. . . 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.
. . . 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.
I was just in Europe, but I’m heading right back — this time on vacation. We’re going to spend a few days knocking around some fave cities, then embark on a tour of Neolithic cave painting sites in France and Spain.
I know it’s hard to tell when I’m being sarcastic, but this time I’m not. I wanted to be an archaeologist as a kid, until my mom said, “Why? All you’ll do is sit in a closet polishing worthless scraps with a toothbrush.” (Fortunately, she was more supportive of my musical dreams. She never said, “Why do you want to be a studio musician? All you’ll do is sit in a closet polishing worthless scraps with Pro Tools.”)
Since I won’t be able to post and reply as often as usual until I return at the end of the month, I figured you guys could help me keep things interesting. Which brings me to the latest tonefiend contest: the Cro-Mag Comedy Competition!
The rules are simple, just like the musicians we’ll be poking fun at. All you must do to enter is post a funny musical anecdote to the comments section below. It doesn’t have to be about musical stupidity, though experience suggests that those are the funniest stories. Nor does it have to be about guitar, though there are few things stupider than stupid guitarist stories. (Drummer, bassist, and vocalist stories are the obvious exceptions.) The tales should be true, or at least sufficiently true-sounding to dupe the rest of us. If they involve real people, please change their names enough to avoid legal action.
I’ll winnow down the entires to a manageable number via some as-yet-undertermined means (dartboard, or maybe animal entrails), and you, dear readers, will get to select the final three winners, each of whom will receive one of my unique handmade stompboxes, created
Enter as many times as you like — but please, only one anecdote per comment. Also, please post your anecdotes here on the site, rather than in Facebook comments. Stories can be as long as you like, but remember: Your judges will be musicians, so they may have difficulty grappling with complex sentences.
The contest runs till I get back, or till jet lag subsides — whichever comes last.
Here’s a sample story to get the ball rolling. Naturally, I’m ineligible for the competition because
Okay — your turn!
I just recorded a solo version of one of my fave film themes: Jerry Goldsmith’s main title to the 1967 spy spoof In Like Flint. I’ve adored the melody since childhood, and I blame it for instilling the love of chromaticism that made possible my extraordinarily uncommercial career.
I’d previously posted another version of this tune, performed upside-down on a friend’s lefty guitar. But that was all-analog — this time it’s digital. And I’ve used the video to highlight a favorite MIDI technique: doubling recognizable guitar sounds with non-guitar synths and samples.
It’s funny — being able to trigger pretty much any sound from the guitar isn’t necessarily as liberating as you might think. Sure, when you first try it out, it’s thrilling to conjure an electric piano sound from the fretboard. But who wants to hear some schmo noodle aimlessly on electric piano when they could be noodling aimlessly on guitar?
For better or worse, I find myself using this technique repeatedly. When I double a part effectively, the result still seems like part of the guitar cosmos. It feels like expanding the palette, as opposed to vomiting on it. (Not that I’d be above vomiting on a palette if it helped create a cool painting.)
Did anyone else encounter this sort of childhood musical contamination? A melody, progression, or tone that infected you early on, and colored everything after? I’m not talking image, like falling in love with the Beatles on Ed Sullivan or Nickelback on the CBC because they were so frickin’ cool. I mean a primal sonic imprint. Anyone?
I spent last week covering the Musikmesse musical instrument trade show in Frankfurt, Germany, for Premier Guitar. I had a blast, and Chris Kies and I posted details and pics of more than 70 new products. (Here’s the short list of our personal faves.) Kies shot lots of video, and will be posting more than 50 demo segments to the PG site in the coming weeks.
But Messe is hellishly loud, far noisier than NAMM. When I finally got home and picked up a guitar, it was an acoustic. I was trying something new, based on info I obtained from Mary Faith Rhoads-Lewis, CEO of Breezy Ridge, a company that distributes several brands for acoustic musicians, including John Pearse strings.
I’d previously geeked out here about about the strangest and most expensive guitar strings I’d ever tried: this “rope core” set from Austria’s Thomastik-Infeld. Reader/cool guy Al Milburn turned me on to them, and I wrote about them here. And I recently posted this video demonstrating how the transformed my old Martin 0-17 into a compelling steel/nylon hybrid with a unique and expressive voice.
