These go to Eleven

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For those not familiar with the title for this entry, I'd encourage you to check out the 1984 movie, This is Spinal Tap. It was a movie by Rob Reiner that featured a fictional heavy metal band; it was full of cliche rock-n-roll stuff and is pretty much a cult classic.

I chose the Spinal Tap reference for this entry because I've really enjoyed getting back into the world of guitar. When I first picked-up a guitar back in 1998, I had no idea what I was doing... I went and bought a Fender Squire, a cheap-o practice amp and started hacking away. Amy bought me a nice acoustic guitar, but because I didn't know what I was doing, there wasn't any point to having decent stuff. Frustrated with my lack of progress, I gave up on the guitar rather quickly.

Fast forward to 2012, when I decided to give it another try. I bought a beautiful Gibson Les Paul Studio guitar and a decent Line 6 amp. I subscribed to online lessons and spent a lot of time searching YouTube for other lessons and pointers. I've been playing an average of 2-3 hours per day and have been picking-up things rather quickly.

I love - LOVE - the Gibson Les Paul, but I wanted a guitar that was a little "faster" - something more suited to heavier music. So, I went to the Guitar Center and spent nearly 5 hours testing guitars. I chose an Ibanez in natural ash - it's thin, fast, and sounds absolutely chunky (in a good way).

Ibanez.jpg

That guitar really emulates the classic Ratt tone - I love playing songs like Lack of Communication, Back for More, and Round and Round on it. It's so fun.

When I'm not practicing or playing around on the guitar, I'm reading about guitar history, technology, and components. During my time spent researching and reading, I stumbled across a rare amplifier set as manufactured by Marshall, called a "micro stack."

If you've ever seen a music video, or been to a rock concert, it's likely that you've seen the "wall" of guitar amplifiers. Those are called "stacks" and they typically consist of an amplifier (or "head") and two cabinets, all of which are stacked on one another - hence the "stack" name.

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A typical Marshall cabinet consists of 4 speakers, in either a 10" or 12" size (per speaker)... so, a 4x12" cabinet might stand 3 to 3.5 feet tall. Stack two cabinets on one another and add the head, and you've got a stack that will easily stand 7-feet tall. The amplifiers usually run around 100-watts of power, and due to their design, don't really sound good until they're cranked-up to nearly "10."

The problem with that is you can't easily play/practice in a residential area... 100-watts of guitar power is literally deafening. Running a stack at a low volume usually sounds rather crummy.

Enter my research and the micro stack that I stumbled across. The good folks at Marshall introduced a micro stack in 1985, and it consisted of a 12-watt head with two cabinets that each housed a single 10" speaker. The net result was a stack that stood 3.5 feet tall and could be played at reasonable volumes while still sounding good.

The 12-watt system (called the "Lead 12") was produced from 1985 to 1991, before being "upgraded" to a 15-watt system (called the "Lead 15"). Unfortunately, the 15-watt units sounded terrible - they were manufactured in China (rather than the UK) and are considered to be inferior to the Lead 12. The Lead 15 is still manufactured today, and they sell for around $400.

I wasn't interested in a Lead 15... so I set about searching for a Lead 12. As you can imagine, they're not readily available... collectors have snatched them all up, and there weren't that many to begin with. I bid on (and lost) two Lead 12's on eBay; one sold for $564, another for $618. Yikes!

I turned to craigslist, and after a good week of searching, found a Lead 12 in Denver. I called the guy and discovered his Lead 12 had an interesting back story. Apparently, the stack belonged to Sebastian Bach - lead singer of the 80's hair metal band, Skid Row. The guy claimed that his brother was a roadie for Skid Row and that Sebastian used this particular Lead 12 as a practice amp while the band toured.

When the touring ended, Sebastian gave it to this guy's brother, who then gave it to this guy. It sat in a basement for 20 years before being offered for sale on craigslist... I asked if he could substantiate the story, and the guy said he had hundreds of photos of him and his brother hanging out with the likes of Skid Row, Motley Crue, and Great White. Hmm. Well, regardless of the story, I decided to buy the stack for $225 and asked Kelly (Amy's sister) if she'd pick it up for me and bring it to Wisconsin over the Christmas break.

Kelly arrived in Wisconsin last Sunday and delivered the stack to me. Here it is in all of its original, dirty, smoky, and musty glory:

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The picture doesn't do it justice, but the thing was filthy. After testing it to see if it worked (it did), I spent a solid 4-5 hours cleaning it with toothbrushes, Q-tips, rags, soap, and a lot of elbow grease. When I was done, it looked like this:

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It sounded good, but something was amiss... on heavier notes, I detected a "flopping" noise - as if a speaker was rattling or something like that. I did some troubleshooting and determined the potentiometers ("knobs") needed replacement. It's a common issue with the old amps... So, I went to eBay and ordered a replacement set for $45 - they should be here next week.

