. . . to a blog about all the things you can do with — or to — a guitar or a bass. 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 or a bass. Topics: DIY, instruments, amps, effects, recording, software, technique, music history, music heresy.
It’s that time of year when we stop practicing, turn off the soldering irons, and
Reflexive snark aside, I’d like to thank all of you who have contributed your time, effort, musicality, and ingenuity to tonefiend since the last time I posted a poorly Photoshopped turkey image. If it weren’t for you, this site would be nothing more than a bunch of self-important pontification, instead of what it is: a bunch of self-important pontification leavened by your wit and wisdom.
Thanks, too, to you lurkers — I know you’re there! Truth be told, I’m a habitual lurker who rarely contributes to his favorite blogs, so I get where you’re coming from and invite you to lurk to your hearts’ content. (Though if you ever do feel like introducing yourself, I promise you a friendly welcome.)
I’ve got lots of interesting stuff coming up after the holiday. Your responses and suggestions to the Let’s Design a DIY Amp post have helped focus that notion, and I’m speaking with some smart people about creating a project/kit. I’ll also be reporting on some of the new digital gizmos and soundware I’ve been exploring in preparation for a performance at Strung Out!, a monthly San Francisco solo guitar event I’m launching with friend/acoustic virtuoso Teja Gerken.
And frankly, I’m glad to be powering down the soldering iron for a few days, because I just completed all the tech work for a massive pickup review I’m preparing for Premier Guitar, which includes recordings of eight rival humbucker-sized P-90 pickup sets, all tested in the same guitar/signal chain. The results are fascinating, and I managed to perform a couple of dozen pickup changes with only one second-degree burn and two small puncture wounds. (Yep — you heard it here first: The next big thing in humbuckers is hum!) I’ll link to the story when it goes live in a few weeks.
I’m thankful for having so many of you to thank. Have a lovely holiday, everyone!
Let’s not just talk about one-knob gear — let’s design some! Any interest in conspiring to create a minimalist DIY amp?
Frankly, the intensity of the reaction to my recent One Knob Manifesto startled me. I had a general sense there was a growing interest in minimalist gear, but I was no idea the sentiment was so intense. (Though I’d hesitate to draw too many conclusions based on a focus group of the obsessive geeks who hang out here.)
The limited edition Love amp fascinates me. Not its ornate furnishings, but the minimal controls: no tone stack, not even a volume control. It’s pretty much exactly what I was talking about when I expressed an interest in an amp with nothing but an on/off switch. That desire became even more focused last week when I reviewed a fabulous amp from a new Colorado Springs company called Toneville. (I’ll link to the Premier Guitar review when it goes live in a couple of weeks.) The Toneville Beale Street model I reviewed features a full compliment of blackface-style controls, but the tone controls are voiced so that the tone stack can largely be removed from the circuit, and there’s also a pot to remove the negative feedback loop for a more tactile/primitive response. As with some other ultra-high-end amps I’ve written about recently (like the Little Walter 50/22 covered here), the tone controls sound great wide-open, and it matters surprisingly little where you set the volume — you just drive it hard enough to warm things up, and then shape the tone from the guitar. With a nicely voiced and biased amp, you need far fewer controls than you might think. And the more crap you omit, more livelier the reponse and the more immediate the tone
So why don’t we collectively create something in this vein? A simple but great-sounding tube amp with nothing but an on/off switch? I’ve never designed anything such thing and have little relevant expertise beyond the knowledge that, unlike 9v stompboxes, AC-powered amps can kill you. But I’ve built enough kit amps to know that a one-knob head can be easy, potentially inexpensive (though you could invest in ultra-premium tranformers, vintage tubes, NOS parts, and so on), and it should sound stunning. If we come up with a plan, we can source the parts, create step-by-step instructions, and probably get a vendor to put together a kit for us. (I’m thinking out loud here, so bear with me.)
I’m not firm on many details other than these:
Any interest, folks? And more important, any ideas? And more important, any ideas? What would make this fun, useful, and bitchin’?
