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.

DIY Zero Hour!

PG Distortion pic

You can build an awesome-sounding designer distortion pedal for about $45. (Joe’s hand sold separately.)

Have you been reading about DIY guitar effect projects for years and thinking about giving one a shot?

Here’s a good excuse: Premier Guitar just published my “Build Your Own Stompbox” article, which just may be the most ambitious project I’ve ever undertaken for a guitar mag. And there’s more to it than just building a great-sounding distortion pedal from scratch: It’s practically a “how to build your own guitar effects” course, covering everything from sourcing parts and prototyping through boxing and troubleshooting. You’ll learn how all the key components work, and how to choose the ones that best suit your needs. Most important, you’ll start customizing the circuit from the project’s first stages using techniques you can apply to all your future builds.

The project is based on the simple but powerful Electra distortion circuit, the same one used in many boutique overdrives. Yup — it’s the same circuit that I’ve been featuring as Project #1 in Tonefiend DIY Club for a couple of years. But this revised and expanded version is far superior to the original, thanks to lots of help from my talented PG colleagues. Art Director Meghan Molumby did an amazing job assembling the massive build guide PDF (which you can download for free here). The layout is incredibly user-friendly, and you’ve never seen nicer-looking schematics and diagrams. The text got a thorough going-over from ace editors Andy Ellis and Shawn Hammond, so there are far fewer of my usual boneheaded typos. And there’s a cool video demo by Nashville ace John Bohlinger, so for once, you don’t need to watch one of my twitchy performances to hear how it sounds. What’s not to like?

But wait, there’s more: My pals at Mammoth Electronics have put together a $45 prepackaged kit to spare you the hassle of sourcing all those pesky little parts and drilling your own enclosure. There are lots of cool optional upgrades, like painted enclosures, premium switches, and bitchin’ knobs. Details here. (Neither I not Premier Guitar have any financial stake in the kit. I just asked Mammoth to create one as a convenience.)

Seriously — this one’s good. If you’re finally ready to burn your house down master that soldering iron, well, zero hour is here!

Best. Stompbox. Ever.

… at least if, like me, you have the soul of a 12-year-old Japanese girl.

The 18-Watt, Bletchley-Style

How come my DIY amps never look this pretty inside?

How come my DIY amps never look this pretty inside?

A couple of weeks ago I posted here about a Premier Guitar project in which I built two Marshall 18-watt clone kits. Meanwhile, the magazine received a review model of Marshall’s latest iteration of the 18-watt, a high-end, hand-wired version that sells for $2,700. My new review is online at PG, if you’re curious to hear a proper Marshall as well as the clones.

My take: It’s a beautifully built, hand-wired amp that sounds as least as good as either clone. Unlike the kits with their single 12″ speakers, the Marshall has a pair of 10s, which I think I prefer in this circuit. At $2,700, though, it’s pretty darn expensive, even for a beautiful, hand-made instrument. But I’ll be sad when I send the review model back to Bletchley.

My New Fave Mobile Interface

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Premier Guitar has posted my review of Universal Audio’s Apollo Twin interface. Short version: I love the thing.

A rackmount Apollo interface has been the core of my studio for two years, replacing both a Pro Tools HD rig and a complicated Apogee setup. I adore Apollo’s great-sounding preamps, lucid interface, and innovative software, which, among other things, lets you track through simulated preamps on your way into your DAW. Also, UA’s analog modeling is second to none. (You hear their reverbs and tape simulations on most of the stuff I’ve recorded for this site.)

The intensity of my Apollo love is rivaled only by my scorn for the crappy mobile interfaces I’ve previously used with my live laptop rig. The problem isn’t audio quality — even the cheapest ones can sound surprisingly decent — so much as lousy ergonomics and flimsy construction. I’ve burned through half a dozen interfaces in the last few years. They just aren’t built to last onstage. Or anywhere else.

That’s why I’m so stoked to have the small-format Apollo on my digital pedalboard. It’s built well. The UI is brilliant. There are no horrid breakout cable octopi. It has the same preamps and processors as the rackmount Apollo. And I have access to my favorite UA plug-ins, including the juicy EMT plate reverb simulations, the stellar tape echo models, and a suite of low-latency virtual preamps. It’s pricy for a mobile interface: $700 for the single-processor model and $900 for the dual-processor model. But I’d spent far more than that on self-destructing junk that I wound up giving away or recycling.

Anyone else tried Apollo in its various formats? Or any other cool converters? Your observations, please?

Does Musical Geography Still Matter?

