Welcome…

. . . 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.

Cult Is Coming!

Cult_crop

Of the four pedals new I announced at NAMM, Cult is probably closest to my heart— it’s my favorite overdrive circuit. If you’ve watched many of my videos, you’ve heard it. I even built it into a few guitars, including this one, this one, this one, and this one. And now Cult is coming in pedal form.

It’s no secret that 90% of today’s overdrive circuits are derived from the Ibanez Tube Screamer. Screamers are great if you want to compress your signal for consistent and predicable results. But Cult provides the opposite effect, expanding your guitar’s dynamic range rather than compressing it. It’s great for players who vary their touch and guitar-knob settings for maximum tonal variation.

Cult is sort of the mutant grandchild of the single-transistor boosters of the 1960s, including the Dallas Rangemaster. It’s no Rangemaster clone, though — the parts, values, controls, and tones have little to do with that classic treble booster. But Cult has the crackling presence and extreme dynamic response you only get from such minimal germanium-transistor circuits. (Guitar Player magazine went so far as to call it “the most dynamic overdrive we’ve heard.”) The pedal heard in this video is a final factory prototype, and the units now in production look and sound identical.

Have a listen:

As the video demonstrates, Cult lets you veer from crispy-clean to spatter distortion just by adjusting your guitar’s volume control. But my favorite way to use it is to set the gain so that you can go from sparkle to splat just by altering your touch, as heard in this video:

Cult with be available from Vintage King in the next month or two. There’s more info on the Joe Gore Pedals product page.

NAMM and Not NAMM 2016

Screenshot 2016-01-19 08.08.08How to tell holiday season is officially over: It’s time for NAMM 2016! And this will be the first time I attend not as a music magazine writer, but as a guy trying to sell guitar pedals. Or as Ray Liotta put it in Goodfellas: “Just another schnook.”

Not like I can afford a proper booth or anything. I’ll just be wandering around with a sack of goods like some frickin’ crack dealer. I’ll have a pedalboard with new four new releases (plus a couple of surprises) on display at the Vintage King booth in Hall A. But sadly, it won’t be hooked up to anything — there just isn’t enough room for live pedal demos. However, my awesome friends at Voodoo Lab will have my new Filth Fuzz in the demo pedalboard at their booth. (No business connection there — they’re just doing me a favor ’cause they’re cool.) So you can stop by and try it out while sampling Voodoo Lab’s latest and greatest.

If you’re attending NAMM and would like to check out my stuff — or just meet and say hi — drop me a note. I’ll be at the show Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. (Sorry, I can’t help obtain passes. I had to scuffle for my own like … a regular schnook.)

But I’m skipping the show on Friday. Friday night I’ve got a gig at Taix restaurant in Los Angeles, performing my solo looping material and sharing the bill with my longtime pals, Double Naught Spy Car. I haven’t played L.A. in several years, and this is the first time playing solo. I’ll be stoked if folks stop by.

And during the day, I’m teaching a master class at LACM, where my dear pal Adam Levy oversees the guitar department. The focus is modes — or rather, my irreverent crackpot theories about the most musically profitable ways to regard and use modes. I’ve been kicking around these notions for many years, and I’ll probably adopt them into a tonefiend post soon.

I hope to see some old friends and make some new ones. So don’t be a stranger!

Filth Fuzz is (Almost) Here …

Filth

My Filth Fuzz pedal is finally in production and will be shipping within a few weeks. It’s one of three new pedals I’ll be showing at this week’s NAMM show in Anaheim, California. I just finished the demo video, and I’m stoked about how it’s sounding.

I’ll also be debuting three other new pedals: Gross Distortion, Cult Germanium Overdrive, and Boring Boost & Buff. Filth, Gross, Cult, and are finalized and in production, and should be available from my partner, Vintage King, sometime in February. (Vintage King is also currently the sole vendor of my Duh Remedial Fuzz, released last year.) We’re still working out a minor bug in Boring, but it should arrive soon after.

Now, it’s not like I can afford a proper booth or anything, so when I say “I’ll be showing these at NAMM,” I mean I’ll be walking around with a bag of merchandise. I’ll have a pedalboard with all my products on display at the Vintage King booth in Hall A, but sadly, it won’t be set up for demoing — there just isn’t enough space. However, my super-cool friends at Voodoo Labs will have a Filth Fuzz on their demo pedalboard, so you can take it for a spin in their booth while checking out the new stuff from that ever-innovative company. (I have no business connection to Voodoo Labs — they’re just helping me out because they’re nice.)

