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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 Uncategorized, editorial, gear

 

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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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Editorial: The Pedalboard

In other news: my Pedaltrain 2 has arrived, along with my new Dunlop DVP-1 volume pedal. So, the pieces of my pedalboard are lying around. All that remains is to put it all together into a configuration. Other than the Pedaltrain and the power supply, the components are, in no particular order:

  • Korg DT-10 tuner
  • TC Electronic Spark Booster
  • MXR Phase 90 (block logo)
  • Dunlop Crybaby wah (limited edition white painted)
  • Dunlop DVP-1 volume pedal
  • TC Electronic Shaker Vibrato
  • MXR Carbon Copy analog delay

The vibrato and delay will go into the effects loop of the amp, the other five before the input. Cable cornucopia! The tuner will likely be connected to the tuner out of the volume pedal, unless I prefer the sound of its buffered input. More than that, I haven’t really figured out exactly in which order to put the pedals. The one thing I know is that I want to keep the phaser before the amp input, because I’ve yet to hear a phaser that sounds good after distortion. (Edit 16 March: accidentally wrote BEFORE distortion. Oops!) The vibrato does sound pretty cool before distortion, but the delay sure as hell doesn’t. Keep the regeneration and mix above 9 o’clock and it immediately turns to mush.

One thing that strikes me is that this pedalboard is not that different from what Hendrix would have used. That is entirely intentional. Listen back to those albums from 1967 and onwards, how the great players experimented with tones. Other than the really saturated modern metal tone, all the basic rock tones were already discovered before 1972. Before flangers, before choruses. In those days, there were Leslies, wahs and phasers, which are effects that simply feel more organic to me. Believe me, I have an incredible itch for a proper fuzz and a Uni-Vibe!

 
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Posted by on 15 March, 2014 in editorial, gear

 

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The Curious Case of the Clean Floor

The perfect gig is the one where I don’t have to sing and where I can play the entire set with a clean floor – no effects pedals or switches whatsoever.

My most flexible setup in this regard is my Fender Telecaster into the OD channel of my 20-watt Blackstar amp, with the gain set at about 9 or 10 o’clock. I can get a whole range of rock tones using nothing but the pickup selector. On the bridge pickup (a DiMarzio Super Distortion T), I get a searing, penetrating lead sound, whereas the bridge + neck combination backs off on both gain and treble for a very smooth rhythm sound. The neck pickup alone (DiMarzio Area T) is more focused, but obviously not as distorted or toppy as the bridge pickup. If I introduce the volume control on the guitar into the equation, there’s even more flexibility. The aforementioned middle position, but with the volume at about half, gives me a clean sound that works very well for basically anything but the funkiest and twangiest stuff.

With a Gibson, which typically has individual volume controls for the two pickups, I get even more flexibility. I can basically preset one pickup, usually the bridge, to a distorted tone and then use the neck pickup on half volume as an ersatz clean tone. Then I just use the pickup selector to flick between clean and crunch. Still, I tend to use my Fenders, primarily the Telecaster, simply because the Fender sound just fits the cover bands better.

This practice of mine has drawn a bit of criticism from audio purists around me. Their argument being that adjusting the guitar volume on the fly is an arbitrary and imprecise method, that I will never be able to be consistent, that for instance two verses will not have exactly the same settings and sound. Like that matters! As if rock n roll was ever supposed to be exact and scientific! I’d gladly give up that precision for the luxury of being undistracted by searching for pedals and switches on the floor. It’s a lot less gear to carry, fewer cables to trip on, one power outlet less to worry about. I don’t have to glance down, I can maintain eye contact with my band members and the audience. Ultimately it means a better performance, and that’s what it’s supposed to be about, not audio perfection. I’ll bet that at the end of the show, people are not going to come up to you and tell you that one of the guitars dropped out during a verse here and a bridge there.

Sticking to one amp setting and playing without effects is a major challenge. I have to be at my very best to coax every possible tone and nuance out of my instrument. It is at the end of the day a more stimulating challenge than having one pedal for each sound. I am forced to play my instrument and not just touch the strings.

This method works really well for my session work: gigs, rehearsals and recordings with cover bands. In my more serious metal band Namlar, it is sadly not an option. I use way more distortion and volume, which means that I have to use the channel selector – backing off on the guitar volume doesn’t clean the tone up enough. More gain also necessitates a noise gate, and if I have one pedal and one switch on the floor, I might as well use a pedal tuner. It quickly snowballs from there, and that is how I entered the current phase of expanding my pedal board.

 
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Posted by on 21 April, 2013 in editorial, gear

 

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The Tale of the Lunchbox

We guitar players are living in exciting times. I am talking about the lunchbox amplifier: a small form factor head that packs a full set of tubes (or valves) and is rated between 1 and 20 watts.

For not much money, you can get a tube amplifier that you can crank to your heart’s content and both your eardrums and your rental contract will be intact afterwards. Moreover, you don’t have to break your back to bring one onto a small stage, and when it gets there, it doesn’t completely obliterate the rest of the band.

It started with the smaller, upstart companies, and now, five, six years down the line, even the high-wattage giants Marshall and Mesa/Boogie have jumped on the bandwagon and issued lunchboxes of their own.

I think this is a wonderful development. Tube amplification has all of a sudden become a realistic option for us home recording people who happen to live in apartments. As well as for amateur musicians who take to stages that are no more than dimly lit corners of restaurants. Even though the sound quality of solid-state equipment has been steadily improving in the past 20 years, there is just something about tubes that we don’t want to abandon.

This is all well, but it does beg one question. Did it take that many years for the industry to realize just how overpowered a 50 or 100 watt stack really is? Or has it been a form of confirmation bias: amp manufacturers have only ever offered 50 and 100 watts, thus people have not been able to buy anything else, confirming back to the manufacturer the correctness of their offerings?

 
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Posted by on 17 March, 2013 in editorial, gear

 

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