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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Magnet Tone in Guitar Pickups

Asking about the tone of such and such magnet in a pickup is like asking about the temperature of heat or the weight of gravity.

Magnetism has no tone or sound. AlNiCo or ceramic, they have no sound at all.

But you hear a diff, right?

What you're hearing when you change out one magnetic pole piece for another is the changing relationship between magnetic force and the thing that matters, the stuff you wind around it: wire material, wire gauge, coatings or lack thereof, number of windings, winding pattern, covers or lack therefore, potted or more microphonic, shielding, distance between pole pieces and strings, etc., but the magnet itself has no tone.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Best Praise and Worship Distortion Pedal PW Overdrive

When the congregation's shaking' and the money's flyin', don't let your halo to turn into Ah, Hell No!

Specifically designed for the Praise and Worship (PW) guitarist, The Golgotha Screamer by Smugster Pedals gives you four ways to control your tonal destiny: Volume, Gain, Tone, and Hypocrisy.

The Golgotha Screamer won't leave you hanging' with easy access to two internal DIP switches to add maximum control over your sound: 'Bomination Mid-Boost and your choice of either silicone or germanium-flavored enthusiasm.

The GS works great with other Smugster pedals including: The Beatdown Boost with two simple controls: Pain and Agony.

And the Airy Fairy Chorus with two foolproof controls: Depth and Depravity.

Don't wait for the afterlife to get that otherworldly tone, step up to The Golgotha Screamer from Smugster! Buy all three and receive the 25% Holy Trinity discount. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

UAD Marshall Plexi Plugin by Softube

Want to hear what the new UAD Marshall Plugin sounds like in a non-compressed audio format?
I launched the new Plexi plugin by UAD, Marshall, and Softube, twiddled the knobs a bit, and laid down one track. No audio processing of any kind, just raw, like the playing, sorry.

The photo will give you the settings.

Guitar = Suhr Modern Satin, bridge humbucker.

Here is the audio file (24bit WAV)

Thanks for checking it out.

On virtually every Plexi-oriented plugin, I typically dime every knob except for Presence but, as you can see from the photo above, I dialed a lot back and didn't even bother to jump channel two. Still, it sings. It has actual 'feel' to it. I think they have a winner on their hands. It is much quieter and has a better vibe than the Friedman and makes a good compliment to the higher gain ENGL Retro, which I just love to play through. Can't get enough of that ENGL.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Amp and Pedal Guys

Amp and pedal guys are those common types who populate the guitar section of the internet -- they go through amp after amp, pedal after pedal, fetishizing tiny differences in the endless and futile pursuit of some unobtainable tonal utopia. They're all over the internet discussing every little facet of every pedal and amp ever made and those only imagined.

I have gone through a couple of these amp and pedal phases, and what I've discovered about myself is that I adopt this mentality when I'm not being productive by either gigging or recording.

When I'm producing music I plug into all sorts of stuff and just make it work. Usually this involves some digital modeling or plugin thing. I just make it work and I've never really been disappointed with the results as far as guitar sounds go.

Some years ago my project studio situation became miserable and I stopped recording almost entirely for quite a long time. It was then that I entered my most recent amp and pedal guy phase where no pedal or amp was good enough and every pedal was lacking in some way. Even pedals and amps that I liked one day sounded terrible the next. Sometimes they would sound "great" or "terrible" and then back to "good" and shift over to "ok" and swerve off to "amazing" in the span of 10 minutes.

Being an amp and pedal guy will make you crazy.

Anyway, I finally got my studio situation squared away and then I got back to being productive and, suddenly, everything sounded just fine. Even tools that I thought sounded terrible in isolation I used anyways and make them work within the context of the song; a little EQ nip and tuck here and there and you've got a nice texture.

That big pile of pedals go unused or, when I do use them in front of my interface and plugin amp emulation, they all get the job done just as well as the other. Oh, should I use the Zen Drive or the Full Drive or the Sparkle Drive? Who gives a shit? Nobody can tell a difference in the context of the whole mix anyways.

Any pedal can sound amazing or horrible just plinking around with your guitar with no musical context.

Amp and pedal guys will obsess neurotically over the subtle differences between every pedal but couldn't pick any of it out of a lineup relying solely on their ears. They go nuts over names and logos, paint jobs and bulb colors, ad copy and forum hysteria. And I've seen these types completely defeated when it comes to identifying the difference between a vintage Deluxe Reverb vs. a Line 6 Pod using only their ears.

And when they fail they rationalize it away.

Amp and pedal guys make the gear world go around because they're just unproductive dudes sitting in a chair in a spare bedroom or out in the garage with their guitar, pedals, and amps, playing abstracted licks and riffs. Their heroes are those gear demo dudes on YouTube who don't do anything but play abstracted licks and riffs for the duped amp and pedal guys surfing YouTube and guitar forums in pursuit of a material substitute to fill the gaping hole in their creative lives.

Best Beginner Guitar

My first guitar was the worst ever. I wanted to rock out like Jimmy Page but ended up getting a cheese log that required kung-fu grip to play and my amp blew up after a week of frustration. Things got better once I got a 'real' guitar but, in hindsight, it wasn't the right model for me which meant that I did not play it as much as I should have and, as a result, Eddie van Halen slipped into the void left by my absence.

It's a tragedy. The moral of the story is: the best beginner guitar is the one that is most playable and therefore gets played the most. More playing = more progress.

Buy the best guitar you can afford now and you'll have a greater chance of success and, in the event your little Hendrix bails out in favor of video games or shuffleboard, you'll get a greater proportion of your money back when you sell it.