If you’re going to the show and would like to meet up, contact me and we’ll work something out. :)

Here’s what I wrote about Filth on its product page. (If you’re allergic to marketing copy, skip ahead, where I share some interesting backstory on how we arrived at the interface design.)

Man, I love those mad scientist fuzzes with too many knobs! I’ve collected them for decades and used them on a zillion sessions. It got to the point were people were hiring me specifically to make those sort of farting, fried-circuit tones.

But the downside of those complex fuzzes is that they’re a little too wide-ranging, with many settings you’ll probably never use. It’s easy to spend 20 minutes dicking around with the dials without nailing the perfect tone. I’ve always wished for a wild, highly variable fuzz that was a bit more “curated,” with easier access to the tones you’re likeliest to use.

That’s what inspired the Filth Fuzz. It’s only got four controls, but it’s a cornucopia of cool, quirky, and usable fuzz flavors.

The drive and level controls do what you’d expect. But unlike many fuzz drive controls, this one sounds great throughout its range. Extreme settings are molten-lava thick. Lower settings are like…slightly cooled lava, maybe?

But the real action is in the two sliders. They’re tone controls of a sort, but not in the usual way. Most fuzz tone controls are tone-sucking passive circuits situated downstream from the fuzz effect. But here, the sliders alter the voltages at the transistors, radically changing not only the tone, but also the timbre, response, attack, sustain, and compression. In other words, the sliders radically alter the fuzz’s core character, as opposed to simply EQing a single core tone.

TO USE: Set desired gain and output levels. Move the sliders till it sounds awesome.

CAUTIONS: Filth sounds best before any buffered effects. It usually works best at or near the front of your effect chain.

Filth Fuzz was created in San Francisco and is built in Michigan by skilled craftspeople earning a fair wage.

Filth’s sound hasn’t changed since I concocted the circuit on breadboard a few years ago. but the interface has gone through many iterations. It kept changing even after I sent schematics and prototypes to Tony Lott at Cusack Music (my manufacturer). Here’s a pic of three production prototypes:

Filth Fuzz

Three incarnations of Filth Fuzz (in order of appearance).

To dial in tones on Filth, you adjust two highly interactive pots (let’s call them x and y), which tweak the voltages going in and out of the transistors, providing many tone variations. The original version used two standard pots for these x/y controls. It worked okay, but the ergonomics weren’t ideal. I’ve found that the fastest way to refine sounds is to move both pots at once over a sustained note or chord, and it was just a bit awkward having to take both hands off the guitar to turn the controls simultaneously.

So I decided to employ a joystick, which lets you adjust x and y with one hand (and it looks pretty bitchin’). The ergonomics were great, and I thought we’d finalized the format.

But then I showed a joystick prototype at the L.A. Amp Show in October, and for the first time I had a chance to sit back and watch other guitarists interact with the device. Players seemed to have a blast with it, but I kept noticing how often a heavy stompbox foot would land perilously close to the joystick’s none-too-sturdy shaft.

Meanwhile, we discovered that the the only compatible joystick option cost about $25 per unit — enough to jack the retail cost way up. Also, it was tricky to replicate exact setting via the joystick, which would suck if, say, you were trying to get identical tones night after night on tour. (I knew that when I first opted for the joystick, but I’d figured the fun factor would more than compensate.)

Then Miko Mader, a clever guitarist who works for my distributor, M1, came up with the perfect solution: Why not use two sliders instead of pots? Tony at Cusack sourced the perfect part, and we prototyped a third version.

Bingo!The ergonomics were great (check out the demo video to see how quickly you can change sounds with one hand). You can mark exact settings with tape if you need to, easily repeating specific sounds. The two sliders are a fraction of the cost of a single joystick, so we can sell the pedal for far less. (We’re still nailing down the retail price as I write.) There’s no fragile shaft to break. And while I miss the goofy fun of the joystick, the sliders are still pretty darn entertaining. (So thanks, Miko, for your brilliant idea.)

I’m really stoked about this pedal. I hope you enjoy it as well.

My Brushes with Bowie

My morning, like everyone’s, started with a devastating gut-punch: “David Bowie died.”

