Archive for the ‘Discussion’ Category

Ivan’s guitars & pickups by Pete Biltoft

November 24, 2013
Ivan's '52 Tele Reissue

Ivan’s ’52 Tele Reissue

Welcome back to the blog ! Recently I discussed my intention of upgrading one of my favourite guitars – my ’52 Telecaster Reissue (late 1990’s USA manufacture), with our good customer Chris. In appreciation of some labour intensive work that we have done this past year, Chris presented me with a pair of Tele pickups from Vintage Vibe Guitars, by Mr Pete Biltoft, wound to my preferred specifications. Chris had previously had some custom work done by Pete Biltoft, with geat success. All the photos that accompany this blog were taken after completion of the upgrade work.

USA '52 Tele Reissue

USA ’52 Tele Reissue

According to the Vintage Vibe Guitars website, Pete Biltoft has a strong background in chemistry, metallurgy & precision fabrication. Add to the fact that he is guitar enthusiast, and those are pretty good qualifications for a custom pickup winder. Pete’s designs aren’t a copy of any one specific vintage pickup, but rather they are considerably enhanced & evolved designs for today’s player, while retaining the very best characteristics of the original pickup. If anything, they are somewhat over-engineered for the job at hand. It’s not often that we endorse products to this degree in these blog pages !

Ivan's '52 Tele Reissue

Ivan’s ’52 Tele Reissue

The original Fender Vintage pickups had previously been replaced by a pair of Seymour Duncans. The original neck pickup as usual was totally underwhelming, and the original bridge pickup had loads of character but a very spikey top end which rendered it unsuitable for some styles. I chose the Seymour Duncan Jerry Donahue bridge pickup and Alnico II neck pickup. The neck pickup would have suited a solo jazz guitarist but not a rock’n’roll band context, and the JD pickup curiously was not a stunning success in this guitar, although in theory it should have been. The bridge assembly is standard, but the saddles are from Acme, by Callaham, for improved intonation. The choice of saddles does have a significant impact on tone & sustain – even brass saddles from different suppliers can sound different, so every variable has some impact, however subtle that might be.

Pete Biltoft Tele neck pickup

Pete Biltoft Tele neck pickup

My preferred specification for the Pete Biltoft pickups was as follows: both neck & bridge pickups 5% overwound, both neck & bridge pickups Alnico V magnets for E, A & D poles, Alnico II magnets for G, B & E poles; G pole piece slightly raised & D polepiece raised higher to compensate for the thinner core wire in the D string of most string gauges. As an absolute minimum requirement there should be a very good balance between the neck & bridge pickups, unlike the originals. Normally I would prefer the neck pickup to have the usual cover to maintain a vintage appearance, but in this case I accepted Pete’s recommendation of no cover for maximum tone & clarity.

Ivan's ESP Ronnie Wood Telecaster

Ivan’s ESP Ronnie Wood Telecaster

The neck pickup measured 7.4K nominal & the bridge pickup measured 8.3K nominal. The pots are CTS 250K with a 0.047uf tone pot capacitor, with no treble bleed cap, and a standard 3-way switch. Pete has also supplied a 5-way SuperSwitch, to allow two additional pickup combinations – neck & bridge in series, in-phase & out-of-phase. We have yet to install this option. The documentation accompanying these pickups is the best we have seen, and Pete has done commendably well in achieving a balance between the neck & bridge positions, and also a balance between the Alnico V & Alnico II magnets.

ESP Ronnie Wood Telecaster

ESP Ronnie Wood Telecaster

The Duncan Alnico II neck will go on Ebay. But ref the Duncan Jerry Donahue bridge pickup, I had a hunch this one might work a lot better on my ESP Ronnie Wood Signature Model Telecaster – a very handsome fellow with black body, white binding & maple fretboard, a favourite look of mine. This guitar has had numerous pickup changes, mainly because of the problem of matching the neck & bridge pickups. Considering that this wasn’t a cheap guitar at all (over $2000 AUD retail, $1600 AUD street at the time of purchase), the original pickups were really average. The neck has had Fralin & Duncan humbuckers previously, and is now home to the Duncan Seth Lover Alnico II humbucker, which has a nice warm vintage (50’s) sound and is not too hot compared to a Telecaster bridge.