Anyway, Ms. Rhoads-Lewis told me that the late John Pearse originally created this set for Thomastik, and that the John Pearse Folk Fingerpicking set [PJ116] is identical to what the Austrian company sells. Best part: You can get them in the States for under $20, as opposed to a walloping $35 for the Thomastiks. She also told me that their magic works in reverse: You can put this relatively low-tension set on a classical guitar for a very different sort of hybrid steel-string sound. (This, she said, is exactly what the great Brazilian player Bola Sete used to do.)
I popped a set on my old Yairi classical. The feel was — totally strange, and in precisely the opposite way as on the Martin. The tone was edgy and exciting, but the tension seemed a little too extreme. If just seemed a little too … high-strung, in every sense. Then I tried lowering the entire tuning a whole step, with the sixth dropped all the way to C.
And … oh, my. Check it out:
Summary: Holy cannoli, I love how this sounds. And there’s something psychologically satisfying about the transformation too. See, this guitar has always been a bit … tragic to me. I got it when I was 16. My classical guitar prof at UCLA said I needed a better instrument, and my every-supportive folks, bless ’em, helped me buy this Alvarez Yairi for around $700 (in 1970s dollars). It was a top-tier model for Alvarez, signed by luthier Kazuo Yairi, and boasting lovely Brazilian rosewood backs and sides. It was a huge upgrade for me, but as I got deeper into classical playing, its shortcomings emerged. Had I not shifted my studies to composition, I’d have needed to upgrade again. I envied the Igancio Fleta y Hijos models my two teachers played, but at around $3,000, they were beyond my budget, even with parental help. (Pity — their current value is approaching $50,000.) So I’ve used this instrument as a limited but decent-sounding model suitable for pop work, if not serious classical concertizing.
Howdy from Frankfurt! I’m here for the week covering Musikmesse for Premier Guitar magazine. Messe is like NAMM, only somewhat larger and way louder. With beer and sausage. And probably lots of accordions, because you can’t have beer, sausage, or music trade shows without accordions.
You can check the many daily pics and notes posted at PG‘s Facebook page. We have a strict “new gear only” policy. No NAMM retreads — only items being introduced here in Frankfurt. Should be interesting!
(pretend the pill is a sausage)
Oh, man — I’m flipping out over a new guitar I’ve assembled from Warmoth parts. It was an opportunity to try some new experiments — and amazingly, some of them may have worked!
I had several unrelated goals:
Plus, I was suffering some Jazzmaster nostalgia. My first electric guitar was the used Jazzmaster I received for my 13th birthday. Naturally, I sold it at exactly the wrong time, and haven’t owned one since.
Fullerton vs. Kalamazoo. But as you can see, this apple has fallen far from the Fender tree. Beyond the bolt-on neck, 25 1/2″ scale, and JM shape, it’s really more Gibson-esque, with a relatively heavy korina body, mahogany neck, bound ebony fretboard, and Tune-o-matic-style bridge and tailpiece.
I wanted to see how a guitar that was bigger and heavier than the Fenders I’d been using in my digital setup would perform with MIDI triggering and amp modeling. This “Birdmaster” reminds me a lot of a Firebird, or even a Trini Lopez with its Firebird-style headstock. There’s just a lot of distance between the endpin and the tip of the headstock! Between the woody mass, authoritative-sounding Lindy Fralin P-92 pickups (which I’d previously reviewed in Premier Guitar), and my beloved overpriced flatwound strings, I wound up with an instrument whose exceptionally clear and stable pitch works better with digital tools than any guitar I’ve tried.
Intonation revelation. On a whim, I ordered the neck with a pre-installed Earvana nut. I’d always been a sceptic about “improved” intonation schemes, such as the Buzz Feiten system. Not because I didn’t think they’d work — more because I like the out-of-tuneness of guitars in general and rock guitars in particular. (And let’s face it — most of my best session work is howlingly out of tune.)
Okay, I was a dope.
I am over the moon about how sweetly this guitar plays in tune. It’s already an exceedingly resonant slice of tree, but I’d swear the minuscule intonation fixes just make it hum more. I’ve already taken in three more instruments to genius guitar tech Gary Brawer for Earvana retrofits.(The nuts go for about $40 each, compared to five bucks or so for a conventional nut.)Cult boost. I also tried a few new things with the electronics. There are single master volume and tone controls, with a Stellartone ToneStyler on the tone pot. I added my Cult circuit — a single-germanium-transistor boost descended from the Rangemaster, a trick I used in the Pagey Project Les Paul. A push/pull switch on the third knob activates it.
