Good Ol’ Headphone Amps

A few weeks ago, while continuing to clean out my house, I came across a brand-new, unopened package of an AmPlug Vox Lead headphone amplifier. It looks like a miniature version of a classic Vox amp head from the Beatles days, with a 1/4-inch plug that you can connect to your guitar. I am not sure how I got it, probably as a birthday or Christmas present. I never used it, and it was sitting in that drawer for probably five or so years. Since it is brand-new, I decided to just sell it on Craigslist.

About that same time, I was at a local electronics/radio swap meet and came across two headphone amps for a couple of bucks apiece. I snagged them up, more out of curiosity than necessity.

This got me to thinking about my personal love and history of guitar headphone amps. Back when I first started playing electric bass in the mid 1980s, I was also becoming fascinated with electronics, specifically with music circuits such as special effects. The internet was still in its infancy, so learning about music electronics was limited to books in the library and special editions of magazines like Popular Electronics putting out yearly supplements such as 99 Easy Electronic Projects, which may have one or two music-related circuits such as a transistor preamp or a rudimentary fuzz box.

Dear old Radio Shack was a great source for parts, and actually had a few do-it-yourself electronics kits that were geared to musicians. One was a drum machine, and another was a reverb unit. I remember the IC chip for the reverb unit was sold separately and cost about $40.00 at that time. I did save up a bunch of money at that time and built one, but the results were lackluster. Radio Shack ended up selling a pre-made one soon after, designed for audiophiles to connect through the stereo.

One Radio Shack kit that was popular was a headphone amp. It didn’t require a lot of parts, it was monophonic (not stereo), and cost about $30.00 for all parts. The IC chip was a common one known as LM386. These are still readily available through various electronics surplus shops on the internet, and a schematic for a headphone amp using the LM386 can easily be found online. I have probably built a dozen of these amps for myself and friends throughout the years.

As time has gone on, electronics costs have dropped considerably. So much that it is a lot cheaper to buy a headphone amp from an online source than it is to locate all of the parts and build it yourself. Last year, Fender introduced the Mustang Micro Headphone Amp, which has way too many bells and whistles for me. It charges up instead of using batteries, has Bluetooth compatibility, includes a dozen amp setting and 13 effects choices, and can be plugged into a computer for recording or additional tone shaping. It goes for about $120.00 on Sweetwater. Personally, I am fine with a basic headphone amp to practice with and not disturb the neighbors, and use the saved cash for other things. See what Landon Bailey has to say about it.

I will take a look at three of the headphone amps that I have on-hand, the two that I got at the swap meet and one that I got about a year or so back when I was talking about bluegrass bass guitar.

First up is the eStudio E-15 Danelectro Honeytone Headphone Amp. This was built to look like the earlier-produced N-10 Mini Amp. While the N-10 had a small speaker and was a small tabletop affair, the E-15 is even smaller, has a similar speaker grille but no speaker, and clips to your belt. It has the normal 1/4-inch guitar input jack and 1/8-inch stereo out headphone jack, along with a useful 1/4-inch out jack for plugging either into a bigger amp to use as a pre-amp or directly into a mixer/recording device. It operates either on a 9-volt battery or connects to a wall-wart transformer. There is a LED power indicator and three push-button switches for power, echo, and distortion. On the side are the volume and distortion level controls. The one I have is seafoam green, and I am aware that there were a few other colors. It has that typical Danelectro flavor to it. The distortion is pretty basic and ratty sounding, and the echo is nothing spectacular. This is a decent headphone amp that if you can pick up used for under $10.00, grab it.

The other headphone amp that I got at the swap meet is a Pocket Rock-it Stereo Sound Processor STD model from CB Labs Inc. About the size of a cigarette pack, I was really impressed with this one. On the back is a 1/4-inch plug that rotates so it can plug into just about any guitar jack at any angle. It has 1/8-inch jacks for headphones as well as an auxiliary jack for plugging in a CD or MP3 player. It uses a 9-volt battery but no power adaptor jack. Controls include the LED indicator, on/off slide switch, a three-way slide switch for clean/distortion/PRX (not sure what it stands for, but it is a shredding distortion sound), and volume and tone filter sliders. What impressed me the most on this one is the distortion sound. Through headphones, this is a killer sound, not ratty at all. Somehow the company created a circuit that makes it sound like a well-driven 100-watt amplifier through the headphones! I am seeing these go for anywhere from $15.00 to $65.00 used online. The one that I have is black, and I have seen some in a gray-metal look and different design. I highly recommend this one if only for the distortion sound, and if you can wire up some sort of adaptor from the headphone output to a line-in to a mixer or recorder for recording purposes, you will not be disappointed.

Finally, there is the Lisheng LH-380 Guitar Headphone Amplifier. I mentioned this one a while back on my blog regarding using a small headphone amp while learning bluegrass bass guitar ( This one has the belt clip, LED indicator, 1/4-inch input jack, 1/8-inch headphone jack, volume and tone controls, and an off/on/distortion switch. The distortion is passable, but not controllable. This one has a small speaker built in, so you can actually use it as a mini amp, but don’t expect cranking volume. It seems to poorly distort the speaker at half-volume, and in the Distortion mode, it is cringe-worthy. I got this one for about $20.00 off of eBay I believe, and that is about how much it is worth, maybe a few bucks more.

