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Cliplock vs. Polypro

For quite a few years, I went back and forth between DiMarzio Cliplock straps and Ernie Ball’s more traditional Polypro model. It really seems as if it varies according to where my main focus lies. If I’m more about practicing and recording, then I don’t want those plastic things flapping about when I’m sitting down somewhere, but as soon as I spend a bit of time rehearsing or even playing live, I realize what I really need.

In the last two years, I’ve learned the hard way what happens when you don’t take something like this seriously. When I bought my blue Stratocaster, I was in no big hurry to set it up with a Cliplock, and I couldn’t even be bothered to get the little round thingies that secure a regular strap to the lug. Well, the strap came off during a rehearsal and my precious Blue crashed right down onto my pedalboard. Nothing broke. It didn’t even go out of tune. But there is an ugly scar on the back of the body, and a three-inch gash on the back of the neck where the top coat seems to have cracked somewhat. It appears to be aligned with the “skunk stripe”, the long piece of walnut that covers where the truss rod is inserted in the factory. Luckily, my regular hand position is unorthodox enough that I don’t really feel it. But I know it’s there, and above all it’ll go on bothering me until I can get it to a luthier for some kind of fix.

The moral of the story is pretty easy to deduce. I can no longer afford not to get Cliplocks for any new guitars I might add to the collection. I immediately went online and bought two sets of end pieces, that went on Blue and the baritone as soon as I got the package in the mail. Probably I should get another, as a spare, in case something happens to one of my existing setups, or I get a new guitar – whichever comes first!

 
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Posted by on 14 December, 2021 in editorial, gear

 

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Setting and Instrumentation

In a recent article about the optimum number of guitars, I touched upon a process that had the – at the time – other two guys in GNH basically vote me in as the vocalist. I prefer not to say singer. I can carry a tune. I am especially fond of the image of myself as a guitar player slash singer, first singing the butt off the crowd and then kicking in my SD-1 to play an amazing solo. But I just don’t think my voice is good enough. I am lazy enough to not want to put in all the work that that would entail, and unsure enough of my potential that I wouldn’t know if I could ever get to the level of, say, Gary Moore. One of the curses of having done this guitar playing thing for a long time is that the dreary spadework is far, far behind me – far enough that I can’t really remember it, which makes it natural for me to just assume that I came into the world being able to play the guitar this way. I guess that this means that I’ve given up before ascertaining whether or not I could do it. But there is plenty of stuff I can do instead of putting in the time and work to get good at singing: practicing the guitar, songwriting, production, lyric-writing, marketing, and so on.

Once again, I feel a tip of the hat is in order, in the general direction of my bass-playing friend Mr. Mats, as it was basically his idea that I sing so that we could remain a trio. I have been enamored of the idea of a power trio since I first heard the term. Back when I was a kid who knew nothing about music and bands, I would leaf through music magazines and see those glamour shots of groups. Some of them were big bands of five or six people, others were just two or three. So I asked my dad, who had been in a band during the sixties, what’s the minimum amount? I mean, how many does it take to be a full band? His reply came with rehearsed precision: three. Guitar, bass and drums, and then at least one of you has got to combine that with vocals. I took that to heart, and it has never really left me. The power trio is a powerful ideal that I’ve always striven to try to live up to. There are several in my list of influences: Rush, Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Not to mention other cool bands I enjoy, such as Muse, The Police and Green Day, just to take three examples. If you want to expand on the formula and add power trio plus vocalist, then there’s Black Sabbath, The Who and the Red Hot Chili Peppers on my personal list. Led Zeppelin might be the most obvious addition if you are like that. And of course now GNH has to be added to that illustrious list.

I’ve always resisted adding more members to my various bands. Why on earth would you want to be more people than the absolutely required minimum? There are very likely those who would accuse me of being opposed to a second guitar player on general principle, just as there are people who are surprised that I enjoy certain albums because they had the impression that I was anti-keyboards. I am not anti anything. I am pro-power trios. There are immediate and obvious benefits to having a second guitar player in almost any kind of band. Not only do you get the immense power of two people doubling the same riff, there is also an entire world of textures you can explore by playing in counterpoint, in different registers, in harmony, out of harmony, whatever. I have played with a second guitar player on several occasions and I’ve always been able to make it work. However, that’s been because I’ve found myself in a situation where I don’t really have a choice. If I do have a choice, then I would much rather bring in a ballerina or a guy who plays the bagpipes than another guitarist.

This has nothing to do with ego, at least not anymore. It has everything to do with the fact that that second guitar player adds a new dimension of technical difficulties. How do I stay out of their way when they want to play a lead or some kind of melody, or the other way around. Do we use pedals, or just trust our ability to hang back and play a bit more subdued? It is much the same, yet different, with a keyboard player. I have no pathological hatred against keyboards. Quite the reverse, a lot of my favorite bands have either featured them as part of their standard lineup, or have had them as part and parcel of their studio or stage setup to the point where the impact of the songs is impossible to separate from the prevalence of keyboard instruments. There are very few bands in my personal top 20 that at least haven’t made keyboards a major part of at least one of their greatest albums, even if they haven’t had a dedicated keyboard player.

‘The issue I’ve had throughout the years is that I’ve never been able to play with a creative keyboard player who can just figure out their parts as they go along. I always have to show them stuff and make decisions for them: what sound they should use, what key they are in, what they should play, as if they don’t have ears, let alone instincts. It’s been an undue distraction when I’d rather spend my time on energy on what I should play, write, arrange, or whatever.

The more incisive point, taking all this together, is that I’ve always been way more stimulated by the challenges offered by a sparse instrumentation than a rich one. Part and parcel of the entire power trio deal is that everyone has to be really good and play a lot, in order to fill out the sonic space. That’s always been an incentive that’s felt one hell of a lot nicer and more stimulating to me than having a big band and carefully working out parts so as not to get in the way of each other.

Another thing that has only recently become a major point to me is that the fewer people you are in a band, the easier it gets to coordinate a rehearsal schedule. I thought it was complex as it was before we got our new bass player and singer in GNH. WIth the advent of the singer, it’s got an order of magnitude more complicated to get a rehearsal together. I could imagine how hard it’d be to bring in a fifth member into the band. Unless that person was all about the music and didn’t have much in the way of a life, I could imagine that it would be a nightmare.

 
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Posted by on 13 December, 2021 in band stuff, editorial

 

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Leave it to the pros, part 2

My hard rock band GNH is not even a week away from a long weekend in the studio. The studio in question is located in the town of Strömstad, which is on the Swedish west coast, about 100 miles north of Gothenburg. The place provides sleeping quarters and a kitchen, so it’s basically the boys away camping and playing rock n roll for three days. It’s brought up a whole lot of thoughts and reflections about my career in and out of recording studios.

First and foremost, I have to take my hat off to my bass player Mats, for persisting and making sure that we really got around to booking a studio date during 2021. If it had been up to me, I would probably have demurred and postponed until May, 2022 or so. I don’t really know what I would have been waiting for, perhaps just that better moment, that didn’t come, as the song goes. The song also says that there never will be a better moment than this one, and that’s just how it’ll have to be. I don’t really know what I’m all that apprehensive about, really. I don’t know if it was something I read in an interview or wisdom I somehow managed to pick up on my own, but a recording is just a record of how a song sounds right now. It is forevermore a work in progress; what you do when recording is like a photograph, capturing a slice in time. If it changes, then it changes, and then that’s your new reality. Some bands take the time to reissue songs in new versions to reflect what they’ve learned since they made the original. Others just issue live album after live album, because maybe this version of Run to the Hills is the definitive one. But I digress.

