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Archive for March, 2009

A couple of weeks ago, the Dawg was sniffing around for some new and interesting gear, and came across a little company in Raleigh, NC called Acoustic Image, that specializes in acoustic and bass amps. While I love my Roland Cube 60 for its acoustic channel, I was really impressed by the sound of the Acoustic Image Corus. Now, I could only go off the sound of the YouTube video below, but this puppy has some serious, natural tone. Amazingly enough, it’s a diminutive amp with a 10″ downward firing woofer, a 5″ midrange driver, and 1″ tweeter. It produces 450W at 8 ohms and 800W at 4 ohms. That’s a boatload of power! But we’re talking solid state here, so it’s tough to compare to tube amps. But power isn’t everything – it’s the sound that counts, and from what I can tell, this amp sounds fantastic! I need to get to a store that carries these to try it out with my acoustic/electric. Check out the video!

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yodaAh, Padawan. Come to receive the wisdom of the ages, you have I see. Into the realms of guitar playing greatness delve deep do you wish; to play among the stars of guitar such as Vai, Satriani, Johnson and others of that ilk. Good for you! Welcome you with open arms, do I. Now dispensed with the pleasantries have we Padawan, it is time to let you down…

  1. There is no magic wand I can wave to make you great
  2. Wish all you want, and you’ll never become a guitar god.
  3. Meditate on the virtues of truly great guitarists – It will do you no good.

Now that sufficiently crushed your dreams of guitar greatness have I, tell you I will the secret to achieving your place among the titans:

There are no shortcuts!!!

Bwah-hahahahahahahahahahahaha!!!

Okay, enough of the Yoda talk… 🙂

To be completely serious, if you want to be a great guitarist, there is no other way to get to greatness without dedication and focus. Simply put, you have to practice – a lot! You can learn all the theory in the world, you can take all the A/V classes out there. All of these things are absolutely helpful. But until you apply the things that you learn and master the techniques, you’ll never get there.

Playing guitar, or any instrument for that matter, isn’t something that you can be good at simply by intellectualizing being good. It takes practice – every day – to develop the skills to play well. I look on my own experience with playing guitar. Yeah, I’ve been playing for over 35 years, but I’ve only reached a certain level of proficiency in the last five years when I decided that I wanted to change the direction of my music, which was almost entirely acoustic, to include more electric guitar.

The experience in the last five years has been both rewarding and painful. When I was starting out, it was so frustrating because I could hear in my head what I wanted out of my guitars, but I didn’t have the technique. So I put my head down, so to speak, and started playing and practicing everyday, seven days a week. I’d even bring a couple of guitars and an amp on vacation! I try to play at least a half-hour each day. It’s not necessarily just straight practice of scales, and different techniques, I also spend a lot of time exploring how to express music that comes into my head.

I’m still learning. I feel I have so much further to travel, but I have also come a long way compared to where I was five years ago. Back then, all I knew were chords and playing chords in alternate tunings. I could fingerpick pretty well, and do a lot of stuff with an acoustic guitar – that’s all great, and I don’t want to discount what I could do on acoustic, but my abilities on the electric guitar, especially with doing improv, were sorely lacking. But from constant practice, I can do at least a basic lead in pretty much any key. That’s the reward; having the satisfaction of knowing I’ve made a lot of progress.

I originally got the inspiration for this article from a blog entry I read at GuitarVibe. It really got me thinking about what I’ve accomplished over the past few years, and moreover, how I got to where I am. Like with anything in life, learning is often fraught with moments of despair and discouragement, but it also has its times of complete satisfaction and reward.

So go practice, young Padawan, and may the Force be with you!

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It seems like the answer to that question should be obvious, right? It’s important. But let’s take a step back for a moment, shall we and ask, “Why is a speaker important?” Again, on the surface there is an obvious answer: The speaker is what produces and projects your tone. But there’s so much more than that!

