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Archive for January, 2010

Though I’m quite a bit out of shape to play nowadays, I’ve always had a love for the game of tennis; especially watching the tennis greats over the years, and thoroughly enjoying the pure artistry in their playing. Having played a bit of competitive tennis myself – albeit, nowhere the level of my tennis idols – I have a good idea of the hard work that goes into being good. These guys and gals make the game look so effortless that it shadows the fact that they literally spend hours each day developing their craft.

Within the past couple of decades, I have been privileged to witness history being made in tennis. In the 90’s it was Pete Sampras who had won an unprecedented 14 major singles titles. That guy was an absolute machine! No one at the time could even match that! But early Sunday morning, between 12:30 am – 3am PST, I witnessed Roger Federer become the first man to win his 16th major singles title, and the thing that hit me afterward was that I’ve had the fortune to live in a time to watch the greatest tennis players to ever walk the planet play.

Watching these guys play, the one thing that strikes me is their absolute calm and focus on the job at hand. Few visible outbreaks of emotion. Just patiently playing and doing their thing – and this is important: Responding, not reacting, to different situations; adapting their games to fit with the current conditions. It’s as if – though I’d say there’s a bit of truth to this – they are hyper-aware of everything that is going on around them, and sculpt their play in response to whatever may come at them. It’s thought-filled as well as instinctive.

The Zen term for this hyper-awareness and “intuitive instinct” is called “satori,” which literally translates to “understanding.” Satori is the first step of enlightenment to achieving nirvana. Japanese martial artists liken this state of satori as thought being the equivalent of action. Western cultures refer to this state as “being in the Zone.”

The Zone is a state of duality: Extreme focus and hyper-awareness; analysis and action; emotion and stoicism. In other words, being completely centered in your consciousness. We’ve all experienced “being in the Zone” in some way, whether we’re writing, running, or just sitting quietly, though it is most often associated sports or something active. But here’s the rub about being in the Zone: It doesn’t require any expertise at a particular activity. And while many people have experienced this sporadically and spontaneously, it is actually possible to get into the Zone at will.

Okay, I’ll pause for a moment and ask the question you’re all probably thinking: What does have to do with guitar? 🙂

Simple. Playing guitar in the Zone – no matter your experience level – is the difference between playing purely mechanical and playing with true expression – what’s really inside you. I know that people may argue that you should have some expertise and mastery of your current level of playing to really get into the Zone, but remember, being in the Zone is completely independent of any mechanics. It’s a state of mind, and that doesn’t require any expertise. Furthermore, I will also posit that playing in the Zone makes learning much easier because your heightened awareness and “centered-ness” makes you more open and much less analytical.

So given that, as I mentioned above it is possible to actually get into the Zone at will. But this takes a bit of practice, and a bit of mental preparation. People have different ways of getting into the Zone, but there are some fundamental things that you can do to get you on your way.

  1. First, breathe. It’s amazing how much we constrict our own breathing. I won’t give you any breathing exercises, but take note of and be aware of how you’re breathing. The more even the better.
  2. Relax your mind. Relaxing your mind is not that you block out everything going on around you, you just don’t allow your mind to wander onto things that are outside of your focus. This is a key of getting into the Zone.  From a neurological point of view, relaxing your mind means quieting your alpha waves, so your more creative beta waves take precedence.
  3. Relax your body. This doesn’t mean go limp. You could be jumping around on stage and still be relaxed. More to the point, relax your chest, which most of us have way too constricted.

Simple things, and I know they may sound a bit nonsensical, and for those of you who are more familiar with relaxation techniques, these steps are akin to getting into a meditative state. Being in the Zone is very much like being in a meditative state. Your mind and body are relaxed, and your attention is focused. But at the same time, you are completely aware of what is happening in the periphery of your consciousness.

To practice this with guitar, pick a piece that you know really well. But this time, do those preparation steps to quiet your mind a bit, then try to play it with your eyes closed. I suggest this so you’re playing completely by feel. Listen to what you’re playing, and just for shits and giggles, play the piece in response to things you hear around you, trying to express the emotional imagery you get when you hear the sounds. I do this occasionally when I’m trying to work out a phrase in a song, and I’m just not “feelin’ it.”

Don’t buy it? I’m not surprised. But there’s a reason that martial artists have practiced relaxation techniques for thousands of years. A quiet mind allows you to respond to any given situation with clarity; with a mind not cluttered by things it shouldn’t be thinking about – especially in the heat of battle where even a slight hesitation due to mental distraction could mean the difference between life and death.

