28 Aug 2023

Tone Partner: Top Jimi

Learn more about the creator, his gear collection and plans for the future

Next up on our list of Tone Partners to meet is Top Jimi of Top Jimi Profiles.

We sat down with Top Jimi to discuss his background as a professional musician and ′80s tube-tone expert, and how he came about producing his TONEX Collections recreating the elusive EVH Brown Sound, available on ToneNET to demo and purchase HERE.

Learn more about Top Jimi:

Top Jimi created AmpliTube presets for each of the first 6 VH albums. These presets feature his TONEX Collection with classic FXs from AmpliTube to replicate the exact tones from these iconic albums:

IK Multimedia: Let’s start from the beginning. When did you start playing guitar and why guitar?

Top Jimi: My parents bought me my first electric guitar setup when I was 15 – a sunburst Hondo II Les Paul copy and a 12-Watt Peavey Audition 20 amp. I had been tinkering around with a terrible old Harmony acoustic my dad had in the corner of the family room. The Hondo was only a moderate step up, but I was hooked. I was able to start playing music that I really loved, as opposed to school band stuff. School band is great – don’t get me wrong, but it didn’t compare to rock music for me.

Sonic Drive Studio gear collection

IK: Besides EVH (we’ll get to him later), who were some of your early influences?

TJ: Early on, I played whatever I could figure out by ear. Stuff like ZZ Top, Bryan Adams, Wipeout, Louie Louie, etc. As my skills improved I got into all the ′80s rock guitar heroes. I haven’t moved much beyond that!

IK: Tell us a little bit about your amp collection.

TJ: I currently have 30 tube amps in the collection. I own them all as tone generators to create digital captures. I’ve actually bought many more than this in the past to make captures, but you can’t keep ‘em all. The ones I keep in the collection are amps that are hard to replace if I need them again, like the vintage or artist-owned amps, or ones that I’m planning to capture soon. I’ve also collected around two dozen mostly vintage speakers, as they have as much effect on tone as the amps.

IK: You own some very nice amps and pieces of gear. When did this obsession with gear start? And/or how has it evolved?

TJ: I’ve been pretty much obsessed with guitar gear since my teens but could never afford much, with the exception of a 1978 50W Marshall Master Volume head I spent all my savings on. That was my only tube amp for a couple of decades. Top Jimi has since enabled me to buy really nice gear as business assets: amps, speakers, mics and guitars.

IK: Looking back what would you do differently when buying gear?

TJ: The only gear I regret buying is cheap stuff that wasn’t of good quality. That kind of stuff ends up mostly just frustrating me. I recommend saving up and buying a few good pieces of gear that really inspire your creativity.

IK: What do you look for in a guitar amp?

TJ: I prefer power amp distortion over preamp distortion, so I tend toward mostly vintage amps. I don’t really like the compressed nature of high-gain preamps. I prefer a lower-gain preamp and then crank the volume to get that sweet power amp overdrive.

Sonic Drive Studio gear collection

IK: Can you name 3 of your favorite guitars you own and why?

TJ: My #1 is a modified 1954 Les Paul Goldtop I call the Gold Standard. It was previously owned by Robben Ford, who did a ’57 Goldtop conversion on it with original ′50s PAF pickups and a Tune-o-matic bridge. It’s basically a Burst without having to take out a second mortgage. I consider it the ultimate reference guitar and use it for most of my work. I haven’t bought another guitar since. I wrote a blog on it with a lot more detail: The Story Behind Jim's '54 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop, 4 4991 – Top Jimi Profiles

I bought an early 1969 black Les Paul Custom to use as a live guitar. It’s completely stock with T-type PAFs. I’ve used it for maybe 150 shows. I didn’t need a guitar this nice to play live and probably shouldn’t have subjected it to this many gigs, but it’s such a fantastic instrument I couldn’t leave it home. It shows up in some Top Jimi demo videos. The neck pickup just sings…

For a third guitar, I’m going to say the group of several ′80s metal guitars I built to use live in my hair metal band. My method was to buy a cool-looking guitar body off eBay and build a guitar around it tailored to my personal specifications. They all have a custom unfinished neck with a Les Paul-like scale and profile, an original Floyd Rose, and Fralin Pure PAF pickups with the slight overwind. They cost me about 1/3 of what it would cost to have one of the custom shops build the same guitar. They all sound and play pretty similarly, although I do have my favorites. I sometimes use them as reference guitars for the Legendary Tones packs and for doing demo videos.

