Strat + Modded 200-Watt Marshall + Boost = Wood
Before he got on his Medieval music trip, Ritchie Blackmore’s tone was all wood. I heard a Rainbow tune the other day on Internet radio, and I just sat there wondering how the heck he could get that fat tone out of a Strat’s bridge pickup.
So later, I fired up my trusty calculatin’ machine (computer) and did some detective work. I found so much good stuff I had to make this a 2-parter, but the bottom line for Ritchie’s tone is this: huge volume and a tape machine boost. Yeah, tape machine – as in tape recorder.
Here’s more, taken from the following plus a few other sources (noted):
> Guitar Player (1973 interview, 1978 interview, December 1997 interview)
> ModernGuitars.com (1975 interview)
> Guitar World (February 1991 interview)
Did you use a Marshall amp in the early days of Purple?
No, I was still using the Vox miked. It used to buzz like mad. I changed to Marshalls about eight years ago [late '60s]. I knew Jim Marshall. He was a drum teacher, and I saw the Marshall setup and liked the way they looked. The design I liked, but the sound was awful. So I went back to the factory because I knew Jim and I said, “Look, I want this changed and I want that changed.” And I used to play in front of all the people that were there working – there would be women there assembling things, and I had the amp boosted to 400 watts. So I would be playing away right in front of all these people and they’d be trying to work. I’d go, “That’s not right, more treble,” and they’d take out a resistor. I had to play full blast or otherwise I couldn’t know what it was going to sound like. The people hated me.
What did you do to change your Marshalls?
I had an extra output stage built on. I have no bass at all on the amp. There’re an extra two valves [tubes] built into the output stage so there’s more output. It’s boosted to about 250 or 300 watts. I use the old 200- watt amps, which you can’t get anymore because they don’t make them.
Do you use 200-watt heads?
Yeah, which are boosted. They’re the loudest amplifier in the world on their own. I’m not saying I play the loudest – it depends on how many you use. But one on its own is the loudest. I don’t like to use a lot of cabinets, I think just two cabinets is enough; otherwise the sound is all around you. l like to keep away from the sound, and that’s why onstage I play to the left of it and point it the other way. Then I can get a perspective of what’s going on; otherwise all you can hear is yourself. And you tend to get feedback and overtones you don’t want.
Do you blow them very often onstage?
Yeah, all the time lately. I don’t know why. It’s the output transformer that blows up. It’s like a finely tuned car, you can’t expect it not to break down. I really push it.
I’ve always played every amp I’ve ever had full up, because rock and roll is supposed to be played loud. Also keeping the amp up is how you get your sustain. I turn down on the guitar for dynamics. I’ve also got my amps boosted. I know Jim Marshall personally, and he boosted them for me. It’s pushing out about 500 watts. I guess that’s maybe 1,000 watts in American ratings, but it’s all distortion. The people at Marshall said it’s the loudest amp they’d ever heard. I had an extra stage built onto it, and a couple more valves. That’s why every two weeks things just tend to disintegrate. The speakers really get pushed out. I usually go trough two, sometimes more, every two weeks. I only use one of my stacks. The other’s just a spare in case I blow the other up.
Learning to play with a big amplifier is a different thing altogether. It’s trying to control an elephant.
What settings do you use on the guitar and the amplifier?
I never touch the tone controls on the guitar – they’re always full up. But I will turn the guitar volume from full to half when I’m doing a quieter solo. On the amp everything is full up. No, actually I do have markings on the amp, but it’s very hard to say because I can’t compare it with anything. On some amps I have the presence completely up, and on some I have it completely off. And like I told you before, I have no bass. I use a lot of middle because I hate that screeching top – it’s a little bit too penetrating. I use midrange treble. And the volume is on half – if it was full up it would just catch on fire.
Do you use the stock speakers in the cabinets?
Yeah, whatever they are.
I like a little bit of distortion which is controlled through my tape recorder. I built my own tape recorder – well, I didn’t build it, but I modified it from a regular tape recorder to an echo unit. It also preamps and boosts the signal going to the amp. If I want a fuzzy effect, l just turn up the output stage of the tape recorder.
Can you be more specific as to how it works?