Granted, with playing guitar, we’re not talking about a life or death situation. But imagine the level of expression – no matter your level – that you could experience when your mind is quiet, and you’re playing with the intensity of purpose that comes from absolute focus. That’s never a bad thing.

Give it a try. You may surprise yourself at what you create. From my own personal experience, whenever I’ve been in the Zone, I’ve created my best music be it on stage or in the studio.

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I was talking to a friend one day who noted something that the great Carlos Santana once said: “I can pick up pretty much any guitar and sound like me.” It wasn’t said with any arrogance. It was just a matter of fact. That statement spurred the thought that maybe there was something to the statement: Your tone is in your fingers. I’ve leaned towards that line of thinking for a long time, and have gotten into numerous debates between those who say your tone is in your gear versus the fingers camp.

My personal belief is that your gear gets you your baseline tone, then it’s your fingers articulating the strings that layer on the expression. Yeah, yeah, I can just hear the nitpickers who’ll come along and say, It’s not your fingers, but your heart and mind. That’s true as well. But they are the driving mechanisms. Your fingers produce the sound. But I digress…

Over the years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve come across many people who’ve asked the same question over and over again: What kind of gear can I get to sound like ____________? It’s probably obvious who the person is whom is asked about the most – Van Halen and the “Brown Sound.” In the past, my answer to this question has usually been, “You’ll have to do your research, and get the exact specs of the signal chain of that particular artist,” in an effort to avoid directly answering the question; or sometimes, I’ll be rhetorical and ask my own dismissive question back, “Why do you want to sound like __________?”

But after lots of thought on this, I feel compelled to qualify the motivations behind my reluctance to answer the question directly. Think back to the top of this article and what Santana was noted saying. The reason I’ve avoided getting into a discussion/instruction of how to sound like someone is because one thing I’ve realized in all the years I’ve been playing is that no matter what gear I have, I’m going to sound like me. Different kinds of gear will make my tone brighter or fatter or richer – whatever – but ultimately, when it comes to actually expressing my musical thoughts I’m going to sound like me. And that goes for every other guitarist or musician out there.

And it really is unavoidable that we sound like ourselves because each of us has our own unique approach to the guitar, affected by several factors (including, but not necessarily limited by how we think, how we feel; and ultimately, in how we express those thoughts and feelings. I’m not sure this is really just a “tone” thing, either. For instance, listen to old Van Halen with the brown sound, then listen to the Sammy Hagar years, or even Eddie playing on Jacko’s “Beat It.” EVH’s guitar tone is significantly different in all those settings, but it’s unmistakably EVH. The same can be said of Santana. Listen to early Santana and more recent stuff. The sound of the guitars are different, but there’s no mistaking who’s playing the guitar. These guys just sound like themselves!

And that’s the point of this entry. Your gear gets you your tone, your fingers create the sound, but it’s your expression that identifies you.

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Your guitar, that is…

I dig cool, off-the-wall stuff. Remember the Harmonic Capo I wrote about? I actually never got one, but that never reduced its cool to me. But this new, cool thing is something I’m definitely going to have to check out. It’s called the Guitar Hanger, made by the guys at The Guitar Hanger company. As the name implies, this little contraption literally lets you hang your guitar, much like you would a shirt or a pair of pants. Check out the video:

Right now, I’ve got all my guitars in my studio in their cases or gig bags, lined up along a wall, taking up valuable floor space. But with guitar hangers, I can free up A BUNCH of floor space. With guitar hangers, you could do something like this:

How cool is that?!!!! For more information, go to the The Guitar Hanger web site!

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…if I’m getting too jaded. I’ve reviewed so much gear that I don’t seem so easily impressed as of late.

What got me thinking about this was my latest review of the PRS Sweet 16 amplifier. I played it. It sounded great, but I wasn’t overly impressed. I suppose from a pure tone perspective, I could give it pretty high marks, and my 4.5 Tone Bones rating reflects the overall quality of the amp. But at around $1700, even though PRS calls the Sweet 16 a “mid-priced” amp, there are lots of other amps in that power class that cost far less and sound just as good, if not better.

What’s in a name?

Or maybe I’m not falling into the hype trap. It seems that every time PRS comes out with something, people rave about it and assume it kicks ass without really even trying it. That’s great for PRS to have built up that kind of reputation, and probably a reason PRS gear can still command such high prices: People are willing to pay based upon the name because they know there is a certain level of quality of which they can assume will be in the gear they buy – even sight unseen.