If my count is correct, this will be the tenth time I’m in a professional recording studio. My mind is just about made up about which guitars to bring: the PRS baritone, the Telecaster and the Les Paul Studio. Full range and three kinds of pickups, two of which are noiseless. I will also bring my big pedalboard and stock it with boost and overdrive pedals, my compressor and some other swirly stuff. The studio has a nice selection of amplifiers: a stock Marshall JCM 800, a modded ditto, a Mesa/Boogie Rectifier, a Fender Twin and a Vox AC30, and that’s just what my eyes zeroed in on.

We will be recording two songs, with the option of squeezing in a third if we’re lucky. We have prepared the third one just as well as the other two, but it’s a psychological issue at work here. I’d rather set the goal at two and succeed, than aim for three and then feel I need to rush to get that final work done on #3. I shouldn’t worry. In 2002, we nailed four songs in the same amount of time, and back then the band wasn’t nearly as experienced, and had only two people instead of four.

Why I have decided to write this article with the title I’ve given it is because of some stuff that I’ve learned the hard way in the past five years or so. In August, 2016, Namlar released the Winter album. It wasn’t the first album I’ve recorded or even released myself, but it was a bit of an ordeal and it set me thinking about what I really want out of this entire deal. For better or worse, I cut my teeth in old-school recording studios where you had microphones, a mixing desk and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. At any time I’ve been in a proper studio, every tick of the second hand has meant a quantifiable amount of kronor and ören – dollars and cents to you. At times, someone else has footed the bill, but that hasn’t given me carte blanche to cut Sergeant fucking Pepper. On the contrary, it has meant an even tighter schedule, sometimes forcing us to play the backing tracks entirely live, with the option of perhaps one pass of guitar overdubs, and then directly to vocal tracking to finish the thing in the allotted time.

The thing is, I kind of like that pressure. It’s what I grew up with. Recording Winter with my two best friends was a joy in and of itself, but it also took way longer than it needed to, explicitly because we did everything in my studio and could take just about all the time we wanted. In the end, it came down to the patience level of the individual members. It’s a trade-off, really. The limited time afforded by a professional studio means that you have to make do with the takes you can get. Working on your own equipment in your own time is different. Sure, you can take the time to make sure you get things right. But I have felt that without the pressure, it is difficult to come to a decision. Everything can wait until tomorrow. It is especially hard to impose a deadline on yourself, so as to have at least the artificial sense of that ticking clock. Sometimes, a hard deadline can really get the creative juices flowing. As I seem to remember from some Star Wars documentary, films aren’t ever really finished, they just escape. Sooner rather than later, you’re going to have to stop tweaking so you can deliver a print to the theater. Even though I haven’t exactly felt the pressure from a fan base or a record company in my day, I totally get what they mean.

More importantly, I have felt that when we go it alone and work by ourselves on my laptop and sound card, we tend to lose track of what we’re doing. So much energy is spent on managing the project, then making the really tough decisions that you need to make when mixing and mastering. It is not a coincidence that when you name-drop a great band, they tend to have the name of a record producer closely associated with them. The Beatles had Sir George Martin. Iron Maiden had Martin Birch and more recently have enlisted the services of Kevin Shirley. Rush had Terry Brown in the 70s and early 80s. Those are just the top 3 of my personal Pantheon, and the list can go on and on. When we in GNH first started talking about recording ourselves, these were the examples that I brought up. We could absolutely go it alone. Via file-sharing and hard work, the drummer and I managed to make perfectly viable demos of our then-current songs last fall and winter, live drums, Mac vs. PC and everything. We could absolutely set up everything anew and track new drums, new guitars, and then pull in the two new guys to lay down bass and vocals. I’m positive that the results would be splendid. I’m just not sure that it would be as good as it could be, and then I’m talking about the process.

Back in the day, I cut two demos and a full-length album with my former band Nox. As it’s getting to be long ago, I’m no longer sure if I was asked the question, or if it’s something my active mind has invented. But either way it’s a good question: why do you do it, or more properly, why do you spend all that time and money to record yourselves if you’re unlikely to ever earn it back? Because sometimes it’s not about the destination, but the journey. I look back on those days in Studio Fabriken as among the happiest times in my life. Yes, there were times when I was frustrated, when I felt like throwing my guitar out the window, strangling someone, or both. But on the whole, it was a positive thing. Some people pay that kind of money to go to Greece or Mallorca or the Riviera for four days in March or May. They have drinks with umbrellas in them, eat good food and swim in the Mediterranean. We go into the studio, get creative for three days and live out a rock n roll fantasy where nothing exists but the next track, the next take, the next song. I clearly remember being sprawled on the couch in the back of the control room, just thinking that I could do this every day for the rest of my life.

The thing that made the difference back then was that we had a producer. Michael would do all the technical stuff. We didn’t have to worry whether or not the mike was four or six inches from the speaker, offset or inline, how to setup a console for mixing, how to dial in a compressor, an equalizer or a reverb tank for mixing. He took care of that. More to the point, he was our George Martin, Martin Birch and Terry Brown. He was the third member of Nox, who knew enough about music to know what we were trying to do, and had enough experience and clout that he could go to great lengths to try to persuade us to try something else – or just get us to back down and accept that good enough is good enough and perfect is just an ungrateful bitch. Michael was a constant inspiration and if you ever faltered, if you ever lost sight of what you were doing and why, then he was there, and if you couldn’t be bothered to do a great take to please yourself, then at least you could pull it together to not disappoint him.

Michael is a true character and I’ll sidebar a bit about him. We soon discovered that the more polite he came off, the further you were from the mark. If you heard, “please make another take, the tape is rolling”, you knew you had fucked up big time. If the talk went, “all right, come in and listen, you big turd”, you were onto something. When you finally got into the zone, he was so colorful that what he actually said in the control room is pretty far from being fit to print (“way to go, you bleeping bleep!”). After he was done with the below-the-belt language, he would jump up from his producer’s chair and burst out into spontaneous air guitar when listening back to a particularly successful take.

Going into a studio means that you spend at least 500 crowns an hour. But it’s not just renting a room. You get the experience and know-how of a professional, or at least somebody who’s really good. That means that you can focus on the stuff that matters to you, and leave all the boring things to the producer. I spoke to a friend about it just yesterday, and we were in perfect agreement that the magical part of recording isn’t the finished product, it’s being a part of putting the song together, track by track, section by section. As soon as it’s approaching its final form, we both lose interest, and maybe that’s why it took ten months and not two weeks to record Winter. Mixing and mastering isn’t fun, it is a chore and a necessary evil that we’re genetically prone to postpone until we get tired of ourselves. I would much rather leave it in the hands of a trusted professional. They don’t really have skin in the game in the same way as we do.

I am especially excited about the fact that we’re heading out of town, and have to sleep over at the studio. It is very likely far from a five-star hotel. Our singer has already made his misgivings quite clear. Myself, I’d gladly sleep on a Pilates mat and eat cold wieners for breakfast, since I’m all about the recording and creative stuff. I think it’s awesome and excellent that we can go away and do this. There is a plethora of good recording studios in Gothenburg, but recording locally means that every afternoon or evening, we go back to the distractions of everyday life. That isn’t an option here. If not for modern appliances like the smartphone, we would really be isolated, and isolation I think breeds creativity.

 
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Posted by on 12 December, 2021 in editorial, recording

 

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Leave it to the pros

The article about the ideal number of guitars was long and comprehensive, but I was forced to leave certain ideas out of it, mostly because National Novel-Writing Month was in November, and it’s December now. Therefore, I thought I might put these thoughts in a separate article.

