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TUBE AMP MODS

MODS and ODDS

Much as the Hot-Rod enthusiast is forever tinkering with his wheels to be just a little different,
so are guitar players forever tinkering with their guitars and amplifiers in an effort to be just a
little different. We are always swapping pickups trying to get the sound that will put us one step
ahead of the other poor soul who doesnt yet know of the latest big thing. We look out for the
latest pedal that will give us the overdrive sound of a vintage tube amplifier cranked up (rather
than just crank up the amplifier itself). We are usually just one string gauge, or one NOS tube
change away from being the next guitar God. And amplifier mod merchants lure us over to their
benches with Svengali promises of sounding like the latest guitar hero. Since tube guitar amplifiers
are the easiest thing in the world to play with, many gurus have come out of the woodwork.
Some have exceptional ideas, while others just add a 12AX7 to the input of your Marshall. And
then there are also those with little or no tube training/experience, yet firmly believe that their
vast solid-state experience can help you make your tube amplifier better. It seems to have helped
their wallet more, and thankfully these toys get relegated to the dust bin in due course.

Somehow, ideas like this were supposed to


make a tube amplifier sound better. They didnt.

There are tube gurus who have made more money selling their Do-It-Yourself modification kits
than they have by repairing or building amplifiers. Boutique amplifier builders shroud themselves
in mystery with concealed circuitry (putting silicone over components so we cant trace out a
schematic) and voodoo mantra about proprietary components. When you finally do get to see a
schematic, it looks suspiciously like any Fender.

Most tube amplifiers have the same phase inverter and output stage circuit. Its thepreamplifier
circuit that differs amongst them.

T he following are just a few very simple modifications that may open up your little Fender (and
Fender-type) amplifier. They are all easily reversible if you decide you dont like the effect the
modification yields. By doing any mod to the Reverb channel, you still have the Normal channel
to compare your work up against. This applies to all of the rest of these modification ideas. Always
keep in mind that the standard preamplifier circuit should yield more than enough driving voltage
to achieve the full output your amplifier is capable of. These ideas are offered as suggestions for
possible ways to drive your amplifier into clipping and beyond. In other words, you wont get more
watts from your little Deluxe Reverb, just more distortion. Beyond a certain point, everything will
sound mushier. Know when to say when, and realize that the crazy tweak you thought of
yesterday was probably thought of over at Fender years ago. If your soldering iron is ready, lets go
one stage at a time through a typical Fenderamplifier!

Most older Fender amplifiers look very similar on the outside


and on the inside!

Simple Fender-style input circuit.

T his is the basic input circuit common to 99% of all tube guitar amplifiers. It is also a wonderful
place to begin tweaking our amplifier to suit our tastes and sonic goals. The standard Fender
values since the late 1800s have been 68K for R1 and R2, and 1 Meg for R3. Mesa Boogie years
ago had absolutely no series input resistor (R2) on their single input MkI amplifiers (Input 2 and R1
werent used). This hits the first tube a lot harder, with quite a boost in comparison. You may
want something a little more subtle, so I suggest replacing R2 with a 10K, and R3 with a 2.2Meg.
This way, you have a modest boost at Input 1.

A n interesting arrangement is the circuit shown below, where Input 1 is the Bright input, and
Input 2 is the Normal input. Peavey used this idea in their Classic 50amplifiers, and it works well.
R1 is 47K, R2 is 100K, R3 is 5.6Meg, and C1 is .005uF or .01uF. You can play with the values a little
until you find the tone you like, but be careful. The first stage cathode should not have a bypass
capacitor. This is a little different than the Marshall 4-Input system, where the Normal and
Bright inputs feed different sections of a 12AX7. There, the circuit above is used twice, and the
Bright channel cathode bypass and/or coupling capacitor are chosen to yield a brighter tone. If
12AX7s are plentiful in your amplifier, the choice is yours. Should you not be so lucky, the circuit
below is a pretty simple way of attaining added flexibility.
Normal/Bright input option.

Some very early/crude amplifiers have a volume control immediately following the input jacks, but
typically the following ubiquitous circuit is seen;

Very standard voltage amplifier stage.

