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. . . 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.

Remembering Ralph Carney [1956-2017]

Yesterday we lost a dear friend—and one of the most unique musicians of our lifetimes. Everyone who knew Ralph Carney is mourning the death of a kind, funny, and just plain loveable guy. But you didn’t have to know Ralph personally to appreciate his mad genius. (If you’re unfamiliar with Ralph and his music, check out his Wikipedia page.)

As I write, Ralph’s Facebook page is still up, and it’s overflowing with heartbroken tributes. Each testimonial is uniquely touching, but they all communicate the same message: Ralph was a beautiful man with a beautiful musical mind, and we’re going to miss him like hell.

It’s our nature when we lose loved ones to cite their uniqueness with phrases like, “We won’t see his like again,” or “After they made him, they broke the mold.” But man, have those sentiments ever been truer than in Ralph’s case?

I met Ralph in 1991, when I gave him a lift to my very first session with Tom Waits, recording the soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s Night On Earth. (Ralph didn’t drive. If you ever played music with him, chances are you gave him a lift at some point.) I knew who he was, and I was in awe. He’d played on Waits’s Rain Dogs, my favorite album!

But Ralph, of course, was the least pretentious man ever to draw breath, and I immediately dug the guy. That was also the day I met cellist/composer Matt Brubeck, and before long the three of us were playing together as the Oranj Mancinis, later the Oranj Symphonette. (At various times, the band also included drummers Kenny Wolleson, Scott Amendola, and Patrick Campbell, plus keyboardist Rob Burger.)

Ralph and I went on to play together on a half-dozen or so Waits albums and many other projects, from a spoken-word record by the late Kathy Acker to clubbo.com, the massive “hoax record label” project. He and I scored two feature films together. Once Ralph even called me to play on an Allen Ginsberg project, but I was away on tour, dammit.

But Oranj Symphonette is where I truly got to know Ralph’s freakish musicality. I paused for a moment before typing the word “freakish,” but I can’t think of a better adjective. Ralph simply didn’t create music the way most musicians do.

Two things everyone knows about Ralph: He was funny, and he played a lot of instruments. How many? Depending on how you tabulate, somewhere between 30 and infinity. Basically, he conjured beauty, comedy, and tragedy from anything he touched. Ralph’s musical humor varied from sublime to fart-joke vulgar. Sometimes it was wildly inappropriate, like the time Matt Brubeck had hushed the audience with an exquisitely delicate cello solo—until Ralph started honking on one of his duck calls. But most of the time he was left-field brilliant, playing unlikely things on unlikely instruments in ways you or I would be unlikely to do in a million years.

Oranj Symphonette in 1997 (L-R): Me, Matt Brubeck, Rob Burger, Ralph, Scott Amendola.

In Oranj Symphonette, I had the privilege of being the weakest player in the band. (Serious musicians understand why this is a privilege, and anyone who heard the group knows this isn’t false modesty on my part.) Guys like Matt, Scott, and Rob are superhuman players with deep, formal training and sophisticated taste and restraint. But Ralph was anarchy squared. He literally couldn’t be predictable—his fidgety, free-associative mind wouldn’t permit it. If you wanted a musician who could sight-read perfectly or nail the same part identically over and over on command, Ralph was not your guy. His bag was unfettered inspiration.

Ralph’s sense of humor was as uncommon as his musicianship, and the two traits were closely related. It was often through jokes that I got the deepest insight into how Ralph’s mind worked.

Once, backstage at a Latin Playboys concert, someone (one of the Los Lobos guys, I think) mentioned that he’d moved into a suburban-style house, and how weird it was to have a lawn. “Why can’t we all just get a lawn?” Ralph asked wistfully, channeling a dyslexic Rodney King, Jr.

Another time, I could practically see his right brain pulsing: Oranj Symphonette was playing a string of gigs across Canada as part of a national jazz festival. Concertgoers would sometimes request autographs, as if we were celebrities or something. At one point a nice couple approached us. “Can you sign our program?” they asked. “We voted for you in the jazz poll!”

Under his breath Ralph muttered, “Jazz poll … poll … Pol Pot. Can you sign our skull?”

It was hilarious. And sick. And random. And brilliant. And exactly the sort of free-associative backflip that Ralph performed every 10 seconds or so while improvising.

Ralph loved playing the musical clown, but he was a profound, Chaplin-esque clown whose comedy was rich in pathos and melancholy. He embraced styles that can be hard to listen to with a straight face, like klezmer and old-timey hokum. But he never played them strictly for laughs. He was a sensitive, emotional guy, and you heard it in every note he played. (Except maybe the duck calls and slide whistles.)