Should you be buying an acoustic guitar to learn on? Is your learner wanting to play acoustic music? Yes? Buy an acoustic guitar. No? Do not buy an acoustic guitar. It's that simple. There's no special virtue associated with starting out on an acoustic guitar.

Should you start out with a classical guitar? Who's taking the lessons here, you are your kid? I doubt they want to learn classical guitar so let's just back off the Tiger Mom Helicopter Pilot thing.

Okay, so how to select the guitar:

First, determine whether the player-to-be is (a) infatuated with a particular guitarist or band, i.e., a hero-worshiper, (b) digs a particular genre of music over worship of some hero, (c) has no clue.

If it comes down to hero worship I would suggest getting the exact model as the guitarist in question, so long as it fits your budget. They'll play it more. In many cases, the actual guitar played by the artist costs a small fortune but many have 'signature' versions manufactured overseas for a fraction of the cost. Luckily, most beginners are into the latest fads so finding a Chinese-made signature model is the norm and inexpensive.

If the rocker of the future is more into a style of music find a guitar that meets the requirements. If it's metal they're into then get something with a couple of humbuckers, lots of pointy angles, black, and maybe a whammy bar; classic rock = anything goes; country = Tele, and so on. Like all areas of life, there are stereotypical items and instruments for each genre of music. Just tell the guys at the shop what you're into and they'll steer you in the right direction.

If there's no clue so far, just go to a guitar shop and ask for something that is versatile and easy to play.

Buy your first guitar locally from a guitar shop so they can perform a setup on it so that playability is maximized. Later on, once you learn about guitar maintenance and setup, buying electrics online makes more sense. Acoustic guitars, on the other hand, are more unique and I suggest playing a bunch of them before choosing one in person.

What are some good brands to look for? Luckily, we live in the golden age of guitars and there are hardly any made that are just plain terrible. But naturally, there are a few brands I would recommend over others and they have models in various price brackets.

Fender has been in business since WWII but, for the money, G&L makes a better guitar for those of us who like twangy music and classic rock. (Interestingly, Mr. Leo Fender himself left his company in 1965 and later formed G&L guitars so many players feel like a G&L is more Fender than Fender).

Gibson has been around for generations and is responsible for many iconic guitars but, today, Paul Reed Smith (PRS Guitars) makes a better guitar for those into thicker sounds.

As for acoustic guitars, I think Martin still makes a great guitar for the money but if you want to spend less, check out Alvarez guitars -- they seem to make a great bang-for-the-buck instrument.

What about an amp? For now they are unnecessary. Your budding guitarist likely has a smart phone which means they already have a wealth of virtual amps and effects at their disposal with a few apps and cheap interfaces that plug the guitar into the phone. Alternately, there are several headphone things that plug into guitars that offer the sound of raging amplifiers without disturbing the parents downstairs.

Do we need to pay for lessons? Nah, when I was a kid it made sense, but with resources like YouTube, everything a person needs is available for free. If they have access to the internet they'll figure it out.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Tone is in the Fingers

Tone is in the fingers. What in the hell does that even mean?

You've been confused about this for so long because you're a guitarist so you think it's all about you when, in reality, it's not about you at all.

Let's explore this idea.

There are three possible answers: the common positive, the common negative, and the truth.

Positive: one guy playing through ten different setups will sound the same each time. So it doesn't matter what gear he or she uses, since they sound the same regardless of the gear. Tone is in the fingers.

If this were true it wouldn't matter to you which gear you used and I bet you've noticed differences in your playing depending on the gear. All you need is fingers. So, let's just leave this behind for the moment as a dead end.

Negative: If 10 guitarists play through the same setup they will all sound differently.

Here, again, if everybody who plugs into anything (amp X, for example) sounds differently or like "themselves" than it doesn't matter what they play. All you need is fingers. Let's just leave this one behind as another obvious dead end.

The above positive and negative (and common) arguments are abstract, in that they only make reference to the universal (tone) relation to the individual (finger).

What is missing is the aspect of the "particular" dialectical moment -- i.e., if player X plays through player Y's setup he will not sound like player Y and he will also not sound player X as we expect player X to sound.

There's the true. The statement that "tone is in the fingers" is ambiguously expressed. What it really means is that "tone is in their fingers" as we expect them to sound....not your fingers. "Tone is in the fingers" refers not to your tone  or your gear or anything about you but to their tone, the other person, as we expect them to sound, as they sounded in the past, and as we expected them to sound now, and in the future. Tone is, with regard to the other, all about our expectations of how X should sound. In reality, outside of the domain of expectations, player X will always be player X no matter what they are playing. Think about it: player X playing anything right now is the sound of player X but it may not be what you expected and there's the conflict between the now and the past.

The tone of the "other" is always enmeshed in a web of expectations regarding what they should sound like, or must sound like, based upon what they did sound like at some other point in time.

So, the punchline is simply this: get what makes you happy and enjoy. Tone will find you, until, that is, you no longer sound like you!

