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The Hottest Attenuator: Aracom PRX150-Pro

Looking for the “Doppler on the Dumble” series?

play_electric

Trimming the fat from my rig…

For the past 15 years, I’ve gigged between 150 to 200 times a year. I should clarify that I’ve actually been gigging for twice as long, but it was 15 years ago that I started playing venues where I had to bring my own equipment. Prior to that, I only played gigs where I could plug into a board, or more accurately, all the gigs I played just happened to have a board. But then I started getting gigs in other venues where I had to provide my own sound.

I first started out with a Soundcraft GigRac 300 powered mixer that drove two passive Yamaha monitors. Combined with my pedals, guitar, mic and music stand, that was a couple of hundred pounds of gear that took up to a few trips to lug in, depending upon where I was playing. I played with this set up for several years.

Then a few years ago, I discovered the Fishman SA220 SoloAmp PA that combined mixer and a 6-speaker array into a single unit that weighs only 25 pounds. Now I could do everything in a single trip! But being all about efficiency, I was still looking for ways to trim the weight from my rig. Enter the TC Helicon Play Electric.

Before I moved to the excellent TC Helicon Harmony G XT, for years I played with the VoiceLive Play GTX, and though the GTX had on-board effects, I just didn’t like how they sounded, so I still ran the guitar signal into a few effects boxes. But all that changed when I started using the Play Electric. With the TonePrint models for chorus, reverb and delay built into the unit, I’ve had no need to lug my pedal board.

You see, the most important thing for me when playing live acoustic through a board is to not get that flat, mid-rangy,  and dead plugged-in acoustic guitar sound that seems to be so prevalent with plugged in acoustics. I’ve found that the way to avoid this is to use effects like chorus, reverb and a bit of delay to make the tone more rich and do some tone shaping. It takes away some of the natural tone of the sound, but it sounds a hell of a lot better than my guitar being directly plugged right into a board.

But until recently, I could only achieve that by lugging around my own modulation effect pedals. The Play Electric’s effects models completely solve that issue, and along with the acoustic amp simulator that I’m using, there is just no need to lug my pedal board to a solo gig. Now, all I bring along is a bag of cords that I also can use for the Play Electric, and another bag to carry a couple of songbooks and my iPad, plus my SoloAmp if needed. That’s a serious reduction in lug weight and bulk.

Crystal-clear vocals and guitar tones

As far as the unit’s performance is concerned, I couldn’t be happier with the tone from both the vocals and guitar. Granted, I spent a few hours getting the tones for both vocals and guitar dialed-in, but I would’ve done that with any unit. The point though is that it was all worth it. At the restaurant that I play at two to three times a week, a challenge is volume. I need to be loud enough to be heard, but not so loud that it’s overpowering to the diners. The compression for both vocals and guitar performs quite nicely, and allows me to get my sound out in the restaurant without turning up the gain faders on the restaurant’s board. What I noticed is that my sound gets great distribution with the compression, but also, the sound is very clear, especially with the guitar.

Harmony tracking, as expected, is awesome with the Play Electric, though the harmony voicing seems a bit clearer than with other units. That’s a good thing, but it also means that harmonies stand out more, and if I’m even slightly off, you can tell the difference. One thing that is actually kind of weird, and something that no one has figured out is harmonies when playing an F#m chord. I’m not sure why this is, but every unit I’ve ever played, be it the DigiTech VocalistLive I used to play or any of the TC Helicon units seem to act a bit quirky with the F#m chord; specifically with the Eagles’ song, “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” The transition from the A to the F#m always gives a really quirky harmony. Oh well, other than that, the harmonies are awesome.

As I mentioned in my review of the unit, the only thing that hurts this unit is the short looping time. For most of the songs I play with a loop, it works just fine, but there are some songs where I need a bit more looping time, so it looks like I’ll have to use my BOSS RC-2 for the longer loops. It’s not a big deal, but it is mildly inconvenient.

All-in-all though, for the sound Play Electric produces, it’s a winner in my book!

