Essential gear for country guitar - part 2: amps

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(Image: © Future)

I moved to Nashville to be a country musician right out of high school, attending college in music city.

Junior year, I had an internship at Soundcheck, where I spent most of my time in the backline department testing amps before shipping them out to bands, events, and festivals. This was a great hands-on way to expose myself to the sound and feel of the plethora of amps used by pro guitarists in Nashville.

Essential gear for country guitar - part 1: electric guitars

A year later as a senior I had another internship, this time at Station West Studios, where my favourite Dierks Bentley albums were recorded and mixed. I got to assist sessions with A-list players, setting up mics and being on hand for any small tasks the musicians and engineers needed done.

This was the first time I saw the process of recording real music up close. I had never been in the same room as the triple-amp head cases loaded with vintage Fenders, Sampson-era Matchlesses, and shiny new 3rd Power amps.

This experience showed me how important guitar amps were to the country sound heard on our favorite records and radio hits, and sent me down a journey to understand more about guitar amps used in country music.

This led to a deeper understanding of the music I love most, and made me better prepared for live and session situations in my own music career.

Part 2: Amps

The landscape of guitar amps in country music is similar to the guitars. Vintage amps from a few large makers are preferred, along with more modern clones of those amp styles from smaller makers.

The three main amps styles are Fender, Vox, and Marshall.

Fender amps are the default sound in country music, and the most popular choice by a wide margin. Fender amps usually run on 6L6 or 6V6 power tubes and have a big, clean bottom-end and solid highs, tending to be a tad mid-scooped. This might be referred to as the 'American' sound, as opposed to Vox and Marshall’s 'British' sound.

As time went on the amps went from dirtier to cleaner, with the Blackface era of 1963-1967 being generally considered the pinnacle of Fender amps

Just like the guitars, vintage Fender amps from roughly 1950-1970 are the choice of session musicians. In that period of 20 years, Fender amps went through the Tweed (further sub-divided into TV Front, Wide Panel, and Narrow Panel) 'Brownface'/'Blonde', 'Blackface', and 'Silverface' eras, all named after the aesthetics of the amps.

Generally, as time went on the amps went from dirtier to cleaner, with the Blackface era of 1963-1967 being generally considered the pinnacle of Fender amps. There are many popular models of vintage Fender amps including the Fender Princeton, Fender Deluxe, and Fender Twin.

Fender amps are known for coupling especially well with pedals. Leo Fender’s mission was to make the flattest, cleanest amps possible that produced the truest-to-reality sound.

The irony was that guitarists ended up liking the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) distortion produced by tube amps, which is part of why the smaller amps with lower clean headroom like the blackface Princeton are more popular today than the bigger amps with higher clean headroom like the silverface Quad Reverb. But the pursuit of that perfect, undistorted sound by Leo Fender led most of his amps to have a general balance that didn’t muddy up or get overly harsh when adding effects.

A vintage Vox AC30 makes a good choice for a 'British' country tone

A vintage Vox AC30 makes a good choice for a 'British' country tone

Vox amps are another popular sound in country music. They were initially made in England by Dick Denny and Tom Jennings, and the British-made models from 1958 to 1967 are the most highly regarded, specifically their flagship Vox AC30 and AC15.

These amps have a more aggressive midrange than Fender, and a more harmonic high-end, partially due to the EL84 and EL34 power tubes used in most British amps. The word “chime” is closely associated with the Vox sound. John Jorgenson and Brad Paisley are notable proponents of British '60s Vox amps in country music.

Marshall amps are best known for their presence in the rock world, and modern country is filled with classic rock tones. If the producer is looking for AC/DC or Guns & Roses tones, then it’s good to know what a Marshall Super Lead from around 1970 sounds like.

The Marshall JTM45/Bluesbreaker from the '60s and the JCM800 from the '80s are also good tonal benchmarks to be aware of. Fun fact: the original Marshall JTM45 was based on the circuit of a Fender Bassman, which itself is a popular amp in country music and a favourite of Brent Mason.

Mark Sampson worked for Matchless and designed the DC30 to sound like a '60s British Vox AC30, and now almost every session player in Nashville has a 'Sampson Era' Matchless

Like vintage guitars, vintage amps are cloned and in some cases improved upon by modern builders. Some favourites among Nashville session players include Carr, Dr. Z, and 3rd Power.

A special case is Matchless. Mark Sampson worked for Matchless and designed the DC30 to sound like a '60s British Vox AC30, and now almost every session player in Nashville has a 'Sampson Era' Matchless (1989-1999). Mark Sampson was unfortunately ousted from the company after a corporate takeover. Sampson Era Matchless amps are considered some of the best recording amps of all time.

With the advent of competent digital modeling, many players own a Kemper Profiling Amp, which takes snapshots of any amp through a process called 'profiling'. This can be a convenient way to get many vintage and boutique amp sounds at your disposal for less than the cost of a single vintage or boutique amp.

