Sunday, September 06, 2015

AC15 Both Channels

Who knew there was another amp inside the AC15?

After playing for the past couple of months on the new tubes (the Tung-Sol 12AX7 in V1 warmed up the tone considerably), and playing with the 'normal' and 'top boost' channels, I have discovered that the 'normal' channel is the one I use most.

The 'normal' channel sounds gorgeous with my strat, and it also is the best for the neck pickup on my semi-hollowbody Epiphone Dot. The normal channel has a well-balanced, chimey tone that is lovely for clean tones and it goes into a subtle overdriven crunch fairly nicely -- note I am talking about basement volumes, where the preamp tube is saturated, not the power tubes. When I put my Tube Screamer in front of it for a heavier overdrive sound, it's pretty fabulous too -- especially since I swapped that 12AX7.

The 'top boost' channel is brigher, more aggressive sounding, possibly with more scooped mids. It's designed for leads, I think. But even set clean, it flatters my Dot's PAF-style bridge humbucker, which sounds a little thin on the normal channel. The 'top boost' here livens things up and makes the thing sound more dynamic... so when I play the Dot, I typically go to the top-boost side. The top-boost channel does not pair as well with the Tube Screamer, though... it has a high-end peakiness that can sound kind of harsh. So the pedal stays on the 'normal' signal path.

Now, however, I have found the third option, which is to play into both inputs. I do this via my LS2 line switcher pedal. I set both channels just to the edge of breakup (roughly 12 o'clock, depending on the pickups). These combine for a completely different sound; it's considerably fatter than either channel alone, and the two together produce an overdrive which is -- again, this is at fairly low volume, so the power tubes still aren't saturated -- much more interesting and usable than either channel alone. The two channels in parallel, both at the edge of breakup, combine to produce a pretty convincing Brian May-ish distortion, which is to say, a lot more like what this thing would sound like cranked all the way up. It is rich and dynamic and big and crunchy. No Tube Screamer required (well, never say never).

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Tung Sol - SRSLY

If you do any googling around Vox AC15's, you will almost immediately find people talking about mods and upgrades. I have to admit to being a bit of a sucker for this stuff. So, as much as I am loving my AC15C1, I have been fiddling with it. It's a learning thing.

The first thing I bought was an A/B switch pedal. This amp has two independent channels, but it doesn't have a switch -- just two inputs. So switching is an outboard deal. After trying out a used ART -- which was horrendously noisy in my basement -- I went all-in on a Boss Line Switcher, which is an amazingly flexible switching pedal: the simplest application is an A/B line split, but it will also do interesting things with two effects loops, and it's also a two-channel boost pedal if you want that. It was a hundred bucks, but the user reviews were fabulous, it has a zillion applications, and it's QUIET.

The second thing I did was upgrade the reverb tank in the Vox. The stock reverb tank is a bit of a joke... it has a really long tail (or whatever), so it can make very spaaaaceyyyyy sounds, but it's not a very useable reverb sound for a guitar. Nothing like a Fender reverb at all. Happily, these things are incredibly simple little electromechanical devices, and they're standardized. So, for seventeen dollars(!), I ordered a new MOD reverb unit. Four screws and two RCA jacks are all it took to swap out the old one and put the new one in. The MOD unit (8EB2C1B) still doesn't sound like a Fender, but it's much more useable. Sounds like it belongs in there.

Third was tubes. People talk a lot about tubes. I read a lot about tubes, and came to a couple of conclusions. In the AC15C1, there are two EL84 power tubes and three 12AX7 preamp tubes. These things are generic -- almost all guitar amps use 12AX7s or close relatives -- so they're readily available. Of course, being mid-20th century technology, vacuum tubes are not made in North America anymore. All the tubes either come from Russia or China. So there's endless discussions online about the relative merits of one brand or another -- they're all slightly different.

The stock preamp tubes in the Vox are no-name "Made in China" ones. Presumably, they're cheap and readily available at Vox's Chinese factory.  Whoever had my amp before me had upgraded the V1 preamp tube -- the first gain stage, which everyone says is the one that makes the biggest difference to tone. So there were two of the stock Chinese ones in there, and then a Mesa Boogie tube in the V1 socket. I played around with this -- traded the Mesa and one of the stock tubes -- and I can report there is certainly a difference. The Chinese tube had more clean headroom (you have to crank the gain higher before it breaks up) but less dynamics and a flatter, less interesting tone. The Mesa was significantly "gainier" but also had -- to my ears -- a harsh top end. The preamp distortion was pretty spiky, and the bottom end was flabby. Not so bad when kept clean, but the breakup wasn't so useable.