My pal Josh Hecht is making a documentary on Howlin’ Wolf. Josh, a noted engineer and audio instructor who came of age hanging out in Chicago blues clubs in the ’60s and ’70s, has corralled great interviews with the likes of Sam Phillips, Jimmy Page, and the late Hubert Sumlin, Wolf’s longtime guitarist. He also speaks with younger Wolf fanatics such as Dan Auerbach and Kirk Hammett. This work-in-progress will be cool indeed.
(Don’t be surprised that Kirk is a Wolf worshipper. He’s an extremely well-rounded listener, a lifelong guitar student, and an exceptionally cool and smart dude. Long after he became a star, he studied music a San Francisco State University, where Josh was one of his instructors. Josh shot cool footage of Kirk in his practice room, playing “Smokestack Lightning” on a funky old Epiphone — a Coronet, I think.)
Josh dropped me a note yesterday, telling me he was going over to Kirk’s to shoot additional interview footage, and asking whether I had ideas for further questions. Here’s what sprang to mind:
I have no idea whether Josh will use my questions, and if so, what response they may elicit. But what do you think?
Sumlin’s solo above isn’t quite as awesome as on the studio version, which may be my fave solo ever. (God knows, I’ve stolen from it often enough.) But still.
Oh man — I got to open for Television last night in San Francisco, accompanying storyteller Dennis Driscoll. These days the band includes original members Tom Verlaine, Billy Ficca, and Fred Smith, plus Jimmy Rip filling in quite capably for original guitarist Richard Lloyd. They’ve been doing shows where they play their debut album, Marquee Moon, in its entirety (though they mixed and matched songs last night).
Television recorded other cool records, including a lovely 1992 reunion album. But Marquee Moon is one of those instances in which an artist’s aesthetic is etched in stone from the beginning. The two-guitar interplay … the abstract, almost architectural arrangements … the contrasts between stiff and loose time … Verlaine’s free-floating rhythm and quavering 16th-note-triple vibrato—all were present from the get-go 36 frickin’ years ago.
I couldn’t help comparing Television’s artistic arc to that of their contemporaries, Talking Heads. Sure, the latter’s debut, Talking Heads ’77, is a classic, but had the band stopped recording after its release, we’d have only a vague inkling of what the group would become. More than once Jerry Harrison has told me that today’s bands rarely have the luxury of defining themselves over the course of several albums as Talking Heads did, slowly finding their audience and refining their sound. Today’s music business demands spectacular success from the start. A latter-day Talking Heads (if you can imagine such a thing) wouldn’t have the luxury of recording three albums before releasing a bona-fide hit like Remain in Light.
Most great musicians evolve over time—imagine how we’d regard the Beatles, the Stones, Springsteen, Prince, or Dylan if they’d thrown in the towel after one album. That, I think, seems intuitive to most of us. The talent is there—it simply needs time to reach its apogee.
But artists who seem to materialize fully formed mystify and fascinate me. I’m not just talking about Mozart syndrome, prodigies who display phenomenal talent while very young. Mozart grew artistically throughout his brief life. His juvenile works barely hint at the later masterpieces.
On the other hand, consider Charlie Christian, whose style was fully realized from his first recordings with Benny Goodman in 1939, soon after the guitarist’s 23rd birthday. At his initial audition/gig, this kid from Oklahoma was mocked by the Goodman band hipsters for his hick cowboy clothes—until he blew them off the bandstand with 20 consecutive choruses of “Rose Room.” It was the most radical guitar sound the musicians had ever heard. From his first sessions to his last a mere two-and-half years later, Christian’s style never evolved. It was perfect from Day 1.
Dig it! (Charlie’s solo starts at 1:10.)
Another fascinating case: I’ve always had a soft spot for Cheap Trick, though I don’t know their music exhaustively. Like many listeners, I relate more to the relatively raw live versions of their hits on the Budokan album than to the tepid studio originals. The Budokan version of “I Want You to Want Me” has so much more power and passion than the slow, limp, overdub-laden version on In Color. But it wasn’t till 1996′s Sex, America, Cheap Trick compilation that I encountered the original demo of “I Want You to Want Me.” And holy crap—it’s simply one of the most perfect rock and roll tracks ever.
Wow. No overdubs. Monster groove. Fabulous lead vocal. A perfect distillation of Elvis, Chuck Berry, and the Beatles. With all due respect to this long-running and hard-working band, I don’t believe they ever again nailed it quite like this.