But here, the pot controls the level going into the boost, not out of it. Since it’s such an extraordinarily dynamic circuit (it cleans up almost completely when you back of the input), the knob works as an ultra-sensitive gain control. It’s easy to find spots where you can go from clean to dirty with just a little extra picking-hand pressure. (The booster, when engaged, is positioned before the volume and tone pots.) The same setup would probably work great with a built-in Fuzz Face.
I’m still fine-tuning things — I may want to add selectable booster input caps, for the option of a traditional Rangemaster-style treble boost. But overall, I’m thrilled to bits about how this guitar is turning out!
Anyone else have interesting experiences with Fender/Gibson hybrids? Care to share?
May I take this opportunity to pimp my new monthly recording column in Premier Guitar? The first installment covers basic electric guitar miking technique. It’s ground that’s been covered often enough before, though I hope the article’s many audio files (recorded via ReAmp, moving the mic between “takes”) shed some new light on the topic.
Meanwhile, I’m breathlessly stoked about my new “Partsmaster.” It’s a Korina “Split Jazzmaster” body from Warmoth with Fralin P-92s and some new tricks I’ve been wanting to try with wiring and onboard overdrive, plus several other
Can’t wait — this is an interesting one! :)
Oh man — the gods have been generous this week.
This one will be a bit of a platypus — as opposed to, you know, all my other other platypi. (The actual plural of “platypus” is “platypuses,” but “platypi” is more fun to type.) It’s built from Warmoth’s “split Jazzmaster” template, with a korina body, bound neck, Tune-o-matic/stop-tailpiece bridge, and a pair of hum-cancelling Fralin P-92s. Yeah, it’s kind of a stab-in-the-dark experiment, and not a inexpensive one. But hope springs eternal. Prepare to be bored with details!
I’ve also just received an amazing-looking pair of condenser mics from Portland, Oregon’s Ear Trumpet Labs. ETL kingpin Philip Graham’s business card identifies him as “proprietor and bricoleur.” Bricolage, of course, is the ten-dollar word for “making stuff out of junk and other found objects.” Dig the steampunk vibe of that repurposed hardware! I haven’t even plugged these in yet (though the reviews I’ve read have been stellar). I just like staring at them! But I’m going to try them out at my monthly Strung Out! show tonight.
Which brings me another of this week’s highlights: I got to perform last night with my dear friends Teja Gerken and Adam Levy. Teja is an astonishing acoustic fingerstylist and a fine composer. His vocabulary has hints of Bensusan, Hedges, and classical, but he’s molded those influences into a thoroughly unique sound. And Adam, who I’ve known since my Guitar Player magazine days, is equally renowned for his jazz work and for accompanying such singer/songwriters as Norah Jones and Tracy Chapman. (I get to play some of Adam’s cool parts when I gig with Tracy.) These days Adam’s focusing on songwriting, and he his sings his “smart Americana” songs (my description, not Adam’s) in a sweet, soulful voice. Man, what a treat to hear both of them up close. And tonight, Adam, Shelley Doty, and I perform at my local dive, El Rio. Can life get any better?
Apparently so! Yesterday Premier Guitar posted John Bohlinger’s piece on the Pixies, which includes a pic of Charles “Frank Black/Black Francis” Thompson’s pedalboard, with my grubby, hand-built Duh fuzz pedal front and center. I’d originally made if for Joey Santiago, the other Pixies guitarist, but I guess Charles swiped it. Hey, I’d be honored if either guy spat on the thing! They’ve been heroes since I first heard the band in a small San Francisco club back in ’88. (Everyone went to hear the Sugarcubes, but left talking about that awesome opening act from Boston.)
It’s funny, because I really was thinking “Pixies” when I sound-designed the Duh. I was going for “bubblegum metal” — a thick, heavy sound, but not a macho one. The tone is too fizzy and funny for 100% sincere heavy rock, IMHO. It’s more of a “greasy kid stuff” distortion. (Note to readers under 45: That was once the tagline for a “dry look” mens hair product, referring to the outdated coiffures that would return with a vengeance when punk broke a few years later.) It’s a vaguely Muff-like sound, but with less compression, less scoop, and one big, stupid knob. I also like building that circuit into guitars. Like this one:
So it’s been a grand week, but a hectic one. Thanks for reading this far. Next week I promise a proper post, and not another collection of … odds & ends.