Many times when I’ve caught myself checking my bank account, snooping around my gear closet for stuff to sell off, poking around my midsection for organs I haven’t sold on the black market yet (by the way, my liver is next, if anybody’ll have it), there’s usually been a pretty hands-on reason for it. Of course getting a new guitar is a very desirable thing in and of itself. But sometimes, I am convinced that it hasn’t been so much about getting something new, as dissatisfaction with something I already own.

I didn’t make much of it at the time, but my grand old lady the yellow American Standard Fender Stratocaster turned 25 around Midsummer. (Grand old lady my ass – my black Les Paul is almost six years older!) The neck is stamped 28 June 1996, which doesn’t really mean anything, but it’s as close to a birthday as you can get. Just a few weeks ago was the 25th anniversary of that glorious afternoon when I went to the music store to trade in the black, spiky BC Rich Warlock. I remember well how proud I was when I walked through town afterwards with the black, molded plastic case in my hand, and how it inspired me to play, practice and create for weeks afterwards. Not long after I got home from Boston almost 12 years later I was a few nights of procrastination away from putting that guitar up for sale. The Telecaster I got at the Guitar Center on Mass Av showed me what a Fender is supposed to be like, and it wasn’t happening with Miss Vanilla. I put it away in its case just to get it out of my sight for a few months. That was the intention. Instead, I pulled it back out just a few days later, having fallen in love with it yet again. But soon after that, I found a Blackie at the music store. Not an Eric Clapton signature Strat in black, it was just an American Standard in black, and with a maple neck. It was so smooth and beautiful that I still wonder how I managed to fight back the urge to buy it on the spot. Like someone wrote in a novel a while back, it would take a credit card to pry my fingers off that guitar.

The point, that I’m finally getting to, is that I was desperately keen on a Stratocaster because mine, while beautiful and stylish, just wasn’t playing very well. It took me several years to find the perfect combination of pickups and setup that just worked. (Not to mention that I had to keep at it and get some stick time with the Fender scale length to reprogram it into my muscle memory.) Andreasson Musik (no relation) switched the pickups and got it somewhat fit for fight. But it didn’t come alive again until I took the guitar to a local luthier for a checkup. I learned something fundamental during those 20 minutes in his shop. Since the neck of a Strat is bolted solidly to the body at around the 16th fret, only the free part of the neck will bend, essentially creating a bit of a knuckle near the joint. More specifically, it creates a geometry where bent notes on the upper frets will fret out, even though it shouldn’t be technically possible given the 9.5-inch radius of the modern Strat fretboard. The original 7.25-inch radius, while purportedly comfortable for chord work, is hard enough to get humming that Fender themselves don’t offer it anymore even on their American Original (vintage reissue) series. Åke Björnstad was able to sand down and crown the fretwire enough on the top 10 or so frets that the problem just disappeared. Before, it wasn’t even possible to bend from high A to high B on the top E string (17th fret) without the note dying just before reaching the target pitch. Now, I can easily reach the C and maybe even C sharp if I draw a deep breath, reinforce the bend with three fingers and think of king and country.

I’ve already written about the magic the guys at Andreasson Musik wrought on my Gibson SG five years ago. More recently, I’ve had both my Taylors at the shop for adjustment, and only a few weeks ago, I decided to bring the PRS 277 baritone in to give it a bit of love. I have been increasingly iffy about the baritone in recent years. Since Namlar has been put off indefinitely because of COVID concerns (and other things), the drummer and I started an offshoot project where we follow our proggier and wilder whims. The first project we undertook was a cover of Depeche Mode’s Waiting for the Night. Since it is in B minor (or I at the very least suggested that we should play it in that key; the actual tonality of the song is almost interesting enough to warrant its own article), I thought it would be nice and doomy to have access to that low B string for some really dark and heavy distorted power chords. I was forced to delete all those tracks, because when I put the Les Paul on the song an octave above, it was as clear as glass that the intonation was completely off. The neck on the 277 turned out to be as bent as a banana. Not only did it take a vise-like grip to fret notes on the darned thing. In order to make the string meet the fretwire, you have to pull it far enough that the sounding note is noticeably sharp. I don’t know what sort of warlock magic they work in that shop. But when the guitar came back a few weeks ago, it played so smoothly I had to reset my muscle memory. I could just flow across the strings. I had to pull my punches with the right hand, because my usual attack made the low B and E strings rattle against the frets rather unflatteringly. This was nothing less than an epiphany. I spend just about all that evening maniacally practicing on the baritone. It wasn’t just because we have a recording booked for next weekend – I had one hell of a good time! I haven’t felt like playing the guitar for a good while, and getting my baritone back into fighting shape seems to have given me new inspiration. Not only that, the whisperings I’ve been hearing about supplanting it with a seven-string just went away – poof! gone. Not that I won’t require a proper backup for when we go on stage, but it’s at least no longer a pressing issue.

Even more recently, I did the very same thing with my Les Paul 60s Tribute, the one with the soapbar pickups. I haven’t been particularly keen on that guitar for a good while now. It’s worked okay in our side project, but it is obvious that the neck is giving and the intonation is a bit off. Well, that just won’t do. So I brought it in, and sure enough: it came back a new guitar. I had been kind of annoyed that certain string and fret combinations were extra spiky. That’s just gone. (As a sidebar, I know very well that it’s an electric guitar. But I have always felt that if the unplugged tone is nice, then it’s only going to get better once you get it connected to an amp. Incidentally, legend says that David Gilmour agrees with me, so there you go.) Not to mention that the intonation is just about perfect. I have my guitar back! I picked it up on the day we were going to a GNH rehearsal, and even though I had to carry two gigbags, it was a sacrifice I was willing to make because I wanted to get a feel for how I was going to play The Silence on a regular guitar in drop-D in the studio, as opposed to busking it on the baritone the way I’ve been doing in rehearsal since June. My honeyburst P-90-equipped Les Paul is a curious case of a guitar that is kind of meh when I sit down with it at home – but which turns into a veritable beast when I plug it in. This was when the first real snowfall hit town, so two of the guys were late getting to the rehearsal, but I was fine with that, because that meant more time for me to just stand in the middle of the room and bask in the glory that is P-90 pickups. I know I bought the guitar on the strength of the sound of those pickups, especially in the middle position, into a clean amp, but that crunch sound is just something else. I can feel guilty about getting that second Les Paul, especially since I haven’t clicked with it the way I did with my first one. All of that goes away when I have a moment like I did two weeks ago. That guitar literally just rocks.

The point I’m trying to make is really twofold. Number one is that any perceived weakness with your current guitar collection can quite likely be remedied by a setup job. New strings, intonation, neck relief, string height, and so on. It might just make your instrument shine in a way that you had not anticipated, possibly warding off any impulse to get something new – at least for a little while. Number two is that if you’re in any way like me, you can change strings and that’s about it. It is well worth putting up the cash to have the guys in the store or a professional luthier do the job for you. I am fairly convinced that I could learn how to set up my own guitars. I can see how one could make an argument about being a complete guitarist, and whatnot. But there is a deep psychological thing going on here: I leave a subpar guitar at the shop, and a few days later, I can go home with a guitar that I know I’ll just love. Besides, it’s kind of cool to pretend that you’re a rock star and you’ve just got a guitar back from your trusted tech.

 
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Posted by on 11 December, 2021 in editorial, gear

 

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How many guitars do I need?

How many guitars I need depends on whether I let the left hemisphere provide the answer, or the right one. Left says “one”, whereas Right maintains that I could always use another one. The actual truth predictably enough appears to be somewhere inbetween.

I have recently become fascinated by the concept of a single guitar that can do it all. Not that I’m planning to get rid of anything, but because it is an interesting topic that cuts to the heart of how and why we guitar players are what we are.