Sorry my blog posts have been a bit scarce lately. A few weeks ago, my super-cool 91-year-old dad (who sometimes posts here) went to Joshua Tree, tripped, and fractured his hip. So to help out, I’ve been shuttling the 400 miles from my home in San Francisco to West Covina, the right-wing, smog-shrouded LA suburb where I grew up, and where Dad still lives with his equally cool wife. (He’s mending well, BTW, and is running his physical therapists ragged.)

On my last road trip, I got to thinking about musical geography in America, and how it once defined our music. Not too many decades ago, we associated musical styles with the regions that produced them. Cities had sounds: Detroit. Frisco. Philly. Memphis. Do those distinctions retain any meaning whatsoever? Or has music succumbed to the mass-media homogeneity that transformed the once vibrant medium of radio into the soulless monolith of Clear Channel, and once-glorious roadside America into an bleak expanse of Walmarts and Olive Gardens?

Should you embrace your hometown influences? Or flee them? [Pictured: West Covina dipshits.]

Should you embrace your hometown influences or flee them? (The dipshits I encountered on my last visit to West Covina made a strong case for “flee.”)

My general question is rhetorical — of course we’ve sacrificed regional color to a beige, big-box economy! But there’s a more specific underlying question: Does where you come from continue to have any bearing whatsoever on what your music sounds like? Is it different for a middle-aged guy like me — who spent at least a few formative years at a time when musical geography mattered — than for young musicians coming up today? And most important, what about you? Is where you learned to play reflected in how you play?

I’d fled LA literally and conceptually by the time I was 20. (A stupid move, perhaps — I’d probably have a more successful career had I stayed.) But do I still have Southern California in my hands? Have subsequent decades in Northern California overwritten them? Or does that stuff even matter anymore?

It’s hard to tell, looking at myself. I conform to some San Francisco musical stereotypes but not others. (I’m freaky and free-spirited, but I hate meandering stoner jams.) Meanwhile, LA continues to represent much I loathe musically, but I bear the permanent mark of the kitschy SoCal pop of the ’60s my mom played when I was a little kid. The Association, Herb Alpert, the Fifth Dimension. (You know — the real sound of the ’60s.) And while I’m probably just flattering myself, I’ve always felt a kinship with the warped perspectives on roots music provided by outsider Southern Californians like Waits, Cooder, and Van Vliet.

How about you? Does your country, state, or city color your music? Can we hear where you’re from when you strum?

My Top Three Wiring Mods

Premier Guitar just posted my new article on three favorite electric guitar wiring mods. The concepts won’t be new to anyone who hangs out here — I’ve pretty much flogged them all to death! But the new article includes the step-by-step walkthroughs that I never got around to creating for this site, and PG art director Meghan Molumby created beautifully clear tech diagrams like this one:

 

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The descriptions and instructions in the new story are clearer and more detailed than my original posts here, plus I’ve refined some details, so I suggest working from the new PG versions.

My three choices:

Yup, the ol’ PTB tone control, the coolest mod I know, at least for players who love distortion. The new version of the project uses the 500K pots you probably already have in your guitar rather than the more eccentric G&L values.

I also revisited the Strat version of the “Nashville-style” Tele wiring popularized by Brent Mason and other Music City cats. It performs brilliantly in a Strat, and IMHO its benefits (vastly more blended-pickup options plus a musical and intuitive control layout) for outweigh the costs (loss of the middle-pickup-alone setting, cost of a 3-way switch). Not to launch a protracted Strat-vs.-Tele battle, but I love the whole notion of “Tele-fying” a Strat via wiring, control layout, and pickup choice.

In the article’s comments thread, several savvy readers also mention Strat wiring systems that provide the sounds of the Nashville mod without sacrificing any others. They’re right — but the more I mess with this stuff, the more I value simplified operation. I’m less concerned with having all options than with having the coolest ones, ergonomically organized. Still, there are many ways you can go here.

Finally, I’m once more beating the dead Varitone horse exploring variations on Gibson’s Varitone concept, updated for modern players. I added a new twist in the PG story: deploying these ideas via toggle switches, rather than a big, clunky rotary switch.

It was fun when PG editor Shawn Hammond asked me to choose my favorite mods. It was easy to decide though — these are the three I keep coming back to, and all three deliver dramatic results, unlike many better-known mods.

So which electric guitar mods would be on your short list? Wiring, hardware, whatever. How do you make your guitars cooler?

Duh for Days

Duh Pedals

Wow — I can’t believe my eyes! After years of planning, scheming, and screwing around, my very first batch of production fuzz pedals has arrived at my distributor, ready for sale. Will they gather dust or sell like hotcakes? That depends on you, dear reader!