Since I’m already probably picking fights, I may as well blurt out that I view the first Doors album and Are You Experienced? in a similar light. Not that Strange Days and Electric Ladyland aren’t great—just that both Hendrix and the Doors entered the public consciousness with their artistry fully formed, and that they never recorded anything that wasn’t implicit in those initial recordings.
Why do some artists just seem to come out of the chute fully mature, while others need time to realize their potential? And which ones would you include on a “Getting It Right the First Time” list?
Are there any particular guitar solos you’re obsessed with lately?
Here’s one I can’t stop listening to: Jim Hall’s solo on Sonny Rollins’ 1964 recording of “God Bless the Child.”
This may seem like a weird statement, given how much self-indulgent wanking infests this site, but I have a love/hate relationship with guitar solos. (Or more like a hate relationship leavened by occasional stirrings of love.) That’s especially true with singer/songwriter tracks. A good song drags you into its emotional world, and so often it strikes me as emotionally jarring to suspend the drama for a fretwork display. It can be like an ill-timed intermission in a great movie, as if you were watching Citizen Kane or Grand Illusion, and they paused the film two-thirds of the way through to bring out a juggling monkey.
That’s one reason I love this solo so much. Hall just plays beautifully all the way through. He’s like the Loch Ness Monster, undulating continuously just beneath the surface and gently lifting his head above the waterline when his moment comes.
Another is the sheer bravery with which Hall employs silence. Talk about pregnant pauses! It would be fascinating to transcribe only the rhythms of the solo, not even the pitches. The asymmetrical phrases. The late entries. It’s so suspenseful. So poignant. So unpredictable. So frickin’ brilliant.
Equally amazing is liquid blend of chords and melodies. For many players, that’s a binary distinction: Either you’re soloing, or you’re comping. This is just…music.
But the thing that amazes me most of all, I think, is Hall’s mastery of register. Baroque music scholars sometimes refer to a technique known as “compound melody,” best exemplified in the music of — who else? — J.S. Bach. Compound melodies are melodic lines that imply multi-voice counterpoint, even when they’re strictly single notes. A tune might center in one register, then leap high or low, establishing a beachhead in another register before returning to the original one. It then bounces back and forth between the regions, almost as if two tunes were being played simultaneously on adjacent channels, with the listener flicking back and forth between them.
I’m not sure I’ve explained that coherently. But Hall does it.
Jim Hall’s students (including Bill Frisell, whose playing this track so vividly anticipates) report that he kept a sign inside his guitar case that read “Make musical sense.” For many of us, soloing is about practice, practice, practice, and then when the moment comes, we turn off part of our analytical mind and hope that our instincts and muscle memory huck up something acceptable. But I get the sense that Hall, in pursuit of “musical sense,” never turns off his analytical mind. That’s not to say his approach is cold or scientific—he wears his heart on his sleeve here! But he’s always intelligent and thoughtful.
It’s said that improvisation is spontaneous composition. Sure, sometimes. But it’s rarely this spontaneous, or this composerly.
Gotta listen one more time—BRB.
Yeah, it’s still amazing. :)
So what are your current guitar solo obsessions? Any style. Any skill level. Anything that makes you feel intense things.
Do you ever get an idea that you just know is going to work out brilliantly? And then discover you were totally wrong?
That’s how it was when I finally reassembled my generic Mexican Strat with Duncan lipstick tube pickups. After I recorded a demoing of it here almost two years ago, the guitar lay in pieces alongside my workbench. I’d stare at decapitated body, feeling guilty and dreaming of all the fantastic mods I’d attempt when I finally got around to reanimating it. I had various ideas for the tone control: Maybe a two-band PTB control? Nope—totally underwhelming results. Perhaps a two-in-one TBX? Meh—even less interesting. I drew a blank, and the guitar wound up with a disappointingly normal tone circuit.
But I did discover some cool twists along the way. Details after the video:
My flatwound string addiction is only getting worse, but this is the first time I’ve combined flats and lipstick tubes. (Has anyone done that since the ’50s?) The results were fascinating. As happens when you put flats on an electric 12-string, you encounter a paradoxical increase in highs, despite the darker-toned bass strings. (Maybe it’s because the treble strings ring truer with less phase-canceling interference from roundwound bass strings.) As you can hear, this instrument doesn’t lack for zing.