Steve Howe of Yes is one of my all-time favorite guitar players. I discovered his magic as well as that of Yes comparatively late in life, but perhaps that was the key to it all. I only gradually realized that I’ve never been just about fretboard wizardry, but about the songwriting and how you support the song as a guitar player. Or in Steve’s own words, trying to be a better musician rather than just a better guitar player. If you listen to Yes’ classic albums from, say, between 1970 and 1974, you will hear Steve play a plethora of stringed instruments from nylon-string to electric lap-steel. He always nails the tone and he always plays the perfect thing for the section, including not playing at all if that’s what the music requires. I have seen Yes live many times on DVD and twice in person, and it’s a marvel how he switches effortlessly from electric to acoustic to lap steel within the space of one song. There is also a rainbow of various electrics, seemingly one for each individual song or at least one per album. In the light of all that, I was amazed when I watched one of those rig rundown videos where he stated matter-of-factly that his emulating Line6 gear does the job just as well as the old Fender Twins with pedals, and that he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of replacing all those guitars with just a Line6 Variax. It is close enough to the real thing for his purposes. In an age where it seems that the cork-sniffing is taking on ridiculous proportions, having one of the old guard embrace new technology without prejudice is refreshing and humbling in equal measures.

Another major influence on me during the last 20 years has been John Petrucci of Dream Theater. I have only seen him without one of his Music Man or Ibanez signature guitars once, and that was a private Youtube video where he accompanied his daughter on acoustic guitar. Not long after that, there was a feature on JP in the Taylor magazine. I’ve read several times that he’s not the sort of guy who’ll go out and buy a vintage or new Strat or Les Paul; indeed, he doesn’t even own any of them. He gets the sounds he wants out of his signature electrics, and if he isn’t satisfied, he’ll work with Music Man and DiMarzio until he is. I have tried his old signature MM as well as the new Majesty guitar. Both are excellent instruments, the latter especially so. It’s how I imagine it’s like getting into a supercar after driving a 50s Cadillac for most of your life. Again, it is interesting to consider having a guitar that can do just about all that you want. But then again, it is easy when you have the combined talents of those manufacturers behind you, and you probably get paid to play the instruments.

I have always subscribed to the idea that different guitars bring out different aspects of your playing, because features and limitations force you to do or avoid certain things. That’s been my guiding principle ever since I got back into playing Fenders in 2008. I’m as guilty as the next guy of coveting that one guitar just because it has that color, and indeed I drove halfway across the country to pick up a Strat just because it was blue and had a maple neck! That, however, was a major exception, and the rule is that every time I add a new guitar to my collection, it has to give me something new: sound, playing style and/or maybe an extended range. I guess I could be accused of being somewhat creative at times, when it comes to actively looking for new things to explore that’ll justify the purchase of a new guitar, and I’ll be the first to admit that. But there are many guitars out there and many heroes to emulate, because that’s what it’s usually about and I’m no different. There are absolutely candidates for instruments that will do most of the things I see myself needing. But I can’t go down that road. I cannot ever see myself not wanting to own a Stratocaster, a Les Paul, and so on. And now that I have absolutely perfect exemplars of those instruments I’m definitely not going to get rid of them! Therefore this turns into a hypothetical discussion at best.

Interestingly enough, I have found a slight shift in my approach to my own collection as well as very hypothetical new instruments. My preference for US-made Fenders and Gibsons is so hardwired into my consciousness that I don’t ever see myself letting go of it, but I’m also increasingly put off by the completely insane price increases they’ve rammed down our throats in the past ten years. I wouldn’t know, because I’m currently not in the market for a Gibson or a Fender, but if I were, this is as good a time as any to once and for all put that behind me and explore Fender Mexico and Epiphone. What has caused this change is likely my acquisition of two Mexican Taylors as well as a Korean PRS SE in the past seven years. Since I have been playing the guitar since before Paul Reed Smith opened his Maryland factory, obviously I couldn’t have been carrying that emotional baggage since my impressionable childhood the way I have with the two older and bigger brands. Taking the plunge as well as adding a factory-new Gibson in 2016 has convinced me that US-made is not automatically a quality mark. My Korean PRS SE runs rings around the Les Paul 60s Tribute, which I had to send back for adjustment the week after I got it. I also haven’t bonded emotionally with any of the guitars I’ve bought in the past ten years (again, the blue Strat is the exception to the rule). I play all of them and enjoy each and everyone of them tremendously, but I’m not desert-island or grab-when-the-house-is-on-fire attached to them the way I am with the Strats, the Tele and the Les Paul. I don’t know, maybe that will change over time. Maybe it’s a relationship forged in blood, or to put it less romantically, the attachment appears in full only when you’ve bonded with an instrument under the stage lights.

If I were forced to, and at the time of this writing only a medical or financial emergency could bring about that sort of drastic stunt, I could probably get by with just two of my current ten. I say two because there is no way I’d go onstage without a proper backup instrument. In such a case, I would keep the Stratocasters and if it were at all possible given the circumstances, I would outfit both with full-size humbuckers of some sort in the bridge position. Why the Stratocaster? Well, out of the 36 years I’ve been playing the guitar, there’s only been four years when I haven’t owned a Strat, and during that time I lived with my parents and had my dad’s ‘62 reissue available for when the urge struck me. It also happens to be the one model in my collection where I don’t have any issues whatsoever with the ergonomics. The change to bridge humbuckers is not something I do lightly, given how fond I am of the traditional Strat look, but it’s a concession I would need to make in order to have the instrument do everything I want to do.

If the hypothetical emergency required me to sell everything off, and I somehow survived the ordeal, I would most likely build up the new collection much the same way. But there is something to be said for the PRS Custom 24. That guitar, more specifically the SE version, has been on my to-buy list since around the time I bought my baritone, which was in the spring of 2017. I would have bought one the year after that had not life got in the way, and when we were financially stable again, I had moved on, rediscovered Fenders, and then I found the blue Strat. The Custom 24 is as good a candidate as any for my one-guitar-only concept. The scale length is halfway between a Gibson and a Fender, it has two humbuckers you can split by pulling on the tone knob, it has 24 frets and even a vibrato system should I ever want to experiment with that again. Moreover, the general PRS body and headstock layout fix the little ergonomic issues that I mentioned earlier. I would definitely like to have one, but I just can’t convince myself.

One strong reason is that I have recently found myself in the weird situation where I need a guitar that I don’t necessarily want. Ever since I bought my baritone, I’ve put it to good use. It’s on almost every song on the dormant Namlar recording project (three songs of which have been released since 2019, but only on Youtube), and since we got a new bass player and a real singer in GNH, it’s been my go-to instrument for that band. I was perfectly happy playing my Fenders in GNH, but before we found our singer, the others drafted me as a vocalist, and the only way I could fit some of the songs into my vocal range was to tune down – or switch guitars. Since our bass player turned out to be wielding a five-string, it was a no-brainer for me to bring the baritone and chug away on the low B. The songs where we made that change just came alive as a result, so we kept them in B minor even after finding a proper tenor, who would definitely have been able to sing them in E minor. I didn’t want to schlep two guitars all over town, and therefore I decided to make do with the baritone. Most of the time it works fine, but there are times when I feel a little handicapped by the lack of that top E string, not so much for the screaming leads as for a bit less stretchy chord voicings. Hence, the idea surfaced to revisit the concept of a seven-string. That way, I get the best of both worlds, and I can keep the baritone as a backup and for when I really need the oomph of a guitar that is optimized for the lower register. The only drawback is that I’m not more comfortable with that extra string now than I was four-plus years ago. But I have decided that it can be worked around by putting in those extra hours of practice. It’s not as if I have genuine experience with seven-string guitars – five minutes noodling on one in a guitar store every five years or so cannot possibly count. But maybe the solution to this perceived problem is to just tune down one of my Fenders, put it near the side of the stage, and hope I don’t have to use it. I could comment that I haven’t broken a string onstage since I took to bringing a backup guitar, but perhaps that would just be tempting fate.