So I went with the recommendation that everyone seems to make -- a Tung Sol 12AX7, for $20 -- leaving the two stock tubes in V2 and V3. And yes, it is significantly, noticeably better. The high end is either tamer or at least more musical sounding. The bottom end is way tighter, meaning the tone is better balanced all around. The dynamics are excellent, at least as good as the Mesa and way better than the stock tube. Most importantly to me, a big full power chord sounds big and full and crunchy, rather than spiky. 

That should hold me for a while. I don't have plans to replace the speaker (the other thing that people online recommend). We'll see how it holds up at drummer volume, but for me solo, the speaker seems fine.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Vox AC15C1

I finally decided to clear out the old Vox 125 Bass amp earlier this year -- I sold it to a friend's teenage son, and was pleased to move it off to someone who would actually get some use out of it. Lord knows I haven't had much occasion to use it of late, let along move it anywhere (oof).

The gaping hole in the music room, however, begged to be filled. After doing a pile of (idle) Internet research, I stumbled on a used Vox AC15C1 in a music shop, and decided to go for it. The thing's practically new, as far as I can tell -- the same specs as the brand new ones, and in apparently perfect condition -- and about $250 less than a brand new one. Nice!  I'd read a lot of good things about the AC15, the little brother of the famous AC30, but smaller, lighter, and, at 15W, a lot easier to push into overdrive. Vox has also updated this amp seriously in recent years, with two channels (each with master volume) and some nicely thought out controls. It's a pretty classic setup: 12AX7 preamp tubes into a pair of EL84 power tubes.

Tricky little number, though. It has a personality and takes some getting used to, I've found. Part of the appeal of this amp to me is that is has a definitive character, as opposed to the 'modelling' amps that emulate this and that and the other thing. I like the idea of getting to know something well and learning to play it. So buying this and bringing it home was a bit of a leap of faith.

It's really different from the Fender sound I'm used to. Rather than round and warm, the Vox is bright and aggressive. It's got vastly more top-end than my old tweed champ. Almost too much top-end. Nicely, the Vox people put a knob on this amp called "Top Cut" that tames that high-end jangle. Once that's figured out, the rest of the amp's character quickly becomes apparent.

It has two channels: the "normal" channel has no tone controls of its own, just a (preamp) volume. The "top boost" channel has a preamp volume plus a notoriously touchy 2-band EQ. The amp also has reverb, tremelo (for doing the Twin Peaks theme song, right?), and a master volume. There is no channel switching, just two inputs. If you want to switch on the fly, you need to do it via an A-B pedal. That's all there is to it, but that seems like enough knobs for a lot of variations...

What I've found, however, is that the amp has one basic sound, which is pretty faithful to the Vox reputation, and then some fine control of variations on that. The obvious one is the "top boost" channel, which is pretty simply a signal boost in the higher range. To my ears, it's clearly designed for lead playing; the roundness of the amp's 'normal' sound trades off for more gain and a slightly peakier, more aggressive tone. The 2-band EQ is not much more than a fine-tuning of this. I found it didn't really give me any 'different' sounds from the amp, but is probably useful in finding yourself in a live mix. Frankly, everything sounds marvellous set at 12 o'clock.

The preamp volumes seem to be designed to be at 12 o'clock too... set here, both channels will just break into preamp overdrive, depending on how hard you hit the guitar (and how hot your pickups are). That makes it just perfectly touch-sensitive. So... you can dial in more clean headroom by rolling it back to 10 o'clock, or, more overdrive at 2 o'clock. Or more, in either direction. But the middle setting is totally the sweet spot. The character of the amp comes alive here... with the jangly, chiming clean tones giving way to a compressed crunch (on the normal channel) and/or a singing sustained lead tone (on the top boost channel).

