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Review: The Gibson SG

My Gibson SG is a black 2005 Standard that I bought used in 2012. It was in pretty bad shape when I got it: the intonation appeared to have been set according to rough description rather than listening to actual pitches, the fretboard was caked with grime and the body all dusty. It required such little effort to talk it down from the listed price that it occurs to me that maybe I should have gone for 500 crowns more. Well, for some people, the haggling is the thing, whereas for me, I prefer looking at it as getting a good deal, and I really did.

The really annoying thing was only evident after a week or so, namely that this was the second Gibson in a row where the backs of the tuners were coming off. On my Les Paul, I had to get a new set of tuners. This time, some superglue seems to have sufficed. But what are they doing in Nashville? Or is it the dry Swedish winter that does the guitars in?

As far as I know, the SG originated in an attempt to rejuvenate the Les Paul model and/or take up direct competition with the Fender Stratocaster. In the latter case, I think that it is quite disappointing that it has never occurred to Gibson to pimp their SG:s in more interesting colors. It seems like you can always get them in black and some form of brown. Sometimes a splash of white. Maybe I’ve seen a blue one. But wouldn’t it be cool with red or green metallic?

But okay, let’s put away the negative waves for a moment and instead concentrate on the positive ones. For there are many! I like to think of the SG as the younger ballet-dancing cousin of the Les Paul. The family resemblance is right there, it has most of the attitude of the Les Paul but in a thinner, nimbler package that is a hell of a lot easier to throw around on stage. The ergonomics are simply fantastic. Not Stratocaster-class, but pretty darned close. All the controls are right next to the picking hand and there is even a top-mounted jack socket. About the only thing that knocks it down from full marks is that the neck pickup tone control is a bit too close to the jack socket, but that’s it. It is a light body that is a delight to strap on, almost to the point where it gets neck-heavy, but never uncomfortable. Still, it is surprisingly resonant: mine just booms right across the room even when it’s not even close to being plugged in. Some of this might be the neck, which is thick and almost club-like. It is a considerable adjustment from my other guitars, but I haven’t played enough SG:s to tell whether it is a design feature or something unique to my guitar or the 2005 Standard.

However, the main selling point of the SG for me is the unparalleled access to all frets across all strings. Seriously, they could easily have extended the 22-fret fretboard to 24 without compromising access in any way. (They actually did on the 50th anniversary model!) I had to reprogram my muscle memory when I got my SG, because I had got used to jamming my hand into the cutaways of my three other electrics and then reaching a bit for the 22nd fret. On the SG, I can easily reach it without even being close to the cutaway. This guitar is built for shred, and has the sound for it as well. You get the same drive and crunch as with a Les Paul. The difference is that the tone just isn’t as fat, and doesn’t have the hour-long sustain. But I can live without that. The neck humbucker has an almost single coil-like transparency that contrasts nicely with the force of the bridge pickup. It is also very nice to have the standard Gibson wiring where you can set the volume and tone of the two pickups separately. Clean and crunch, or lead and woman tone.

The only really sad part is that I bought this guitar more than two years ago, and I have yet to use it on stage.

 
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Posted by on 12 November, 2014 in gear, review

 

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Review: Zoom H1 digital recorder

In the old days, state of the art home recording was a 4-track cassette portastudio. I suppose they were all right, so long as you had somebody along who could actually use one, and didn’t expect pristine sound quality. In my old band, it was out of the question, since no one could afford one. When we recorded ourselves, we did so with with a cheap boombox on the floor. Mixing was done by physically moving the device closer to (or further from) an amp or the drums. If the input level was too high, we simply put a towel over the microphone aperture.

The Zoom H1 is the very same tool, but adapted for the 21st century and miniaturized until it’s just about pocketable. It records digital sound in stereo onto an SD Micro card, in either MP3 or WAV format, and with full control of input volume. It is not just for musicians, these devices are also sold in photo stores for pro video use, and I imagine that they can also be used by journalists or even compulsive note-takers. In my opinion, this is a wonderful tool for musical note-taking and rudimentary demoing. If I want to capture something quickly, I don’t have to fire up my sound card, plug in a microphone and start up Reaper. I can just switch this little thing on, and off I go. Same thing in the rehearsal room: write something and record it immediately. Even a small 2 gigabyte card (do they even sell those anymore?) is good for more than 3 hours of CD-quality uncompressed audio.

The big drawback is that the H1 just eats batteries, and will chew through an AA in 24 hours no matter if you use the recorder or not. That doesn’t mean I don’t recommend it, but be aware of this, stock up on rechargeable AA:s and keep them topped up.