One really weird thing that I mentioned off-handedly above was that I’m not really satisfied with the design of either of my Gibsons or the Telecaster. It is obviously nothing major. But it serves to illustrate that much of the time, getting a guitar isn’t just about getting the guitar. It’s about buying into an image and emulating your hero. I own a Telecaster because of Status Quo and Bruce Springsteen, a Les Paul because of Eric Clapton, Gary Moore and others, the P-90 thing was likely inspired by David Gilmour, the sheer breadth of tonal options very much Steve Howe, and so on. I want an Epiphone Casino and a Rickenbacker 330 because of The Beatles, and given enough time I could probably find more guitars to put on the list, if nothing else then for the color. I think that the utility of a guitar sometimes is secondary to the sentimental connection. We as guitar players accept the compromises you have to make in order to buy into the Myth of the Les Paul, it’s the price of admission to that illustrious club, if you will. Not only that, the minute someone points out that the emperor is in fact naked, and moves to change something that has been around since 1959, we balk at the mere thought instead of embracing the change and learning not just to live with it but to use it creatively. Stripping the issue down to the essence like this is instructive, but I don’t have the least bit of liking for what I see. In my case, it’s all emotion and no logic, and I guess that the best thing you could say about it is that I’m in very good company.

I realize that I haven’t even answered the question. How many guitars do I need? Well, it has tended to vary a bit, since I find myself drifting between various projects where some guitars make more sense than others. I would say seven: three acoustic guitars and four electrics. My most basic need is a steel-string acoustic, but I also wouldn’t want to be without a 12-string or a nylon-string. On the electric side, back when I bought number four, I was dead set on having two Gibsons and two Fenders. Now, I would probably have picked the PRS Custom 24 over the SG. Either way I have two complimentary pairs of electric guitars, so I can have maximum flexibility for a session, or similar backups for whatever gig managed to come my way. The baritone experiment has thrown a wrench into the works, so I guess that the final number is nine. Except that I have ten, and I’m not selling any of them!

 
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Posted by on 10 December, 2021 in editorial, gear

 

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The Second Life of Fender

For the first seven years of playing, a Fender Stratocaster was all I ever played and all I ever wanted. My extreme metal phase turned out to be just a temporary interruption, because I went right back to Fender after it was over. Getting my first Gibson, however, was another matter entirely. From the moment I came home with my black Les Paul Studio, my yellow Stratocaster was relegated to a backup instrument that quite literally gathered dust for years. It was only after I joined the cover band and fell under the spell of Eric Clapton that I was inspired to pick up the Strat again and see what I could make of it. It was enough to make me realize why I need one of each type, but not enough to convince me to use Fenders for more than covers, noodling at home or the odd bit part on recordings. My main style has always been some kind of heavy rock or metal, and whereas it is by no means impossible to coax such sounds out of Fenders, going the humbucking way has always been quicker and easier.

Therefore, when I started my hard rock band in early 2019 and got around to jamming and creating, it was natural to bring along the SG, which had up until then served as my primary rehearsal guitar for almost three years. Since this was a period of experimentation, not just with styles and arrangements, but also with pedals and amp settings, I thought why not, and brought the Fenders along as well. I had no idea what I was in for. About the only thing that didn’t come as a surprise was that all of a sudden I was fighting the guitar a lot more. I very consciously did not alter the amp settings other than upping the gain a bit. Trills and legato predictably became a lot more difficult, and it was tough to flow across the fretboard the way I’m accustomed to. My left hand was cramping up after 15 minutes. The cleans, of course, sounded amazing. Everything involving distortion required a bit of an adjustment, which I was well aware of going into the experience. I concluded that it was a worthwhile experiment, fun and a bit different, not life-changing but also not too frustrating.

The big change happened when I listened back to the tapes. There was a section in one of the jams where the bass player and drummer held down a groove, and then I came in and punctuated with big open chords on the Telecaster. I could hardly believe what I was hearing! The guitar just crashed through with this super-punchy, fantastically clear crunch tone. I had to hear that again live in the room! The Telecaster accompanied me to the next rehearsal, and sure enough: there it was again. Just enough crunch to facilitate hard rock riffing, but tons of clarity and definition.

I have to do this every once in a while to remind myself. More distortion does not equate to more sound. Actually, it is quite the reverse. Less distortion means that more of the actual guitar tone is permitted to poke through. Less compression means that my playing dynamics are preserved to a higher degree. I play at full volume, which takes care of the sustain. The only thing I have to do is make sure that I am good enough. If I keep my chops up, I don’t have to rely on distortion and compression as a crutch. Should I need that extra push for a fill or a lead, then there’s always the overdrive pedal to kick it up a notch.

The best thing with this discovery is that I’ve gained back a whole lot of control over my tone. I can get a whole range of sounds just by altering my pick attack. A clean sound is never farther away than a quarter turn of the volume knob on the guitar. Should I wish to soften it up further, I can just flick the pickup switch and use the neck and bridge together. Nowadays, the channel switcher for my amp is just a bypass button that I use between songs to get rid of the hiss.

This has led to a major shift in my playing habits. Before 2019, I spent about 80% of my playing time on the black Les Paul. Now, my three Fenders share about 90%. Just as expected, it’s felt really weird to come back to the flatter fretboard and shorter scale length of the Gibsons. What did surprise me is how quickly I adjusted to dialing in sounds for single-coils. Everything sounds muddy and honky with the humbuckers now! Interestingly enough, I have come to appreciate my second Les Paul a lot more, the one with the P-90s. It sounded oddly similar to the black one while riffing at home on low volume, but at rehearsal levels, the differences became big enough to throw me off. After I’ve gone over to Fenders, the 90s have felt a lot more familiar and natural.

After this much playing time with my Fenders, including the third one that found its way into my collection in August, 2019, I have come to an interesting conclusion. The Telecaster just works. For the kind of music that we’ve been creating, it is a perfect match. Mine never fails to get me that sound and feel, it has yet to let me down. I have often thought that a Tele is less subtle and above all less flexible than a Strat, but I don’t agree with that anymore. I find myself missing the Tele neck + bridge combination on a Stratocaster way more often than I miss any of the classic Strat pickup selections on the Tele. A cleanish sound, some modulated delay and the middle position on my Telecaster and I am just gone for hours. It is that inspiring. I can make other sounds on a Strat that are nice as well, but not that nice. It is odd to think that I would become a Tele guy in my middle age!

The more I play on these guitars, the more satisfied I am with the noiseless DiMarzio pickups in the yellow Strat (three Area 58s) and in the Tele (Area Ts). The question I keep returning to isn’t whether I should get noiseless pickups for the blue Strat, but which ones to get. I seem to recall a notion to keep the single-coils in there, but I quickly reconsidered. Our rehearsal space has a major shielding issue, and it feels like the single-coil hum out of my amp is actually louder than the notes that I play. When I first started the band, I was still entertaining the notion of getting a Player Stratocaster of some kind. For a while there, I gravitated towards an HSS, i.e. with a humbucker in the bridge position. It is still a pretty good compromise for those that prefer the Fender feel but a somewhat fatter Gibson-type sound. The only thing I don’t particularly like with it is that it spoils the look of a Stratocaster. However, after making the aforementioned discoveries, going with that rear single-coil felt like the proper choice and not just a compromise driven by conservatism and aesthetics. What I have noticed is that the Area 58 in the bridge position of my Stratocaster has a touch less output than the Area T in the same slot on the Tele. It isn’t much, but it is there, I think about it, and then I immediately go into solution mode. Getting a single-space rails humbucker is out of the question, mainly because I just don’t need that much juice. A stacked humbucker will do nicely. So currently I am vacillating between the Area 61 and the Virtual Vintage Heavy Blues. The ‘61 is just a touch hotter than the ‘58, and DiMarzio themselves recommend the 61-67-58 combination, but the VVHB has the same mV output as my Tele bridge pickup. Will it be too hot and spanky for the Stratocaster? There is only one way to find out. At least the clean sounds are beyond the scope of these discussions. Fenders in all honor, but I generally try to avoid the bridge pickup entirely when playing with cleanish tones.