The opposite, actually — treble notes explode from the instrument, often more than you’d like. I experimented with various action and pickup height adjustments, but no matter how I set things, it was difficult preventing certain notes from shrieking. The only solution was to play the damn guitar for a few hours and grow accustomed to the touch.
I just procured some clever new gizmos designed to help unfortunate players who were born without 12-inch fingers and five-foot arms.
First up: The VKnob from Option Knob, an angled plastic lever that replaces standard volume and tone knobs. It’s worth investigating if you’re interested in pedal steel-style swells, “manual tremolo,” or wah-flavored tone-knob manipulation. There’s a half-inch notch in the lever, perfectly position for resting your picking-hand pinky and spinning the knob without having to stray too far from the springs. It takes getting used to, and it may collide with some whammy bars, but it’ll be a cool solution for many players. FWIW, I tend to play fingerstyle, and I’m accustomed to spinning knobs with my pinky while picking strings with my thumb. Even so, the VKnob makes the technique easier, and it may be a godsend for pickstyle players. (Price: US $13.)
Option Knob also created the OKnob, a Y-shaped replacement knob for stompboxes. It lets you manipulate pedal knobs by “kicking” the OKnob’s arms or resting your foot in the fork where they meet. I’ve enjoyed using OKnobs to control the cutoff frequency on filter-type effects, especially when playing The World’s Nastiest Stompbox™. Like so:Uglyface Demo
But now the OKnob has competition in the form of the KickDisk, a circular, clear plastic replacement knob.
Both knobs work great, and each has its advantages. The OKnob doesn’t force you to position your foot at a specofic altitude, and it looks freaky-cool. But it can be awkward to manipulate from some angles, especially when the arms are positioned north and south. The KickDisk is easier to operate from all angles, and its transparency prevents it from obscuring stompbox LEDs. I like both options. (OKnobs are ten bucks each, or $12 for the glow-in-the-dark model. KickDisks go for $7.50.)
Obviously, your stompboxes must be secured to a pedalboard or other surface, or you’ll just kick everything over. But while knocking pedals over is a drag, it’s not nearly as bad as toppling your laptop. That’s why I was eager to replace the flimsy stools and utility tables I’ve been using for laptop gigs with my band Mental 99.
There are several stage-worthy laptop stands, though most are tabletop models aimed at laptop-lugging DJs. I opted for the Quik Lok LPH-003, a sturdy metal tripod when a laptop shelf plus an extensible mousepad surface, which works great as a holder for picks, slides, EBows, and street drugs.
The LPH-003 weighs a lot more than my old stands, but it’s far less likely to get knocked over, even by a hyperkinetic klutz like me. Particularly reassuring are the four adjustable, rubber-tipped arms that secure your leptop, even at steeply slanted angles. So far, I’m digging it. I’ll let you know how it works at gigs. (I paid a little under $100 for mine.)
Have any of you tried these? Or can you share info on any other clever, simple, and cheap guitar prosthetics that help you do what you do?
It’s almost always a bad idea to label something a manifesto. It’s pretentious, and it makes you sound like a crank, especially if you were born between 1890 and 1990. But it is dramatic. And would anyone pay attention if I gave this post a more accurate title, like “Please Participate in My Stompbox User Interface Focus Group?”
Anyway, I’ve been having this recurring workbench experience. (No, not the solder burns.) Every time I breadboard a stompbox project, I poke through the circuit, looking for places where I might add a switch or knob to unlock cool sounds. I usually find nice variations and build accordingly. But as soon as I plug in the pedal, I always seem to like one setting a lot more the others. Then I rebuild, hard-wiring the preferred value and ditching the switch or pot. Eventually almost everything I build winds up with only one or two knobs. (Unless I’m making it for personal use, in which case it often has no knobs.) It’s not a love of minimalism, and it’s certainly not an assumption that users are too stupid for anything more complex. It’s just that time and again, the simplest solutions sound best to me.
