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Archive for February, 2008

Vacuum tubes @ thetubestore. New and NOS electron tubes for any amplifier.

Want to replace tubes in your amp? Look no further. The Tube Store is THE place to go for tubes. They have great prices, and more importantly, have tons and tons of knowledge about tubes. What’s even more amazing is they also know how a particular tube will sound in a lot of different amps. I’ve purchased tubes from these guys twice so far. Being a bit dense as far as tubes and electronics goes, I need a lot of help in choosing what to buy, and I’ve called them directly. In both cases, they’ve take a lot of time to explain and educate me on how a particular tube or combination of tubes will sound in my amp. We’re talkin’ old skool customer service here, folks! So with their permission, I’m giving them a plug here GuitarGear.org, and will also be displaying their logo on the site!

Great service needs to recognized!

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Praise the Lord My Soul

I wrote this song in mid-2006, but didn’t get around to recording it until this past week. It’s yet another praise song, but it’s a praise song with a twist. It’s written as a blues/funk piece. One wouldn’t normally equate funk/blues with contemporary Christian music, but all I can say is that’s what I came up with. It’s not that I’m trying to do the unexpected – the song kind of worked itself out like that, and it’s also a sound that I like. That point really hit home after I read an interview in the latest issue of Guitar World last weekend with Lenny Kravitz. The interviewer commented that he crossed different styles in his latest album, and his reply was (paraphrasing), “I write music that I like to hear. If you try to write music that you think people will like, it loses its soul.” That’s kind of the place that I’m coming from with the music I’m recording right now. Most of it really leans towards the blues, but it’s music that I like, and what I’m influenced by, so it provides the context for my songwriting. Anyway, have a listen! I hope you like it!

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4 Tone Bones - Excellent gear, that exceeds expectations of its performance, value, and quality. Strongly consider purchasing this. Fender® Champion 600

Price: $149 (street)

Summary: Great tone can come in small packages, and the Fender Champ is a great example of this. Simple and straight-forward, it’s easy to use, and even easier on the pocketbook. Not really meant to be used as something you’d gig with (though you could easily add an extension cabinet), it’s a great amp for practicing and for the home studio recording artist looking for a low-wattage solution.

Pros: Vintage looks and great sound and quality for a small price.

Cons: You sacrifice a bit of low-end for the diminutive size.

Fender Champion 600 Re-issue

Recording in a home studio presents various challenges to the DIY recording artist. But no other challenge is greater than controlling the output volume of amps, especially if you want to push them into breakup. To get even a small amount of breakup, you’ve got to increase gain to push the pre-amp and/or power tubes; and invariably, this is accompanied by a boost in output volume. There are various ways to deal with this from creating amp enclosures to using attenuators or even installing tube adapters to use lower wattage output tubes, and they all work reasonably well. Another approach is to simply get a smaller wattage amp in the 5 – 15 Watt category. Most have much smaller speakers than their larger counterparts, so their output volume is naturally lower, plus with the smaller wattage, it’s easier to overdrive them at lower volumes, thus producing breakup without shaking tiles loose.

Among the 5 Watt amps available, the two seemingly most-popular amps are the Fender® Champion 600 and the Epiphone Valve Junior Combo. I recently had the chance to try out the Champ.

Vintage Roots, Great Sound: Bargain Price

First of all, let’s be real honest: The Champ is a $200 amp, sporting a single volume knob and a standby switch. That’s it. This is not an amp that you compare to a boutique amp in any respect, so don’t try to compare it to something like a Carr mini-Mercury – they’re in two completely different classes! A re-issue of the original 1950 Fender Champion, it employs modern mass-production techniques as opposed to the hand-wired, point-to-point construction from which most boutique amps are built. But for what you pay for this amp, and for the quality of sound that it produces, you just can’t go wrong. Bear in mind that the Champ is a no-frills amp whose sole purpose in life is to amplify the natural sound of your guitar. It’s not meant for gigging with a full band. On the other hand, it creates really nice tone (albeit with a little loss of the bottom-end). As long as you don’t try think of this amp as any more than what it is, it’ll make you pretty happy.