It runs pretty well at home-in-the-evening volume levels (which is like 2 on the Master volume), where all the overdrive is coming from the preamp tubes... but I understand that the amp will also go into overdrive in the EL84 power tubes when it's seriously pushed (but not in my basement, thanks). The tones at 12 o'clock settings are perfectly awesome even at low volume. Pushing the preamp alone into heavy saturation (like, at 5 o'clock) doesn't give the best sound... it's very compressed, but the bottom end is a tad flabby. For full roar, it's probably better to crank the Master volume and engage the power tubes properly.

Except... something else I've discovered, is that this amp is very sensitive to being warmed up... the whole tonal character improves noticeably after it's been running for 20-30 minutes. When it's freshly turned on it can be kinda brittle and ice-picky, but after it warms up properly, the tones get richer, and the range opens up a lot. The jangly chime becomes even more loveable and dynamic, and the overdrive crunch gets warmer and smoother.

I'm pretty stoked about this amp, and I'm looking forward to learning its nuances even more. But it's pretty fabulous to plug in to the normal channel with everything set at 12 o'clock and have this much going on. More later...

Monday, July 22, 2013

Epiphone Dot Upgraded

I've succeeded in upgrading the electronics on my Epiphone Dot. This is one seriously fiddly job, and I don't recommend it for the faint of heard. That said, I'm extremely pleased with the results; I put in a set of Stewart MacDonald Parsons St. PAF-style humbuckers, and the difference from the stock pickups is enormous. It sounds sweet and fat and woody now, where it just sounded muddy before.

The details on how to swap out the electronics on a semi-hollowbody are better explained by others; I followed the excellent instructions online at MusicRadar, and also liked the ones at Mojoshout, and I definitely recommend these sources. I will, however, make a few extra comments, for the sake of anyone who wants to try this out for themselves.

The whole wiring rig has to come out through the lower f-hole, and then go back in again. That means a lot of fiddling about to get the components into the right places; the controls have to find their way back through their respective holes, and you can only reach some of them with your fingers. It takes some serious planning to make it work out properly. Don't try to do this whole job in one sitting.

  1. The best tip from MusicRadard is to hold on to the 1/4" jack socket with a sawed-off plug. But it takes some doing. I bought a couple of cheap 1/4" plugs and destroyed one entirely with a hacksaw trying to figure out how to get the body off it--the whole thing needs to be smaller than the 3/8" hole that the jack sits in. The trick is to hacksaw vertically (lengthwise) from the back end of the plug; cutting it in half allows you to tear off the large body without destroying the inner pin that holds the plug together. I cut off the body, then soldered a couple of stiff wires on, about 14" long, which gave me lots of room to access the jack inside the guitar body.
  2. I upgraded the stock pots to CTS ones; and didn't discover that the new shafts were bigger than the stock ones until I tried to re-assemble everything. So I had to enlarge the four holes the pots sit in... a bit daunting at first. The best technique turns out to be to use a drill bit with a tapered tip (3/8") and run the drill BACKWARDS. This takes a lot longer to cut through, but it avoids tearing up the top of the guitar. A little patience gives you nice clean holes. 
  3. I made a little paper box by simply folding a letter-sized sheet of paper, then sliding (er, cramming) it through the f-hole and opening it up once it was inside, just underneath the four holes to be enlarged. When I drilled out the holes. the sawdust and crud fell into the paper box, rather than living inside the guitar forever more. Afterward, I folded the paper up and pulled it out of the f-hole. Neat and tidy.
  4. The MusicRadar instructions suggest you tie threads onto all the components so you can pull them back up through the body holes. I found that having 4 or 5 threads in there just made for a tangle. You only really need to tie threads to the tone pots—the ones you really can't reach with your fingers. Having only two strings (I used dental floss) made it easier to keep everything organized. A small pair of needle-nose pliers is essential for this job, too.
  5. Colour coding the wires and components was really helpful. I coded everything to do with the neck pickup red and everything for the bridge pickup blue—a pair of coloured Sharpies works nicely. When everything is upside-down and backwards, it's easy to get mixed up.
  6. Last... on my first attempt, I used stiff, solid-core wire for all my ground connections. This made for a nice tidy wiring rig, but it was damn near impossible to position the components once I'd stuffed them inside. On my second attempt, I replaced some of the ground wires (particularly one between the two tone controls) with some more supple, flexible wire (and a little extra length). That gave me some extra play once I got the controls in, and I was able to get all the components positioned and pulled up through their holes without too much difficulty.
A lot of work, a couple of missteps, and a lot of patience... but when I plugged it in, it was all worth it after all! The stock pickups on my Dot were just crud. These StewMac ones are so much better, it's hard to believe it. The guitar sounds sweet and bright and cheerful now. I'm quite pleased with the combination of Alnico 2 (which is softer) for the bridge and Alnico 5 (brighter) for the neck; the bridge position is bright and airy--quite woody sounding--and the neck is fat and punchy.