I can’t say I knew Bowie, but I was lucky enough to spend a few hours with him back in the ’90s. And he was every bit as cool as his music.

bow1I’d done a Guitar Player interview with Reeves Gabrels after the release of Tin Machine in 1989, and we’d stayed in touch. When Tin Machine II came out in September 1991, the band came to San Francisco to play at a music conference. My future wife Elise and I offered to show Reeves around the city. And Reeves invited David along, accompanied by an amiable bodyguard. We spent the afternoon tooling around town in my dumpy Mazda two-door hatchback with David perched astride the back-seat hump. (He insisted on taking the most uncomfortable seat.)

David was charming and unpretentious, yet freakishly charismatic. This is going to sound a bit woo-woo, but he just seemed to scintillate with some weird luminous energy. That probably sounds like the typical star-struck reaction of a lifelong fan. But I’ve met several members of the super-famous tribe over the years — Madonna, Springsteen, Ringo, Steve Jobs — and never encountered anything remotely like David’s spark.

Some stars have a gift for dimming their light as needed. For example, I used to see Robin Williams around my San Francisco neighborhood back in the ’80s. He’d be walking down Haight St. close to the building fronts, slouching a bit with his hands in his coat pockets and his face downcast. You wouldn’t notice him till the instant he slinked past. David was the opposite: When he’d round a street corner, it was as if everyone on the block instantly felt the energy shift. It was uncanny.

UnknownDavid and Reeves wanted to get piercings. First we grabbed lunch in Japantown (David had pork katsu, and treated everyone. His credit card was in his real name: David Jones.) Then we took them to the Gauntlet, SF’s premier piercing parlor at the time. It was David’s first piercing. He told us that he and his wife-to-be Iman were both getting simple single-ear piercings. It was an old sailor’s tradition, he said: The departing seaman and his love who stayed behind would get matching piercings as a symbol they’d be reunited some day.

David confessed to being a bit scared. As we scaled the stairway to the second floor, he jokingly clutched the bannister as if hauling himself up against the wishes of his legs. Naturally, the guy behind the counter recognized him within milliseconds. He was too hip to make a fuss, but you could literally see his eyes widen. After the guys got their piercings, the wide-eyed dude explained the maintenance procedure, recommending that David rotate the stud to keep the hole from scabbing over. David initially misunderstood and thought he had to remove the stud from his ear. “No,” Piercing Guy explained. “Leave it in there and just rock it.” He paused for two comically perfect seconds. “You know how to do that.”

We drove up and down the city’s hills, climbing out at viewpoints and talking San Francisco lore. David was easy to chat with. Unlike many of the super-famous, he’d actually listen to what you’d say and would usually respond with something fascinating. At the same time, it was exhausting. I felt like 33% of my mind was on the words. Another third was studying his eyes with their famously mismatched pupils. And everything else was OHMYGODI’MTALKINGTODAVIDBOWIE.

Everywhere we went, shy fans would approach David, thanking him or seeking autographs. Without exception, David would pause what he was doing, take a moment to chat, and humbly thank them. It was like a master class on the right way to be a rock star. What a gentleman!

David-BowieBut the gentlemanly feat that most floored me was purely physical. By that point, Elise insisted that David, the out-of-towner, sit up front while she sat on the hump. When we got out to enjoy some view, David helped her out of the rear seat. It wasn’t just extending a hand — it was a deft and complex balletic gesture, as if levitating her out of the car, bowing slightly, and ushering her on her way. I can’t quite describe the impossibly graceful maneuver, and I couldn’t begin to replicate it. It was like something a 17th-century French courtier might do.

Our last stop was a funky hat shop in North Beach. I jokingly urged David to try on an orange plastic pith helmet with a Grateful Dead sticker front and center. Instead, he asked to see a green felt fedora. “How does this look?” he asked, turning and striking a smoky 1940s film star pose. Elise and I swear we felt an electrical shock. We’d almost relaxed by that point, and suddenly David Bowie was standing there! (And yes, he bought the hat.)

Later, back home, we were exhausted. Elise theorized that there’s something vampiric about that sort of charisma. David didn’t just emanate energy — he seemed to soak it up it from those around him. Yeah, woo-woo again. But that’s how it felt.

My second encounter was in 1995, when I flew to NYC to interview Reeves and David separately and together for a Guitar Player cover story. I got to sit in on a rehearsal, where David was calm, kind, and focused with his band. We also went to a Rosie O’Donnell Show taping where the group played live at some decidedly un-rock n’ roll morning hour. Again, David was the very picture of modesty and graciousness.