I also suppose that when I factored in the price, it kept me from giving the Sweet 16 higher marks; and that’s the practical side of me speaking. For me, I don’t give a shit about the name or the model; I only care if it sounds good. If some gear’s tone or playability simply blow me away, I’ll pay a higher price. For instance, I’m looking for vintage or vintage re-issue Les Paul. My buddy has a number of them, and I just have to get one to add to my rig. I won’t mind paying a premium for that guitar when I find one not just because it’s an LP, but because I’m blown away by the tone. But with the exception of Goldie, none of my other guitars have cost over $1000, and half of them cost under $500. Furthermore, all my amps with the exception of the Aracom PLX18 cost under $1000 as well, and the PLX18 with its vintage-style circuitry sounds way better than the Sweet 16 and still costs less.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that I don’t see the point in paying a high price for just “good” tone, as in the case of the Sweet 16. I’ll pay for great tone, but as I stated, there are lots of different gear out there that have great tone and a great price. The Dr. Z Remedy amp is a great example of that: GREAT tone at a great price. By the way, the street price of $1499 makes it a much sweeter deal than the Sweet 16.

I’m probably going to get jumped on for posting this, but so be it. I know what I like, and I know what I’d pay for some gear. It all boils down to tonal preference in the end. I’ll pay for tone that inspires me, but I’ll never pay for a name.

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Ever since Paul Reed Smith came out with amplifiers, I’ve been a little dubious about them mostly because anything carrying the PRS logo will invariably cost an arm and a leg. Don’t get me wrong PRS makes freakin’ incredible gear, but said gear also has a relatively large barrier to entry. So it came as a nice surprise that the PRS Sweet 16 is much more reasonably priced than one might expect of a PRS. For a hand-wired amp at just under $1700, that’s getting into Dr. Z territory, and that’s a GREAT thing!

During my latest sojourn to Guitar Center, my wanderings took me to the “quiet room” where GC has a few amps and guitars for people to play, isolated from the rest of the store. I like going in there because usually they have nicer gear like Custom Shop Strats, and high-end Gibsons. For amps, there’s always nice ones like classic Fenders (they’ve had the same silverface Twin in there for awhile now), and this time, they had the PRS Sweet 16 with its matching 1 X 12 cab.

Features (from PRS)

  • Hand-wired in Stevensville, Maryland
  • 16 Clean Watts (Smooth Overdrive at Max)
  • 2x 6V6 Output Tubes
  • Cathode Bias
  • Master Volume (Exits the Circuit at Max)
  • Reverb
  • Volume, Bass, Treble, Mid, Reverb, Master, and Bright Controls
  • Vintage-style Black and White Tolex Look

Fit and Finish

What can I say that hasn’t been said of PRS gear? It’s invariably lovely stuff! The black and white tolex and black grille cloth give the amp a very cool vintage look. As expected, there’s nary a blemish or seam out of place with this amp, and as expected, both amp and cab are super-sturdy. But that’s a given with pretty much any PRS gear.

How It Sounds

Here’s where we get into a bit of murky territory, primarily because even in an isolation room in a store, it’s not an optimal place to test – at least for me because I almost invariably don’t have my own guitars available when I do “random” tests. But that’s okay, I just spend a bit of time getting guitars that are close to what I have or had. With this test, I used a Strat and a very nice ES-335.

The Sweet 16 must have a pretty hefty output transformer because this puppy puts out some volume, even with a single 1 X 12. It has TONS of clean headroom, which made me turn down the Master and crank up the volume to get even a little grind, which indicated to me that to really get this amp to get into serious breakup, the master has to be dimed as well. The predominantly pre-amp distortion just seemed a little flat-sounding to me; it wasn’t bad, but it was nothing special. I did crank up the Master for just a little while, and even with it dimed, the breakup was  lot like a classic Marshall JTM; tons of clean headroom, with a modest amount of distortion when cranked. Definitely an amp suited for classic rock/blues.

Clean was another story. Really nice cleans with this amp, especially with a Strat. The CS Strat I played produced a smooth and complex tone with a chimey top-end. Quite nice. And the ES-335 sounded gorgeous through the Sweet 16. Adding a touch of reverb, really helped fill out the sound, and it was great playing fingerstyle with both axes.

For EQ settings, I just moved everything to 12 o’clock and didn’t have to tweak at all, though I did switch on the bright control to get some top-end shimmer; especially when playing the ES-335. The Strat didn’t need it, and the fuller sound really helped bolster the natural thin tone of the Strat.

