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Archive for November, 2009

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article entitled, “Where DOES TONE Really Reside?” where I discussed the equipment vs. fingers religious debate that seems to rage on the forums now and again. I meant to follow up on that article much earlier, but well, life happens and it’s easy to get sidetracked, so here’s my follow-up:

Tone is NOTHING without music.

Music gives tone a context. Here’s a good test of this statement:

  1. Set your rig up to your sweet spot; that is, where you think it just sings to you, no matter what you play.
  2. Start plucking out random notes, not trying to be musical at all. Could be some dissonant scale of some sort, or just randomly plucked notes. Do some bends and such. Ugly, right?
  3. Now, without changing your settings, make music with that tone. You could comp some chords, or do some melodic lead.

For example, here’s a clip I quickly recorded that demonstrates the steps. In the clip, I’m playing my Strat through a Hardwire reverb, into a Reason Bambino on the Normal channel, at just the edge of breakup. The tone that this produces is silky smooth, but responds to attack and volume increases with just bit of grind. I’ve been using this setting quite a bit lately. It creates a very three-dimensional sound.

The first part – thankfully – is very short, and is just random plucking of notes. Without touching anything on my guitar or amp, in the second part, I do a little chord comping and create some music.

The point to that little exercise is that in both parts, the tone I’m producing – at least to my ears – is gorgeous. But flat-out tone with no context well… it just plain sucks!

So put everything together, where does tone reside? As I stated in the first article, it’s in both your gear and your fingers, but ultimately, you have to give it context, and that’s applying that tone to music. But keep in mind that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. What is considered “great tone” is a purely subjective thing.

Cheers!

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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's a no-brainer to add this to your gear lineup!

cb_tele

Squier By Fender Classic Vibe Telecaster 50’s

Summary: Finally! An inexpensive guitar that isn’t just a pretty face like many cheapo guitars. This guitar backs up its great looks with great sound and playability!

Pros: Spectacular, lush cleans from the neck pickup. Nothing twangy about this guitar. The bridge pickup is nicely “trebly,” but not piercing at all! The thin, 50’s-style C-shape neck is to die for!

Cons: This is just a minor nit, and nothing to give points off, but the frets are a little small, and with heavy use, they’ll wear down. But hell! At this price, you can buy two and be way ahead of the game!

Features:

  • Body: Pine (very cool)
  • Neck: 9.5″ Radius, Solid Maple
  • 21 Frets
  • Pickups: 2 Custom-Style Vintage Tele Pickups with Alnico 3 magnets
  • Controls: Volume and Tone
  • Tuners: Vintage-style tuners

Price: ~$349 street

Tone Bone Score: 5.0 – Not sure if I’ve ever rated a Fender product my highest rating, but that’s how good this guitar is!

Being the eternal optimist, I’m always looking for ways to turn a negative into a positive. As I’ve gotten older, my back has started to get a bit sensitive, and gigging with heavy guitars can sometimes be – literally – a real pain!  So I’ve been looking for a lighter alternative that would give me a good range of sounds, from great cleans to hot grind when I need it, and something that I could comfortably gig with and not worry about throwing out my back. I’ve found the guitar: It’s the Squier Classic Vibe Tele! If you don’t look at the headstock, you could swear you’re playing a regular Fender Tele! But this one has a great sound all its own. After last year’s price hike, I had lost hope that Fender would be able to produce anything that was inexpensive that had decent quality and sound, but I stand completely corrected, especially after the price drop of the Champ 600 down to $149, and now, this little secret, the Squier Classic Vibe Tele.

Fit and Finish

The guitar I played today was so well-made, I could’ve sworn that it was an American Tele. The blonde, vintage finish was luscious, and the 9.5″ radius vintage C-shape neck, with its gloss finish was perfect. No air bubbles, no uneven finish. The frets were well-dressed, if a little small, and I could detect nary a burr or sharp edge. It was obvious that despite this being a “bargain” brand, great care was put into building this instrument. Of course, only time will tell how well this instrument holds up, but from what I can tell from this brand-new specimen, it appears it’ll be be a long-lived instrument.

I also love that black pick guard that provides a very cool contrast to the blonde body finish! Nice!