My solo interview with David was as fascinating as you’d imagine. The focus, of course, was guitar playing. He had compelling things to say about his great accompanists: Mick, Earl, Carlos, Robert, Stevie Ray, Adrian, and, of course, Reeves. But we also spent a lot of time talking about David’s own underrated playing. Did you know he was the sole guitarist on the Diamond Dogs album? And have you listened to that record lately? Those grinding, clanking guitars are like Sonic Youth 15 years ahead of schedule. And that’s David playing the immortal riff from “Rebel Rebel.” He said it came to him in a flash, and when it did, he looked up at the sky and thanked God.

2001-07TotalGuitar-BowiewithEccleshall12-stringAt one point David made an arch comment about a then-huge band he’d shared a flight with — something like, “They were nice enough kids, and I’m told they’re quite popular.” Back in my hotel room after the interview, the phone rang. “Oh, one thing,” said David. “Would you be so kind as to leave that comment out of the story? It wasn’t a nice thing to say, and I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.” I did as asked.

I almost had a third encounter later that year when I was touring with PJ Harvey. David contacted Polly, asking her to duet with him and his band on “The Man Who Stole the World” for some TV or award show. Polly being Polly, she said she’d only do it if she could use her own band, and we even rehearsed a dirge-like version of the tune. (Without David, of course.) In the end David nixed the idea, opting to perform his song with the musicians of his choice.

I could write reams about David’s music from the perspective of a naïve young fan (I’m old enough to have had Hunky Dory on my radar when it was new), as an aspiring music student during his Berlin era, and from the jaded perspective of a middle-aged music journalist. I probably will at some point. But now I’m just feeling grief for our collective loss, and gratitude for my brushes with Bowie — and getting to spend some time with that remarkable gentleman genius.

Mastur Class!

Happy 2016! I hope everyone’s holidays were epic, and that you got lots of good stuff.

There’s no better way to ring in the new year than to highlight the … um … peculiar culture that somehow got attached to our instrument. You can’t make this shit up.

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Hard to believe, but this mastur class is totally real — at least in the mind of its creator. From the master:

Only a master guitarist and master guitar teacher understand both mastery of these concepts and how to break down complex and advanced ideas into easy-to-understand lessons that you can begin to learn and use right away in your own guitar playing.

I’ve been asked to teach on this topic by students again and again over the years. So I decided to create a 4-part master class video series. In fact, people travelled from all over the world, with great anticipation, to be part of this master class while it was being filmed.

Does it really work? It sure does! :) When I filmed the master class, I called up several volunteers (all students of mine) to come forward and try the concepts I shared with everyone. And, as you will see for yourself on these videos, whenever any of these students implemented these specialized concepts, every woman in the room was not only paying complete attention, but all were smiling constantly. We could all see the effect it was having directly on them!

But don’t worry, this is not a bunch of childish obscene gimmicks or noises that you make with your guitar. This is about REAL guitar playing mastery! In other words, you won’t get slapped in the face when you play this way for women… but they’ll definitely feel what you are expressing in a good way!

This, apparently, is the sort of music that does the trick.

Stir It Up vs. Crimson and Clover

Oh, no, the mistletoe! On a rainy December afternoon I prepared a little antidote to holiday music poisoning: a mashup of two of the most summery songs ever. It’s Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up” vs. “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells.

Tribute to Mancini: “Lujon” for Solo Guitar and Looper

I was polishing up my solo solo version of this lesser-known Mancini tune, and I was reminded once again of the late composer’s genius. Sure, we all know he was a great tunesmith and brilliant orchestrator. But the deeper you dig into his compositions, the more remarkable things you uncover.

Even though Mancini worked exclusively in pop idioms, I rank Hank as one of the 20th century’s greatest composers. Everything he composed seems to have some remarkable and unlikely compositional twist, even the best-known tunes we take for granted. Consider the slippery chromaticism and crunchy minor-3rd modulations of the Pink Panther theme. Or the familiar “Baby Elephant Walk” melody — if you take a step back, you realize how bizarre it is, rocketing up as an arpeggio before leaping down to a dissonant note. It’s also easy to forget how shocking the Peter Gunn theme was, with those violent dissonant accents, not to mention its unprecedented fusion of brainy Stan Kenton harmonies and greasy guitar rock. (Jobim is the only parallel I can draw in terms of writing wildly original chromatic themes that somehow become universally beloved pop melodies.)

