. . . to a blog about all the things you can do with — or to — a guitar. Topics: DIY, instruments, amps, effects, recording, software, technique, music history, music heresy.
. . . to a blog about all the things you can do with — or to — a guitar. Topics: DIY, instruments, amps, effects, recording, software, technique, music history, music heresy.
Oh, man — I’m flipping out over a new guitar I’ve assembled from Warmoth parts. It was an opportunity to try some new experiments — and amazingly, some of them may have worked!
I had several unrelated goals:
Plus, I was suffering some Jazzmaster nostalgia. My first electric guitar was the used Jazzmaster I received for my 13th birthday. Naturally, I sold it at exactly the wrong time, and haven’t owned one since.
Fullerton vs. Kalamazoo. But as you can see, this apple has fallen far from the Fender tree. Beyond the bolt-on neck, 25 1/2″ scale, and JM shape, it’s really more Gibson-esque, with a relatively heavy korina body, mahogany neck, bound ebony fretboard, and Tune-o-matic-style bridge and tailpiece.
I wanted to see how a guitar that was bigger and heavier than the Fenders I’d been using in my digital setup would perform with MIDI triggering and amp modeling. This “Birdmaster” reminds me a lot of a Firebird, or even a Trini Lopez with its Firebird-style headstock. There’s just a lot of distance between the endpin and the tip of the headstock! Between the woody mass, authoritative-sounding Lindy Fralin P-92 pickups (which I’d previously reviewed in Premier Guitar), and my beloved overpriced flatwound strings, I wound up with an instrument whose exceptionally clear and stable pitch works better with digital tools than any guitar I’ve tried.
Intonation revelation. On a whim, I ordered the neck with a pre-installed Earvana nut. I’d always been a sceptic about “improved” intonation schemes, such as the Buzz Feiten system. Not because I didn’t think they’d work — more because I like the out-of-tuneness of guitars in general and rock guitars in particular. (And let’s face it — most of my best session work is howlingly out of tune.)
Okay, I was a dope.
I am over the moon about how sweetly this guitar plays in tune. It’s already an exceedingly resonant slice of tree, but I’d swear the minuscule intonation fixes just make it hum more. I’ve already taken in three more instruments to genius guitar tech Gary Brawer for Earvana retrofits.(The nuts go for about $40 each, compared to five bucks or so for a conventional nut.)Cult boost. I also tried a few new things with the electronics. There are single master volume and tone controls, with a Stellartone ToneStyler on the tone pot. I added my Cult circuit — a single-germanium-transistor boost descended from the Rangemaster, a trick I used in the Pagey Project Les Paul. A push/pull switch on the third knob activates it.
But here, the pot controls the level going into the boost, not out of it. Since it’s such an extraordinarily dynamic circuit (it cleans up almost completely when you back of the input), the knob works as an ultra-sensitive gain control. It’s easy to find spots where you can go from clean to dirty with just a little extra picking-hand pressure. (The booster, when engaged, is positioned before the volume and tone pots.) The same setup would probably work great with a built-in Fuzz Face.
I’m still fine-tuning things — I may want to add selectable booster input caps, for the option of a traditional Rangemaster-style treble boost. But overall, I’m thrilled to bits about how this guitar is turning out!
Anyone else have interesting experiences with Fender/Gibson hybrids? Care to share?
May I take this opportunity to pimp my new monthly recording column in Premier Guitar? The first installment covers basic electric guitar miking technique. It’s ground that’s been covered often enough before, though I hope the article’s many audio files (recorded via ReAmp, moving the mic between “takes”) shed some new light on the topic.
Meanwhile, I’m breathlessly stoked about my new “Partsmaster.” It’s a Korina “Split Jazzmaster” body from Warmoth with Fralin P-92s and some new tricks I’ve been wanting to try with wiring and onboard overdrive, plus several other
Can’t wait — this is an interesting one! :)
Oh man — the gods have been generous this week.
