Guitar genius Mark Goldenberg and I recently recorded Suite ’66, a set of improvised duets on four tunes from 1966, in honor of the 50th Anniversary of one of the greatest years in pop music.
We teased this “release” a few months ago with this rehearsal video. The EP features a more developed version of the same tune, plus three others.
Even if you’re not familiar with Mark’s name, you’ve probably heard his playing. Mark has been a leading LA sideman and session player for decades. He’s worked with Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raiit, Waylon Jennings, Chris Isaak, Willie Nelson, Hugh Laurie, Natalie Imbruglia, and most impressively, William Shatner.
Less well known is Mark’s beautiful solo style, which resides at the intersection of rock, classical, and jazz. I was instantly smitten when I first heard Mark play in person at one of Teja Gerken‘s solo guitar events a couple of years ago. Mark’s musicianship flabbergasted me, plus we bonded over the fact that we shared the same teacher, the late Ted Greene. (Though I studied with Ted when I was a teen, so much of his wisdom went over my head. Mark, however, worked with Ted after becoming one of LA’s most respected players, so he absorbed Ted’s insights on a far deeper level.)
Listening to Mark play is sheer musical ecstasy, whether or not I happen to be picking along with him. He’s been one of my greatest musical inspirations of the last few years. (Translation: I’ve ripped him off more times than I can count.)
Listen and download via SoundCloud:
Tech notes: We recorded and mixed this in my basement studio. I’m on the left channel throughout, and Mark’s on the right. (There are no overdubs.) My instruments are a Gretsch Spectra Sonic electric baritone guitar (kindly loaned by Xander Soren), a Veillette Avant Gryphon octave 12-string, and a Taylor 150e 12-string. Mark plays two magnificent guitars: his Kenny Hill classical and a Collings 001MH steel-string.
IMPORTANT: This non-commercial recording is shared as a gift between us and our friends. It may not be reused for any purposes, especially commercial ones. We’re simply inviting you to listen in on our jam session.
Ordinarily, these Thomastik-Infeld Classic S strings sound more like nylon strings than steel ones.
But their cores ARE steel — which means you can play through a magnetic pickup and mutilate the tone with amps and effects. I’m playing through effects designed for Apple’s MainStage software. (Some of them are in Logic Pro’s included sound library.)
I’m working on this version of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” as part of album in progress: a collection of radically reinterpreted songs from 1967. I haven’t nailed down the final song list. (If you review the list of amazing songs from that year, you’ll understand why. And that link only cites the songs that charted, and doesn’t include classics like the first Velvet Underground album, some great Jobim tunes, random stuff like “Some Velvet Morning,” and lots more.) By hook or by crook, I hope to have the project done before year’s end in time to cynically capitalize on pay tribute to the 50th anniversary of that musically monumental year.
Some interesting tech notes: I’ve you followed this blog, you’re no doubt sick to death of my evangelizing for Thomastik-Infeld rope-core strings. But this is the first time I’ve put them on my Lowden S-25, my main acoustic guitar for nearly 20 years. Its default tone is super loud and bright. (Larry Fishman once referred to it as “a fucking cannon.”) But these days my ears are drawn to darker, softer tones. The Classic S transformed this laser-bright acoustic into an expressive crooner.
Meanwhile, I’ve become a bit alienated from traditional nylon strings over the years, but these, with their hybrid nylon/steel sound, hit just the right sweet spot for me. They’re extremely quiet (though they don’t sound like it when close-miked like this), but they have vast dynamic range and a smooth, sexy feel.
I’d previously written that this set is the same as the (cheaper in the U.S.) John Pearse Folk Series Fingerpicking strings, but I was mistaken. The story I hear was that the late Mr. Pearse, working with Thomastik-Infeld, devised this set for Brazilian guitar monster Bola Sete. But on the current Pearse set, the bass strings have nylon cores, while the Classic S bass strings have steel cores. That means you can use the TI set with a magnetic soundhole pickup, allowing you to plug into amps and effects. (I’ll be posting an example soon as a companion piece to this video.) But both sets sound lovely, and both allow you to bend strings as you would on an electric guitar — something you definitely can’t accomplish on conventional classical strings.
