Monday, February 3, 2014

Meet Bertha!

One of my lesser discussed hobbies is playing guitar, which I used as a gateway to get closer to my brother when I was about 13. Most of my life I can't really remember him being around, as, depending on who you ask, he was either kicked out of the house or decided to leave of his own free will when he was young. I still don't understand it...

He taught me the basics on his gear and as my interest in tone changed I started working to acquire some of my own. I started out with a little Peavey combo my brother gave me, until one day I heard an extremely loud pop inside the amp and the thing just stopped working. When I checked inside one of the chips was smoking. From there I got a small Crate 1x12 combo which had a very nice clean but a pretty cruddy overdrive, but it did the job of making noise and that's all I wanted at that age.

In the following years I had acquired a handful of effects pedals, including a blue Zoom 505 and 510, to flesh out more interesting tonal options from my standard little Crate combo. But after my brother bought himself a Line 6 Flextone 3 he brought his old Crate amp head and his 2x12 speaker cab to stay at my place for a while. The head was fairly decent and had a valve preamp, I think, but as I lived in a duplex I really couldn't push it to test what a partially tube amp sounded like. All I got was a flat tone that wasn't even as good as the solid state overdrive on my Crate combo.

After a few months of hearing what my brother's Flextone 3 could do I did a little research into what other Line 6 products interested me. I knew I wanted a head and I wanted tons of options, essentially I wanted a Zoom 505 inside an amp head. After a few months I saved some money and decided that I wanted a Spider 3 HD 75.

When I walked in to the local Guitar Center I asked for the Spider 3 HD 75, but the associate had to go into the back and grab one fresh out of the box. My brother wheeled over a nice Peavey 5150 4x12 cabinet and after the associate plugged it up... nothing! The Spider was dead and there were absolutely no signs of life no matter what he did. The guy ran back and snagged another, but since the first one was dead on delivery I decided this may not be the amp I truly wanted. After playing the second one for a short while I realized it really had limited options and a boring, buzzy tone. Then my eyes spotted the Flextone HD sitting on the floor.

Using the same Jackson Dinky and the same Peavy 5150 cab, the associate lugged the beast over and gave it the same plug in treatment he did the Spider. After the flipping the switch I could not only feel all 4 Sheffield speakers dancing, I could hear them screaming with delight. The Flextone HD was actually pushing the speakers, instead of making a noise equal to a kid farting into a megaphone. Although computer drive, much the same as the Spider, yet much older, the Flextone HD was still pushing out a thick, full tone.

The cleans were clean, the crunchy was like peanut butter, thick and crunchy, and the high gains were high gain, I was sold! I came in with enough to walk out that day with a brand new Spider 3 HD 75, but instead used that money to put the Flextone HD in layaway. Since the amp had just came in I was told I would have had to wait a few weeks for all the numbers to clear any stolen gear search regardless, so that worked out in my favor. I remember the associate who helped me looked like the voice actor Billy West, who is a bit of a guitard himself. 

I'm not a professional guitar play, in fact I may go months without playing guitar at all and come back with even less talent than I already had! But its a hobby, not a career or something I take too seriously. I don't need professional gear, and many would argue on both sides of the fence that the Flextone HD is professional and that its total junk. I've seen professional acts touring with the Flextone HD, even an ad in Guitar World with a famous guitarist promoting the Flextone line of amps, but at the end of the day I like my Flextone HD and that's all that matters to me! Its just a fun little pass time that I enjoy.

After I got the Flextone home I still had my brother's 2x12 to plug into and jam. It sounded a lot better than the Crate head it was perched atop, but the Celestion G12T-75s weren't as lively as the Sheffields in the 5150 cab. This could be due to many factors, but all I knew was I wasn't happy with the extreme difference, or loss, of tone between the cabinet I demoed and the cabinet I used on a daily basis. After having my Flextone for a while I decided it was time to give it a home on top a nice 4x12 cabinet, one that would do it justice and make it sound as good as it should.

