Weekend Mod Project: BillM Blues Jr Mods, Part 1

I worked in guitar shops throughout high school and college, and began tinkering with guitar electronics soon after coworkers taught me to wield a soldering iron. After more than a decade of DIY jobs, I feel comfortable toying with the innards of most control cavities. That said, passive guitar circuits are relatively simple. Amps are another matter entirely; even the simplest designs put a guitar circuit to shame, and most amps can store a lethal electrical charge in their capacitors — even when unplugged. So I’ve generally left amp repair and mods to the experts.

As readers know, it can be hard to suppress the DIY instinct, especially when other pickers are raving about a particular mod. Recently, the itch to tinker with my Fender Blues Jr finally reached critical mass. For several years, I had read rave reviews of the so-called “BillM mods” — circuit modifications from the mind of Jr guru Bill Machrone that most players seem to agree yield a dramatic improvement in the little amp’s tone.

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Weekend Test Drive: Fender ’68 Custom Deluxe Reverb & Gibson ES-330 TD VOS

Fender ’68 Custom Deluxe Reverb and Gibson ES-330 Reviewed

I’ve posted some critical musings lately regarding recent marketing decisions from Fender and Gibson. I scorn because I love. Both companies still churn out some great products and are — for me anyway — still the point of departure for classic American electric guitar design. Last weekend I stopped by Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center, and had a chance to put two solid products from both companies through their paces.

Fender ’68 Custom Deluxe Reverb

I expressed skepticism a few weeks ago regarding the ’68 Custom Deluxe Reverb. From the online product specs, it seemed as though Fender was making a questionable decision to resurrect amps from its controversial “silverface” era. So when I saw a shiny new example of the Custom DR at Levin’s, I had no choice but to grab a Tele off the wall and plug in (though it did take some willpower to ignore the boutique offerings from Bogner and Carr sitting to either side).

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Fender Really Wants Us to Give the CBS Era Another Chance

Last month I wrote about Fender’s reissue of the Coronado and Starcaster, idiosyncratic guitars that were originally released during Fender’s controversial CBS period and have since enjoyed a cult following. Another week, another CBS-era resurrection. FMIC has brought back — in “vintage modified” form — the “silverface” amplifiers of 1968, including the Twin Reverb, Deluxe Reverb, and Princeton Reverb. This marketing decision is a little more perplexing.

Fender’s silverface (a reference to the silver control panel) amplifiers represented more than just a cosmetic departure from the “blackface” era of 1964-1967. While sharing model names, the silverfaces featured circuit tweaks that arguably affected the tone of the amps, in ways that have made them less sought-after than their predecessors (though the 1968 changes were more subtle than variations later introduced in the 70s). Granted, original silverface Fender amps have enjoyed new-found popularity in the past decade, in large part because they can be had for cheaper prices on the vintage market (while still sporting hand wired point-to-point construction). Nonetheless, the internet abounds with discussions of how to internally modify these amps to pre-CBS specs.

Fender already offers popular reissues of the ’65 Twin Reverb, Deluxe Reverb, and Princeton Reverb. These amps use modern (though less durable) printed circuit boards to keep costs down, which appears to also be the case with the new silverfaces. By contrast, the silverfaces are not strict reissues, offering tweaks not seen in the originals. For example, the ’68 Deluxe Reverb features a “modified Bassman tone stack” in one channel, which is supposed to be better suited to effects pedals. So maybe there’s something new here. Still, it seems that buyers (who may already be confused by Fender’s myriad product lines) basically have the option to purchase a cosmetically different amp, of comparable construction quality and price to the ’65 reissues, with an historically less popular (albeit functionally modified) tone profile. Am I missing something here?

Cosmetic comparison — 1966 Princeton (left) and 1974 Princeton (right).                     Image credits: Drmies and Bubba73 of the Wikimedia Commons.

Weekend Test Drive: Northern Virginia Edition

I just relocated to the DC area, and now that I’ve finished unpacking, it’s time to scope out the musical territory both in and outside the beltway. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of great guitar shops in DC proper (feel free to message me if you know differently). It turns out that Northern Virginia has a few standouts though. This past weekend I made the test drive rounds at Crossroads Guitar Store, Action Music, and the Falls Church Guitar Center. I tried out some great gear at all three shops, including electric guitars, amps, and acoustic guitars.

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Weekend Test Drive: Vox AC15 Custom and Eastman AR371CE

I love guitars and amps. Not just as musical instruments, but as examples of modern design and manufacturing (in the case of mass-produced instruments), fine craftsmanship (in the case of instruments made at least partly by hand), and in some cases as works of art. I also love visiting guitar shops on the weekend to see what’s new, shoot the proverbial sh*t with the staff, and test drive new gear. I plan on writing two types of gear reviews on this blog — in-depth reviews of gear that I’ve been able to spend significant time with (most likely because I’ve purchased it), and “weekend test drive” reviews of gear that I’ve had a chance to spend a little superficial time with in guitar shops. This first review is of the latter variety.

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