 
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Posted by on 11 November, 2014 in gear, review

 

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Review: Marshall MG15CFX amplifier

The Marshall MG15CFX is a 15-watt solid-state combo amp with built-in digital effects. It has four channels (more properly: four gain stages), two reverbs (studio and spring) and five effects: chorus, flanger, phaser, delay (with tap tempo!) and octaver. Naturally it has a line in for jamming along to an MP3 player or the like, and there is also a headphone output for silent practicing. There is no USB port, so you cannot control it via software, this is an old-school amp with new-school accouterments.

The MG15CFX has few controls, but utilize them well. The channels/presets are accessed via two buttons: one switches between clean and crunch, the other between OD1 and OD2. It remembers the last setting, so you can switch back and forth between, say, crunch and OD2 without having to click excessively. There is also a footswitch jack for when your hands are otherwise engaged. A button switches the amp between manual mode (the sound reflects the current amp settings) and preset mode (one saved preset per gain stage, including gain, volume, EQ settings, reverb and effect). There are no real surprises with the controls: gain, volume, 3-band EQ and master volume work as they would on any other amp. The reverb and effects controls are a combination of effect selector and intensity adjustment. (No effect – twist – some chorus – twist – more chorus – twist – some phaser, etc.) This also means that you can only combine reverb and effect – no chorus and delay combination, for instance.

The dry sounds are standard fare for Marshall amps: a solid clean tone, good crunch sounds and a nice, fluid lead tone. With judicious use of the channel selector, gain knob and EQ, you can dial in anything from ballad clean to death metal, from the Bluesbreakers to Iron Maiden. As I’ve remarked in another review of another amp from another British manufacturer, it’s very nice to see (hear?) that solid state amps nowadays can also make some pretty convincing crunch-type sounds, it’s not just clean and full-on distortion. It’s just a pity that the unit doesn’t come with a noise gate, because you get quite a bit of annoying hiss on the OD channels. The effects are good enough for home practice and simple demoing, but I’d probably look elsewhere for delays and phasers.

It is difficult to make a proper recommendation of this unit, since it so much depends on your point of view. If you’re a Marshall aficionado and want something that sounds good at very low volume levels, where even a 1-watt tube amp would be too much, it is an obvious choice. Whether you would want this amp or its simpler sisters (the CFR comes with spring reverb only, the CF is sans effects) comes down to a matter of budget and applicability. If you are a traditionalist and/or prefer adding effects in post when recording, then obviously you’ll want the bone-dry CF. Comparing it to other brands at the same price point inevitably brings up the apples-versus-apples debate. This Marshall only ever strives to sound like a Marshall. Fenders, Voxes, Line6:s, Blackstars – all those model other amp types as well. If it were me, I’d spend the extra cash on a Blackstar ID:15, just for the flexibility and the extra power and control (via the software).

 
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Posted by on 10 November, 2014 in gear, review

 

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Review: Ernie Ball Polypro strap

Many years ago, one of the music stores in town used to have a rack full of Ernie Ball Polypro straps in every color. Above the rack was a picture of Eric Clapton with his trademark Stratocaster and a Polypro. The caption read: “If it’s good enough for Eric, it’s good enough for you. 59 crowns including tax.” I would tend to agree. On a more philosophical note, it is simple and unadorned enough that it doesn’t distract from the guitar, instead it recedes into the background and keeps your instrument and what your hands are doing with it in the foreground. On a more practical note, it is a guitar strap, period. It does what it should do and does so at a bargain-basement price.

I used Polypros for a couple of years, mostly because they were long enough back when DiMarzio’s straps weren’t. It doesn’t have so much to do with trying to look cool as the simple fact that I am 200 cm (6’7″) tall and straps are made for guitar players of average height. I loved the feel and the simplicity of the design. I still enjoy the straps greatly, but since I got back to the ClipLocks, my Polypros live with my acoustic guitars. For me personally, that just works better. There is nothing wrong the Polypro per se, it was just that I got tired about worrying about them in a live setting. I used those little twisty strap locks, but they started popping off during shows and I had to go hunt for them during the breaks. (I kept forgetting to bring spares.) On a Fender, you get a bit of extra security because of the way the strap wraps around the top horn. On a Les Paul, the tension pulls away from the strap lug, which is a recipe for… unexpected things.