Standard values are R1 is 100K, R2 is 1500-ohms, C1 is .022uF (or higher), and C2 is 25uF (or
higher). Remember, C2 is not there at all if you have the Normal/Brite input jack option seen
above. This is because you are close to having grid-leak bias on the tube, courtesy of the Brite
input capacitor. R3 is either a 1Meg resistor, or a 1Meg volume control. There are many postings
on newsgroup bulletin boards for suggested mods for smaller Fender amplifiers such as the new
Blues Junior. Many aspiring technicians immediately go for the jugular, and increase R1 to 220K.
While this does work quite well, there are usually other places further on down the line that have
ample gain not being used. Keep in mind that the combination of R1, C1, and R3 form a Thevenin
equivalent circuit to the input of the following stage. Increasing R1 would require a decrease in the
value of C1 in order to maintain exactly the same frequency response. That said, a popular mod
idea is increasing the plate load (R1) and reducing C2 just enough for a more biting lead guitar
sound (R1 provides the overdrive, C2 provides the bite). You can also switch a large value C2
in/out of the circuit, as the Fat switch on the Fender Tone Master amplifiers do. The following is a
brief summary of the effects of altering each component value from the circuit above;

Component Increase Value Decrease Value

Increase gain, to a Decrease gain.


R1 (typ point. Risk of current Too low a plate load will cause the tube to
100K) starved amplifier. draw much more current.

Lower gain/increase
R2 (typ 1.5K) bias. Decrease bias.

In conjunction with
R3 (typ C1, increase bass In conjunction with C1, decrease bass
1Meg) response. response.

Increase bass
C1 (typ response, risk of Decrease bass response, risk of a thin
.022uF) motorboating. sound.

Not much you can Decrease low frequency gain.


C2 (typ 25uF) actually hear. Result can be a treble peaking circuit.

In some high gain boogie type designs, the danger of high frequency oscillation is met and dealt
with by adding what old-timers refer to as snubbing capacitors. They work, but at the risk of
removing high end sparkle or sheen to your tone. They can either be across the plate load
resistor (as seen below) or from plate to grid. My preference is to either have a lead layout that
avoids any of these oscillations, or reduce the preamplifier gain. Values for snubbing capacitors
range from 250pF up to 1000pF. This idea is also seen in many Fender phase inverters. Wait and
see.
Snubber capacitor (seen in red) removes high frequency oscillations, but also some sparkle
from the tone.

I n multi-stage amplifiers, and where aspiring technicians were hot for adding 12AX7s, a voltage
divider is often seen between stages. In older pawn shop type amplifiers, this was done to
prevent preamplifier distortion. In high gain amplifiers, this is usually necessary to prevent your
amplifier from farting when the preamp controls are dimed. This is usually caused by what is
called Blocking Distortion.

Voltage Divider can prevent preamplifier overloading.

If C1 is present, it is referred to as a treble peaking circuit. Marshall used this idea in their
amplifiers because the standard Bassman circuit (that Marshall borrowed) featured too much
preamplifier drive for EL34s. This circuit cut down on the drive voltage, and gave a nice treble
boost for a guitar amplifier copying the circuit from an intended bass amplifier. The standard
values are 470K for R1 and R2, and 470pF for C1, although anything that tames the preamplifier
enough can be standard values. Experiment. In your no name amplifier, removing the voltage
divider may be just what the Doctor ordered! Just make sure on the following stage that you have
some kind of grid resistance to ground, OK? Dont go higher than 2.2Meg, unless you want to get
into contact bias.

Hi-Fi tube amplifiers often have no tone controls, and carefully design the stages to have a flat
frequency response.
Tone controls are typically next in the circuit, and probably yield the most options for tweaking.
The early Fender amplifiers used a simple, crude treble cut control (still labeled Tone), like so;

Crude Tone control is actually Treble Cut.

The Treble Cut control may not necessarily be in the preamplifier stages. Vox put a similar control
across the output tubes. Typically, the Treble Cut control is a 500K/1Meg potentiometer, with a
.005uF capacitor. The capacitor value is wide open for experimentation. It can be used for a very
subtle treble cut, or a Deep Rhythm tone, as was emphasized on the Telecaster guitar tone
controls (another example of a crude treble cut). Later, the Tweed era circuitry gave a whole new
advanced set of tone options, with fancy features like a Bass control! Actually, these circuits were
borrowed from the home audio industry, which had been using them for years, and they looked
something like this;

Tweed era tone control circuit was first found in Hi-Fi amplifiers and later seen in Ampeg SVTs.

