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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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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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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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The New Band!

I started 2019 with a half-dormant recording project and very loose thoughts about a new solo instrumental album, possibly something acoustic. Three months in and I have formed a new rock band! We’re three fourths of the way there, the only position missing is the vocalist. I can hardly believe how quickly and smoothly everything has gone. I went from ad placement to the first rehearsal as a trio in about 10 days. I didn’t have a single riff or even one word for a lyric when we started playing together, and now we have 24 song ideas in various states of completeness, and dozens more recorded jams left to mine for riffs and melodies. It’s completely and utterly insane, and sometimes I wonder if it’s real, how long it will last, and if I can even talk about it aloud, for fear of jinxing anything.

One of the things that has always kept me from going all-in with forming a new band is that it’s so difficult for me to decide exactly what I really, really want to play. A small part of me wants to go for 60s and 70s covers, another wants blues rock, a third is more progressive and psychedelic, then there’s classic metal, death metal, you name it. But eventually I realized that there is absolutely no need to overthink anything. 20 years ago, I was deadly serious about everything since I still entertained the notion that I could somehow make it big. Now, I just want to have fun and hang out with like-minded people and improvise some kind of heavy rock music together. Whatever comes out the other end will likely anyway bear my maker’s mark to some degree, and there is something to be said about improvisation, since it does tend to bring the subconscious desires to the fore. Thus far, we have made forays into swing, funk, bossa nova and sleaze rock, but that’s just for fun. When we man up and try to be serious for a while, the main tendency seems to be some form of 70s-inspired hard rock with a generous helping of psychedelia. Like the bastard child of Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd. To be honest, I have had so much fun jamming with my bass player and drummer that I am in no hurry whatsoever with adding that vocalist, or driving towards was my original intention: to play live.

My other drummer asked me a question the other day that perhaps was perceived to be a lot more pointed than was likely intended: how am I going to balance the two projects? I don’t think that that is going to be much of a challenge. Musically, it’ll fall into place on its own, since Namlar is a metal band and my new and so far unnamed trio is a hard rock band. I don’t have any problems whatsoever picking out which riff belongs where, since the stuff for Namlar tends to be more exotic and dissonant and that for the other band more traditional and blues-based. Besides, the working methods are very distinct: with Namlar we are approaching the end of a two-year, 11-song recording project, and with the new band, we are still jamming and exploring.

 
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Posted by on 6 April, 2019 in editorial

 

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Distortion pedals

It’s been ages since I owned a proper distortion pedal. Other than a one-night stand with the Vox Satchurator about 10 years ago, I think you have to go back all the way to 1997, when I sold my Boss Metal Zone. During the years, I’ve owned several overdrives, but that’s not the same thing. When I say distortion, I’m talking about a pedal that has enough dirt that you can put it on top of a really clean tone and get a chugging heavy metal-type rhythm sound. An overdrive for me is something you put over a tone that is already distorted, either just to add more filth and sustain, or to change the EQ curve somewhat, or maybe a little bit of both. For many years, I’ve been sticking to the principle that the best clean sounds are actually a tiny bit distorted, so maybe I’ll stretch my definition of an overdrive to something that can help a clean tone acquire some glow, compression and sustain. The gist of the matter is that when I want a distorted tone for metal rhythm and leads, no pedal comes close to the sound of an amp. It is a pity, because I totally see the utility of a distortion pedal. Indeed, that was actually why I bought the Metal Zone all the way back in 1994. I had a series of sessions coming up, and I knew it was not going to be a practical option to schlep my Marshall stack all over town. I wanted a pedal where I could get my sound no matter what I plugged into. Another advantage with a distortion pedal is that it can simplify your signal chain. When I had my Marshall rack between 2006 and 2011, there were six long cables littering the floor underneath my feet: amp channel selector, guitar to pedalboard, pedalboard to amp, effects send to pedalboard, pedalboard to effects return and finally the AC cable for my pedal power supply. If there were a distortion unit that could have replaced the amp distortion, I could have done away with two of those cables straight away, since I would have put my chorus and delay directly after the distortion pedal. But the Satchurator never worked in my rig, quite likely because it was made to juice up a tube amp and not my transistor-based setup, so back it went on the next day. I was set on the Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion on the strength of a number of impressive demo videos and sound clips, and would probably have bought one had Guitar Center in Tonawanda kept one in stock. But when I got back to Sweden, I had the opportunity to try one, and it failed the critical A/B test against the amp I ran it through. It is a good distortion pedal, but it couldn’t even best a Peavey!

