. . . 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.
As threatened, here’s a closer look at Strat with PAF humbuckers used for my recent “God Only Knows” cover. Most parts are from the long-suffering guitar used for all the Mongrel Strat Project experiments. And this one is especially mongrel-ific, with its blend of vintage Fender and Gibson.
Obviously, Gibson pickups is a Strat is far from a new idea. But usually, that arranged marriage is designed to spawn macho, high-gain solos minus the characteristic shrillness of vintage Strat bridge pickups. While many players I love have used humbucker-equipped Strats, I’ve always loathed playing them myself. But what, I wondered, if you didn’t use a hot humbucker, but an über-vintage PAF?
Like many players my age and younger, I was astonished when I first encountered a vintage-voiced humbucker. It was nothing like the dark, over-overdriven tones I associated with the word humbucker. A good PAF is sparkly, resonant, and perfectly capable of gloriously bright and clean tones. Here I used a Seymour Duncan Joe Bonamassa signature set, the same one heard in a more Gibson-like context here.
The results are … compelling. As expected, notes have far more mass than on a conventional Strat, and the bass response is vastly increased. There’s no shortage of top-end either, though the big lows can overwhelm the highs at times. So while I’m pretty much always obsessed with bass-cut controls (especially the high-pass section of the PTB circuit I’ve written about approximately 37 zillion times), it’s especially invaluable in this case. Since lows disproportionately drive distortion, even modest bass cuts clean up the tone and make highs speak more clearly.
I’ve also incorporated the dual-capacitor treble control I wrote about here. It creates a Vari-Tone/ToneStyler effect in a simplified way: Instead of using a clunky rotary switch to choose from a large set of treble-trimming capacitors, it fades between a large cap and a small cap, yielding the same resonant effect as the more complex options. I’ve incorporated this circuit in several guitars now, and it’s still working for me. It’s especially nice here, when paired with a Steinberger JackPot potentiometer, which lets you bypass the entire tone circuit for absolute maximum volume and brightness. I chose the small cap based on the minimum amount I’d ever want to remove from the signal, and the larger one based on the maximum cut I’d use.
I would have included a photo of the project in progress, but I didn’t because I’m embarrassed about how awful it looks inside. I needed to route out the pickup cavities to accommodate these larger pickups. But instead of taking it to a professional, or getting a proper router and learning how to use it, I chipped away with the tiny routing bit on an inexpensive Dremel tool. Do yourself a favor, kids, and don’t follow my lazy-ass example.
But hey, what’s a Strat pickguard for if not to conceal your shoddy workmanship? The guitar looks okay in the end, and I’m digging its sounds, even though it was far harder to get accustomed to than I’d anticipated. I had to recalibrate my right-hand dynamics to prevent treble notes from screeching. I was almost ready to chalk this up as a failed experiment, but after a few days of noodling around, I started to get the hang of it and enjoy the results. I think I’ll keep it this way for a while — or at least until the next Mongrel Strat concept wafts up from the bowels of Hell. 🙂
It probably wins my vote for prettiest pop-rock song of all time, and it’s a far-from-controversial opinion. “God Only Knows” and all the other great tracks from the Beach Boys’ incomparable Pet Sounds album are 50 years old. (The album was released on May 26th, 1966.)
I owe a big thanks to my pal Mark Goldenberg who inspired me to really learn the entire tune. Mark performs an exquisite solo version, far more lyrical and poetic than my relatively motoric reading. He and I are also preparing a duo version for an album project in the works.
I say “really learn” because you don’t appreciate the number of perverse composition tricks in the tune until you study it bar by bar. Example: the jarring leap into the bridge after the second verse. Or the way that chromatically snaking bridge seems to usher in a return to the chorus, but it’s only a three-bar tease (and in the “wrong” key at that) before a exquisite harmonic pirouette into the final verse. Or the fact that many, if not most, chords in the song don’t feature their root note in the bass. (Especially that verse! The voice leading simply makes no sense on paper, but it’s perfection in practice.) And while countless musicians have praised the outro’s beautiful choral polyphony, I haven’t got much to add, except to say that it’s frickin’ hard trying to cover all those parts! (I didn’t succeed — I only played as many as I could cram into my left hand.)
And oh, the guitar: It’s the latest installment in the ongoing Mongrel Strat Project.I’ve been hacking away at the same sad parts for years. Literally hacking, in this case: I had to route out the pickup cavity to accommodate a pair of über-retro PAFs (a Duncan Joe Bonamassa signature set). Yeah, a Strat with humbuckers isn’t a new idea. But the pickups used are almost always high-gain models designed for macho soloing. I wanted to try something low-gain and unpotted for relatively bright, resonant sounds not quite so far removed from traditional Strat tones. I’m finishing up a video about the project, and I’ll post it in the next few days.
Anyway: Happy birthday, beautiful. You wear your age well.:)
Sorry for even more solipsistic stompbox stuff, but I couldn’t resist. David Torn, one of the players I admire most on earth, just posted an unsolicited demo of my Filth Fuzz on Soundcloud. I love his post-apocalyptic soundscape.
For the uninitiated, David is one of those rare players who deploys staggering technical skill in a bold, unique style utterly unpolluted by cheesy guitar heroics. He’s recorded with Bowie, Tori Amos, John Legend, Madonna, and k.d. lang and created many brilliant solo albums. Last year’s Only Sky is particularly magnificent. It makes a great introduction to this singular guitarist/composer.
Lucky me: I just started rehearsing for a duo project with one of my guitar heroes, the brilliant Mark Goldenberg. Here’s a run-through of “Eleanor Rigby,” one of the tunes we’re working on. It’s pretty rough still, and the recording quality ain’t great. But I love Mark’s playing so much here that I couldn’t resist sharing.
I’ve only known Mark a year or two, but we hit it off as soon as we met at one of Teja Gerkin’s solo guitar events. Mark played ravishing solo version of so many of my favorites: “God Only Knows,” “Shenandoah,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Mood Indigo,” and more. I love his ultra-dynamic touch and beautiful Bill Evans-style harmonies. Plus he’s just an cool guy.
And it turns out we both studied with the same teacher: the late Ted Greene. (I took lessons from Ted as a teen, with a few more sessions 20 years later. Mark studied with Ted long after he became a leading LA sideman and session player.) You can read more about Mark on his website. He’s recorded and toured with Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Eels, Natalie Imbruglia, Chris Isaak, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Peter Frampton and — hehehe — William Shatner. It’s a real thrill to collaborate with such an inspired player.
I’m playing a Gretsch TV Jones baritone on loan from my pal Xander Soren. Mark’s playing his magnificent mahogany Collings.
Lookit! My pals and colleagues at Premier Guitar just posted a video demo of my pedals shot at NAMM last month.
It was a trip being on the business end of that gear-review microphone! Shooting this clip was surprisingly nerve-racking. You have to make the gear sound good … try not to play too terribly … speak coherently … and not come off as a dick. It’s a tall order, at least for me.
Thanks to the gang at Voodoo Lab for letting me shoot this in their booth. (Which they did because they’re just plain cool.) Thanks also to Shabat Guitars for letting me borrow this pretty guitar, and to Fryette for letting me plug it into one of their spectacular Aether combo amps. Man, am I a freeloader, or what?
If you’d like to learn more about Gore Pedals, please visit my Gore Pedals page for studio-quality recordings with multiple guitars, more pedal settings, and lots of geeky tech info.
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:
How 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!
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.)
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:
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 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.
I’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.
David 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!
But 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.
At 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.
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