 
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Posted by on 2 February, 2021 in gear, review

 

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Thoughts on Boss pedals

A decade ago, my pedalboard was almost 100% Boss. By 2013, I didn’t have a single Boss pedal left in my collection. This was a combination of losing my patience with pedals in general, and having quality issues with Boss in particular. It only took a few months for me to start building up the collection again, only this time I eschewed the Japanese effects giant and gave TC Electronic and MXR the nod instead. It’s quite silly, really, when I look back on it, because I sold a perfectly fine tremolo pedal as well as a digital delay where I had barely scratched the surface of its capabilities. It is especially embarrassing that it seemed to be more about getting rid of Boss products than anything else. Well, it is unmistakable that I did in fact have severe issues with the Boss PH-3 phaser, made more annoying by the fact that I live in Sweden and had bought the pedal at the Guitar Center on Niagara Falls Boulevard. But it oughtn’t have affected my opinion of the other Boss pedals in my collection. Yet it did. What’s more, I feel that the old validation problem reared its ugly head again. You don’t have to go back very far to see all sorts of bad-mouthing of Boss. Their products were a bit too digital, too bland, they lacked true bypass, and above all they seemed to be a bit too popular for the online expert’s taste. I reiterate that I got rid of my pedals because I was tired of pedals and had had issues with one of my Boss units, but I know myself, and I know that I can easily get discouraged when I own a product that the so-called experts refuse to touch with a ten-foot pole. Now that Boss for some reason are not only acceptable again, but also cool, I have gone and bought myself two of their drive pedals. Make of that what you will.

The first pedal I bought in this “second wave” of Boss collecting was the DS-1 Distortion. Actually, I wasn’t looking for one at the time. I was looking for the SD-1 Super Overdrive. But I was on a business trip in Poland, had a few hours to kill, found a music store, and I didn’t want to leave empty-handed. I was in a mood and the only cure was retail therapy. It turns out that I have had no reasons whatsoever to regret the purchase. The DS-1 has been in continuous production since 1978, which is kind of amazing, even though it’s gone through a couple of modifications since then (new components, production shifted from Japan to other countries, etc.). It is rapidly becoming a rule if not a law for me that I will simply not touch vintage gear. I just don’t think it’s worth it. For me, it is more of a challenge to try to get a good tone out of modern, off-the-shelf stuff. This DS-1 was a new production unit, and it works great. One of the advantages with staying away from Boss pedals for five whole years is that I appreciate their ergonomics in a completely different way now that I’m used to the standard small enclosures with the pokey footswitch. About the only thing I find confusing with the DS-1 is that the tone and level controls are the other way around from what I’m expecting: tone, level, drive rather than level, tone, drive. I suppose that the current standard was developed a bit after 1978. So, how does the thing sound? I’ve already touched upon it in previous posts. As a general rule, the DS-1 rewards subtle settings. Going past noon on the tone and drive controls is a recipe for harshness. It can be a sound in itself, but it tends not to be what you’re after when you hook up one of these pedals. I have had great success using the DS-1 as a boost for the drive sound in my amp. I set the level high and the distortion barely on, and it has a nice and compressed tone that feels very good under the strings. It reminds me of the fuzzier side of John Frusciante. I had both the DS-1 and SD-1 on my board for months and actually only removed the DS-1 so I could hook up one more modulation pedal instead. What really surprised me was when I took the same setting and juiced the clean channel of my Blackstar HT-20 instead. What came out of the speaker was basically the same sound as I already had on the distortion channel, albeit a lot less dynamic. I could absolutely work with it, it’s just that I already have the sound I want in the amp and then it is pointless to screw around more. I’m going to keep the DS-1, partly because it might just find its way back to the board, partly to have an established option in my arsenal should I wind up in a situation where I’m forced to dial in my sound and cannot use my amp.

The SD-1 Super Overdrive was a birthday gift in 2019 if I’m not mistaken. This was only possible because it is still one of the most inexpensive drive pedals out there, if not the least expensive of the big brands. Admittedly, I had never tried one before then. It was just a gift tip, something that I at least wanted to try out. I had two great boost pedals already before that. The Ibanez Mini Tube Screamer is great, and I reviewed the TC Electronic Spark Booster separately a good while ago. However, when I put the SD-1 on the big board in the rehearsal room, everything just clicked. It was like that missing ingredient, the secret sauce to go along with the ribs, that bit of bitter to round off the mojito. On its own, through a clean channel, it sounds kind of crazy. It has a nasal, almost honky tone that is rather unflattering to my Fender + Blackstar combination. But when used to boost a drive tone – oh boy! I have not been able to go back since. The Tube Screamer is still great for adding that extra oomph to a metal rhythm sound, just as the Spark Booster is great for animating a clean sound or some classic rock grit. The SD-1 is my go-to overdrive for hard rock.

Now that their previous sins have been forgiven, what is in store for me with regards to Boss products? Not much, I’m afraid. I already have the best delay there is, as well as great modulation pedals. I have a selection of great boosts now. So the only thing that comes to mind other than more drive stuff is a looper or possibly an octave. And as soon as I’ve said that, I have to come clean and say that Boss have their work cut out for them. The competition from TC Electronic is stiff. Whenever there are two comparable pedals from these two manufacturers, TC tends to win out thanks to the Toneprint feature. About the only thing that Boss have going for them, in my book at least, is the superior ergonomics. Then I have to admit that there is just something about these colorful boxes. Not that long ago, a guy wrote on a forum that Boss pedals activate the same part of the brain that made us want toy cars as kids, and that is actually not that far off the mark…

 
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Posted by on 10 January, 2021 in review

 

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TC Electronic budget pedals

In 2016, TC Electronic launched a completely new range of budget pedals, at about a third or even a fourth of the price of their celebrated Toneprint pedals. According to Mr. Tore Mogensen himself, this was the end result of Behringer acquiring TC a while back. I still see those old Behringer pedals out in the wild: basically plastic-case interpretations of the Boss enclosures, the circuits being clones of classic pedals from Boss, Ibanez and others. These are updated versions, tweaked by Tore & co., housed in just about indestructible metal chassis and labeled with the TC Electronic brand instead of that from the parent company. There doesn’t seem to be any official name for this series, so I will simply refer to it as the Tank pedals.

Since I already had just about every category covered when these pedals were first issued, I didn’t rush out and buy any of them. This is a classic mistake I tend to make: get something just because it’s cheap and then find out I’m not using it. But in the four years since, they have added a few oddballs to the range, that I’ve zoned in on.