The Boss MT-2 Metal Zone has an undeservedly bad reputation. Of course everyone is entitled to an opinion, but I get the feeling that what everyone is sneering at isn’t necessarily the sound of the pedal, but the way other people use it. Granted, it is possible to dial in some really sick and completely unusable sounds on the thing, and I’ll be first in line to admit that I’ve also been there and done that. But when its knobs are twiddled in moderation, it is actually a fairly good distortion pedal. I’ve even used it on a recording with my old pop/punk band, I seem to remember running it through one of those old Music Man combos, and got a fairly mellow crunch sound. I did a big Boss distortion pedal shootout back in 2008 or 2009 at a Guitar Center, where they have one of those big boards with every current Boss pedal, and the Metal Zone was easily the best of the bunch. There is just something with that smooth, fine-grained distortion that appeals to me, it comes closest to my ideal guitar tone. I didn’t have the opportunity to compare it to the DS-2 since they didn’t have one at all (it came up as discontinued in their computer system), but I gravitated toward the DS-2 mostly because I had already owned an MT-2 and besides I liked the idea of a footswitchable boost on the DS-2. Even now I find myself drawn to the Metal Zone, I’ll probably pick up a used one in the foreseeable future, for fun and nostalgia and to prove to myself that you actually can get usable tones out of if you’re careful.

I’m currently GAS-ing over a whole bunch of distortion pedals, and I owe myself a long session at various music stores to actually try them out through various amps. I want to compare the JHS Angry Charlie and Charlie Brown, toss in a Fulltone OCD, I am curious about the Boss BD-2 Blues Driver, not to mention the Angry Driver. I want to bring along my collection of fuzzes and overdrives, because I want to know how either distortion pedal reacts to my Mini Tube Screamer, Spark Booster and Soul Food, and while I’m at it, I want to find an amp that not only takes all these pedals well, but also gives me usable tones with my Fuzz Face and Nano Big Muff. This is a solution without a problem, because for my only real band, Namlar, I have an amp that I love to death, and for my home studio, I have a cornucopia of modelling amps, pedals and even plugins. What I find myself worrying and fussing over is what to get to play covers and sessions, which simply is not an issue anymore. I quit the party band four years ago and haven’t got the slightest inclination to rejoin. I haven’t played a session since before that, and if I recall correctly, I used my Blackstar ID:30 for that session with great results. When I analyze the situation I realize that this is in fact a manifestation of my constant itch to get back on the stage, and of course I would by lying if I didn’t also admit that I just love buying gear.

 
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Posted by on 22 October, 2017 in editorial, gear

 

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The Pedalboard, continued

I’ve only belatedly realized that setting up a pedalboard is not just a craft, it also consists of equal parts art and science. Here is a runthrough of my journey so far:

I have been on and off with pedals ever since I got into electric guitar playing in the late 80s. It seems that every cycle starts with needing a pedal, then adding a few that I want, and then some annoying stuff happens, I develop an aversion to the darned things and sell them off. Then we’re back right at the beginning. I’ve spent more time off pedals than on. This is the longest “on phase” ever, possibly due to the fact that I haven’t played a gig since April, 2013, and this pedal-buying frenzy started four months after that. It is telling that that gig was done with a clean floor, just my guitar straight into an amp. It is always logistical issues related to stage performance that bring about a decline.