How It Sounds

I’ve played a lot of guitars – especially “budget” guitars, but one thing that seems to be a common theme among the bargain guitars is that lots of them look great, but plug them in, and they’re less than – ahem – inspiring. This is where the Classic Vibe Tele stands head and shoulder above the rest. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear this was an American Tele based upon the quality of tones it produces. But unlike its American cousin, this Classic Vibe Tele has a slightly different tone, and that is not a bad thing at all. A lot of this can probably be attributed to the solid pine body. It’s very resonant, and it is not a bright-sounding wood, which probably accounts for the lack of “Tele” twang. It’s there, but it is definitely not as pronounced as I was expecting. Granted, I was playing through a Fender Hot Rod DeVille 2 X 12, which is known for its ample bottom, so that probably could account for the lack of twang. But hey! That is definitely not a bad thing at all!

The neck pickup, when played clean, has a very Strat-like neck pickup vibe. I love that! It’s smooth, and deep, and when slathered with some gorgeous Fender reverb, has a gorgeous, almost ethereal quality where the notes seem to just hang in the air. The bridge pickup adds top-end sparkle, as expected but surprisingly not so much that it sounds thin and tinny. It’s a slightly brighter version of the neck, which makes sense since the two pickups are the same. But quite frankly, I liked playing in the middle selector position where both pickups are engaged. The tone and gain balance between the two pickups in that position is fantastic.

“Balance” is a great way to describe the tone of the Classic Vibe Tele. It sounds and feels balanced; not bright, not deep. Balanced. And the sustain is absolutely breathtaking! I played a song where I comp chords up and down the fretboard with lots of sliding, bending and vibrato, and the sustain and ring that the guitar produced just made me close my eyes and smile. The guitar guy at the store even chided me with, “Aw Brendan, you play so sweetly!” That got a laugh out of me, but luckily he followed it up with, “That sounds so awesome. That guitar… for guys who are in the know with tone, is the one they’re getting. It’s a great guitar at any price” I’ve known this guy for years, and for him to say something like that is pretty profound.

I didn’t get a chance to really get into high gain, as I was in a store and wanted to be considerate of the other customers, but getting into the Drive channel of the DeVille was a real treat, especially with the bridge pickup engaged. I could tell that this guitar, even though it has that vintage vibe, would produce some singing overdrive. Even with the preponderance of pre-amp overdrive I was using, this guitar was a winner for me!

Overall Impressions

It is absolutely no surprise to me why Guitar Player Magazine gave this guitar an Editor’s Pick in this month’s issue. I first played the guitar at the GP offices a couple of weeks ago, and they told me it had gotten an Editor’s Pick. I didn’t get a chance to really play with it then, but based upon that conversation, I had to try one out. Looks like I’m GAS-ing again, dammit! This is one great guitar! Don’t let the price fool you; instead, let the price guide you. This is truly one of the deals of the century!

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bambinoSome amps were just meant to be used with a certain kind of guitar. The Reason Bambino is one such amp. Mind you, it sounds great with any guitar, and I play it with a wide variety of guitars. But considering the amp designer, Obeid Kahn, and his love of vintage Strats, it’s no small wonder that the Bambino sound absolutely gorgeous with a Strat.

When I play a Strat, I like to play mostly clean with just a little bit of grit, and the Bambino does this oh-so-well! Here’s a clip of a song I’m working on that demonstrates the Bambino’s gorgeous voice with my MIM Strat with ’57 Tex Mex re-issue pups:

You may have already heard a version of this clip when I demonstrated the KASHA Overdrive pedal, but I thought I’d try the lead plugged straight into the Bambino, and adding just a bit of reverb during production. At least for my Strat in the Bambino, pedals? We don’t need no stinkin’ pedals!

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I love my Strat. It’s a cheapo MIM version, but it has a great sound. But ever since I started using it with the KASHA Overdrive pedal, it sounds even more like a Strat to me! I know, that sounds a little cuckoo, but that Classic channel on the KASHA Overdrive really brings out that jangly tone that defines the Strat tone; that’s to my ears, at least…

The other day, I was messing around with a dominant seventh ditty in A as I was trying to pick up some improv techniques from Chuck D’Aloia’s Blues with Brains video. I originally just recorded my Strat running through a reverb, then into my amp. It sounded pretty good, but I wanted to get a bit more top-end bite, but not a lot of drive. So I switched my KASHA Overdrive on and my jaw dropped! Here’s what I came up with…

That pedal just brings out the best in a Strat. I swear, now that I’ve been using it with my Strat for the last couple of days, I think it’ll always be on when I perform with my Strat. It really sounds great!