My only worry, having put it all back together, is that the 1/4" jack socket is not super tight. StewMac's jack socket didn't come with a toothed lock washer (nor did the one that came with the guitar), and the shaft on it is just barely long enough to go through the wood and take a nut. So it's on, but it's not as solid as I'd like. A minor worry, but I wish I had more insight here.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Epiphone Dot

Welcome back to my ever-so-occasional blogging here. The occasion is that I just picked up a new Epiphone Dot—the low-cost knock-off of a Gibson ES-335. Natural finish, mine looks just like the one on the Epi website. It cost a little over $400 CDN.

I've been wanting one of these for a while, as this kind of guitar is kind of the other end of the spectrum from my Strat (which I have been playing, and loving, ever since I got its pickups sorted out). The 335/Dot-style of guitar is a lot more about wood and air, whereas a Strat is a lot about copper wire and springs. I read a lot of reviews online, and the general consensus is that this is a great value... the Dot delivers a good deal of the value in an otherwise very overpriced Gibson 335 (circa $2400).

And indeed, my new guitar is beautiful, well made, and the fit and action are exceptional. Unplugged, it rings beautifully. I have been enjoying playing it unplugged!

Plugged in, however, is another story. You have to work hard to get this much guitar to retail for a less than five hundred bucks, and clearly, Epiphone has cut some corners with the electronics. This thing sounds like mud through my `62 tweed Champ. I read various forums online, and spent a while tweaking the pickup height—even the polepieces themselves—and while it made some improvement, it's still pretty underwhelming.

I reminded myself that I went through this with my HSS Strat; it was a lower-end model (though it cost a fair bit more than the Dot), and the pickups were the weak link. It took me loads of experimentation before I got both the singles and the humbucker where I wanted them. At $400, the Dot is likely going to need some attention in this department too.

My theory is that lower-end guitars are marketed largely on what they look like and how they feel in your hands. So it makes sense for a manufacturer to spend lots of time getting the guitar to look good in the store, and to play well when you take it off the hanger and strum a few chords. Plugging it into an amp happens much more rarely, and when it does... how many times does anyone really A/B test guitars before buying one? So cheap pickups and electronics don't particularly hurt a guitar's sales.

When I got the Seymour Duncan '59 into my Strat and wired up properly, the thing that impressed me immediately what the huge increase in dynamic range. The guitar was so much more touch sensitive, and there was a ton more harmonic richness; I could hear—and play with—every scratch and pick movement. That's what the stock Epiphone pickups are lacking; they sound blunt and flat. I can adjust my playing to try to get more dynamics from it, but when I go back to my Strat, I'm immediately struck by how much more expression I get from my picking.

So, new pickups and pots are on order. The job of swapping the electronics out of a hollowbody is a bit daunting (it involves picking the bits out through the f-holes, as far as I can tell), but what the heck? If I can make the Dot sound as nice as it plays and looks, I will have achieved something. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Touch Sensitive

My two fabulous tube amps—the tiny Fender tweed Champ and the hulking Vox 125—couldn't be more different. It isn't just size and volume; it's about how they respond to my playing. Switching between them reminds me again and again how playing electric guitar is hugely about playing the amp.

I spend most of my time with the Champ. I'm playing in my basement late at night, and so the little amp is the perfect thing. Plus, it sounds absolutely glorious. But it has its limitations. I mostly play it clean, and at a low volume setting (between 3 and 4), and at this setting, it makes my strat sound so lovely, it shows just how much Leo Fender had a direct line to God in the 1950s. I'll give Seth Lover some credit too, 'cause the Seymour Duncan '59 I have in the bridge also sounds absolutely gorgeous through the Champ at clean volume.