 
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Posted by on 9 November, 2014 in gear, review

 

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Review: DiMarzio ClipLock strap

The tie has always been the standard, classic gift for guys. For guitar players, the equivalent has to be the shoulder strap. It is funny in a way that I am about as uninterested in straps as I am in ties. The difference is that in the latter case, it is something that I do for the hell of it, tolerate a few hours of discomfort to look good at the annual company Christmas party. And in the former, it’s because I know what I like and what works and nothing else has ever worked equally well. So for you people out there, if you want to get me a birthday or Christmas gift, get me something other than a strap, because if it isn’t a DiMarzio ClipLock, I simply will not use it.

I’ve used DiMarzio Cliplock straps almost exclusively since the beginning of the 90s: one white but mostly black. I only stopped using them for a few years because my old one wasn’t long enough to put my Les Paul into a comfortable enough position, and went straight back as soon as DiMarzio started making them longer. In my experience, they take the strap completely out of the equation. You may still worry about breaking strings, frying a tube, having a wild and wooly party-goer bump into your mike stand, giving you a fat lip in the process. But you never have to worry about the strap coming off in the middle of a song. It’s just there, all the time, so you can concentrate on other things. I also particularly like the feel of the seatbelt-type nylon. It is slippery enough that the strap doesn’t get stuck on your shoulder, but not to the degree that it slides all over the place.

I have four complete assemblies, one for each of my electric guitars. I do know that DiMarzio supplies the end pieces separately, so you can save a few bucks by buying one complete assembly and one end piece set for every other guitar, and then switching the strap between the guitars. It wasn’t a huge expense, so I didn’t bother with that solution. I basically have to have four different lengths anyway to keep all my guitars at the same height. The straps live on the guitars constantly, even at home, which has the added advantage that the little end piece doesn’t flop around when I sit down on the couch to practice or record.

The one and only problem I’ve encountered with the Cliplock is affixing it to the guitar in the first place. The screws seem to be a little bigger than the standard strap button screws, which is all and well, but they’re also longer. On one or two of my guitars, the DiMarzio screw hit the bottom of the pre-drilled hole in the guitar, so I had to unscrew the darned thing and add a washer or two between the strap end and the guitar body before retrying.

 
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Posted by on 8 November, 2014 in gear, review

 

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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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Review: DiMarzio Area 58 + Area T Bridge

I recently did a complete U-turn with regards to my Fenders. I can hardly think of a more flexible guitar than my Telecaster with the Super Distortion in the bridge. It could do just about anything. But it turned out to be a blind alley to lead my Stratocaster down the same path. When playing distorted, of course it sounded fantastic. As I’ve said in another review, the Super Distortion S is a great pickup that is actually hotter and less toppy than the T model, and the Air Norton is very rounded and smooth for a neck pickup. But it only took one rehearsal to make me decide that Namlar, which is my only band right now, is not a Fender band, at least not as far as I’m concerned. In spite of the Super Dist, I was forced to race home during our lunch break and switch the Stratocaster for my Les Paul. It just wasn’t happening with the Fender. And when I sat around at home, playing my Fenders through the Blackstar, I found myself constantly longing for the traditional Fender clean and overdriven sound. Like the other guitar player in my old covers band, I found that humbuckers on a Fender do not balance.

This got even worse during the summer, when I got this insatiable craving for Hendrix and Gilmour. So the decision was easy. Since I needed to get the Stratocaster professionally adjusted anyway, I thought I might strike two birds with one stone and have the shop replace two of the pickups while they were at it. Super Distortion and Air Norton aside, I really enjoyed the glassy precision of the Area 58, so getting two of those turned out to be a logical next decision. And while I was it, why not do the same for my other Fender, and let it be a real Telecaster for the first time in four years?

Now that my Fenders have classic-sounding if noiseless pickups, they sound the way they were made, and that is very good indeed. I’d say they are way more transparent and single coil-like than Fender’s own Hot Noiseless set. Purists might argue that only a true single coil pickup can really sound like a Fender, but I just can’t live with the single-coil hum. I did a quick A/B test in the shop with stock Fenders, and the difference was like night and day. DiMarzio’s Area pickups are close enough that what you gain easily compensates for whatever you might think you’re losing. The Stratocaster pickups are focused and sharp when played one by one, and quack nicely in the 2 and 4 positions. My Telecaster might have lost a bit of its universal flexibility, but now it sounds as bright and spanky as Leo designed it. If I want that extra bit of drive from my Fenders, I don’t have to mess with super-hot pickups. Let’s not forget that I actually own a very capable boost pedal!

 
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Posted by on 5 November, 2014 in gear, review

 

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