Archive for January, 2009

I just dig it when I find a great guitar and amp combo! Featured in this Jam Track are the Saint Guitar Company Messenger Baritone and the Aracom Amps Custom 45R, both of which I’ve reviewed previously. (Messenger Review | Custom 45R Review). The Custom 45 has a really beefy low-end and a slight scooped tone, and the Messenger, while a baritone, has this incredibly bright-sounding voice. The two complement each other particularly well! Here’s the Jam Track:

You have just over 6 minutes to play around with this one. For the rhythm part, I used a fairly basic rock beat, but I also added some Latin drums underneath to take the edge off the heavy downbeat. And by the way, there’s no bass in this track at all. All of that is provided by the Messenger!

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Big Bad Wah by VOX and Joe Satriani

Big Bad Wah by VOX and Joe Satriani

Ever since I tried out the VOX Satchurator a few months ago, I’ve been waiting for the this wah pedal to arrive. If it is anything close to the quality of sound that the Satchurator produces, I know that this is going to be a great pedal. The pedal features two modes: Mode 1 is classic VOX wah; while Mode 2 features the ability to variably adjust the gain and voicing profiles of the wah to dial in a variety of tonal possibilities.

One thing I take note of when evaluating pedals is if I can reproduce the manufacturer’s or endorser’s claims about a particular feature. For instance, when Satch touted the “More” switch on the Satchurator, during my tests, I was expecting more volume when my amp was clean, and more balls when my tubes were saturated. The pedal definitely lived up to that claim.

With the Big Bad Wah, VOX states, “Designed to Joe Satriani’s custom specs is the design of the pedal pot itself, delivering a smooth, musical tone throughout the entire sweep of the pedal.” This is huge, because I’ve found in my evaluations of different kinds of wah pedals that when you back off the pedal, your output becomes a bit muddy, so you end up never fully backing off because the wah will just suck your tone. Or seemingly to protect against this, manufacturers will narrow the sweep range, so the wah becomes much less dramatic. I found this to be the case with Morley Steve Vai Bad Horsie, which was very musical throughout its sweep range, but overall, didn’t have that dramatic of a sweep as compared to others I tried. So I ended up just getting a Dunlop Cry Baby, and despite its shortcomings, I’ve come to love it.

But I’ve always loved Satch’s wah tone, not because I want to necessarily sound like him, but because it’s just a killer tone, and highly expressive. And as with the Satchurator, Joe was involved in every aspect of the design process, so the Big Bad Wah promises to be of the exacting standards for which Professor Satchifunkilus is known. Once the Big Bad Wah is available in stores, which should be soon, considering the announcement of its release was made at NAMM, you can be assured I’ll be running down to the local shop to try one out!

Some online retailers like Sweetwater, are doing pre-orders for $219. That’s not a bad price to pay, especially for a signature pedal. And I dig the fact that Joe really wanted all his signature pedals to be affordable and within the reach of a wide range of people. In any case, all this combined makes for me taking a serious look at the Big Bad Wah

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Soft/Hard Knee Compression

I’ve actually been thinking about writing this article for almost a year and a half. The back story behind it is that I was having a discussion with my eldest son about why I didn’t like the music he listened to. He was arguing that if I make the claim that I like all kinds of music, I shouldn’t contradict myself by saying I didn’t like his kind of (he was really into hardcore punk at the time). My response was that I actually liked the songs, but hated the vomit screaming vocals, and hated the total lack of regard for dynamic range in the music – it was all one volume from start to finish! I shared with him that I didn’t believe it was a function of the song, but a function of the mastering, and an endemic problem in music being produced these days.

To demonstrate, I grabbed an old Cars CD from my collection, and played a couple of songs for him. There were perceptibly distinct swells and dips in volume in all the songs – very dynamic. Then we put on one of his CD’s and listened to a couple of songs. After we finished, my son couldn’t believe the difference in recording technique used 20 years ago. Even he said the performances on my old CD seemed so much more alive, where the songs from his CD didn’t have nearly the amount of dynamicism, and they seemed almost muffled compared to the clarity of the Cars’ recordings.

