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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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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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Overdrive and boost

One of the greatest guitar tones I’ve ever achieved was my Stratocaster through my dad’s rig: a Boss OD-2 Turbo Overdrive and a late-70s Marshall 2203. My dad usually set it up for a clean tone and used the overdrive sparingly for the odd lead here and there, but whenever I had a play with it, I always maxed out the pre-amp volume. With my single-coils, it had a rock/blues sort of sound, crunchy but not overly so. When I stepped on the overdrive, I was immediately floored. I didn’t know that I could play that well! It just flowed, it was like the guitar was playing itself and I was just there to guide it along. We jammed and wrote a song on the spot! This was my first proper introduction to the concept of gain stacking. If only I had learned something from it! But then I realize that this was during a time of pedal aversion, and if I could save myself the money and the hassle, I would. It wasn’t until I bought my Fender G-DEC that I started getting into the concept of gain stacking for real. That amp had a number of different amp models, a whole bunch of modulation and ambiance effects, but most importantly, it allowed you to simulate an overdrive or boost pedal in front of the digital gain stage. I immediately found that it felt so much more natural to choose a lower-gain amp model and then add the distortion back in via an overdrive sim. It gave me a lot more fluidity and definitely more sustain.

I have always been a big fan of the Eric Clapton signature Fender Stratocaster. It has a 25 dB active mid-boost that sort of allows you to approximate the sound of humbucking pickups. I was very inspired when I first saw the Cream 2005 reunion DVD, I just couldn’t believe how many cool tones Eric was able to get out of his signature guitar straight into an overdriven tweed Fender. With the mid-boost off, he gets that nice pushed Stratocaster blues sound, and when he dials it back in, it breaks up so sweetly. I was very taken by the idea of playing with a totally clean floor, handling all the tone selection from the guitar. Many times, I have considered buying one of those mid-boost kits and installing it in my Stratocaster, but I always chicken out since I am very much not a tinkerer and I would probably only end up messing up both my guitar and the mid-boost kit. That’s when the idea hit me to find a pedal that could do the job, and the minute that occurred to me, TC Electronic released the Spark Booster. Unfortunately, by that time, I was on my way out of the cover band, and therefore I never got to use the boost pedal the way I had originally envisioned it. It was a fixture on my pedalboard for a little while, but it got phased out when I started adding more modulation pedals. I figured that with the volume levels I regularly play at in my metal band, there is simply no need for more distortion or sustain, and it’s not that I have a lot of sound to punch through. It was a lot more fun having a flanger to accentuate certain parts, or the vibrato to spice up my clean sound.

I have always liked the Ibanez Tube Screamer. I borrowed a TS10 once from a teacher at our old high school, and I enjoyed the more mainstream rock tone, which was a world apart from the scooped Marshall sound that I was used to. It worked well enough set up as a mild distortion pedal, but when I finally bought one myself, this one a TS7 Tonelok, it was mostly to get over-the-top quasi-feedback when playing through digital amp sims, as well as a solo boost here and there. It never occurred to me to have a boost or an overdrive as part and parcel of my main distorted tone, and it definitely never occurred to me to use an overdrive pedal as a boost, until very recently. This was another piece of wisdom I learned from That Pedal Show. Damn those guys, they have made me spend thousands of crowns on new pedals! Anyway, I was intrigued by the sound of the Mini Tube Screamer, and I noticed that I kept reading about metal players using Tube Screamers as boosters. Even on a Peavey 5150, which isn’t exactly a gain-poor amp to start with. Since I didn’t want to record a third Namlar disc with the exact same tone, I figured that it was time to start exploring new territories, and why not start off with some classic gain-stacking? So I went to the store and bought myself two overdrive pedals: the aforementioned Mini Tube Screamer and the Electro-Harmonix Soul Food. The latter is supposed to be an affordable clone of the legendary Klon Centaur. I’ve obviously never played through a Klon, and the Soul Food didn’t really nail the sound when TPS did their shootout, but it was close enough, had a fine sound in its own right, and was still different enough from the Tube Screamer that I felt it was worth it to give it a shot. I was amazed when I ran them through my regular recording setup. Naturally, I couldn’t put the Tube Screamer on top of my usual heavy sound, that would have been a tad too extreme. Instead, I set up a sound that eased off on the bass control, added a bit more mids and above all backed off on the gain. Then it was just a matter of twisting the knobs on the ‘Screamer until I found the “a-ha”, which turned out to reside with the tone at noon, the gain at 9 o’clock and the level at about 3. How strange that I managed to discover such an awesome metal tone by pushing the mids rather than scooping them! I am all for mini pedals. In a way, I’m kind of bummed that TC Electronic and MXR have released mini versions of my favorites, since I am sorely tempted to buy the smaller versions to save space on my big board, or to be able to fit six pedals comfortably on the small board. The only thing I don’t like about the Mini-TS is that the level and tone controls are hard to see down there. I basically have to set them by feel. The Soul Food worked similar magic: focus in the lower register, but with more pronounced upper mids for a more biting lead sound. I read somewhere that the main difference between a cheap overdrive pedal and a more expensive one is how usable the tone control is, and there appears to be a bit of truth to that. The Soul Food works best with the tone control at noon or just before; push it further and it gets unduly harsh. It does look rather cheap with its unpainted aluminium enclosure and tacked-on label, but hey: it’s a pedal. You’re supposed to step on it and get a sound out of it, not sit around and look at it. If that’s what it takes to be able to make effects pedals in the heart of New York and still sell them at non-boutique prices, I’m all for it. At first, I was a bit bummed that the knobs were a bit slick and had a bit of resistance to them, it sure takes some deliberate action to dial a sound. But upon further reflection, I realized that that’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be. It’s not very likely that one of the controls is going to get nudged out of position by accident!

After a couple of months with the Tube Screamer and the Soul Food, I realized that I just wasn’t using the Spark Booster any more. I’m not the sort of player who wants to have unused gear just lying around. Use it or lose it, has always been my philosophy, especially with effects pedals. But then it hit me that I could try to work the pedal to see whether I could get new sounds of it. And I did! As far back as last year, I set the Spark to its clean setting (i.e. not “fat” or “mid” boost), dialed in some grit on the Gain control and added a touch of volume. That worked wonders on my Fender silverface tone, and if you listen to Temptation from Namlar’s Winter album, you’ll hear that pedal during the main riff. There is a cleanish guitar shadowing the distorted melody guitar for a rather neat effect. Not that long ago, I discovered that using the Fat boost setting, setting the Gain between 7 and 9 o’clock, the Level at 1-ish and adding some bass really fattens up a regular British-style crunch tone. It is surprisingly versatile and I have found that under the right circumstances, it is the closest candidate to an always-on pedal in my entire rig.

And, finally, this just in: today I took delivery of a TC Electronic Mojomojo overdrive pedal. They’ve been around for years and years, and a while back, they cut the price in half, seemingly just to get rid of them. But recently, I’ve heard more and more people talk about them, and my curiosity was sufficiently aroused that I figured I would get one and try it out. If nothing else then for the fact that soon enough, a star player is going to gush over the Mojomojo and TC will raise the price from 500 to 1800 crowns. I like what I hear so far, but I’d have to give it a bit more stick time.

 
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Posted by on 25 November, 2017 in gear, review

 

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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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