I don't crank the Champ much at home; for two reasons: first, it's loud enough that it wakes people up; second, the kind of overdrive it produces, while really cool, is pretty ragged and scratchy. Partly because of the tiny speaker in the Champ, a lot of the low-register distortion is actually speaker breakup, it can sound pretty ratty. The higher-end stuff sounds a lot smoother, and chime-y chords break up brilliantly. I prefer this amp on the edge of breakup, where you can take advantage of its huge dynamic range and touch sensitivity to play between clean and dirty simply with pick attack.

The Vox is an entirely different universe. The single-coil pickups (and relatively low-output '59 PAF) don't overdrive this amp much on their own, so I use my Tube Screamer mostly as a signal boost. It drives the Vox into really meaty, crunchy territory. The Tube Screamer works vastly better driving the Vox than driving the Champ, at least at low volume, because the Vox has a tube pre-amp that the pedal can push. The Champ's overdrive is only in the power stage, so it doesn't crunch at all until you crank it up.

But here's where it gets interesting. As I say, I play the Champ most of the time, and so I've learned (or my fingers have learned) the amp's dynamics. I know—at an intuitive level—how to play this amp, how to make it sound good. So when I get the urge to tear it up a bit more, and go to the Vox, I am always stymied by how different it sounds. When I first get into this amp, I can't make it sound good at all. It takes me the better part of an hour to get the dynamics sorted out, between my ears and my fingers. Once I get there, the Vox sounds astonishingly good, and like the Champ it is enormously touch-sensitive. But it's an entirely different touch sensitivity; and the one doesn't transfer to the other. I am always surprised by how much they are different, and yet working according to the same basic logic.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Reading Fargo

So, on recommendation, I picked up Chuck Klosterman's Fargo Rock City, which is his 2001 memoir/apology for 80s glam metal. Right at the beginning of the book, he sets out his mission to properly recognize the cultural importance of 80s metal in the face of the complete dismissal it receives (and always had) from music journalists. Not so different from what originally motivated me to start this blog (see here and here).

As Klosterman described his childhood self encountering Mötley Crüe's Shout at the Devil for the first time in the mid-80s, I immediately had the shock of recognition. Klosterman's rural North Dakota is the same cultural milieu as small-town BC, except where he has cows, we had trees. The way the music hit us, and the place it claimed in our hearts and minds, is exactly the same as he describes. Now, I'm a few years older than Klosterman, so some of these things reached my ears at a slightly different point in my life, and some of my major touchstones are a little earlier than the ones he talks about in the book—I was already 16 or 17 when I heard the Crüe, so it wasn't quite as eye-opening for me as he suggests. But everything he writes about the sensibility of 80s metal—and 80s metal audiences—is dead on, especially where he talks about how different bands (and different albums) had credibility (or not). Hey—I was there when Def Leppard hit the scene; I loved that first album in high school, and I also had to laugh at myself after a little critical distance. But AC/DC, Van Halen, the Ozzy albums, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest—this was the soundtrack to my life, and all my friends'. We were conscious of being 'losers' musically, that both the mainstream media nor the 'popular' kids laughed at our tastes. But it didn't matter. Angus Young mattered. (Actually, one of the scariest things was going back to my hometown about six years later and seeing high-school kids at the beach with their ghetto blaster, still playing Back In Black—whoa, the land where time stood still.)

Where Klosterman and I part is about 1987. The bands he lionizes in the book—Cinderella, Skid Row, etc.—came after I took a left turn and started to think that American metal was getting to be a bad joke. The difference was simply that I moved to the big city in 84-85, and got exposed to a new sound—punk rock and hardcore was completely absent from my early-80s small town world. In Vancouver, punkrock outfits like DOA and NoMeansNo, and the hardcore/metal produced by Death Sentence spoke to me in a way that the hair bands couldn't anymore. By the end of the decade, Hüsker Dü was providing me with umlauts in what I felt was a more authentic mode.

The thing that gets me about Klosterman's book—as funny and insightful as it is—is that he never talked about actually wanting to be in a band. He talks about his idolatry from a comfortable place in the audience. He never talks about identifying with his favourite bands as musicians. Tellingly, the one and only mention of "air guitar" in the whole book is an off-hand reference in a passage about his own alcoholism. My God, air guitar was pretty much what the whole affair was about for me and my friends—that is, until we picked up our own instruments.

