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.


Posted by on 12 June, 2020 in editorial, gear


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Fender Ultra Series

Fender has recently been teasing us with videos of something upcoming and dramatically different. “Never play a Fender the same way again.” The video showed what looked like something Stratocaster-inspired, sleeker, with a contoured neck heel and some kind of access-improving cutaway. And now on 5 Nov, the ball drops with a resounding “splat”.

The Ultra series is nothing more than a rebranded Elite series which in its turn was a rebranded Deluxe series.

During the past few years, before I lucked out and found my Sonic Blue American Series Stratocaster, I have had off-again, on-again thoughts about investing in a brand new Fender. I have given the Deluxe/Elite models due consideration. But I’ve never been able to get excited about any of them. They just don’t push my buttons. Those guitars get it all wrong, in my opinion. The switching is different from one year to the next. The color of the pickguard is ugly. The logo is ugly. I don’t like how they splash text all over the pickups. I’m not fond of locking tuners. The knobs are the wrong shape. This year, they have got the notion that yellow-tinted necks are cool. They are not. Oh, and they’ve also jacked up the prices. Again.

Sorry, Fender, no sell.

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Posted by on 5 November, 2019 in editorial, gear


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The Lost Lenore, Found

It is so interesting when I look back on my latest entry, the one from 10 July about my old light blue Stratocaster, and think about what happened three weeks later. I spent some idle time during my vacation going back and forth about the new Mexican Vintera Stratocaster as a substitute. In the end, I decided that I didn’t want to go through with it. There were simply too many compromises involved. About the only thing that I prefer with the vintage-style models over the modern ones is the old-school tuning posts. I didn’t want to run the risk that I would not enjoy the Vintera. Instead, I tried, and fared pretty well at, getting excited about a Professional Stratocaster in Sienna Sunburst. Then the incredible thing happened on one of the last days of July. My dad sent me a link to a classified ad, and I had to pick my jaw up from the floor. From prior experience, I know that there are American Standard Stratocasters in light blue. It just didn’t occur to me that any of them could find its way over to Sweden. But this one obviously had. That the seller lived on the other side of the country was just a minor logistical issue.

So now I am the happy owner of a 2002 Fender Stratocaster American Series in Sonic Blue and with a maple neck. I could not have asked for a nicer guitar if Todd Krause himself had phoned me up and told me he’d make one for me. It is just perfect. It is not an American Standard, but Series, since that was the name Fender used between 2001 and 2007 (I think…). That means that it was made after Fender switched to the semi-staggered tuners, but before they replaced the old stainless-steel bridge saddles with chrome-plated steel. To think about the compromises I was almost ready to make, and then I wind up in a situation where I don’t have to make any of them! It is almost ridiculous that I wound up paying almost two Swedish grand less for this one than I would have had to shell out for a brand new Mexican-made axe.

One of the things I always feared when dreaming about getting my hands on The Blue One was that it was going to be a beautiful guitar that didn’t play well. I have been able to put those fears to rest. It took a bit of an effort, I even went completely out of character and whipped out my truss rod wrench, but damn if it didn’t work! This guitar not only just conquered the beauty crown from my Tele, it sounds just as good and because it is a Strat, it is just a tad more comfortable to play. There are some minor issues with it, but it doesn’t affect the amplified sound, so it isn’t critical. I’m anyway thinking of substituting the bridge pickup for something a bit hotter and definitely hum-cancelling, so why not have the guy do everything at once?

Sometimes I can be a bit bummed, since it doesn’t feel like I am happy enough about it, but checking back over what I’ve just written, I get the feeling that it’s got more to do with a pervasive feeling of unreality. Like I’m going to wake up at any moment and it’s time to go to work and then come home and play my yellow Strat. But no, I just checked, and it’s right there between the other Strat and the Tele.

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Posted by on 19 September, 2019 in gear


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Sonic Blue, or: The Lost Lenore