ESP Ronnie Wood Model

ESP Ronnie Wood Model

The bridge has previously had Jason Lollar & Jerry Amalfitano pickups, and once again getting the balance just right has always been my problem. Well, my hunch paid off – I installed the Duncan JD pickup in the bridge and together with the Seth Lover it transformed this guitar with nice vintage flavour tones, but actually although it measures 7.5K nominal, the JD pickup sounds vintage but is quite a bit hotter than vintage. Having both pickups with Alnico II magnets makes good sense, the tones & volumes match up better – the pots are CTS 500K with a 0.022uf tone pot cap, plus a 0.001uf treble bleed cap across the volume pot – this is particularly useful with the humbucker neck position.

ESP Custom Shop

ESP Custom Shop

In conclusion, as well as offering a complete valve (tube) amplifier design/build/repair/modify service centre, we also perform electronic repairs & upgrades to selected models of guitars & basses for local customers, which of course includes installing your choice of pickups & other components. Please contact by email to enquire.


Our 1×10 Tone Cabinet

November 3, 2013
Our 1x10 Tone Cabinet

Our 1×10 Tone Cabinet

Welcome back to the blog after a long break. We have actually been very busy designing, building, modding & repairing valve (tube) amplifiers & other rock’n’roll gadgetry, and we thank our loyal customers very much for their continued support. In this blog we showcase the latest offering in our custom range of tone cabinets, the single 10-inch speaker, semi-open-back cab. This model is obviously intended for home recording enthusiasts, and/or the guitarist who primarily plays at home.

the 1x10

the 1×10

However, depending on the choice of speaker unit, this cab will perform more than adequately at those lounge gigs. For example, the Celestion “G10 Vintage” 60W model, ie this is basically the 10-inch version of the well known G12 “Vintage 30”, produces a surprising amount of lows & low-mids loaded into this cab, and is a good choice for creating “British” type tones on a budget.

Our 1x10 Tone Cabinet

Our 1×10 Tone Cabinet

Why choose a 10-inch speaker rather than for example a 12-inch model for your home recording project ?? Consulting with guitarists who have been on the recording scene for decades reveals some interesting facts. The 10-inch speaker in fact has a more focused sound dispersion characteristic. The same comment obviously applies to 8-inch speakers.

the 1x10

the 1×10

This is all very subjective, but there is a strong body of opinion that the recorded guitar sits in the “mix” or the “track” better with the 1×10 or 1×8. But obviously to anyone standing in the room, a 1×10 cab doesn’t sound as big or impressive as a 1×12 cab, but it’s all a question of what the mic “hears” !!

the Weber loaded 1x10

the Weber loaded 1×10

Our good customer ‘Bill’, ordered this particular 1×10 cab loaded with a Weber 30W alnico magnet model, to match up with his 18W 6V6 model Blue Mood series amp, by the Richards Amplifier Company – Australia. Bill is looking to recreate the great late 50’s/early 60’s sounds from the West Coast USA, so this amp & cab are a great match.

Nothing ultimately affects electric guitar tone more than the speaker does. A speaker swap can completely transform the volume, tone & responsiveness of an amp. This is especially true in the case of a valve (tube) amp, where valves (tubes) & speakers share a unique symbiotic relationship.

Never has there been a wider choice of 10-inch speakers available, several “British” voiced models from Celestion, two great “American” voiced tens from WGS, and a bewildering number of options from Weber & Eminence. The biggest problem is – when used for their intended application, each & every one of them sounds great !

Which one to choose ??    IR.

An Afternoon of Speaker Comparisons

October 24, 2011

In this week’s blog we get together with some members of the Sydney Shadows Club, ie guitar playing enthusiasts who love the guitar instrumental music popularised by the Shadows (UK) and many others, in the late 1950’s/early to mid 1960’s.

