Mini-Humbuckers vs. Firebird Pickups: A Head-to-Head Comparison

Man, I’ve been wanting to do this experiment for ages — and largely because it’s been a black hole off ignorance for me. As mentioned in the video, I used to think they were the same pickup. But as you can hear, they’re quite distinct, and the differences are far from subtle.

Polly’s Firebird is a 1960s original.

Until now I’ve never owned a guitar with either pickup type. My chief experience with mini-humbuckers was when I demoed a set in this sane Strat for my Strat replacement pickups comparison. I liked them there as well, though I was using a set of Seymour Duncans, while these are Lollars. (I’d be cautious about making tone comparisons, since the two videos were recorded using very different tone chains.)

Annie Clark designed her own signature guitar.

I once played Polly Harvey’s original reverse Firebird on a gig, and I wasn’t that blown away at the time. (Though there were many other variables at play.) But I adored the way the Firebird pickups in Annie Clark’s Musicman St. Vincent model sounded, and I gave the instrument a rave review for Premier Guitar. I was struck then, as now, by their extraordinary dynamic response. Small variations in touch yield big tonal contrasts. My hope was that they’d sound like Fender pickups on steroids in a Strat, and to my ear, they do. (By “steroids,” I don’t mean high output — I generally recoil from extra-hot Strat pickups. Tones are simply fatter without neutering the high end as super-hot single coils tend to do.

I liked both pickups sets a great deal, but the Firebirds are a better match for my fingerstyle playing. What do you think?

Southern California Master Class Featuring Me and Adam Levy

Adam Levy, looking like the 6-stirng zen master that he is.

My friend Adam Levy and I had an incredible time co-leading our first master class/workshop here in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago. Now we’ve just announced another event in Los Angeles for Sunday, August 26th, 2018. Details here. Please join us, SoCal pals!

The students at our San Francisco workshop couldn’t have been cooler. Skill levels varied, but everyone was super enthusiastic and quick to comprehend the topics. Judging by some of their comments, they seem to have dug the experience:

“Wonderful class — so worthwhile. Lots to process and apply!”

“It was so fantastic that I found myself looking at my watch a few times and thinking that it was all going too fast—just like a great jam session! Thank you both a thousand times over for such a lovely and inspiring musical event. I feel like you both gave me inspiration and practice material to last at least the next few years.”

“I had a blast and the workshop totally delivered as promised. Thanks.”

“Really inspiring, and tons to process and work on. Thanks so much, both of you!

“I left feeling really glad that I signed up and got the the opportunity to not only learn from musical guitar legends as yourselves, but also just be able to spend time talking to you and other guitar players. That vibe and energy in itself is really cool. I would definitely sign up for another class like this in the future!”

Plus, I always learn volumes by watching Adam teach. He is so calm and reassuring, with an amazing knack for making difficult goals seem attainable. (Note to self: more laid-back, less “squirrel on meth.”)

This was my first return to face-to-face teaching in many years. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, and yeah, I was nervous. But it was everything I’d hoped it would be and more.

Hope to see you in August. And oh — there’s a discount for students who sign up by the end of July. 🙂

Introducing the Screech!

Yay! The first 100 Screech pedals just got into stock at Vintage King. Again, the very first production model went to Blake Mills. He immediately started doing thing I didn’t even know it could do. Damn.

Here’s the info from the product page at gorepedals.com. Pardon then obnoxious use of the third-person.

OVERTONE OVERDOSE
The Joe Gore Screech is descended from vintage octave fuzzes like the Ampeg Scrambler and Dan Armstrong Green Ringer, but it’s not a clone. It provides much clearer octave overtones, and you don’t need an extra booster for great results.

Most octave fuzzes work best when you play near the 12th fret using the neck pickup. But Screech provides potent octaves regardless of neck position or pickup setting. It also does fine non-octave fuzz. A common mod for octave fuzzes is to add a switch that switches of the diodes, removing the octave effect. The problem is, the resulting sound is dull as dirt. Here, though, though non-octave fuzz is sufficiently fiery and dynamic to stand on its own.