Maybe this partly explains my point of departure. Klosterman at one point dismisses punk rock, repeating the old refrain that anybody who could play two chords was suddenly "only two weeks away from their first gig"—as if this was a bad thing! Thank the stars this turned out to be the minority view.

The '59 Sound

Note that this post has absolutely nothing to do with that band from New Jersey. I'm talking about my Seymour Duncan '59 humbucker, which, I am extremely pleased to announce, has finally found peace in my strat.

Last year I went through a long phase of experimenting with pickups. The stock "Highway 1" gear in my strat was not what it could be. So I put in a set of fabulous GFS overwound single coils, and then replaced the stock HB with a "real" humbucker: a Duncan '59 (TB59 to be exact).

The trouble was that even through the '59 was an improvement on the stock HB, it still didn't sound right—a bit muddy, especially noticable when switching from the single coils (yes, I know it's supposed to sound different, but it shouldn't come across as straightforwardly 'worse'). The solution was to re-wire the guitar so that the humbucker runs through 500k pots instead of the 250k pots that Fender normally puts in a strat. I wrote this wiring solution up in detail elsewhere.

The result really has me stoked. It sounds FABULOUS now, especially through my tweed champ. The brilliance and balance of this pickup is revealed, and what you hear going from the singles to the humbucker is now what you would expect: the glassy, harmonic-rich fender sound and the fatter, warmer humbucker sound. But it's all there now, where it really wasn't with the generic wiring. The clincher has really been the pinch harmonics—I mean, they're actually there now, where they kind of weren't before. Playing straight into the Champ, even at a low volume, I can pinch and get all kinds of high-end dynamics that make me think of Billy Gibbons. Similarly, the attack I get from muted picking and raking sounds much more like what it should be.

Why do so many people live with fat strats with the compromised stock circuitry? Humbuckers require different pots than single-coil pickups, and the sound suffers if you try to just run it through. Maybe all those HSS people are just playing through enough distortion that it's not so noticable, but gee, don't they want it to sound good clean too?


I got with some friends the other night and had opportunity to turn everything up to 11. I was even more impressed with the sound I was getting from the 59. There was another loud strat in the room, and drums, and I had a great cutting tone. The 500k volume and tone pots gave me exactly what I wanted; I was able to dial in what I was getting out of my Champ (which, with its tiny speaker can tend to be pretty high-mid). Most impressed with the blaze of sound from chords hit on the top 4 strings. All in all, more evidence that this is indeed the right way to wire an HSS strat.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Why do big guitar stores suck so bad?

Why are they so awful? I took the opportunity to check out our brand new Long & McQuade location, which merged at least two older stores into one new colossal two-story building. I don't know quite what I was expecting, but I came away pretty disappointed. Here's an entire brand new building, but still relying on the old, slightly nauseating showroom formula whereby you string up several hundred guitars: 50% of which are cheap, crappy, gimmicky, or some blend of the three; 40% which are insanely overpriced boutique/vintage fetish objects (which utterly fail to impress me—is there something wrong with me?); and maybe 5% are some kind of middle-of-the road things that they probably flog a lot of (L&M seems to sell—or at least stock—a lot of mid-range Godin axes).

The amp department is exactly the same: a great wall of Marshall stacks ('cause everybody needs one of those, right?) a couple of obligatory Fender Twins and Vox AC30 combos (an amp so heavy it must have been designed by underemployed chiropractors—but everybody needs one of those these days, too); and then a staggering variety of cheap junky things that no one needs yet which must be out there by the million.

Who is being served by this kind of selection? It must cost them a fortune to maintain this inventory. But who is it for? The kids who come in and buy a $200 guitar or a $200 amp can't seriously be interested in the wall of $3000 Gibsons, and how many of those things do they sell anyway? Anyone looking for a decent Les Paul must surely be working the used market, no? It's not like these guitars have changed a whole lot lately! Is it simply that you need to have this ridiculous mock-opulence in order to be credible as a destination store? What a sad business to be in.

