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The Hottest Attenuator: Aracom PRX150-Pro

Looking for the “Doppler on the Dumble” series?

I’ve made no secret that I play music at church; specifically a Catholic church. I’ve got a full band and we indeed rock it up; well, within reason because after all, we do have to play within the context of the Mass plus, we just can’t go all-out with the volume and melt people’s ears off.

But a few times a year, I get to go on youth retreats. There, volume is NOT an issue, so I can usually play a much higher volumes than at church, but normally, it’s just me on acoustic guitar with several teen singers. I can only rock so much playing by myself…

But this past weekend, it was different. On this retreat, I had an entire band playing with me: Two guitars (incl. myself), a bass, keys, and drums. So I brought the full rig for the weekend, which included my California Blonde for acoustic, acoustic guitar, my Les Paul with a Strat as a backup, and of course, my BOSS Katana 50.

As luck would have it, I only played acoustic maybe 10% of the time. The rest of the time was on my Les Paul cranking out rockin’ praise and worship music. And truth be told, this was my first full volume test of the Katana 50. And if I had any doubts about how it would perform at concert stage volume, they were completely laid to rest this weekend.

I already knew that the amp was loud. But as experience has shown, playing an amp in a controlled environment (in this case my living room) isn’t the same as playing it on stage where you have to compete with other instruments.

Unlike other venues I’ve played, I didn’t have the amp on stage with me because space was limited. Since the stage was only a foot and a half off the ground, I had everyone put their amps in the walkway at the back of the stage and tilt them against the wall. This would direct the speakers up so we could hear ourselves. That actually turned out to be a great idea because it allowed us to keep our stage volume under control so our sound guy could reinforce us through the mains.

And with the Katana 50, sound projection was not an issue at all. I could hear myself clearly, or if the band was playing all out, I could still isolate my sound. The Katana 50 kicked ass!

I originally purchased the amp as a high clean headroom platform that I could put my own pedals in front of. The built-in effects are incredible and quite honestly, the overdrive sound is pretty spectacular. But I have some great overdrive pedals that I haven’t put to much use lately and for this gig,

I decided to bring my Tone Freak Abunai 2 overdrive. This pedal has always been super-special to me and I have always loved its three different clipping sections. For me, the symmetrical clipping provides a very amp-like response and has the most gain and compression of the different clipping sections. This was the kind of thing I needed to run against a clean platform. The cool thing was that I could just set my amp’s base volume, then do fine adjustments at my guitar or on the Abunai 2 when I was playing dirty.

The Katana 50 took to the Abunai 2 as if they were made for each other. When I first switched it on and started playing a solo, the other guitarist in the band looked over at me and just shook his head laughing, then yelled out, “That sounds SOOOO good!” The thing about the Abunai 2 in the symmetrical clipping setting is that the distortion is pretty high-gain and simulates playing through a full stack. But at the same time, you get incredible note separation. It’s incredibly musical.

And to have an amp that provided that platform well, that was just kick-ass! Being just a 1 X 12 cabinet, it’s amazing how BIG the amp sounds when it’s pushing air. It’s hard to actually describe it in words but the effect is absolutely dramatic.

As far as clean tones are concerned the only thing I can say is, “Wow!” I dialed in just a bit of reverb from my TC Electronic Hall of Fame, then added some light analog delay texture with my Mad Professor Deep Blue Delay. When we were playing songs that demanded clean, clear tones, the Katana 50 delivered that in spades! Again, so very very inspiring.

Once we finished our first set Friday night, I just turned to the band with a shit-eating grin on my face. Not only had these kids done a great job – for which I gave them TONS of kudos – I also said that my tone was just spot-on. I was SO inspired by the sounds that were coming from the Katana 50!