I don’t have a ton to add about the sublime Leonard Cohen. But “Suzanne” has always exerted a deep emotional spell on me — even, as here, minus the lyrics.
I haven’t been able to post much here at tonefiend.com recently because I’ve been overwhelmed by two big-ass projects that have occupied most waking hours, plus some sleeping hours as well. (I’ll share the details as soon as I’m allowed.)
Yet somehow, I’ve found time to post various things to Facebook. I know some of you are already pals with me there. But please — anyone with the patience for my pontification, send me a Facebook friend invite. (I’m not picky. I’ll be friends with anyone who doesn’t post spam, or racist/sexist/homophobic shit.)
If you’re not an FB type, believe me, I get it! I’ve got issues with the service myself, even if Mark Zuckerberg lives in my San Francisco neighborhood (in a much larger house, though I bet he doesn’t own a Hello Kitty! guitar, the loser). But if you ever hang out there, please befriend me. I’ve got lots of interesting music/guitar pals, many of whom know a hell of a lot more about this stuff than I do. We often have … um … lively conversations. Hope to see you!
Oh — if you type my name into the FB search field, you’ll see both my accounts. Pick the one with the Hello Kitty! guitar. The one with the green face is the account I use to hide from keep in touch with relatives and such.
BTW, I’m have no intention of abandoning this site! I just haven’t been able to put together the longer-form pieces I like to post, and probably won’t be able to for the next couple of months. (Meanwhile, I come here every day to respond to question/comments.)
Here’s an overview video that my pals at Premier Guitar shot at the NAMM show last January.
As always, I’m grateful to the friends who helped make this happen, especially Miko Mader from M1, my distributor, and Tony Lott, who oversaw production at the Cusack Music facility in Michigan. In addition to displaying superhuman patience during the long development period, Miko and Tony made many suggestions that improved my original designs. Thanks also to my pal Tom Menrath, who introduced me to Miko and Tony. (Tom used to work at Vintage King, but now he’s with pro audio champs Cutting Edge Audio and Video.)
I’ve posted demo videos for each pedal here before. But I’m reposting them after the jump in case you need a memory refresher. (I certainly do!) And I couldn’t resist including a couple of brag-worthy quotes from some of my early adopters. Thank you all!
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.:)
I’ve been using my Carr Skylark amp incessantly for the last 18 months or so. I’d originally reviewed it for Premier Guitar magazine, and then I bought one for myself. I dig the fact that, while Skylark is inspired by 1960s Fender amps, builder Steve Carr made numerous departures from the Fullerton template. To my ear Skylark sounds better than my ’60s originals. That’s especially true of its re-voiced tone stack, where the ranges are smaller and subtler than on vintage Fenders, with more of a Matchless-style “no bad settings” sensibility.
For better or worse, history repeated itself earlier this year when I reviewed Carr’s Lincoln in PG. Lincoln is to Vox what Carr is to Fender — not a clone, but vintage-inspired model with its own character and unique twists. Its dual EL-84 architecture makes it a cousin of the AC-15. But I think of it more as a “fantasia on a theme by Vox.” It’s captures the Vox qualities I dig, minus the ones that can make dealing with vintage Voxes a major drag.
Skylark features true point-to-point wiring, with no circuit or turret board. (Lincoln, however, uses bits of circuit board for non-audio functions such as channel-switching.)
If you’ve listened to many of my videos and demo clips from the last year or so, you’ve heard these amps, so I figured I’d focus on them. For tech details, see the reviews. This video is more about how the amps inspire me musically.
From their flawless cabinetry to their ravishing tones, these amps are simply stunning. Cheap, they ain’t, but I felt like I was (RATIONALIZATION ALERT!) investing in musical art. Or maybe I’m making up for not buying a Trainwreck amp back in the ’90s when they were affordable.
I especially love how these Carr amps sound with my flatwound-strung guitars, and I used them on most of the demos for my pedals because they’re so very flattering. Ironically, I thought I’d given up buying new amps, because I was having so much fun building from kits. But trust me — both these instruments sound way better than any of my kit amps. Have a listen!
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.