I once owned a Fender Stratocaster Yngwie Malmsteen model in Sonic Blue. It was the late 80s or early 90s version of the Yngwie guitar, with the vintage headstock and logo, and the American Standard stainless steel bridge saddles. Before Yngwie decided that he could only play yellow guitars, his signature model came in two alternative colors in addition to yellow: Candy Apple Red and Sonic Blue. Sonic Blue is the lightest blue color in the Fender range, very much like the color of the sky on a bright summer’s day. I was in love with the combination of Sonic Blue and a maple fretboard before I had even heard anything by Yngwie Malmsteen. It was by far the prettiest guitar in A.R. Duchossoir’s book about the Stratocaster. How I came to own one is one of those stories that are so weird that they can only happen in real life, it would be way too contrived to put into a book or a film. When I finally became spellbound by Yngwie’s speed and aggression, someone told me that the key to his technique was the scalloped fretboard: the lack of contact between finger and neck somehow enabling the former to move faster over the latter. I now know that this is utter crap, even the man himself has debunked the notion multiple times. But when I was 14 years old and new in the world of technical lead guitar playing, there was no way for me to know. All I wanted was to attain the same technical ability on the guitar at any price. At the time, I had an American Vintage 1962 reissue, a wonderful instrument – but it didn’t have the scalloped neck that I so desperately craved. This came to a head in August, 1991. On the Saturday, I saw a yellow Yngwie Stratocaster at the music store I used to frequent. Everything was arranged, it was just a matter of swinging by our apartment to pick up my vintage reissue and then the trade-in would happen. On the very next day, my dad saw a classified ad in the newspaper: a guy had a blue Yngwie guitar for sale at an insanely low price. The trick was that he lived in Strömstad, about a two-hour drive from where we lived. It was a huge risk to take for something that in all honesty sounded fairly fishy. But for the price, just about any kind of Stratocaster-shaped guitar with a scalloped board felt like a reasonable deal. I could not believe my eyes when the guy opened the case. It was a US-made signature guitar with the correct serial number – and it was Sonic Blue with a maple neck. I would not let it go. In fact, I only put it in its case to get from his apartment down to the car. Then I sat in the back seat during the two-hour drive home and played and played and played. Everyone got what they wanted out of the deal: my dad got the Surf Green ’62 model that he plays to this day, and I got my dream guitar. I was in ecstasy for months. I would sit in the back of the bus going home from school and fantasize – not about girls, but about the guitar that was waiting for me in my room. And when I came home, I could just sit around and look at it. But of course, within minutes, admiration gave way to temptation and I picked it up. I think there is a lesson to be learned here. I managed to improve dramatically during the summer and fall of 1991, but it had nothing to do with the scalloped neck and everything to do with the fact that I practiced incessantly. My new guitar was able to inspire me to do that where the old one had failed.

Just over a year later, the blue Stratocaster was gone, traded in for a black BC Rich Warlock. Yngwie had been replaced at the top of my pantheon by Marty Friedman, and our band had evolved from its humble hard rock beginnings to something that was more akin to death metal. It felt right at the time. I wanted something with humbuckers to juice my 100-watt Marshall Valvestate more, I wanted a 24-fret guitar and also a guitar with a double-locking vibrato system. But I think that the primary reason was that I just didn’t think that people would take me seriously as a death metal guitarist if I got on stage with a light blue Fender. It is especially sad since the death metal phase didn’t even last for a year, and after that we started playing decidedly lighter and more melodic fare – stuff that would have been a perfect fit for a more traditional guitar. Since then, I have attached almost mythical properties to that guitar, as well as the monumentally stupid-ass decision to get rid of it. It is inevitable in life that you do (or don’t do) things that you’ll wind up regretting, but I think I can honestly say that if we restrict ourselves to purely materialistic matters, then trading away my Sonic Blue Stratocaster is hands down the thing I regret the most. (Buying that Peavey amp comes second.) When I got my Vintage White American Standard a few years later it alleviated some of the anguish, but over the years it’s been made abundantly clear that the scars are still there. The most pertinent question is: would I want to buy it back? To be quite honest, I’m not entirely sure. It’s not that I have any particular desire to own a Malmsteen signature, I can absolutely do without the scalloped neck for instance. I think that over the years, as I’ve played more Fenders and got used to the updated feel of the American Standard, my tastes and desires have changed. What I really want is for Fender to simply issue the American Standard in Sonic Blue. They’ve come so close so many times, but there is always something to put me off. Either it’s the 70s headstock, a rosewood fretboard or both, or it’s some form of Squier. I did learn that Fender did a brief run with light blue Stratocasters with maple necks in 1995-96, and a few years back one of those was listed for sale – at a music store in Manhattan.

All of this has now been turned on its head via the recent announcement of Fender’s Vintera series: basically the replacement for their Mexican-made Classic series. There is a 50s Stratocaster, obviously with a maple neck, and it comes in Sonic Blue. So the question is not whether I want it or can afford it, but rather if I will be able to get used to a rounder fretboard radius and just 21 frets. I will have to get back to you on that.

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Posted by on 10 July, 2019 in editorial, gear


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Mini Pedals

My two pedalboards have worked perfectly for the three, four, five years that I’ve owned them. But I realize that only recently have I had the opportunity to test them under realistic circumstances. One thing that has become clear since I started jamming with my new band is that studio and live are two different applications that place very different demands on the equipment. I have been extremely intrigued by the mini pedals that have started coming out in the past few years. The Xotic SL Drive blew me away when I first heard it, and a few years later, I couldn’t resist buying the Tube Screamer Mini. Soon after that, I added the MXR Phase 95, and just the other day, I bought a Korg Pitchblack Mini pedal tuner. When TC Electronic brought out their mini Toneprint pedals, I immediately got the idea to trade in my regular-size TC pedals for their baby brothers and sisters. How fortunate I am, that such a wild scheme never became reality!