Saturday was filled with several short sets of praise and worship and one really long, two-hour set in the night to cap off the day. Not once on Saturday did the amp let me down. Once I had it dialed in on Friday, I didn’t touch it except to add a bit more Master Volume because once our drummer got his confidence, he also got much louder – which is a good thing because I kept on having to remind him to play louder on Friday (imagine telling a drummer to play louder). 🙂

But the piece de resistance was yesterday morning’s final praise and worship set. For that set, I set the master much higher because we needed to be loud to finish up the retreat; plus with all the kids dancing and jumping, and singing along at the top of their lungs, I knew we’d have to cut through the crowd.

It turned out that even that setting wasn’t loud enough. 🙂 So after the first song of the set, I instructed the other guitarist to up his volume a bit (he was always pretty loud, but even he couldn’t cut through a screaming crowd) and I went back and cranked the Master to about 2pm, which is pretty freakin’ loud.

On the second song, I ripped into a quick intro solo by myself, then counted out the song. OH. MY. GOODNESS! 🙂 Talk about moving some serious air! That just got the band amped up and we finished up the set totally spent!

So no doubt, I LOVE THIS AMP! And imagine that its street price is only US$219.00!!! F-in’ A!

I am very aware of the doubters of this amp. One person on reddit called all the praise people were giving “paid shilling.” With all the buzz about the amp, it’s not a stretch that some might think this. But this amp really is that good! Every time I play it, I find another nuance that makes me love the amp even more!

Get Rid of Gear

Did I just say that? A gear slut saying to get rid of gear?

Okay, I have to admit that the title was mostly meant to be an attention-getter. BUT… There really is a serious side to this, and no, it has nothing to do with evaluating an emotional response to gear. What the subject of this post revolves around is this simple question that I’d like you to ask yourself:

How much am I hiding behind my gear?

To answer that question, try this:

  1. Pick a song or solo that you know very well – the more complicated, the better.
  2. Make sure you’re plugged in and have all the effects you normally use to play it.
  3. Play the piece. It’ll probably be the same, familiar thing you know so well.
  4. Now, turn off all your pedals, set your amp’s reverb to 0, set up the amp for maximum clean headroom such that no matter how hard you attack or turn up the guitar volume, it will not break up.
  5. Replay the song/solo in its entirety.

How did it sound?

Chances are good that you may say something similar to “Ouch! That wasn’t very good.” <or in my case, my reaction was filled with muttered expletives> It can be a humiliating and sobering experience to hear yourself play without effects.

I discovered this “humiliation” when I first got my 1958 Fender Champ, a 5 Watt, single-knob amp with a 6″ speaker. I was all set to do a review and provide sound samples, and when I sat down to record the amp, I sounded like shit! 🙂 I switched guitars and still sounded horrible. It was then that I realized that it wasn’t the guitars that sounded bad, it was me. And it also made me realize that I had been hiding behind my overdrives and reverbs and delays – for a long time.

So I delayed providing sound clips for a long time until I did a little woodshedding to work on my technique. It would be months before I felt comfortable playing that amp.

But there were several positives that came out of that process:

  1. I learned to be so much more expressive with just my fingers. With nothing to hide behind, everything had to come through me, just me.
  2. Using a totally clean amp helped me find my own, authentic sound; that base tone that no matter what guitar or amp I play, I sound like myself.
  3. The few months that I spent on my technique got me into this mode – and this is the crux of the article – where I felt that I just didn’t need certain pedals – especially overdrives. I could rely on the amp for that.
  4. I also came to the realization that what pedals I would use going forward would be accents to my sound as opposed to defining my sound.

At first, I reduced my pedal board to just modulation pedals; specifically, chorus, delay, and reverb. If I needed overdrive, I’d just overdrive my amp. But after awhile, I started back some overdrive pedals, simply because I like the sound of my favorite pedals like my Tone Freak Abunai 2 or EHX Soul Food. I’ll occasionally have a wah in the chain (though now that I’m playing a lot of reggae, it’s more often than not). But for the most part, I went from having a 12-pedal board to usually just using a PedalTrain Nano.