I just keep it on “record” so it records, and it’s like a continual echo because I couldn’t get that echo with any echo machine. A continual boom, boom, boom, repeat. Most echo machines are awful. It’s like you’re in a hallway. The tape recorder doesn’t interfere with the note you’re playing.
It gives me an echo when it’s played back. It’s hard to explain. I just overload the input side and I can get my sustain as well. It doesn’t thin out my sound like all the echoes do. Echoes always thin the sound. The way I’ve got this built is to give me the exact same sound that I’ve had if I was actually plugged straight into an amp without all that bloody extra circuit.
What type of recorder is it?
I don’t really know. I tried using a Revox and it didn’t work. I’d really be in trouble if somebody stole my recorder. I’ve been using it for the last four or five years.
How did you come upon this idea?
I used to do that at home. I used to take my tape recorder and use it as an echo. So I thought if I could use it at home I could use it onstage and it sounded right onstage.
How exactly is it hooked up?
There’s a cord from the guitar into the tape recorder input, and the output stage just goes back to the amp. And I can control the volume, too. I can have it loud with no distortion or vice versa. I have a little footpedal that I can stop and start it with. A lot of people think when they see the tape going the solos are recorded. Lots of people ask that. Some guy shouted in New York, “Turn the tape recorder off.”
I don’t use foot pedals and wah-wahs and fuzzes and what-not. I used to, but I found that I couldn’t get a good natural sound. It’s impossible. When a wah-wah pedal’s turned off the sound is very thin. You’d always find that with Hendrix, for instance.
[In a later interview he said:]
My preamp is an old souped-up Aiwa reel-to-reel tape recorder that I originally used as a tape delay. It has an input and an output stage, so I plugged into it and noticed that it gave me a fatter sound – about a 3-watt boost. I used it from that day on. If I don’t use it, the sound is too shrill. It seems to calm the sound down and give it more midrange. I just thought it was a normal tape deck, but now it’s become this little soul on the side of the stage. It’s like my little friend.
[In a different later interview he's asked:] What’s that thing on the drum case behind your amplifier?
A treble-booster with a variable control which gives me sustain. Hornby Skues made it, but I had it slightly modified, because I found that on some nights I had too much sustain, and on others I didn’t have enough. So I had a variable control put on. Actually, using a Stratocaster, I don’t really need any treble boost. I use the unit mostly for sustain.
Guitar, Strings, Picks
What do you do to a guitar when you get it?
I do this carving-out business. I’ll usually cover the Fender frets with tape or put in Gibson frets, and I’ll sandpaper the wood down so it’s concave so I can get my finger underneath. I have the action on my guitar fairly high so there’s more control, but it’s within reason. I mean, jazz players have it so high and it’s musical snobbery really.
The Gibson frets have a wider profile than Fender’s?
Yeah, they do. I do like big frets, but I’ve noticed in the last two years I’ve kept it to Fender frets.
Do you use Fender tuning heads?
No, I use Schallers. It’s funny, I never saw anybody do it before I was doing it and I did it years ago. Now everybody does it. I wonder why that is?
Do you change the nut?
No, because that’s only good for sustaining a note open. Once you hit a note on the first fret you depend on the first fret and not the nut. Although [drummer] Buddy Miles used to tell me Hendrix used a brass nut.
Do you rewire the guitars in any way?
No, but I sometimes insulate them with copper inside to stop the buzzing. That’s about all, really. I don’t use the middle pickup at all; I get rid of that one and rearrange the other two. I just have bass and treble – black and white, that’s what I like.
How many springs do you use on your vibrato bar?
Four. And I have a friend who balances the arm. He loosens the screws at the very front of the tailpiece and sets the whole thing at a different angle so it is in perfect balance. It’s amazing, you just can’t go out of tune. I never thought it would work. I just used to bolt them down and forget about it. I pull and push the vibrato bar — it goes down a whole octave when I push it.
Do you try to get the settings between the three major positions on the toggle switch?
No, that’s a little bit of a touch of gray in there.
What kind of picks and strings do you use?
I use tortoiseshell picks, one end squared, one end pointed. I have them specially made for me because you can’t get them at all. I use tortoiseshell because plastic is too soft. I like them brick-hard. I’ve used this shape ever since I was 11, and I just cannot play with those round things everybody plays with, because when you jump a string you tend to hit the other string on the way. With this pick you can be more nimble.