While I'm at it... what the heck is Fender playing at with these "relic'd" vintage strats? They had another whole wall of these at L&M, with $3000-and-beyond price tags. They look exactly like somebody went at them with a belt sander. Who are they fooling? And who on earth is buying these things? At least the overpriced Gibsons give the impression that the people that make them take them seriously.

Personally, I see a great future for outlets like Sweetwater, where they can keep an enormous inventory on tap, dispense with the cost (not to mention the silliness) of the expensive showroom, and succeed on price and personalized customer service (not something that big guitar shops have ever been any good at). The only thing the online places need to complete the experience is an appropriate soundtrack: short snippets of licks played through a particularly loud and bassy Marshall would fit the bill perfectly.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

I Love the Donnas

Is anybody actually reading this? Let me know...

Anyway, what is it about these gals? Currently, as I wrestle to get to play me a station that isn't 90% dreck, I find that The Donnas are the only thing that keeps me from ditching it altogether... if I listen for long enough, eventually a Donnas tune comes around, and I smile. They have a kind of smartness and sparkle that makes pretty much everything else I hear on the "rock" and "indie" taglists sound like cardboard.

I just heard their cover of Dancing with Myself for the first time... starts out like a completely straight guitar/bass/drums cover, but as soon as Brett's irony-dripping vocals begin, I'm in my happy place. Reminds me of hearing their cover of Judas Priest's Living After MIdnight one night on CiTR... it literally brought tears to my eyes.

If it were just the drop-dead post-ironic vocal delivery, I think it would be pretty short-lived, but they really deliver on the guitars, too... I can't think of many bands that nail that Angus Young-meets-Johnny-Ramone sound so perfectly.

So here's a cheer to the Donnas!

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Other Amp

An amazing development this evening... I've been playing the Strat through the Tube Screamer into my Champ at low, low volume, and it's pretty cool. It doesn't exactly rock, though, as the 6V6 tube isn't getting a workout at all at that volume, so all I'm getting is the sound of the pedal. It's nice, but it really isn't as nice as the Champ on its own.

But tonight, I tried something out that I suspected might sound cool. I have an old Vox bass head, 125 watts (EL34 tubes) with a nice gain+master volume control panel. This is the amp I played very loud punkrock bass through for years. I have put guitar through it before, and I knew that I cranked everything to 10 (well, except the master volume), it would overdrive.

Tonight, I put the Tube Screamer between the Strat and the Vox head (running into my good old 15" bass cab). I set the pedal for a "clean boost"—the "drive" knob at 0, the "level" knob at about 9.

Oh. My. God.

Holy rock and roll, batman. I noodled around this setting for a half a minute before falling into the Ziggy Stardust riff, and then it absolutely floored me. Once I'd found that, I had the sound in my head and I knew how to play it. It sounded absolutely fantastic. Unlike my earlier test, with the Tube Screamer I don't need to max out all the knobs on the amp—just crank the Vox's gain up to about 8 or 9, and the mysterious "sensitivity" knob all the way up, and the boost provided by the pedal is enough to drive it way into overdrive, even on the single coil pickups. But especially with the humbucker. Wow! What an amazing sound, and what amazing dynamics—everything I had missed in the Champ at low volume was there: tons of compression, sustain, and CRUNCH like I couldn't believe. Even at low volume! This had me blasting away at the Strat in a completely new way, 'cause the amp dynamics are working like you expect them to. What a find!

I've got to get a mic set up and record some of this. My rig now includes killer sounds for the Strat, both clean and overdriven (for that matter, the Vox sounds pretty decent clean, too, though not quite as charming as the Champ).

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Strat

On the occasion of my (eek) 40th year, the completion of a rather sizable project I'd been working on, and the ongoing project of collecting musical instruments for the kids, I finally bought myself a real guitar. Now, I used to play the bass pretty seriously, both in terms of what my hands could do on the thing and also the size and weight of equipment I had acquired. And I've beeen noodling on my acoustic for years—and especially since the kids were born. But I've always wanted a strat. So I did it, and am I stoked! I've been playing for several hours each night, something I haven't done in about 15 years. So call it my mid-life crisis if you will. Beats a red sportscar and all that embarrassing shit any day.

