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Archive for October, 2018

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I went to see Phil Collins in concert last night. I had never seen him live, even when he was with Genesis, though I had all the Genesis albums and several Phil Collins albums. I just loved the music he wrote with Genesis and as a solo artist. Yeah, yeah, I know he’s not a guitarist, and this is a guitar blog, but hey! It’s my blog, so there! Seriously though, there is a point to this.

Like many, I’ve gone to many concerts, and after the concert, both my wife and I agreed that we’re probably caught up with respect to seeing the artists of our youth. But unlike the other concerts I’ve attended recently, where I’ve left the venue jacked up and stoked, with this one, I was speechless, pensive and introspective. I found reaction a little disconcerting, and to be honest, more than a little disturbing.

This feeling really got me thinking about it on the way home. And in discussing it on the ride home with my wife and friends, whom we rode with to the concert, I realized that Genesis and specifically, Phil Collins’ music has been a part of my life since the 1970’s. And without truly realizing it, a lot of who I am as a songwriter and a musician has been heavily influenced by the music Phil Collins has written.

I think the earmark of Phil Collins’ music is how he weaves melodies within the fabric of a song whose chord progressions are completely unpredictable and unexpected. For instance, take the song “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now).” The first stanza of the lyrics is:

How can I just let you walk away
And let you leave without a trace?
When I stand here taking every breath you
You’re the only one who really knew me at all

The chord progression for each line is:

Bbm7  Cm7 
Db  Ebm7(add)4
Gb(add2)  Ab/Gb  Fm7  Bbm
Ebm  Absus4  Ab

If you don’t know the song, do a search.

A lot of his music has these suspended fourths and seconds that I have always found incredibly beautiful. And I realized in discussing his music last night that in my own playing, I add similar elements to my phrasing and chords. Influenced by Phil Collins? Maybe. But I think we can all agree that as musicians, a lot of our musical sense comes from the music to which we listen. So for me, it’s probably a safe bet to say that at least a bit of who I am as a musician has been influenced by Phil Collins’ music. And that realization hit me like a ton of bricks and probably explains my pensiveness after the show.

This morning, while I was still reeling from the realization of how much Phil Collins has influenced me as a musician, I had a chuckle because it brought back to mind an interview I read a long time ago where the artist said that “Musicians are the biggest rip-off artists. We all play each other’s shit, even if we express it in different ways.” The context of that interview (sorry, I don’t recall the specific artist) was the interviewer asked about the artist’s musical influences.

I laughed at the memory because I’m unabashed about being influenced by a bunch of different artists from Duke Ellington to Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra to Bob Marley to James Taylor to Peter Frampton to Steve Winwood to Peter Gabriel and yes, to Phil Collins. And the list goes on and on and on. I’m not alone in this. As musicians, who we are is an amalgam of our experiences in life and indeed, what we hear.

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Being a digital amp, like other digital devices, you can tweak the Katana to get the sounds tailored to your specifications. It’s super-easy to do with the simple and straight-forward user interface as shown below (this is a screenshot from my setup):

bk_main

Making adjustments here is a great way to set up your sounds before you play a gig. For me, I wanted to set up Channels 1 and 2 for my next gig. Channel 1 would be my clean tone, while Channel 2 would be my dirty tone. I could’ve easily done this from the amp, but it’s a lot quicker to access all the functions from the UI.

bk_chorus

For my clean tone, I wanted some Chorus. As you can see above, with the UI, you can tweak a lot of parameters to tailor the effect’s sound to your liking. To be honest, I’m only showing you the screen. I didn’t touch a single thing on it.

And herein lies my dilemma with any modeling amp: There’s so much I can tweak that it’s VERY EASY to screw things up, and thus very easy to get overwhelmed and frustrated with all the different settings. My advice? Set mix levels with the effects and forget just use the defaults.