I told him that it was due to the heavy compression that producers are using these days, and gave him a simple explanation of what a compressor does. I also shared that I believed that producers were just being lazy and using compression as a shortcut so they didn’t have to teach their musicians and singers proper mic and recording control. Heavy compression and limiting means you don’t have to fix the recordings as much, saving studio time, and thus getting a production out faster. I did say that compression is not bad, but it is overused. Correctly and judiciously applied, compression can really have a positive effect on a production.

But despite that, I didn’t write the article. I can’t explain why… Looking back, I suppose it may have been in large part due to wanting to focus more on getting gear reviews out, and focusing a lot on my own recordings. But I recently read an article in the new issue of Guitar World that covered compression: What it is, what it’s used for, and how to apply compression to vocals and various instruments. It was very instructive. As I eluded above, compression can be a very useful tool in the studio to tame wide swings in volume in a vocal or an instrument, and can add presence, and because of how it works, in many cases, a compressor is used to add sustain. At its most basic level, a compressor reduces the amount of dynamic range by reducing sounds that exceed a predetermined volume threshold; but because this also reduces the overall volume of the signal, makeup gain is added to bring up the volume of the quieter sounds. The end result is that you get a “fatter” signal.

I’m not going to go into any technical detail about compression. For that you can read this excellent reference. In fact, I’m going to assume you already know a bit about compression.

And while compression is very useful, as with anything you can have too much of a good thing. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying don’t use it, but I am going to make an appeal: Don’t get sucked into the trend of creating a less dynamic recording. I can understand the need for compression over radio, but this trend is simply making for much lower audio quality and less dynamically expressive recordings.

Good Mic Technique

I was once speaking with this old timer named Patrick who, at 72, is still gigging and recording. I was talking to him about recording, and he said that young people don’t know good mic technique, and complained about the overuse of compression. His words, “Boy, back in the day, we didn’t have compression. So when a singer like Sinatra got to a phrase where he needed to pick up his volume, he just moved away from the mic. It ain’t goddamn rocket science. But compression made people lazy.”

Wow! What a statement, and it really is easy to do for a singer. But what about guitars? This is a bit tougher, but at least what I strive for is to make sure I’ve got a lot of dynamic range in my recordings by either tweaking the input or output gain so my waveforms have as much vertical travel variation on the track as possible. I will sacrifice volume for dynamics. After the fact, I may add a touch of compression, but only very limited, and to keep true to the natural output of the amp, use fairly short release times. This is approach can be a lot of work because it requires that I play fairly consistently, but that’s also good training. It’s also a lot of work to get a good mix, but in the end it’s totally worth it!

I believe if you just start with good mic technique, and use compression sparingly, your recordings will come alive.

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Choosing an Amp

Aracom Amps Custom 45R

Aracom Amps Custom 45R

So you want to buy an amp, eh? I hang out on gear forums, and if you ask, “I’m looking for an amp. What do you think I should buy within such and such price range?” You’ll get hundreds of responses: Two Rock, Divided by 13, Mesa Boogie, Marshall, Hot Rod Deluxe, Reason, Egnater, Bogner, etc., etc., etc….

That’s all well and good, but remember, these are only recommendations. Because GuitarGear.org deals with gear, to keep current, and to maintain the site’s relevancy, I have to play A LOT of gear (ooooh, twist my arm). The most important thing to know about buying an amp is this:


Reason SM40 Head

Reason SM40 Head

I suppose this goes for any type of gear you’re looking to acquire, but the thing about the amp is that it is that one piece of equipment that is going to define and showcase your tone. Of course, the guitar has a lot to do with it, but the amp is the conveyor of your tone. And sure, you could just buy something blindly based on someone’s recommendation, and if you think that person’s word is good enough, and they really know their stuff, then go right ahead, buy the amp. But don’t say I didn’t warn you if you don’t like how it sounds once you start playing with it. 🙂

That’s an obvious observation, and very sound advice, but there are a couple of things that I think are just as important as trying out an amp. The first is simply this: The application; in other words, what are you going to use the amp for? Recording? Gigging? Both? Those are serious considerations to take into account.