BTW, both rhythm and lead parts were played with the Kasha overdrive pedal. For the rhythm part, I was in the Classic channel to get that jangly Strat sound from position 2, while I was in the Hot channel for the lead in the neck pickup. So sweet sounding!

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What strikes me the most about this child prodigy is that not only does he have incredible technique, he has emotion and passion in his playing, so that what he plays isn’t merely a regurgitation of a song, there’s musicality in his playing. I have nothing but high hopes for this kid! His playing literally brings tears to my eyes. I’ve seen lots of other prodigies and while I am impressed with their skills, they mostly come off as a novelty; not Sungha Jung. I can really connect to what he’s playing – and he’s only 13 years old! Amazing!

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I had an interesting conversation with a friend today regarding the difference between overdrive and distortion. Talk about two terms that are bandied about interchangeably in the guitar world! If you ask ten different guitarists the difference between them you’ll get ten different answers. But a common theme you’ll hear is what each sounds like; in other words, you’ll get a much more qualitative description as opposed to a quantitative description. What I’ve been after is a much more objective, quantitative description of each, but not necessarily too technical. So after talking about one versus the other, I decided to write down what we discussed, and throw my two-cents into the mix.

First, let’s look at the two terms, but from the perspective of an amplifier. The simplest explanation I could come up with is that overdrive, or in audiophile terms, over-powering, occurs when input gain exceeds the capacity of a device to handle the amount of gain thrown at it; in our case, a tube. What happens is that the smooth waveform that goes into the device gets “clipped” because the device’s input capacity is less than what is being thrown at it. Sonically, we perceive the result of this clipping as distortion. The higher the amplitude of the wave, the greater amount of distortion we hear.

But what about pedals? I’ll get to that in a bit, but I wanted to take the time to clarify these terms. There’s been a lot of confusion about these two terms because they’re used so loosely, and oftentimes interchangeably. For me, I’ll stick with the audiophile’s perspective of overdrive in that distortion is the result of overdrive or over-powering an amplification device. A way to think about overdrive vs. distortion is that overdrive happens in the front-end (what you put in), while distortion happens on the back-end (what you hear).


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But here’s where we get into a bit of murky territory, especially with pedals. Strictly speaking, if we’re talking about overdrive as simply overpowering the front-end of an amp to make the tubes clip, the only pedal that is technically an overdrive is a boost pedal that takes your guitar’s signal and ups it voltage. But lots of manufacturers call their pedals overdrive pedals. In reality, all of those are distortion pedals as they include an internal clipping circuit which is overdriven into distortion – this includes the venerable Tube Screamer. OMG! Sacrilege!

So how do you tell the difference? That’s why I said we get into murky territory with respect to pedals, but as a rule of thumb, a distortion pedal will create a distorted sound irrespective of the amp. In other words, it’ll clip on its own. Put it front of the clean channel of an amp, switch it on, and it’ll create distortion. However, many, if not most, “distortion” pedals also provide a bit of gain boost to overdrive an amp. That’s where it gets murky, as most of the pedals termed “overdrive pedal” function as a combination of both overdrive AND distortion.

There are no real hard and fast rules, but in general, pedals that are commonly known as overdrive pedals (Tube Screamer, etc.) employ what’s called a “soft-clipping” circuit or transistor, where only a small portion of the input signal is clipped. Most distortion pedals employ a “hard-clipping” device to severely clip the input signal to get that “square wave” tone. But as I said, there are no hard and fast rules. Here’s an image that nicely describes the differences in the waveforms between soft-clipping and hard-clipping devices:

Picture courtesy of GM Arts

Sonic Differences Between Overdrive and Distortion Pedals

Many people have asked me over the years if there is a sonic difference between overdrive and distortion pedals. Having tested several of these pedals over the years, I hate to sound ambiguous, but from a practical standpoint, in some cases, it’s simply too hard to tell. For instance, if I crank up my Timmy’s gain then add a bunch of volume to slam the front-end of my amp, I get a lot of crunchy distortion out of my speaker. Moreover, I get a bit of compression and sustain and it “feels” like I’m playing through a distortion box. On the other hand, if I take my EWS Little Brute Drive and turn the gain knob to about 10 am, I get a similar sounding distortion with a similar feel – even though it’s a hard clipping device! They’re tonally a little different as the EWS adds a bit of low-end punch, but nevertheless, sonically and feel-wise, they’re extremely close.

