Archive for October, 2010

I wrote an article called “Gear That Has Changed My Life” last year where I talked about various types of gear that have had a huge impact on who I am as a guitarist. But today, I realize that there have been several pedals that completely changed my approach to playing, and I thought that I’d focus on them here.

BOSS CE-2 Chorus – This was the very first pedal I ever purchased, and I also sold it after a few years because I didn’t know any better. Kicked myself frequently until I finally got another one earlier this year. To me, this pedal produces the chorus sound that means “chorus” to me. There are some great ones out there, but this to me is the original and definitive chorus sound. And despite its little quirks, like adding a slight gain boost when activated, I can’t think of a chorus pedal that does it better.

Mad Professor Deep Blue Delay – I’ve had a love/hate relationship with delay pedals over the years. Digital delays always seemed so “processed” and analog delays were always way too dark-sounding to me. I got close to what I wanted with the VOX Time Machine, and I actually still use that pedal for some specific songs. But then I auditioned the Mad Professor Deep Blue Delay, and my prayers to find a delay that I could love all the time were answered! From adding just a touch of ambience to drowning in heavy, pulsating, analog echo, the Deep Blue Delay delivers, all without turning mushy or going dark in character. I got mine before the PCB version came out, so I paid a premium for the hand-wired version at $325. The PCB version is a more reasonable $199 and apparently sounds great (though a touch different according to a well-trusted source). But hand-wired or PCB, there’s nothing like this delay.

Creation Audio Labs Mk.4.23 – I mentioned this pedal in my previous article, but it truly has had a HUGE impact on me as I use it a lot in place of an overdrive pedal to push my amp into distortion. When I want to retain the natural overdrive tone of my amp, the Mk.4.23 is where it’s at for me.

Fulltone OCD – Though I sold this pedal long ago, it was my first “boutique” pedal. Up to then, I’d stuck with the mainstream. It really demonstrated to me that there were sounds beyond the mainstream. Unfortunately – or fortunately depending upon how you look at it – it also was responsible for me to go on a quest to test out other boutique gear. Now I have a lot of it. 🙂

DigiTech Bad Monkey – This pedal reinforced the notion that great tone can come cheap. A Tube Screamer clone for sure, the one thing that this has got over the the TS is adjustable bass and treble knobs. It sounds great to boot! I no longer have this pedal as I gave it to a kid in my church band, but whenever I get the inking to spend big bucks on gear, I look back to the Bad Monkey and tell myself that there is great gear out there that doesn’t have to come at a premium in price.

Dunlop Original Cry Baby – This was my very first wah pedal, and up to that point, I had NEVER even considered playing wah. But curiosity got the best of me, and I got a second-hand one at a used gear shop. I still love playing with it now and then, though my main wah is a VOX Big Bad Wah. But the Cry Baby opened a whole new realm of expression; and even though I’m not playing it much, I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of it.

I’ve gone through so many pedals in my lifetime, and something tells me I’ve missed something. But these are the pedals that come to mind. Care to share and pedals that have changed your life?

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To the left is a shot of my 1959 Les Paul Replica. If you click on the picture you can see the finish checking and the little ding above the pickup selector toggle that was applied by the builder. It’s light, so for me, it’s cool. But truth be told, I don’t really get the relic thing. Give me a nice, bright, shiny guitar, and I’ll be happy. In fact, though many of my guitars have dings on them or their metal is a little tarnished, I’m cool with that because I did the aging through gigging and recording. And I will also add that while I don’t actively try to prevent aging, I do take very good of my guitars and make sure I wipe them down after each gig or session, so even though some of my guitars have dings, they still look fairly new – even the older ones.

On the other hand, my very close friend Jeff Aragaki loves guitars that have been artificially aged. In fact, he once got a gloss ’59 historic, and buffed it down to age it slightly himself. My reaction was, “WTF did you do that for?” He just said that he prefers the well-used look. Of course, I’m totally cool with someone liking that, and will never dis anyone who likes artificially aged gear, but it’s not for me. I’d rather do the aging myself.

Do you get the “relic” thing? 🙂

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Go to any blog or forum and you’ll see lots of discussions centering around Tone. You’ll also see some heated debates about it that often escalate into name-calling and all-out arguments. With respect to tone, everyone has an opinion. Some are put more eloquently and authoritatively than others, but in the end, they’re still just opinions, no matter how educated or experienced one may sound. For this particular discussion, I’m referring to “Tone” as that unicorn that we all chase that is a combination of what we’re playing as well as how we’re playing.

Admittedly, even with the articles I’ve written regarding tone, my viewpoint is well… my viewpoint. People call me out all the time on that and offer their viewpoint, and that’s all well and good. But it’s still just their viewpoint. I think the challenge of describing tone is that it is incredibly difficult to articulate something that is produced aurally and then evokes an emotional response. The result is that when speaking in reference to something like that, instead of being able to capture the meaning definitively, we have to speak metaphorically, with copious use of “sounds like” or “feels like.”

So with respect to that, to find your Tone, as I’m apt to say quite often here, you simply have to try things out for yourself. Recordings get you into a general area, and they’re quite helpful, which is why I do them in the first place, but keep in mind that they don’t tell the entire story. For instance, here’s an experience I’ve had several times when evaluating amps. Like almost everyone, one of the first things I do is to try to find recordings and videos on the Internet so I can hear how the amp performs. But one thing I’ve learned with evaluating an amp is to take note of what guitar and effects are being used to do the recording. An amp may sound great with a Strat, but may sound absolutely horrid with a Les Paul. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been disappointed when I finally audition an amp in a shop that I’ve gotten wind of on the Internet. The point to this is that you have to do ALL of your homework…

Salient Question: How do you know when you’ve found your Tone?

