HOW IT ALL BEGAN
First and foremost let me introduce myself: my first name is Alex and my last name is Saraceno and yes, my son is guitarist Blues Saraceno.
Being originally from France, I learned to love American Rock Music at a very young age. Came to the U.S. in 1960 when American Bandstand was the show, and soon after, the Beatles and the Stones. My father owned a movie theatre and he would allow me each Sunday to purchase Flat Rate movies like “King Kong vs. Godzilla” and “Eegah” and show them as a double feature but in between we would lift the screen and have a STAGE SHOW. I would get 2 local bands and have a battle of the band onstage. These shows were so popular that kids would come for miles around, filling the orchestra seats and the balcony.
Then the late 60's struck and my girlfriend (now my wife) were off to all those Rock Festivals that followed Woodstock. I would drive my Norton motorcycle all the way to the front of stage to see Leslie West, Grand Funk Railroad, Sly And The Family Stone, etc. You name them, we were there. To add insult to injury, we would go to New York every other week to the Fillmore East (one day we actually brought our dog with us and hidden inside a paper bag…)
Later we moved out of the city and moved to the country on a lake, were we soon found ourselves creating a small commune with the locals using our house as a place to party. One of my buddies there knew how to play a guitar and the next thing you know I was playing the guitar too.
One of the regular hippies there had a father who owned a restaurant and he and I became fast friends. He was able to, thanks to the generosity of his parents, buy a pile of guitars.
He would take me to 48th street in NYC and check out the very cool vintage guitar shops like “Alex's Guitar”, “Styverson”, “We Buy” and a host of others right next to “Manny's” and “Sam Ash”. Here is were I learned what it feels like to hold a real vintage Tele, Strat, Paul, Martin, Guild.
Back then, there was nothing but great guitars and basses. We would also go to New Jersey to “Guitar Trader” were we bought some 59 Pauls.
So why am I rambling on about the glory days?
Well, it is for a simple but important reason. New players today do not get those opportunities, they do not always have a point of reference when it comes to real cool tone. I have lived that life to the fullest and I am trying to pass on to you what is something truly amazing, the ability to identify a great great sound.
ABOUT BLUES SARACENO
Not long after that Blues, our son, was born, followed shortly by his brother Joshua.
As he began to grow up, he joined the Boy Scouts and asked me one day if I would show him how to play a couple cords so he can sing their theme song or something like that. Next thing you know, he is coming to our recording sessions (we had a little band that we were trying to get signed) and he is playing more and more on his own.
It wasn't long before we had him join the band were he was always a big hit. When he turned 17 he got a record deal and the rest is just history. He now records for Film and Television and his music is being heard round the world as we speak. Let me just say in passing that I never asked him to play, I never made him practice, he did all that on his own and that is why he is a natural.
AMPLIFIER AND PROBLEMS
Yes, we would blow up a lot of amps. Playing loud was a priority.
Our original rig was a black face bandmaster head as a pre-amp through an L-Pad (like a soaking device) Through two (count them: 2) Crown DC 300 amps through 4 4X12 speaker sections... one time the Crowns passed DC an actually lit all 16 X 12”speaker on fire. The kind of fire we had to use fire extinguishers to put out, and boy did that stink…
Whenever we needed an amp fixed it was always the same story.
“Leave the amp with us and we'll call you when it's fixed” except that those so called "professionals" would never call and we'd find the amps weeks later in the same spot on the counter where we left them. I got so sick of those people that happen to have a small amount of knowledge that you don't possess, and think they rule. Bad attitude, bad skin, and bad breath to boot.
We decided to move to California where I bough a bunch of electronic books and starting teaching myself how to fix amps. I did speak to a couple repair guys, one who was helpful, and after that, I had the knowledge.
I made myself a promise, that I would never be like those pretentious idiots and will stay grounded when I dealt with people who did not know what I now knew. Then I decided to build my son Blues, the very best amp man can make.
THE DIRTY BOY AMP
This may get a little technical but I promise to use only street terms.
I was so excited that I understood how amplifiers worked, that I decided to go a little further. I bought some transformer books and learned how to build my own transformers. There are things that people don't understand to this day. Transformers are like the chassis of a car, if you use a Volkswagen chassis, no matter what engine you use, it will never handle like a race car with a larger chassis.
90% of all amps today use the same or similar transformer technology. That is why they don't sound anything close to the old, some say poorly designed transformers. I believe that a heavy wire will carry the sound with ease rather than a skinny one that just meets specs as to save the manufacturer money. I have a different formula for interleaving (wrapping the wire inside the transformer).
THE BIRTH OF THE DIRTY BOY PEDALS
I guess it was time to face the music, in a sort of way. Loud amps were not longer accepted in most small venues, which is where many players get to display their talents. Also, with smaller amps you don't need roadies to move the gear and you can operate out of a small van rather than a full size truck. The difficulty was on how to reproduce the sound of a loud amplifier without actually being loud. Let's let the P.A. do the work if we can produce the right sound or tone, if you want express yourself in that manner.