Unlike most things Joe Gore makes, Screech is not especially dynamic. It needs consistently heavy gain for its powerful octave effects. But as on many vintage octave fuzzes, you get freaky harmonics and other interesting noises when you lower your guitar’s volume control.

Screech runs on standard 9-volt batteries or power supplies. It was created in San Francisco by Joe Gore and is built in Michigan by skilled craftspeople paid a fair wage. It comes with a lifetime warranty.

TO USE: The single knob is a master volume. (There’s no gain control because this circuit demands high gain to generate such strong octaves.) When you hit the DIST footswitch without the octave (OCT) engaged, the LED glows red. With the octave on, the light is yellow. (You can’t use the octave section without DIST activated.)

When Screech is bypassed, you can specify whether the octave will be engaged when you activate the pedal. If the LED glows green, the octave will be engaged when you hit DIST. If the LED isn’t glowing, you’ll get non-octave fuzz when you step on DIST.

BACKGROUND INFO FOR PEDAL GEEKS: Here’s an article and video I put together a few years ago, demonstrating all the classic octave fuzz circuits. Toward the end I show an early prototype of the circuit that would become Screech. It’s evolved since then, so don’t consider this a proper demo. It’s just some amusing pedal geekery. 🙂

Fishman Fluence Strat Pickups

I’ve been following the story of Fishman Fluence pickups and their radical pickup design for a few years. From the beginning, I’ve thought Fluence pickups sounded great in the hands of some other guitarist, but this is the first chance I’ve had to experiment with my own set.

Most of the tech details are in the video. But in brief: These are active pickups with magnets, but no wire coils. Instead, the “coils” are printed on thin pieces of circuit board glued together like plywood. This design removes all noise and hum — chances are these are the quietest single-coil-sounding you’ll find. (Fishman also makes humbuckers and Tele pickups.) They can run on 9-volt batteries or (this is the other interesting part) a separately sold battery pack that replaces the trem cavity back plate. (There are other battery configurations for other guitars.) Another marquee feature: Each Fluence set includes a push/pull pot to switch between vintage voicing and a hotter “modern” sound.

This technology originated at an aerospace company. Someone there realized that their printed coils might work on musical instruments, and they contacted a leading pickup manufacture, who passed on the idea. Next it went to Larry Fishman, who was all over it from the get-go. He refined the idea and came up with lots of clever engineering to make it work in guitars. [DISCLAIMER: I have been paid in the past as a freelance contributor to Fishman products, but no one paid me to post this.]

To my ear these sound perfectly authentic, though the fact that they’re active is problematic for me personally. (That’s because I use so many retro stompboxes that don’t play well with the active pickups, which are buffered. The same goes for most of the pedals I sell.)

Killer, indeed!

While installing this in my much-abused MIM Strat, I also added a heavyweight bridge, trem block, and claw from Killer Guitar Components. I’m not kidding when I say “heavyweight” — it’s a formidable piece of metal, beautifully tooled. It feels like a major improvement on the standard design, and I think it sounds great as well (though it’s hard to be definitive about that without side-by-side comparisons). My favorite feature is the way the string inserts are chamfered — strings pop in correctly every time, which. as any Strat player can tell you, it not always the case. Killer, indeed!

Oink You Very Much: Meet the Porkolator!

It was a longer and harder process than I’d ever imagined, but the first of my four new pedals is finally released and in stock now at Vintage King.

Here’s my product demo:

And here’s a just-posted “First Look” video from John Bohlinger at Premier Guitar:

Man, it’s always such a trip when you tinker with an effect and play it in isolation for years, and then hear it being played by someone else. But I couldn’t be luckier: The first person who ever played one beside me was the stupefyingly talented Blake Mills. (He dug it, and he got the very first production model). And now, another performance by another of my favorite players. Pinch me!