When we say someone has no filters, it’s often a left-handed compliment, implying rudeness and lack of concern for others—in a word, dickishness. Ralph and filters never met each other, but he was aware of their existence. He was unfailingly kind and considerate and always generous with his time and talent. His filter-free creativity was a joy to all.

I hadn’t played with Ralph since he left San Francisco for Portland a few years ago, though we kept in touch via Facebook. Often it was about politics. Like me, Ralph loathed Trump and everything he represents, and he expressed those feelings with characteristic humor/pain. And of course, Ralph gigged and recorded furiously literally until his last day. One of his Portland pals posted video of a gig from a couple or nights ago, and Ralph uploaded several quiet, elegiac pieces to his Bandcamp page within the last few days.

I was in Portland a few weeks ago, playing a gig with Jane Wiedlin’s new band, Elettrodomestico. Ralph and I failed to connect, but we swapped messages the next day. He told me how much he loved Portland. “It’s amazing here for music,” he said. “It’s like San Francisco 20 years ago!”

Today I’m thinking a lot about San Francisco 20 years ago—and the beautiful soul who helped make it such a memorable time. Farewell, my dear, irreplaceable friend. Everyone who ever met or heard you is going to miss you terribly.

In tribute to Ralph, I’ve posted both out-of-print Oranj Symphonette albums — Plays Mancini and The Oranj Album — to YouTube.

Guns N’ Roses N’ Germanium

 

Woohoo! In this just posted Rig Rundown from Premier Guitar, Guns N’ Roses guitarist Richard Fortus shows off his fascinating stage rig, which happens to include my Cult pedal. It appears a 55:05. But gear geeks should watch the entire video, even if they’re not GNR fans. It’s full of interesting stuff—and lots of surprises.

Richard is the coolest. I’ve known him since the ’90s, when his then-band, Love Spit Love, played a show with PJ Harvey back when I was in the group. Besides being a great player, he’s the nicest guy ever, and he still has the enthusiasm of a kid discovering guitar for the first time. Plus, I’m jealous of how my PG pal John Bohlinger makes this sort of on-camera, impromptu interview look easy. (Trust me—it’s not.)

This part is especially flattering, and it’s not in the video: Like many primitive germanium effects, Cult doesn’t like buffers, so it should usually be used at or near the front of an effect chain. But of course, Richard performs using a buffered wireless system. He had someone build an “unbuffering” box that makes the pedal “see” pickup-style capacitance. I didn’t even know you could do that till Richard told me about it (though I’ve heard about other similar strategies since then).

Gotta say: It’s a special sort of thrill when something you concocted on a filthy little workbench winds up in the hands of a fine musician. Thanks, Richard and John!

Get In the Van!

So I get to do a little West Coast tour with Elettrodomestico, a new band led by my pals Jane Wiedlin and Pietro Straccia, a fine guitarist, singer, songwriter, and gentleman. Plus my longtime musical partner Dawn Richardson is drumming.

The album came out great. Jane and Pietro have such vocal chemistry together. And on a zero-minus budget, they’ve made a video for each song. Here’s the one for “Rabbit Stew.”

If you’re near a show, come by and say hi!

P.S.: Yup, I’m definitely playing the entire tour on this thing.

Introducing Elettrodomestico!

I’ve so been waiting to share this! My dear pals Jane Wiedlin and Pietro Straccia have a new band called Elettrodomestico, and Yahoo Music is previewing the first single, “Aloha.” Jane and Pietro finished their debut album, If You’re a Boy or a Girl, earlier this year, and they let me play on it. (I got do the bass and lap steel on “Aloha.” Pietro played the cool mutant surf guitar.)

I’ll be playing bass with the band (this bass!) for upcoming shows, including a West Coast tour in October. (I’ll post dates soon.) Also onboard is my longtime musical collaborator, drummer Dawn Richardson. It’ll be the first time I’ve toured as a bassist.

Elettrodomestico is Italian for “home appliance.” (Pietro was raised in both Italy and the U.S.) Jane and Pietro sing, play, and write so beautifully together, and they both have such extraordinary pop instincts. It would be a blast to play with them even if they’re weren’t such cool people and good friends.

Despite having zero budget, Jane and Pietro have made a cool video for each frickin’ song on the album, drawing on their artistic circle here in San Francisco. I especially love the “Aloha” video, with its beautiful stop-motion animation by Molly Barata.