You can read about the Duh Remedial Fuzz, hear a demo, and place orders from the product page at Vintage King. (For now, Vintage King is my sole distributor.) If you’ve been following my videos, you’ve heard Duh already — I’ve got the circuit mounted inside some of my favorite guitars, including the Hello Kitty! and lipstick-tube Strats.

Excuse me for quoting again from the great review I got in Guitar Player — I’m just a proud pedal papa! Have a cigar.

“Remarkable … responsive dynamics and simultaneously fierce and expressive tone. This is a pedal that doesn’t give up even one less-than-spectacular sound. It reminds me of ’60s records where the fuzz sound jumped right out of the grooves and changed my world.” [Editor's Pick Award recipient.] — Guitar Player magazine, 2014

18 Wicked Watts

I had a blast building and testing two Marshall 18-watt kits for a Premier Guitar story — and I emerged with new respect for this cool 1965 design.

These mini-Marshalls were neglected in their day, but are now treasured. The oft-heard claim that they provide plexi tones at reasonable volumes is only partially true — these are open-backed combos powered by a Vox-like pair of EL-84s tubes. But while they have roughy the same horsepower as the era’s Fender Deluxe and Vox AC15, their tone is undeniably ’60s Marshall. In the studio, they sound far larger than their actual size. And out of the studio, they’re still pretty darn loud.

I've never seen three 18-watts in the same place before.

I’ve never seen three 18-watts in the same place before.

Even though the Mojotone and Tube Depot kits I built share the same schematic (and identical cabinets, both made by Mojotone), the build experiences and final results differed greatly.

And just when I thought I’d scaled the Everest of 18-watt ecstasy, I get a real Marshall 18-watt reissue for an upcoming Premier Guitar review. Stay tuned.

Are any of you guys 18-watt fans? Any observations to share?

Chez Trussart

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While in LA last weekend, I got to hang out with the guy who built my favorite modern guitar: the brilliant James Trussart.

I’ve been privileged to know many great luthiers over the years, but the thing that always impresses me about James is the way his instruments seem to be just one expression of a larger artistic sensibility. James grew up on a farm in rural France, but came to the States in the ’70s to play Cajun fiddle. He seems to have always been fascinated by vanishing Americana, be it an endangered folk music style, a faded and rotting road sign, or an ancient car rusting in a field. With their richly textured surfaces and variegated patinas, his metal-bodied guitars exude that same aesthetic. I’ve never known brand-new instruments to impart such a strong sense of the past.

A Trussart resophonic under construction.

A Trussart resophonic under construction.

James lives in a rambling old Arts and Crafts bungalow in LA’s Echo Park neighborhood, a place where every room possesses a rich texture of passing time. He’s surrounded by cool instruments — both his own and many lovely vintage guitars — and much beautiful metal work: doors, gates, plaques, and whatnot, all crafted by James. A detached building in back houses the workshop where James and his assistants build several hundred instruments per year.

One of James’s Steelcasters has been my favorite modern guitar for over a decade. (Here is a nice example of the guitar in action with Tracy Chapman, and here’s another example with the Eels.) Later I got in the habit of tuning the entire thing down a whole-step, with the lowest string dropped to C. I recorded the entire Mental 99 album in a day using this inspiring instrument. Thanks, James.

A highlight of this visit was James’s demo of his Percuphone — an electro-mechanical stringed instrument created in the ’70s by his friend Patrice Moullet. (Here’s a French-language Wikipedia article about the instrument, and here’s a YouTube video of a more recent model.) Check it out:

I always feel inspired after hanging out with James. And not just guitar inspiration, but an overarching desire to make, do, and surround myself with inspiring things. Merci beaucoup, mon ami. :beer:

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Are Tubes for Rubes?

I had a lot of fun putting together an article for Premier Guitar on using non-tube distortion. It features a smorgasbord of digital tones guaranteed to horrify tube purists. (It’s certainly horrifying a few commentators on PG‘s Facebook page.)

iZotope's Trash 2 — like version 1, only trashier!

iZotope’s Trash 2 — like version 1, only trashier!

It was also a chance for me to explore iZotope’s Trash 2, on the recombination of my ol’ pal Jeff Cross, who is one of the most super-genius of the super-genius audio guys I’ve worked with at Apple. I was a fan of the first version of Trash, though I didn’t have the opportunity to use it a lot. This generation is even cooler, and seems to focus less energy on conventional amp modeling than on being a wild and open-ended distortion-designing tool. I’ll definitely be spending some more time with this! I also enjoyed playing with FXpansion’s Maul, which covers much similar territory.

Have any of you guys played with some of these digital distortion-designer tools? Any observations?