. . . 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.

Double Varitone: A Two-Headed Tone Control

I was kind of stoked about my latest wiring experiment: a “double Varitone” scheme I installed in my DIY “Kitschcaster.” I’ve written about these multi-capacitor tone switches a lot on this site, but this is the first time I’ve tried using a similar scheme to cut bass frequencies. The result is a lot like the G&Ls “PTB” circuit (covered here and at Premier Guitar), but with adjustable treble-cut and adjustable bass-cut.

The reason I say I was kind of stoked is, just as I was preparing this post, some fascinating marketing materials appeared in my comments queue. A manufacturer uploaded a barrage of marketing copy about his product, a prefab pickup-switching system. I visited the product site, and learned the most amazing thing: Unlike most of the stuff I write about here, his product can actually get you laid! No way can the double Varitone do that! Here’s how the product works:


Capacitor Smackdown! Does Cap Type Matter?

Cap Pot

Oh man, I’ve been wanting to do this test for ages! A direct comparison between capacitor types in a standard guitar tone circuit.

So who’s right? The Tone Illuminati who discern dramatic tone improvements after installing vintage/audiophile caps? Or skeptics who say those perceptions are delusional? Does cap type matter at all?

You tell me.

Anyone hear anything I don’t?


[Image from BBC innit.]

A Quick Compressor Class

UA Compressors

Do compressors confuse you? And who don’t they confuse?

My just-posted Premier Guitar column covers some basics and walks you through a typical guitar compression scenario (with many audio examples).

Using a variation on a technique borrowed from engineer Michael Paul Stavrou’s cool recording technique book, Mixing with Your Mind, I start with extreme settings that make it easy to hear the compressor’s effect, and then back the processing down to realistic levels.

If you ever find yourself twiddling those inscrutable knobs while remaining unclear exactly what, if anything, is changing, this case study may clarify the process. I hope it’s helpful! :pacman:

The Live Looping Lesson

This one’s a labor of love: Premier Guitar just published my live looping lesson. Included are most of the hard-won looping techniques I’ve acquired over the last few years. I crashed and burned 100 times onstage so you don’t have to! ;)

The percentage of my life spent looking at this exact view is too depressing to contemplate.

The percentage of my life spent looking at this exact view is too depressing to contemplate.

The 20 audio clips embedded in the article were trickier than usual to prepare. Ordinarily when I record music mag demos, it’s simply a matter of plugging in a guitar, amp, or pedal and noodling around while trying to make it sound good. But here I had to demonstrate techniques that unfold over time, which is harder than it sounds, at least for me. But I’m reasonably satisfied with how they turned out.

My emphasis throughout is going beyond looping cliches and defying listener expectations. That too is difficult — by definition, loops are predictable! But I’ve been racking my brain for years, trying to come up with ways to bust out of the usual patterns. Most of my ideas appear here. Hope you find them useful!

Kitschcaster: An Experimental Fender/Gretsch Hybrid

Kitschcaster front

I just completed my third DIY guitar experiment using Warmth parts. This one is a wacky Fender/Gretsch hybrid with a semi-acoustic Fender Starcaster body, a reverse, angled Strat neck, and various Gretsch-like elements, including TV Jones Filter’Tron pickups, a Bigsby/Vibramate vibrato, and a vulgar silver-sparkle finish — a tribute to the Gretsch Silver Jet, and the basis for this new guitar’s name: Kitschcaster.

Mind you, it sounds nothing like a Starcaster. I ordered the body (which Warmoth calls the Mooncaster) in warm-toned korina, and the neck is mahogany. (Fender used bright-sounding maple for the original necks and bodies.) True to form, the Gretsch-style humbuckers provide a percussive, “plinky” attack quite distinct from PAF-style pickups. The Bigsby assembly also nudges things further from Fenderland. But I always dug the Starcaster’s offset semi-acoustic body, and I thought it would make a nice platform for my latest platypus.

As before, I’m 100% delighted with Warmoth’s work. The finish is flawless (correction: was flawless till I dinged it), and everything fit together beautifully. The only hurdle came when installing the wiring. I failed to take into account the body’s thinness, and I didn’t have enough room to accommodate all the big push/pull and dual-concentric pots I’d planned to deploy. The comic highlight of the build came when I somehow managed to force a standard-sized pickup selector switch into the narrow lower horn. I disconnected a wire while doing so, and then found myself completely incapable of removing the switch. I took it to repair genius Gary Brawer, whose first comment was, “How did you get this in here? And more important, why?” But he managed to free the trapped part, and then he installed a cunning little access cover. Go, Gary!

Kitschcaster back

Yes, the neck is silver too. Gary Brawer added the pickup selector access cover.

I’m especially besotted with Warmoth’s “Clapton” profile necks, which I’ve used in all three of my builds. They have a pronounced V shape that feels so comfy in my left hand, and provides relief for my left thumb joint, where, sadly, I’m feeling my first tentative twinges of arthritis. It’s a trip having three radically different guitars with identical neck profiles. I dig the sleek, comfy body as well, and I love its ability to generate musically coherent feedback.

