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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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Fender Player Series

I’ve spent the majority of my playing career insisting on American-made instruments, and my current collection indeed reflects that. Picking up a Squier, an Epiphone or even a Mexican Fender just wasn’t in the cards, for the life of me I couldn’t make myself excited by anything less than a proper US-made Fender or Gibson. The jury might still be out on an Epiphone Les Paul or SG, but I’ve been increasingly impressed by Mexican guitars in the past few years. It started with my two Taylors, both of which were manufactured south of the border, and I have also been very impressed by Paul Reed Smith’s SE series (my baritone was made in Indonesia). I don’t know if it is ironic in the proper sense of the word, but the more purchasing power I get, the more I tend to prefer guitars that are just good enough. Or to put it the other way around, the less I feel that the American stuff is worth what you have to shell out for it. The price issue is especially important since I am well aware that any new guitar I buy is unlikely to displace my black Les Paul as my Number One. but instead become another voice in my cast of character actors.

Fender’s Mexican vintage models are especially nice. We gave my dad a 50s Telecaster for his 50th birthday, and once you get used to the thick neck, it’s awesome to play. The Fiesta Red Stratocaster is also delicious. The Mexican vintage guitars have their own interesting solution to the issues I’ve had with those guitars, since they have the correct logo and a vintage Fender should have 21 frets. The Standard series guitars feel okay, but I’ve always felt that they look a bit cheap. I don’t like the logo, for instance. All of this seems to have been solved but the retooling and renaming into the Player series. Now we’re talking 22 frets, a vintage spaghetti logo, and modern wiring (middle pickup is reverse wound/reverse polarity, the bridge pickup has a tone control). They are awesome instruments that hit just about all the high points that I used to enjoy with the American Standard. I was especially taken by the Sonic Red model, which looks like it’s a cross between Dakota Red and Torino Red. It is just a pity that it doesn’t come with a maple neck, but only the pau ferro fretboard. I tried the pau ferro and I like it even less than rosewood. It is much lighter in color, which I don’t particularly care for, and it has a really weird texture that grates on my fingers. But, since they are only about 6000 crowns, I could buy two, swap necks and sell one of the mongrels. Yes, it’s just that good.

 
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Posted by on 9 July, 2018 in gear, review

 

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Tuners

In retrospect, I find it absolutely fascinating that I managed to play the guitar for 14 years before I bought my first electronic tuner. How the hell did I do it? Well, for starters, most of the time I played by myself, so absolute pitch was definitely secondary to relative pitch. It was only when I started playing in bands that it came to close to being an issue. And even then, most of the time someone would hit the open E string and everyone else would tune from that. For more precision, I used reference tones. So long as we tuned to standard pitch, the dial tone on your average phone was a perfect reference: 440 Hz, or middle A. When we dropped down to D, I would either tune my B string to the phone, or put on Hangar 18 by Megadeth, which has a long intro, all on a D pedal tone. Then I would tune all the other strings after the top string and when I got to the rehearsal space, the other guys would tune after me. I didn’t get a tuner until I started Nox in 1999. I can’t even remember which make it was, but it was black and it didn’t like our E flat tuning, so back to the shop it went after the first rehearsal. Instead I got what I considered to be the gold standard, namely the Boss TU-12H. The Boss was not a bad tuner. It was accurate enough, and it worked with both electrics and acoustics. The problem was that whenever you plugged in an electric, the mike was invariably left on, so that it basically had to be all quiet in the room, or the darned thing wouldn’t do its job. If only I had been aware of the Boss TU-2 pedal tuner when we first started out, it would have saved me lots of grief! But I had committed to the TU-12H, I was too cheap to get a second tuner, and I didn’t want to go through the hassle of trying to sell it during the pre-online classifieds era, so I was forced to soldier on. Improvise, adapt, overcome.

When I finally broke down and bought the Korg DT-10 pedal tuner in 2007, it was a revelation. After eight years of having to shush my fellow musicians to be able to tune up, I could just plug in, hit the switch and tune away, even though a nuclear war might be going on around me. It was such a paradigm change that I could hardly wrap my head around it. The thing with a pedal tuner is that it not only takes up real estate on your pedalboard, it also consumes one DC power outlet and n amount of milliamps of your current budget. That’s why I found a clip-on such a welcome change of pace. Pedal tuners in all honor, but they fall kind of flat when introduced to something that is referred to as an acoustic guitar. A clip-on works with any guitar or even bass. I have reviewed two different flavors of clip-on tuner: the do-too-much Joyo and the just-about-perfect Korg Pitchclip. However, I have found that I am not too fond of them in live use. There is just too much vibration going on with the bass, rhythm guitar, drums and PA system, the little things get confused, on top of which you get a fair bit of user error, since I am usually in a hurry to get set up before the next song. Especially if I want to reset from drop-D to standard-E between two songs, which isn’t exactly rare.

I can’t remember exactly when TC Electronic introduced the Polytune, but it was between five and ten years ago. First, it felt a bit like black magic. Like, how the hell can a piece of software be able to show me the tuning of six strings at once? It turns out that I am considerably less impressed with it in actual use. I happened upon the clip-on version in our rehearsal room and borrowed it for a quick tune-up, out of plain curiosity. It agreed with the Korg all right. But the Poly mode did not agree with the single-string mode! Even my ears did not agree with the Poly mode, it was audibly out of tune. So much for “Strum. Tune. Rock.” I do realize that there could be user error here as well, but I would assume that such a system would be intuitive! Truth be told, I finally went ahead and bought myself a Polytune Clip, just last year. I got a good deal for one at my music store, and lots of people had expressed satisfaction with theirs, so I thought what the heck and got one for myself. If you press and hold one of the buttons for 5 seconds, it goes into Bass mode, which disables the Polytune function and only lets you tune one string at a time, and when I do that, it is actually a damn fine tuner! It just feels more accurate than my old Korg, more solid. I like the utility of it, but if I were to find myself on a stage again, I would definitely spend the cash and sacrifice a spot on my pedalboard for a small pedal tuner.

 
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Posted by on 26 November, 2017 in gear, review

 

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