IK: What would your desert island rig look like? You are limited to 1 amp, 1 cab, 1 guitar and 3 pedals.

TJ: If I’m on a desert island, I don’t need to worry about volume. So, no need for pedals. Tube overdrive all the way. It’s got to be my 1968 Marshall into a couple of 4x12s with vintage Celestions – either early  ′70s 25W Greenbacks with Pulsonic cones or late ′70s 25W Blackbacks (whichever survived the shipwreck). All knobs at or near 10. I should probably bring a Variac to extend the life of the power tubes. The Gold Standard would be plugged into Input #1.

IK: Even though you own a lot of great tube amps and gear you have also embraced digital technology. Tell us a little bit about why you started capturing your amps and what led you to jump into TONEX? 

TJ: My journey into the digital realm began out of frustration with my live rig. I was basically trying to copy Eddie’s Brown Sound rig live with an attenuator and also use a rack pedal switching system. Two problems – I burnt out the power tubes in the middle of a show at least 3 times, and ground loops in some venues were horrendous. I did pretty much everything possible to minimize ground loops in the rig but was never entirely successful. Dealing with annoying ground hum the whole night kind of ruins your show. Creating digital copies of my rig fixed all that. My back appreciated it as well.

IK: One piece of advice to players starting out and wanting to jump into capturing their amps with TONEX?

TJ: Use volume. Lots of volume. Power amp overdrive is where it’s at, at least for the vintage tube amps I tend to concentrate on. I built a dedicated studio so I can use as much volume as I want, whenever I want.

IK: You specialize in ′80s guitar tones. What do you like most about this era of guitar playing/tone and how did it influence the generations after?

TJ: I guess the main thing I don’t like about a lot of modern music is the lack of guitar riffs. I find chord progressions which just strum barre chords to be really boring, as well as stuff that just chunks on low E or B. ′80s guitar music was basically all riffing. I find it to be much more musically interesting and fun to play.

IK: We can’t talk about '80s guitar without mentioning EVH. Plus you’ve named your company Top Jimi :) Let’s dive in. It’s hard to deny the massive impact EVH had on music and guitar playing but what does Eddie mean to you? Why him?

TJ: I think Eddie was just the complete package. He had everything I look for in a rock guitar player. He didn’t really have any weaknesses as a musician. His technical chops were astounding. His sense of rhythm and swing was second to none. He also played with feel and melody when the song called for it. His tone on the first 6 Van Halen records is legendary. His songwriting was also great. The party mentality and excesses of early Van Halen didn’t do much for me but probably helped bring them a lot of commercial success.

IK: You obviously have been down the EVH tone rabbit hole for a long time. When trying to nail his tone, what aspect do you think people miss?

TJ: I’ve found that accurately emulating the Brown Sound requires using the same gear was Eddie used originally. Unfortunately, there’s so much misinformation about Eddie’s rig it was REALLY difficult to figure out what he actually used. In working on the recent set of Brown Sound captures, I figured out that several long-held beliefs I read and thought to be true just weren’t. Many people will fight me if I say things that contradict popular opinion because it seems to be religion to a lot of folks, but I’ve found many of the popular beliefs probably aren’t true.

To get into a few examples: People are way too obsessed with the Variac. It’s not the key to the Brown Sound. It gives the sound a bit more “hair” and compression, but it’s subtle and if it wasn’t there you probably wouldn’t notice.