You can obtain the values from any similar Tweed-era schematic from Ampeg, Gibson, etc. While
Fender didnt use this circuit verbatim, they did use similar ideas, but eventually went to the
Blackface era controls. I prefer this circuit hands down to the Blackface tone controls (see
below). The Tweed circuit has much less insertion loss, and by playing with the value of the
resistor between the Bass and Treble control (if its not the usual 100K) you can minimize the
interaction of the tone controls. I also like this circuit because you can use all 1Meg controls
(Treble, Bass, Volume). This simplifies your stocking arrangement. A typical Middle resistor is 47K
or 56K, so a control pot is possible. You can easily play with the value of a fixed resistor to get the
midrange response you like. The mid 60s Fender Blackface controls looked like this;
Standard Blackface era tone control circuit.

This setup had huge insertion losses, to the point that an early mod favorite (that eventually
showed up in the Mesa Boogie MkI) was to send the ground end of the middle resistor/control pot
to a footswitch. This could lift the ground from the tone circuit, effectively removing the entire
tone control section from the signal path, resulting in a huge boost. Of course your tone controls
arent functioning in this mode, but for many the effect was well worth it. As a side note, if you
use a switch to lift the ground from the middle resistor in the Tweed tone circuit, the Treble
control will still function, and youll receive a nice boost suitable for lead work. The Tweed
Bassman (andMarshall) circuit fed the tone controls from a cathode follower, or the output was
taken from the cathode as opposed to the plate loaded circuit shown above. This results in a little
less insertion loss, but thats about it. The slope resistor will determine where the dip in the
response curve will occur, and to what attenuation level. I usually leave this resistor alone, since I
dont like the Blackface tone circuit. If you want to play with the capacitor values or slope resistor
value, you wont hurt anything. Typical Fender values are 250pF for the Treble capacitor, a .1uF for
the Bass and Middle capacitors, and 100K for the slope resistor. Lowering the slope resistor tends
to make the tone appear more midrangey. Try 47K or 56K and find out if you can hear the
difference and prefer it to 100K. Marshall used .022uF capacitors and a 56K slope resistor for their
characteristic midrange honk. Finally, the Blackface era tone control is the beginning of actual
Fender patented circuits, and for my tastes when thing started going wrong. Of course, a few years
later Fender proved that there was something even worse than a Blackface design a Silverface
design. (This is one more of my personal opinions and another story altogether.)

All tone control circuits suffer from insertion loss. Thats the sacrifice you make for being able to
adjust the frequency response.

Immediately following the tone controls on most Blackface Fender amplifiers was another simple
voltage amplifier stage. This was done to make up for the losses in the tone control circuit.
Succeeding this stage was a mixer or summing resistor that along with a similar resistor from
the Reverb channel fed the phase inverter. It is usually 220K, and is there to prevent the two
channels from interacting with one another.
Mixer/Summing resistors common to Blackface Fenders.

A few uneducated people have a marvelous mod whereby removing the first 12AX7 (belonging to
the Normal channel) gives a very modest boost to the Reverb channel. They erroneously state
that this works because the voltage on the preamplifier stages in the Reverb channel will increase
without the Normal channel 12AX7 in place. The typical current draw on any preamplifier stage is
never more than about 1 or 2mA. You wont ever know about the piddly little voltage increase.
This mod works because without the Normal channel 12AX7 in place, the signal from the
Reverb channel cant bleed back through the Normal channel as much and get loaded down.
The summing resistors dont work perfectly, and this is one more reason I much prefer the Tweed
circuitry. But lets move along, shall we?

On Fender amplifiers equipped with Reverb, the Reverb is fed from the tone controls in a parallel
circuit similar to that shown below. The combination 10pF/3.3Meg network is necessary,
otherwise the Reverb circuit would be swamped out. This is an interesting area to attempt at
increasing the gain through the amplifier. By loweringthe 3.3 Meg resistor (and increasing the
10pF capacitor) we increase the gain of the preamplifier, at the expense of reducing the Reverb
driving signal. Unless you play with your Reverb control on 10, and still need more Reverb, you
can live with a little less, right? Start with 2.2Meg/20pF and work from there. It has been said that
with this modification in place, the average guitar player who set his Reverb control on 3 now
needs to set his Reverb control on 4.