Gibson vs Federal Government: Gibson did not "win"

I've noticed on guitar forums and message boards the following absurd claim: Gibson beat the federal government over its illegal importation of illegal wood.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

"Gibson's factories were raided in 2009 and 2011 by agents of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). In November 2009 authorities found illegally imported ebony wood from Madagascar. A second raid was conducted in August 2011,[37] during which the FWS seized wood imports from India that had been mislabeled on the US Customs declaration. Gibson Guitar Corp. filed a motion in January 2011 to recover seized materials and overturn the charges, which was denied by the court. The United States Department of Justice found emails from 2008 and 2009 in which Gibson employees discussing the "gray market" nature of the ebony wood available from a German wood dealer—who obtained it from a supplier in Madagascar—as well as plans to obtain the wood. It filed a civil proceeding in June 2011, the first such case under the amended Lacey Act, which requires importing companies to purchase legally harvested wood and follow the environmental laws of the producing countries regardless of corruption or lack of enforcement. Gibson argued in a statement the following day that authorities were "bullying Gibson without filing charges" and denied any wrongdoing. Arguing against the federal regulations and claiming that the move threatened jobs, Republicans and tea party members spoke out against the raids and supported Juszkiewicz. The case was settled on August 6, 2012, with Gibson admitting to violating the Lacey Act and agreeing to pay a fine of $300,000 in addition to a $50,000 community payment. Gibson also forfeited the wood seized in the raids, which was valued at roughly the same amount as the settlement. However, in a subsequent statement Gibson maintained its innocence with Juszkiewicz claiming that "Gibson was inappropriately targeted" and that the government raids were "so outrageous and overreaching as to deserve further Congressional investigation." Juszkiewicz continued to state, "We felt compelled to settle as the costs of proving our case at trial would have cost millions of dollars and taken a very long time to resolve."
The case raised concerns for musicians who lack documentation of vintage instruments made of traditional, non-sustainable materials. However, officials from the Justice Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have stated that musicians who unknowingly possess instruments made from illegal wood would not be treated as criminals."

Monday, April 20, 2015

Guitar Neck Radius Guide

The radius of a guitar fretboard refers to the curvature of the board and contributes greatly to the playability of a guitar. A small radius, like that found on a vintage Fender, feels great in the first couple of positions but notes tend to fret out when bending at higher positions. Many classical guitars have either flat or nearly flat fretboards (along with wide necks) that can feel cumbersome to players accustomed to most electric guitars. Most players seem to like something in between (e.g., 10" or 12").

Below you will find a reference guide to common fretboard radii -- I'll try to keep updating this over time. You'll notice that some companies like to use the same radius on most of their guitars (e.g., Fender) whereas others use a wide variety (e.g., Guild). Some companies offer custom builds with a variety of radius options (e.g., Carvin offers 12, 14, 16, and 20). The best of both worlds, perhaps, are compound radius fretboards from companies such as Parker.

Also interesting is that people buy relic Fender guitars with the vintage-correct 7.25" radius but don't realize that a 50 year old Strat or Tele that has been re-fretted a few times will have had its radius enlarged due to the sanding of the fretboard during the re-fret process. So, after a couple of these re-frets the actual radius of an old Fender is more like 10" or 12" (this is why the Eric Johnson signature model has a flatter, 12" fretboard radius).

7.25       Vintage Fender

9.45        Guild M-75 Aristocrat

9.50        Modern Fender; Guild X-175 Manhattan

10.0        PRS; Ibanez Joe Satriani; Guild X-500

11.5         PRS Santana

12.0         Gretsch White Penguin; most G&L; vintage Gibson Les Paul;

                Guild S-100 Polara;

                Fender Eric Johnson;

14.0          Suhr Modern Satin; Carvin DC-400

16.0          Jackson; Martin; Guild acoustics

16.5          Heartfield EX1 and EX2

16.92        Ibanez RG

20.0          Carvin Alan Holdsworth model

Flat           classical nylon string guitars; Vigier Excalibur Shawn Lane model

Compound or Conical Radius

9-12      Suhr Classic

10-13    Parker NiteFly

10-14     Suhr Modern

10-16     Warmoth; some recent Gibson Les Paul models

12-16     Charvel Guthrie Govan

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Easiest Guitar to Play

I've owned about 40 guitars since the early 80s (the brands and models you've heard of and likely some you haven't) and while many were tremendous players they fell short in some area or another. One thing keepers have in common is ease of playability.

A lot of factors determine the playability of a guitar including technique, neck geometry, fret profile and material, fretboard material, neck finish, scale length, string-spacing at the nut and bridge, nut height, string gauge, string material, and bridge style. And while there are some steps one can take to improve the playability of a guitar, sometimes a guitar is just the wrong one.

You want a guitar with a comfortable neck geometry and finish: the neck carve or profile should be neither too wide (greater than 1 and 11/16ths) or too narrow (less than 1 and 5/8ths)  and the depth of the neck should not be too deep nor too thin. Too tight a radius (e.g., vintage 7.5") makes playing up the neck more difficult and sticky poly finishes make moving around a chore. An example of guitars with bad neck geometry are many from Carvin which are known to be too thin along with being too wide. Some players can get along with them while others despise them. You seldom see or hear people whining about Strat or Tele neck profiles but you see a lot of complains regarding the odd profile of many Carvin guitars.

I also want guitars that facilitate flat picking, finger picking, and hybrid picking. No one-trick ponies for me. So string-spacing at the nut and bridge are important aspects. The traditional Fender string spacing at the bridge (F-spacing) is great for everything. The Gibson Tune-O-Matic bridge string spacing is a bit narrow for me but offers a nice experience at the nut. Specs on neck and nut width are helpful but not every 1 and 5/8ths, for example, are the same because while the nut may be that width the nut may be slotted in such a way that the strings are crammed in closer to one another and not taking advantage of the whole nut. For example, I had a Yairi and a Martin with the same nut width specs but felt totally different because the Martin spread the string slots out a bit more.

Frets should be tall and not too wide and those made from stainless steel offer a much smoother surface to bend on and will never wear out meaning that all your notes will sound better over the years instead of fretting out or buzzing excessively. I suggest medium jumbo stainless fretwear. Some companies offer frets dressed on a Plek machine. I think Pleking is good for some companies who have struggled for years to deliver decent fretwork (e.g., G&L) while others, e.g., PRS, do fabulous work without needing a Plek.