I will say that your mileage may vary. But if you’re like me, you may very well find that you just don’t need a bunch of pedals to get your sound.

I was reading a thread in a forum today entitled, “Help on choosing a high-end guitar.” I was going to reply that the guitar chooses the player, but someone beat me to it. After a chuckle, I recalled the scene from the very first Harry Potter movie where Harry went to Olivander’s to get his magic wand. The scene’s below…

I’ve always had this sneaking feeling as if all the guitars I ever purchased or got as gifts chose me. I didn’t choose them. Take my R8 Les Paul. Though I had purchased it used off eBay, when I saw the pictures and read the description, I felt as if the guitar called out to me over the Internet and said, “I’m yours.” And though several people were bidding on the guitar at the same time, I just knew that I’d win the auction. I implicitly knew that that guitar was going to be mine. It’s now my #1 electric and I will never part with it.

A similar thing happened when I got my Squier Classic Vibe Telecaster. I went to a local shop (Gelb Music in Redwood City, CA), saw that on the rack, and the moment I plugged it into an amp. I knew it would be mine.

I know all this sounds a little kooky, but I truly feel something elemental, spiritual is at play with my guitars. All the ones I’ve kept; they speak to me when I play them. I don’t fight with these guitars. When I play them they’re an extension of who I am.

All the ones I’ve sold – and there have been many – they spoke to me at some level, but I didn’t bond with them as tightly as the ones still in my possession.

I don’t know… Maybe I’m completely off my rocker. But with my guitars, definitely the wand has chosen the wizard.

And the answer is… whatever you f-in’ want to use! <woof>

I’ve been on a roll lately with my snarky commentaries probably because after a very long hiatus, I started lurking and participating in guitar forums. 99.9% of the time, it’s quite enjoyable, but there’s always that minuscule amount where I run across utter nonsense. The good thing is that these particular situations: 1) Give me a good laugh and; 2) Provide me with material about which to write.

There must’ve been something in the atmosphere around the globe yesterday because I ran across several comments in different threads where people were telling others that certain guitars were meant for certain types of music. The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was this reply to a kid who wanted to choose between an ES-335, Les Paul Jr., and a ’57 Goldtop:

“If you play punk shouldn’t you opt for a telecaster? The 335 is a jazzy-bluesy dream, the goldtop and the lpj for classic rock / prog … maybe a gibson would entice you into something different”

I was reading this while I was having lunch at my desk in the office, and laughed out loud at this one, causing my office mates to give me queer, inquisitive looks. I just joked and said I just read something funny.

But the thing is… While that comment and comments like it are amusing to me, they’re also quite sad. Sad because the people behind them have drunk some kind of Kool-aid that’s lead them to believe that certain kinds of guitars should only be played with certain kinds of music.

That’s not to say that there is no such thing as a convention or iconic guitars for specific styles. For instance, think of jazz guitar, and you’ll probably think of an archtop hollow body. Think of punk, and the Les Paul Jr. comes to mind. Folk? A dreadnaught.

But let’s be clear: There is NO “right” guitar for a particular type of music. Despite that, people seem to continue to limit themselves; even those who probably shouldn’t be communicating that kind of limitation.

For instance, a few years ago, I was in a big box retail store that rhymes with “guitar center” 🙂 looking at some Les Pauls. The sales guy approached me asked if I needed help, and I declined at first, but then I saw a gorgeous Tobacco Burst high up on the wall that I wanted to play, so I asked the young man if he could bring it down.

He was quite gracious and retrieved the guitar and once he handed it over, I suppose he thought that that would be a good opening for him to start a sales conversation by asking me a leading question.

“So what kind of music do you play?” he asked.

I replied, “All sorts. But my latest musical endeavor is sort of a jazzy reggae.”

He lifted his eyebrows and said, “I’ve heard of Les Pauls being used for reggae, but jazz? Hmmm….”