And I never get tired of mentioning that Jane gave me my Hello Kitty! Stratocaster.

 

 

“Love Will Tear Us Apart”

I’m about to rip up my long-running live looping rig to make some changes I’ll write about soon. But before doing that, I’ve posted the solo live-looped version of “Love Will Tear Us Part” that I’ve been playing live. You know, just in case I can’t follow the trail of breadcrumbs back to where I started.

When I first heard the sing more than 35 years ago, it frightened me. So different! So dark! So hopeless! But when I was in Palm Springs earlier this summer, they were playing it over the P.A. at the supermarket. So I guess everything’s okay now.

Charlie Christian (and That Pickup)

Despite being obsessed with Charlie Christian for decades, I’ve never played a Gibson ES-150, the guitar he made famous. I’ve never even messed with a “Charlie Christian pickup,” even though it’s been a fairly common retrofit ever since the late Danny Gatton installed one in his Tele’s neck position. But I’ve always wondered: Could the C.C. pickup work in styles other than jazz? How would it sound in the bridge position? (The ES-150 had only a neck pickup.) And most of all, how would it sound with nasty fuzz?

Lollar Pickups helped me answer those questions with a loaner of three humbucker-sized Charlie Christian pickups. These differ cosmetically from the originals, lacking the cumbersome mounting hardware and the ornamental top plate. But they’re convincing sound-alikes, with similar magnets, wires, windings, blades, and modest output. (Their DC resistance is just under 3k ohms). Here’s what I discovered!

Clearly, it’s not a pickup for every rock guitarist (though it’s perfect for a swing-era jazz sound). Still, I found its non-jazz sounds strange and compelling, and I can definitely imagine using them in the studio. What do you think?

While making comparisons, I spend hours reacquainting myself with Charlie’s recordings, of which there are only a few dozen. His career was absurdly brief — it was less than three years from his first recordings with Benny Goodman through his death from tuberculosis (and probably other bad stuff) at age 25. But that was long enough to forever alter the guitar’s history.

MORE→

Just How Heavy Can a U-Bass Get?

I've had this cool Kala U-Bass for a few years. (I did a video on it back when I got it.) I've used it on a few things, especially when I want a sort of Latin-flavored Ampeg Baby Bass sound. (That solidbody upright from the 1960s is largely forgotten, except in Latin dance bands, where it's considered the classic bass.)

But I've recently started rehearsing with a new band featuring my pals Jane Wiedlin, Pietro Straccia, and Dawn Richardson. And for perversity's sake, I decided to try using this little uke bass as the sole bass in band. (And Dawn hits those drums pretty hard!)

The above video demos some sounds I concocted using Fractal's AX8, the "light" pedalboard version of Axe-FX II, the company's flagship amp/effect modeler. I'm quite encouraged by the results! AX8 has no power amp, so I've been plugging into one or both of the Fishman LoudBoxes I use for my solo looping gigs. And if we play somewhere with good monitoring, I can just bring the uke bass and a small shoulder bag. Total lazy old guy gig!

The sonic missions were pretty simple: Amp up the lows. Nix as much of the ugly piezo pickup quack as possible. Concoct enough patches to make a nice, interesting palette for a set. There's still more to do, especially in terms of modifying my technique for the instrument. I'm still not quite comfy to the super-short scale. Also, I'm too accustomed to resting my picking hand on the body or bridge, and the piezo loves to amplify those thumping and scraping sounds.

But overall, I'm encouraged. Plus it's just sick fun. :)

The One Weird Thing About Gold Foil Pickups

Okay, the funky gold foil pickups found in cheapo Japanese and American gutiars in the 1950s and ’60s are popular again. And trend slut that I am, I’m smitten with them. But they do this one really weird thing ….

It has to do with the capacitive relationship between the guitar volume knob, pickups, and downstream pedals and amps. If you don’t use your guitar’s volume knob as an expressive device, this behavior probably doesn’t matter. But if you do, this is potentially a big deal, one worth considering before purchasing a pair of gold foils.

I first realized this as I was preparing my Gore Pedals demo for the NAMM show. Many of my pedal designs depend on the ability to alter tones from the guitar — it’s how I get away with using relatively few knobs. It’s the quality you hear in the first minute of my Cult pedal demo:

You just can’t do that with gold foils. Apparently, the rubber magnets in gold foil have a different capacitive relationship with downstream gear, relative to conventional alnico- and ceramic-magnet pickups. Some of the peaky, high-resonance sound you get when rolling back the volume knob on a guitar with gold foils are pretty cool, and I can certainly imagine using them. But I definitely have to modify my technique when using gold foils.

