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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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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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PRS SE 277 Baritone

For a good long while there, it seemed as if 2017 was going to be yet another Gibson year for me. The 2017 Les Paul range included the Tribute models, which sported a most delectable goldtop with humbuckers for a quite reasonable price. I fantasized about that guitar for weeks. Then it hit me: I already have a Les Paul with humbuckers. I even have a Les Paul with single-coils now! However much I’d like a laundry list of various Les Pauls and Stratocasters, even a couple more Telecasters and possibly even a second SG, neither is likely to give me a new sound. One idea that actually has been kicking around for quite a while now is to add a seven-string to my collection. Seven-strings are always such a good idea on paper, sitting and reading about them on the bus, or when thinking about them at home. But when I play one, I find myself utterly confused and bewildered by that extra string. I once heard a theory that your success in adapting to a seven-string is dependent on whether you visualize the fretboard high-to-low or the other way around. If there is truth to that, which I don’t have any reason to doubt, I am very likely a low-to-high player.

I have always been very impressed with Paul Reed Smith guitars. The ones I’ve played have been wonderfully smooth, resonant not to mention exquisitely beautiful. But all of that comes at a price, which has been the primary reason I’ve kept my PRS exposure to a minimum. Overseas-made PRS SE guitars have never been an option for me. Until now, that is. Now that I’m old and wise enough to know that good enough is actually good enough. It’s what you do with it that counts. It was therefore fortuitous that my store had recently started stocking PRS:es, they were deep on SE models and had a few oddballs. In the latter category, I immediately gravitated towards a seven-string Custom 24. I was exactly as lost as I imagined that I would be, and I said so to the sales guy when he came around to check up on me. Instead, he suggested a PRS baritone guitar, semi-acoustic, with single-coil pickups. I must have given him a look, since he immediately backed down and said something like, okay so maybe that wasn’t at all what you were looking for. I was honest: no, it was definitely not at all what I was looking for. But neither, apparently, was the seven-string. So I plugged the baritone in, hardly expecting that I would be as blown away as I was. I couldn’t put the guitar down. I even walked around the store to try some other axes, but I kept coming back to the baritone. I would have bought it on the spot had I not managed to convince myself to sleep on it. An even that turned out to be a mere formality, because that guitar was all I could think about for the rest of the weekend.

It never occurred to me to try a baritone because I supposed that a baritone guitar is just a regular guitar but a little bigger, optimized for downtuning to, say, B or even A, and I don’t downtune. What I didn’t realize was that it is actually its own instrument with its own sound. I actually just wrote the operative word: optimized. The PRS SE 277 has a 27,7-inch scale length (thence the model name, I would assume), and comes from the factory strung with .014 to .068 strings with a wound third string. (By the way, is that the G string or the D string?) It has perfect tension and resistance, comparable to my Fenders, and the sound is perfectly slotted between a guitar and a bass. It is noticeably beefier with distortion and quite muscular with a clean tone. There is none of the flubbiness others have reported with shorter-scale seven-strings. When the idea of a lower-tuned six-string first came up, I assumed that the top of the range would be something I’d miss. This is actually something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while. I’ve said multiple times that I don’t like vintage Fenders because they don’t have 22-fret necks, and I have had issues with certain other guitars I’ve tried at the store because I don’t have proper access above the 17th or 19th fret or whatever. Upon further reflection, I have come to the conclusion that it is only a problem when I’m practicing, and not when I’m recording or playing live. I listened through the solos on the latest Namlar album, and the times I stray above the 17th fret are few and far between. The 17th fret on a standard electric is a high A, which is the same note as that on the 22nd fret on the 277. And sure enough, I haven’t been missing the upper range. That doesn’t mean that a baritone doesn’t confuse me. I still haven’t figured out exactly why, but I think it has something to do with the fact that even when I’m just noodling, I am always very aware of which key or mode I’m in, and after years of practice, I have developed a certain kind of key/finger coordination. It feels odd to think F sharp minor and then use fingerings for B minor.

That the guitar has single-coil pickups is a non-issue. I’ve already gushed over the sound of P90s in two previous posts, and I specifically wanted a seven-string (or baritone) to get new sounds with a clean or slightly overdriven tone, not just to chug on the B string with maximum distortion. The pickups are noisy as f**k, I could have sworn that when I plugged it into my stack, the noise was actually louder than when I played. But in similar fashion to my Les Paul (or the 2+4 positions on a Stratocaster) the pickups are wired out of phase, so the middle position becomes hum-cancelling. I do, however, miss the separate volume control for the neck pickup, since when I play clean I tend to use both at the same time, and a neck-mounted P90 can easily overpower the bridge pickup, especially since the 277 has a longer scale length and consequently more contrast between the pickups. The f-hole is a nice decorative detail, it adds a certain amount of classiness to an already beautiful instrument. I was lucky enough to get a hold of a limited edition with a deeply figured ebony top that is just stunning. I wouldn’t call it a semi-acoustic, since the pickups and electronics are clearly mounted in solid wood, so I assume that the guitar has been routed to lighten the load a bit, like on a modern Les Paul or a 70s Telecaster.