There’s lots more info about Porkolator on the Joe Gore Pedals product page. As I explain, this is a highly mutated version of a circuit that was pretty bizarre to begin with: the Interfax Harmonic Percolator. There is so much bad info about the original pedal floating around. Everyone seems use a couple of phrases over and over: “tube-like” and “even-order harmonics.” Wrong and wrong! Everyone’s just copying something (incorrect) they read somewhere else.

A few years ago, I did a story on the Harmonic Percolator and its boutique DIY spinoffs. Even if you don’t especially dig the pedal, it’s an interesting study in how an effect gets tweaked and modernized. Here’s the accompanying video.

At the end I demonstrate an early version or Porkolator, though it’s changed so much that you can’t really compare. I gave this original to famous drummer and not-as-famous guitar player Matt Chamberlin during a film score session. Like many of my hand-built prototypes, it promptly broke. Fortunately, the new ones are built by the talented professional at Cusack Music. I just designed the damn things.

True Guit! A Master Class with Joe Gore & Adam Levy

On Saturday, July 7th, 2018 I will be co-hosting True Guit, a day-long guitar workshop, with my friend Adam Levy at the Blue Bear School of Music in San Francisco.
You can find all the needed details — including cost — at trueguit.com.

I’ve been contemplating such a return to teaching for several years. I taught professionally from ages 13 to 29, but gave it up when I first became a Guitar Player editor. Until I got the editor gig, I’d never filled out a W-2 in my life! (Jim Campilongo, then a fellow San Franciscan, inherited my teaching practice.)

I’ve written many instructional articles in the ensuing years, so I suppose I was a sort of “guitar teacher to the masses.” But I’ve been aching to return to face-to-face contact with students. (It’s in my blood — my parents were both educators.)

Adam Levy: Scholar, gentleman, and world-class guitar educator.

And man, what an honor to collaborate with Adam on True Guit! You may know Adam’s work with Tracy Chapman, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Ani Di Franco, and on his many fine solo albums. Or you might have read the lessons and interviews he’s contributed to all the leading guitar magazines. Not all great players are great teachers, but Adam is brilliant on both fronts. He has profound musical wisdom and a well-honed knack for communicating it clearly. Plus his calm, Zen-like demeanor is a great antidote to my twitchy bursts of neurotic energy.

I had a blast last year conducting master classes for Adam’s students at the Los Angeles College of Music. But this will be the first time we’ve taught side by side, and we plan to make a habit of it.

If you plan to be near San Francisco this summer — or would just like to be — please consider joining us. You’ll be able to hang out in one of the world’s most exciting cities and escape vicious July heat. (Our summers are famously overcast. Sadly, Mark Twain never actually said, “The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco.” But let’s just pretend he did.)

Telecaster Deluxe Variations: Six Pickups and Some Weird Wiring

Fender’s Telecaster Deluxe has had an interesting and checkered history. Once regarded as yet another mediocre product from the company’s era of CBS ownership, these turn-of-the-seventies instruments now fetch huge prices on the collector’s market. I’ve never owned own. But when singer/songwriter Greer Sinclair loaned me one of Fender’s 2010 reissues, it was time for research — and experimentation.

The made-in-Mexico 1972 Deluxe reissue is a cool guitar. It replicates many details of the original: the oversized headstock, the Strat-like belly cut and fixed Strat-style bridge, and the big-ass pickguard. But its pickups are definitely a departure. In lieu of the original’s large-format “Wide Range” pickups, it employs a P-94R (a humbucker-sized P-90 spinoff) at the neck, and a conventional Gibson-style humbucker at the bridge.