4.75 Tone Bones - Almost perfect but not quite

play_electric

TC-Helicon Play Electric

Summary: Sporting the fantastic TC Helicon vocal engine and upgraded guitar pedal effects, including several TonePrint patches – Corona Chorus, Hall of Fame Reverb, Flashback Delay – plus a very nice compressor. Play Electric adds amp emulation from its big brother, the Voicelive 3, and with the right tweaks, it’s entirely possible to plug this right into a PA and leave the amp at home.

Cons: The only little nit that I have is that the loop length is extremely short – around 15 seconds. That’s enough to capture a few bars to solo over, but there are times when you want to loop an entire verse or chorus. For that, you’ll have to use another looper. A bit of a bummer, but not enough to dismiss the power behind this unit.

Price: $349.00 Street

Features (from web site):

  • Professional Vocal Effects and Tone with natural sounding Vocal Harmonies guided by your guitar  and/or Room Sense which captures the ambient sound and can be used with piano.
  • Guitar FX styles from TC Electronic’s award-winning range of TonePrint pedals
  • Powerful amp emulations from VoiceLive 3 with a dedicated guitar output
  • User-friendly design with per-preset Vocal and Guitar FX combinations for easy performance control

Tone Bone Rating: 4.75 ~ If it weren’t for the short loop length, I’d be giving this unit a 5. I got a Switch-3 switch box to control the looping, and if you’re going to use the looper, this is a must-have.

I’ve had this unit a few months, but actually didn’t start using it until a couple of weeks ago when I had holiday gigs at various venues where space was at a premium, and lugging my pedal board along with my PA was impractical. I wish I had started using it sooner… the on-board modulation effects combined with amp simulation provide a super-rich tone; equivalent to the quality of tone that I’ve come to expect. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

The first holiday gig I had was for the staff party at an assisted living facility. To get to the place I was to play, I’d have to park my car in a loading zone then carry my stuff through a couple of halls. Now normally, my load out would take two trips, but this wasn’t really an option. Conceivably, I could take my entire rig (pedalboard, gig bag, cord bag, and SoloAmp PA) in one trip, but the stuff is a bit unwieldy, and I’ve dropped my pedal board, actually ruining a couple of pedals once. So a single trip was in order.

While I was trying to figure out how to configure my rig, I remembered that I had the Play Electric unit that had everything that I needed on board. So the morning of the gig, I did a quick tweak of the guitar settings (setting them to global so they’d be the same for every vocal patch, which is a godsend of a feature, by the way), packed up my cord bag with the cords I needed plus the Play Electric, and set off to my gig.

I didn’t use the looping feature at that gig because after seeing another dude play with a VoiceLive 2 and the Switch-3 switching unit, I knew that was the way to go, and besides, I didn’t have the Switch-3 yet. But that was okay. It was only a two-hour gig, and I could do all my songs – even the ones where I normally loop – without a looper.

Setup was an absolutely breeze. I had the VoiceLive 2, so setting up wasn’t anything new. Once I was all set up, I remembered the RoomSense feature, which is an on-board mic that picks up the ambient sound in a room, and can be used to harmonize for instruments that don’t plug in; like a piano for instance…. The facility where I played had a beautiful Kawai baby grand, so I upped the sensitivity of the RoomSense mic, and tested it out. OMG!!!!! I wish I had used that with my VoiceLive 2 when I had it. I could’ve been doing harmony while playing piano all this time! Oh well… lesson learned, and where there was a piano at my holiday gigs, which was everywhere except for two places, I used the RoomSense to harmonize while playing piano.

Note that since the unit uses the same vocal processing algorithms found in all the high-end TC Helicon vocal processors, I won’t be covering harmony here, just the guitar stuff.

Packed with Features

I thought the VoiceLive 2 had tons of stuff packed into it, but the Play Electric has so much more. Here are the amp models that are offered in the unit:

Clean Brit, Cali Clean, UK Clean, Deep Clean, Bright Switch, Warm, Little Thing, Chicken Picker, Brit OD, AC Crunch, Chunky Brit, Lil Champion, Chime Drive, 2×12 Combo, 4×12 Crunch, Swamptone, Nasaltone, Brown, Scooped, Metallic, TC Electronic Dark Matter Pedal, OD Pedal, Dark OD Pedal, Distortion Pedal, Acoustic (Flat), Acoustic (Shaped/BodyRez)

On top of that, you have full EQ control in the unit to adjust the EQ settings for what every guitar you’re playing. One nice feature of the EQ is that you can “move” the midpoint frequency of the mids. This is something that you typically find on good PA boards, but I can see the sense in including a feature like that with the Play Electric. You could move it higher for a naturally warm-sounding guitar, or lower to take the edge off a bright guitar, then adjust the high, mid and low around the midpoint. Very cool feature.