I recently reviewed one of the bitchin’ new Supro guitars for Premier Guitar. Their pickups are based on a different historic gold foil model, but they exhibit the exact behavior demoed in my first video above. After writing that review I spoke with Ken Calvet of Roadhouse Pickups, who created the excellent-sounding Valco-style gold foils for Supro. He acknowledged the unusual volume knob behavior and attributed it to the rubber magnets used in historically accurate gold foils.

My first video above demonstrates this property using a capacitance-dependent vintage-style Fuzz Face. Not only do you encounter the same thing with many non-buffered (i.e., cool) fuzzes and boosters, but also when plugging directly into an overdriven amp. You can’t summon clean sounds from a dirty amp via the guitar volume knob the way you can with most conventional passive pickups.

But despite all of that, I’m still crazy for the Lollar Gold Foils in my DIY Resistocaster:

Has anyone else noticed this quirky characteristic?

The Prettiest Pedalboard! (Plus: A New DIY Lipstick Tube Guitar)

You know what sucks about attending NAMM as a manufacturer rather than a gear writer? I was epoxied to my booth all day, and I barely saw anything other than my guitar pedals. But on one rare break, I got to hang out with Jannis Anastasakis and his crew from JAM Pedals of Athens, Greece. (I highlighted some of their beautiful work in my pathetically skimpy “NAMM report.”)

Happily, there’s more to celebrate here than great visuals. JAM builds lovely versions of many classic analog effects. Their sounds and production quality are stellar, and JAM often adds modern updates such as realtime expression control, extra knobs, and internal trim pots for customizing tones. It’s quality stuff, used by many a guitar star.

And guess what? Jannis loaned me one of his magnificent Custom Shop analog pedalboards. Γαμώτο!

Sadly, I must now pack up and return this pretty pedalboard. But I’ll be getting my own JAM Delay Llama Supreme, an expanded version of the analog delay heard here, with tap tempo, a cool modulation section, and the almighty infinite-hold switch. (I reviewed it for Premier Guitar a few months ago.)

In the meantime, this experience makes me want to try my own DIY pedalboards. Not as an item for sale — just as a way to group related effects in a single enclosure for stage use. Gears are spinning ….

Meet the Resistocaster!

Here’s a new guitar I put together using Warmoth parts and Lollar Gold Foil pickups.

Around the time I started assembling the Resistocaster, I reviewed the cool new Supro Westbury — another guitar with gold-foil pickups — for Premier Guitar. It was an interesting juxtaposition, because the Lollar pickups are cloned from the models in vintage Teisco guitars from Japan, while the nouveau Supro pickups are based on the gold foils made in the ’50s and ’60s by Chicago-based Valco and used in several of the brands the company produced.

While the two sets don’t sound identical, they have much in common. Both provide full-frequency tones, with warm, cushy bass and open-sounding highs. Like vintage lipstick tube pickups, they have an attractively “hollow” character that always reminds me of an acoustic guitar. Gold foils are gorgeous for clean sounds, while overdriven tones are big and buttery, albeit it rather loose-sounding. (Though adding a bass-cut circuit to this guitar let me dial in tighter sounds.)

Another odd property: With almost all pickups, pulling back the guitar’s level cleans up tones on overdriven amps and dynamically responsive distortion pedals. (That behavior is pretty much the entire premise of my Cult pedal demo.)

But with gold foils, that just doesn’t work! As you lower the guitar volume when playing through distortion-producing gear, tones don’t clean up — they get a little quieter, then sputter out in the pot’s lower range. This isn’t intrinsically a good or bad thing, but as a player who tries to exploit the tonal shifts produced by varied guitar output, I was startled by this property.

At NAMM, I mentioned this behavior to Ken Calvet of Roadhouse Pickups, who created the Valco-style gold foils for the new Supros. He nodded in acknowledgement, and said it was due to the idiosyncrasies of the rubber magnets used in gold foils. (I probably wouldn’t understand the science even if he’d had time to explain it to me.)

But while it took me a while to get comfortable with the gold foils’ unusual dynamic behavior, I needed zero time to fall in love with their warm, character-rich tones. (This, by the way, is the same set of gold foils I recently demoed in my alternative Strat pickups video.

I love how this guitar turned out, and I expect to use it a lot this year. 🙂