Looks

This is a very retro-looking amp, with the original two-tone brown on beige tolex design. It actually looks like a mini television! and the leather handle is a real nice touch – though I’d be careful not to strain the handle too much… It’s a little weird to see a single volume knob, but that just tells you that this is a no-frills amp, as I mentioned before.

Sound Quality

I’ve already mentioned that the Champ produces really nice tone, and even though I missed the bottom-end that you’d get with a larger speaker, the quality of the sound that it does produce is stellar. Besides, in a recording application, you can always tweak the bottom-end a bit with EQ, but I digress. I tested the Champ out with a G & L Comanche, a Strat, and a Les Paul Standard. As expected, the amp reacted very differently with each of the different guitars, but surprisingly, it retained the character of each guitar, which I thought might be lost because of its diminutive size. The Strat played clean and smooth, and position 4 (center/bridge) was twangy and ringy as expected. What surprised me even more was with the Strat, I couldn’t get the amp to break-up until I cranked the volume past 9 (it goes up to 12). There’s lots and lots of clean headroom with single coils, so if you want to get break-up, you’d be best served using an overdrive pedal of sorts.

It was far easier to get amp to break up with the Comanche and Les Paul, as expected. It was a bit more difficult with the Comanche as it uses the hybrid Z-coil pickups, but it was still easier to get breakup than with he Strat. The LP broke up nicely with volume at about halfway, and the volume knobs pegged.

From a distortion standpoint, the Champ produces distortion similar to a Fender Deluxe. It’s not creamy smooth, but it’s also not too gritty – though it does get really ugly at high volumes – probably due to speaker distortion, which is never nice. But dialed in just right, the Champ produces really subtle breakup which is very ringy and pleasant.

Being that you can’t really do much tone shaping with the amp itself, it’s up to you to throw whatever boxes you need to achieve the tone you’re after. But that shouldn’t be too much of a problem for most folks. Besides, in lots of cases, you may not want to put any boxes in your signal chain before this amp. Here’s a decent-sounding YouTube video that demonstrates how the Champ sounds. I think you’ll be surprised:

Value

For the money, it’s hard to go wrong with the Fender Champion 600. A cheaper alternative would be the Epiphone Valve Junior which costs only $129.00 for the head. I’ll be writing a review for that as well in the very near future, but if you’re looking for that nice, Fender clean tone in a low-wattage application, but don’t want to shell out several hundred dollars for even a small deluxe, the Champ is a great way to go!

Update: As you can see at the top, the price listed is $149. Fender dropped the price after I wrote the article. Of course, I paid the original $200+ for the damn amp, but there you have it…

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pearl3.jpg

Read an interesting article by GuitarFlame (www.guitarflame.com) called: The science of playing the acoustic guitar where he talked about a very good shredder who picked up an acoustic guitar, and sounded… bad. That made me giggle a bit because I’ve seen the same thing with a lot of shredders. They sound horrible on acoustic guitars; actually I’ve heard several who sound pretty bad playing clean. As GuitarFlame put it, there’s more than meets the eye to playing acoustic. That’s certainly true, but I think it’s even more than that. I think a lot guitarists forget that 90% of their tone comes from their hands. Lots of guitarists, especially young ones, think it’s all in the equipment, but it’s not. Yes, equipment has a lot to do with the quality of the sound that you produce, but your hands and fingers are responsible for making the sound, and thus giving you your tone. How you articulate your fretting hand, where you pick, palm muting, finger picking, all these in their various combinations produce different tones. Pick closer to the bridge, and you get a tinny, chimey tone; closer to the neck and you get a fatter tone because of the larger amplitude of the string vibrations.

I’ve discussed at length with a close friend about this very topic – several times. He’s got the money to buy gear any time. And while he sounds a little better each time he buys a new guitar or amp, it’s only his sound quality that improves. I finally challenged him after this last round of acquisitions to not buy more equipment and work on his tone. I told him that the cheapest way to start sounding better is to simply… practice. Developing tone is free – you just need to take the time to do it.