On top of that, the same algorithms that power the TonePrint pedals are also in the unit. I use two of the pedals on my electric board: the Corona Chorus and Hall of Fame reverb. These are mainstays on my pedal board, and to have those pedals in the Play Electric is awesome. The delay and compression models are also quite nice. I totally dig the compressor, and even though it’s fairly simplistic, it’s adjustable enough to achieve a very rich tone.

How It Sounds

Sorry, I don’t have any sound clips to share at this time, but after using it several times, I can confidently say that both the vocal and guitar tones are awesome. But as with anything, it takes spending a bit of time dialing in the settings. Luckily this is not at all difficult with the Play Electric. The brightly lit LCD screen is super-easy to read, and frankly, you can adjust practically everything without having to refer to the manual (though admittedly, I had to refer to the manual to adjust amp EQ settings).

As far as guitar tone is concerned, though I probably should’ve tested this with an electric guitar, the plain fact of the matter is that I would use this almost exclusively in my acoustic gigs (I’m actually in between bands right now). And for that, this unit produces incredible sound; so incredible, in fact, that I will be leaving my pedal board at home going forward. Here’s a little more discussion on the pedal models:

Though the unit includes TonePrint models, it’s not exclusively limited to those. Each model includes several other non-TonePrint models that you can use (I believe these are the same found on the VoiceLive 2), which have been traditionally pretty high-quality. Personally, I didn’t use them when I had the VoiceLive 2 because I had dedicated pedals that were much better than the on-board models. But with the TonePrint models, as these are my pedals of choice for modulation effects (specifically, chorus and reverb), using them is another no-brainer.

Corona Chorus

This is not nearly as adjustable as the standalone pedal; actually none of the models are, but it’s very easy to dial in the right level and speed to get a subtle (which I prefer) to a super-wet, drippy chorus tone.

Hall of Fame Reverb

When I got this pedal a couple of years back, it soon became my go-to reverb. The spring reverb is magnificent, but it’s the plate and hall reverbs where this pedal shines. I use the hall reverb to add a subtle expanse to my guitar tone without it sounding like I’m in a simulated all. It’s just a touch to “grease” as Doug Doppler says.

Delay

I don’t know if the Flashback model is used here, but the delay is quite nice on this unit. Again, I use it very subtly to provide just a touch of slapback, with a low mix level.

Compressor

This is actually my favorite “pedal” in the unit. There are five presets available that provide either more attack, sustain, pop or pump, and you can adjust the amount and makeup gain as necessary. I use the Subtle Sustain setting, and it works great with my acoustic.

Looping

As I mentioned, my only nit about the Play Electric is the short loop length, but after playing through several of the songs I play with looping, I found that for the most part, I can live with the short loop length because the sound that the Play Electric produces completely meets my needs; moreover, the prospect of carrying one less bag makes using this an absolute no-brainer.

Wrapping It Up

Getting to the point, I dig Play Electric. I wish it had longer looping, but to get that, plus a finer control over the guitar and vocal settings, I’d have to go to the VoiceLive 3 which is more than twice the price of this unit. Could it be worth it? Possibly… probably… but it’s not expense that I can make right now (especially since I’m saving up for a Gretsch Brian Setzer) :) But for what the Play Electric provides besides looping, it’s a unit that will serve me well for a long time.

I played acoustic guitar almost exclusively for almost 30 years before made the switch to electric. Honestly though, I didn’t really make a “switch.” I added electric guitar as a regular tool in my inventory of tone. What drove me to add electric was the style of music that I was starting to explore at the time; plus, my church worship group was turning into a regular band, and though the contemporary Christian music we were playing worked fine with acoustic, frankly, many of them just sounded better with electric.