Guitars with short scales lengths tend to be easier to play as there is less tension on the strings and, speaking of strings, the smaller the gauge the easier it is to play. And pure nickel strings are easier to bend than nickel wound. The PRS SC245 or SC58 is a good example of a guitar with a short scale (24.5") making for an easier ride. Strats and other F-style guitars have a longer 25.5" scale length and will, as a result, increase string tension. Use lighter strings for easier playing.

Generally, pure nickel strings are a bit easier to play on than nickel wound versions. Good brands pure nickel are Curt Mangan and, if you have more money to spend, Pyramid. The heavier the gauge the greater the tension and the smaller the gauge the lower the tension. On a short scale guitar, a set of 9s will play very easily, maybe too easy. On a long scale guitar a set of 11s will be too stiff for most players.

Guitars with double locking vibrato bridges tend to be easier to play because the string is cut at the saddle and does not extend any further, decreasing the length of the overall string making for easier bends. Likewise, the locking nut means the portion of the strings running to the traditional tuners are taken out of the equation.

Anyway, of all the guitars I've played the only two I play every day are from Paul Reed Smith (a '58) and a Suhr Modern Satin with a Floyd Rose bridge and locking nut.

When properly set up these guitars virtually play themselves and I highly recommend them over models from Fender or Gibson. Of the many, many large to medium sized companies out there, hands down, PRS is making the best short scale guitars (SC245 with the aforementioned 24.5" scale or a Custom 24 which has a 25" scale) and Suhr is making the best F-scale guitars (25.5"). They cost more than your run of the mill guitars but you get what you pay for -- guitars you'll love to play for the rest of your life and something you'd be happy to leave to your heirs.

The Suhr Modern has a great neck carve, a 14" radius, stainless med. jumbo frets and a really low action. The PRS SC-58 has a 10" radius (in between the tighter vintage Fender radius and the larger Gibson radius) with a 24.5" scale length, and a comfy neck carve (Pattern which is a tad less chunky than the old Wide-Fat). Both also have rosewood fretboards which I think makes for a better sounding guitar over maple or ebony. Though, morado fretboards (ironwood) and kingwood fretboards play a bit faster to me.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Gibson Bumblebee Capacitors

Oh, you want that vintage vibe and Gibson has you convinced that $129 for a couple of caps is going to get you there. Dream on, brother.

If you're been following this blog long enough you know that I think Gibson is one of the most rotten companies around -- and for a lot of reasons. But if you want just one perfect example of what Gibson is all about it is contained in their bullshit bumblebee caps. It perfectly encapsulates the entire firm's essence.

Those Bumblebee Caps are hiding $2 Westco caps on the inside.

This has been well-documented (here and elsewhere) but it's always worth amplifying shady, rotten, snaky practices in the guitar world.

Do you, me, and everybody a favor and just boycott Gibson guitars.

Joe Meek Twin Q

I bought one of the first Joe Meek Twin Q units when they hit the market -- geez, that must be coming up on nearly 15 years by now. Anyways, it's been nothing but stellar in all this time and, most importantly, it sounds good. I did send it back to the factory within the first couple of months because they offered me a free mod/upgrade. Other than that one trip it's been permanently installed in my studio rack.

The original unit, as seen above, is pretty much the same as the newer Twin Q2 other than some slight tweaks.

I use the s/pdif output to connect to an Apollo interface and never record at sampling rates at higher than 48kHz so I have no need to upgrade to something that goes to 192. If you're one of those that see no need to record at higher than 96kHz then you can pick one of these up used for a lot less or simply use the analog outs to your interface.

While the unit is overall very good I do think they are very overpriced for a piece of electronics manufactured in China. The markup on the TQ must be pretty high.

The Q is good for any recording situation from voice, drums, acoustic guitars, etc., but where it shines the best is electric guitar. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if you're an electric guitarist this could be your secret weapon. Here's why: the mid EQ is really sweet sounding and musical -- if that amp and stomp box isn't cutting it just crank up the mids on the Twin Q and cop a nice TS808 Tube Screamer mid-boosted vibe.

And the compressor is just perfect for giving control and sustain to single note lead lines. It's so good that I and a few others asked for a stomp box version of this compressor and JM came through with the Floor Q. Guitarists are accustomed to OTA style compressors but the optical circuit in the JMTQ is a nice alternative with it's own thing going on -- a little slower on the attack and smoother sounding. Combining the EQ and the compressor provides a meaty, focused, and rich sound with 'wheels.'

Anyway, I can recommend the Twin Q from Joe Meek but, honestly, I think you're better off going used. It's just not a $1500 piece of kit.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

UAD Plugins are Overpriced

Are UAD plugins overpriced? When the idea of hardware accelerated plugins came about the price was pretty good relative to (a) the limits of native processing power; (b) the quality of low-cost plugin suites; and (c) the high costs of the big players. Instead of buying one piece of hardware you could get many instances of software emulations at a lower cost and with comparable performance and not tax your CPU.

However, with the steady growth of native processing power, and the flood of moderately-priced plugins the giant hardware dongle and high-priced UAD plugin just doesn't seem like the great deal it did years ago. 

UAD plugins perform and sound fantastic, for the most part -- there are a few duds, in my opinion, but many or most really do work well, if, that is, you're after spot-on virtual replicas of vintage hardware units, and, generally, that's fine by me.

I own a bunch of UAD plugs but I waited until Universal Audio had a new year's deal where they threw in a bunch of free plugs (about $1K worth) and also a freebie I wasn't expecting (a nice Helios EQ) as well as a $100 voucher toward another plug-in with the purchase of an Apollo interface. It was a good deal in my estimation.