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Mark Kendall

A couple of months ago, I was having a drink with an old-school, elderly jazz guitarist named Patrick before my weekly gig at the restaurant I play at. To this day, I still don’t know Patrick’s last name, but he’s played with great Black jazz greats like Ellis Marsalis, and that whole “N’ah-lens scene, bruh,” as he calls it, and over the last few years that I’ve known him, I’ve really come to respect his unique wisdom and approach to the guitar. We don’t see each other often, and almost all of it has been via chance encounters at the bar. But when we do meet, we always talk about guitar, and life as a guitarist.

One day, we were talking about comping out chords to provide musical and rhythmic counterpoint against the vocals and bass, and out the blue he tells me (in his thick southern drawl – though I won’t try to write it too phonetically), “I can tell you got some chops, bruh. But you more into the groove thang than playin’ all sorts ‘a licks. I like that. Ain’t a song that’s been written that don’t need a good groove. Don’t let nobody fool ya. Let those mutha-f@#kas go off and do their noodlin’. Lots of them dudes can’t hold down a rhythm no-how!” My obvious response was, “Amen!” followed by a high-five and a triple soul-brother handshake.

I was taken by surprise by his compliment because I always feel I need to improve (I guess that’s why I push myself so hard), but I was even more amazed by what Patrick said after that because it underscored a sentiment that I’ve held for a long time: The groove of a song is where it’s at. Not only does it establish the rhythmic foundation for the song, it also forms the character and emotional framework for the entire piece. Without a foundation, you don’t have a song. Period.

Unfortunately, a lot of beginning guitarists focus almost entirely on learning lead parts, and dismiss playing rhythm guitar as merely executing a repetitious chord progression. They learn the chords as an afterthought, but don’t realize that they’re missing all the expressiveness that goes with a chord in relation to the body of a song. Playing good rhythm guitar isn’t just striking a chord on a specific beat – it’s all the stuff that happens within the duration of a chord that counts.

In my work as a music minister at my Church, I come across a lot of budding guitarists who can play leads like there’s no tomorrow. In fact, I have a 16 year old kid in my band whom I’ve had to make unlearn what he’s learned so he could learn how to play effective – and consistent – rhythm guitar. That kid knows John Mayer’s licks down cold, and a lot of other blues lead licks (which I’ve actually learned from him J ), but he couldn’t read a chord chart when he first started with the band and worse yet, had little sense of the rhythmic quality of playing guitar; in other words, no right hand technique. He’s not alone in this ignorance, and I place a lot of blame on guitar teachers for perpetuating this ignorance.

My message to them is this: Stop teaching leads to your beginning students. Teach your students how to play the damn guitar first. Teach them how to recognize the groove in a song, and teach them the groove!!! If they’ve got the groove down, then they’ve got the canvas to paint the colors of their leads. They’ll have a deeper understanding of their instrument, and how it fits in a song.

How important is groove? Don’t let me try to convince you. A couple of issues ago in Guitar Player, Rudolf Schenker and Matthias Jabs of the Scorpions were interviewed. Jabs is an incredible lead guitarist, but he mentioned in the article that playing good rhythm guitar was more important than playing leads. “After all,” he said (paraphrasing), “I’m playing rhythm guitar 90% of the time. Leads take up 10% of a song.” Then in the latest issue of Guitar World, Lenny Kravitz had some great insights into the importance of the groove of a song and playing good rhythm guitar. “You could have a guy that can play up and down the neck all day long, but playing a rhythm part consistently for four minutes without stopping is another story. It’s amazing to me when I see players that can play a lot of stuff, but they obviously haven’t concentrated on how to groove.

So how do you learn how to groove? Listen to all sorts of songs from different genres. Forget about leads for the moment, and listen for the groove in each song. Learn the chord progressions, yes, but learn what each guitarist is doing in between chords. Are they scratching? Are they adding colorful motes of a couple of strings? Are they adding alternate shapes or a 2 or 4 sustain to a chord. Take that all in… But after having said all that, don’t copy what they’re doing note for note. Just like with leads, learn the technique, then incorporate it into your own style.