But there does exist a difference, and that is in output volume. When I do what I do with my Timmy to get that hard distortion sound, I have to use an attenuator because all the input gain creates A LOT of volume, so I attenuate the output so I can keep the volume at a manageable level. But with my EWS Little Brute Drive, because it’s a distortion pedal, it will clip irrespective of the amp, plus I set its output volume to unity. I can set my amp to any volume, then switch the pedal on to get my overdrive-like sound.  I actually do this with the Little Brute Drive a lot when I don’t want to lug my attenuator to a gig.

So yes, you can set up an overdrive or a distortion pedal to make it difficult to tell the difference, but in general terms, with a hard-clipping device, you’ll experience a lot more compression than with a soft-clipping device. The tone will feel “squishy” with very little dynamics. That’s not a bad thing, mind you, because sometimes that’s what you want. Overdrive pedals, on the other hand, because they don’t produce a square wave, will feel a lot more “open” and dynamic. There will be a bit of compression at higher gain levels, but rarely will you get to the order of compression that a distortion box will make.

Gain vs. Volume

Image courtesy of Sweetwater.com

Unfortunately, this is yet another area where we get into murky territory, and where a lot of people confuse the two. So to start out, let’s just put it simply: Gain is input; volume is output.

To provide a bit more clarity, think about the function of an amp as a two-stage device. The first stage takes the relatively weak signal from your instrument, then passes it on to the second stage and amplifies the signal to produce the sound.

The first stage of an amp is called the preamp. The signal passed through the preamp is called Gain. The level of gain will have a direct effect on the volume of your amp. Typically, the more gain you introduce, the higher your volume. BUT, that said, higher and higher levels of gain will have a lesser and lesser effect on volume, as the pre-amp reaches its capacity to handle the amount of signal passed to it (commonly called saturation), and will max out sending all it can handle to the second stage or power amp.

Think of the power amp as the stage that controls the output strength of your sound, or volume, if you will. It works similarly to the pre-amp in that the more signal you throw at it, the louder your volume. Some amps come with a Master Volume. Think of it as a valve mechanism that controls the amount of signal that is allowed to pass into the power amp. When it’s wide open, all the preamp signal will pass through to the power amp. For amps without a master volume, the amount of preamp signal allowed to pass to the power amp is set by the builder.

So what does this have to do with pedals? If you look at the picture above, whether labeled or not, all come equipped with both a Gain (or Drive) and a Volume (or Level) knob. These work pretty much the same way as Gain and Master knobs on an amp. The Volume knob controls how much pedal signal will be sent to your amp’s preamp. That could be enough signal to saturate your preamp which will overdrive it into clipping and create distortion. Combined with a distorted sound from the pedal, this could – and in many cases does – create a very pleasing mix of distortion sounds.

So which kind of pedal to choose?

The pat answer is it depends on what you’re after with respect to your distorted tone. I know that this is a rather ambiguous statement, but again, there are no hard and fast rules. In the end, you should choose a pedal based on what sounds good to you. But here are a couple of guidelines:

  • If you have a tube amp, and just want distortion purely from overdriving the tubes, then a booster makes sense. There are several kinds of boosters. Some boost only a certain frequency range, like a Fat boost that boosts the lower frequencies. I personally prefer a clean, transparent boost that has a flat frequency response so that the distortion that occurs is my amp’s tone. I typically use a booster in conjunction with my amp set just at the edge of breakup, so when I switch it on, not only will I get a volume boost, I’ll overdrive the pre-amp tubes; and depending on how much gain I throw at the amp, I’ll get the power tubes working as well. Here’s a trick to try: If you have an effects loop, place the booster as the last pedal in your effects loop. When switched on, it will boost the gain going into your power tubes to saturate them. You don’t get a huge volume boost, especially if the power tubes are close to saturation, but you do get a bit of a kick. I learned that from Gene Baker, who does that in his rig.
  • If you want to add a bit of color and overdrive your amp, then a soft-clipping pedal like a Tube Screamer works quite well. Tube Screamer-type pedals typically give you a mid-range boost that results in a much warmer and smoother distortion. Many also add sustain and a bit of compression to simulate power tube saturation at any volume. My Tone Freak Effects Abunai 2 is exceptional in this department. Then there are others, like the EHX Soul Food that add a bit color but interact well with the front-end of an amp. But that said, there are some like my beloved Timmy Overdrive that are transparent. They’ll give you the gain and boost but will not color your sound (Note: that you’ll still have to set up the pedal’s.
  • If you want to get a distorted tone at any volume, then a distortion pedal is the way to go. There are lots of these on the market. My personal favorite (and the one I own) is the EWS Little Brute Drive. It’s a half-size pedal with a single knob, but it will give you TONS of distortion at any volume. I normally use it for leads, as it gives just a few dB of gain, but gives me all the distortion I need to get a great screaming tone! It also colors with a fat bottom end which makes leads sound beefy.
  • Then if a distortion pedal still doesn’t provide enough gain for you and you need to get a hard-clipped, super-squishy, compressed distortion, then the fuzz will get you there. I call fuzz “ugly dog” distortion. To me it’s like an ugly dog that you look at and say, “holy s$%t,” but it has personality, so you can’t help but love it. Can’t say I’ve ever been into fuzz, but I’ve spoken to lots of players who use it all the time, and they love it!

You can also chain overdrive and distortion effects to great success. I do this quite a bit because you get colors that you can’t get with just your amp. One thing that I do regularly is to use an overdrive pedal to push my amp hard, then when I want to get more tube compression and sustain, I slam the front-end with a booster (which is the last pedal in my chain). This doesn’t result in a volume boost because the tubes are already saturated, but you do get much more high-gain sound, and that can really work with solos.

Again, there are no hard and fast rules. You have to play a lot of them to find your sweet spot. But that’s half the fun of it!

More Overdrive Murkiness…

I referred to my Timmy above as a “transparent” overdrive. There’s a lot of debate about transparency, but suffice it to say that while technically distortion is color, transparent overdrives are those that once their EQ is set up to match the EQ setting on your amp, they will not add any other “color” than distortion. On the other hand, once you set up a non-transparent pedal’s EQ, it will still add its own tonal characteristics to color your tone. In practical terms, though, transparent overdrives fall more into the booster arena, but it’s the EQ and internal soft-clipping circuits that still define it as an overdrive.

But further exacerbating the overdrive murkiness is that many overdrive pedals are actually purpose-built to mimic the sound of a specific overdriven amplifier. These are meant to be played through a clean channel with lots of headroom. A good example of this is the Caitlinbread Dirty Little Secret that produces classic Marshall Plexi to Super Lead tones. With a pedal like that, you just set your clean channel to purely clean and let the pedal do the overdrive work.

Note: Several articles I’ve read on this topic use the generic “overdriven amp” explanation to describe all overdrive pedals. It would be okay if they described them with respect to how the pedal responds, but more often than not, they use the term to describe the sound. Unfortunately, they completely miss the pedals that are built to be transparent. I’m not saying they’re entirely wrong, but just a little narrow in scope when you consider the overall landscape of overdrive pedals available.

Now… let’s add even more murkiness to the overdrive issue, shall we? There are some overdrives like the EHX Soul Food, which is a Klon Centaur clone, that at first blush, fall into the transparent overdrive category. So one would think that you’d set your amp at the edge of breakup, then use the pedal to push it over the edge and add its own clipping. This is a common way of using an overdrive, and it’s exactly how I use my Timmy. But even though the Soul Food wasn’t purpose-built to mimic a particular amp, I use it almost exclusively as a standalone soft-clipping device played through a clean channel. Its distortion sound is so damn sweet that I don’t want to taint it by adding clipping from my amp.