After I wrote my review of the Jensen P12N, I asked myself why I had never really written any speaker reviews, or why you don’t actually find that many speaker reviews out there relative to other sorts of gear. I alluded to that in my review – I’d suspect that the reason you don’t see too many reviews on speakers is because a speaker is considered a “part.” Let’s be honest, a speaker is just a noise-making device without a cabinet to provide some resonance. And that’s really the root of the problem in reviewing speakers.

You see, you can do all sorts of tests and analysis on speakers, as Ted Weber has. If you click this link, you’ll be taken to a directory listing of various HTML pages named after speaker models like, “c10q.htm.” Open up a few and you’ll see EQ charts for different kinds of speakers. It’s actually a pretty cool thing that could point you in a particular tonal direction. And if that’s not enough, here’s a great review from 10 years ago by GuitarPlayer mag that does a faceoff of 15 vintage speakers. Both of these have been especially helpful in pointing me in a direction of choosing a speaker – but they’re still not enough!

Until you drop that speaker into a cabinet, you’ll really never know how good -or- bad it sounds, and the cabinet you use plays a HUGE role in the speaker you choose. For instance, the Reason SM25 sports an Eminence Red Coat “The Governor,” which is a nice, midrange-priced ceramic speaker, that has a nice, bright presentation. In the SM25’s cabinet, it sounds absolutely sweet: Bright, but with a full midrange that really bolsters what could be a tinny tone. But I had a Governor put in a smaller cabinet that I was testing, ran the SM25 into the smaller cab to test the difference, and it sounded like shit!!! All the tonal complexity that the SM25’s taller and wider cabinet provided was completely lost in the smaller cabinet. And mind you, it wasn’t the cabinet. I had a Jensen P10R mounted in that same cabinet, and it was so musical and pleasing to the ears that I almost cried!

So you see what the crux of the problem in evaluating speakers is? That’s right: It’s the combination of speaker and cabinet that counts, not just the speaker alone. You can pore over schematics and graphs and various analyses, but in the end, until you put that speaker in a cabinet and listen to the combination, you really will never know how it truly performs. To put it another way, a great speaker in a cabinet that it’s not suited for will just sound bad.

So here are some words of advice if you’re speaker shopping:

  1. Find EQ graphs of the speaker you’re interested in, and look at its patterns. Do you want more midrange? Do you want a more scooped tone? Do you want a real even EQ response? This is step 1, and it’s important because it’ll point you in a tonal direction.
  2. Next, think about the cabinet you’re dropping the speaker into. One thing I’ve learned is that speakers need some room to breathe. Drop a 12″ speaker into a cabinet that’s more well-suited for a 10″ speaker, and chances are that you won’t like the sound. A big speaker in a small cabinet simply projects sound and doesn’t resonate to provide more tonal richness.
  3. The thickness of the wood in cabinet plays an important role as well. I like 1/2″ ply or board myself because it resonates well. 3/4″ works as long as the cabinet it big enough to allow for some vibration. I recently tried out a prototype cabinet with a 12″ speaker that was constructed of 3/4″ board. I forget what the dimensions were, but the enclosure was not much bigger than the speaker itself. So not only did the speaker not have much room to breathe, but the thickness of the wood prevented much resonance. The resultant tone was dry – very dry.
  4. Finally, try out a bunch of speakers. But make sure they’re in cabinets! If the place you’re evaluating speakers at doesn’t have this capability, you’re only at step 1.

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Jensen P12N 50 Watt Alnico Speaker

Jensen P12N 50 Watt Alnico Speaker

Wow! I can’t believe that in all this time, I haven’t reviewed a speaker! I’ve focused so much on amps and guitars, and pedals, and other kinds of gear, yet I haven’t even touched upon this particular subject. I suppose it’s because a speaker isn’t something you actually see – it’s a part. Now I’ve made mention of how much I like particular speakers in a combo or a cab, but never a speaker itself. I’m going to remedy that now.