I’ll be the first to admit that learning to be great a rhythm guitarist is hard. In fact, I find it a lot hard to learn rhythm riffs than leads, mainly because with most leads, you can follow a pattern. But with good rhythm, you have to feel what’s going on with the song you’re playing then use different techniques to affect a certain groove. But remember, the groove is what you’re after.

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G & L Guitars Comanche Solid Body

Review Setup: Solid Swamp Ash Body, Hard Rock Maple Neck with Rosewood fretboard. Z-coil pickups.

Price as configured: $1700.00 (custom setups available)

Summary: I give this 4.5 Tone Bones! The G&L Comanche is an excellent, hand-made, versatile guitar from the shop Leo Fender and George Fullerton started after Leo sold the Fender company. Incredible playability, and sweet, sweet sound from the Z-coil humbuckers. Not only that, with the flick of a mini-switch, you can engage all three pickups at once for a truly aggressive sound. This is a guitar that is not for the faint of heart. It wants to be played, not babied. Read on!

G&L Guitars Comanche

I love writing this blog because it forces me to check out gear that I wouldn’t otherwise take a second glance at, and sometimes make new discoveries of gear that I didn’t even know existed. This entry is the result of one of those chance discoveries.

I thought I knew my guitar builders beyond the mainstream and semi-mainstream such as Gibson, Fender, PRS, etc. So it came as a HUGE surprise to walk into a small shop in Sacramento yesterday and see what looked like Stratocaster and Telecaster knock-offs hanging on the walls, only to be informed by the shop owner that the guitars were made by the prototype shop that George Fullerton and Leo Fender (hence, G & L) started after Leo sold the Fender company. Building on the traditional Fender body shapes, their creations extend the lines with solid and semi-hollow versions with various pickup configurations that reach far beyond their corporate counterparts. The results are guitars that push the envelope with design and innovation, while retaining the visual pedigree that made George Fullerton and Leo Fender famous in the first place. Also, all G & L’s are hand made. I know that alone may deter some players from even considering this brand, but amazingly enough, they’re not as expensive as you might think; more on that later. I had the chance to play the solid-body Comanche with tobacco sunburst through a ultra-sweet Rivera Venus 3 (I’ll write a review on that later 🙂 ).

At a distance, when you first the see the Comanche, you recognize the familiar body shape and pickup positioning, and you might say, “Hmmm… nice Strat.” Then, as you move forward, you see that the headstock is slightly different from a Strat, the bridge is really different from a Strat. The body is also a little narrower. Then you notice the absolutely weird-shaped pickups. These are an invention of Leo Fender. They’re actually two, hand-wrapped and offset three-string, single coil pickups with reverse polarity to eliminate hum. They’re almost like hybrid humbucker.

Look and Feel

The Comanche I played had a gorgeous tobacco sunburst finish overlaying a swamp ash body, with a hard rock maple neck and a rosewood fretboard. Surprisingly, this wasn’t a light guitar. In fact, it felt a little heavier than my own Strat, but the feel was luscious. The only ding that I gave the Comanche was that the back of the neck is gloss-lacquered. I personally prefer a silk finish, especially with a maple neck. It might be psychological, but that’s what I like. Speaking of the neck, it was a nice, C-shape, and the rosewood fretboard was a dream to play. I’m a big fan of rosewood fretboards. They provide great tactile feel, plus add warmth to the overall tone.

Sound

The best way to describe the tone of the Comanche is “a bit thicker than a Strat, but thinner than a Les Paul.” It’s this balance that is very appealing about this guitar. Just like the body style, with the sound, you recognize the pedigree, but it’s… different. Since I’ve played it , I’ve read some other reviews and most mentioned that the Comanche has an aggressive tone. It does, but that aggressiveness can be easily tempered by dialing back tone and volume controls; plus, tone also depends on the amp you’re using. I happened to test the Comanche out with a Rivera Venus 3, and the tones it produced were sweet and clean, owing a lot to the high amount of clean headroom available in the Venus 3. In typical Class A fashion, increased input gain produced nice pre-amp clipping, and with all three pickups engaged, this guitar could get as dirty as the best of ’em.