Some players still use Fractal Audio Axe-Fx for their amps, too. Both the Kemper and Fractal have a plethora of built-in effects, as well, which leads us to our next section.

Context is everything

A big part of finding the right amp is making sure the amp fits the context of the gig. If you’re playing in a small coffee house it doesn’t make sense to have a 100W Marshall stack.

If you’re playing an local amphitheatre without a PA system and there’s a drummer in the band, then a 5W amp with an 8” speaker isn’t going to cut it, even if it sounds great. And while some guitarists on big tours might feel more comfortable with their vintage tube amps, Kemper and Fractal often get used for their unbeatable flexibility and consistency.

It’s also worth mentioning that in the studio, 2x12 cabs are probably the most popular, though all shapes and sizes of cab are used. Most have 12-inch speakers like the Celestion G12H, Celestion Vintage 30, Celestion Blue, and Celestion Gold. Jensen speakers are also popular for vintage Fender sounds.

As for mic'ing the cab, which is an important part of the guitar tone on a recording, pointing the mic straight on at the speaker between 0”-6” off the grille cloth is a sure-fire hit.

Mic technique is key to capturing a good country tone

Mic technique is key to capturing a good country tone

(Image: © Future)

I was taught to keep the mic spaced two fingers' worth off the grille cloth at Station West. Placing the mic at the dead centre of the speaker cone will produce a harsher, fizzier sound, and placing it on the far outside of the cone will produce a more mellow sound. Experiment and find what you like - the sweet spot is usually somewhere in between.

If you have two close mics, make sure they’re exactly the same distance off the cab, so the sound waves from the speaker hit both at exactly the same time and you don’t get any phase issues. If the cab has more than one speaker, it’s common practice to place the mics on different speakers.

A Shure SM57 is the most common mic choice, and in Nashville it’s common to pair a dynamic mic like the SM57 with a ribbon mic. The best ribbon mic for this job is the Royer 121, though many studios and players use a Cascade Fathead because it’s a third of the price. A less common mic choice is the Sennheiser MD421, for players who want to capture extra low-end. The MD421 also pairs well with a ribbon mic.

Most preamps nowadays are fine, flat, and clean, but engineers in Nashville studios tend to prefer mic preamps that add colour

A microphone has to go to a preamp before being recorded. Preamps are a big part of the sound, and a bad preamp can neuter a great mic. Most preamps nowadays are fine, flat, and clean, but engineers in Nashville studios tend to prefer mic preamps that add colour, and the king of this is Neve.

Rupert Neve designed some of the best consoles used in the best studios to record some of the most popular music. Neve preamps, EQs, and channel strips are known for the warmth they give by distorting subtly and adding pleasant, musical upper harmonics.

The Neve 1073 preamp is the gold standard of preamps for Nashville guitars, and the Vintech X73 and other clones often get used because of the high price of actual Neve gear.

Many records are tracked in Ocean Way Nashville Studio A and Blackbird Studio A both have Neve 8078 consoles that are well-maintained, and engineers working on records in those studios often track guitars through the onboard preamps and channel strips, which have Neve 31105 preamps and EQs built-in.

These are hard to find, and unlike the 1073 pre/EQ, are not often copied by other brands. But it’s good to know that if your favourite record was tracked at Ocean Way Nashville Studio A or Blackbird Studio A, it was likely running through Neve gear.

Another common preamp choice is API. While not as ubiquitous for country as Neve is, API preamps have a faster slew rate, giving them a faster transient response and a clearer, more snappy sound at the expense of some of the warmth Neve is known for.

API preamps are often used for more modern, aggressive sounds, though sometimes their clarity is desired for stripped down and honest performances. Chris Stapleton’s Traveller album was recorded through the API board at RCA studio A, and Taylor Swift’s Fearless album was recorded through the API board in Blackbird studio D.

Preamp emulation is becoming more popular for getting these sounds in smaller studios, the pinnacle of which is the Universal Audio Unison preamps in Apollo hardware.

They offer Neve, API, and more through plugins that match the frequency and transient response of well-maintained analogue hardware while matching the physical input impedances of the hardware, too (a feature that only Universal Audio offers). Slate Digital and Waves also offer preamp emulation through plugins.

Note: when talking about subtle distortion added by pro audio gear like Neve and API, the distortion is far less noticeable than distortion in almost any guitar gear. The signal remains very clear and the “distortion”  is really more of a small lift/enhancement/fattening of the sound.

If you enjoyed this article, make sure to read part 1 on guitars used in country music if you haven’t already.

I also have a YouTube channel at youtube.com/c/jimlillmusic where I post videos about all things guitar and country music, and if you like the videos on that channel you’ll probably like the full courses at jimlillmusic.com/full-courses. Join me in third part of this series where we go over the effects used in country music!