Lots of times, we go into a shop, try out an amp, and say, “Wow! That’s sounds awesome.” But remember, in a shop, you’re a few feet away from the amp, and you’re playing by yourself. This isn’t a good test of an amp; that is, unless you’ll be playing by yourself all the time. But I’ve come across tons of amps that sounded great in the store, but when I used them to gig with or record with, just didn’t sound right. Case in point: I bought a Line 6 Flextone III a few years back thinking that it would be really versatile, considering all the voices it could produce. It worked great in the studio, but totally stunk playing live. Cranked up, its tone was simply lackluster. I sold it after a year.

Next, once you figure out what you’ll be using the amp for, you need to listen to where it sits in the EQ mix relative to its natural tone, with the EQ knobs all set at their halfway positions. Is it naturally bright? Does it have a darker tone? If you’re a gigging musician, these are serious issues. Me, I prefer brightly voiced amps because they’ll ensure that I’ll sit in the upper-mids and highs in a mix, away from the bass and keys. It means that I won’t have to turn up my volume much to cut through the mix. For instance, I was testing an Aracom Custom 45R at a gig the other day. When I played it clean, it sounded great, and it cut right through the mix. But when I poured on the gain to saturate my power tubes, the resultant sound, while awesome, was really compressed, but the output sat in the mids to low-mids of the EQ range, overshadowed by the big body acoustics and the bass. I had to crank my volume to cut through – something my band mates certainly didn’t appreciate because I ended stepping all over them!

So to sum it up: Try the amp out and consider what you’re going to use it for…

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4.75 Tone Bones - Almost perfect but not quite

Aracom Amps Custom 45R

Aracom Amps Custom 45R

Aracom Amps Custom 45R

Summary: A great take on the classic Marshall JTM45, with some extra goodies like tube-driven spring reverb, a fantastic master volume (post phase inverter), half power switch (40 to 20 Watts), and bright and bite switches to add hi and hi-mid EQ bumps for more tonal contouring.

Pros: Very versatile amp with a tonal palette that can serve up gorgeous clean tones to thick, super-compressed power tube distortion.

Cons: Heavy – weighs in at 60lbs.

Price: $2195 street (as tested with 1 X 12 Combo)


  • Pre-amp tubes: (3) 12AX7, (1) 6BM8
  • Power Amp Tubes: (2) 6L6GC or KT66 (as tested)
  • Rectifier: (1) GZ34 (5AR4)
  • Reverb Tank: Accutronics Long TankHi/Low B+ voltage switch (40/20 watts)
  • On/Off Switch
  • Standby Switch
  • Indicator Lamp
  • Custom Heavy Duty Aluminum Chassis
  • Custom Wound Transformers
  • Impedance Switch:  4, 8, 16 ohm
  • (2) Speaker Jacks
  • Custom Handcrafted Turret Board
  • Handwired

Tone Bone Rating: 4.75 – Sweet amp with lots of tonal variety, but very heavy at 60 lbs. in a 1 X 12 combo! I would definitely get casters for this amp.

One thing I’ve learned about reviewing gear is to never have preconceptions about what something might sound like, especially with guitars and amps, regardless of what the manufacturer might say. When Jeff Aragaki of Aracom Amps dropped his latest amp off at my house, then explained that it was modeled off a Marshall JTM45, but with a few enhancements, despite my normal resistance to those suggestions, I still made a few assumptions about what the amp would sound like. Mistake. I was expecting a Marshall tone; it’s there, but it’s also different. But let’s get into some detail, shall we?