I use Picato strings. I’ve always used them. They’re the best – Eric Clapton turned me on to them. He’s now using Fender – I don’t know why. Why Ernie Ball has the monopoly on strings I’ll never know. The gauges I use are .010, .011, .014, .026, .036 and .042.
Here’s some info from John “Dawk” Stillwell’s website. Dawk worked on Ritchie’s stuff back in the day.
The next day as the band started their set I began working on one of Ritchie’s spare boat anchors “The 200 Watt Marshall Major”.
It had a factory mod – a cascading circuit of the first channel into the second with a master volume control in between – the master volume pot was put in one of the input jacks to save time, it worked and was very loud but it had a duff [dull?] tone and no high-end cut. So I took all that stuff out and added an extra preamp tube with all of the correct voicing (EQ) that Ritchie liked. Yeah, you could even use the stock inputs to compare the stock sounds.
I get a lot of questions about the Strat’s scalloped necks. I can’t take credit for that idea, as Ritchie explained to me he had bought an used acoustic guitar in England and it was so worn out that the wood between the frets were scoped out from the player’s finger nails.
I was sent to Ritchie’s house to pick up a 100 watt (1959) Marshall amp to install the extra tube with a master gain for use as a club amp. He was eating breakfest and with a serrated knife was carving out the wood between the frets, I looked on with interest and said “Why don’t you let me do my thing on this because you are making a mess”. Well, that was it! I did my own thing and Ritchie liked it so much that I did all of his guitars that way.
Tone controls: some guitar magazines say they were disconnected which was untrue. I had designed a tuned filter to get him a creamy sound. I used the “Q” factor of the pickups for my center point to select the right parts to make the tone circuit work correctly.
Finally some info posted on thegearpage.net by someone with the username of “Joe F,” who seems to have done quite a bit of research:
Live it was Marshall Majors modded at that time (from the first Rainbow tour through to MII DP Reunion) to be non-MV with 4 pre-amp tubes. By ’78 the switch from [Celestion] G12H30-55s was made to G1280s. Pre-amp tubes were usually Mullard 10M or Amperex Bugle Boys. Driver tube was a GE 5-Star 6201 which added a little bit more output to the power section. Power tubes were GEC KT88s and lasted about 2-3 weeks on tour.
There were other mods to the power circuit for reliability, and the OTs [output transformers] were not stock, although they were designed to match the stock specs: The stock OTs on Majors suffered poor insulation which resulted in a warranty headache for Marshall. Unicord (or was it Korg back then?) commissioned a guy in New York or New Jersey to make transformers for warranty replacement. Some Majors have these in them, I see them on eBay. They have OT200M stamped on the bells. Those are the same as what was in RB’s amps. The cabs were modded to reduce standing waves and stabilize the back panel a bit.
Mics for the PA were usually Senn 421 or Shure 57s.
Over the course of Rainbow with Dio, pickups went from stock Fender to higher-output Schecters (didn’t actually use quarter pounders but they are copies of the Schecter) – although the full windings of the Schecters were not used to avoid too dark a sound. Ritchie likes the single-coil sound. He experimented [with various pickups] until he was given prototypes of Lace Sensors and, according to Dawk, he went nuts he was so happy to have a single-coil sound with no noise.
On Bent Out of Shape, Perfect Strangers, and Slaves and Masters that he used a [Vox] AC30 slaved [fed] into a Majors that bypassed the pre-amp. You can see part of this in the Fire in the Basement video (it’s not one of his white stage Majors). This also coincides with what one of the Le Mobile guys said, that the Major’s knobs did not work – because the AC30 fed straight to the power amp on the Major.
The slaving the AC30 thing is something that he did way back in ’69 until Marshall did the gain and eq mod in his Majors. Thanks to Youtube you can see shows where he has the Vox AC30 that Marshall put into a small Marshall head box sitting on a chair next to him and going into the Major.
Sites That Link to this Post
- WoodyTone! - Blackmore’s Technique and Opinions (part 2) | April 27, 2009
- WoodyTone! - Misc Lynch CD, Tone Details | May 6, 2009
- WoodyTone! - Rainbow: Best Rock Strat Tone Ever? | April 12, 2011