When I heard that, I almost choked, but not being a vicious person by nature, I restrained myself from replying with a flip remark. But despite that, I guess I couldn’t completely hide my look of incredulity because the dude got obviously irate with my reaction. So I said, “Uh yeah… Maybe you didn’t know this, but the actual Les Paul who invented this guitar was a jazz player. So it has a long history of being played in jazz.”

I really didn’t mean to deflate the guy’s ego, but he moved on to another person… oh well…

But that wasn’t an isolated incident as the comments I ran across yesterday demonstrate. But case in point, several players over the years have bucked the conventions. Back in the ’70s, Ted Nugent played a Gibson Byrdland archtop guitar. I once saw a video of the aikido master, Steven Segal, who is also a blues guitar player, playing on a space-age-looking guitar that seemed more suited to KISS. Tommy Shaw of Styx plays a beautiful ES-335 (among many others) and he absolutely ROCKS it!

All that said, I always keep going back to this same advice: Get the gear that helps you make music. It can be cheap. It can be expensive. It can be any brand you want. It just doesn’t matter so long as it inspires you to create.

And lastly, while the opinions and perspectives of others can be useful, you don’t need ANYONE’s approval on what kind of gear you play.

Just when I think the fervor over this debate has all but fizzled out, it comes rearing its ugly head every now and then.

I was in a forum where one person said, “Solid state amps are more like 2D, while tube amps are 3d.” Looking back on it now, I think that maybe he was just flame-baiting. But throughout that particular thread, people were making all sorts of claims as to why tube amps are so much better than solid state amps. Then on the other side, the solid state amp folks we extolling the virtues of solid state amps.

It’s all bullshit.

As Duke Ellington once said (I’m paraphrasing), “If it sounds good, then it is good.” With respect to an amp – or any gear for that matter – if it inspires you to be musical because of its sound and dynamics, who the hell cares whether or not its circuits are tube-based or solid state?

I have ten amps, 8 of which are tube amps; though one of my tube amps is actually a hybrid tube/solid-state amp. Each of my amps has a different character. But when I gig with a band, I invariably use either my hybrid (DV Mark Little 40), or as of late, my BOSS Katana 50. The Katana is a modeling amp, but it still has solid-state circuits. And guess what? It has a badass sound!

Don’t get me wrong. I love my tube amps, but the thing about a tube amp is that each different tube amp has a fairly unique sound and character. And for me, that uniqueness kind of boxes it into a particular style. When I’m playing in a band though, the styles of music we usually play are pretty diverse, so I need something that is a bit more versatile. My hybrid and the Katana provide that for me.

In any case, so sorry if this is a bit of a rant, but I find the whole debate a little annoying.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been religiously using my EHX Soul Food overdrive as my go-to dirt pedal. Sometimes, I’d stack it with another overdrive such as a TubeScreamer, or Tone Freak Abunai 2, or my Timmy.  And no matter what amp I put behind that pedal or pedal combination, it sounded awesome; that is, until I got my BOSS Katana 50. And then it sucked… Badly…

For my set at church this past weekend, I knew I was going to be playing some up-tempo songs and knew I was going to need some dirt in a couple of songs. So I configured my board to include my Soul Food. I just needed something subtle so I didn’t bother doing a stack. I set up my rig and did a sound check, and when I switched on the Soul Food, the sound was horrible! I couldn’t understand it, and no amount of tweaking got the sound dialed in. So I opted to set one of my channels to dirty and played that. Very disappointed.

That pedal has worked with all my tube amps; absolutely faithfully. But for some reason, even though the Katana has a similar dynamic response to my tube amps, it did not take to that pedal well at all. 

So later in the evening when I got home, I took out a few of my overdrive pedals to see which one(s) worked. The TubeScreamer worked great, though I did have to dial down the mid-range a bit. My Tone Freak Abunai 2 work incredibly well in Asymmetric mode. And my Timmy worked as expected. It’s a wonderful pedal. I took out a couple of others like my TC Electronic Mojo Mojo. That was just alright.

