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Archive for March, 2007

No, I’m not talking about the gastrointestinal waste product, I’m talking about Guitar Acquisition Syndrome. It’s an affliction that plagues guitar players the world over, forcing them to buy more and more equipment so they can achieve the perfect tone. Wonder why guitar players are always broke? Look no further. It’s because they’ve sunk all their money into their gear.

Some people have likened GAS to obsessive compulsive disorder; considering the amount of money some people spend, it could be highly likely that it comes close, but really, it’s not that bad. It’s just that in the quest for attaining the ideal sound, you need to get equipment – and that costs money.

Is there a cure? Not as long as you’re trying to tweak your tone. But it goes away once you get close to your ideal. For instance, I’ve pretty much stopped buying gear since I’ve achieved my ideal – at least for now; and that’s the catch. GAS comes back when you want to change your tone, and the amount of GAS you get is in direct proportion to how big of a change you want to make. For me, last year was a year of complete re-invention. I went from being a primarily acoustic-electric guitar player, to being almost entirely electric, and the equipment I had just didn’t suffice. So, two electric guitars, three amps, and a set of stomp boxes later, not to mention a new PA and recording equipment, I’m pretty much over my GASeous period. I’m pretty satisfied… at least for now… 🙂

Can you control GAS? Actually, yes. I have a very supporting wife who sang for me in a music group before we started dating, so she was pretty familiar with my need for more equipment. Once we got married, we had several debates about me getting equipment, since the money was coming out of our family budget. So after going back and forth, and not getting any resolution, she one day said she’d like to make a deal. Since my regular job provided enough money to support the family and pay the mortgage, I could set up a separate account and deposit all my gig money into it to use as I pleased. But a huge part of the deal was that I couldn’t buy anything on credit or financing. I had to use the cash I had. That was a very fair deal, and it was also a way to curb my GASeous urges.

Anyone else have GAS? Share your thoughts!

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A lot of tube amp purists seem to think so, and for the most part, I’d have to agree. But on the flip side, solid state amps have their uses. For instance, under some conditions, a solid state amp actually makes more sense to use than a tube amp. When I gig, I bring two amps with me: A re-tubed and modified Fender Hot Rod Deluxe, and a Roland Cube 60. I play my electrics (ES-335 and Strat with Tex Mex pickups) through the Hot Rod, while I play my Ovation Elite acoustic/electric through the Roland Cube. There’s a practical reason for this in addition to a more personal reason. The practical reason is that I have effect boxes that are specifically geared towards shaping my electric guitars’ tones on the Hot Rod. Having to dial in the effects for a third is just too impractical.

On the personal side of things, I found that my Ovation actually sounded better (to my ears) on the clean channel of the Cube. I wasn’t expecting it, but I think the brightness and high touch sensitivity of the Hot Rod actually made my ovation too bright – it’s already a bright-sound guitar unplugged. With the Roland, I could dial back the brightness of the amp to bring out the Ovation’s natural brightness, and with the built-in chorus, add some subtle overtones that was very pleasing to my ears. I also “cheat” a bit by running a Presonus TubePre right before the amp, and that really warms up my signal. And by the way, the Cube 60 is a VERY LOUD amp; so loud, in fact, that I actually use the tube pre-amp as a gain limiter to control the amp’s volume – otherwise, I’d have to play the amp at around 2.

I also own a Line 6 Flextone III Plus that I use extensively in my recording work. Why? With its controllable direct out, I can get a nice even signal coming from my amp and go directly in to my recording unit. Furthermore, because it’s a modeling amp, I can tweak a lot of different things to create a unique patch that I couldn’t achieve without a lot of signal processing (read: effect boxes) on my tube amp. Note however, that the guitar parts that I play through the Flextone III typically play a supporting role in my songs, but even as support, they play a valuable part.

Another important point that I’d like to make is that with a modeling amp, you get a very consistent tone. In a lot of cases that consistency can equate to “boringness,” but for my uses, I can create a background guitar part knowing that I won’t have to do much with it in my recording software. Also with respect to consistency, once I’ve dialed in a tone on my Flextone, it sounds pretty much the same throughout a wide range of volumes. That’s very useful.