The local NSW Central Coast enthusiasts get together for an all day jam session every 2nd Thursday by invitation only at a private residence on a small acreage (so no complaints from neighbours !).

I make a point of attending this jam session whenever possible, at least for an hour or so. You will notice there are always a couple of Expressionist series amps from the Richards Amplifier Company – Australia in attendance.

On this particular day, I turned up with a newly completed 1×12 tone cabinet, which was a custom order for Chet Romero, an Aussie slide guitar specialist, loaded with the Weber 30W Blue Dog speaker. We have supplied this specific Weber model on previous occasions with our Expressionist amps, always with great results.

Part of the afternoon was devoted to conducting comparison tests between the Weber loaded 1×12 cab and a well played in 1×12 cab loaded with the mighty Celestion 15W Blue Alnico model. The cabs are of identical proportions, athough the older Celestion loaded cab was a TV front style, and had a brown basketweave grille, as distinct from the checkerboard grille of the (red) Weber loaded cab. The different grilles do have an impact on tone. We will explore this issue in a forthcoming blog.

Well, both speakers sounded great in their own right, but there were unexpected differences. In all comparisons, a 1963 Fender Strat in original condition was played through a 7.5W Richards Studio Expressionist amp.

This amp was designed from the ground up for home studios and/or home jamming, and sounds just as good as the 15W and 30W models, its just that it breaks up earlier. The ’63 Strat played through such an amp easily replicates the classic Hank Marvin tones from the Shadows golden era.

The majority opinion after numerous Shadows instrumentals was that the Celestion Blue was a bit brighter (but not in a bad way) and quite noticeably louder, and broke up later ! The Weber lacked the characteristic growl in the lower midrange of the Celestion, in fact if anything it was the more refined of the two.

However, we all agreed the Weber sounded great, in spite of the earlier break up. We were intrigued by the fact that the Weber imparted this delicious kind of midrange gronking quality on the wound strings of the Strat. Actually, I don’t have the appropriate words to describe it, but it was definitely there !

The chrome plated stand you see in some photos was one of a number custom made for members of the Sydney Shadows Club by an enterprising fellow. These stands replicate the look of the original stands used by groups such as The Shadows and The Beatles with their Vox amps back in the day.

The Shadows, and Hank Marvin in particular, had their own signature model Burns guitars back in the day. Some of these models have been reissued by Burns of London in recent years, although no longer made in the UK. They do capture the tone from that period quite convincingly, and the well-engineered tremolo (vibrato) design works well for this style of music (but probably not for dive-bombing styles).

In our final two photos we have the ’63 Strat with the 7.5W Studio Expressionist amp and 1×12 tone cabinet loaded with the Celestion Blue, as used in our comparisons. On top of the amp is a Rich Switch A/B to switch between the two distinct channels, and a tape-echo simulator that probably very few of you have seen – the Amtech Age One.

The Amtech is manufactured by a small Swedish company I believe, possibly their main products are in the medical equipment industry. But whatever it is they do, they are obviously serious Hank Marvin fans, as they designed a completely analogue circuitry tape-echo simulator, built in a 1RU high rack-mount enclosure, that comes closer to anything else I’ve ever heard to specifically reproducing the tape-echoes that played such a major role in recording the Shadows sound.

The other cool characteristic of the Amtech is that the preamp sounds very good on its own, with the echoes bypassed. A very warm and musical analogue sound. The pictured amp was one of the very first in our Expressionist series of models. These amps, as per all our current range, were designed and built directly as a result of customer requests and/or suggestions. This example is the Studio Expressionist model, meaning that the output stage can be switched from a pair of EL84 output valves, operating in class-A/push-pull, to a pair of 6V6 output valves operating under similar conditions, but with different bias conditions. In either mode the amp is self-biasing. The unused pair of output valves remains at full temperature for instant operation, but is only drawing a trickle of current, extending valve life.