My first TC Tank pedal, about around Christmas 2017, was the Eyemaster metal distortion pedal. It is not illustrated in the picture, as it has taken up permanent residence in my rehearsal room. It is a clone of the classic Boss HM-2 Heavy Metal distortion pedal, which, incidentally was my second pedal ever and my first distortion pedal. I can’t remember why I got the HM-2, but I had other criteria when I was 14, so it could have been the name and the look in combination with the pretty extreme sound. Only later did I learn that the HM-2 was the key to getting the Stockholm death metal guitar tone, immortalized by bands like Entombed and Dismember – and even our own At the Gates if I recall correctly. Eyemaster is the first track off Entombed’s 1993 album Wolverine Blues, and the logo (every pedal in the Tank range has its own logo and symbol, as per TC SOP) is copied directly from the sleeve, painstakingly handwritten by Entombed’s Alex Hellid. As if I wouldn’t have bought it anyway! I like this pedal a lot. Obviously it doesn’t see as much use as any of my mainstays. It basically only comes out for special jam sessions. But for the price, I don’t mind at all. The only thing I find confusing is that it only has two controls: level and drive, lacking the low and high tone controls of the original. The design choice is that the only way to dial in an HM-2 is to max out the tone controls – but the proper HM-2 configuration also requires that the level and drive be set on 10 as well. So why not make it with just an on/off switch? I haven’t compared it to the original, as I sold it for good money on eBay 10 years ago, so my only reference is Youtube. There is a noticeable difference, but nothing that bothers me. Not for the amount I actually use it, and definitely not for the price.

Next up we have the Vibraclone rotary pedal, which I bought around Christmas of 2018 or so. It is a simulation of the Fender Vibratone rotating speaker, which is similar to a Leslie cabinet, but sans the counter-rotating horn. There is a speed control and a drive control that adds a bit of grit to the sound, and a toggle switch that selects slow or fast rotary speeds. I am especially fond of how TC have implemented the speed settings. Whenever you change them, no matter if you twist the knob or slide the toggle, it takes a few seconds for the pedal to spin up to the selected speed. It is a cool detail that has the feeling of authenticity, since the original is after all a mechanical effect. As I’ve never owned a Leslie cabinet, I don’t have a proper reference per se. All I can compare with are the many rotary tones adorning lots of classic rock songs. It kind of gets most of the way. It is especially good at fast speeds and with overdrive, and at any speed at low volume. At low speed and high volume, I find that it robs my tone of a bit too much high end without having that chewy goodness of a proper rotary speaker. Still, I think that it actually outdoes several considerably more expensive pedals from boutique manufacturers. I realize that for the price, I cannot ask for the world. It would however have been very nice to have a second footswitch to toggle the speed.

My third TC Tank pedal arrived not that long ago, being one of my Christmas gifts to myself: the 3rd Dimension chorus. The 3rd Dimension is a clone of the old Boss Dimension C pedal from the 80s, down to the push-button control scheme and the color. That’s right: no knobs, just four mode buttons, evidently activating detuning and phasing chains that can be combined in any fashion. Button 1 is a fairly subtle chorus effect, and then it gets progressively wilder from there. Pushing all the buttons makes for a rather crazy sound. It is a chorus, but there is also phasing going on, and it is not rhythmic or throbbing the way a traditional chorus can be. Rather, it is an eerily stationary effect, like the guitar signal has one or more colorful shadows. I think the dimension effect is nifty, but I have been hesitant to plink down all that money for a Boss original or even the Waza Craft remake. This is great for getting that 80s clean or slightly driven guitar tone (think Purple Rain), but I have found that it is also great for fattening up a heavier tone. Definitely recommended!

Numbers four and five arrived at the same time, namely under the tree just this Christmas!

The Crescendo is what TC calls an “auto swell” pedal. It is a clone of the old Boss SG-1 Slow Gear pedal, which currently goes for astronomical prices, even used. It is basically an automatic volume pedal. Play a note and the pedal will swell the volume, hiding the initial pick attack. It takes some adjustment and getting used to, since just as with a volume pedal, you need to anticipate your playing somewhat, and hit the string right before you want the note to swell in. After playing around with it for a few hours, I can see how it could be improved. For instance, it would be neat to customize the swell envelope: how long it takes for the note to reach full volume, and if it comes up quickly or slowly. But at the end of the day, it is a very useful pedal that sounds good. If you have a volume pedal (which I don’t anymore), you can duplicate most of the Crescendo’s effects, same thing if you are coordinated enough to manipulate the guitar volume knob while playing. But it is kind of neat to be able to concentrate on what I’m doing on the fretboard and not having to do anything else at the same time.

Last, but definitely not least, we have the Gauss tape echo pedal. I would assume that it is an approximation of the classic Echoplex tape echo machine, which has plenty of modern great-sounding digital implementations by Dunlop, Strymon, Catalinbread et al. Like your average delay pedal, it has knobs for speed, level and repeats, and it also has a sliding toggle switch that activates a modulation function on the repeats. A properly calibrated echo unit with a fresh tape inside is about as close to a hi-fi digital delay as is possible with analog technology. But when the tape wears out and starts to flutter and act up, it adds all sorts of cool pitch modulation effects that are part and parcel of a proper Echoplex simulation. The Gauss modulation is not a watery chorus effect like that on my beloved Carbon Copy. It is gnarlier, seems to get more intense the higher you set the delay feedback, and feels like it is more pronounced on shorter delay settings. I dig it a lot. Gauss before distortion was an especially pleasing sound: not clean and pristine in any meaning of the term, but dirty and cool in the 70s classic rock way. I have been thinking of having two delays on my board: one with modulation for clean-ish sounds, and an Echoplex sim of some sort for the heavier tones. This looks like it could be just the ticket!

The Tank pedals obviously have the form factor in common. They are sturdy pedals with a two-part metal cover that is kind of neatly done. The knobs are big and have this oddly smooth movement with a lot of inertia. After re-evaluating my stance on larger pedals after the misfortune with micro enclosures, I have no beef with the bigger boxes. Quite the reverse: the combination of the size and the top-mounted jack sockets means that I can pack these pedals right next to each other and still have plenty of space for my feet to reach the switches. (Just check the picture above!) The only problem I have with the Tank pedals is the switches themselves. For some reason, turning the effect on works like usual: click, and it’s on. Going the other way, it works kind of counter-intuitively: the effect only turns off when the switch reaches top position, not after the click. It is one of those little ergonomic missteps that effectively makes it a no-no to ever use any of these on stage. For studio use and just fooling around at home, there is plenty of fun and cool sounds to be had. Case in point: I stepped on the Gauss just this afternoon, and before I knew it, an hour and a half had passed!

 
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Posted by on 29 December, 2020 in gear, review

 

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Fun stuff from Amazon

Amazon very recently launched their new Swedish site. It’s drawn ridicule all over social media. Even though most Swedes speak or at least read English, the company has found fit to perform machine translations of most product descriptions. In some cases, it has led to some lewdness. In others, it’s just nonsensical. In either case, it is hilarious!

Here’s their take on what we know as “Ernie Ball Regular Slinky nickel-wound electric guitar strings 10-46 gauge”:

Ernie boll normal slinky nickelsår elektriska gitarrsträngar – 10-46 mätare

Eight words, possibly nine if you count the “10-46” string as a word. There are five errors in there:

  • The surname Ball has been translated into “boll” (please note: lower-case!).
  • Regular has been translated to “normal”, like it isn’t the product description at all.
  • Nickel-wound, now here’s the poetry of it all: the machine has zoned in on wound as in injury, instead of a past participle (I think…) of the verb wind.
  • I suppose that the machine didn’t know what to make of a comparatively uncommon word combination as “electric guitar strings”. In my language, it is not just abbreviated, it is stitched together into just one word: elgitarrsträngar. In its defense, it did get “guitar strings” right. As it stands, any Swedish-speaking person would think that the strings in question actually carry voltage.
  • 10-46 “mätare”. They did get 10-46 right. But gauge means at least two things in English, and the machine chose the wrong one.

I didn’t even have the slightest intention of buying from Amazon’s Swedish affiliate before this. This doesn’t make it any more likely.