After doing some research into inexpensive 4x12s I had a few choices; first the Behringer Ultrastack BG412S was brought to mind, it was cheap and 400 watts of raw power. Then I thought perhaps I'll go with something more traditional and metal, like a Marshall 1960. They're usually fairly cheap used and depending on where you look they can sometimes be found in near mint condition. The only problem was the Marshall stocked 4 GT12-75s, so would more air give them a better tone? If my best choice had the speakers I didn't really connect with in them, what speaker options did I have? The answer was Celestion Vintage 30s.

I've heard great things about Celestion's Vintage 30 speakers, but what cabinets came stock with them and wasn't something everyone wanted? The obvious answer is the Marshall 1960V cabinets, which were slightly more than I was wanting to spend at that time, but still only a little more expensive than the standard 1960 cabs. Another choice was a Crate Blue Voodoo cabinet, but as I couldn't find any of the older ones in actual blue tolex, I really didn't want to settle on one of those.

The day came to take my Flextone to Guitar Center and give the Marshall 1960 and 1960V cabs a demo side by side. I noticed that with a little more room, and 4 of them, the GT12-75s sounded a little better, but not enough to sway me to buy that cabinet. I plugged into the 1960V cabinet and noticed a lot more activity. Even at low volume the Vintage 30 speakers seemed to crunch up pretty nicely. Then I think my brother wheeled over a black Crate Blue Voodoo for me to try out. The Blue Voodoo wasn't bad, but there is some seriously bad mojo from Crate because even with the same speakers and approximately the same cabinet shape these speakers didn't have the same characteristics as they did coming from the Marshall vintage cabinet.

Sitting far, far in the back was a beast of a cabinet by a company I didn't even consider, because everything they touched seemed to be way too expensive. A straight cabinet design with a slanted baffle, armored on both sides with gig battered diamond plated steel! The tolex ripped here and there, the speaker grill having a few wounds of its own. I was told it had Vintage 30s in it and took the associate's word on it. It was a Mesa Boogie Rectifier Standard 4x12.

After wheeling away the Blue Voodoo and the standard 1960, it was time to demo the 1960V next to the American muscle with the same speakers. After turning on the Flextone the Mesa Boogie roared to life, even though the Flextone HD was emulating the sound of a rectifier amp it still made sense. It was as if they were a perfect match. The tone was dark and foreboding, seemingly dripping with the deepest and darkest evil heavy metal could offer. I walked in expecting to put a $400 cabinet on layaway, but I walked away physically and emotionally touched by the $650 road scarred, gentle giant.

Months came and went as my interest in playing guitar was starting to disappear. The Crate 2x12 just wasn't the same as any of the 4x12s I demoed, obviously, but only one truly left a lasting impression on me. I went to Guitar Center to see if it was still there, it was, and it was still $650. I'm not sure what Guitar Center was thinking as the cabinet was painfully road scarred, the front name plate was missing and everything about it just screamed "I'm not worth what these morons are asking!".

After scraping together some additional money I called up Guitar Center and asked them about that specific cabinet and if it was still in, they said yes. I asked them if they could do slightly less than they were asking, and got the faux run around, when in reality it was pretty apparent they wanted it out of the store, by this time. After a few days of back and forth I went in for a last demo with my Flextone HD and the cabinet.

Everything was still the same face melting, brain shaking insanity as it was the first time. This cabinet was mine! I asked the associate to open the back so I could make sure it was all stock and check the condition of the speakers, they agreed. Once everything checked out, I put my money down and was the proud owner of an insane Mesa Boogie 4x12!

After a quick trip over to accessories to pick up some speaker cables and picks I wheeled it outside and loaded it into the back of the car, sideways! I took the time to test as much gear as I possibly could, found the best choice for my own personal tastes and liking and I still enjoy it to this day. I ended up buying a name plate for the front from Mesa, I think it makes it look better. Blasphemy to put a Line 6 on a Mesa Boogie cabinet? I see more blasphemy in today's music scene than I do in my half stack!

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