The cool thing about testing gear for someone, namely Jeff Aragaki of Aracom Amps is that in order to effectively give feedback on the gear you’re testing, you have to play it in different configurations. I’ve played a lot of Jeff’s amps through various combos and cabinets to get a feel of how his amps sound.

When I was testing the Aracom VRX22 prior to its release, Jeff installed a Jensen P12N in a cabinet for me to try out. In short, it was love at first strum! The P12N has to be one of the most musical speakers I’ve ever played through. It has a real punchy midrange that is balanced by a real smooth low-end response. The highs are present, but not overdone. The tone is – for lack of a better word – versatile.

To me, that versatility is its strength. The cleans are pure and chimey, whether you’re playing single coils or humbuckers, and the overdrive tone, again, at least to my ears, is to die for.

The P12N is actually a re-issue of the famed P12N from back in the ’60’s. Some claim that it’s shadow of the original with respect to tone, but tone is such a subjective thing. For instance, there are those that rave about the Celestong Blue. I’ve played through that speaker, and frankly wasn’t all that impressed by it. It could’ve been the amp/cabinet/speaker combination just didn’t work very well. In spite of that, it was nice, but just not all that special to me.

On the other hand, the P12N in the custom cabinet I got from Aracom sounds so incredibly smooth and lustrous. Granted, it helps that before Jeff installed it in my cabinet, it had already seen many hours of use: About two weeks straight from me alone, and several test runs from a variety of guitarists playing everything from blues to modern alternative rock. In short, the speaker cone was already somewhat broken in. As an aside, I hate breaking in new speakers. To me they’re all harsh-sounding out of the box. But I can tell that with my P12N, if it sounds sweet now, in a few months to a year, it’s going to sound even better!

How It Sounds

In a closed back cabinet, the bass response really shines, but never overpowers. And with an overdriven amp through a closed back cabinet, the distortion is tight and ballsy, yet not so thick that you lose clarity. In my custom Aracom 1 X 12 cabinet, when it’s closed, sometimes I think I’m playing through a much bigger amp. The tone is just so tight and well-defined. And for rockin’ songs, the P12N in a closed cab well, rocks!

With an open back cabinet, the P12N brings on the chime, especially with single coils. It’s 11:15 right now, and I actually started writing this article around 10pm. But I kind of got carried away jamming on my Strat with the back opened on my cabinet. The tone was so voluminous; much more open, and it was like each note just kind of hung in the air. The overall tone also brightens up significantly, with a definite emphasis on the midrange, which I love.

So which do I prefer? Closed back or open back? Actually, neither. Each brings its own unique qualities to the table, which now obviates the need for me to get a second cabinet from Jeff so I can play both simultaneously, which would sound totally awesome. 🙂

But, be aware that this speaker is not cheap. At retail, the lowest I’ve seen it is $220. But I do have to say that it is worth every single penny! Mind you, that is with the bell cover. I’m not sure about the tonal differences between having a bell cover versus not having one. All I know is that the P12N with the bell cover sounds absolutely dynamite!

Here’s a clip that I recorded to demonstrate the VRX22, but the P12N was used in all guitar parts. The rhythm parts were played through an open-back 1 X 12 cabinet, while the lead was played with the back of the cabinet closed:

5 Tone Bones - Gear has stellar performance, value, and quality. This is definitely top of the class, best of breed, and it's a no-brainer to add this to your gear lineup!

For how awesome this speaker sounds, it gets a 5 Tone Bones! For more information, visit the Jensen site.

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Ahh… yet another distortion box! Hehe. You know I just dig ’em. This one is from the same guys that bring us the J. Backlund Designs guitars; specifically, Bruce Bennet, of Bennett Music Labs, the actual maker of the J. Backlund Designs guitars.

I discovered this pedal while perusing the web for videos of the JBD-100 that I announced yesterday. It turned out that there was a video of how Bruce built the Brown Sound pedal (it’s below). That really got me interested in the pedal, so I did a bit more searching. I went to the J Backlund Site, and they had a link to view and list to sample of their pedals on a MySpace page.