I did use that coupon toward a Shadow Hills compressor but I couldn't see buying any more until another sale came around.

The key is patience: do not buy a UAD plugin at full price unless you absolutely need to. Just hang on and let a sale swing around (e.g., the delay, chorus, and reverb sale) then get what you want at 40% off. And if you go a good long time without buying any plugins, UA will email you a coupon.

Are they still overpriced when discounted? Yeah, probably. When you compare what you can get for 90% less from Jeroen Breebaart (ToneBoosters) and a bunch of other small developers it seems kinda silly to be shelling out $150 to $300 for a single plugin. Kinda like shelling out $900 for ProTools when you could have Reaper for $60.

Do not buy a UA plugin that you can get in native form somewhere else for less. For example, the Cooper Time Cube is unique and I haven't found an alternative for that. On sale, you can get it for about $100 (still kinda pricey but better than the $150 they normally charge) but the idea of shelling out $150 for a Tube Screamer plugin or a Rat distortion pedal is simply laughable. And $20 for a guitar tuner plugin? As they kids say these days, UA must be on the pipe. 

I'd say, if you want that old vintage sound from the 50s-70s then UAD is still your best bet. But you have to realize that once you go down that road you're stuck for a good long while. Every plugin you buy is only going to work with their hardware. Switch to an Apogee interface and you're kinda screwed because those UAD plugins are not going to work. You'd have to buy an accelerator card and to get a quad would set me back something like $1500 on top of the cost of, say, an Apogee interface. The best approach is simply wait until UA offers a bunch of free plugins with the purchase of an interface but resist buying any more of them and only for those you cannot find a native alternative -- and you frequently can. For example, the Voice of God plugin -- you can do as well without shelling out hardly anything

Friday, April 3, 2015

Chuck Surack: Happy Days Are Here Again

The 'Indiana Boycott' got me thinking about Sweetwater's non-discrimination policy and I started looking at employee composition at the company. From what I can ascertain, Sweetwater is a paragon of non-diversity.

The Executive Team at Sweetwater is made up entirely of white males (18 of them) and the only female employee I could find works in a hospitality role as his exotic car dealership. Weird.

I've received phone calls and emails from Sweetwater for a dozen or so years and I only had contact with one woman one time -- an assistant to my regular sales rep. Weird.

I plowed through page after page of Google images for Sweetwater Sound and couldn't find any images of women that were obviously employees of the company (there must be some but where are they and what do they do?)

I've been watching Sweetwater YouTube videos for years and I don't recall any women.

So, I guess, from what one can glean from Sweetwater's own virtual presentation of self, women are either serving coffee or blending invisibly into the background or are simply non-existent.

I know Chuck Surack spends an inordinate amount of time online managing perceptions and the reputation of Sweetwater Sound (he's popped up at every guitar and recording forum I've ever participated in) so I know he'll be reading this (Hi, Chuck) so I'll be interested to see what rationalizations or explanations he has for the lack of diversity in his sizable labor force, at least at the visible, high-wage end of the spectrum.

Anyway, I'm happy that the Indiana boycott happened as it spurred me to take a look at a company that I always enjoyed doing business with. What I found was, frankly, disturbing. Maybe it's just a Ft. Wayne thing. I noticed that the entire city council is, with the exception of one African American gentleman, all white men. Could be that Ft. Wayne is just one of those 'Good Ol' Boy' towns like so many.

I don't know if Indiana will ever get its act together (the mullahs have tweaked the law a bit but not to much satisfaction) but I will not be returning to Sweetwater as a customer until they manage to join the 21st Century. I just cannot support a company that lags behind, lost in some delusional version of 50s America where all but the mighty white male is pushed into the background or off to the sidelines.

Am I being unfair in singling out one company in a field that may be dominated by white males? Are they any different than other retailers of musical equipment? Well, this is the retailer that shoved a non-discrimination policy in my face as a way to excuse their indifference when it comes to gross social injustice. Policies either guide a firm or they are used defensively and cynically as a diversion.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Fender Musical Instruments Announces new 'Cats for Strats' Promotion

Are you a Strat, Cat?

FMIC is excited to unveil the all new 'Cats for Strats' promotional running now until the end of April.

Participating retailers (locate an authorized Fender dealer) will be accepting your pet cat in exchange for a Squire Strat Mini 3/4 of your choice (limit one guitar per person and to in-stock pink models only).

According to Billy "Famished" Rottweiler, program manager for North American Promotions FMIC, Fender has always had a soft spot in its hard corporate heart for cats and recognizes that now is the time to step up to the plate and give back to our little, furry friends. When asked about their plans for the thousands of cats Fender is expected to be exchanging for guitars, Rottweiler indicated that FMIC "has something wonderful in store" for all the animals.

In the event that your Fender dealer exhausts their inventory, customers arriving with cats-in-tow will receive a raincheck for one free guitar redeemable at a later day (see further details for restrictions and limitations).

Cats must be alive and healthy and owners of cats weighing more than 10 pounds will receive a free guitar strap and vintage-style coily-cable. Veterinarians will be on hand to inspect animals for communicable diseases and edibility.

So get on down to your Fender dealer today and trade in that ol' cat for a new Strat!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Boycotting Indiana Means, Unfortunately, Boycotting Sweetwater Sound

Dear Sweetwater Sound,

I have bought thousands and thousands of dollars worth of musical equipment from you over the last dozen years or so but, unfortunately, you are located in Indiana and I cannot send any more money to a state in good conscience that legalizes bigotry and hatred in the name of religious 'freedom.'