This one will be a bit of a platypus — as opposed to, you know, all my other other platypi. (The actual plural of “platypus” is “platypuses,” but “platypi” is more fun to type.) It’s built from Warmoth’s “split Jazzmaster” template, with a korina body, bound neck, Tune-o-matic/stop-tailpiece bridge, and a pair of hum-cancelling Fralin P-92s. Yeah, it’s kind of a stab-in-the-dark experiment, and not a inexpensive one. But hope springs eternal. Prepare to be bored with details!
I’ve also just received an amazing-looking pair of condenser mics from Portland, Oregon’s Ear Trumpet Labs. ETL kingpin Philip Graham’s business card identifies him as “proprietor and bricoleur.” Bricolage, of course, is the ten-dollar word for “making stuff out of junk and other found objects.” Dig the steampunk vibe of that repurposed hardware! I haven’t even plugged these in yet (though the reviews I’ve read have been stellar). I just like staring at them! But I’m going to try them out at my monthly Strung Out! show tonight.
Which brings me another of this week’s highlights: I got to perform last night with my dear friends Teja Gerken and Adam Levy. Teja is an astonishing acoustic fingerstylist and a fine composer. His vocabulary has hints of Bensusan, Hedges, and classical, but he’s molded those influences into a thoroughly unique sound. And Adam, who I’ve known since my Guitar Player magazine days, is equally renowned for his jazz work and for accompanying such singer/songwriters as Norah Jones and Tracy Chapman. (I get to play some of Adam’s cool parts when I gig with Tracy.) These days Adam’s focusing on songwriting, and he his sings his “smart Americana” songs (my description, not Adam’s) in a sweet, soulful voice. Man, what a treat to hear both of them up close. And tonight, Adam, Shelley Doty, and I perform at my local dive, El Rio. Can life get any better?
Apparently so! Yesterday Premier Guitar posted John Bohlinger’s piece on the Pixies, which includes a pic of Charles “Frank Black/Black Francis” Thompson’s pedalboard, with my grubby, hand-built Duh fuzz pedal front and center. I’d originally made if for Joey Santiago, the other Pixies guitarist, but I guess Charles swiped it. Hey, I’d be honored if either guy spat on the thing! They’ve been heroes since I first heard the band in a small San Francisco club back in ’88. (Everyone went to hear the Sugarcubes, but left talking about that awesome opening act from Boston.)
It’s funny, because I really was thinking “Pixies” when I sound-designed the Duh. I was going for “bubblegum metal” — a thick, heavy sound, but not a macho one. The tone is too fizzy and funny for 100% sincere heavy rock, IMHO. It’s more of a “greasy kid stuff” distortion. (Note to readers under 45: That was once the tagline for a “dry look” mens hair product, referring to the outdated coiffures that would return with a vengeance when punk broke a few years later.) It’s a vaguely Muff-like sound, but with less compression, less scoop, and one big, stupid knob. I also like building that circuit into guitars. Like this one:
So it’s been a grand week, but a hectic one. Thanks for reading this far. Next week I promise a proper post, and not another collection of … odds & ends.
One of the coolest gizmos from last weeks NAMM show is already in my grubby little hands: It’s the Logidy EPSi, the first customizable convolution reverb pedal. I ordered it the instant I heard about it, and it arrived right before I left for Anaheim.
Convolution (or impulse response) reverbs can mimic acoustic spaces and outboard gear with astonishing accuracy. (If this concept is new to you, check out this article by me. Or better yet, this one written by someone who knows what he’s talking about.) Nutshell: You create impulse response (IR) files by playing and recording a test tone in rooms or through gear. Once you load the file into an IR reverb device or plug-in, it can make anything sound as if it was recorded with the same ambience.You can also generate eerie, otherworldly sounds by loading unusual audio files.