Headphone amps were a lot more valued before the days of software that allowed you to plug into your laptop computer. Building them taught me a lot about electronics, but the field moved way too fast for me to keep up. Perhaps in a future blog I may talk about other special effects pedals that I built for my guitar and bass.

Chew on it and comment.

Musical Instruments

Do You REALLY Need a Baritone Guitar?

Maybe it is the algorithms, but this past week when I logged onto YouTube, I was blasted with dozens of videos from the guitar bloggers (including Casino Guitars) about baritone guitars. The good, the bad, the prices, the uses, the history, and more. Why all of a sudden this interest in the baritone guitar, especially the electric ones?

While I don’t follow today’s harder rock music, from what I learned, a lot of these punk, death metal, and other hardcore sounding bands are using the baritone guitar to get that deep grungy sound to go with the bowels-of-hell vocals. Where 7-string electrics were the thing a decade or two ago (with a low B string), these bands want even lower sounds to quake the stage and eardrums.

A little history. The baritone guitar began to gain interest with popular music back in the late 1950s/early 1960s. Danelectro was the main manufacturer. Guitarslinger Duane Eddy used one on a number of his songs, and they were also used in Nashville to copy the bass lines of songs by artists such as Pasty Cline and Jim Reeves (where it was commonly referred to as a “tic-tac” bass).

As for rock music, its use was sporadic to say the least. Two classic rock songs that have a prominent baritone guitar sound are The Beatles’ “Back in the USSR” and Aerosmith’s “Back in the Saddle.” These two songs featured the Fender Bass VI, which was also occasionally used by Cream’s Jack Bruce.

Baritone guitars made a slight comeback in the 1980s with a few of the neo-traditional country artists. A great example is Pete Anderson taking a lead on one with Dwight Yoakam’s “Little Ways.” During this time, Jerry Jones Guitars was producing replicas of the Danelectro baritone guitars, as well as a few original styles. Alt-country bands in the 1990s and 2000s were also implementing the baritone into some of their music, such as Dave Alvin with the reunion of The Knitters.

However, it never achieved a common guitar status. This is probably because of the specifications of the guitar. The neck scale is anywhere form 26 to 30 inches, and the string configuration is usually tuned down a fourth from B-to-B or a fifth from A-to-A. Picking a note on one of these with normal guitar pickups gives a springy, clunky sound that is somewhere between the regular guitar and a bass guitar. It has its unique sound, but playing a chord on one of these sounds horrible (at least to many).

Then we have today, where those metal-style bands WANT that earth-shaking low-end sound of distorted chords from a baritone guitar. To each his/her own, but I value my hearing, as well as my sanity.

This leads to the modern production of baritone guitars. Fender stopped producing the Bass VI years ago, but has now come out with the Squier Paranormal Carbonita Telecaster Baritone Guitar. Other manufacturers include ESP, Jackson, Reverend, and still Danelectro. Other than the Dan-o models, these are definitely geared to that metal crowd. They also range in price from $450 to $2,100 (on the Sweetwater website).
So would you consider paying at least $450 for a guitar that is not much more than a novelty? I guess if you have money to burn, then burn away. However, even when I was playing in roots-rock and alt-country bands 20+ years ago, I can only think of a few times when I wished that I had a baritone guitar. Fortunately for me, I was able to find an alternative.

About 20 or so years ago, Guitar Player put out an issue highlighting baritone guitars. This was about the time Jerry Jones started putting out its Dan-o copies, and they were getting great reviews for a short time. One article in that issue, however, caught my attention. It discussed creating your own baritone guitar from a regular electric guitar.

I went out and bought a cheap used Squier Telecaster, which has a 25.5-inch scale (just an inch or so less than a regular baritone) for about $100, and got to work. Work entailed filing the nut slots a bit as well as filing a little larger string hole at the tailpiece where the low E string resides. I used medium-gauge electric guitar strings but only used the thicker five strings. For the sixth string, I used a D string for a short-scale electric bass (this was why I filed a larger hole in the tailpiece). After re-setting the intonation, I had a decent baritone guitar! The Tele pickups gave it a bit of the old-school Dan-o sound.

I used it on a few recordings for other bands, and a few more people had borrowed it for use on their recordings. Basically, I saved hundreds of dollars. I still have that thing buried in my closet, and I doubt that it will ever be used again except to plunk around with at home.

The thing is, these guitars are not going to be used all of the time. I am not sure that even the metal bands will continue to use them as a rhythm guitar alternative for a long time. As for the original use in country music, they are a once-in-a-while flavor. Even use live with a country or Americana band would mean a one- or two-song change or perhaps a third guitarist (along with the rhythm and lead guitars).

My advice: don’t go out and buy one unless you have the money to spare, or are really serious about using it regularly in the studio or on stage. If you want to try a novel guitar project, convert one like I did for a lot less money.

Chew on it and comment.