EF86 TUBE GUITAR AMPLIFIER – BACKGROUND
I’ve been building audiophile gear for a very long time. I moved from Michigan to the Boston, Massachusetts area at the end of 2019 and had consequently had a new chance to define where I was headed with Aum Acoustics. Real estate in the Boston area is extremely expensive and I no longer had the luxury of a large workshop where I had the room to create most anything. This caused me to switch gears and pursue one of my loves that I never developed – learning to play the guitar.
I’m a former professional jazz piano player and music has always been a foundation for my life. However, I don’t like “cookie cutter” songs and play improvised music on the piano that just flows through me. I don’t make it up but rather use my ear and my intuition to come up with a beautiful melody that just lingers. Tempo varies and changes as I move along and I’m either playing in a minor key or major key. Its all good and I never know before I sit down where the music is going let alone where its coming from. Yes, it is coming through my fingers but is heart felt and created rather than mental or mind derived.
What has interested me about the guitar is that it uses an actual vibrating strings that stretches across your heart and it can be played in or out of tune and varied considerably more than can the strings that are stretched and properly tuned in an acoustic piano. Its provides an extremely acoustical experience and sounds can be very rhythmic or melodic but unlike the piano, notes are fretted and they are not perfectly in tune. Instead, they vary and this variance makes the guitar a very special instrument and even more expression oriented than a really good piano.
I’ve spent the last few years buying and selling different guitars to find an approach that sounds good, feels good, and provides the type of experience I’m looking for. I’ve owned several semi-hollow 335 style guitars, 4 Strandberg headless guitars, a B&G Little Sister and finally, the one that sounds like me the most, a new Sadowsky SS-15 hollow body arch top.
I love the playability of the SS-15 and the tone but really don’t like the ivory binding on the neck (love the ebony neck and 1.75” nut width) nor do I like the orangish poly gloss finish on the body as well as the neck. So in reality, this guitar is close to the tone that’s in my head than I’ve found before but still not perfect. However, it is what I have and I’ll use it until maybe, I find the one that is really mine.
When choosing an instrument, the guitar amp played through and the speaker the amp plays through are critical to create the type of sound quality and ultimate tone. These two selections are just as important as is choosing the guitar that I would ideally like to use.
Currently, I”m using two different amps to develop this build.. One is the Quilter ToneBlock 202 that I use as a reality check on my second custom guitar amp and the one I’m really interested in perfecting, the EF86 amp. The EF86 amplifier is an all tube guitar amplifier that you won’t find for sale anywhere else and it provides the best clean tone I’ve ever heard. That was and is one of my main goals for building this amplifier.
The Quilter amp I have is uniform and has a beauty in that it can play most every fret on my guitar in a linear fashion without adding tube distortion that might make a particular fret or string strong or weak. It’s perfect for creating exacting technical playing but after a few minutes of use, it becomes emotionally boring. The EF86 based amp, on the other hand, has a fullness and beauty that word description doesn’t do justice. It’s 3 dimensional spaciousness and wider and deeper soundstage are just plain “beautiful” and very emotionally attractive. However, as with all tubes, the fret to fret movement along each and every string isn’t as linear and perfect as the Quilter but its close and is the reason to be conflicted between the solid state Quilter approach and the tube amp approach I build. Also, pick attack and finger noise is more dynamic with the tube amp and definitely not muffled so your playing ability using the tube amp needs to be better than on the Quilter. Also, I now need to turn down the volume knob on the guitar just a hair to eliminate the dynamic sounds that come through this amp. When done correctly, its absolutely perfect. That and good use of the tone controls is all that is needed.