Surprisingly enough, my old Kasha Overdrive worked incredibly well with the amp. I kind of lost hope with that pedal a few years ago because I just didn’t like the sound it produced with my set of amps. But it sounded great with the Katana.

And that just goes to show that it’s a good idea to have a few dirt pedals; especially if you have a few amps. It has been the rare pedal – at least in my experience – that works with every single one of my amps. I got lucky with the Soul Food for my tube amps. But since my main amp now is the Katana 50, I have to use a different set of dirt pedals.

Plus, having at least a few overdrive pedals gives you different overdrive options. Some, like the Tim or Timmy are meant to react with your amp. Others, like the Soul Food (and other Klon derivatives) can be used reactively, or sound great all by themselves. On top of that, different overdrives clip or boost differently. Like I said, you give yourself options.

Truth be told, there was a time where I didn’t use any overdrive pedals and just relied on my amps’ natural gain. But as of late, I’ve been using overdrive pedals again, and I’m damn glad that I have several handy.

And mind you, you don’t have to spend a lot on drive pedals. As with any kind of pedal, you need to try out as many as you can. The great thing about overdrive pedals is that there are TONS out there. So grab a couple or a few. Give yourself some options.

Not sure, but for whatever reason, I’ve always been deathly afraid of working on my guitars beyond changing strings or straightening the neck; in other words, doing stuff on the outside. 

But when it comes to electronics, I’ve always been a total chicken shit. Maybe it’s a healthy fear in that I know my limitations: I really don’t know much about electronics. Oh, I can look at connections and determine where stuff goes, but when it comes down to the intricate stuff like soldering, I’ve always deferred to the experts. 

But a few years ago, I thought I’d give it a whirl by trying out a drop-in replacement to my CV Tele’s control panel which promised to offer a wider range of tones than the standard three-way switch could offer by adding a couple of other switches. My thinking at the time was that since my CV Tele only cost me a couple of hundred bucks, I could mess up and not take too big of a loss.

So I installed the new control panel with little fuss or problem, but after playing with it for a few gigs, I just didn’t like what it did to the sound of my guitar. So I decided to go back to my original control panel. 

And though I marked the connections with colored tape, in the process of removing the replacement, I somehow removed the markers. Shit! So I had to take a bit of a guess as to where wires went, and after quite a bit of trial and error, I finally figured out which wires went where. 

So I hooked everything back up, and all seemed to be well. At least, that’s what I thought, until I went to play a solo and moved to my bridge pickup, and all I got was a whole lot of silence! Luckily I had another guitar, and mid-song, I swapped out guitars and finished the gig with my backup.

But that experience kind of turned me off to my CV Tele, and I’m just a little ashamed to say that I let it sit in its gig bag for a couple of years. But the other day, I was on the /guitar Reddit and a few people were showing off their CV Tele’s. I got this guilty feeling from being neglectful of my guitar, so I pulled her out, cleared a space on my coffee table and proceeded to take off her control panel.

Looking at the “work” I did a few years back, I realized that I had been extremely messy with my work, so I reconnected some wires and put new terminals on and just made the whole thing a lot neater. But upon doing a test of the guitar, my bridge pickup was still acting a bit wonky. So I started jiggling wires. What I found was that my original solder of the bridge pickup wire to the switch was tenuous at best. So I took out my soldering iron, and re-soldered the wire back into place. Wow! Everything worked!

After I finished and got everything screwed back into place, I sat back and played for awhile. Then I just laughed at my fear of electronics. It literally took me less than five minutes to get that wire put back into place. Oh silly me…

But I still have a healthy fear of electronics. What I did was a pretty simple fix. If I couldn’t figure it out, I would’ve brought the guitar to my tech. But this particular exercise was a lesson in trying to figure things out myself first. After all, you never know until you try…