One of the coolest gizmos from last weeks NAMM show is already in my grubby little hands: It’s the Logidy EPSi, the first customizable convolution reverb pedal. I ordered it the instant I heard about it, and it arrived right before I left for Anaheim.
Convolution (or impulse response) reverbs can mimic acoustic spaces and outboard gear with astonishing accuracy. (If this concept is new to you, check out this article by me. Or better yet, this one written by someone who knows what he’s talking about.) Nutshell: You create impulse response (IR) files by playing and recording a test tone in rooms or through gear. Once you load the file into an IR reverb device or plug-in, it can make anything sound as if it was recorded with the same ambience.You can also generate eerie, otherworldly sounds by loading unusual audio files.
Many software and hardware amp and effect modellers use IRs to mimic gear. Software convolution reverb plug-ins such as Audio Ease’s Altiverb, Logic Pro’s Space Designer, and Waves IR1 include reverb libraries, and also let you load your own IRs. But as far as I know, EPSi us the first device that lets you load your IRs into a stompbox and access them without playing through a computer.
I’m psyched to add IR reverbs to my (mostly) analog pedalboard, and EPSi makes it relatively easy to load the IR libraries I’ve compiled. The files require special treatment: They must be 44.1kHz WAVs, and the names must be formatted quite specifically, as detailed in Logidy’s documentation. The interface is extremely minimal: just a bypass footswitch and a knob/button pair to navigate the simple menus.
This unique reverb stompbox sounds great and offers limitless opportunities for creative sound design. You can load your own impulses, or add ones from from some of the fine freeware libraries online. (Thanks for the link, Scott!) On the downside, it’s difficult to load or edit sounds on the fly, so while it might be fun to spelunk for new sounds in the studio with EPSi, don’t plan on modifying sounds onstage. (The ability to recall several saved presets would vastly improve EPSi as a gigging tool.)
I just drove back to San Francisco from Southern California, where I got to hang out with family and spend a long, full day at NAMM. And while even the longest and fullest of days isn’t enough to see half the stuff at the show, I’ve put together a little slideshow covering some highlights and lowlights.
Per usual, my focus is the obscure and the absurd. For details of the big releases from the major companies, check out the excellent coverage by my Premier Guitar colleagues. (I’m the designated PG reporter for Musikmesse in March, but at NAMM, I had the luxury of stumbling around in a daze, pausing to gape at whatever shiny object happened to enter my field of vision.)
Finally, an apology: I couldn’t figure out how to embed links within my slideshow captions, so you’ll have to do some typing to learn more about these products. Sorry — but I did warn you that this was a half-assed NAMM report!
After last week’s loudness experiments, and with the sonic carnage of NAMM just days away, I figured it was a good opportunity to dial down the decibels and share an interesting guitar/string combination I’ve been enjoying for a few months.
At $34 bucks a pop in the U.S., they’re blisteringly expensive, but they have a sound I’ve never encountered elsewhere. The result is the closest thing to a nylon-string sound I’ve heard from an ordinarily steel-stringed guitar.
I’ve had the same set on this guitar since May — they’re certainly long-lasting! Now I’m going to experiment with a few other options, but I wanted to document these before swapping them out.
Have a listen:
These strings fascinate me. They convert the guitar into what sounds like a hybrid nylon/steel-string instrument. They permit classical techniques such as rest-strokes, but when you bend them, they feel more like steel strings. The gauges are bizarre: .013 through .039. I’ve never played anything like them.
With these strings, my Martin is quieter than most classical guitars — more like the volume of Renaissance lute (an instrument I played a lot in my teens, though I haven’t owned one in many years). For me, this pairing has the same sort of sweet intimacy. This happens to be the one guitar I keep in my house — everything else is down in the studio. It’s quite literally a parlor instrument, and I’ve loved having a soft, quiet guitar to noodle on. It’s sometimes frustrating, though, how quickly these strings “overload” — the notes in the demo that snap and sizzle aren’t intentional — I’m just playing a little too hard.
I still consider this is a cool alternative classical sound, but after months of playing, I tend to think this combination would best suit a fingerstyle player who uses a lot of bending, smearing, and slapping. I bet Joseph Spence and Bert Jansch would have sounded great on these, as would Ry.
I may return to these extraordinary strings. Actually, in a perfect world, I’d have two lovely old Martins, one to strung conventionally, and the other strung with rope-cores. And since we’re talking “perfect world,” what the hell? Two pre-War Martins for everybody! No, make that three!
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