 
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Posted by on 30 October, 2020 in editorial

 

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Gear Acquisition Syndrome

I have put all musical purchases on hold pending a proper review of what’s going on in my brain. I have a theory: the ongoing pandemic is triggering the need for retail therapy that aggravates my natural gear acquisition syndrome. The other month, I almost bought a Line6 Helix Stomp multi-effect, since I felt that I could use a more inspirational lead tone when recording at home. The week after that, I almost closed the deal on an MXR Carbon Copy Mini delay pedal, just because I miss having mine around at home. Both times, something gave me cold feet at the last moment. In the case of the Helix, I instead decided to devote a couple of free hours during the weekend to see if maybe there was some way to utilize a combination of my existing home amps and boost pedals to give me the tones I wanted. It turns out there was, when I set my mind to it. The Carbon Copy thing turned out to be a complete non-issue. The pedal weighs a few hundred grams. After rehearsal, there are two cables to undo and I can toss it into the front pocket of my gigbag and go. Since I first tried that a month ago or so, I have used the pedal exactly once at home.

Even without the COVID-19 stuff, there’s plenty of confusion to go around. I am not used to being this satisfied with my sound and my gear. For 30-odd years, there’s always been something to covet, it’s like my neural pathways have been permanently set in such a fashion that I’m still lusting after stuff even though I am perfectly satisfied when I put my mind to it. All of a sudden, there are no more deficiencies, and therefore my mind seems to be making them up!

One of the biggest steps towards peace of mind in the gear department has actually been deleting my in-case-of-lottery-win wish list. Dreaming is good, ambition is nice, but I could never truly get past the feeling that the said list was more of a distraction than an inspiration. It was like this constant subliminal message that my current guitars and amps weren’t good enough. And sure enough, after getting rid of it, I find myself considerably less disappointed every week when I don’t win the lottery.

I’ve also completely redone the more realistic section of my wish list: the stuff I’m actually planning to get. It took a lot of time and effort to get there, and it involved questioning precisely everything. What a forceful factor habit can be! My most recent gig was in 2013, my latest session in 2014, but I found myself still fussing over which small tube amp, 5 watts or thereabouts, to get for such occasions. Out of sheer habit!

Getting to this point has required being completely honest with myself about what I actually do musically. Only then can I determine whether the stuff I own will be able to do the job properly. So what do I do? I play hard rock and metal with certain psychedelic and progressive overtones, in two different power trios. We have a rehearsal space for jamming, we don’t do gigs (yet!) and I tend to record all stuff using my digital stuff at home. So let’s do a rig rundown and check for any weak spots:

On the amplification side, I have never been happier. I have had my Blackstar Studio 20 head (from the original HT Venue series, the “Mark I” if you will) for over nine years now, and it continues to inspire and amaze me. There have absolutely been days when I’ve thought that it sounds like absolute shit. On such occasions, I have still been able to convince myself that I do this so seldom that getting a “proper” amp would be overkill, plain and simple. Now that I do use it frequently, its off days are few and far between. I used to spend quite a lot of time checking new stuff out. It used to be a mixed pleasure. For so many years, it was depressingly likely that whatever I plugged into, it would sound way better than what I had. Recently, it’s been a lot more of the exact opposite, and that is taking some time to get used to. I find myself checking out fine amps from reputable brands and becoming increasingly disappointed and disillusioned by the process. I can definitely find stuff that I like. It’s just that it is not that much better that I feel it’s worth it. That I linger on the issue and can’t seem to let it go is probably more my GAS talking. It’s like something in the back of mind is telling me that now that I’ve had this thing for almost a decade, maybe it’s time for an upgrade, just because I deserve it. But my conscious self cannot see the logic of it. How much better can it reasonably become? I prefer to think that it’s just my GAS pushing buttons within me so that I can satisfy whatever part of me demands constant consumption.

At home, there’s been considerably more turnover in my amp collection, mainly because amp simulation technology has improved in leaps and bounds during the same period of time. My current two home amps achieve what I want. The only issue I have is that the minimalist in me is annoyed that I can’t get everything out of just one of them.

On the guitar side of things, it’s pretty much the same thing. I have never owned this many guitars, but more importantly, for the first time ever, I am one hundred per cent satisfied with all of them. And where it fails to reach that 100, it’s something that is easily fixable with some spare parts, a setup job, etc. That’s what you’ll find on my current guitar wish list: set up the PRS baritone, new pickup rings for the black Les Paul, noiseless pickups for the blue Stratocaster. Everything else has been put on the backburner. There is not a single guitar in my collection that makes me think, “no, I don’t like playing that one”. I don’t want to go so far as to say that I don’t have the time to play all of them, because I go out of my way to make sure that I do just that. I do, however, admit that I don’t spend enough time with my acoustics, and that is a shame. On the other hand, it validates my decision to not go for broke and get something US-built, and it serves as a healthy reminder that a more expensive steel-string needs to stay off my to-buy list. The Taylor 214 was about ten times as nice as my old one, and it hasn’t made me want to play it ten times as often as I did on the old one. A 317 or an 810 will likely not increase that playing time.

Guitars and amps are almost never the issue when I question my musical purchasing decisions. The last time I sold an amp was in 2011, the last time I got rid of a guitar was two years after that. I tend to buy the stuff I need or at least want and then hold onto it. That’s mostly because guitars and amps are significant outlays. I don’t buy a new guitar on a whim; that decision is preceded by a whole lot of deliberation. With effects pedals, it’s quite a different matter. Pedals satisfy a lot of my GAS-related urges, yet they’re usually inexpensive enough that I don’t have to think too much before buying them. That way, I end up getting a whole bunch of them and then selling them off en masse a couple of years later. So when I found myself GAS-ing over a whole bunch of expensive pedals, it was time to go through my rig and be honest: do I have the best pedal in every possible category, and what do I actually need?

I keep eight pedals on my board since I can: there is ample space on the Pedaltrain PT-2 and my Voodoo Labs Pedal Power 2+ has eight 9-volt outlets. Some time in March or so, I started paying more attention to which ones I was actually using. It turns out that there is a core trio of pedals that sees about 95 per cent of the action. The MXR Carbon Copy takes care of all my modulation needs, with the Phase 90 as a vintage-flavored alternative, and the Boss SD-1 has turned out to be the missing ingredient for my lead tone. (It’s really a quartet, since there’s the TC Polytune 3 as well, but that’s a utility pedal that doesn’t really count.) I cannot imagine pedals that sound better for what I do than these three. There is nothing I would change, other than that it’s a pity that the Phase 95 doesn’t come in a bigger enclosure, since I do like the flexibility. As for the other four, I find it hard to nail down a consistent configuration. It feels like I’m constantly swapping them around. I’m not using the Uni-Vibe as much as I think, or as I wanted to when I bought it. Nor am I much for using chorus or flanger.  There is one pedal that I find myself missing when I don’t have it around, but remove immediately after putting it on the board, and that is the TC Vibraclone. I guess that the older I get, the more I want to go back to the classic guitar tones. And the Vibraclone, while good, especially for the money, just doesn’t do what I want. It colors my sound in a way that I’m not too keen on and I find myself missing the means to change the rotary speed using a footswitch.

This tells me several things. I could very likely reduce my rig to the five pedals that fit onto my small board, the Nano+, and not miss a thing ever. I should shelve all plans to test choruses, flangers, the Boss DC-2w or whatever, and instead concentrate everything on saving up for the Neo Instruments Micro Vent 122. It’s the only Leslie simulator I’ve heard that comes close to the real thing. I am not particularly pleased that this entire train of thought, all the talk about not buying more stuff, has led me to the conclusion that there is something that I need to get. But I find this a process that is a lot more palatable: thinking things through instead of just buying shit on impulse to satisfy some urge.

 
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Posted by on 12 June, 2020 in editorial, gear

 

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