Ever since I got the guitar back in May, I have experimented with different tunings off and on. I have tried C, B flat and A standard in addition to drop-A. C works almost better than B feel-wise, but it feels almost a waste to tune the guitar like that, like it’s not enough difference to my regular guitars. Below B and things start to turn to mush pretty quickly. B flat works okay, but in A I notice that chords no longer sound good, it is simply too low for the overtones to mesh properly. I have yet to find an issue with the longer scale length. I find myself overbending on the unwound strings, like I would have been better served with .015 strings, but that might be a psychological thing. Maybe I expect it to be tougher to play than it really is. I have no problem whatsoever with the scale length. It fits my big hands perfectly. If anything, it is better to practice on the baritone, since it’s a little bit like running with weighted shoes. In some ways, I find it suits me better than a regular guitar, since my right hand can get pretty violent when playing heavy muted rhythm with distortion, and the heavier strings can take the punishment no sweat. All in all, I’m extremely satisfied with my purchase, it has been a little bit of a revelation, and I have now developed a serious appetite for PRS:es. I always imagined my next guitar would be a shred-type axe, like a Jackson with 24 frets and a Floyd Rose. Now, I’m definitely leaning towards a PRS SE Custom 24!

 
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Posted by on 21 October, 2017 in gear, review

 

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MXR Carbon Copy, continued

I purchased the MXR Carbon Copy in August, 2013. Regretfully, I have not had as much use for it as I would have wished. I’ve recorded two albums since buying the thing and it has gone completely unused. Delay pedals for me have always been the kind of pedals that other players can get great sounds out of, but whenever I try to use one, I just can’t dial it in. Either I don’t hear the effect at all, or the sound is completely washed out in delay repeats, no apparent middle ground. Just like multi-effects units, they are fun to play around with at music shows, in the store or when goofing off at home, but creative use for them is another kettle of fish. After several tries to get the Carbon Copy to work into the amp (i.e. before distortion), I have come to the conclusion that delay before distortion just doesn’t work for me at all, so maybe I’m not a delay person. The most use I’ve had with it is to set the feedback above noon and hit it until it self-oscillates, and then turn the delay time down for some hippy-trippy shit. Fun, yes. Creative, not especially.

Until now. In a recent post, I made a big shout-out to the guys at That Pedal Show on YouTube, and also referred to their take on the Carbon Copy. I was able to apply most of which the show has taught me on that very pedal. The first thing I did was to pop the back off the thing, pull out a screwdriver and switch on the modulation function. Then, I played, and I listened, and I tweaked, and I played some more, lather, rinse and repeat, et cetera, until I happened upon a level of modulation that actually sounded musical and usable. This, in combination with the fact that I’ve given up on distortion and delay (at least until further purchases eliminate the need for long cable runs), has given the pedal a second wind. Nay, a renaissance! Actually, the train of thought started with the pedal I bought at the same time as the Carbon Copy, namely the TC Electronic Shaker Vibrato. I bought a vibrato specifically so I wouldn’t have to buy a chorus. Then a year later or so, I bought a flanger in order to avoid getting that chorus. Last year, I finally gave in and bought the chorus (my fourth one, following a Boss CE-2 and two (!) CH-1:s!). But it still wasn’t happening! Thus, enter modulated delay. The analog nature of the Carbon Copy is what makes it work so well with the modulation. The repeats are gradually softened until there is only a wishy-washy veil of sound trailing behind my playing. It doesn’t drench my tone in chorus, it doesn’t smooth over my dynamics the way many chorus pedals do, but it attaches a dreamy edge to clean passages. It’s been a very long time since an effects pedal has inspired me to just sit around and play and play and play! In the space of just a few days, it went from “damn, why the hell did I buy that thing” to “I can’t live without it!” I’m very much looking forward to laying down clean guitar on the upcoming Namlar album with it.

 
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Posted by on 20 October, 2017 in gear, review

 

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String gauges

During my first few years as a guitar player, I didn’t have the first clue about string gauges. Sometimes I bought the pink pack (Ernie Ball Super Slinky, .009-.042), sometimes it was the yellow (Ernie Ball Regular Slinky, .010-.046), depending on what they slapped onto the counter when I said I wanted some strings for my Fender. Inevitably, I got less overwhelmed and more picky over the years, and by the time I was 14 or so, I had settled on 10-46. However, it was only two years before we started playing more extreme metal, which seemed to demand downtuning. The guys at the music store recommended 11:s in order to take up the slack, and that worked well for a while, and when I experimented with 10-52 it felt even better. When we gave up the extreme stuff and tuned back up, I got used to the increased tension, and thus I stuck with 10-52 for years and years.

