Neil Young: Ragged Glory
Cragg uses D’Angelico 80/20 Brass strings (.012–.054) on Young’s acoustics, and Dean Markley Super V’s (.010–.046) on his electrics. Picks are nylon Herco Gold Flex 50s. “Neil used those when I first started working for him, and he still does today.”
At the core of Young’s amplifier setup is a piece of gear as essential to his sound as Old Black: the 1959 tweed Fender Deluxe he’s used since the late Sixties. A small, 15-watt unit, with just two volume knobs and a shared tone control, this amp, says Cragg, “makes all the sound. Onstage, as loud as everything gets, that’s what you hear. And it’s totally stock except for two 6L6’s in place of the original tubes. That boosts the output from 15 to 19 watts, and it kills.” An added consequence of this rebiasing is that the amp runs extremely hot; Cragg has high-powered fans trained on the back of the Deluxe to “keep it from blowing up.”
Young derives his distortion entirely from the Deluxe’s output-tube saturation. He coaxes various gain stages from the amp using a device called the Whizzer, a custom-made switching system he and his late amp tech, Sal Trentino, developed around the time of the Rust Never Sleeps tour in 1978. A high-tech concept housed in a rudimentary box, the Whizzer boasts four preset buttons, each corresponding to one volume/tone configuration on the Deluxe. Young accesses the presets through footswitches on his pedal board, which, in turn, command the Whizzer to mechanically twist the Deluxe’s tone and volume controls to the programmed positions.
All four of the Whizzer’s presets dial in distorted tones on the Deluxe. “The first one,” says Cragg, “is still clean enough that Neil can get really nice dynamics, depending on the way he picks. The second setting is the one he uses on songs like ‘Hey Hey, My My,’ and the third one is really distorted.” The final setting, which moves the Deluxe’s main volume and tone knobs to 12 and the second volume control to roughly 9.9, produces a sound that, says Cragg, “is basically a woooaaarrr type of thing.”
Cragg pads down the output from the Deluxe and feeds it into a Magnatone 280 with stereo vibrato combo amp, and a Mesa/Boogie Bass 400 head with the highs EQ’d out. The latter amplifier is run through a massive Magnatone speaker cabinet that sports “eight horns, four 10-inch speakers, four 15-inch speakers and two 15-inch passive radiators.” The stage rig is rounded out by a 25-watt tweed Fender Tremolux of Cragg’s that the tech rebiased to run at 40 watts, as well as a “high-powered, four-6L6” tweed Fender Twin. Cragg uses a combination of Sennheiser 409 and Shure SM57 microphones on the amps. Young’s reverb unit, a stock, brown-tolex-covered Fender model, is stationed behind the wall of amplifiers. “We have three plates for that,” says Cragg. “We only use one at a time, but they all sound different.”
Young controls everything from an oversized, red wood pedalboard at the front of the stage. The slanted portion features five buttons: one for each of the four Whizzer presets, as well as a reverb kill. Across the top panel are switches for, variously, a Mu-Tron octave divider; an old, AC-powered MXR analog delay; a Boss Flanger in a “blue, cast-metal box”; and an Echoplex. All are housed inside the board. There is also an effect-loop bypass and mute/tune option, as well as a switch that Cragg refers to as the “ugly button.”
“That’s a very strange thing, and Neil only hits it when he wants to go to the next level,” he says. “It activates a unit that’s just totally freaked out.” Cragg laughs. “It’s adjusted how it definitely should not be adjusted. But Neil seems to like that.”
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