Meanwhile, I just had an interesting experience reviewing a (gulp) $5,000 amp for Premier Guitar, which crystallized some of my thoughts. The amp in question is a Little Walter 50/22 (which is actually two independent amps in a single housing), and I’ll link to the review when it goes live in a few days. But suffice it to say that Little Walter amps draw their inspiration from the earliest Fender tweeds, and have minimal controls to match: one volume knob and one tone knob. Furthermore, builder Phil Bradbury all but advises against using the tone control, pointing out that vintage-stye tube amp tone controls are strictly subtractive, and that you get maximum impact and richness with the tone circuit wide-open. And Bradbury is right. As on many great vintage amps, the Little Walter controls are practically superfluous. If you locate the right sweet spot, you can park the controls there and make any needed gain or tone adjustments the old-fashioned way: by playing them. Dig in harder for more distortion. Back of the volume to clean up. Use your angle of attack as a tone control. Like that.
But you don’t encounter many new-production amps that adhere to the philosophy. I get the sense that a lot of designers would like to create minimalist amps such as these, but they fear that the public wouldn’t get it. How could the one-knob amp possibly sound as good as the one with 11 knobs? But I suspect that the more experience you have with amps, the likelier you are to believe that simple sounds better. Now I want to build a great-sounding tube amp with only an on/off switch.
I’m finding the same to be true with distortion/fuzz/overdrive stompboxes. For many players, the minimum complement of controls is gain, tone, and master volume. But almost every circuit I’ve explored sounds better without a tone control, and it’s hard to make a gain control sound great throughout its entire range. So more and more I find myself fine-tuning circuits to what I feel are the best gain and tone settings, hard-wiring them there, and then just slapping on a master volume for level-matching. (And if the pedal doesn’t add a great deal of volume, I often skip the master as well.) If you “tune” the distortion, you can control the gain perfectly well via your hands and guitar.
“But,” I hear the inquiring player ask, “don’t you need a tone control so you can use the same pedal with different guitars?” (Sadly, I sometimes believe I’m hearing the voices of inquiring players when I’ve neglected my meds.) Increasingly, I think not. In almost all cases, there’s a sweet spot where a circuit sounds good on everything from a bright Tele bridge pickup to a tubby neck humbucker. Those extremes don’t sound the same, of course. But if you’re playing distorted on a Tele, can’t we assume that you want a bright edge? (And vice-versa with the neck humbucker.) And if you do want to modify the tone, isn’t doing so with via fingers, amp, or mixing board a better solution than using a tone-sucking stompbox tone circuit?
Another example: I spent countless hours pursuing a stompbox vibrato circuit. (I mean true pitch-shift vibrato, not tremolo.) I’d obtained great tones, but I couldn’t get the effect to sound good at all rates and depths, because the perceived depth changes along with the rate. Finally, it occurred to me to go the one-knob route, using only a rate control, and letting that determine the depth. That may sound like a half-assed non-solution, but I’ll be danged if I didn’t suddenly have the most gratifying vibrato pedal I’ve ever played. Like the minimal controls on ’50s amps, the arrangement just worked.
Other factors influence my one-knob attitude: Since I’ve spent much of the last few years in the digital guitar realm, analog guitar has become a refuge from that sometimes math-based approach. When I switch on the analog rig, my goal isn’t maximum user options, but a primal experience. Also, there’s probably an element of advanced-player snob appeal. I don’t know much about cars, bicycles, motorcycles, or sporting goods, but there’s probably a parallel between minimalist musical tools that demand a fair amount of technical finesse, and vehicles and sports gear with stripped-down, featherweight, only-for-pros features. Not every bicycle needs a kick-stand, and not every fuzz pedal needs a gain control. (Or something like that.) Additionally, I hope to bring my pedal designs to market, and what a crowded market it is! Sure, it’s mainly crowded by clones, but many brilliant builders are creating complex mad scientist boxes. Maybe there’s a niche for one-knob mad-scientist boxes…
I’m not sure it’s kosher to conclude a manifesto with questionnaire. But I’m eager to hear your replies to these queries—or anything else you feel inspired to add. Thanks!
I was trying to decide which
So no guitar recordings for me this week while my poor l’il finger recuperates. But I’ll try to compensate for this dog-ate-my-homework post by sharing three works in progress. If they turn out well (and they might!), audio and video will follow.