Fit and Finish

All Aracom amps are very well built and constructed. The amp I tested uses the cabinet shown above, but is covered in green tolex, and the same acoutrements as the cabinet above. The cabinet itself is very sturdy and very resonant. The metal grille at the top of the amp is a nice touch, as you can see into the chassis and see the tubes all lit up. I dig that kind of stuff. Jeff uses all high-quality material from the chassis to the knobs, and everything is well laid out.

How It Sounds

This is one awesome-sounding amp! I was actually expecting a real scooped tone, but was very surprised that the amp is actually voiced quite evenly through the EQ range, with just a tad bit of lower-mid range. This gives the tone a darker, almost fatter feel. But still, the cleans are rich and crisp, not chimey like an EL-84 would sound. The huge KT-66’s this amp packs probably account for that.

The reverb is subtle – very subtle – but I really like the effect it has. It definitely won’t do surf. It was as if Jeff wanted to add the reverb as a nice decoration for the amp’s tone. If you’re looking for a deep ‘verb, this won’t do it, but the reverb it does give you, for lack of a better word, just “fits.” Here’s a sound sample that I recorded with my Strat playing the amp clean in the Normal channel with all the EQ’s set to their midpoints:

By the way, the clip is the raw recording, with no EQ or mastering or level adjustments (which accounts for a bit of the distortion as I didn’t apply a limiter). As you can tell, the clean tone is sweet and well, clean. And it has TONS of clean headroom in the Normal channel.

As far as distortion is concerned, before this, I had never played with a KT-66-based amp, so I didn’t quite know what to expect, but this amp can produce some serious distortion. When saturated, the KT-66’s really compress the tone, and the compression comes on with even just a bit of breakup. It’s a great sound, but it’s difficult to cut through a mix with that amount of compression. But hitting the bite switch adds a bit of high-mid-frequency gain, so that compensates for the compression by sort of shifting the EQ up a bit.

The bite switch works with both channels, but the bright switch only works on the Normal Channel. This switch boosts the upper-mids and highs. Don’t expect a ringy sound out of this – it’s more like an instance presence control, though the amp sports a sweepable presence knob as well.

I wish I had a sound sample for my test with a Saint Guitars Baritone Messenger. Even though it’s a baritone, the walnut gives it a fairly bright tone, and that is really complimented by the Custom 45R. I was enjoying myself so much with the baritone, I totally forgot to record a clip! Maybe later… In any case, this amp just LOVED the Baritone! The Messenger also sports two Duncan active ‘buckers, and the drive they produce really made the amp growl with a real savage tone. It was very heavy, and I was just diggin’ it! Yowza!

Overall Impressions

While I really like the tone of this amp, and am having a lot of fun playing with it, admittedly I still lean towards that chimey EL-84 tone or that “Fender” tone that 6L6’s produce. The Marshall-esque tone never has been for me, but if I were to be on the lookout for an amp with that type of tone, I’d definitely give this amp some serious consideration.

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Fender Roadworn Strat

Fender Roadworn Strat

Ever since Fender announced the new Roadworn Series of guitars, I’ve been lurking the gear forums and googling for information about them and trying to get a feel for what people think about them. It’s still early in the game, but not surprisingly, opinions are fairly evenly split. Lots of people like them, lots of people don’t. I’m part of the latter crowd.

From my point of view, if I was going to play a beat-up-looking, “roadworn” guitar that’s broken in, I’d rather have done the breaking in myself, or have had it done by someone else – like my first electric guitar that my little brother gave me. It was an Ibanez Strat copy and it looked like a piece of shit! The paint was cracked and flaking in areas, the electronics were completely screwed up due to the jury-rigged wiring jobs my brother did on it. But when I had it working, that little bad boy could sing! Even my brother inherited from one his band mates. In other words, this guitar has a history, and it plays and feels like it has a history.

