A Lazy Sequence

Black boxes for guitar

If you've ever participated in guitarist culture, especially online, you'll know that we love knowing what ‘significant’ components make up the internals of their gear: Tubes, JRC4558D and LM308s op amps, germanium transistors and diodes, spring reverb tanks… the list of mojo parts seems like it may be endless.

One aspect of the guitarist culture that reinforces this is the received wisdom we all pick up over time. Understanding the various and mysterious boxes we plug our instruments into falls outside our expertise. To make up for this a cargo cult mentality about the easily identifiable aspects of a device has sprung up.

By being so concerned with the inventory of what’s inside the box, rather than just the sounds, has, I think, blinded guitarists to potential developments and improvements. There’s no more obvious place than amplifiers and the vacuum tube.

Certainly, many early solid state and digital amplifiers did tend to sound pretty terrible, but not due to inherent failings of solid state technology specifically, simply its application1. Yes: replacing a tube with a transistor and expecting to get the same results is often an exercise in futility. Instead of substituting device for device, newer designs look to replace circuits with circuits. This is not some radical new idea either. Science, engineering, and computing have used the notion of a black box in designing and analysing systems for a very long time.

In saying this, I don’t want to imply that it‘s not useful to know about the circuits and internals. The opposite: I’m more interested in how these tools work now than I ever have been2. I simply want to be open to great guitar gear based on its sound, not what is in it, and that’s why I’m no longer a snob about tube amps.

  1. It is worth keeping in mind too that most people encounter solid state and digital amps as cheap starter gear. It’s obviously not a fair comparison. For one thing, the speakers used in starter amps are generally complete rubbish.
  2. It’s also nice to be able to avoid yet another Tube Screamer with minor tweak.
14 May 2016