Regarding the reverb, I do have to say that I’ve heard better. It’s not that it’s bad-sounding. I just wasn’t really impressed with it. I certainly wouldn’t use it to provide a sustaining effect with this amp. The sag is enough with the amp that I can get my sustain with my fingers. The reverb is not as pronounced as a Fender reverb, and it’s not very springy. I liken it to an Aracom reverb that isn’t very intense. It’s there, but it’s a heck of a lot more subtle than a Fender. But like I said, it’s not bad, but for me, I probably wouldn’t use it. For recording, I’d record the amp dry and layer a reverb as an insert or side-chain effect. That said, that amp sounds great without a reverb.

Overall Impressions

My gut impression is that it’s a great-looking and great-sounding amp, and it’s a good start for PRS’s entry into the low-wattage amp arena, but there are a lot better-sounding amps in that price range and below.Good examples of this are the Reason Bambino, the Aracom VRX series, and the Dr. Z Remedy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking the Sweet 16. I really liked it, but it’s not an amp that blew me away with its tone.

Despite my rather contrarian comments, the Sweet 16 gets a 4.5 Tone Bones rating. It’s well-made and great-sounding. If I ever get one into my studio, I’ll do a full review, and perhaps my rating will change. But it’s a solid performer nonetheless, and you could do a lot worse.

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Actually, I don’t really hate Guitar Center. I actually hate the fact that I have no self-control when I go there. It’s dangerous for me to go to Guitar Center. Why? It’s like shopping at Costco. I go in the store with a specific thing to buy, and end up with more than I planned for. Ah, the life of a gear slut. Luckily my bankroll isn’t limitless, otherwise I’d be buying things left and right. But on top of that Guitar Center is set up a like a grocery store in that you have to wander through the store to find what you’re REALLY looking for; along the way, you’ll pass some things that will catch your eye. They’re counting on that!

Wow! A Squier Bass for $169 – what a deal! An Epiphone Les Paul for only $599. It’s like that chick in that Deuce Bigalow Male Gigolo with Turette’s Syndrome – always on the verge of blurting out some obscenity – always struggling to contain herself. In the case of a gear slut like me and countless others, it’s always on the verge of uncontrollably pulling out the wallet. But as I said, the limiting factor is the amount of money I have at any time, so luckily really major purchases are rare.

On my recent trip to GC, I was going there to simply pick up an extension speaker cable for my cab. I misplaced my old one at a recent gig, so I needed a new one. I went with only the intention of getting that cord. But of course, being in the pro audio section, I just had to pass by the microphone case. Then my GAS reason took over, and said, “You’re really not happy with how your guitars are sounding with the ribbon mic which is much better for vocals. Why not get a decent instrument mic that can handle high SPLs.” Dammit! GAS reason is so… reasonable… 🙂

Long story short, I ended up getting a Sennheiser e609. It was a great purchase, and my guitars haven’t sounded this good recorded – ever. Was it a good purchase? Yes. Did I REALLY need it? Kind of… and that’s the problem with GAS. That “kind of…” almost always turns into a “yes.”

Oh well, at least I sound great now… 🙂

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Wow! Two days in a row, and yet another e-mail received from a reader, and yet another pretty cool idea. This time, it’s from Guitar Scale Magnets located in Houston, TX. These help players learn scales by attaching a magnetic strip to the bass side of the fretboard. The premise is that learning guitar is a visual as well as tactile and aural experience, and having a visual cue as to where you should place your fingers in relationship to a particular scale will help you learn faster. Interesting indeed. Here’s a picture of the pentatonic scale strips:

There are 12 strips representing each note in an octave, so you can learn the five pentatonic box shapes in any key! Cool! Each strip is attached to the guitar via a “base” strip of magnetically receptive material (not metal) tape. The tape has a weak adhesive, to stick enough to stay in place, but not damage your finish. In any case,  very ingenious idea!

At this point, only 25 1/2″ scale length strips are available, but according to the manufacturer, slight variations won’t throw the strip off much.

Personally, I wish I had these strips for when I was learning guitar. I just memorized the box shapes, then learned how to connect them through osmosis. But if I had to do it all over again, I would’ve invested in stuff like this to help get me started! For you teachers out there, you might consider getting a few sets of these – you can pass the cost of them to your students. But then again, that might shorten the time it takes to teach your students to play the guitar. 🙂 Seriously though, if my teacher provided me with stuff like this, it would make learning a helluva lot easier!

For more information, go to the Guitar Scale Magnets web site!

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