I understand that your company has an anti-discrimination policy and that you may have spoken to the governor of Indiana but that's not enough for me.

I hope Sweetwater Sound takes a vociferous public stand against this new law and vigorously opposes it. When you do I will return as a regular customer.

Until you join the 21st Century, unfortunately, I am boycotting your business.

Hopefully, I'll be singing your praises as champions of civil and human rights here very soon.

Sincerely, IE


Well, as other firms in Indiana took a stand against the tyranny of theocrats, Sweetwater just stood on the sidelines, unwilling to offend their religious friends and customers. That got me thinking about Sweetwater's non-discrimination policy and I started looking at employee composition at the company. From what I can ascertain, Sweetwater is a paragon of non-diversity.

The Executive Team at Sweetwater is made up entirely of white males (18 of them) and the only female employee I could find works in a hospitality role as his exotic car dealership. Weird.

I've received phone calls and emails from Sweetwater for a dozen or so years and I only had contact with one woman one time -- an assistant to my regular sales rep. Weird.

I plowed through page after page of Google images for Sweetwater Sound and couldn't find any images of women that were obviously employees of the company (there must be some but where are they and what do they do?)

I've been watching Sweetwater YouTube videos for years and I don't recall any women.

So, I guess, from what one can glean from Sweetwater's own virtual presentation of self, women are either serving coffee or blending invisibly into the background or are simply non-existent.

I know Chuck Surack spends an inordinate amount of time online managing perceptions and the reputation of Sweetwater Sound (he's popped up at every guitar and recording forum I've ever participated in) so I know he'll be reading this (Hi, Chuck) so I'll be interested to see what rationalizations or explanations he has for the lack of diversity in his sizable labor force, at least at the visible, high-wage end of the spectrum.

Anyway, I'm happy that the Indiana boycott happened as it spurred me to take a look at a company that I always enjoyed doing business with. What I found was, frankly, disturbing.

I don't know if Indiana will ever get its act together (the mullahs have tweaked the law a bit but not to much satisfaction) but I will not be returning to Sweetwater as a customer until they manage to join the 21st Century. I just cannot support a company that lags behind, lost in some delusional version of 50s America where all but the mighty white male is pushed into the background or off to the sidelines.

Am I being unfair in singling out one company in a field that may be dominated by white males? Are they any different than other retailers of musical equipment? Well, this is the retailer that shoved a non-discrimination policy in my face as a way to excuse their indifference when it comes to social injustice. Policies either guide a firm or they are used defensively and cynically as a diversion.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

How to Choose a Gibson Guitar

Hey, you're in the market for a new Gibson! Congrats. I've owned a few Gibson guitars in my day and have some great advice for you. Let's say you want a Les Paul. Here's a great way to get the best Les Paul for your money.

Step one: Buy a Gibson T-shirt that you really like:

Step two: Buy a Paul Reed Smith SC58 that you really like and enjoy playing that while wearing that new Gibson T-shirt!

Seriously, Friends don't let friends buy Gibson guitars any more, especially when a PRS is such a better instrument and you're not left with that sinking feeling that you just supported a bunch of sociopathic whack jobs with your hard-earned money.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

How to Choose a Fender Guitar

So, you're in the market for a new Fender guitar! Congrats! Stratocaster? Telecaster? Jazzmaster?

I've played Fender guitars since the 80s and currently own a beautiful Eric Johnson signature Strat. Lovely guitar, to say the least.

But which one is right for you?

Step One: buy the Fender T-shirt that looks the best to you.

Step Two: buy a Suhr guitar that looks the best to you and enjoy playing it while wearing that Fender T-shirt!

Seriously, if you're looking for a guitar that costs over $1K and you want something Fenderish then forget Fender, and buy a Suhr. Buying used can save you a lot of money and get you within striking distance of a new American-made Fender guitar but the Surh, whether it is a Tele or Strat style, will just kill it in every category: fit and finish, playability, sound, etc.

After I bought a Suhr my Fender Strat pretty much just gathers dust.

What is the most Important Guitar Effect?

Players often wonder what the most important effect or pedal is and I'm here to tell you that the most important thing in your arsenal is simply this: active imagination. After that, tape-style delay; I'll make my case below.

An active imagination get's you half way to home with good ears, healthy hands, and rational practice making up the next 40% and equipment and gear making up, maybe, the last 10%.

Beyond your electric guitar, a cable, and an amp wondering about the 'best' pedal is like worrying about which one is better: blonde, redhead, brunette, etc. There is no 'best.'

Which might be more indispensable, given that they are all more or less unnecessary accessories, is another question.

Cranking your amp should, if it is a good amp, get you the distortion and compression you crave. Place your amp in a room and your ambience (reverb) should be taken care of.

Chorus is a dated effect, used to excess in the 80s so I would consider that totally secondary.

Ring modulators and other crazy stuff like pitch shifting and drastic filtering (wah) is useable a few times per night and everybody gets sick of hearing that stuff rather quickly.

If I could only have one pedal I'd have to go with a tape delay or a digital model of a tape delay. I could pretty much live with just that. Why?

A tape delay is more flexible than you might imagine: you can drive the input and output and use it as a boost; you can turn down the delays and use the device as a preamp to create a smoother, silkier sound; my Strymon El Capistan, for example, also has a spring reverb emulation; and with controls for all kinds of tape and mechanical degradation, lush modulations are possible as well. And, you can also use it for sound on sound and basic looping. What a powerhouse in one compact pedal.

Of course, there are many alternatives on the market and Fulltone makes an actual tape delay....or was supposed to at some point.

Anyway, that's my bid more most indispensable effect. What's yours?

What is the Brown Sound?