In EL84 mode, naturally the amp sounds distinctly British, with either CH-1 (EF86 pentode), or CH-2 (12AX7 “top boost”), although Hank Marvin enthusiasts would automatically choose CH-1 for the most authentic tones possible from any amps we’ve heard thus far. In 6V6 mode with either channel, the amp delivers tones that would only be possible from some of the more obscure 50’s/60’s USA manufactured amps. For example, the combination of CH-1’s pentode preamp with cathode-biased 6V6’s would suggest vintage Gibson amp tones. Perfect for rock-a-billy, jazz, swing, blues, rhythm&blues, etc. CH-1 and CH-2 can be patched together in-phase (or combined with an A/B/Y pedal) for a huge tone.

Well – thanks to the Shadows enthusiasts for their input into this week’s blog. Please see earlier blogs describing how the Expressionist series amps have been used for recording and performing by very demanding contemporary guitar stylists. For those who might be interested, I believe that Amtech have an Australian distributor. Please tune in again next week !   Regards – Ivan.

Do we cater for the metal head ?

September 11, 2011

Yes !  We offer our repair services and custom-design/custom-build services to every type of musician who is reliant on musical-instrument amplification, and in particular amplification that is based on vacuum-tube (thermionic-valve) technology. As it happens, there is also a breed of amplifiers out there, marketed at the heavy-metal guitarist, that is primarily solid-state in design. We will also service many of these products. Check with us first, if in doubt.

As you can see from the photos, the inspiration for today’s blog is a recent repair to an Engl 50 watt (all-valve) head. My general impression of the Engl amps is that the standard of construction is a bit cheap and there have been some reliability issues along the way. This is all the more surprising considering they are designed and manufactured in Germany. Every Engl repair we get seems to require a mod to the power supply and/or the bias supply, in the latter case this is because usually you can’t get a wide enough range of adjustment to bias up an amp with new output valves properly (normally Engl’s are loaded with 6L6GC valves, or equivalent). I have found the JJ 6L6GC to be the ideal replacement output valve for these amps. If you have more money to spend, a great sounding alternative is the Winged-C 6L6GC (formerly SED), from St Petersburg, Russia.

The single biggest problem impacting on long-term reliability is the fact that the power output valves are printed circuit board mounted. Given that the Engl chassis is top-mounted in the cab, and the power output valves hang down from the chassis, then the heat from the valves naturally goes up into the chassis, and in particular into the printed circuit board. The output valve board can get so hot that critical components actually desolder themselves ! This was a common fault when these amps were first introduced into Australia a few years back – the screen grid resistors would desolder themselves, possibly even falling off the board, and the affected valves would stop working. The good news is we can do our best to bullet-proof your amp to improve reliability.

Some other brands of amps that we have serviced that are appropriate to this genre of music woud include (in no particular order):- MESA, Blackstar, Laney, Hughes & Kettner, Randall, Crate Blue Voodoo (serious reliability issues), Bugera (serious reliability issues), Egnater (serious reliability issues), Cornford, Marshall JCM800, JCM900, JCM2000 (some models of JCM2000 reliability issues), and also the JCM600 (serious reliability issues). There are others, this list was just off the top of my head.

No discussion of amps for the metal player would be complete without the mention of the Peavey EVH120, known variously as the 5150, 5150 II, 6505, 6505+ amps. The 5150 II model seems to have got the thumbs up from any of my customers that own this amp. In response to customer demand, from young metal bands recording their own material and wanting to achieve the best recorded performance from these amps, we have been offering a range of mods and upgrades to these models.

Any upgrade would obviously include valves (tubes). There is such an excess of gain in these amps that valve (tube) microphony becomes a major issue. Therefore we have put the replacement 12AX7 valves through our own selection test. On the short list of valves are the JJ 12AX7 and 6L6GC, also the Winged-C 6L6GC, the Tung Sol reissue 12AX7, and we are about to trial a new 12AX7 valve (tube) released by TAD, specifically intended for such demanding applications.