After some experimentation and quite a bit of money, I found that some old vintage pedals had captured the desired sound and also I noticed that a lot of players still had powerful amps but were unable to find a use for them at low volume. Then it became clear, let's use a good sounding pedal with really cool distortion and stick it into a non-master amp at a reasonable volume, and let's work with that. Now, I never had been a fan of pedals before, mainly since the one that were available were just horrible sounding. But this was all about to change.
The transformer Lams (the E and the I's) can be bought in different compounds that concentrate the ability to increase the electric flux and make them either more powerful or smaller. The power and output transformers must also form a marriage of sort. I built my transformers with such strong wire that you need a hammer to bend it on the spool sometimes and also you can play your amp on 10 and my transformers don't even get hot. No more fires for this boy.
I also separated the filaments of the power tubes with a variac that was only assigned to the plate voltage. It would not affect the heaters in the tubes so that when you lower only the plate voltage, you would get distortion from the tubes as well as Sag (small delay) the coolest sound in the world. There also was a world of changes in the pre-amp such as a built in booster for the clean side and an adjustable bias for the power tubes (very cool feature). Did I mention that there was 2 rectifier tube in parallel for more sag. I made all the capacitors to have values sometimes 10 times what was required, once again for better sonic flow. I could go on for pages about the things this amp could do.
Of course, I got a lot of requests for the amp but one man cannot build that many amplifiers by himself. So we approached many amplifier companies to get them to produce this amp on a mass scale. Well that did not work too well, they just didn't care about what the amp sounded like. They all said that sound was subjective and whatever they put out had to meet the price point of all their competitors. That is simply why you get what your get these days. No comparison point, no choice, nothing exciting just cheap cheap everything and I guess that is why old Marshall, Fender Vox amp prices are as high as they are for the few that can afford them. There were also other problems, but from my end as well.
The Dirty Boy amp weighed 75lbs, like an old SVT head and loud amps were falling out of favor. If you play a gig in a club, most sound guys don't want to handle loud stage amplifiers, they want you to turn down and then put it through the P.A. Well, that is the end of the show for me. Hey dudes, I did see Hendrix live at the Bushnell in Hartford in '68 and he did not have to turn down and you could hear everything fine so what's up with that?
Actually I still have a power section from a Dirty Boy amp that I started putting into a rack, maybe I'll revive it some day…
MY FIRST GERMANIUM PEDAL: THE GERMANIUM BOY
Keeping with the Dirty Boy tradition (I called the amp Dirty Boy since the original chassis was quite rusty and I got my hands dirty handling it) I called the first pedal the “Germanium Boy”. Not too creative a name, but the cartoon was kind of cool.
I started with studying the circuit of the treble booster, the most common one, which was the Dallas Rangemaster. I was told that this was the one Clapton used when doing the Beano album through a 50 watt Marshall Bluesbreaker.
The first thing I noticed is that the transistors were Positive ground and that would not work well when tying it with other pedals using transistors with positive ground while using a common power supply. So I had to find replacement transistors with negative ground that would be compatible with that design. I also wanted an LED so that the user could see what he was doing at all times.
Now let me tell you about germanium transistors… They are not consistent.
If someone in the 60's wanted a cool pedal, he would try 10 to them, if given the opportunity, then after checking each and everyone out, they would pick the one that sounded best to their ears. Here is the reason why, germanium transistors have, like Silicon transistors, a multiplier (hfe) that essentially tells you how many times they amplify the signal. Being inconsistent, when hfe of 100 is required, Germanium transistors in the same batch can very from 30 to 150 without breaking a sweat, hence the inconsistency. The way to get around that is to tune each transistor so you can raise or lower the hfe by tweaking the voltage and the current. If you do that, they will all sound pretty much the same. All you need is the ear (let's go back to me standing next to Leslie West) and know what great sound is like.
That is also why my pedals cannot be mass-produced. That is also what makes them expensive.
Think of an acoustic guitar maker carefully building his instrument vs. a cheaply foreign made guitar.
But I still was not satisfied with that. I wanted to boost more than one frequency, I wanted to boost them all. That way if you have a guitar that is bassy sounding, select a higher frequency to boost. If your amp is just too bright, marry it with your guitar and choose a lower frequency to boost it. You can also choose how much boosting you want.
Now let's get real crazy, on my 2.0 version, there is a thumbwheel inside that you can turn and adjust the overall gain. Now remember this is not a fuzz pedal, I have other pedals that do that.
Having said that, you can use this pedal to tweak vocals, you can use it on bass, you can use it on keyboards, some people have used it on horns, some engineers have used it on overall mixes. One guy told me it sounded great on electric guitar with Nylon strings. It's a long way from a Dallas Rangemaster.
Not to brag, but I will, one major artist contacted me and told me he re-recorded all of his guitar tracks on his album once he got a hold of the Germanium Boy…
I hope you enjoyed that story, I have more….