Many software and hardware amp and effect modellers use IRs to mimic gear. Software convolution reverb plug-ins such as Audio Ease’s Altiverb, Logic Pro’s Space Designer, and Waves IR1 include reverb libraries, and also let you load your own IRs. But as far as I know, EPSi us the first device that lets you load your IRs into a stompbox and access them without playing through a computer.
I’m psyched to add IR reverbs to my (mostly) analog pedalboard, and EPSi makes it relatively easy to load the IR libraries I’ve compiled. The files require special treatment: They must be 44.1kHz WAVs, and the names must be formatted quite specifically, as detailed in Logidy’s documentation. The interface is extremely minimal: just a bypass footswitch and a knob/button pair to navigate the simple menus.
This unique reverb stompbox sounds great and offers limitless opportunities for creative sound design. You can load your own impulses, or add ones from from some of the fine freeware libraries online. (Thanks for the link, Scott!) On the downside, it’s difficult to load or edit sounds on the fly, so while it might be fun to spelunk for new sounds in the studio with EPSi, don’t plan on modifying sounds onstage. (The ability to recall several saved presets would vastly improve EPSi as a gigging tool.)
I just drove back to San Francisco from Southern California, where I got to hang out with family and spend a long, full day at NAMM. And while even the longest and fullest of days isn’t enough to see half the stuff at the show, I’ve put together a little slideshow covering some highlights and lowlights.
Per usual, my focus is the obscure and the absurd. For details of the big releases from the major companies, check out the excellent coverage by my Premier Guitar colleagues. (I’m the designated PG reporter for Musikmesse in March, but at NAMM, I had the luxury of stumbling around in a daze, pausing to gape at whatever shiny object happened to enter my field of vision.)
Finally, an apology: I couldn’t figure out how to embed links within my slideshow captions, so you’ll have to do some typing to learn more about these products. Sorry — but I did warn you that this was a half-assed NAMM report!
After last week’s loudness experiments, and with the sonic carnage of NAMM just days away, I figured it was a good opportunity to dial down the decibels and share an interesting guitar/string combination I’ve been enjoying for a few months.
At $34 bucks a pop in the U.S., they’re blisteringly expensive, but they have a sound I’ve never encountered elsewhere. The result is the closest thing to a nylon-string sound I’ve heard from an ordinarily steel-stringed guitar.
I’ve had the same set on this guitar since May — they’re certainly long-lasting! Now I’m going to experiment with a few other options, but I wanted to document these before swapping them out.
Have a listen:
These strings fascinate me. They convert the guitar into what sounds like a hybrid nylon/steel-string instrument. They permit classical techniques such as rest-strokes, but when you bend them, they feel more like steel strings. The gauges are bizarre: .013 through .039. I’ve never played anything like them.
With these strings, my Martin is quieter than most classical guitars — more like the volume of Renaissance lute (an instrument I played a lot in my teens, though I haven’t owned one in many years). For me, this pairing has the same sort of sweet intimacy. This happens to be the one guitar I keep in my house — everything else is down in the studio. It’s quite literally a parlor instrument, and I’ve loved having a soft, quiet guitar to noodle on. It’s sometimes frustrating, though, how quickly these strings “overload” — the notes in the demo that snap and sizzle aren’t intentional — I’m just playing a little too hard.
I still consider this is a cool alternative classical sound, but after months of playing, I tend to think this combination would best suit a fingerstyle player who uses a lot of bending, smearing, and slapping. I bet Joseph Spence and Bert Jansch would have sounded great on these, as would Ry.
I may return to these extraordinary strings. Actually, in a perfect world, I’d have two lovely old Martins, one to strung conventionally, and the other strung with rope-cores. And since we’re talking “perfect world,” what the hell? Two pre-War Martins for everybody! No, make that three!
I just tried an interesting tone comparison, one I’ve never seen attempted. It concerns the search for loud amp sounds at low volumes.