The downside of a modeling amp is that, well, your sounds are models. While modeling technology has certainly come a long way, you can get close to a particular tone from a tube amp, but it’s not quite the same. Another thing that I found is that with a full-blown modeling amp like the Flextone III, it actually sounds horrible on stage; especially if you’ve introduced distortion into the patch. There’s a lot to be said about the interplay between pre-amp and power amp tubes in producing a distorted signal. Modeling amps just can’t capture that 100%. But I will say that played clean, it’s tough to distinguish between the two types of amps, especially if you put a tube pre before a modeling amp, like I did with my Cube 60.

So the moral of the story boys and girls is that modeling amps don’t suck. For me, they’re very useful for specific purposes. In all others, I’ll take a tube amp any day.

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A friend of mine recommended that I try out a T5. He was raving about how cool it looked, and how you could switch from acoustic sound to a full-blown electric. I was a little dubious, considering that that’s really just modeling, and frankly, it was nothing new to me). Parker Guitars did this with “The Fly” well over a decade ago. But to be fair, I went down to my local GC to check one out and see what all the hype was about. So, under the guise of “Honey, I need to run some errands. I’ll be back in a couple of hours,” I ventured to my local GC, and played it for over an hour. The following is the result of that session with the Taylor T5:

Oops! Before I start on the actual review, I played the T5 through three amps: A Fender Acoustasonic Junior, a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe, and a Roland Cube 30.

Fit and Finish:

All Taylor guitars look great, and the T5 is a real beauty. I played a T5 with a beautiful royal blue finish – very sexy. The T5 also lives up to the Taylor standard of construction – all their guitars are very well-built. As far as acoutrements are concerned, personally, I’m not a real fan of low-profile knobs (when I’m in the middle of a song and want to make an adjustment, I want to be able to feel the knob – ooh, that didn’t sound good), but the knobs on the T5 fit in with its design nicely.

Feel and Playability:

The T5 has a nice narrow neck – very similar to my Strat and Ovation Acoustic/Electric – which I love, so moving around on this neck was amazingly easy and very comfortable. Acoustic players who are accustomed to wider necks will need a little time to get a feel for the neck, but should adjust pretty quickly. I had an easier go of it myself from playing my Ovation. When I first got that guitar, I had a bit of a break-in curve, but now it’s the type of neck I prefer.

Sound:

I know that I may piss some people off when I say this, but as far as sound was concerned, I was a bit disappointed. Based upon my conversation with my friend who raved about it, and lots of glowing reviews I read on Harmony Central and Musicians’ Friend, I was expecting a lot more with respect to tone – especially since the T5 starts at $1999, and goes up from there. I used the same evaluation process on the three amps I played the T5 on: On both amp and guitar, I started out by setting all the tone knobs to the mid settings. Guitar volume was set to midline, and since I was in a shop, I had to set the Fenders pretty low (they use logarithmic volume pots), while the Cube 30’s gain could be cranked while leaving the volume at a comfortable level. From there, I played the guitar in three different ways: 1) Fingerpicking; 2) strumming (using a straight sweep strum, and a percussive, attacking strum); 3) Then just playing various lead patterns in clean and high-gain modes.

Played clean with fingerpicking and lead playing, the T5 was very nice on all the amps; great clarity and sustain, though I really had to pump up the bass and turn down the treble on the amps to achieve a rich sound – especially on the Hot Rod Deluxe which, even with brightness off, plays pretty bright. Strumming in clean mode was pretty ugly on the Fenders – the guitar sounded like an acoustic plugged into an amp – very flat sounding, and no amount of EQ tweaking or reverb helped. Plus, when using a percussive strum pattern (think Michael Hedges), I would get an annoying popping sound. Probably has to do with the very touch-sensitive pickups, added to the touch sensitivity of the Fender amps. On the Cube 30 though, since I could apply some chorus, the tone cleaned up quite nicely, and helped dissipate the high end. If I was to use the T5 clean with a straight tube amp or acoustic amp, I’d run it into a compressor, a chorus, and then run the entire signal thorough a sonic maximizer – and possibly add an EQ pedal to texture the sound better.