Reverb circuit has definite potential for modification yielding more gain, but less Reverb. So
what?

Phase inverters have had a very interesting evolution. We began with transformer coupled output
stages, and then we had simple split load phase inverters, that looked like this;
Simple, yet effective Split-Load Phase Inverter.

This simple setup uses only 1/2 of a 12AX7, and frees up the second half for other ideas we may
have. It is still used today, in the Peavey Classic 50. A few magazine articles and books written by
hyper-active cheerleaders who moonlight as wannabe tube engineers suggest that R2=R3+R4 for
improved performance. Dont worry about it. Every phase inverter is not balanced quite
perfectly. The split-load phase inverter actually has awful balancing properties, but sounds great
for guitar amplifiers. Using typical values, R1 is 470K/1Meg, R3 is 1K/1500 ohms, and R2 and R4
are anything from 47K to 100K. Using 100K results in the least losses, but your gain from this stage
will always be less than 1. Output 2 can be taken from either the top of R4 (as shown) or the top
of R3. The old-time theory was that you chose the output spot that yielded the best balance
between the two outputs, and that had the least distortion. Try it out at home, and scope the
results. Can you see a difference? Play the amplifier with both setups. Can you hear a difference?
The biggest concern from wannabe engineers was that the frequency response from both outputs
would never be the same, because the effective plate impedance and the effective cathode
impedance are not equal. This would mean that the Thevenin equivalent time constants, and
hence the frequency responses, are not equal. To quote one of my tube mentors. It worked
for Fender and everybody else for 900 years, so why fuck with it? Good enough for me. My
theory is that since I like the old-style tube circuits, Im better off to stick with the old-style tube
circuits. Ill let the wannabe engineers reinvent the wheel.

Long-Tail phase inverter has much more gain than other circuits.

The standard Fender cathode coupled phase inverter (aka long tail) is shown above. Standard
plate load resistors are 82K for R1 and 100K for R2. The mismatch of plate loads is done in an
attempt to balance the two outputs. Since the plate load of 82K is not quite the same as the
cathode load of about 22K, the plate load of the cathode input side is raised to 100K to try and
have the same output level as the grid input side. Some Bassmans used 47K for both R1 and R2.
This works a little better, but gain is sacrificed. The resistor labeled Presence? is typically 100
ohms. In the Tweed Bassman circuit (and Marshall) this resistor was raised to 4700 ohms. This did
a few things all at the same time;

It reduced the driving voltage (good in an EL34 Marshall).

It balanced the two outputs slightly better.

It made the way for an easy Presence control to be added.

No phase inverter is balanced perfectly, even in Hi-Fi equipment.

The balancing of the two outputs is not a matter of life and death, seeing as the output
transformer wont be perfectly balanced. The adding of a Presence control gives a little more
flexibility, but even with a 100-ohm resistor in this spot a Presence control is still possible (it
would need to use about a 1uF capacitor). Of course you know about trying different phase
inverter tubes. The standard Fender Blackface phase inverter is a 12AT7. A 12AX7 will give more
drive, and a 12AU7 will give less drive. Sometimes across the phase inverter plates will be seen
either a 47pF or a 100pF snubbing capacitor, that we were introduced to earlier. This was done
over at Fender to facilitate speedy production methods. Rather than learn neat and tidy lead
layout, the capacitor was added as an insurance measure to guarantee a stable amplifier. You have
a 50% chance of cutting it out and not having an oscillating amplifier, but instead getting a little
high end sparkle or sheen back. Most people dont notice the difference, though. As a final
thought, I have seen snubbing capacitors through every amplifier stage and even across the output
tubes as well. What ever worked for the prototype amplifier was used in the production run.

Phase inverter snubbing capacitor (seen in red) facilitates a stable amplifier built in a hurry.

Some recent Fender designs attempt to balance the phase inverter with a circuit that looks like the
standard circuit, but adds one resistor like this;
It looks like a typical phase inverter.