That turned out to be a bit of dead-end because I couldn’t find where to buy them. I finally found a place that sells the pedals, call OohLaLa Manufacturing. Apparently, they’re a distributor and production house for a bunch of boutique pedals. They either take designs from pedal designers, then manufacture them or, as I found out from Bruce Bennett today, they just distribute the finished pedals. Defintely check out their site! Too bad they don’t have sound samples.

The Brown Sound

The original “Brown Sound” was popularized by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Clapton with the “Woman Tone.” In its simplest sense, the Brown Sound was produced by using a bit of fuzz combined with TONS of power tube distortion. The end result was a way huge sound! Fast-forward a bit, and the Brown Sound then became associated with Eddie Van Halen. But to produce his tone requires a bit more work.

What about the Brown Sound pedal? Well, it’s not an EVH tone simulator. Apparently, it’s more of a Hendrix tone simulator as the guys at Analogman describe here. Interesting to note that this pedal is not meant to add gain. The volume knob is more of a volume cut, and the drive adjusts the amount of “Brown” you get. That’s actually kind of cool because I’m assume you don’t have to mess around with the volume much to find unity gain. Just leave the volume knob wide open, and let the pedal do its thing.

I’m gonna have to contact the guys over at OohLaLa to get more information about this pedal. I love that tone, and to get it in a box would be awesome!

I forgot to mention: The pedal is all hand-wired, and it’s only $159! Pretty cool! Anyway, check out the video of how it’s made.

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J. Backlund Designs JBD-100

I know I’m dating myself, but I used to love watching “The Jetsons” when I was a kid. It gave me my first impressions of what the future might hold, like flying cars and floating burger drive-ins where you docked your car. Ah, those nostalgic memories of the 60’s…

Well, if there were to be a guitar on the Jetsons, I imagine that it would have to come from J. Backlund Designs. Talk about retro-modern mojo! The JDB-100 shown to the left just oozes that! What a gorgeous guitar, and from what I heard of the sound from the video below, it has a pretty aggressive tone that seems to fit with that retro-modern styling.

At first, I thought I’d hear something like Dick Dale doing some surf stuff, but the dude doing the review played pretty heavy stuff. I’d actually like to hear what it sounds like clean.

Anyhow, here are some specs:

  • Mahogany Neck and Body
  • Set-Neck Construction
  • Custom Inlays
  • Custom Double Action Two Way Truss Rod
  • Scale Length: 24.75
  • Hipshot Locking Keys
  • Hipshot Baby Grand Bridge
  • 7 Degree Tilt Back Headstock Angle
  • Custom Color Matched Lace Sensor Alumi-tone Pickups
  • N-Tune Built In Chromatic Tuner
  • All USA Components
  • Custom Triple Chrome Plated Pick Guard
  • Custom Snakeskin Case

A real cool feature of this guitar is the built-in tuner. When engaged, the signal to the amp is cut off, so you can tune quietly. Hmm… Imagine that! You could remove the tuner from your board, and replace it with another boutique pedal! <sinister chuckle>

For more information, check out the J. Backlund Designs site! They’ve got 4 models, and the funny thing is that the JBD-100 is probably their most conservative-looking guitar! But they’re all cool!

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I learned a really important lesson yesterday while I was recording some ideas in my studio: Where you place your amp; specifically, the speaker cabinet is very important. I never placed too much thought into this until I got my new amp. I had always had combos, and they just sat on the floor, so I never noticed the difference between having the amp on the floor and elevating it. But with my new amp, an Aracom VRX22, I got it as a separate head and 1 X 12 combo. Last night, I put the cabinet on top of a couple of PA speakers to prop it up, and I couldn’t believe how bright it sounded. Then I remembered Jeff saying that the bass response would be way better with the cab on the floor. He wasn’t kidding! Later this evening I’ll have some sound samples to prove the point.

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