The Wide Range pickup was a unique beast. Fender had commissioned Seth Lover, the man who invented the Gibson humbucker, to create a Fender humbucker in hopes of cashing in on the growing popularity of hard rock. With DC resistance in the 10k range, the new Wide Range pickup was a bit hotter than a vintage Gibson humbucker. Wide Range pickups appeared in several of the era’s models, including the Tele Thinline, Tele Custom, and semi-hollowbody Starcaster.

Gibson humbuckers have a bar magnet within, but the pole pieces are not magnetic. But on Wide Range pickups, the pole pieces are magnetic, as on Fender’s single-coil pickups. Situating individual magnets closer to the strings yield a brighter sound with greater note defition and string-to-string separation — characteristics we associate with vintage Fender pickups. So the Wide Range pickup lent a uniquely “Fender” twist to the Gibson design.

Wide Range pickups are slightly larger than conventional humbuckers. Most of Fender’s circa-1970 Tele reissues substitute generic humbuckers of the standard size. Standard humbuckers can sound superb in a Tele, but they’re horses of different colors. Fender has also created some reissues with the larger-sized pickups, but these are also garden-variety humbuckers — the larger format is purely cosmetic. The pole pieces of the factory humbucker on Greer’s guitar don’t align with Fender’s wider string spacing. (But one thing I’ve leaned from my various Fender/Gibson hybrid experiments is that sonically, this can matter very little.)

The P-94R’s cream-colored top looks wicked against the guitar’s finish. It’s a warm, full-sounding pickup from the mellower side of the P-90 spectrum. Actually, it doesn’t sound all the different from a traditional Telecaster neck pickup. (Like that pickup, it works quite well for jazz.) Note, though, that its dimensions differs substantially from those of a Gibson P-90, as you can the in the photo where it sits alongside a historically accurate Lollar P-90. When you change the size of a pickup’s components, you inevitably alter the sound. The tones can be for better or worse — but they will be different.

MORE→

Gore Pedals in Guitar Player Magazine

Well, this is an honor! Guitar Player magazine’s Mike Molenda profiled me and my Gore Pedals line in the magazine’s May 2018 issue. (It’s their annual pedals extravaganza, with good ol’ Adrian Belew on the cover.)

You can read the piece here.

I owe Mike a big thanks, and not only for this story and other kind things he and his colleagues have written about my work. (Just last month Mike singled out my upcoming Cult Germanium Channel and Purr Vibrato pedals as NAMM 2018 highlights.) Mike and his GP colleagues were one of the first audiences for my DIY pedals when I first picked up the soldering iron a decade ago, long before I’d gone commercial. Their initial enthusiasm was a much-needed shot in the arm for a nervous neophyte. Mike was one of the first players to add some of my sketchy gizmos to his gigging pedalboard.

Thanks, too, to staff photographer Paul Haggard, who somehow managed to make it look like I know what I’m doing at the bench. When Paul came by for the shoot, we reminisced about how he was my very first connection to the magazine. I knew Paul’s brother, brilliant guitarist Mark “Mirv” Haggard, from the 1980’s San Francisco punk-funk scene, where he played with the Limbomaniacs and M.I.R.V. Pushing 30 and desperate for work, I contacted Mirv’s brother, Paul, who worked for one of GP‘s sister publications. He connected me to the late Tom Wheeler, who eventually hired and mentored me. (Thanks yet again, Paul!)

It’s been a long time since I contributed to Guitar Player, yet the magazine has always been an important part of my life for 30 years. Today, both the print and music industries are shadows of their former selves, and it’s far harder to sustain a guitar mag than it was when I was on staff. Ad revenue is lower and corporate support is weaker. We had it so easy in comparison! Yet Mike, Paul, and Art Thompson have done heroic work in this often hostile environment, putting out quality issues month after month. I’m so proud to be part of their latest effort.

Indispensable DIY Tool

UPIf you build pedals, you REALLY want this $41 tool.

UPDATE: A Facebook friend of mine found the same tool on eBay for $25.49.

Jon Cusack — the pedal builder, not the actor — recently turned me on to one of the best DIY tools I’ve ever owned: The Multi-Function Tester TC1.