My problem with the Fender Roadworn series is that these are brand new guitars that are made to look like they have a history, but they’re fresh off a friggin’ production line! They have no history! Oh yeah, I can hear a Fender rep saying, “We ‘wore out’ some of the most common areas where guitars get worn, and added some other cosmetic blemishes to produce a guitar that looks and feels like its been played for 20 years.’” What a crock of shit! Sorry, not buying the rationale, nor the guitars. Besides, to me, it’s how the guitar sounds and plays whether it’s new or used that counts.

I suppose if you have to have a replica of a famous guitarists axe, hey! More power to you! But in the end, you’re the one playing it, and you ain’t gonna sound like the guitarist whom which the guitar was modeled.

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Red Bear Trading Style B Heavy Pick

Red Bear Trading Style B Heavy Pick

Red Bear Trading Style B Heavy Pick

Summary: Thick, meaty hand-made pick from Red Bear Trading. You might think a pick doesn’t really matter until you play one of these picks. They’re totally awesome!

Pros: Thick and tactile, this heavy pick gives you instance response as soon as you strike a string. Chords seem to ring out better. Don’t be fooled by the thickness – the beveling makes this pick glide across the strings!

Cons: None

Price: $20

Okay, I admit it, I am now a true believer in hand-made picks! I wrote a review about Red Bear picks a few weeks ago. In the article I asked, “Does a pick really make that much of a difference?” After nearly a month playing with a Style B Medium, and now a Style B Heavy, I can undeniably say that it makes all the difference in the world! In this short span of time, I’ve become a better player, and while I attribute that to quite a bit of practice, I have to attribute a lot of my recent improvements in both tone and attack to the pick I’ve been using. I don’t say this lightly: These picks have totally changed my life with respect to my guitar playing!

When you first hold one of these picks, your first reaction is: Damn! This thing is thick! And while its smooth texture kind of sticks to your skin, it absolutely glides over your strings. And because of its thickness, it produces sound much faster than conventional nylon picks that need to be before they make a sound. The sound the picks produce is also much more crisp.

For instance, playing my Ovation acoustic/electric, I’ve never heard it ring the way it rings – and it’s because of the pick. I’ve had that guitar for over 15 years now, and it quite frankly has never sounded this good! It always sounded awesome to me because of its thick tone. But when I strum it with one of these picks, it now has a gorgeous chime! F-in’ A!

At first blush, you might think that paying $20 for a pick is just way too much. But how much would you pay for good tone? We guitarists spend literally thousands on guitars and amps and racks and pedals and other accessories every year! But most of us tend to play them with inferior plectrums, never knowing what we’re missing by making a relatively small investment compared to the vast sums we spend on other gear. Sure, our standard picks are cheap, and it’s okay to lose them, but there is absolutely NOTHING that compares to the tone you can produce with a hand-made pick. And once you play with a great pick, you’ll never go back to the cheapo picks again.

To be honest and fair, Red Bear is not the only one who makes handmade picks. But Dave is the only plectrum maker who uses TortisTM, a polymer made from animal protein that looks and feels EXACTLY like tortoise shell. Dave has mastered cutting and shaping of the material, something no one else who has tried to work with it has been able to do.

What’s so special about this material? If you speak with people who have played with tortoise shell picks, they’ll tell you about how good it feels to play with one. But by the same token, to play with tortoise shell means that a sea turtle had to be sacrificed to create the pick. On the other hand, Tortis feels like real tortoise shell. In fact, when Dave first sent out his first prototypes, people told him he was full of shit when he said the picks weren’t tortoise shell! That’s how natural these feel!

As I mentioned in the previous article, Dweezil Zappa swears by these! And for good reason. The sound they produce, and how they make your playing much more precise is an absolute inspiration! For more info, and to order them, go to Red Bear Trading!

If you live in the SF Bay Area, and especially near Palo Alto, you can also get them at Gryphon Stringed Instruments.

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