At that time, I actually did have a couple of electric guitars. But they were guitars that my little brother had lent to me, and they were in various states of disrepair, or when I could get them working, I wasn’t really playing music that needed an electric. And the only amp that I had was a 25 Watt Roland solid state amp that worked pretty well, but I also knew at the time, that I would have to get something with a bit more oomph (but that’s another story). In any case, suffice it to say that prevailing circumstances drove me towards the purchase of a new electric guitar, and thus began a journey into the wilderness of “TONE” that hasn’t stopped, even to this day.

Looking back on my experience, I thought I’d share some insights on what I’ve learned over the years. No, I won’t be telling you anything about a specific brand of guitar that you should purchase; rather, I’m going to simply provide some practical points you should consider when purchasing your first electric guitar.

1. You first have to come to terms with the fact that this will probably not be your last electric guitar.

Budgets notwithstanding, most people I know who have electric guitars almost invariably have more than one. There might be several reasons for this, but different brands and different guitar/amp configurations produce different sounds. For some, one is all they want or need. But for the majority of folks I know, once they got one, they eventually purchased another, then another, then another. I have my theories as to why this happens, but it certainly does happen.

2. You’ll never sound like Eddie Van Halen.

Or anyone else for that matter. You’ll sound like YOU. You can get pretty close to your idol, but understand that just because you get the same equipment as your favorite artist is not a guarantee that you’ll sound like them. Besides, being a copy cat is boring.

3. You can’t just buy an electric guitar. You will need an amp.

The most important point I can make with respect to an amp is that – budget notwithstanding – buy an amp that will fill the space that you will most like play. If it’s on stage, then you’ll need a bit of horsepower; especially if you won’t be miking the amp. But if you’re going to mostly play in your living space, a smaller amp will suffice.

As far as solid state vs. tubes are concerned… That’s a tough one. My personal inclination would be to go with a solid state amp like a Roland Cube or a hybrid like Line 6 DT series amp that runs on tubes but has modeling. These will get you “flavors” of the major tube amps, and that’s the important thing to note about tube amps. Each different major line: Fender, Marshall, Vox, and Mesa have specific tonal characteristics, and you need to test each individual kind to find which one you like. With a good modeling amp such as the ones I mentioned, you can get a feel for what you like before you lay out the cash to buy a traditional tube amp. Truth be told, I gigged with my Roland Cube 60 for a few years, even though I had already purchased Fender Hot Rod (which, I will say is a great tube amp to start out with).

What about boutique amps? Well, truth be told, most boutique amps are modeled after vintage models of most major brands. Victoria amps based upon traditional Fender designs. Aracom (which I play) are based upon vintage Marshall designs. Two Rock and Ceriatone are built upon mystical Dumble amp specs (these were originally Fender, if I remember). In many cases, the boutique amps correct certain design flaws and inefficiencies in the original specs, or perhaps outright copies, but they maintain the basic tonal characteristics of the designs upon which they’re based. So you still have to play several before you make a decision. So a modeling amp will buy you time to discover what characteristics appeal to you.

4. Buy what sounds good to YOU

Lots of folks you talk to about recommendations for guitars will make lots of recommendations on what to buy. The prevailing advice I hear is to get a Strat first. That’s not necessarily a bad idea. Strats are great guitars. Hell! I have three, and I also started out with a Strat based upon a recommendation from a friend. At the time, it was a great choice because I was playing almost all clean. But if I had to do it all over again, knowing what I know now, I don’t think I’d start with a Strat. I’d probably start with a Les Paul or some other humbucker-equipped guitar. I just prefer the fatter tone of humbuckers – always have. Irrespective of that, I would take a lot more time in making my choice to discover what’s appealing to me. Sure, I’d welcome the advice of others, but I’d ultimate make a decision based upon my own investigations.

5. Good tone can be achieved at any price…

Or, worded more directly. Just because you pay a higher price doesn’t guarantee that it sounds good. I’ve played lots of different guitars; some that reach into the 5-figures in cost. But that doesn’t mean the high-priced stuff sounded good to me. In fact, I have a few guitars that I paid well under $1000 that are absolute tone monsters! Case in point: My Squier Classic Vibe Telecaster that I got for $250 brand new on sale. It’s a total rocker, and one of my favorite guitars to play and gig. It has a pine body and maple neck. The prevailing wisdom would be that it shouldn’t sound that good that cheap. But it’s one of the truly great guitars in my collection. And hell, if I ever mess it up, it won’t be difficult to replace.