This song is Mancini’s take on the exotica style created by the likes of Martin Denny and Les Baxter. (Mancini was far too tasteful to include exotica’s signature big-call effects, but I lack such restraint.) But check out the cool melody and the way is straddles the underlying harmonies:

Lujon music

We’re in A minor, but no A notes appear in the main melody. Instead, the tune lingers on the 9th, emphasizing B over the Am7 chord and E over the Dm7. Eventually an A does appear — but not till the downbeat of the B second, by which point we’ve embarked on a long, twisted trail of chromatic modulation.

My Mancini obsession goes way back. In the ’90s, I was privileged to play in Oranj Symphonette, a jazz group lead by cellist Mat Brubeck (yeah, Dave’s son) that also included peerless keyboardist Robbie Burger, mad multi-instrumentalist Ralph Carney, and drum titan Scott Amendola (later replaced by the equally awesome Pat Campbell). Sadly, our two Rykodisc albums are out of print, but there’s buttloads of our stuff on YouTube.

Damn, I miss that band. Reunion, anyone?

Echoes of Ancient Greece

I’ve just returned from a vacation to Southern Italy and Sicily. It was a nerdy scholarly tour, with an emphasis on ancient Greek archaeological sites. (There are apparently more and better preserved Greek ruins in Italy and Sicily than on the Greek peninsula.) It was terribly serious — my wife and I spent a lot of time photographing Roman play figurines in front of Greek ruins, adding the occasional dinosaur and Vespa, just to go the extra mile in pursuit of historical accuracy.

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This is EXACTLY how it looked 2,400 years ago.

But I had also music on my mind. I can’t go 100 yards in Italy without flashing on some piece of trivia from my college music history days. You can barely turn around without bumping into La Scala or whatever. Nearly every town along the train tracks triggered some music-geek memory. “Lookit,” I’d blurt at my ever-patient wife. “Arezzo! That’s where the most important music theorist of the Middle Ages invented staff notation and conceived the Guidonian Hand!” (If you’re ever forced to travel with me, bring snug-fitting, noise-cancelling headphones.)

I’d been to Sicily a couple of times before, but only to Taormina and Siracusa in the east. This time we started in Palermo. (Man, I love that city! So vibrant, funky, and delicious.) We then worked east, stopping at one Greek or Roman ruin after another. My favorite, I think, was Selinunte, a vast city of 30,000 until those Ba’al-worshippin’ Carthaginians trashed the place around 400 B.C. The peak population was triple that of Pompeii (which I also just visited for the first time), but unlike those ruins, Selinunte is nearly tourist-free, and you can freely clamber over and through the remains of ancient homes.

The Ear of Dyonisius—or Spock? (Creative Commons photo by Larel Lodged)

The Ear of Dyonisius—or Spock? (Creative Commons photo by Laurel Lodged)

When we arrived at Siracusa, I had a mission: When I first visited some 35 years ago, I was, like most visitors, awed by the remarkable echoes within the Orecchio di Dionisio (“Ear of Dionysius”). This tall, narrow, S-shaped grotto is part of the limestone quarries into the hillside behind Siracusa’s famed Greek theater. which is also chiseled into solid limestone. The space produces a remarkable echo, a series of strong, clear slapbacks that melt into moist-sounding reverberation.

On this visit, I was armed to capture the sound as an impulse response so I could mimic the effect in software. I carried a small digital recorder and (on the advice of blog reader Shizmab Abaye, in reply to my last attempt to capture historic ambience) an old-fashioned clipboard with a spring loaded clip.

(I’ve written about impulse responses before. In a nutshell: You record a percussive sound in an ambient space, and then process the recording in software so that you can mimic the ambience after the fact—for example, make it sound like you’re playing guitar in an ancient limestone cavern. How does it work? Easy—magic!)

However, your recording needs to be as free of other noises as possible. When we got to the grotto, it was full of tourists, one of whom was singing.

It sounded beautiful. I felt like a shit for just wishing he’d shut up. He eventually did. When the cavern grew relatively quiet, I started snapping the clipboard and recording.