Jon’s Michigan shop manufactures  the pedals I design. He and I were trying to pinpoint the optimal gain for the germanium transistors in two of the new pedals I’m about to release.

I’d been using a multimeter to test gain, which is measured in terms of hFE. An old germanium transistor might have hFE of 50 or less, while a hot silicon Darlington transistor such as an MPSA13 might check in at hFE = 5,000. As you can imagine, it’s a crucial measurement for any stompbox that employs transistors.

But like many before me, I encountered two big problems. First, most multimeters don’t have an hFE function. (To make such measurements, the device needs a trio of sockets so you can plug in the transistor’s three legs.) It’s not a matter of cost. In fact, most high-end multimeters, such as the Fluke models  whose prices start at well over $100, omit the function. (To be fair, we’re talking about antique transistor technology, which is pretty much extinct in most modern electronics.) You’re likelier to find an hFE tool on cheaper, more obscure models. So I’d been using bunch of cheap-ass Chinese multimeters just to measure hFE.

But there’s another problem: Those multimeter hFE testers are notorious for their inaccuracy. They’re especially prone to overstating the actual gain. They’re not quite useless, but they’re close.

Jon recommended the TC1 ($41.50), which apparently is only available via eBay in the US. And it’s more useful than I could have imagined.

First off, it gives accurate hFE readings within a hundredth of an hFE unit. It works with silicon and germanium BJTs, FETS, JFETS, and MOSFETS. And dig this: It doesn’t matter which way you orient the pins — it knows which leg is which, so no more  jumping online to verify the pinout of a particular part.

Check out the photo: The LCD image tells me that the pin in socket 3 is the collector. Had I inserted it the transistor the other way around, the collector would be marked with a 1. Better still, it also works with resistors, capacitors, and diodes. You don’t even have to switch metering functions, as on a  multimeter. Just pop in the part, secure it with the clamp, and TC1 does the rest.

Trust me — if you work with transistors, resistors, caps, and diodes, you want this tool. Now I seldom use my crappy multimeter unless I need its continuity (“beeper”) tool.

Thanks for the excellent tip, Jon! 🙂

Tom Wheeler, R.I.P.

I just learned that longtime Guitar Player magazine editor Tom Wheeler has died. No details have been disclosed yet. [UPDATE: Apparently Tom succumbed to a heart attack while leaving a family gathering.]

Tom not only gave me my first job in guitar journalism — he gave me my first proper job ever. When he hired me as an assistant editor in 1988, I filled out my first W-2 form. Before that I was a deadbeat musician, music teacher, and student.

Many will talk about Tom’ titanic influence in the not-so-titanic world of guitar. He shepherded Guitar Player magazine through its most successful years. His The Guitar Book was the era’s standard reference for players and teachers. (My copy was worn out by the time I met Tom.) He joined the staff in 1977, and was head honcho from 1981 to 1991, when he left to assume a journalism professorship at the University of Oregon.

Tom was the finest mentor any young writer/editor could have wished for. (Well, so was then-senior editor Jas Obrecht, who is very much alive, well, and busy writing important music history books. So I was blessed with the two best mentors imaginable.)

I first contacted Tom the year before he hired me, pitching a monthly column on world music called Global Guitar. Tom wrote me a very nice rejection letter. I tried again the following year, and he declined a second time — but invited me down to Cupertino to interview for a new assistant editor position. I took the gig and commenced the long daily commute from San Francisco to Cupertino.

Tom took me under his wing in a big way. He gave me the opportunity to write a cover story my very first month (with the wise and wonderful Vernon Reid). He finally launched Global Guitar. And he was highly receptive to my story pitches and other editorial ideas.

Tom showed me the editing and publishing ropes with inexhaustible patience. He instilled a sense of ethics that guides me to this day: Be honest. Write clearly. And never forget that you’re there to serve the readers, not the publishers or the advertisers.