Anyway, consider this a work in progress. I’m still fussing with the tone circuit. (If I can find suitably sized rotary switches, I want to try a sort of “double Vartitone,” with separate treble-cut and bass-cut dials. If it works out as as planned, I’ll do another post on it.) I’ll also probably jigger with the built-in distortion, taking off some of the treble. Like my Bigsby equipped Les Paul, the Kitschcaster can have overly aggressive highs. Something about the combination of the Bigsby hardware and flatwound strings makes certain notes come screaming out of the amp. Both guitars benefit from a carefully controlled touch.

But even now, I’m really stoked about this fun, cheesy-cool instrument. :pacman:

A Cool Wiring Diagram Worksheet

Check it out! Reader Mike Taylor tried to share this cool wiring diagram worksheet in the forum, but sadly, my meager WordPress forum plug-in doesn’t support uploads. It’s so handy and nicely done that I present it here. (Right-click to download.)

wiring sheet image

It’s an MS Word file, with the graphic elements for pickup wiring diagrams embedded as selectable objects. Mike has included all the most popular components, plus some not-so-popular ones of the sort we like to obsess on here. I’m totally going to use this to create future wiring diagrams for the site and elsewhere.

Some notes from Mike:

It can be used to start laying out wiring diagrams by drawing interconnections in Word, or I guess you could just position the building blocks on a page, print it out, and hand draw the connections. The little dots next to the representations of pickups can be changed to match the colour codes of your pickups. All objects are just simple shapes grouped together and set so they preserve their aspect ratios. Hopefully, shrinking and enlarging shouldn’t be too problematic. Anyone can change or add to it, as it’s unprotected. If anyone finds it useful, I hope they do their own thing with it.

Thanks, Mike! :beer:

Anyone else got cool resources like this to share? Don’t be shy — stand and deliver!

Girls and Guitar Magazines

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 8.31.41 AM

Pedaltrain didn’t dig the cover of the new Guitar World, so they changed it. (View the best Instagram ever here.) I think I’m going to have to go out and buy even more excellent Pedaltrain boards.

Funny thing: My friends outside the guitar biz tend to imagine that it’s some super-hip industry, when in fact, it’s a rather retro community where crap like this is depressingly common. Damn, with so many things in our culture to undermine girls’ confidence, who needs more from music mags?

As a palate cleanser, here’s a video of girls who actually play:

My band recently had the privilege of playing a Bay Area Girls Rock Camp benefit. The between-acts music was all recorded by the campers, and some of it was awesome. I’m not even a parent, yet I’m grateful the organization exists to counter crap like the Guitar World cover.

Are there any similar groups in your area? Do any of the moms and dads among you have thoughts about nurturing and empowering young musicians?

Next Victim! A New DIY Guitar


Look what UPS left on my porch: the neck and body for my latest ill-advised “parts” guitar project. I’ll be slapping it together in the coming days, but I couldn’t resist showing off the pretty parts. The body is Warmoth’s Mooncaster model, which is based on Fender’s semi-hollowbody Starcaster, a quirky cult guitar if ever there was one. But for the neck, I swiped an idea from Warmoth’s Josh Spataro, and substituted a reverse angled Strat neck. The tacky silver finish and extravagant binding are solely the result of my bad taste. (Josh compared it to a pinky ring, which is pretty accurate.) The body is korina, the neck mahogany.

If my last Warmoth parts guitar was a sort of Fender/Gibson hybrid, this one is more Fender/Gretsch. I’m planning to install a set of TV Jones pickups, and this will be my chance to try out a very different type of tone control scheme, one I’ve been thinking about for a while. If it turns out well, I’ll write about it. If not, I’ll probably delete the last few sentences and deny they ever existed.

This is my third Warmoth parts project since starting this blog. As before, I’m 100% delighted with the materials and build quality. Since I requested expensive options (like the vulgarly bound and finished neck) and I’m using fancy parts, the guitar probably won’t be vastly cheaper than if I’d bought it already made. But it should be unique and fun. Stay tuned — and I’ll hope the guitar does too.

Taylor 150e: An Affordable 12-String Acoustic

I needed a 12-string acoustic in a hurry for a session, so I picked up a new Taylor 150e for under $700. It wasn’t a review model or anything — I just ordered one online, sight unseen and sound unheard.

This model has been generating much buzz as an affordable yet good-sounding 12-string. It’s savvy positioning on Taylor’s part: I suspect there are many players who, like me, would love to have a nice 12-string, but aren’t about to spend $2,000+ for that occasional color. Anyway, I’m duly impressed. Have a listen!

I’ve got it strung with a super-heavy set from Pearse, and it’s a bit too macho for me. I dig the volume and harmonic richness, but it’s a beast to maneuver, at least for complex fingerstyle stuff. Either I’ll restring with something lighter, or consider testosterone supplements.