There are a lot of misconceptions out there among guitarists regarding the "Brown Sound." If you perform a Google search you will find all kinds of crazy shit -- pun intended.

Eddie van Halen described his sound as being "brown" and it was achieved by lowering the operating voltage on his amp by incorporating a variac (AC transformer voltage controller).

The brown sound is not, contrary to myth, achieved by raising voltages. For a while EVH misled interviewers when he claimed to be operating his amps a higher voltages when, in fact, it was the reverse. He recanted those claims and apologized for destroying many amps.

The brown sound is not achieved by swapping out your speakers.

The brown sound is not achieved by putting an EQ pedal in your signal chain.

The brown sound is not achieved by lowering your amp's bias and running it 'colder.'

The brown sound is not achieved with an attenuator or power soak.

The brown sound is not some mythical note somewhere between 5 and 7Hz that will make you involuntarily poop your pants.

The brown sound does not require any particular guitar, e.g., one with humbuckers.

The brown sound is all about a non-master-volume tube amp (the prime example being a Marshall 100 watt Plexi Super Lead) operated at the loudest volume levels possible with lowered voltage.

EVH's particular sound was, of course, the combination of a lot of factors and if you want to nail that exact, specific sound then you'd need the correct guitar, pedals, amp, variac, dummy load, cabs, but, more importantly, you'd have to be EVH (in combination with his material and personnel resources), and you're not, so just stop worrying about it and don't go out and buy a ton of gear.

The most reasonable way to achieve this 'brown sound' is to do it with modeling software in your DAW.

Line6 Pod Farm, for example, already has a model of a Plexi + variac so you're already close -- and Axe-FX II enables the lowering of voltages in their Plexi model.

If you read the above link you'll see that EVH ran his Plexi head into a dummy load and, basically, used his whole amp as a preamp that would run into effects and another power amp.

So, in your virtual signal chain place the Marshall Plexi model first, crank everything to '10, except for the presence knob, load in your effects after the amp, then insert a cabinet simulation, and then the mic simulation.

If you can't use Pod Farm or the thing from Fractal Audio (or some other alternative that models lower voltages hitting the mains) then the next best thing is to use a real boost pedal (not overdrive or distortion but clean boost like a EHX Soul Food or Klon Centaur....yeah, right) into your interface  It's not the same but in some ways it can mimic some aspects of that 'brown sound.' How? Because the 'brown sound' is as much about "touch sensitivity" as it is about tube distortion characteristics. Obviously, they are linked but if you cannot lower the voltages then a clean boost will have some determination on touch sensitivity, in most cases.

If you had a real amp and voltage regulator how low should you set the voltage? Turn it down until it sounds fantastic. If it starts to sound terrible turn it back up. See what this guy has to say.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

UAD Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor Plug-In

I used a $100 coupon to bring the price of this UAD Shadow Hills plugin down a bit and I think, even at full retail, the plugin is totally brilliant. I've never used the hardware version and there's no chance I'll ever use one but regardless of how close or dissimilar to the hardware original the plugin sounds amazing and really adds three-dimensional sound to the stereo bus.

This thing looks so amazing that I was worried that I was letting my eyes fool my ears but I tried it for two weeks on all kinds of material and on everything it just made things sound deeper, wider, more focused, and coherent. I was even running tracks from iTunes through it and it made them better as well. Vocals went from being centered to being right in your face without collapsing the stereo field. The results are just brilliant.

Basically, I just mix my project and get everything just the way I want it and, at the end, I slap this on the 2-bus and call up a mastering preset, tweak it a smidge, and the whole song just pulls together in a way I could never achieve without it. The Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor does not sound, to my ears, like other 'glue' limiters do.

At first sight one might be completely overwhelmed but it doesn't take long to see that it's not much more complicated than any other compressor / limiter and it rather intuitive to operate. Special features include a choice of three different transformer options (nickel, iron, and steel) and both optical and VCA (voltage-controlled amplifier) dynamics on both channels, as well as side-chaining.

Highly recommended.

Lovetone Ring Stinger

Ah, the Lovetone Ring Stinger ring modulator pedal from hell. I owned one back in the early 2000s and used it liberally on the first Infinite Ego - Savior Onasis album.

Here is what amounts to a product demo of the LTRS in all of its horrifying glory.

The circuit design was brilliant and unique, the sounds were amazing, but, alas, it was the build quality that left everybody dissatisfied.

I never even took mine to a gig and it broke; it sat on my recording desk and was never even stepped on and the thing fell apart. I guess it couldn't handle the punishment my thumb was dishing out.

Luckily for the original owners, they broke their RS pedals and still sold them for a profit.

I used mine for about a year after Lovetone had gone under and then it broke. I ended up selling it in a state of disarray for more than I paid for it and, in the intervening years, the prices have gone crazy.

Homemade clones go for $350 and the real deal can fetch anywhere from $650 to $700 on the bay and on I found one that had sold for over $900.

My recommendation is to definitely avoid buying one unless you are willing to shell out a lot more than it's worth and knowing that it is incredibly fragile as far as pedals go, it will break (repeatedly) and that it will cost a lot to get repaired (repeatedly).

Listen to that demo track carefully: the RS sound is unique but I think that a person can cobble together a few pedals and get close....but there will be no cigar I'm afraid. It is one of a kind.

Hopefully, someday a plugin or true clone with all the features will be manufactured, until then we can only dream or compromise.