I happened to arrive at an exciting moment in guitar history, probably the greatest 6-string Renaissance since the ’60s. At that point the magazine focused on shred players, fusion maestros, and classic rockers. It didn’t take any special insight for me to realize we should also include upstarts like Sonic Youth, the Cure, and the Smiths, yet that indie/alt stuff hadn’t yet been embraced by the guitar mags. But Tom accepted such pitches and assigned me cover stories on those artists and many others. Today such coverage seems like a no-brainer, but it was quite controversial at the time. I received much reader hate mail, and those stories were sometimes blamed for the mag’s declining market share. Yet Tom backed me without fail. He also let me write about funk, the avant-garde scene, and players from Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

We held our staff meetings in Tom’s office — “Wheelie’s office,” we’d say — and it was always a bloody mess. There were inevitably overflowing mail bins of yet-to-be-heard vinyl and CDs and lofty towers of magazines and loose paper. That’s not to say Tom was disorganized — he never missed deadlines and rarely displayed stress during editorial crunches. There was always just a lot of crap in his office!

I was there for the last gasp of the mag’s original vision. Founder Jim Crockett and former editor Don Menn — two other lovely, supportive guys — soon departed, and GP was sold for the first of many times. After being the only magazine of its kind for decades (and effortlessly raking in big advertising bucks) there was increasing competition from Guitar World, Guitar for the Practicing Musician, and various spinoffs. Tom chafed under the corporate scrutiny, especially when the new publisher upbraided him for being late with some bullshit corporate report while a member of Tom’s family was undergoing a serious health scare. When a chance to teach journalism arose, Tom took it, and he recommended me to assume his role. (I didn’t really, literally or figuratively. We crafted a sort of halfway editor gig with Keyboard’s Dom Milano as publisher, which I held for a few years till I left to focus on playing.) Tom’s parting gift was a copyediting manual I have to this day.

It’s no secret that Tom really loved guitar. In fact, his most lasting contributions to the field may be the hefty tomes he authored after quitting GP. He’d always pause his work to check out whatever gear was passing through, and he played with the enthusiasm of a kid newly hooked on the instrument. Me, I have a neurotic love/hate relationship with the guitar and its players. Tom just reveled in all of it, in the purest possible way.

What I remember most about Tom, though, was his kindness. He was just plain nice! I remember one time when our newly hired NYC editor, Matt Resnicoff, was visiting. Matt, who had previously worked for Guitar World, was flabbergasted to witness Tom take a call from a random reader who wanted to ask about some arcane gear detail. “Whenever someone like that calls Guitar World,” Matt said. ”Our editor tells the receptionist, ‘Tell ’em to blow! We’re not a fucking information service.’”

I saw Tom a few times after he left. I’d run into him often at NAMM shows, and if I could drag him away from his admirers, we’d grab a sandwich. And I’d give him a ring whenever I played near Eugene. One time he came to an Oranj Symphonette gig with his local guitar buddy, Bill “Zoot Horn Rollo” Harkleroad of Capt. Beefheart fame. I was so nervous!

But whenever I think of Wheelie, I visualize one specific image: Tom, head down at his desk amid stacks of yet-to-be-processed paper, concentrating on an edit or page proof. (He was a great proofreader.) No matter how deeply focused he was, if you tapped on his door, he would pause, look you directly in the eye, and flash that all-American Tom Sawyer grin, his eyes sparkling exactly as in this photo. He’s not putting on that expression for the camera — he usually looked like that!

Later, when I briefly occupied the corner office, I would attempt to emulate him. I mean that literally: I’d think, “Pause, look up, eye contact, big smile.” But I never mastered the skill like Tom. He was a natural.

Farewell, my role model and mentor. You always were and will always be an inspiration, and I know that countless other players, craftspeople, readers, and writers feel the same. I am eternally grateful for your passion, wisdom, generosity, and kindness.