Unlike a Strat, the “hybrid” Z-coil pickups add nice amounts of sustain, which is further helped by the resonant swamp ash body. Bends and slow vibrato created nice, subtle overtones. On top of that, the touch sensitivity, even at lower volume levels, was very, very nice. All in all, I didn’t find the Comanche as aggressive as other reviewers found it; certainly more aggressive-sounding than a Strat, but as I mentioned, not as fat as a LP.

Click here to listen to some audio clips.

The audio clips sound really Texas-twangy, which is actually quite cool, but the clips don’t really show what this versatile guitar can do. The Comanche is capable of showing many faces, depending upon how you adjust it.

Playability

As I mentioned above, this baby wants to be played. The action is just right, and the neck is real fast despite the glossy lacquer finish on the back. The rosewood fretboard is especially nice, providing excellent tactile feedback. As I mentioned above, this guitar is not for the faint of heart. It’s meant to be played and coaxed and caressed to produce its wonderful song. While it’s easy to coax incredible tones from this guitar, its versatility might scare away those who won’t take the time to discover all its virtues.

I recommend this guitar for serious tone freaks who are in search of a “fatter” Strat sound, but want to retain that natural high-end ring. While not cheap, it’s also not unreasonable, especially for a completely hand-made instrument!

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5 Tone Bones - Gear has stellar performance, value, and quality. This is definitely top of the class, best of breed, and it’<p><p>s a no-brainer to add this to your gear lineup! The THD web site says of the Yellow Jackets, “It’s like having a new amp…” and that’s an understatement! Pull your old tubes, pop in the converters, then plug in the EL-84’s and listen to your amp sing! Sometimes great things just come real easy! Read on….

If you follow this blog, you know that I just recently did a write-up of the THD Yellow Jackets. At the time though, they were just on order, and I hadn’t played with them yet. Well, they arrived today, and of course, I just couldn’t wait to get them installed. I opened up the packing box which revealed a little plastic box floating amidst a packing popcorn. I quickly pulled it out, opened up the box, and pulled out the instructions… er… what little of them there were. They basically just said, pull out your old tubes, plug in the converters, then plug in the EL-84 tubes that come with the converters. Turn your amp on, and play. That’s it. It took me all of three minutes to get the converters and new tubes installed.

In nervous anticipation, I plugged my Epi Explorer into my amp and switched it on, strummed a G chord on my clean channel and… No change. Just the same sweet sound produced by my pre-amp tubes. Then I switched to my drive channel and WAS TOTALLY BLOWN AWAY!!! You see, as much as I love my Hot Rod, the drive channel has been somewhat useless for me. Even with new 6L6GC tubes, the clipping was very rough and gritty. It was okay for some songs, but was just not pleasing to me, so I did the next best thing: I bought a couple of overdrive boxes to get that sweet pre-amp distortion.

But with the Yellow Jackets installed, I finally have a useable drive channel! The distortion is smooth, and it seems like the touch sensitivity has increased ten-fold! Not only that, it sounds like the converters introduce a little compression which really helps define the tone, and all this at bedroom levels!Mind you, installing the Yellow Jackets doesn’t reduce your volume (I think I might have mentioned that they do – my bad – they don’t). What they do is get the amp into breakup a lot earlier, so you can slather on the drive and distortion without having to shake the walls of your house! For home studio musicians, and most of us who play in small venues, being able to get great distortion tone at low volumes is akin to searching for the Holy Grail. I’ve tried all sorts of things from upping the input gain on my DAW to using modelers. In either case, the result is less than desirable. But with the Yellow Jackets, I’ve found the elusive grail, and I’m lovin’ it!

As I mentioned in the previous write-up, I ordered the Triode version of the Yellow Jackets. This essentially reduces my output to 5 Watts. Don’t be fooled – my amp’s still freakin’ loud. But what I’ve found in the last couple of hours playing with my three main electrics is that my amp is much more versatile. I can still crank up the volume, but I can get a lot more varied tones at lower volumes, and that is always a good thing.

By the way, you can’t buy the Yellow Jackets from THD directly, but you can get them for a great price at The Tube Store. I got mine for $99.95 (that includes two converters and two EL-84 tubes).

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