The Guitar

After somewhat intensive research and digging about, both online and off, I chose a new Fender "Highway 1" strat. I learned that you can pay just about any price you want for a strat, from a hundred bucks right up to several thousand, depending on what it's made of, where it was built (US ones are of course the most prestigious), what components it has, and whether or not it has Hello Kitty graphics. The Highway 1 occupies a spot at the bottom end of the US-made models, or, to put it differently, halfway between the Made-in-Mexico ones and the American Standards. It's US-made out of Mexican parts, or vice-versa, but that's not the important part.

What it is is a very decent and thoughtfully put together blend of vintage and new features. It beats the Mexican strats on feel (the neck is way nicer) and pickup quality (as far as I can tell, anyway) and a few detail points. It lacks the American Standard's 2-point trem and nicer tuners, but otherwise shares lots of details with its more expensive sibling. It has a 70s-style large headstock, a vintage 6-point trem, real alnico pickups, big fat frets, and a matte "nitro" finish that supposedly makes the body more resonant.

Mine is flat black, with a rosewood neck and a bridge humbucker, and it sounds terrific, with all that great pop and twang that strats do. I have it strung with medium-gauge strings (11s) so I can whack it a little harder, and it feels very solid. It even stays in tune.

The Amp

One of my long-term reasons for wanting a strat is that I inherited my Dad's vintage tweed Champ, which he bought new with a Fender lap steel in about 1970. The serial number and the Internet tell me this amp is from 1961 or 1962. I think one of the tubes had been replaced, but otherwise it's entirely virginal. It has the classic one-knob panel with the on/off/volume that goes up to 12. It has an 8" speaker, runs about 5 watts, and sounds amazing, especially with those strat pickups. The Champ kind of has one sound (no tone knobs or switches), but it's a really good sound, and the strat is capable of lots of different sounds, so it works very, very well in combination. The 6V6 power tubes (er, tube) distort into a wonderfully ratty overdrive when it's turned up to about 4 or 5, and this setting is actually disturbingly loud, at least in my basement.

The Champ has a long mythical history. Apparently Clapton recorded the original Layla with one, and I've heard at least rumours that the first few Zeppelin albums were done with nothing more than a telecaster and a Champ. Could be—in any case, the thing sounds absolutely fabulous with the strat.

The Stompbox

After more Internet research, I learned that the box I really wanted to round out this rig is an old Ibanez Tube Screamer, a pedal made in the 1970s and 80s that both simulates an overdriven tube amp and can also do a nice job of actually overdriving a tube amp. Trouble is, these things—and especially the old TS-808 models—were apparently what Stevie Ray Vaughan used, and so they go for $375 on eBay. Yikes. There is, thankfully, a whole industry devoted to modifying newer pedals to 808 specs, and so I found one reasonably priced on CraigsList. I am very happy with the pedal. With the Drive knob set to zero, it pretty much maintains the Champ's natural sound, until you whack a chord or a doublestop (and especially with that humbucker) in which case it breaks up very nicely. The Champ makes a hard, round, bell-like tone (especially with the single-coils) and the pedal just makes them crumble. Of course, you can crank the knobs up and pretend to be Green Day too.

The Music

So far, I don't think I've produced any music on this rig. It's been far too easy to just knock off blues licks. The strat is so incredibly playable, and the whole rig sounds so nice that I find I can while away an hour without leaving the Strat's sweet spot—between the 5th and 10th frets where all those Hendrixy, John Frusciante-ish sounds live. Noodles aplenty. The sounds it makes are so clear and defined that it is really easy to just wail, and rejoice in the little bits of Hendrix, Knopfler, Santana, and Stevie Ray that seem to just fall out of a rig like this.

Not that I'm really all that into those players; just that those particular tones are kind of low-hanging fruit on a strat and a Fender amp—you have to get past that, I think. So what I'm actually doing, I guess, is learning to play the amplifier, which is an entirely different thing than playing the guitar—the dynamics that pickups and amps and effects boxes produce are a whole different thing, and in that sense, I'm starting from scratch, even though I know my way around the fretboard pretty well. And there's enough scope, sonically, in this simple rig, that I have a long, long way to go before I really know it well.

I need to keep in mind something I learned while playing acoustic guitar: that I play better when I think more about my singing. Which also means paying attention to songs, rather than licks. This is where I go next.