So… what you choose will be wholly dependent upon what pleases you.

Update: November 26, 2012

I ended the article three years ago with the statement that you have to play a lot of pedals for find your sweet spot. Three years later, that statement remains true. You see, in a recent article where I asked if new overdrives are relevant with so many on the market, there are some pedals that work with certain rig configurations, and some that just do not. There are also some rig configurations that work great on stage that sound absolutely horrible in the studio. I’ve been in the studio for the last few weeks (grabbing studio time where I can), and when we worked on a song where I needed some high-gain sounds, my rig just did not work! I was using my trusty DV Mark Little 40 clean, with my Timmy and the Little Brute Drive for distortion. Sounded like crap when recorded. I ended up bringing in my VHT Special 6, cranking it up all the way, and slamming it with a booster! Worked like a charm, with all the high-end character that I wanted out of that tone. So I learned a valuable lesson there.

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PRX-front-543Ever since I started this blog, I’ve talked about attenuators, and how they’ve enabled me to get tones out of my amp at reasonable volume levels that I could only previously get at super-high volumes. But before I get into the discussion part of this article, take a listen to this clip (it’s the same clip I recorded with my previous article on the Mullard ECC83):

Here are some details about the recording:

  • I plugged directly into my Aracom VRX22, which then fed into my Aracom PRX150-Pro, then out to a custom 1 X 12 with a Jensen P12N
  • The amp was in the drive channel with master at 6, volume (gain) at 6, and tone at 6 (the tone on this amp adds a little gain as well as an edge)
  • The PRX150-Pro was set at maximum attenuation
  • Volume-wise, this was talking conversation level!!!
  • No EQ was applied to the guitar – what you’re hearing is the raw tone.

With respect to “maximum attenuation,” I was in variable mode with the variable sweep pot all the way to its left extent. I shared my amp and PRX settings with Jeff Aragaki this morning, and he estimated that the output power was approximately 0.04 Watt!

Many people are apt to talk about how the speaker needs to move air, and that an attenuator doesn’t allow that to happen. But that clip simply demonstrates that with the right combination of equipment – and in my case, also a great set of tubes – you don’t necessarily need that speaker cone breakup to get great tone for recording purposes. Yes, SPL’s do play a big role in your overall tone, but to be able to achieve the kind of tone I was able to get at that very low volume level is nothing short of amazing!

So what about an attenuator being life-changing?

Maybe that’s a bit strong of a phrase, but ever since I’ve been using attenuators, and especially since I’ve gotten my Aracom PRX150-Pro, I’ve been able to explore tonal territory that I could previously only achieve using pedals – and only simulating at that! Take overdrive pedals for instance. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I’m crazy about them. I probably will still be nuts about overdrive pedals, but there’s one thing an overdrive pedal can’t do that an attenuator allows me to do, and that’s to get the thick, natural overdrive tone of my amp. Don’t get me wrong, I still use them, but I use them now more for tonal accents to my drive tone rather than giving me my drive tone. That’s very profound; especially for an overdrive pedal freak like me!

Here’s a good example that I just recorded. This clip is part of a new song idea I’ve been playing around with. Setup is pretty much the same as above, but for the rhythm, I’m running Strat into my Kasha overdrive pedal to get a jangly, crisp tone. The lead is Goldie plugged straight into my VRX22. I did mix and do a simple master on the recording, but the guitars were all recorded raw, with no EQ. In my DAW, I added some reverb to both parts and a touch of delay to the lead, but that’s it.

Speaking of pedals, since I’ve started using a high-end attenuator (there are others such as Alex’s and the Faustine Phantom), I’ve actually started using pedals in general much less. I’ve really relying on the natural tone and sustain of my amp. For instance, I’ve found that I’ve only been using reverb in the studio. When I play out, I just don’t bother. In fact, for the last few weeks, I’ve only been taking two pedals to gigs with me: My BOSS TU-2 Tuner and my VRX22’s channel switcher. Same goes with my Reason Bambino.

Life-changing? Probably not, but definitely approach-changing. I may personally endorse the PRX150-Pro, but there are others out there. If you really want to hear what your amp has to offer when it’s fully cranked with the power tubes glowing, then you owe it to yourself to get a good attenuator!

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