Have any of you ever experimented with speaker attenuators — the passive load boxes that reside between your amp output and speaker input, which let you crank the amp while maintaining a low level from the speaker?
I’ve worked with one model before, a borrowed THD Hot Plate, and thought it performed well. I decided to purchase my own attenuator after several Premier Guitar reviews of large amps. As a small amp fan (not to mention an aging player with fragile ears), I wanted to minimize the aural assault of evaluating loud-ass amps.
But first, I wanted to determine whether it’s legit to evaluate amps at attenuated levels. Does attenuation inevitably alter the tone? And if so, can you compensate for via recording software?
Online opinions about attenuators range from “works like a charm!” to “totally killed my tone!” So I picked up a Swart Night Light and started recording and measuring. (I didn’t compare rival products. I just went with the Swart for its reasonable price, solid online reviews, and dual outputs for driving two cabs. I didn’t A/B it with a Hot Plate, though the results seem roughly similar.)
I direct-recorded a brief guitar phrase using my black Les Paul with Bigsby and PAFs, and then ran it through a ReAmp to my early ’60s Tremoverb, a 35-watt Fender with two 6L6 power tubes. I dimed the volume and left the EQ flat. Tt was insanely loud in my small studio. After recording that, I tracked the same clip again using the attenuator at each of its three settings. The lowest attenuation setting reduced the sound from insanely loud to very loud. Medium attenuation reduced to somewhat loud. Strong attenuation produced a sound quiet enough to speak over. I recorded the results through Royer R-121 ribbon mic. I added a touch of plate reverb, but no compression or EQ. (Though I did normalize the files so they played back at similar levels.) In other words, you hear the same clip four times through a head whose settings never vary.
So did the tone change? Have a listen:
Do you hear what I hear?
IMHO, none of the clips sound particularly great. (Most amps, including this one, don’t sound their best at 10.) But the unattenuated loud sound has some qualities the others examples lack. The attenuated clips have a little less low-mid impact, and the higher-register single notes that sound a bit thin and prickly even on the original sound even thinner and pricklier post-attenuation.
Why, since the amp settings don’t change, and the performance are identical? Mics can respond differently at different sound pressure levels, and the relatively restrained speaker movement alters the result as well. Conclusion: the timbres of the attenuated signals are fairly faithful to the original, but there are slight spectral differences and a bit less body/fatness, especially on single notes.
Then I introduced some additional wrinkles:
Aha! Now we know why no one has developed a cancer cure! It’s because young James Page took that skiffle thing a little too seriously.
As much as I love Pagey’s playing, I’ve long felt his greatest influence was as a producer. He defined what rock sounds like, largely via his unprecedented innovations in exploiting and manipulating reverberant spaces. Zep sounds like modern rock. Nothing before does.
Many years ago I was kicking that notion around with my friend Andrew Goodwin, the brilliant British media studies scholar. He expanded our ramblings into a journal paper, and gave me an entirely undeserved co-author credit. To this day, it’s my only academic publication. Andrew went on to create a Led Zeppelin course at the University of San Francisco. He was working on a Zep book when he died in a freak apartment fire a few month ago. I assume he was aware of this clip, though I’m not certain. He definitely would have loved it! I miss him.
What’s your favorite Pagey moment? I think mine is from one of those leaked studio outtakes, an excerpt from “Heartbreaker.” You hear the amp close-miked and claustrophobic-sounding. Then you hear it miked from a distance, spooky and reverberant. Then you hear both sounds together. Voilà — modern rock guitar.
My fave Pagey solo is — hehe — “Sympathy for the Devil.” Yeah — I still think he played that one.
Earlier this year I got to do a couple of shows with Marianne Faithfull, who prompted the song in the first place when she gave Mick a copy of Bulgalkov’s brilliant novel The Master and Margarita. We were talking about the song, so I figured it was my moment to finally solve the mystery.
“So who played the solo?” I asked.
She rolled her eyes and sighed. “I just knew you were going to ask me something idiotic like that.”