Other requested upgrades include power supply capacitors, bias circuit modification for greater range of bias adjustment, and the installation of a Mercury Magnetics MC10 power choke in the power supply, in lieu of the standard resistor. One last upgrade for those of you resident in the land of Australia who have purchased their amp via the internet – we can install the factory supplied 240V AC mains transformer, so you don’t have to lug around that heavy and inconvenient step-down transformer.

That’s it for tonight’s blog – please feel free to submit suggestions re other amps that you feel should have been mentioned, and/or contact us re your specific amp problemos. Perhaps we can make a big difference. By the way, for those of you who are into 70’s and 80’s metal, we do build amps to special order which are inspired by the great Marshall JMP amps of the mid 1970’s. We can nail that sound plus no more reliability issues.

More about signal splitting

August 20, 2011

Hello ! Thanks for checking in again – this blog follows on from previous blogs re the Rich Split and Rich Switch signal routing pedals, with more suggestions especially for home-recording guitarists.

While the primary intention of the Rich Switch pedal is to switch between and/or combine a pair of amplifiers in either a stage or studio situation, the Rich Split pedal has potentially many applications. The guitarist can run FX processors in parallel with the primary guitar signal (which may be, for example, a mic’d up amp or a direct preamp), route the guitar signal to a pair (or more) of amps for tonal complexity, and keep a tuner on-line, yet out of the audio path, as running your guitar through a tuner is a sure-fire recipe for lifeless tone. No more unplugging your guitar between takes to tune up, and you’ll be forever spoiled when you experience the no compromise tone achieved by having the tuner out of your signal path.

Once you’ve experienced the lush sounds of layered processing, it will be difficult to remain satisfied with the standard effects-in-series approach ! Some real world examples of how parallel processing can work in a home studio situation, as well as on-stage for live performance:

* plug your guitar into the Rich Split pedal; connect one of the outputs to your choice of valve (tube) amplifier that powers a remote, mic’d up 1×10 or 1×12 speaker cab tucked away in a closet, etc; connect another output to your tuner; connect outputs (as required) to your choice of FX processors; connect a mono out from each processor to its own mixer channel input; including the mic’d up speaker, this provides multiple channels complete with EQ, to blend and pan;

* such a multi-signal scenario offers several choices – in one pass you could record an amp track plus an FX track, buss all the signals to one composite track, or pan them into a stereo submix; whichever routing you choose, however, the resulting sound is huge; you get the full-on guitar timbre plus layered FX – a noticeably richer sound than passing one signal through a series of stompboxes !

* for those of you experimenting with the latest guitar amplifier, guitar speaker and microphone emulation software, the Rich Split is one device you cannot live without; simultaneously record your favourite amp’s DI’d output, its mic’d speaker, and your guitar’s pickup only output; through your software, you can then easily manipulate any or all of these; this means that you have a purely analogue sound back-up, and are no longer bound by recording one option only;

* if you have an old-school 2-channel amp, you can run a direct signal to one channel and FX to the other channel, and mix the two at the front panel; the volume control of the second channel works as a parallel FX return (with EQ); the results will be dramatic – more lush and dynamic than what you’d get going through the processor into a single channel;

Important Notes !

* when you try parallel processing, remember to set your FX processors to 100% wet

* always ensure your amplifiers are reliably earthed (grounded) via the 3-pin plug to the 240V AC mains earth (Australia); have this checked at regular intervals by a fully qualified electrician or service technician;

* whenever you run multiple amps, check for earth (ground) loops and also hazardous electrical conditions; for example, some persons have been known to disable the earth pins on all but one of the amp’s 240V AC plugs to prevent multi-amp earth loops; however, it is highly dangerous, massively stupid and also illegal to disconnect the earth wire either at the 3-pin plug or within the amplifier; if you injure yourself or someone else whilst doing this, you may be legally liable; think about the consequences ! the preferred solution is to resolve earth loops by inserting high-quality isolation transformers between switcher or splitter and amplifiers; this is what is achieved by using the Rich Switch or Rich Split;

* when using more than one guitar amp there is a reasonable possibility of any two models of amp being out of phase with each other, rather than in-phase; when you add the second amp, the overall volume should increase slightly, and have a much fuller tonality; if there is an immediate reduction in level, or especially a loss of low frequencies upon connecting the second amp, then it is reasonable to assume the two units are out-of-phase relative to each other; please consult your service tech, your supplier and/or Ivan Richards Audio for recommended solutions.