However, I do think that if I were to do a gig right now, I would be just about as prepared as I ever was. It’s been a long journey lined with frustration and misguided purchases, but I’ve picked up a bit or two of wisdom along the way. First and foremost, I simply had to get a proper pedalboard, not that Rockcase piece of crap. The Pedaltrain PT-2 turned out to be just the thing for me. One of the things that sold me on Pedaltrain was not just that they seemed to make good, solid metal boards. I was also amazed by their Pedalboard Planner site. You basically load an image of one of their pedalboards, on top of which you can add small JPG images of pedals (obviously to scale) and slide them around until you have the arrangement you want. Before I was aware of the brand or the site, I arranged all my pedals on our dining room table, attached the cables properly and measured the collective footprint. It turned out that my pedals would fit the PT-1 rather handily, and then I stepped up one size just to have some room to grow, and verified the entire deal as far as I could using Pedalboard Planner. The drawback with the Planner is that you have to take patch cables into account, which is harder than it sounds. Those pesky plugs are always thicker than you’d imagine! And the patch cables themselves are never long enough, or they’re too long.

When I finally got everything mounted, connected and powered and started using the board, it turned out to be just about the opposite of the Rockcase. Because of the open construction, you can mount pedals right up to the edges, and thanks to the metal build, you basically have to have an elephant stomp on your wah to make the board sag like the Rockcase did. I like that it’s angled, mostly because it’s more ergonomical, but also because that provides space underneath for your power supply. Which brings me onto the next part in my Pedalboard Journey:

I would never have bought a power supply unit like the Cioks Big John unless it was absolutely dealbreakingly necessary. It’s no fun at all to buy guitar stuff that doesn’t have buttons or LED:s and doesn’t make a sound of its own. However, without a proper power supply, none of the blinky lights will come on, so you have to have one. The Big John came highly recommended, but I didn’t know what to expect from it and I didn’t know how to evaluate it once I plugged it in. It’s a power supply, it supplies power, what more can you ask of it? One big advantage was that I was able to get away from that big, bulky Boss wall wart which always seemed to rattle loose from the socket when I least wanted it. The Big John is a box, with an AC cable with a sleek little plug, and seven outlets for 9V DC power. It worked well enough when I had a tuner, a noise gate and perhaps an overdrive. It was only when I started mounting it on pedalboards that I realized that it just didn’t work for me. No matter how I did, either the AC cable or the DC outlets were at the wrong end of the thing, and when I got the PT-2, there was no obvious way to mount the Big John underneath it. I will come clean straight away: I am not a tinkerer. I want things to work out of the box, and if they don’t, I will not use them, and in good time I will get rid of them. A more handy person would probably have seen all this as a challenge to be overcome, not an insurmountable obstacle like I did. I sacrificed a pedal to make room for the Big John on top of the board until I could get around to buying the Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 Plus, which fit the brackets that were included with the PT-2.

By that time I had realized another thing. A pedalboard is big, rather unwieldy and surprisingly heavy once you have 8-9 pedals and a power supply in place along with all the associated cables. The novelty of it quickly wore off, which is quite frankly not surprising given the fact that I’ve actually spent a bigger part of my playing career off pedals than on them. Whenever we had a combined songwriting/jamming/recording session, I found myself carrying a gig bag, a big pedalboard, a laptop case as well as a fourth bag with my sound card, microphones and studio paraphernalia. Something had to go, and to lose the pedalboard was the natural solution for someone like me. But I had got used to having the pedals around, I liked coloring clean passages with phaser or vibrato, or boosting my lead tone with the TC Electronic Spark. Then it hit me that I could set up a smaller travel board, so that’s how I came to buy the Pedaltrain Nano+. This is a straight, i.e. non-angled, board. It has (just about) room for five of my MXR- or TC pedals as well as the Ibanez Mini Tube Screamer, but I wouldn’t want to gig it like that. I’d likely keep the overdrive and ditch either the phaser or the Uni-Vibe. I haven’t tried it with Boss pedals since I no longer own any, but you could quite likely put four on there, maybe five if you have thin enough plugs. Just to be sure, I bought four EBS flat patch cables, which turned out to be really great. To solve the power issue, I decided to try Pedaltrain’s own Volto. The Volto is a rechargeable litium-ion 2000 mAh power supply that powers up to six 9-volt center-negative pedals with the attached power cords. It is specifically designed to be mounted underneath Pedaltrain’s mini boards, and is a snug but perfect fit under my Nano+. You charge it for a few hours and then you have enough juice to power your pedals at least for a gig, maybe more, although I would probably make sure that I charged the thing right up until lights out. I think it’s a fabulous little contraption, it eliminates a cable and it charges using a USB cable either into a computer or the supplied wall wart. It is basically a smartphone battery, or more properly a powerbank, but adapted for guitar pedals. Li-ion batteries have a finite lifespan and only last so many charging cycles, but I figure that by the time this one gives up the ghost, I will have moved on to another solution, or perhaps entered another one of my no-pedal phases!