Taking into account that different styles of music require different combinations of gear, the way that I’ve found that I’ve hit that sweet spot of finding my tone is that my performance becomes effortless, and I’m going on pure instinct and expression. I’m not thinking about the sounds my gear is making or how the individual components are functioning or if my levels are correct. At least when I hit that sweet spot, I can FEEL it, and I’m left to be truly creative.

For instance, at my church gig last night, I was in the zone tone-wise. I used a fairly simple, low-wattage setup with a VHT Special 6 amp (which I ran into a 1 X 12 speaker cab for better bottom end), my pedal board, and a Les Paul. Clean or dirty, I just felt I could do no wrong. I didn’t do any tweaking, except for turning down the gain on my amp or guitar. I was able to perform on pure instinct, and that just made the set so much more enjoyable. The point to this is that when you don’t have to worry about it, chances are you’ve found your tone.

But I’ve also said this before: Tone is an ever-moving target. What makes you happy and inspires you today may likely change over time. Myself, I was a Strat/Fender Deluxe player for years. But as of the past year or so, I’ve converted over to the Les Paul/Plexi combination. More likely than not, I’ll probably stick with this combination for awhile as I’ve found that I’ve bonded much more closely with this combination than with the Strat/Deluxe combination. But only time will tell…

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One of early my inspirations for playing guitar was Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. To this day, I still listen to Sultans of Swing at least once a week. I just love the tone he gets with his fingers! Plus, that guy is one of the coolest cats on the planets. Here’s a video from a few years back. When I saw it yesterday, I must’ve watched it 5 times. What technique and feel!

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Since I’ve gotten it, I’ve been absolutely digging the VHT Special 6. It’s such a versatile little amp, with bright cleans and capable of creating some gorgeous, sustaining overdrive. And while I do certainly appreciate its clean tone, this amp totally shines when it’s cranked to hilt.

To demonstrate, here’s a clip I recorded this evening with the VHT Special 6:

Now here’s the thing about recording with a low-wattage amp. I’ve found that almost invariably, it’s difficult to get a big sound out of the stock speaker, no matter where I place the microphone. People recommend recording from an angle lined up along the outside of the speaker cone. I’ve never had much success with that, considering I’m not using any high-end mics. So my solution is to use larger speakers to get that bigger sound.

For this clip, I used two different 1 X 12 speaker cabinets: The rhythm track was recorded using a Fane Medusa 150 speaker to get a bigger bottom end. The lead was recorded with a Jensen Jet Falcon – that’s my favorite speaker at the moment. And of course, because even 6 Watts cranked is very loud, I ran the amp through my Aracom PRX150-Pro and recorded each track at about loud conversation level. It’s just loud enough to move the speaker cone a bit, but not so loud that I’d wake up the neighbors. 🙂

For both parts, I used my Les Paul R8. For the rhythm, I recorded in the middle selector switch biased towards the bridge, and for the lead, I recorded with the bridge pickup only. To make the guitar tone sound even bigger, I added just a tiny bit of compression to each track and added a touch of small room reverb to add some dimension. I didn’t EQ the guitar parts at all. That’s the natural sound of the amp through the speakers I used. The compression keeps the sound focused. At least to my ears, the guitar parts sound like they’re coming from a much bigger amp.

As far as the amp setting were concerned, I was plugged into the hi input with the amp set to high-power mode. Tone and volume were at 3pm, and I engaged the Boost. Even at these cranked settings, the amp will clean up very nicely! That’s how responsive this amp is!

Admittedly, if I were to rewind and go back to when I bought the amp, I’d probably go with the head. The stock speaker is great for practicing, but for gigging and recording, it just sounds much better with at least a 1 X 12. But hey! A handwired amp for $199? Geez! I can live with its shortcomings as what it brings to the table tonally is fabulous!

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Before I got my Aracom PRX150-Pro, to get grind, I used a variety of overdrive pedals. But now that I have a great attenuator that allows me to get my amps in their sweet spots without stepping all over my band, I’ve been making lots of use of clean boost – namely, the Creation Audio Labs Mk.4.23 – to push my amp into overdrive, plus get a bit of a volume boost. I use overdrive pedals far less now, but I do use them when I want a different color to my overdrive tone. But I’m curious – especially after seeing Peter Frampton’s small board – what people prefer. So here’s a poll…

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I’m not one to buy into hype; especially all the hype that you hear in the forums. There’s A LOT of hype associated with Paul Cochrane’s Tim and Timmy pedals. But after reading tons of posts over the last couple of years on how much people love these, and also after hearing one live in action, I decided to get on the waiting list.

As Paul puts it, the pedal was designed for a Strat played through a Plexi or Vox; in other words, amps with lots of midrange. He says his pedals don’t sound so good with “Black Face” amps. But since I don’t have any amps like that, well, it’s all good.

As for the waiting list, my position doesn’t come up until February. But that’s cool. I’m willing to wait. From what I’ve heard, this is a pedal that should fit right into my style of playing!

BTW, if you’ve got one, I’d love to hear about your experience with it!

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