The added resistor (Rx) forms a voltage divider for the Output 1, or grid input side. Here, R2 is still
100K, but now R1 is 91K and Rx is 9.1K. Many technicians miss this little resistor, and in the phase
inverter this is no big deal. However, many Bassman heads had the same idea applied to a voltage
amplifier stage, and this really neuters the gain/tone. You can really open up things when you
locate and banish this offending resistor.

I have read many articles pertaining to various output stage coupling methods, other than plate
loaded, and wondered why none were in use today. I suppose the best answer is that the plate-
loaded setup was the most efficient. In a 50s era Audio Anthology Magazine, a circuit was
suggested for a single ended 6V6 amplifier that was cathode loaded. The output transformer
recommended was a 5K primary unit, a standard value. However, when I actually built the circuit,
the output was very clean and about 21/2 watts. The article mentioned that the benefits of this
cathode coupled output stage were;

Improved low frequency response.

Improved high frequency response.

Improved damping.

100% degenerative feedback.

This all sounds wonderful (no pun intended), but the efficiency of the circuit is still terrible. Stick
with plate loaded output stages. With high powered amplifiers (Marshall, Twin Reverb, Showman,
etc.) everyone is looking for a way to tame the wattage without sacrificing the tone. The idea of
pulling a pair of output tubes is fine enough, but there are better ideas out there. First of all I
would switch a pair of tubes off rather than pull them. Secondly, a DPDT Center Off switch
yields possibilities that are far more imaginative and interesting. Make sure to mount the power
resistors on the chassis with a little heat sink grease, and keep the capacitor(s) away from the
resistor(s). You now have switching between three power output levels. Use the other 1/2 of the
switch for the other pair of output tubes (make sure they are paired properly), and dont worry
about the bias.
Switching arrangement has imagination and interesting possibilities.

Fender Twin Reverb/Showman owners trying to reduce the power output levels can also use the
following circuit variation. This works only on non-bridge rectifier circuits, and is more clever than
removing two output tubes. You could also use this circuit where you want Tweed B+ levels, with
reduced output wattage and browner tones in any Fender amplifier, especially the reissue
Bassman.

Fender Twin/Showman voltage reduction method.

Feedback circuits can get complicated, and enough articles have been written that you should
have an idea what you want to accomplish here. My advice is to scope the output waveform and
decide where on the Volume control you want the amplifier to break up. Then using a decade
box, determine how much feedback you need. If you have a little too much preamplifier gain, and
the amplifier compresses at high volumes, either reduce the drive voltage or add a little more
feedback until the compression doesnt occur. I will say that some Bassman heads used the
feedback circuit below to increase the low end frequency response. If you plan on using the
amplifier for guitar, replace it with a conventional feedback circuit. Trust me, youll thank me later.

Icky sounding feedback circuit. Remove the capacitor, please!

One of my favorite mods for the feedback circuit was designed around a few tweed Fender
amplifiers. The Champ (5E1, 5F1), Harvard (6G10), and Princeton (5E23, 5F2, 5F2A) amplifiers of
this era were all similar electronically, and contained a feed back circuit shown below, complete
with my modification suggestion installed.
Feedback circuit mod works well with certain tweed Fender amplifiers.

The circuit works very nicely and requires an extremely modest parts list. Build a stomp-box type
footswitch, using a simple SPST footswitch and a 1/4 jack. With the footswitch open, the
amplifier is stock. By closing the footswitch, we get a great boost for lead work from two sources:

Negative feedback is effectively removed from the circuit, giving approximately a 3dB
voltage gain.

A bypass capacitor is added to the cathode of the tube, giving another voltage gain of 3dB.

The circuit can also work with the 5E7 Bandmaster, the 5E6 Bassman, the 5E5A Pro, the 5E4A and
5F4 Super, and the 5D8 Twin amplifiers, just remember that the Presence control doesnt work in
the Lead mode. You could also play with the value of the capacitor, thus voicing the Lead mode
to taste. The footswitch is detailed below. Use any shielded guitar cord you have laying around the
house between the amplifier and the footswitch. Finally, keep in mind this voltage gain does not
equal more watts from your amplifier (as mentioned earlier, none of these mods do that). This
modification yields way more driving voltage to the output tubes, thus driving the output stage
into distortion, something earlier manufacturers tried to avoid. Were just putting some in!