I enjoy the mini pedals. The Phase 95 is great and I will probably write it up any year now. The Tube Screamer Mini sounds awesome, especially when I use it as a boost for a distorted sound. The tuner works perfectly, I am seriously considering a TC Electronic Flashback Mini, and so on. It’s just that I wouldn’t want to bring any of these pedals to a rehearsal, let alone onto a proper stage! The small form-factor brings its particular set of advantages and drawbacks to the table. Of course, you can fit more pedals onto your board. But they’re going to be squeezed together a lot closer, meaning that it’s going to require a lot more precision when you step on them, something that you can’t always count on in the heat of the moment. The first time I stepped on the Phase 95 during our first jam session, I accidentally nudged the Rate knob from half past nine to half past eleven, just because the knob is too darn close to the footswitch! So you have to spread the baby pedals out on the board, which kind of defeats the purpose. I can see them working in concert with a loop-switching system, which is anyway a road that I’m not going to be taking any time soon. Then there is the stability issue. Most of these micro pedals are taller than they are wide, which puts the center of gravity pretty close to where the action happens. I’ve felt them wobble underneath even light foot pressure, even though they are always secured with Velcro. The new tuner won’t even sit flat against the board, it doesn’t have enough mass to allow gravity to perform its natural work. I don’t even want to know what happens when I start moving around on a stage and the cable starts pulling on the pedal. One solution is to get better Velcro, but I don’t want to rip it all off my Pedaltrains and start afresh. Therefore, I have decided that the best solution is to get a bigger tuner to put on my big board, and let the baby tuner live on my mini board, which has kind of become my home and studio board. 

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Posted by on 8 April, 2019 in editorial, gear


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New and Old Gear

My new, unnamed rock band has led to a complete reevaluation of my gear requirements. Around Christmas, I fired up my 20-watt Blackstar head for the first time in six or seven months, and I didn’t like what I heard one little bit. It felt underpowered and sounded brittle and cheap. For a while there, it felt like a 50- or 100-watt tube head was at the top of my to-buy list. Then we started rehearsing once or twice a week, and it seemed like the little fellow shook off the cobwebs or something, because it just sounded better and better the more I played on it. Again, the HT-20 has just come through and defied all my expectations! It is just powerful enough, and it has the sweetest tone! To provide a contrast to Namlar, I have dialed in a woodier, British-type sound with lots of mids and just a touch of bottom end, and if I keep the gain at about 3.5-4, I get a wonderfully dynamic sound where I don’t have to dig in to get full crunch tone, but if I back off, it cleans up very nicely.

My pedalboard has gone through a massive metamorphosis during the past two months. I’ll come clean and admit that I got bitten by the pedal bug (again!) around 2013, and after that, the lack of a clear musical direction made me want to buy all sorts of different pedals, as if I wanted to be ready for anything. Well, now that we’re here, it turns out that I will find no use whatsoever for my fuzz pedals, I still haven’t truly figured out how (or even why) to play with a wah-wah, et cetera. To the consternation of my bass player and drummer, I have been testing various configurations, one rehearsal different from the next, until I have (seemingly) arrived at a suitable configuration. Currently, it is tuner, phaser, boost, tremolo, Uni-Vibe, chorus, flanger and modulated analog delay. I will let the compressor, reverb, vibrato, Vibraclone, Tube Screamer, DS-1 and the Phase 95 live on the small board I keep at home. The TC Electronic Eyemaster is going into strategic reserve, ready to be pulled out for… special occasions.

So far, I’ve brought five of my six electric guitars to our jam sessions: both Fenders and all three Gibsons, but not the PRS baritone. I have used the SG as my main rehearsal guitar since the store tech worked wonders with it back in 2016, so it was a nice diversion to use something else for once. It is so evident that whenever I plug in the black Les Paul, everything just clicks. I enjoy the lightness and attitude of the SG, but the tone and sustain of the Les Paul are simply unbeatable! What surprised me was that the best sound actually came out of my Telecaster. This is not surprising, since it has the nicest unplugged tone of all my electrics, but I didn’t hear it as clearly during the rehearsal as I did on the tapes. There is an attack to it that I suppose comes from the combination of the crisp high end and the single-coil pickups. I will probably soldier on with the two black Gibsons (with humbuckers), but I am definitely going to give P-90:s a second chance, and the Telecaster will wind up in the rehearsal room again. To be quite honest, each of the guitars that I have tested has brought something new to the table, each has managed to unlock something special and different in my playing, and none of them has made me say never again.

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Posted by on 7 April, 2019 in editorial, gear


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