I haven’t owned a 12-string acoustic since I was 13. My first decent acoustic guitar was a late-’60s Fender Villager 12-string purchased for under $200. I loved it, but unfortunately, the shop that worked on it removed the tone bar, an essential brace. Uh oh — after a couple of weeks, I opened the case to find that the guitar had imploded on itself overnight. Instead I got a Yamaki 6-string, a crappy Yamaha knockoff. I’ve spent years in therapy working through the trauma.

The 150e is a Mexican-made instrument with a solid spruce top and a layered sapele body. I didn’t even realize till I received the guitar that it included onboard electronics. I almost never use that stuff, but before typing this, I went to plug it in. And guess what? It’s a surprisingly decent-sounding system that relies on an internal microphone. It doesn’t sound as good plugged in as it does in the video, but it’s totally acceptable for stage use. I didn’t expect it to sound half as good.

Anyone tried one of these? Any other acoustic 12-string recommendations, observations, or rants? What’s the coolest 12-string riff? And who’d win in a fight: Leo Kottke, Ralph Towner, or Leadbelly?

Lookit — My New Pedals!

Awesome! I just received production prototypes for my next three stompbox releases, in the wake of last month’s launch of my Duh Remedial Fuzz. I’m still making minor tweaks, but these should be available in just a few weeks. Whee!


Filth is a freaky joystick fuzz. Cult is my oddball take on Rangemaster-style single-transistor overdrive. It’s my absolute favorite distortion device, and the same one heard in many of my videos and gear reviews. The Cult Germanium Channel supplements this simple but deadly circuit with extra controls and an active EQ stage.
(Baby skunk sold separately.)


Filth. I love whack-job fuzz boxes like the Z. Vex Fuzz Factory and the countless “sick fuzz” pedals it’s inspired over the last two decades. But here my goal was to create one with a higher percentage of “likely to use” settings — I wanted to make it easier to find the good stuff. Topologically, the circuit’s nothing tricky — basically a Fuzz Face descendent coupled with an extra JFET boost stage (though it doesn’t sound remotely like any Fuzz Face you’ve ever heard). The main innovation is the x/y control, which jiggers the transistor biasing, producing a broad array of timbres. It’s not a conventional tone control, though it’s arranged so that it’s easy to summon smooth, chubby tones or angry, brittle ones.

There was a lot of interest in this a couple of years ago when Fuzz Box Girl posted a demo (apparently no longer online) of one of my handmade ones. She focused on the pedal’s maximum-gain, My Bloody Valentine side, which was fine — Filth can definitely make your amp melt like a Salvador Dali timepiece. But now it’s easier to dial in crisp, lower-gain tones.

I’m making two Filth versions: the joystick model [pictured], and one with three conventional knobs. They sound identical — only the interfaces differ. The three-knob is good if you want to mark an exact setting for use onstage, while the joystick is more fun when concocting new sounds. (I don’t know the exact pricing yet, but the joystick model will cost more, because that’s an expensive part!)

I’m far from the first builder to create a joystick stompbox, but you usually encounter them on crazy noisemaker effects, or deployed as conventional EQ controls. I’m not aware of another pedal where it regulates the fuzz’s fundamental timbre this way. But then, I don’t get out as much as I should.

Cult. If you’ve seen my videos or heard my audio demos, you’ve probably heard Cult. I’ve built it into several guitars (while others have a built-in Duh fuzz). It’s a one-germanium-transisor boost descended from the Dallas Rangemaster of the 1960s, though the apple has rolled far from the tree: All part values differ, the EQ profile is modernized, and the gain control works in an unconventional way. But like a Rangemaster, it boasts spectacular dynamic response and electrifying tones that crackle with presence.

To my (admittedly odd) ear, no other distortion sounds as bitchin’ as a single-transistor boost between a good guitar and a great amp. The weird thing is, while most players know the countless ’60s rock tracks produced with such primitive boosters, many  have never tried this sort of circuit. I love faithful Rangemaster clones, and I love many of the variations I’ve explored over the last five years. But Cult is my very favorite recipe.

Cult Germanium Channel. This one pairs the Cult circuit with relatively modern active EQ/boost stage, with proper tone controls that don’t suck tone. The added circuitry sacrifices a touch of Cult’s explosive presence, but it provides a greater range of tones. There’s also more gain on tap, so it’s better for those high-testosterone rawk tones that I’m far too much of an prissy, effete San Franciscan to use myself.

Thanks a Lott. As mentioned, these are manufactured by Cusack Music in Michigan, under the expert eye of engineer Tony Lott. Cusack builds pedals for numerous  boutique brands you know, many of whom prefer to keep the fact a secret. But I’m proud of the relationship, because Tony and his team improve everything I submit. (More about the collaborative process below. It’s fascinating stuff, assuming you’re a geek — which I do assume, since you’re here.)