On the flip side, I have other guitars, like my Les Pauls, that you just can’t get cheaply. From that perspective, for that tone, I’d be willing to pay the higher price.

The point to this is that good tone is good tone. Sometimes you have to pay a high price for it, sometimes you don’t. But know this: High price doesn’t equate to good tone.

6. What about pedals?

Most likely you’ll probably want to get some pedals after you’ve purchased your guitar and amp. But if this is your first one, don’t get roped into buying pedals – yet. That said, with a modeling amp like the Line 6 or Roland Cube, you can use the on-board effects to buy yourself some time to play with pedals. But in spite of that, choosing pedals is a touchy subject because there are literally THOUSANDS of pedals out there. Again, I’m not going to recommend specific brands (though a good starter brand is BOSS), but I will recommend that you start with modulation effects first such as reverb, delay, and perhaps chorus or vibe.

Overdrive and distortion pedals are really tough to decide upon because there are tons of them out there, each providing different characteristics. And especially with overdrive pedals, you have to play lots of them. Personally, because I’ve found my fundamental tone, I tend to go with transparent overdrives like my Timmy and my new love the EHX Soul Food. But it’ll take a bit of time to find what you really like.

7. Ignore the jargon and don’t drink the Kool-Aid

This kind of points back to item 4 above about getting what sounds good to you. But it’s easy to get hot and bothered by a good sales pitch, especially if the salesperson puts on a great demonstration. Remember, you can only sound like you, so my advice when you’re testing out a guitar at a shop is to find a place to plug in and play, and forget about the demo. For all you know, the neck might not feel very good in your hands or once you start playing, the tone isn’t quite what you were expecting.

This advice extends to online demos as well. You can use the online demos as a means to get a tonal “feel” for the guitar, but in the end you will not know how a guitar performs – or any gear for that matter – until you play it yourself.

8. Build materials… er… wood

I was going to avoid talking about this, but lots of people will talk about it when you discuss guitars that I thought I should at least make some mention of it. Many people you speak to about woods will sometimes try to make you think that the woods make all the difference in the world with respect to tone. But several recent studies on this subject indicate that the type of wood has no effect whatsoever on tone, only on decay.

Personally, I’m not sure what side of the fence I fall on as each of my guitars sound different, and while my Les Pauls sound completely different from each other, they have a fairly distinct “Les Paul” tone. Same goes for all of my Strats; they all sound like Strats to me. Is this due to the wood? I don’t know. But what I do know is that I only buy what I like to play and what I like to hear, and my decision really doesn’t have much to do with woods.

For instance, when I got “Katie May” from Perry Riggs at Slash L Guitars for review, I knew wouldn’t be returning it. It felt and sounded like it was made for me! I didn’t find out what it was made of until I was ready to write a review of her, and by that time, it didn’t matter if it was made of mahogany and hard-rock maple with a rosewood fretboard. It just played and sounded incredible.

As for that research, here’s an interesting video explaining the physics behind tone:

I probably could’ve just said, “Look, if you want to get an electric guitar, go and play a bunch and figure out what you like.” But I wanted to discuss some of the “edge cases” associated with buying a guitar that could contribute to you possibly making a choice you regret later that you could avoid if you were aware of some of the gotchas.

ROCK ON!

App Review: Modal Buddy

4.75 Tone Bones - Almost perfect but not quite

NineBuzz Software: Modal BuddySummary: Whether you’re a rank beginner who wants to learn about modes or a seasoned player looking for a quick refresher and reference tool, Modal Buddy provides a fresh, easy-to-understand reference that demystifies much of the hub-bub behind modes.Pros: Made for the iPhone, but easily viewable on the iPad (which is what I have the app on). Clear, step-by-step method of introducing modes. Touches on the fundamental theory behind modes, but doesn’t get bogged down in all the intricacies. Also has great backing tracks to practice.

Cons: My only nit with product is that it would be helpful to have examples of all the modes so users can hear what all the modes sound like. I suppose it’s easy enough to just discover that while playing against one of the backing tracks. But it would be a nice touch to hear an example to know what to expect.

Price: $4.99

Tone Bone Rating: 4.75 ~ As simple and straight-forward as this app is, over the months that I’ve had it, I’ve returned to it several times to brush up. I’m definitely not an academic as far as playing guitar is concerned, and Modal Buddy is a great way to both learn and practice the fundamentals of modes without having to do a deep-dive into theory.

UPDATE: The app is made for the iPhone, but I run Modal Buddy on my iPad. According to Ron at NineBuzz, Modal Buddy does include example solos of all the modes. So please base my rating on running the app on an iPad.

For the better part of my performing career, I’ve played solos purely by feel. And in the past, I’ve done some leads where I ask myself, “Where the hell did I pull that out from?” What I didn’t know at those times was that unconsciously, I was applying a mode over the chord progression. But being as busy as I have been over the last several years, I didn’t – or perhaps couldn’t – take the time to investigate and analyze what I had done.

But a couple of years ago during the holiday season, I was coming up with a more contemporary arrangement of the carol, “Do You See What I See.” In the middle of tooling around with the arrangement, which I recorded so that my church band could get a feel for the arrangement, I started playing a lead that really intrigued me. I figured it was a mode, so I stopped what I was doing, then went to YouTube to find some instructional videos and possibly find out about what I was playing.

The very first video I found pretty much changed everything for me with respect to improvisation. This was by Rob “Chappers” Chapman, and I often return to it to review modes (plus Chappers is pretty funny). From that video, I realized that I was playing an F Lydian mode over a C-Bb chord progression, which gave it this really cool sustained feel. From that point on, I started investigating and learning about modes in earnest.

But to be totally honest, once you figure out how modes work; especially from such clear explanations such as those that Chappers gives, they’re really not all that mystical. But as with anything, you have to practice, and especially for someone like me who has never really taken an academic approach to music, what you need are good references. This is where Modal Buddy has become a extremely handy for me.

I took the advice of Joe Satriani in a video he did on modes and learned just a couple of modes at first; specifically, Dorian and Lyrdian. I don’t recall Joe specifically mentioning these on the video, but those were the two that made sense to me to start out with; especially Dorian because it was so easy to get to – at least for me – from a tonic, and I could easily combine it with minor pentatonic in the relative major for a minor chord progression. For me, that was totally cool to discover because for a chord progression in Am as the root chord, I could do a G Dorian, then switch to the minor pentatonic in C if I got lost, and believe me, I got lost a lot at first. :) But I still use that combination just because it sounds great to me!

Sorry for the minor detour, but with respect to Modal Buddy, having a reference for the modes (it focuses on the key of G), has been invaluable for me because as opposed to going into all the deep theory (especially interval spelling, which I hate), Modal Buddy presents a mode in such a way that it’s easy to just pick up.

Granted, my only nit is that Modal Buddy only provides an example lead for the Dorian mode, and I’d like to be able to hear all of them. But with the practice tool, you can play the G scale yourself over the backing tracks. Come to think of it, that’s probably what the intent was in the first place: Rather than provide audio examples, they make you practice. Oh well… :) And here’s an important point about modes that the practice tool gives you: You learn to hear what a mode sounds like given a particular chord sequence. To me, being able to hear the mode is far more important than having the intellectual knowledge of it. When you can hear a mode, you can play it. That doesn’t necessarily apply when you just learn the theory.

Now some people who get the app may say, “There’s really not much to it.” But that’s the beauty of Modal Buddy. It gives you a quick reference on modes and doesn’t bog you down in the deep theory. If you want that, you can read a book, or go on YouTube for that stuff. For me, having the most important fundamentals of modes available to me is a lot more important than having an academic understanding. After all, I gig 3-4 times a week, and I just don’t have the time to spend studying.

Modal Buddy is by no means the do-all and end-all to modes. But as the name implies, it’s a great companion app to have around when you need to quickly brush up.

ROCK ON!

The other day, I had about an hour to kill while I waited for my daughter to finish her appointment, and being near one of my favorite guitar shops (Guitar Showcase in San Jose, CA), I decided to swing by…

Being a Les Paul guy, I of course went to where they hung the LP historic models, and salivated over a gorgeous tea burst R8 (the burst was lighter than my own, and it had a subtle, but fantastic flame maple top). I picked it up, picked at it a bit, and smiled. What a guitar!

But then I thought about what I really “needed” – that’s a relative term, by the way – and thought that I’ve been after a bit heavier of an acoustic sound that bordered more along the lines of an electric; something that I could bring to my solo acoustic gigs in addition to my acoustic for those songs where I do a lot of chord comping (which I’ve been doing a lot of lately without really thinking about it).

So I asked myself, “Dawg, what about a Gretsch?” But I sold my last Gretsch, which was a thin body, 5120 Electromatic. Great guitar, but I just wasn’t playing it because it just didn’t have enough oomph for my solo gigs. Frankly, while I loved the guitar, it still sounded really electric, and would only work in my solo gigs at specific times.

So I figured that perhaps a thicker body Gretsch would give me a fuller tone. Now they had other hollow bodied guitars there, but for hollow bodies, I’ve always gravitated towards Gretsch. There’s a certain magic in the tone. So, perusing the Gretsch rack, I saw this orange guitar with dice knobs. I immediately knew that it was a Brian Setzer model.

Before I go on, one thing that kept me from getting a fuller sized Gretsch in the past was the weight. I almost sprung for a Country Gentleman a few years back, but it was heavier than my Les Paul, and I didn’t want a lot of weight; especially with my solo gigs. But all that changed when I picked up 6120SSLVO. It was amazingly light – apparently under 8 lbs. – and that put a smile on my face. I knew then that I had to take it out for a spin. So I asked the salesman for a strap and a cord, then hooked up to a PRS combo set to clean.

From the first chord I played, I thought to myself that I could do an entire solo gig with this guitar alone! It played like butter (the guys in the shop must’ve set it up). The neck was absolutely perfect, and the action was nice and low but not so low that there was a sting buzz.

And the sound? Wow! At first I was a bit concerned that the tone was controlled via a simple three-way switch. But I realized as I played that I didn’t need an analog sweep knob to set the tone. The three positions worked just fine, and I could get a brighter tone simply by switching pickups. Strumming the guitar with just the neck pickup produced a deep, gorgeous, natural, woody ringing tone that I felt was perfect for many of the folk-rock numbers that I do. And for the more contemporary tunes where I do a lot of chord comping, I could easily flip a couple of switches and twiddle the pickup balance in the middle selector to get that classic hollow body tone. Simply wonderful.

As for playability, I’ve seen online that there were concerns about the 9.5″ radius nut and the bridge saddles set up for 12″, which would make the outside strings a bit higher than the middle strings. Frankly, I had no idea about this issue when I played the guitar, and quite honestly, I didn’t notice any string height issues when I was playing. At least for me, there was no noticeable impediment for me to work my way up and down the fretboard.

To say I’ve got GAS is an understatement. I’ve been trying to figure out what I have to sell to get this guitar; certainly none of my Les Pauls. I probably should hold on to at least one Strat. Or… maybe I’ll just suffer the GAS and save my pennies until I have enough to buy it. But it’s definitely my next target.

Bo knows: Just Do It!

I have good friend who took up playing guitar two years ago, and has even started collecting (he just bought my Gretsch Electromatic off me). He has often shared his learning journey with me and his process, which has been – for lack of a better word – academic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because implied with an academic approach is a certain amount of discipline, and that’s extremely important in learning just about anything.

But in practically every conversation we’ve had where he’s described to me what he was learning, I’ve always interjected that in the end you just have to “Nike” and “just do it” within the specific context of making music; not composing by any means, but playing songs. After all, why does one learn to play a musical instrument? Certainly not for the mechanics. It’s to make music.

Life in general is like that. There’s a point where you have to apply what you’ve learned or what you’ve planned, or what you’ve envisioned. Several years ago, I heard the saying:

There’s a fine line between dreams and reality, and that’s willingness…

I was inspired by that saying when I first heard it, as I was attending a self-help seminar and the topic at the time was achieving your goals. This was back in the early 90’s when Tony Robbins “Personal Power” was all the rage. I remember it vividly. We spoke about the difference between decision and choice, dreams and reality, and especially the values we each espouse, and how we could apply the concepts to our daily lives to achieve our goals. It was an incredible experience that changed my life forever. And after that seminar, I actually used that saying several times over the years in working with teens and mentoring young professionals.

But a few years ago, I realized that the saying was slightly flawed because with “willingness” you’re still in your head. You’re still just thinking about it. You’re still in that phase of, “Yeah, that’s a great idea, I should do that…” But it’s not until you take action that you’ve physically committed yourself to turning a dream into reality, and experience has taught me that there’s a point where you have to get out of your head, move beyond thinking about doing something and well… DO IT. So I adjusted that saying to this:

The line between dreams and reality is execution…

The “winners” in the world don’t just think. They do.

Whether Type A or Type B, whether hard-charger and seat-of-your-pants or methodical and well-planned; no matter the approach, the people who achieve their goals in life execute. They don’t sit around thinking and talking about what they’re going to do, they do it.

So make like Bo and Just Do It!

you’ve got to do it your way. -Bob Lefsetz in “The Lefsetz Letter”

Wow! What powerful words! I just read these on The Lefsetz Letter, Bob Lefsetz’ commentary on the entertainment business. I’m hooked on his blog. He comes off as a bit of a curmudgeon, but he tells it how he sees it with respect to the industry and making it in the industry, and you know what? Most of what he says is spot-on. Lots of industry folk read what he has to say because for some reason, he has the pulse on the entertainment industry; specifically, the music biz.

But circling back to the title of this article, that phrase struck me because it reminded me of a recent conversation I had with a producer I’m working with on a new project, where I was saying that no matter what guitar I pick up, I sound like me. Different guitars may have different fundamental sounds, but when I manipulate a guitar (read: play), I always sound like – me. And the funny thing is that as the title says, I don’t know how I did it! After 44 years of playing guitar, probably way earlier than that, the way I attack the strings, the way fret and bend, the phrasing that I use; it’s distinctly me, but I couldn’t tell you how I got there. It just happened…

A friend of mine was listening to an instrumental compilation I put together while we were on a road trip (yes, I’m working on an instrumental album), and one observation that he made was that even though I wasn’t singing, he could immediately identify who was playing. That was really cool to me, because though I personally knew at an abstract level that I had a sound that was my own, it was great to get that validation from someone other than myself.

So what’s the point to all this? No, I’m not trying to hand myself some sort of back-handed compliment. I’m fully aware that my technical skill pales in comparison to my guitar gods. And I’m okay with that because with what skills I do possess, I’m making music and playing it my own way, which is the only way I know how to approach music. Yes, I study other players and study their techniques, but when it comes down to execution, but I know it’s me who has to execute, and as much as I’d like to sometimes do what one of my favorite guitarists does, frankly, they probably don’t know or put much thought into how they achieved what they did in the first place. Sure, anyone can go back and analyze what they did after the fact. But at the moment of creation, I’ll venture that they hadn’t a clue as to what they were doing or how they were creating it.

As for myself, with my instrumental project, one thing that I don’t want to do too much of is compose. For instance, when I wrote “The Struggle,”

while I had an idea of what I wanted the basic melody line to be after playing around a bit, when I finally got down to recording over the chord progression, I did it in one take and just let my fingers do the talking. My idea was that I wanted as much of the music to be as spontaneous as possible, while following a general guideline, and perhaps even have one or two unexpected “gotchas” because you never know what you might produce. For instance, around 2:02 of the song, I did this climbing phrase that seems like it fits naturally within the song, but to be completely honest, at that point, I was actually in a slight panic because I wasn’t quite sure where to go, so I just played and slid up the fretboard thinking I could fix it later if I made a mistake. But as it turns out, it fit perfectly. But I couldn’t tell you exactly how I did it. I just did it.

Stevie Ray Vaughn was notorious for this. He was said to have claimed – and I believe it – that he couldn’t duplicate his solos. He listened to the backing music and just… created…

For me, this is crux of being an artist. Don’t get me wrong, if you idolize a particular player and want to get a similar sound, I totally get it. But in the end, you’re the one who has to execute, you’re the one who has to make the sound. Besides, chances are that your idol didn’t know how they did what they did.

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