Friday, March 20, 2015

UAD ENGL E765 Retro Plugin

The Friedman BE-100 YouTube demo had me 90% convinced I would end up buying the UAD plug-in bundle from Brainworx / Friedman / UAD but in practice I found it to be nearly useless and excessively noisy. By contrast, the online demos of the ENGL plugin left me 90% convinced they were not for me, however, I was pleasantly surprised by the E765 when I used it in my own setup.  While most of the IR recording chains are pretty sketchy, as they are in the Friedman, there are more than a few great tones in the ENGL to make it worth the price and a few that are flat-out amazing.

Again, the biggest drawback is the lame recording 'chains' and the lack of flexibility when it comes to cab selections. It seems a little more work on options in this department would have yielded a more flexible program.

Still, of the current options for Console inserts, the ENGL kills the Friedman, the Chandler (too fizzy), and the horrible Softube amp room stuff. In fact, I'd go so far to say that this ENGL plugin is, for UAD owners, the best sounding guitar amp simulator you can get if you like that elusive blend of modern and vintage tones. The mid can get thick and gooey like a cranked Deluxe, the lower mids and lows have the girth of a Plexi, and the top is smooth yet cuts like a torch like a Soldano cranked sky high.

The E765 comes with low and high pass filters, built in delay, among other goodies and there's more gain on tap that anyone could possibly want but it also has sweet clean and mild crunch sounds.

As of right now, this is my favorite thing to plug my guitar into when I want searing lead lines with no need for an overdrive in front of it.

It makes a good compliment to the lower gain Marshall UAD/Softube plugin which sounds pretty damn good.

Here's a Live Rust sort of thing with the ENGL Retro all over the place:

How to Play Guitar by David Fair

How to play Guitar

David Fair

I taught myself to play guitar. It’s incredibly easy when you understand the science of it. The skinny strings play the high sounds, and the fat strings play the low sounds.

If you put your finger on the string farther out by the tuning end it makes a lower sound. If you want to play fast move your hand fast and if you want to play slower move your hand slower. That’s all there is to it.

You can learn the names of notes and how to make chords that other people use, but that’s pretty limiting. Even if you took a few years and learned all the chords you’d still have a limited number of options. If you ignore the chords your options are infinite and you can master guitar playing in one day.

Traditionally, guitars have a fat string on the top and they get skinnier and skinnier as they go down. But he thing to remember is it’s your guitar and you can put whatever you want on it. I like to put six different sized strings on it because that gives the most variety, but my brother used to put all of the same thickness on so he wouldn’t have so much to worry about. What ever string he hit had to be the right one because they were all the same.

Tuning the guitar is kind of a ridiculous notion. If you have to wind the tuning pegs to just a certain place, that implies that every other place would be wrong. But that absurd. How could it be wrong? It’s your guitar and you’re the one playing it. It’s completely up to you to decide how it should sound. In fact I don’t tune by the sound at all. I wind the strings until they’re all about the same tightness.

I highly recommend electric guitars for a couple of reasons. First of all they don’t depend on body resonating for the sound so it doesn’t matter if you paint them. As also, if you put all the knobs on your amplifier on 10 you can get a much higher reaction-to-effort-ratio with an electric guitar than you can with an acoustic. Just a tiny tap on the strings can rattle your windows, and when you slam the strings, with your amp on 10, you can strip the paint off the walls.

The first guitar I bought was a Silvertone. Later I bought a Fender Telecaster, but it really doesn’t matter what kind you buy as long as the tuning pegs are on the end of the neck where they belong. A few years back someone came out with a guitar that tunes at the other end. I’ve never tried one. I guess they sound alright but they look ridiculous and I imagine you’d feel pretty foolish holding one. That would affect your playing. The idea isn’t to feel foolish. The idea is to put a pick in one hand and a guitar in the other and with a tiny movement rule the world.

Source, with typographical errors corrected:

Captain Beefheart's Ten Commandments of Guitar Playing

Captain Beefheart's 10 Commandments of Guitar Playing

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF GUITAR PLAYING as given to moris tepper by captain beefheart. they are not arranged hierarchically - each commandment has equal import. also, to help clarify their intent, each commandment is followed by an exegesis.

that's where all the music comes from. birds know everything about how it should sound and where that sound should come from. and watch humming-birds. they fly really fast, but a lot of times they aren't going anywhere.

your guitar is a divining rod. use it to find spirits in the other world and bring them over. a guitar is also a fishing rod. if you're good, you'll land a big one.

wait until the moon is out, then go outside, eat a multi-grained bread and play your guitar to a bush. if the bush doesn't shake, eat another piece of bread.

old delta blues players referred to amplifiers as 'the devil box'. and they were right. you have to be an equal opportunity employer in terms of who you're bringing over from the other side. electricity attracts devils and demons. [so now you know what you are, dear visitor of this page!] other instruments attract other spirits. an acoustic guitar attracts caspar, the ghost. a mandolin attracts wendy. but an electric guitar attracts beelzebub.

if your brain is part of the process, you're missing it. you should play like a drowning man, struggling to reach shore. if you can trap that feeling, then you have something that is fur bearing.

your instrument has more clout than lightning. just hit a big chord, then run outside to hear it. but make sure you are not standing in an open field.

that's your key-man clause. like one string sam. he's one! he was a detroit street musician who played in the fifties on a homemade instrument. his song "i need a hundred dollars" is warm pie. another key to the church is hubert sumlin, howlin' wolf's guitar player. he just stands there like the statue of liberty - making you want to look up her dress the whole time to see how he's doing it.

you need that stink on there. then you have to get that stink onto your music.

when you're not playing your guitar, cover it and keep it in a dark place. if you don't play your guitar for more than a day, be sure you put a saucer of water in with it.

keep that hat on. a hat is a pressure cooker. if you have a roof on your house, the hot air can't escape. even a lima bean has to have a piece of wet paper around it to make it grow.