1. Lipstick Tubes Revisited. For more than a year, the generic Mexican Strat I fitted with lipstick tube pickups has lived, disassembled, in a filthy cardboard box next to my workbench, guilt-tripping me every time I fired up the soldering iron. There were a number of experiments I’d been meaning to perform on it, and in a spectacularly bad example of scientific methodology, I incorporated them all at once, making it pretty much impossible to discern what’s doing what. But I hear some things I like. Here’s what’s new (beside the blood spatters):
Not everything is working as desired yet — but there are some promising directions here, and it’s so nice to have a lipstick tube instrument again.
2. The Joy of Stick. Anyone tried a joystick effect, like Devi Ever’s Drone Fuck Drone? I bought a few joysticks from 4Site and have been having a blast. I thought they’d be difficult to wrangle, but it’s really just two pots, each with the standard three-lug connection, deployed in X/Y configuration. Two things to bear in mind, though: They’re generally available only with identical resistance values for each pot, and more important, you need two controls that have meaningful values throughout their ranges. Fortunately, I had just the circuit for it: my Filth Fuzz (which Fuzzbox Girl was kind enough to demo and review in 2011). I’d even labeled the controls X and Y! (I’m not selling these, but I do hope to bring it to market before long. Honest.)
3. A Reanimated Amp. This one’s personal: I’m finally refurbishing the 1951 “TV front” Fender Deluxe amp that I received for as a bar mitzvah present in the ’70s. (I was mature enough not to express my disappointment over getting some crummy old tweed. But how I longed for that shiny post-CBS crap!) My mom procured it from the son of one of her fellow elementary school teachers, who worked at Fender in nearby Fullerton. (Sadly, I’ve forgotten his name.) I also got to pick from three early-’70s Fender guitars: a sunburst Strat, a paisley Tele, and a black Jazzmaster. I, of course, chose the Jazzmaster — at the exact moment when no one on earth gave a crap about that model. And naturally, I sold it just when new wave arrived and Jazzmasters became cool again. See? I established my pattern of buying and selling the wrong things at the wrong times while still in my teens!
I didn’t wreck the amp by myself — the process started with the black paint job it acquired long before I entered the picture. Over the years it received a preamp mod from Paul Rivera, and later got totally ruined by an overambitious repairman who added mods I never requested, and who probably stole most of the original electronic parts. But the cab, chassis, speaker, and output transformer are original, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t sound bitchin’ after I restore it to its original 5A3 circuit. I’m getting expert help from Tube Depot’s Rob Hull, who helped me source parts and make a grommet board to house the components.
So my apologies for all talk, no audio. My boo-boo is healing, and I should be back able to, like, actually play some of this stuff soon!
This post is inspired by in interview I just did with Mississippi Allstars guitarist Luther Dickinson, a cool dude and a deep player. I’m digging the band’s new album, World Boogie is Coming. (And for better or worse, that praise comes from someone who hates almost all modern blues albums.) You can read the interview here.
Anyway, Luther was talking about how his entire style is a quest to create a loud, electric version of acoustic country blues. He mentioned how he was more drawn to the Mississippi blues players who went electric by slapping DeArmond pickups on their acoustics, as opposed to, say, Muddy Waters, who swapped his acoustic for a Telecaster. Luther also mentioned that DeArmonds are still his favorite way to amplify an acoustic guitar
At some point it occurred to me that I’d never actually played an acoustic with a DeArmand. So I picked up a 1950s RHC-B and popped it into my old Martin 0-18. Have a listen:
I’m a longtime fan of magnetic pickups on acoustic guitars. I had a Sunrise in my Lowden for 15 years and loved it, but it croaked last year. I replaced it with one of those hybrid models that combine a mag pickup with an internal mic, and it works fine. But after a year or so, I don’t think I’ve ever used the mic sound. I just like the way the mag pickup sounds.
But is it still acoustic guitar? I’m not sure. I increasingly view amplified acoustic as a guitar category unto itself, residing somewhere between acoustic and archtop.
And the DeArmond? Between its noisiness and reticent highs, it’s probably not the best choice for every occasion. It’s also a bigger pain to install and remove than modern mag pickups. But I dig how it sound in the video, and I’m definitely keeping it!
So what’s you experience with amplifying your acoustic guitars?
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