Phish Guitarist Trey Anastasio’s Guitar Amplifier Rundown

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Ryan Chiachiere runs the Trey’s Guitar Rig website that documents Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio’s gear. Below is a review of Anastasio’s use of amplifiers during his career.

In the mid-1990s when I was eagerly trying to spread the gospel of Phish to anyone who’d listen, the unique tone from lead guitarist Trey Anastasio frequently raised eyebrows. It wasn’t a sound people were used to hearing from the classic rock legends they revered, like David Gilmour, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix. Think of the opening lines of “Weigh” on Rift and what they sound like next to the guitar tones on Pearl Jam’s Vs. or Nirvana’s In Utero, which were released the same year (1993). The sparkly, distortion-free, jazz-infused clean tone was a signature of Phish’s sound from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s and was a sharp contrast to the grungey, heavily distorted guitars that dominated most rock music for decades.

Like Phish’s compositions, the timbre of the band itself seemed to break the mold for what could work in rock music, much to the delight of fans. But over the last few years, that super-clean sound has largely disappeared from Trey’s playing, in favor of a more saturated, growling, aggressive and muscular tone, leading many fans to ask me, “What happened to the old guitar sound?” Although there’s an understandable impulse among music fans to seek the comfortable old sounds of the past, artists need to keep pushing their boundaries and moving forward. Trey’s ’80s and ’90s rig — and the tones he produced with it — fit the music that Phish created during that era, while the tones Trey is pulling from today’s rig are well-suited to the music the band creates right now.

When Phish returned from an extended hiatus in 2009, Trey brought one of his most long-standing and reliable rigs: the Mesa/Boogie Mark III long head amplifier and the 2×12 wood cabinets he and Paul Languedoc built in Burlington, Vermont in the early years. The Mesa/Boogie Mark Series is a staple of rock ‘n’ roll music, with the Mark I becoming a favored amp of Keith Richards and Carlos Santana soon after its introduction in 1972. Trey’s Mark III is a three-channel evolution of the Mark I, offering a high-gain lead channel, a mid-gain “crunch” channel, and a clean channel that is intended to emulate the pristine and bubbly clean tone of the celebrated Fender Blackface-era amplifiers of the mid-1960s.

The Mark III was the core of Trey’s go-to live amplification from the mid-1980s at Nectar’s through early-1995 and also appeared on stage again in the late-1990s. It was featured regularly through early 3.0, as well, including in 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016, in addition to the 2009 return performances. Since the band’s inception, there is no amplifier that Trey has used on stage more frequently or consistently than the Mark III. He sometimes used the lead and crunch channels in the 1990s and early 3.0, but generally employed outboard distortion pedals to add any gain he needed (most prominently Ibanez Tube-Screamers and a Ross Compressor, but later the H&K Tube Factor and Klon Centaur, as well). Otherwise, he relied on the Boogie’s Fender-style clean channel for the tone that was such a staple of early Phish. That sound can be heard prominently in the opening moments of “You Enjoy Myself” (see, e.g., October 31, 1990), in the composed sections of “The Squirming Coil” (the first movement, May 17, 1992) and “Reba” (August 7, 1993), and the introduction to “It’s Ice” (August 14, 1993) and “All Things Reconsidered” (December 20, 1993). You’ll also recognize it in the deliciously funky rhythm guitar stabs in “Maze” (June 22, 1994) and “My Friend, My Friend” (December 1, 1992).

The Mark series became somewhat controversial in the guitar world over the following decades. Specifically, the clean tone was considered to be overbuilt, with too much headroom (volume before distortion) so that almost no matter how high you turn up the volume, the amp never distorts. That’s in stark contrast to the forgiving sagginess and soft breakup of the Fender amps on which the Mark series clean channel was based. Instead, the Boogie clean was a bit more nasal and harsh, without the natural distortion characteristics of vintage amplifiers. They are sometimes described by vintage enthusiasts as “sterile.” Trey himself called the Boogie a “much-maligned amp” during a rig rundown Phish published in 2013, but was sticking with it at the time. He argued there was a certain kind of value in working with a long-standing rig, saying, “This has sort of a unique sound, all of this stuff.”

Trey experimented with other amplifiers onstage between 1995 and the 2009 return, but the real tonal deviation started later in 3.0. As early as Summer 2013, and sporadically thereafter, Trey was using a Bogner Shiva alongside his Boogie. Later, in Fall 2016, we’d see a Marshall JTM45HW (the “HW” stands for “hand-wired,” reflecting Trey’s increasing distaste for mass produced amplification) at the core of the rig. By late-2016, Trey had zeroed in on the Komet 60, one of the most critically-acclaimed high gain amplifiers in production today, built on a circuit designed in 1999 by the legendary Ken Fischer of Trainwreck Amps, who died in 2006.

When we spoke in fall 2018, Trey said that in the mid-1970s as the demand for guitar amps skyrocketed and mass-production took hold, overall build quality plummeted industry-wide, and the vintage sound of hand-built amps gave way to an era dominated by cheap transistors and plastic microchips. Consumers also wanted amps that were more feature-rich, leading manufacturers to construct amps that were capable of an enormous variety of sounds without necessarily being a master of any. But in the early-2000s, as the technology, know-how and materials became more readily available, boutique amps proliferated, and many designers were eager to reverse the trend, with builders like Swart, Milkman and Komet seeking to make amps that acted the same way vintage amplifiers did: a single channel with a simple, high quality tube-based circuit breaking up into beautiful distortion naturally as you turn up the volume. The Komet 60 is such an amp.