Although Im sure you would have figured it out, here is a footswitch pictorial.

Tube rectifiers receive much credit for the vintage sound from those who ascribe to the
tonefulness of a GZ34 over a 1N4007. Reissue amplifiers often come with a plug-in rectifier
option to appease everybody. Unfortunately, this doesnt really work. Older amplifier designers,
under the delusion that we would never turn our amplifiers up to 10, cut their final costs by
utilizing a light-duty power supply. Turning to our RCA tube manual, a pair of 6V6s, at full output,
draw about 92mA of plate current. Screen grid current will add another 13.5mA. Since 12AX7s
draw a negligible amount of current, we can use 105mA as the number. Adding on a 50% safety
factor, we would normally require a power supply capable of furbishing about 155mA of DC
current. Of course, seeing as we wont be playing our amplifier at full output, we can use a
transformer rated at about the original 90/100mA, and save quite a few dollars. This is exactly
what early tube amplifiers did. Also, in days of yore, large value filter capacitors were very
expensive. Engineers chose the smallest value filter that would just get rid of the 60/120Hz hum.
Early Fenders can been found with preamplifier filters as low as 8uF! Modern amplifiers will use
much higher values of filtering, as capacitors today are much smaller physically, and cost far less
than their ancestors. Later Fenders (Blackface) would use the following typical rectifier circuit;

Partial typical Fender Black-Face power supply.

Part of the real secret to great vintage guitar amplifier tone is the underdesigned power supply.
When you crank up the smaller powered amplifier to play in the modern gigging environment, the
power supply sags, and you get the wonderful power amp distortion thrown in for good
measure. There are sonic trade-offs, however. The audible result of having a high power supply
impedance is a mushy bass response at high volume levels and a peak compression. However, if
you grew up with classic Rock n Roll albums, you heard underdesigned power supplies with a
high impedance. If youre the type that wants to build a better mouse-trap, power supply
impedance can be reduced in any of a number of ways.

Decreasing the rectifier resistance (using a 5AR4 instead of a 5U4, or using FRED rectifiers).

Decreasing the winding resistance of the power transformer (using a transformer rated for
more current).

Increasing the filter capacitor values.

Of course reducing the winding resistance yourself is highly impractical, but a point to be taken
anyway. You can get a transformer rated for the same voltages, but more current, to achieve the
same results. Some people like a tight power supply that doesnt sag, using their amplifier more as
tone reproducer than a producer of its own tones. Those folks can use FRED rectifiers and increase
the filter capacitance in their amplifiers. These steps arent quite necessary today with most
modern and reissue amplifiers. These amplifiers usually have a low-impedance rock-solid power
supply that cant sag, even by plugging in a tube rectifier on dual-rectifier models. Many posting
on the Internet Newsgroups alt.guitar.amps and AMPAGE enquire about putting a tube rectifier
in their silver-faced Fenders to soften things up. It can sometimes be done without adding an
auxiliary heater transformer (regardless of what the other guru types may think), but below is a
far simpler (and much better) solution.

Sag resistor works as well as tube rectifiers, with much less hassle.

Mesa Boogie used similar principles, calling their switch something like BOLD/SPONGY. Value of
the resistor depends on how solid the rest of the power supply is, and the threshold of when you
want the sag to kick in. A good starting point is 100-ohm/10 watt. I sometimes reduce the filter
capacitor(s) value while Im at it. Be careful not to go too low, or hum will result. You then have
two threshold levels of sag, as well as the sloppy bottom end common to vintage amplifiers.
Reissue Bassmans with reduced filtering and a 200-ohm/10 watt resistor can have more sag than
Grandmas triceps!

There are ways to induce sag into the amplifier circuit other than going through the bother of
adding a tube rectifier.

There are many other modifications possible to your little Fender. You can easily find magazine
articles giving ideas that will keep your soldering iron going the whole weekend. I have given you
just a small sampling of how I like to go through an amplifier and tweak it up for my tastes. I will
add to/remove from this sampling according to time/space allowances and feedback (no pun
intended) from you.

Let me know what worked/didnt work for you.