Now that I finally have a workable pedalboard, I find that there is nothing constant about it save for a select few must-have effects. I once had a starry-eyed idealistic notion that with eight pedals (nine with the Dunlop volume pedal, which is passive and doesn’t count towards my energy budget), I would be able to do anything that might occur to me. But I was cured of that when I realized that I cannot go from 60s covers via modern covers to progressive rock to thrash metal with just eight pedals. Maybe if I daisy-chained both my boards!

 
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Posted by on 18 October, 2017 in editorial, gear

 

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Pick choices

After playing acoustic and electric guitar for 30+ years, I have come to two major conclusions about picks. Number one is that it is basically pointless to try to state that one particular pick shape or gauge will be more or less suitable for a certain style or genre. Every time I try to offer up a blanket statement about stiffer picks and speed playing, I come across a shredder who plays with medium or even light picks. The first conclusion leads into the second, which is that you should always be on the lookout. Picks are just about the cheapest pieces of equipment, so you can’t afford not to buy every variety there is, and try them out. You never know what is going to be the secret sauce for you.

I played for 23 years before I found the perfect pick for my style, which turned out to be the Dunlop Jazztone 204. On one hand, I was amazed that the simple act of switching picks enabled me to get faster and more accurate overnight. In the spring of 2008, I was convinced that the plateau I found myself on stretched all the way to the horizon. On the other, I’m kind of peeved that it had to be that pick. Sometimes I’m jealous of bass players, or guitar players like Mark Knopfler and Jeff Beck, who express themselves using fingers only, without having to worry about dropping those small but essential pieces of plastic. But I find it more annoying that I can’t just use any old pick. It has to be a very specific and fairly hard-to-find model!

The most obvious thing with the Jazztone 204 is that it is rigid. I have one next to me as I’m typing this, and when I use my thumb as a fulcrum and pull for king and country, I can get it to flex a few tenths of a millimeter. This is no news as far as I’m concerned: when I first got into hard rock and metal guitar, I noticed that I could achieve more speed and more consistency with a stiffer pick. I find that for my playing, more thickness means that I am control over the string release. Over the space of just a few months, I went from faux tortoise shell Fender medium picks (0.7 mm?) to Dunlop Delrin 500 1.14 mm (the cerise one). The next point I want to make about the Jazztone 204 is the cross-section. When I first discovered Dunlop Delrin picks, I noticed that they had beveled edges, and that proved to be vital as well, since the bevel means that the string slides more easily off the pick. (That, incidentally, is why I’m not wild about Dunlop’s 1.5 mm picks. The gauge is just about perfect, but the bevel is assymmetrical: shallower on the back than at the front.) The 204 is even smoother, it is a less pronounced ridge where the pick starts getting thinner towards the edges. Thus far, there is no major difference between a 204 and the Delrin/Gator Grip 2.0 mm. Moving on to the penultimate but perhaps the most important feature: the shape of the tip. The 204 is about as blunt as one of the opposite corners of a more traditional pick, and that appears to be the secret sauce for my playing. The first thing that struck me when I got a 204 and dug into the strings was that someone took 80 per cent of the friction right out of the equation without taking away the tone. I know that some players like the positive feel of a sharper tip, but my playing has evolved so that I happen to prefer the exact opposite. I barely nudge the string, and that works wonders for my speed and stamina. Lastly, the 204 is a jazz-type pick, which means that it is fairly small. To be perfectly honest, I only tried it out because I was distracted by a conversation, had I been fully aware it is unlikely that I would have touched such a weird-looking pick. It almost doesn’t look like a guitar pick! But after a few weeks of intense practicing, I found it hard to go back to a regular pick, they felt like credit cards in comparison!