It took a concerted effort for me to go back to regular-gauge strings again. During my formative years, I developed the habit of never practicing through an amplifier, which inevitably made me play harder to compensate, which was exacerbated by the fact that I could seldom hear myself properly on stage. In those years, I developed a hard and rough playing style that not only had my fingers and lower arms fatigued within five minutes on a stage, it was also murder on regular strings. My dad preferred 9-42 strings in those days, and when I borrowed his Fender and hit a chord, you could hear the “bawaiaoum” of the bottom E string hitting F and then settling back on pitch. But a few weeks of proper warm-up exercises and diligent practicing with distortion allowed me to develop a lighter touch and an almost effortless right-hand technique, and thus I was able to go back to Regular Slinkys again.

Making this journey was a massive learning experience, and sometimes you cannot grasp the obvious until it jumps up and hits you right in the face. Here’s what I’ve learned. The feel of a string depends on three factors: length, thickness and pitch. Obviously, it is impossible to change the scale length of a guitar. Furthermore, one tends to prefer a certain tuning standard, mine is standard 440 Hz concert pitch, if nothing else then for the fact that music tends to be a team sport. Once during my downtuning days, I tried to jam with some other guys that were in concert pitch, and it was almost out of control. When they followed me, it was a cacophony since we were two semitones apart, and when I followed them, you could smell the smoke in the room, that’s how hard I had to think. Long story short, the scale length is fixed and you generally want to tune to the same pitch as the other guys and gals, so the only thing that is left to experiment with is the string gauge.

What I learned from my own experiments was that there are even subtler physical things going on with a guitar. When I tuned up to concert pitch back in 1993-94, I started noticing that the intonation was off. I could be in perfect tune and when I checked my intonation at the 12th fret using a tuner, it was spot on. Still, when I played certain chords, they would sound horrible. Open G was especially nasty with the low G audibly sharper then the higher open-string G. I tried lightening my touch, but to no avail. I examined the fretwire to see if maybe my rough playing had worn it down, but it looked all right. The clincher came when my next guitar, the yellow Stratocaster that I still own, developed the same problems after a while. I almost sold it out of sheer frustration. But the problem vanished overnight when I dumped the 10-52 strings for the slightly thinner 10-46. The conclusion was that thicker strings vibrate less at their extreme ends, i.e. next to the nut and bridge, which creates the physical effect of a shorter effective length, i.e. a higher pitch. You also have to expend a bit more energy to fret notes closer to the nut. Ergo, intonation was off on the first few frets, but not on the fifth or 12th frets. The thinner strings were able to vibrate in their full length and make the problem disappear. The last major revelation was that the problem actually hadn’t occurred gradually, I had only been made aware of it gradually. It wasn’t even an issue until I went back to concert pitch on the BC Rich in late 1993, or on the Stratocaster in 2000. As long as I tuned the strings down, the lesser tension enabled a freer range of vibration. I never noticed any problems on the Les Paul that I got in 2001, because it has a shorter scale length and consequently less tension to begin with!

Since about 2008 or so, when I reinvented my guitar technique, I have been constantly experimenting with string gauges (and picks; more about that in a separate article). The biggest variable in the equation is me. I rarely go for more than a few days without picking up a guitar, but when I do, it varies wildly what I do with it, and for how long. If I’m in the middle of a recording project, I might concentrate more on rhythm and clean playing, and if I’m between projects, I might practice the hell out of scales and sequences. If I have been slacking off for a while, 10:s feel too tight on a Fender, but when I get going again and rebuild my chops, I get used to them and they’re perfect. Conversely, 10:s always feel right on a Gibson, but after a few weeks of intense playing, they start feeling flimsy and I am tempted to experiment with 11:s. I just love the beefy feel of 11:s on the shorter-scale Gibsons. They sound monstrous when riffing, and really solid if I want to play more feel-type leads. Even though I seldom shred on record, I like doing it for fun, and with 11:s, it’s like running a 100-meter dash in moon boots. I’m not even going to mention the one time I put an 11-54 set on my Stratocaster, now that was a challenge!

A few years back, I was bothered enough by the tightness of 10:s on a Fender that I tried finding a compromise. One workable solution was a hybrid set, 9-46. It had the correct amount of oomph on the wound strings, but was nice and bendy on the plain strings. Two things, however, ruled that out. First and foremost, it made logistics twice as complicated. I didn’t like the idea of having to keep two different gauges around on the off chance that I would break a string and find myself missing a replacement. Second, I discovered that tension isn’t the only criterion to pay attention to. Sure, the difference between 9 and 10 just about compensated for the extra 0.75 inches of scale length on the Fender. But I didn’t like the lessened resistance of the thinner string against my pick. It’s like I need a certain amount of inertia against my right hand.

So the inevitable conclusion is that the string gauge that works across the broadest possible range of conditions and on all my guitars is the middle-of-the-road 010-046. I simply have to keep my chops up in order to enjoy my Fenders fully!

 
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Posted by on 23 May, 2017 in gear

 

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