Want to torture yourself? Pause on Dec. 31st to consider the resolutions you scribbled down 364 days ago.
But not everyone is a resolution cynic. Check out the comments section below last year’s NYE post, and you’ll find a dozen entires from Josh Starmer, who pledged a year ago today to record an entire album, finishing one song per month.
Yup — he did it! You can read about his journey here.
Speaking of journeys: I emailed Josh to congratulate him, and he wrote back from frickin’ Cambodia on the day he was touring Angkor Wat.
Heck of a year, Josh!
I solicited words of wisdom. Josh’s reply:
How cool is that?
Anyone up for the “Starmer Challenge” in 2014? Or are you goals more modest? Or more grandiose? Please — confide your hopes and dreams for 2014 so that one year from today we can all join together to
So what are my 2014 resolutions? Easy — same as 2013!
Sometimes it pays to write for a guitar magazine!
My old pal and Premier Guitar colleague Andy Ellis hipped me to the Vibramate, an adapter that allows you to install a Bigsby tremolo on many types of guitars with no drilling or other permanent modifications to your instrument.
A Bigsby and Vibramate were a centerpiece of a cool makeover project the magazine concocted, transforming a beat-up ’70s Epiphone in a bitchin’ Bigsby-bedecked bombshell. Inspired, I decided to give myself the shakes for Xmas. I bought a Bigsby B7 and corresponding Vibramate kit and popped them onto my long-suffering Les Paul. Check it out:
Yup, this is the much abused ’82 Les Paul that I’ve used in many tonefiend experiments, especially the OCD-approved Pagey Project. What a journey this guitar has been on! Never a big Les Paul fan, I picked up the cheapest old one I could find because I needed it as a reference for the sound design work I was doing for Apple. Trust me — it was a thoroughly unremarkable instrument. But then I started playing with pickups … and alternate wirings … and replacement hardware … and after several years of hacking, I have an instrument I love.
Pity about the gold hardware though — I should have switched to chrome early on. It’s the downside, I suppose, of incremental makeovers. By the time I got to the Bigsby, I had to cough up extra cabbage for the vulgar finish. (My wife recoiled when she saw the Bigsby box on the counter: “Eww — what’s this gold thing?”)
I’m no Bigsby expert. I’ve never owned a Bigsby-fitted guitar (though I’ve had a couple of long-term loan). It’s odd, because I like how they perform, look, and feel, and “bling cringe” aside, I love it on this guitar. It definitely changes the tone — though in spectacularly unscientific fashion, I replaced the previous roundwound strings with flatwounds while doing the installation, and it’s tricky to sort out which changes are exclusively related to that hardware, and which to the strings. The guitar feels brighter and more resonant. (I’m reminded of Ry Cooder’s dictum: The more springs you add to a guitar, the livelier the acoustic response.) The treble response is WAY different — I needed to lower the treble sides of the pickups to offset the face-slapping response of the high E string.
I’ve bored everyone to tears with my incessant testimonials to the glory of great flatwound strings. This guitar has never worn flats — I’ve kept it in roundwounds for writing product reviews, and for sessions where I specifically need a roundwound sound. But I’m loving the way they sound and feel here, so I guess I’ll have to select another Gibson-flavored guitar as a dedicated roundwound instrument.
The installation was a breeze. The quality of materials is superb. I also added Vibramate’s String Spoiler, a clever little bracket that clips onto the tiny nubbins that usually secure strings to a Bigsby. The Spoiler makes string changes way easier. I’m deeply impressed by the Vibramate products — even in frickin’ gold.
Oh — the demo tune is the late John Barry’s wonderful Midnight Cowboy theme. Berry wasn’t a guitarist, but he contributed so much to the guitar vocabulary through his scores, especially for the early James Bond films. I was privileged to interview Barry for Guitar Player back in the ’90s. What a cool and brilliant musician!
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