A week or so later I was back in the studio. I scoured the recordings for the clearest clipboard snaps with the least background noise, and dropped the resulting files into an IR reverb plug-in. (I used both Audio Ease’s Altiverb and Space Designer, the convolution reverb included with Apple’s Logic Pro.) I got the best result from a snap recorded about 10 feet from the clipboard. Here’s how it sounded when applied to a couple of spooky guitars (low-tuned classical and a Dobro played acoustically with EBow.)

It’s not a precise replica of the space (even a touch of background noise compromises the results), but it’s a cool, eerie reverb that definitely doesn’t sound like some factory preset.

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Someone left this hammer just SITTING here! It’s like leaving a loaded gun where a monkey can grab it.

I also snagged some other evocative IRs. In Taormina, we visited the Greco-Roman theater. (I’d played a gig there with Tracy Chapman in 2006. It was amazing to perform on that ancient stage with Mt. Etna looming in the background! We stayed an extra day, and that evening Italy won the World Cup. The rioting that night put to shame the meager outpouring of emotion in my neighborhood when our local baseball franchise wins the World Series.)

Naturally, I’d forgotten my clipboard on my recent visit, but they were dismantling the performance stage at the end of the concert season, and some worker conveniently left a hammer and some planks just lying around. I tried capturing the reverb as heard from the stage, plus a stronger echo in one of the side archways providing access to the stage and seats.

Finally, a not-so-ancient ambience: In Sorrento we stayed at the Hotel Tramontano, a fusty, old-school place with a remarkable history. It was a regular stopping point on the 19th-century Grand Tour. Prior guests included Byron, Shelley, and Keats. Ibsen wrote Ghosts while camping out there. Ernesto de Curtis even composed that sodden Italian restaurant warhorse “Torna a Surreinto” while lounging on the clifftop balcony. (You may know the tune as Elvis Presely’s “Surrender.”) Amazingly, I was in this beautiful tourist town for three days and didn’t hear it once. Life can be kind.

Anyway,  I captured a spooky reverb in one of the stairwells.

Besides having a couple of new sound design tools, I’ve also got unique souvenirs: Mediocre sound recordings to counterpoint all my mediocre photos!

Got an IR reverb plug-in? Want to try these out? Download them for free here. Then just drop them into your IR ’verb of choice.

Guitar Mag Gossip: Personal and Practical

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I’d like to call out several items of interest in the November issue or Premier Guitar. The first one is personal: As head honcho Shawn Hammond mentions in his monthly editor’s letter, I’m changing roles at the magazine. After two years as a part-time senior editor, I’m going part-part-time as a contributing editor.

It was a tough call for me — it was a fun gig working with awesome people on subjects I love. But I’ve felt an increasing need to dedicate more time to my own projects: playing, recording, writing, developing gear, and trying to make my tonefiend.com blog and YouTube channel seem a bit livelier than something you’d encounter at Urban Ghosts. (It’s one of my favorite websites, but not the attitude I’m aiming for here.)

If you’ve enjoyed the articles I’ve contributed to PG, well, first of all, thanks! And second, note that I’ll actually be contributing more columns and reviews than before. That may sound contrary to the laws of physics, but it’s possible because I will no longer be editing material by other writers. (I’d been processing an average of 35 stories per month in addition to my bylined pieces.) Picking up the slack will be new hire Ted Drozdowski, a fine writer and player, a lovely guy, and one of the music journalists I looked up to when I got into the guitar mag racket decades ago. (Ted was part of the now-legendary Musician magazine of the ’80s and ’90s.) Meanwhile, I’ll be contributing my Recording Guitarist column and at least three major gear reviews per issue.

Also in the issue are several tech-oriented pieces that I found particularly interesting. My old pal Frank Falbo — a leading pickup designer and master luthier — contributed a great piece on pot and capacitor substitutions. More than anything I’ve read, Frank’s article nails down exactly what changes to expect when swapping out part values, documented via audio files.

For me, the most fascinating part is how varying tone-pot values change your guitar’s tone, even when the tone knob is wide-open. Yeah, a lot of us would expect some change, because pots of varying resistances exert different loads on your pickups. But as far as I know, no one has ever nailed down the exact differences the way Frank has.

Others generalize. Frank Falbo nails it down.

Others generalize. Frank Falbo nails it down.

Spoiler alert: The differences are massive — it’s a far bigger deal than I’d always assumed. Check out Frank’s first set of sound clips and prepare to be impressed.