There’s also an ardent belief that he mixed in a JBL D120F for Van Halen I and that it’s a fizzy speaker that adds high-end sparkle to the tone. The JBL D120F is actually an extremely crunchy speaker with little high end which only adds midrange frequencies that you need to remove for the Brown Sound. There’s a video online in which an engineer at Sun Studios plays Eddie’s two raw tracks from Van Halen I (cool!). He states one of them is a D120F, but it’s obvious that the two tracks are of two different Celestions of the same type. Each speaker cone has its own sound.

I also read and believed that he used an attenuator in the studio, but it’s obvious when replicating the tone that it’s the Marshall with no attenuator. I could go on and on, but you’d run out of digital ink.

IK: What VH track do you think often gets overlooked for great tone, songwriting, and performance?

TJ: One performance I really love that goes under the radar is the solo on “I’ll Wait” from the “1984” album. There’s no shredding. It’s just a continuous stream of tasty melodic licks and some really interesting note choices. I find it to be real musical genius. I also love his solo on Michael Jackson’s Beat It. It’s just so perfect and sounds so spontaneous. There’s a pinch harmonic in there I’ve never been able to replicate. Legend says it was the second live take. The whole solo just blows me away every time I hear it.

IK: You created an amazing TONEX Collection “Legendary Tones Brown Sound” which is based on the first 6 VH records Can you tell us about the gear you used to create this collection?

TJ: As far as I can tell, Eddie’s rig didn’t change much over the first 6 albums. For all the captures I used a 1968 Marshall Super Tremolo basket case I restored to the original spec of the serial number range of Eddie’s Marshall. The Marshall is powered with a Variac set to 90 V. For the first 3 albums I used a late 70’s 25W Celestion Blackback. None of my other old Greenbacks did the job as well. For the last 3 albums, the ubiquitous Celestion G12T-75. The mic is an SM57 (the same as an SM56) as he used. The hard part is getting the mic position and studio EQ right for each album. It seems they did a lot of EQ work on the guitar tone in the studio. The studio EQ settings and change of speaker for “Fair Warning” are the largest differences between the tone on the different albums.

IK: What was your approach to dialing in tones for TONEX?

TJ: Doing a Legendary Tones pack takes a lot of persistence and determination. It took a LOT of experimentation to figure out what his rig actually was in the first place. After that, it was just iteration with endless mic positions and EQ settings to gradually dial in the tones.

IK: What surprised you the most about the quality of the captures?

TJ: The thing that immediately impressed me about TONEX is the absence of the compression you normally hear in digital models of amps. Maybe this isn’t a big deal with more modern tones which are highly compressed and preamp-generated. But with vintage amps, the overdrive is less compressed. The TONEX captures replicate the vintage tones extremely accurately. The net result is they FEEL like the original amp.

IK: Do you have any new collections in the works 

TJ: I plan to continue with the Legendary Tones series of packs, which each seek to recreate the tone of a particular artist. But first I’m planning to add a bunch of packs as part of a Core Series, which concentrates on capturing the tone variations of a particular great amp instead of an artist. Legendary Tones packs take about 10 times as much work as just profiling an amp (I’m not exaggerating), so the cadence of introducing new packs should pick up significantly. I think I’ll start with the vintage Marshall Plexis and go from there. They’ll also each be captured with several different vintage speakers, which really gives a ton of tonal choices.

IK: Outside of capturing legendary tones any music projects you are currently working on or have planned (gigs, sessions, album, etc.)?

TJ: I’ve been playing live shows pretty regularly since 2005 and I’ve gotten a little burnt out on it. I need a break. So I’m going to be spending more time in the studio working on things like TONEX captures and YouTube videos of captures and live amps from the collection.

IK: Where do you see guitar gear going? Any predictions?

TJ: One thing I can say is I wouldn’t want to be a manufacturer that relies entirely on tube amp sales. I think there will always be some people like me who will buy tube amps, but I don’t think the younger generations will be very interested. I think tube amps will be like vintage automobiles. They’re very cool, but they’re expensive, relatively unreliable, and impractical overall for most people compared to digital technology, which will continue to improve.


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