In high-gain mode on the Hot Rod, the T5 actually sounded very nice. Even though I had to play at a lower volume, I could crank the drive and get a real nice distortion out of the T5. I think this is where the body vibration from the hollow body comes into play. It actually sounded a lot like my ES-335 in that mode; very pleasing to the ear, with a big, rich sound. With the Roland Cube 30 in the modeling channel, the T5 performed great with the gain at about midway, using the all the non-acoustic amp models. In the acoustic model on modeling channel, the T5 actually sounded VERY good, but then again, that’s a modeled sound.

Overall:

The Taylor T5 is a pretty nice guitar. Would I pay two grand and up for it? I don’t think so. I look at this guitar as being similar to a Line 6 Variax 700, which has a lot more features and guitar models built into it, and costs more than half the price less (I know, the T5 is NOT a modeling guitar)! Then again, I wouldn’t buy a Swiss Army Knife type of guitar period, mainly because even though it may sound real close to what it’s modeling, it’ll never get the exact voicing that the original gives you. For instance, if I want a thin, single coil sound, I’ll use my Strat. If I want a richer, boomier presentation, I’ll use my ES-335 (I’m also in the market for a Les Paul Double Cutaway, which I just adore). For acoustic/electric work, I’ll use my Ovation shallowbody.

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The Dr. Z Air BrakeAfter many years of using solid state amps, I finally started looking at tube amps; specifically, boutique tube amps. I’ve looked at and played several from folks like Dr. Z, Mesa, King Amplification and a bunch of others. But boutique amps are VERY EXPENSIVE. And upon the recommendation of a very knowledgeable acquaintaintance (mentioned previously), I purchased a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe to tide me over until I could afford the $2500-$3500 for a boutique amp.

But no matter what boutique tube amp I decide to buy, one thing that struck me about about tube amps is that they’re LOUD!!! Yeah, I know, a lot of that comes from the types of volume pots installed on many amps, but irrespective of that little issue, tube amps just rock the house with their tonal clarity and their ability to punch through a mix. Unfortunately, they can get so loud that they squash the rest of your band (let alone shatter the eardrums of your audience), and that’s the bad part because most tube amps, especially Mesas and Marshalls just don’t sound right until they’re cranked and really pushing their power tubes. But in small to medium-sized venues, you’ll have people running for the door!

So I went looking for a solution where I could push my power tubes but not break windows (or in a specific personal instance, not have the next-door-neighbor calling me at 1 am to “turn my f&*king amp down”). In any case, the answer lay in a box called a power attenuator. There are several types, and I won’t bore you with technical details, but the gist of a power attenuator is just that: it attenuates the signal coming from your amp. You simply place it between your amp and your speakers and it outputs a lower signal – thus lower volume. What this means is that you can crank your amp to the level that you’d like and achieve an overdriven tone, but do it at a significantly reduced volume level.

The hot ticket right now seems to be the THD Hot Plate. But there are others out there as well. Personally, I like the Dr. Z Air Brake because it has a very simple set up (just two knobs), and is much more versatile right out of the box than the Hot Plate. This is because it automatically adjusts to the proper impedance of your amp; whereas you have to get a specific Hot Plate model that matches your amp’s impedance level. Choose the wrong one and you could be in a world of hurt! So I’ll be going with the Air Brake.

However, since I have a home studio, I will also be purchasing the Weber Mass 100 because it has a EQ’d DI direct output that I can run directly into my MBox 2. That’s very useful for studio work, but way too complicated for stage work. Besides, even though I only play with 4 effect pedals (BBE Sonic Stomp [you gotta get this – or better yet, get a rackmount sonic maximizer], Ibanez TS-808 Tube Screamer, Boss DD-3 delay, and Boss CE-5 chorus), I have more than enough knobs to twiddle with, and the Air Brake is simple enough to use on stage – two knobs. I tend to be a set it and forget it kind of guy and only like to channel switch to my gain stage or switch the TS-808, so the less I have to play around with, the better.

Anyway, if you’re a guitar player who’s in search of maintaining your tone but saving your eardrums – as well as those in your audience – then a power attenuator is the thing for you.

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