I also went about researching the serial number for more information. This head has a serial number of W03787 - the "87" means it was manufactured in 1987, and the "037" means it was amp #37 made that year. If rumors are correct, units 0-50 were made for artists, of which Sebastian Bach would've been one of. So, perhaps the story is true...

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I played the stack quite a bit last week - I really liked the sound of it, floppiness and all. It had a great 1980's metal sound; very much like what you hear when you listen to bands like AC/DC, Dokken, Guns 'n Roses, and Ratt. Crunchy with just a little buzz. I also really like the way it looks exactly like a full stack - they did a great job with the look and feel of it.

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When I returned home yesterday, I fired-up the 'ole computer to find information about a few other bands that I really like and am trying to learn how to play songs from: Chevelle and Metallica. Well, it turns out that they both have something in common: Mesa Boogie.

Mesa Boogie is a California-based company that manufactures incredible amplifiers and speaker cabinets. Their deepest, darkest sounding lines are the Rectifier and Mark series. Unfortunately, a Rectifier cabinet runs around $1200 and a Mark V head runs around $2400... a little more than I'd care to spend, especially given my hack status.

On a whim, I decided to check craigslist again, and wouldn't you know it, but I found a Mesa rectifier cabinet for sale in Milwaukee. I called, and the owner still had it. After some haggling, I decided to drive in and look at it. It was in great condition, and after some additional negotiation, I left Milwaukee with a 2x12" Rectifier cabinet in my possession (I paid less than $300 for it).

Here's what my living room looked like last night as I was testing it out. I stole the Marshall head to power the speaker and it sounded incredible. That little 12-watt head did a phenomenal job with the big Mesa cabinet:

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The Mesa cabinet has a super tight, deep, dark sound. It's truly shocking to hear how different it sounds from the two Marshall cabinets. I also noticed the head sounded fine - it didn't have the floppy sound that it has when connected to the stack... which leads me to believe the stack may have a speaker issue. Hmm... I'll still replace the potentiometers, but I may have to search for a replacement speaker or two. :-(

Unable to sleep last night, my fingers sore from playing for nearly 5 hours, I started searching for a head that I could dedicate to the Mesa cabinet. I didn't want to use the Marshall with the Mesa because the Marshall head is a 16-ohm unit (the Mesa cabinet is 8-ohm), and I'd prefer to keep the Marshall stack as its own unit.

Thanks to the internet, I "auditioned" several potential candidates to power the Mesa cabinet - Orange (from the UK), Mesa (California), Hughes and Kettner (Germany), Peavy (Mississippi), and Randall (USA).

Each had their merits, but the Orange series sounded the best to me and seemed to get the most rave reviews, especially the "Terror" series of amps.

The Orange "Terror" line consists of several amps that fall into the "lunchbox" category. They're called lunchbox amps because of their size - they're literally the size of an old school metal lunch box, yet they pack a wallop.

For heavy metal tones and bodacious power, it seemed as though the Orange "Dark Terror" was the way to go. It featured a tube pre-amp system and a 15-watt tube power stage. I decided to drag my 100-pound Mesa cabinet over to the local Guitar Center so that I could audition some Orange heads.

Wow. The reviews and online demos didn't do the Orange any justice. The thing was an absolute beast. It had a scary sound - pure evil metal, but in a really good way. Crunchy, dark, bowel stirring. Delicious. It was also loud - painfully loud. Set to "2" on the scale, it was literally screaming. I had no doubt this thing could ignite an earthquake... I had to get it.

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It looks innocent enough, but believe me - it's an absolute beast.

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That evil orange power indicator has an ominous glow to it. Pure awesomeness.

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The switch to the right allows you to choose between 7 and 15 watts. I tried the 15-watt setting for about 2 minutes but couldn't handle it... while it sounds amazing, it's simply too loud for in-home use. Those tubes can really crank out some serious power!

And speaking of tubes - here's a top view of the power tubes as seen through the top of the head. The tubes are the silver-ish cylinders (there are 5):

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And here's my wall of sound, all together. I love it. I should probably get back to playing and practicing.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steve published on December 30, 2012 9:39 PM.

Snowmageddon was the previous entry in this blog.

Where did January (and February) go? is the next entry in this blog.

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