. . . 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.

Magic Fairy Dust: The Veillette Avante Gryphon

I recently reviewed the gorgeous little Veillette Avante Gryphon for Premier Guitar and liked it so much that I bought one. This was my first opportunity to record it in my studio.

The Avante Gryphon is a relatively low-cost version of Woodstock luthier Joe Veillette’s Gryphon, an 18.5″-scale 12-string designed to be tuned a minor seventh (an octave minus two frets) above standard. But while 12-string guitars feature octave-tuned string pairs, here all six courses are unisons, as on a mandolin. In fact, the Avante Gryphon sounds a lot like a mandolin, but with a wider range and guitar-like tuning. And unlike the couple of janky plywood mandolins I own, it plays gloriously in tune. It’s made (very nicely!) by Korean CNC robots and sells for $1,400, as opposed to $4K+ for Veillette’s hand-built models.

For years I’ve been looking for the right upscale mandolin, but now I’m happy I found this instead. My original motivation was a high-tuned soprano instrument for multi-guitar arrangements, or for magic-fairy-dust studio overdubs. But the thing is so fun — and sounds so darn pretty — that I can’t stop playing it solo. This Bach prelude, for example:

I won’t recap my review here—check it out if you’re curious. Instead, let’s yak about Johann Sebastian!


Not About Music: Marvin Gore [1923-2015]

Marvin Gore, 1940

Marvin Gore, 1940

If my blog and video posts have seemed fewer and less fun in recent months, it’s not your imagination. I’ve been shuttling between San Francisco and my childhood home in the LA suburbs, spending as much time as possible with my dad in the wake of a back-to-back broken hip and terminal cancer diagnosis. He passed away on January 28th — my late mother’s birthday.

Dad was many things: an engineer, a thinker, a WWII vet, a rocket scientist, a college dean, a loving husband and father, a passionate progressive, a sci-fi/horror geek, and a world traveler who visited all seven continents.

But there’s one thing he definitely was not: a musician.


A New Tone Control Concept — or Is It?

Hey, smart people — let me get your take on this. I’ve been playing with a new tone control idea that’s so simple, I can’t believe no one’s done it before. (Chances are someone has.)

Here’s the idea: Conventional electric guitar tone controls employ a single pot and single capacitor connected to ground. As you turn the pot, more signal goes to ground for a darker sound. The capacitor value determines the cutoff frequency — the larger the cap, the lower the cutoff frequency and the darker the sound. In other words, the cutoff frequency is fixed, but the percentage of signal that gets cut off changes as you move the pot.

Meanwhile, the Gibson Vari-Tone circuit uses a rotary switch rather than a pot, and a set of capacitors of ascending size. The small caps have a brighter tone, and the large ones sound darker. But once a cap is engaged, it’s engaged all the way. In other words, the cutoff frequency varies as you move the switch, but not the percentage of affected signal—it’s always 100%.  (The Stellartone ToneStyler employs the same concept, with as many as 16 caps arranged around a rotary switch.)

But do you really need all those caps? Why not use the tone pot to fade between a small cap and a large one, like so:

double cap

Here, the brighter/lower-value cap is engaged when the pot’s all the way up. As you roll it back, the larger cap is introduced, producing greater capacitance and a deeper treble cut. When you arrange caps in parallel, their total capacitance is the sum of their values. For example, I tried a .0047µF cap and a .047µF, so the minimum value is .0047µF (a very modest cut) and the maximum is approximately .052µF (a very dark tone).

So far I’ve only tried this on breadboard, though I plan to deploy it in a new “parts” guitar I’m assembling. So far it sounds … really good. A lot like a ToneStyler, actually, but with fewer parts and handpicked values. The only tricky thing was finding a good pot value where all the action wasn’t bunched up at one end of the knob’s range. A reverse-log pot worked best for me—I got nice results with both a C500K and C1M.

I often use similar wiring to alter the value of the input cap on distortion pedals. (High values filter our more bass for a brighter/cleaner sound.) But I’m not aware of anyone having tried this on a guitar tone control.

Another issue is the fact that, in this circuit, the tone pot always has a cap engaged. You could use a really tiny value for the smaller cap so there’s little perceptible cut at the minimum setting, but that can make a substantial part of the pot’s range a little too subtle. So my plan is to combine this with a Ned Steinberger-designed JackPot as the volume control. This part has an “off” setting that bypasses the tone circuit entirely for a maximum-bright sound. That way, I’d choose for the smaller cap a value that provides the minimum treble cut I’m likely to want. (I suspect I’ll wind up with something between .0022µF and .0047µF.)

Have any of you seen or heard of such a guitar circuit? If so, any observations or advice?


Frets in Flight, 2015

Here are the new U.S. Department of Transportation rules on flying with musical instruments. Sounds like carriers are required to check instruments.

The key passage, per the DOT site:

The rule requires that each U.S. carrier subject to this regulation allow a passenger to carry into the cabin and stow a small musical instrument, such as a violin or a guitar, in a suitable baggage compartment, such as the overhead bin or a closet, or under the seats, in accordance with FAA safety regulations and the carrier’s FAA-approved carry-on baggage program.

Carriers must allow passengers to stow their small musical instruments in an approved stowage area in the cabin if at the time the passenger boards the aircraft such stowage space is available. Under the rule, musical instruments as carry-on items are treated no differently from other carry-on items and the stowage space should be made available for all carry-on items on a “first come, first served” basis. Carriers are not required to give musical instruments priority over other carry-on baggage, therefore passengers traveling with musical instruments may want to buy the pre-boarding option offered by many carriers to ensure that space will be available for them to safely stow their instruments in the cabin.

Maybe we should do like my pal Shelley Doty recommends and carry a copy of this every time we check in for a flight.


Happy Holidays, Dear Readers!

Lookit what Elvis got for Chanukah!

Lookit what Elvis got for Chanukah!

I hope everyone’s holidays are splendid. And remember — even if you don’t have one of those families that you need to take a break from every 15 minutes, you can still slip into the other room, fire up Photoshop (and other stuff, if need be), and make funny pictures.

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: