I recently started a friendship with Vinni Smith at V-Picks – what a cool dude! Not only does he make great picks, but that man can make an axe sing! Anyway, I was e-mailing him this evening about how his “The Snake” pickup has changed my life, and it got me to thinking about specific pieces of gear that have had a drastic effect on how I approach the guitar. I’ll share them here in kind of a loose chronology:
1. The Kyser Capo
Yeah, lots of people call ‘em “cheaters,” but screw ‘em. I couldn’t play lots of songs without one. But the Kyser capo in particular really changed my approach, especially after I saw James Taylor playing with one. For years, I used a standard nylon strap type of capo that just basically stayed in place. But then I saw JT playing with a Kyser. I always wondered how he did his mid-song key changes. I used to think he just changed his hand position and played barre chords. But I’ll be damned if he didn’t just slide the capo up, then just played open chords in another key. That was it! I was sold.
2. Ovation Celebrity Deluxe
After my beloved “Betsy” (a Yamaha FG-335 acoustic) broke in a terrible fall, I immediately went in search of a new guitar. I played all sorts in this used gear store and came across this gorgeous sunset burst Ovation. I wasn’t much of an Ovation fan – thought they were really tinny sounding. But when I played this one, it had a much deeper sound than the Ovations I’d played up to that point, and it was a shallow body, no less. When I plugged it into an amp, it sounded even better! That guitar got me into amplified sound. So of course, in addition to buying the guitar, I also got a small Roland 25 Watt practice amp. What a life changer that was.
3. Fender Hot Rod Deluxe
This was my very first tube amp, and an amp that I still use because of how good it sounds… er… I’ve had some modifications done to it, but nevertheless, being my first tube amp, it exposed me to a whole new world of tonal possibilities. Up to that point, I’d played only solid state amps from a Roland JC-12o to a Line 6 Flextone III to a Roland Cube 60 (which I still have – it’s an awesome amp). The Hot Rod showed me the wonders and beauty of tube amp distortion which is nothing like what you get with solid state amps.
4. Ibanez Tube Screamer
There are overdrive boxes, and there are overdrive boxes. But the Tube Screamer is THE classic overdrive box, and the oldest pedal on my board. I’ve of course fallen in love with other OD’s like the Creation Audio Labs Holy Fire, but the Tube Screamer had a real huge effect on how I looked at tone and established what pleases me the most with respect to breakup. It’s a great pedal (though I’m really psyched about testing the Tone Freak Effects Abunai 2).
5. Blizzard Pearl Fender 60th Diamond Anniversary Stratocaster
I love that classic, vintage sound, and this guitar delivered it from the moment I played it. Yeah, it’s made in Mexico, it cost me less than $400 new, but I chose it over Strats five times its price. Why? Because it kicked the shit out of the other guitars. It was THE guitar that convinced me that it’s not the price you pay but the tone you produce that matters. Since I’ve gotten her, I play “Pearl” every day. She’s the first guitar I go to when working on a new song. What a wonderful instrument.
6. Saint Guitar Company “Baby Blue” Benchmark
This isn’t my guitar, and I no longer have it in my studio, but this was the very first guitar that was made to my personal specifications. There is nothing like playing a guitar that’s made to order. The experience is surreal, and started me down this path of playing a custom guitar. Adam’s going to be building me one in the next few months – I’m keeping that one.
7. Reason Amps SM25 Combo
Even though I love my Hot Rod, the SM25 marks a time when I’ve gotten super-serious about my tone. I’d played a bunch of amps, but this amp showed me that sometimes you do have to pay to get stellar tone – and it’s worth every penny. Lots of manufacturers have created amps that run their channels in series, but I haven’t come across one amp yet that does it as well as Obeid Kahn and Anthony Bonadio. They’ve come up with an amp, cab, and speaker combo that’s like nothing I’ve played before – and I’ve played some awesome amps.
8. Creation Audio Labs Mk.4.23 Clean Boost
I used to think clean boosts were just to help punch a solo through the mix. I didn’t know that they could be used to slam the pre-amps of a tube amp to produce super-overdrive in an amp that no distortion or overdrive pedal can give you. But this one’s very special in that it adds no tonal artifacts of its own – it’s uncanny. What it does is boost the natural sound of your guitar, and when slamming the front-end of amp, gives you the true overdriven tone of your amp. This is a piece of gear that I cannot do without any longer, and it now has a permanent place on my board.
9. Red Bear Picks
I never thought I’d buy a handmade pick, nor pay $20 for one no less. But Red Bear Trading TortisTM picks truly changed my life. I now use Red Bears exclusively for playing acoustic guitar. They sound great with electric as well – I’ll get to that below when I talk about V-Picks – but no pick I’ve ever played has made my Ovation sound so good. These picks look and feel like natural tortoise shell, but they’re made from a polymer of milk protein. No matter, they’re awesome picks!
10. Aracom Amps RoxBox 22 Watt (soon to be released)
This diminutive amp oozes 6V6 goodness. It’s still kind of in the prototype phase so I can’t really write too much about it, but I think my friend Jeff Aragaki has hit a real sweet spot with this amp. Get this: It’s hand-wired, though it uses a solid state rectifier, and it costs less than $1000! The profound thing about this is you can indeed get boutique caliber gear at a great price. But for me personally, this amp is the very first boutique amp I’m buying. Oh, I’ll eventually get the Reason SM25 to run in parallel with this one, but this amp is special because it’s the first boutique amp I will ever have owned.
11. V-Picks “The Snake”
As I mentioned above, I’ve befriended Vinni Smith, and I just dig the dude! He knows so much about guitar, and we’ve shared a lot of the same experiences, and love the same kind of music (his favorite guitar solo is the lead break in the middel of Frampton’s Do You Feel Like We Do – my favorite as well). When we first met, Vinni sent me a large sample of his picks, which I compared head-to-head with my Red Bear picks. Of course, I love my Red Bear Classic B-style Heavy, but when I played the comparable V-Picks Standard on my electric guitars, I just couldn’t believe this sound and action I was getting! So I decided to use my Red Bears for acoustic – as I said, nothing sounds better than a Red Bear on acoustic. But for electric, it was going to be V-Picks all the way. Then during a conversation we were having a couple of weeks ago, Vinni told me he’d send me his Snake picks. These are a whopping 4.1 mm thick, with a different bevel than his others. Since I’ve gotten them, I’m never going to use anything on electric guitar than the Snake! I use the rounded for a smoother, fatter tone, and use the pointy for bright attack tones – especially when I’m doing stuff on the bridge pickup! These two picks have totally changed my approach to playing electric. Thick picks in general did that, but these are the thickest I’ve played, and they absolutely ROCK THE HOUSE!
12. May 30, 2010 – I know, a bit late on the uptake here with this one, but life-changing nonetheless, and that is my Aracom Power Rox PRX150-Pro attenuator. This is the first attenuator that I’ve used that truly stays transparent down to bedroom levels. It is the only attenuator that accurately gives me my cranked up tone at low volume levels, and it is absolutely wonderful! I know there are others out there, but knowing that they’re modeled after existing attenuator designs that I know don’t sound very good at low volume levels, it was a no-brainer for me to choose this one. As Doug Doppler said to me in a recent visit to his home, “This thing has saved my ears!” Even Joe Satriani uses one of these units and loves it! That’s how good it is!
Okay, that’s it for me… Anyone care to share what gear has changed their lives?