When you play the Komet, you can hear the richness and complexity of its components in every note, and Trey has pulled every ounce of available soul, tone and mojo out of his pair of Komet 60s. He has “tube-rolled” the preamp and power sections in both amps, a time-intensive process in which you have a vintage amp guru swap out each individual preamp tube (in the Komet there are three) and then swap out pairs of power tubes to find the exact right tube combination that makes your particular amp “sing.” There are dozens of brands and hundreds of tubes to choose from. Trey uses exclusively New Old Stock (“NOS”) tubes, which means they function as brand new but are often decades old, from an era when tubes were of higher quality and often made in the United States.

According to folks who’ve been in the room, Trey spends hours doing this and is one of the hardest-working tone-seekers in the music business. Each preamp tube position in the Komet (they’re called V1, V2, and V3) has a different function, so a particular NOS tube in the V1 position has a different impact than it would if you placed that same NOS tube in the V3 position. It is painstaking work that requires repeated efforts over multiple days and months to achieve the desired result while avoiding ear fatigue. But done right it pays huge dividends, particularly with an amp like the Komet, in which changes in tube configuration have a significant impact on the overall voicing.

Trey describes the Komet as “really a much better amp” than the Mark III, and notes that while he needed the Tube Screamers to get the overdriven, tube-saturated distortion tones from the Mark III, the Komet amp provides those intrinsically, simply by turning up the volume. And there’s no question the Komet is truly an extraordinary amplifier. The searing, smoky tone makes for raucous, dirty rhythm lines in familiar songs like “Fuego” (see, e.g., November 1, 2018), “Kill Devil Falls” (July 28, 2018), “46 Days” (August 1, 2017), and “Walk Away” (October 19, 2018), among many others. But the readily available crunch is particularly well-voiced for some of the newer songs with somewhat more traditional rock forms, like “Everything’s Right” (September 1, 2018), “Set Your Soul Free” (October 23, 2018), “More” (July 15, 2017), “Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S.” (October 31, 2018), and even “Mercury” (January 14, 2017). Heavy riffs on the guitar’s lower, wound strings, like the signature guitar lines from “Simple” (December 31, 2018) and “Tweezer” (August 12, 2018) are right at home on the Komet. And while the Mesa shines on the super-clean composed arpeggios, the tube distortion and the creamy overdrive the Komet produces are well-suited for the long sustained notes in “Coil” (July 22, 2017) and the big bends and howls in the later movements of “YEM” (July 18, 2018). Moreover, the amp’s robust midrange and vocal quality have significantly re-oriented the sound of Phish jams, allowing Trey to play fewer notes while still having a robust voice and facilitating group-oriented jamming that is heavy on melody.

But as Trey himself pointed out, his Mark III-based rig had a “unique sound,” and the Komet doesn’t do that sound. Amplifier technologists and gearheads can say one amp is technically better or worse, but recall that Link Wray is widely rumored to have achieved one of the earliest guitar distortion sounds by poking holes in his speaker cones with a pencil. So great tone is whatever the ears prefer, and Phish’s sound was, in part, born around the Mark III tone. While that sound may not be fashionable today, it’s an inextricable part of Phish history, and understandably still holds a special place in the hearts of many fans. Hence the ubiquitous inquiries about “the old guitar sound.”

The absence of channel-switching on the Komet means that there is no dedicated clean channel. Instead, when the amp volume is dialed past noon (as Trey’s are), achieving a clean tone requires the player to roll off the guitar’s volume, sending less signal to the amp from the pickups and resulting in less tube saturation. Because of the guitar roll-off, there’s a sense that you’re hearing a high-gain amp that is cooling its heels a bit, rather than a purpose-built clean tone. It’s like driving a Ferrari at 35 mph in the city, while the performance-oriented machine longs for the open road.

The early Mark III clean sound was polarizing: some could never bond with it, but those of us who did found it intoxicating. The fact that it didn’t bear much resemblance to sounds of mainstream rock past and present was all the more reason to love it. Those who flocked to Phish in those early years were certain that the doubters were wrong; that this band was on to something special that no one had come up with before and that would ultimately prove to make them one of the great bands in the canon of rock ‘n’ roll. To Phish fans, the tonal quirks and other idiosyncrasies were a feature, not a bug.

As the band grew up, the music evolved in incredible ways. The compositions tended away from the novel early records and toward a more polished roots rock, soul and funk ethos, with a shift to a style of song craft that put more emphasis on the traditions of rock ‘n’ roll, and in some ways the band’s tonal palette followed suit. That tonal palette, incidentally, is vaster and more varied today than at any time in the band’s history. From Trey and Mike Gordon’s combined collection of guitar and bass effects, to Page McConnell’s array of synthesizers and electro-mechanical keyboards, to Jon Fishman’s Marimba Lumina, never has the band been able to create such a diverse array of sounds from the stage.

So, what’s the answer all those “old guitar sound” questions? Well, listeners should be thrilled to see the Komet incorporated into Trey’s rig. It’s a world-class guitar amplifier with a storied pedigree that is more than worthy of a prominent place — even the dominant place — in the rig of a meticulous and tone-savvy guitarist like Trey. The change made old songs new again and drew the band in different and interesting directions. Of course, it’s hard to imagine that fans would raise any objection if Trey could occasionally tap an amp-selector switch on his Bradshaw-built RST-24 foot controller and summon that old Mesa clean, in all its harsh, nasal, sterile glory. After all, tone is where the heart is.

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