All of this goodness comes at a price. They aren’t more expensive than any other Dunlop picks, but they are indeed harder to find, and that’s why I tend to hoard them. Whenever the store has them, I buy a couple, and I have about 30 in an Altoids tin at home. No, the drawback is that they are pretty impractical. The classic way to store picks is to squeeze them against the strings against the first fret, and there is simply not enough surface area on the 204. This has become even harder after I started using the Teflon-coated Elixir strings. It is impossible to tuck a 204 underneath the pickguard of a Stratocaster or Telecaster, so I have to use one of those rubber profiles that you stick on a mike stand. And even that is a less than optimal fit. Still, I accept these drawbacks since no other pick gets me that tone and that feel. It’s not that I can’t play if I don’t have a 204 on me. I can use just about anything, a pick, a coin, a credit card, to get a decent sound out of a guitar. It’s just that my muscle memory has reset itself around the feel of a 204 across the strings, so whenever I alter something in that very delicate equation, I lose the top few per cent of my speed and accuracy. Sometimes, I deliberately use a different pick in order to slow down and work on other aspects of my playing. I might use one of the Hendrix picks my parents gave me, just for the mojo. But most importantly: just because I think I’ve found “my” pick doesn’t mean that I have stopped looking. I have to remind myself that I thought I had “it” for almost two decades with the Delrins.

 
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Posted by on 21 May, 2017 in editorial, gear, Uncategorized

 

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Editorial: Signature Guitars

Our desire with the whole Signature Series was to build the guitars exactly the way the artists play them. We didn’t just want to build something that everybody was going to buy and then the artist had to have his different.

Dan Smith, Fender, from A.R. Duchossoir’s The Fender Stratocaster, 3rd ed., 1988.

Undoubtedly, this was a dig at Gibson and Les Paul. It is well known that Paul did not want an archtop electric guitar, but a flat top, and he wanted the maple/mahogany proportions in the body reversed, so Gibson made them special for him. That’s all fine, I suppose. But what about Fender? Have they gone the way Dan Smith intended? You can just take a look at their website, at the two different Eric Clapton signature models. One for the general public, and a Custom Shop version, exactly like the one E.C. himself plays on stage, which is different. Okay.

I am not a great fan of Trivium, but I am impressed with Matt Heafy’s attitude towards signature guitars. I always wondered why such a comparatively high-profile player would settle with an Epiphone when he could probably have arranged a signature model with Gibson. The answer turns out to be that the guy wants the people who enjoy his music to be able to afford one! I think this is a very nice way of looking at it. People write a lot of shit on message boards, but occasionally, you do run across nice people with interesting things to say. Someone once commented that it’s us regular hobbyists and amateurs, Clapton, Slash and Petrucci fans, who get ripped off, so that Gibson, Fender and Music Man can continue supplying free instruments to already filthy-rich rock stars. And probably tack on royalty money to boot.

My favorite electric guitar is the Gibson Les Paul, so I probably have no right whatsoever to say this, but I am not overly fond of signature equipment. I think it’s a matter of association: I want to be myself and to have others see me as myself and not as some wannabe. And I also wouldn’t want to use something featuring the signature of an artist whose works I do not particularly enjoy – again, the association thing. I could never step on a Mark Tremonti phaser pedal because I don’t want to send him royalty money, and I don’t want a Petrucci or Hetfield guitar because I don’t want to be regarded as a wannabe.

 
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Posted by on 7 November, 2014 in editorial, gear

 

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