more like Larry Carlton – who I'm a massive fan of I must say and, I ought to mention, went on to play through my Cornell Voyager 20 when he did a master class in London in November 2008.
So, after having spent time experiment with different component values in the tone circuit and being suitably impressed, I turned to Den and said, “if you fit a switch (with a footswitching function) that'd give me both tone settings, then I'll buy this new amp of yours. Denis was reluctant at first because, quite rightly, believes that keeping things simple and that fitting switches or anything that's not absolutely necessary is to be avoided. But I was a paying customer… Hey, thinking of Larry's use of my amp as mentioned above, I wonder if Larry knew or cared which capacitor Den had installed (we had tried half a dozen different values)? Or whether he was using the “Larry Carlton” setting (as per my requested switch, which Den chose to call the “fat” switch”)? Ha-ha! Whatever, and coming up to the recent past now, I couldn't resist experimenting further with loudspeakers. Which is what I shall expand upon next.
The Cornell Voyager 20 came fitted with a Jensen P12N (reissue of course), which, as you may know, is a respected Alnico speaker. It sounded great for clean but less so (not bad) for overdrive/distortion. To elaborate, I'm a massive fan of Jeff Beck and the way he extracts all manner of tones… Well, I found that the Jensen P12N is fantastic at revealing a rainbow of tones and timbres: it's probably even better than my all time favourite speaker, the EV12L, in that respect. Yet, it's a bit grainy for distortion sounds, and even on clean tones it just occasionally spat out an ugly tone. I'm saying that 90% of the time I was very happy but now and again, just when I'd least expect it, the Jensen coughed out an undesirable tone! I reluctantly sold the Jensen speaker.
So, with my Cornell Voyager 20 (2 x 6V6 + GZ34 rectifier) as host amp, here's another brief summary of each loudspeaker that I've tried (actually, some auditions were done through extension cabs):
- New Fane prototype – mediocre.
- Tone Tubby (Alnico) – not withstanding my earlier comments, with my Voyager the TT sounded excellent, although I still had my doubts…
- Celestion Vintage 30 – see my earlier comments (my opinion remains the same…)
- Celestion Greenback – smooth but not quite to my liking.
- Celestion G12H-30 (Heritage Edition) – fantastic! At last, a Celestion product that I truly like! Sorry I didn't mean to sound patronising there. The G12H is, to me, rock'n'roll incarnate. (Sadly, I have one just sitting in its box under the stairs because I ultimately chose…)
- Celestion Gold (Alnico) – as you may know, this is, for all intents and purposes, “a ‘blue' that can handle 50 watts”. (I believe it was originally developed in association with John Jorgenson.) This was/is the one: I've left it in my Voyager 20 and I've no intention of removing it. Interestingly, I swear it improved, tonally speaking, after a few months gigging. (Cones do “wear in”.)
I think that about wraps it up. I'm extremely happy with both my Mesa/Boogie MkIII Simulclass combo, fitted with an EV12L – you won't get a speaker that's more powerful, clean, sensitive (I hate it when you play very quietly and the notes disappear in the mix) and articulate, yet great for overdrive too – and my Cornell Voyager 20, fitted with a Celestion Gold. I generally use one amp or the other but I bet you're wondering what they sound like together? Well, occasionally, if I'm depping for Guthrie Govan in his jazz-funk band, The Fellowship, for instance, I'll take both 112 combos out and run them in stereo (via a Lexicon Reflex) and it's a fantastic match! (The Celestion Gold is really compatible with the EV12L and, in my opinion, they sound fairly similar – which obviously reveals my sonic tastes.)
OK, I hope this article doesn't come across as being too self-indulgent; I trust it has revealed something to you or at least piqued your interest. Good luck with your own journey – is there really ever a fixed “destination” I wonder? Yes – it'd be the speaker terminal (sic)!
About Lee Hodgeson
Lee has toured with No. 1 chart act Odyssey and Top 10 chart acts Bobby Thurston and George McRae, and has jammed with Stevie Wonder's Wonderlove.
Lee Hodgson is a regularly featured columnist and transcriber in Guitar Techniques magazine and is an erstwhile columnist and transcriber for Guitarist magazine as well. He has authored a book, Hot Country, and written chapters for various modern titles including Guitar: A Complete Guide For The Player and Play Acoustic, plus grade pieces validated by Trinity College of Music.
Lee also teaches at Guitar Institute (www.guitarinstitute.com) in London.
e-mail: [email protected]