Now That's a Turn-Off: The Lost Art of the Standby Switch
I was recently invited to be a judge at a shredding contest called the Demon Rock Off alongside fellow Guitar World blogger Joe Matera.
Each guitarist in the contest was to play for 60 seconds through one of three combo amps: a Marshall JCM900, a Fender Twin and a Vox AC390. The majority of the contestants must have been in their late teens or early 20s, and they all did a great job of getting up on stage in a high-pressure situation in front of a crowd of cross-armed fellow guitarists and doing their thing. The finalists had to take part in a shred-off against Satan (actually Kris Petersen from Syndicate), which was pretty awesome.
As a perennial guitar geek, I thought this was a really cool opportunity to observe the current state of guitar playing from the bedroom jammer's perspective. Were there any consistent stylistic traits? A popular guitar brand that everyone leaned toward?
From the contestants I was able to glean a few things. For starters, it seems everyone still falls back on the same tried-and-true blues lick (informally known as "The Chuck Berry") while plotting their next move. It's a cool lick and it works, so that's all good.
Secondly, there were no particular guitar preferences evident during the evening. There was an Ibanez Jem, a Charvel So Cal, a Gretsch Duo Jet, one or two Strats, some Gibsons. So no particular trend to observe there.
But there was one overriding theme throughout the night. It was related to amp choice. And no, it wasn't that the majority of the players chose the amp with the most distortion (the Marshall) over the ones with less gain (the Fender and Vox).
It was that nobody knew how to turn the amps on.
In between contestants, the amps were usually put into standby mode. Those of us who are used to tube amps will know that the amps have two "on" switches: one for On/Off and one for Standby/On. But it was clearly evident that most of these players had grown up in the era of modelling amps (which typically only have a single On switch) or software amp sims, and they didn't have the faintest idea how to turn on a tube amp!
Although purists will undoubtedly be wiping the spat coffee off their monitor after reading that, it's not really a surprise and I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing, either. It's just the way of the world. Tube amps are heavy, they can be a bitch to maintain, and most newer players simply don't start out with a tube amp. They start with something solid state or digital and go from there.
Modelling amps do a great job of preparing players for what to expect tonally when they do finally plug into a real Marshall Plexi or Voc AC30. But with the exception of some tube-powered models like the Line 6 Spider Valve and the Peavey Vypyr Tube 120, these amps don't really prepare players for the totally different kind of attack and punch of a real tube amp—and evidently they don't prepare them for knowing how to use a Standby switch.
So what's the solution? Should the Fender Mustang amp include a model of a Standby switch alongside its '57 Deluxe replica? Should Line 6 come out with an aroma module that makes the innards of any amp smell like a glowing EL34 power tube? Should Agile Partners create a "Set up and turn on a tube amp" app that makes a game out of issues such as blown fuses, microphonic tubes and amp/speaker impedance mismatches? ("Dude, I totally scored 10,000 on biasing an unmatched pair of KT88s!")
I dunno. Ultimately the answer lies in exposure and education. I hope there never comes a day when tube amps are obsolete—hey, they've already withstood about 30-plus years of solid state challengers—but let's face it, if a whole room of guitarists doesn't know about something as simple as a Standby switch, maybe the times really are changing.
Interestingly, the clear winner of the shredding contest, Dylan Boyd (pictured), played through the AC30 and knew immediately how to use the Standby switch.
DEMON ROCK OFF - Rock Star Bowling - Satan's Intro:
Peter Hodgson is a journalist, an award-winning shredder, an instructional columnist, a guitar teacher, a guitar repair guy, a dad and an extremely amateur barista. In his spare time he runs a blog, I Heart Guitar, which allows him to publicly geek out over his obsessions. Peter is from Melbourne, Australia, where he writes for various magazines as well as for Gibson.com.