NAMM I Am

I has a sign.

Is anyone attending the 2017 NAMM thing next week in Anaheim? I’ll be there demoing my pedals and checking out the latest guitars and gizmos. If you’re there, stop by and say hi! I’ll be at booth #6820 in Hall A (that is, the pro audio room where guitarists fear to tread) with M1, my distributor (and sister company of my partners, Vintage King). I’ll be playing and talking about my stuff, and there will also be headphone stations where you can try them out for yourself.

The headphone rigs are newfangled Valvulators from Fryette Amplification. These are cool 1-watt tube amps for direct recording, with amp-style controls plus speaker emulations. There will also be a set of my pedals at Fryette’s booth, #4844 in guitar-intensive Hall C.

After writing about other people’s gear for so many years, it’s still difficult for me to wrap my head around the notion that I’m attending the show as a manufacturer, not a “journalist.” But I just completed a key manufacturer’s rite of passage: I order a 24″ x 80″ retractable sign hyping my boxes, just so I can stand in its shadow. It feels so … grown-up.

I’m not officially announcing our 2017 releases ’cause we’re not 100% what they’ll be yet. But I will be bringing a box full of experiments and prototypes, which should be amusing, assuming my sketchy demo builds survive the road trip. I’m also bringing a couple of new DIY guitars that I haven’t shared here yet.

I’m not really up to speed yet on what new gear to expect, so I haven’t yet put together a must-see list. Is there anything you are particularly eager to check out? Anything I should know about? Thanks in advance for your tips!

Ten Unusual Strat Pickups Tested

I should have been out buying nice presents for you all. Instead I sat around inhaling solder fumes. When the smoke cleared (mostly, anyway) I’d tested ten unusual Strat pickups in the same poor guitar.

Tested pickups sets:

Jason Lollar Gold Foils
Lindy Fralin Big Singles
Seymour Duncan Antiquity II Mini-Humbuckers
Jason Lollar Staple/P-90 set
Allparts Gold Foils

Verdicts? I dig them all, and not just ’cause I’m too polite/chicken to say otherwise.

I love the Lollar Gold Foils so much I’m assembling a new parts guitar to surround them. I’m going to keep the Fralin Big Singles in the demo Strat, at least till the next Mongrel Strat Project. I’m going to try putting the mini-humbuckers in a “parts” Tele at some point. I originally reviewed the Lollar P-90 set for Premier Guitar (where I evaluated them the “right” way: in a Gibson guitar), so they go back to manufacturer, though I’d sure like to own a set someday. Meanwhile, the Allparts set isn’t in the same league as its high-end competitors, but at a mere $30 per pickup, it costs about 1/4 the price of its expensive rivals. You could definitely do a lot of lo-fi damage with a pair of these surprisingly solid-sounding pickups!

This article joins the long list of experiments in the Mongrel Strat Project archive.

And how about you? Have you but stuffing any pickups into places where they don’t belong? Maybe that’s why Santa left you sucky presents this year.

You Go, Gill!

My friend John Bohlinger from Premier Guitar just shot a Rig Rundown video with one of my utmost guitar heroes, Andy Gill.

I’ve rhapsodized about Gill’s guitar voice more times than I can count. But the aspect of his playing that I love the most is the way he created such a definitive voice with zero reference to prior rock and blues. If I’d ever worked at Art Forum like my wife did, I could probably draw comparisons to Luigi Russolo’s futurism and Jean Dubuffet’s art brut, but really, I just dig Gill’s blunt, brutal badass-ness.

The big surprise for me in this interview: These days Gill plays through a laptop running Logic, and he’s using some of the stuff that I helped make while sound-designing guitar components for Apple. This news makes my year (though given the year we’ve all been through, walking to the corner store without breaking my ankle would probably also make my year).

Nice work, JB! And thanks, Andy, for the endless inspiration since 1979’s Entertainment!

“Surf’s Up” for Guitar Quartet

I’ve been nursing the idea of arranging this most exquisite of Brian Wilson songs for multiple guitars for a long time. But two recent developments spurred me to finally do it.

Spirit of ’67
The first was my plan to record my first-ever solo album — a collection of heavily reinterpreted songs from 1967, tentatively titled Sixty-Seven Ghosts, marking the 50th anniversary of that memorable musical year. I was eight years old then, too young to play the music, but old enough that the music’s “ghosts crowded the young child’s fragile eggshell mind.” (I quote Jim Morrison, one of many crucial artists who debuted in that year.)

