So - I have started to play in a Mid-Life Crisis Band - too much fun, great drummer, wonderful bassist - life is Good.
We play our first gig - great turnout, really well received - again, life is Good. I live close to NYC and I have a friend in town who owns a recording studio in NYC - he has produced records for David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Cindy Lauper, The Cure and a bunch of other bands. I am pleased to report that he thought we were great - very cool. He then offers great feedback - “You need to get a new amp - that amp isn’t cutting it for you”. (I play a MESA/Boogie - a great, top of the line amp, but kind of a “Jack of all Trades, Master of none” kind of amp - sounds good in all kinds of settings, and very reliable, but not as definitive as, say a vintage Vox, Marshall or Fender amp.) I decide to take his coaching seriously - jeez, wouldn’t you?
So I write to a friend from business school who lives in TN and has an amp collection of over 200 vintage British amps (!). I also write to my friend who I played with for a bit who is much younger than me and decide to take a stab at going pro and is currently on tour with his band in the UK and being considered to be aired on MTV (again - !). Both offer a bunch of suggestions regarding amps I should consider. My pro friend also recommend I call Ultra Sound practice studios - they also sell amps, and you can rent a practice room (sound proof, of course) and try out the amps at a reasonable volume and really check 'em out. I call and make an appointment for today…
So I call my friend the record producer - “look, you don’t like my amp - YOU come down and listen with me” - he is my “ears” to help me audition a bunch of amps - he agrees.
We show up. I was thinking - I show up, the guy puts me and my buddy in a room with a ton of amps, loans me a guitar, points out about 5 minutes’ worth of difference between amp types and leaves me to check 'em out.
The guy, Gene, knows more about amps that I knew was possible. We spend the first 45 minutes with him asking me questions about my playing and him lecturing us about how to think about amps (my producer friend is taking notes because he needs to know this stuff when producing bands!).
Then - he says “okay - so you want to try out a few amps?” Of course I say yes. He said “okay, you want to try a Les Paul and a Strat” (I actually wanted to try a Strat and Les Paul Special with P90 pickups, but he didn’t have one around) so I said “yeah - sure, that’d be great.”
So what did he bring out?
Are you ready? You are going to shit.
A '59 Les Paul Sunburst and a '61 Fiesta Red Custom Color, Slab Board Strat, both in mint condition. I just about shit. The most amazing playing experience I have ever had. Both were amazing and sounded and played great. I got to play two of the most desirable, important guitars ever produced - easily over $200,000 worth of guitars - but more importantly, they sounded amazing and played liked a dream. As we were trying the various amps, he says “so, you want to know the secret of Clapton’s ‘woman tone’?” I say “um, yes please” and he says “the cheap-ass caps they used when wiring the tone control - although they were cheap they were perfect for the guitar.” He switches to the neck pickup of the '59 Les Paul (did I mention I was play a motherfucking '59 Les Paul 'burst?!?) and rolls the tone off completely. I play the lead from Sunshine of Your Love - amazing, singing, warm, violin-like. He then hands me a much newer Les Paul and does the same thing - neck pickup, tone rolled off. Dead. Mud. Awful. It was so obvious - the difference between screw-top Gallo and Bordeaux.
So I got to check out some great amps with the greatest guitars ever made (he would disagree - he went to great lengths to explain why the '56 Strat is the best year for Strats - I appreciated the education, but was too busy drooling to voice an opinion).
As for the amps - there were a lot that were great. The one that stood out to me was a handmade amp called a Komet. Costs about $3600 - yeah, I kinda got a stomach ache, too. But it did sound amazing. Would it be all that bad if I sold my kids? Really?
All in all - one of the most amazing music experiences ever…