Do we cater for the jazz guitarist ?

June 19, 2011

Yes !  It’s not just about rock’n’roll, we offer our repair services and custom-design/custom build services to every type of musician who is reliant on some form of amplification/sound-reinforcement. This would include jazz, jazz/rock/fusion, country, alt-country, folk-rock, pop, blues, soul, rhythm & blues, roots music/world music………………..the list goes on and on.

Actually, the Richards family has always been into jazz, swing, big bands, hawaiian steel guitar, etc,  all the way back to the 1930’s. I am the black-sheep of the family, I am the one who was seduced by the music of the British Invasion bands from the mid-1960’s onwards. I just couldn’t get enough of The Beatles, The Yardbirds, The Animals, Cream, Hendrix, The Who, The Small Faces, Led Zep, Jeff Beck Group, Jethro Tull and many more, and I’m still hooked !

However, getting back to the jazz musicians out there – we pretty much have the cream of the Australian contemporary country music scene resident here on the NSW Central Coast, but we also have a few jazz orientated players here as well. What kind of equipment issues do they have ? Getting a warm, satisfying tone is a prerequisite as is having enough headroom to voice those complex chords with clarity and authority. Getting a balanced tone and levels across the 6-strings and in fact the entire guitar spectrum is another major issue, particularly if you are playing a hollow-body instrument, eg an arch-top.

Most jazz guys would probably favour a guitar amplifier that is light and compact. A valve amp of something in the order of 20 watts with a single 10-inch or 12-inch speaker would seem a logical choice. For whatever reason that I don’t yet understand, there is a trend among jazz guitarists towards the Rivera amps from California, USA. Perhaps an influential player chose one of these amps and then others followed his example.

A customer recently brought a Rivera Clubster 20 watt 1×10 combo to the workshop. The amp had certainly been reliable and is commendably light and compact. However, the tone was very thin and also lacking in headroom. The overdrive channel was really too high gain to be useable, and did not lend itself to modification, so I concentrated on the improving the clean channel in whatever way I could. I substituted another brand of output valves which gave slightly later break-up, ie more headroom. However, the biggest limitation of this amp is the speaker unit itself. If you are going to have a 1×10 combo, then that 10-inch speaker needs to be a good one ! The stock speaker does not have a good, balanced tone across the guitar spectrum, in fact it is rather thin and generally lacking in tone and dynamics. The biggest possible improvement to this amp was always going to be upgrading the speaker.

I have had some experience with the Jensen NEO speakers, which unlike some of the various Jensen alnico and ceramic magnet reissues, have a very full balanced tone, without particularly favouring any frequency over another, and also good sensitivity. In other words, both the 10-inch and 12-inch Jensen NEO models are well suited to low powered amps, even though they are rated for 100 watts. After installing the NEO-10, both the customer and I agreed the tone of the amp was greatly improved as also was the sensitivity and headroom.

I would like to also remind jazz players that I custom design and build valve amps for guitarists of all persuasions. Not as light and compact as the amp described above, I must admit, but designed and built to last the distance and achieve the desired tonality and performance levels. Possible design criteria might include the use of 6V6 power output valves for their very sweet tones, optional valve-driven reverb, and baxandall e.q. for a more balanced frequency response.

For distortion tones that complement those jazz/fusion explorations, you won’t find a better overdriver than our Class-A Distortion pedal, which achieves a very natural, very organic quality of distortion, with fine control over both level and tone. It never sounds harsh ! In fact, one of the first guitarists to purchase this pedal was Carl Dewhurst, a player and teacher well known on the Sydney jazz scene.

Please take the time to check out our website: and please feel free to contact us if you have any suggestions and/or useful comments about any issues in the preceding paragraphs. Your own experiences in the world of jazz guitar amplification may well assist other players.