When I started playing music seriously a few years later, I had a sense that I’d missed the party, and that the music of ’67 was simply more meaningful than my early-’70s middle-school soundtrack. (I was wrong, of course. Subsequent decades have proven that if anything, the first years of the new decade produced at least as much great stuff. Yet 1967 had a mythic aura for me, and much of that year’s music has pursued me for a half-century.)

I wasn’t hip to “Surf’s Up” till those middle-school years, when the Beach Boys belatedly included the track on their 1971 album of the same title. The FM radio hits from that disc were “Long Promised Road” and “Feel Flows” — “Surf’s Up” was simply the record’s quirky coda. A few years later I discovered “Surf’s Up” lyricist Van Dyke Parks’ solo albums, with their similarly surreal lyrics and left-field song structures.

The Smile Mythos
But I had no inkling of the song’s true provenance till some 20 years later, when pop fans began to grow obsessed with Pet Sounds and its “follow-up that never was,” Smile. Only then did I learn that “Surf’s Up” was originally from ’67, the intended centerpiece for that literally legendary album. By then we all knew the Brain Wilson crackup story, with its echoes of Greek tragedy. He’d held the music of the gods in the palm of his hand — so legend had it — only to have it ripped away by demons of self-doubt. Madness and self-destruction ensued.

My personal Smile mythology was heavily influenced by Lewis Shiner’s 1993 novel Glimpses (which I wrote about here). In it, a modern music fan realizes he can go back in time to the moments when great musical masterpieces were lost. (Sounds silly, but trust me — it’s not.) The highlight for me was the Wilson sequence, where our protagonist meets Brian at his peak moment of genius and fragility, right before everything went off the rails. The scene where Brian played the brilliant new songs for his hater bandmates haunted me:

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Mojotone British 45 Kit

I almost always play small combo amps of 20 watts or less. But I wanted something with a bit more clean headroom for a possible upcoming project — and to demo my stompboxes. I’ve always enjoyed playing JTM-45s when I’ve reviewed them for guitar mags, so I ordered Monotone’s British 45 kit.

I’d previously had a great experience building Mojotone’s Marshall 18 watt clone kit when I reviewed it for Premier Guitar a couple of years ago. It turned out great, and I use it regularly.

Mojotone provides high quality parts, nearly labelled and organized in plastic compartmented boxes. But beware: The company provides no build instructions — just a layout diagram and a schematic. You need amp building experience or help from an expert. Click play for a slideshow about he build:

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This is Mojotone's new offset head cabinet. (The amp chassis first in other Mojotone cabinets as well.)

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The two power tubes can be either EL-34s or KT-66s. (I chose the latter, just for a new experience.)

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The parts come neatly labeled and organized in plastic bins — a BIG help!

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Warning: the kit includes no build instructions — just this layout diagram and a schematic.

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I ALMOST managed to assemble it, but I needed a rescue at the end. (Thanks to Bruce Clement of BC Audio, a brilliant boutique builder here in San Francisco.)

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Mojotone supplies their own branded transformers (which sound fab).

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It's a turret board build. (The board and turrets are pre-made, as opposed to some kits, which require you to insert the turrets yourself.)

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This is probably not a good first build — maybe start with a nice little tweed Champ kit?

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The a plexi faceplate, which I left omitted. I also substituted my own knobs.

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I nearly made it through myself. (Translation: I soldered everything together and it didn’t work.) So I had to hire Bruce Clement of BC Audio here in San Francisco to rescue me. (Bonus: Bruce loaned me one of his JTX50 heads. Man, it’s one of the best-sounding Marshall derivatives I’ve ever heard. It’s among his Octal-Plex series amps, which use octal preamp tubes in Marshall-inspired designs.)

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Born of Torn

Eff me, he’s just soooo good.

David Torn just posted a recording of a stupendous looped improv recorded with my Filth pedal. I’m speechless with admiration.

Suite ’66: Free EP by Goldenberg & Gore!

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A free EP from we to thee!

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.

And Now, a REAL Demo Artist

Thanks, Pete Thorn, for making my pedal sound so good.

Nice, Pretty Acoustic Guitar

Nicely mutated and pretty f’ed up, that is.

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.)

Tribute to Leonard Cohen

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.

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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.