It’s not a new idea that you can shift the overall tone of a guitar “bright-ward” or “dark-ward” by swapping pots, but Frank makes explicit how dramatic such changes can be, and what to expect from the likeliest substitutions.

I also learned much from two articles I wrote. The first is a shootout between five sets of ultra-vintage-style Strat replacement pickups, featuring models by Amalfitano, Fender, Klein, Manlius, and Mojotone. (Spoiler alert #2: They all sound pretty great, though the Kleins and Mojotones were my personal faves.)

I only realized after evaluating tones that the two sets I loved most don’t deploy a hotter pickup in the bridge position, while the other three do. (I don’t mean some blazing-hot bridge pickup, but one just a tasteful tad louder than the others, an approach many Strat players seem to love.) In the Klein and Mojotone sets, the middle pickup is loudest. Food for thought.

There are good reasons why few guitar mags run serious pickups reviews, and almost never compare models directly: It’s labor-intensive, and it’s damned hard to establish a level playing field. Here, I tried to remove as many variables as possible, installing all the pickups in the same test guitar, scrupulously measuring everything from pickup height to mic position, and laboring mightily to create identical demo performances for each set. My favorite part appears on the final page of the article, where you can directly compare each pickup from each manufacturer side-by-side.

This poor pink Strat got one hell of a workout.

This poor pink Strat got one hell of a workout.

Finally, you might find interesting the audio clips in my latest Recording Guitarist column. It’s about is direct recording, a topic I’ve been covering since this blog began. I got cool sounds using a JHS Colour Box (a dumbed-down Neve channel in stompbox form) and especially with the Neve preamp simulations in the latest Universal Audio software. I’m hardly the first to point this out, but wow! Some recent plug-ins are so stupefyingly realistic that they can mimic analog gear pushed to extremes — a longstanding weak link in faux-analog plug-ins. I found it easy to create cool and compelling sounds without amps or amp simulators. Let me know what you think.

Okay, now I’m nodding off from jet lag. I just returned from a two-week trip to Italy, which generated some interesting musical thoughts and discoveries that I’ll share here soon. :)

Amp Show a Go Go

Ace sideman and gear demo producer Pete Thorn stopped by and made my pedals sound really good. :)

Ace sideman and gear demo producer Pete Thorn stopped by and made my pedals sound really good — though a killer Magnatone helped.

I spent the weekend hyping my stompboxes at the long-running LA Amp Show. It was my first visit, and it was a blast in every regard.

It’s a surreal scene. It’s not held at a convention center, but at a generic airport hotel. Exhibitors set up in plain old hotel rooms on three floors. And unlike NAMM, there are no noise restrictions — pity the poor hotel guests who weren’t amp freaks! It was wild, walking down a long hotel corridor, with some high-end amp and guitar blasting through each doorway. But within each room, there was an odd sense of intimacy. It could even be sexy, assuming your erotic ideal is the Line 6 Helix.

Gear highlights? I don’t know! I was on my own, glued to my pedalboard for two days. (Though I got to take a closer look at the Milkman amps crafted by my San Francisco neighbor Tim Marcus.)

But I did get to share Vintage King’s suite with several cool brands: Moog, whose Minifooger pedals I reviewed for Premier Guitar (and loved). Also there: Magnatone. I was plugged into a magnificent Super Fifty-Nine (which I also reviewed and loved). New to me, though, were two killer models from Jackson Ampworks.

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It was great to see my onetime boss, Jim Crockett — the man who invented the guitar magazine

But I can tell you two non-gear highlights: For the first time since the late ’80s, I got to hang out with Jim Crockett, who founded Guitar Player in 1967, inventing the guitar mag.

Jim ran the show when the mag hired me in 1988. It was my first real job — till then, I’d only worked as a guitar teacher. Jim was so cool, going out of his way to welcome the nervous new guy, and providing many pats on the back.

The magazine got sold not long after I started, and has changed corporate hand many times since. So while I only worked with Jim for a few months, I’ve spent the last several decades listening to everyone moan, “Man, it was so much more fun when Jim was here.”

Thanks Jim — I’ll never forget your kindness.

Also unforgettable: the mad yo-yo skills of Vintage King’s Dan Serper. Clearly, raging 7-string pro-metal guitar-playing isn’t his only talent! (The background noise is amps blasting from adjacent rooms.)