I say that a bit tongue in cheek. But to be honest, having this level of control is both a godsend and a curse. It’s a godsend in that if you know what you’re doing and you have a good idea what the response should be should you change a parameter, then it’s awesome to have this amount of control. But if you’re just experimenting and you’re not documenting your changes (like most of us), you could screw things up right quick. What you’ll find yourself doing if you mess up is a factory reset; maybe several.

Back at the turn of the century, I used to have a Line 6 Flextone II. It was a great amp. I could tweak the shit out of it. And I did. I spent hours and hours making adjustments to get just the right sounds out of the amp. Doing that was both tedious and laborious and earned me the ire of my wife for tweaking my amp instead of doing household chores. 🙂 I got so frustrated with that amp that I finally sold it and got a Roland Cube 60 that I played for years until I started getting into valve amps.

The primary reason for me selling the Flextone II was that there was just too much to tweak. Back then, I was gigging between 150 to 200 gigs a year, and I really just needed something I could get set up quickly and go. But also, in looking back to that time, I hadn’t yet found my own sound, so I was experimenting quite a bit. But the practical side of me won out because frankly, I just needed something that sounded good enough to get me through a gig.

The one thing that the Flextone II did give me was a sense of the sounds I would like in my tone both clean and dirty. For my clean tone, I always want a little chorus, little reverb, and be able to layer on a bit of delay. For my dirty tone, I want some reverb – not much, mind you – and I prefer soft clipping distortion over square wave tones for my dirty sound. The Flextone II helped me discover that. On the other hand, not only could I add effects with the Flextone II, but I could also adjust amp settings. My head was spinning from all the shit I had to consider.

Now I’ve come full circle with the Katana. Yes, I know BOSS likes to claim that it’s not a modeling amp. It is a modeling amp. But instead of being able to tweak the amp models themselves, they provide five models and let you tweak the effects. And it’s set up so that each model from “acoustic” to “brown” has more gain than the next. It’s a no-brainer.

For me, though there are four preset channels, I only use two of them; one for clean, one for dirty. As I mentioned above, I don’t tweak the effect defaults. My main concern is getting the effects I want, then set the channel volume level with my guitar volume set to the middle. I do this for both clean and dirty so that both channels are at unity volume when my guitar’s set in the middle. That’s it. To me at least, the default effect sounds are just fine.

So sure, you can tweak the Katana all you want. But at least for me, I’m too busy to be mucking about with amp settings. I’ll let those who want to invest the time and have the patience to tweak do the tweaking.

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I could simply start off and say that after my church gig last night, the Katana 50 delivers on all fronts for me, and leave it at that. I could simply start off and say that all the dynamics that I was expecting were present in a big way, and leave it at that. I could simply start off and say that just based on sound alone, this amp just does it all for me, no matter what I paid for it, and leave it at that. But I’m not going to leave it at that… The big test for me with any gear that I get is how it performs in my church gig. For those of you who would pooh-pooh the venue as not being a valid venue just because it’s “church music” that’s being played (believe me, I’ve gotten ribbed about this in the past), then let me just say this: Playing in a church is one of the hardest venues to play in simply because the limiting factor is volume. The trick is sounding good – and more importantly, consistent – whether you’re playing at 70dB or 100dB. Believe me, having done this for over 20 years, that consistency is difficult to achieve. But based on my playing the amp every day for the week leading up to playing my gig, I had a feeling that the Katana would perform extremely well with respect to consistency. As a digital amp, it is designed to operate consistently at various volumes. The great thing about that is that the performance is predictable. I can set up the amp to have particular sound and dynamics, and know that they’ll stay the same irrespective of my volume. I realize though, that there is a certain magic when you up the SPL’s, and the Katana is no exception to this. Despite it sounding good at lower levels, it REALLY sings at high volume. When the speaker is pushing air, the sound becomes a lot more dimensional and space-filling, which is why I recorded my studio test song with the mic placed 3-4 feet away from the amp. I wanted to capture the sound at a distance. 🙂 Of course, I couldn’t open it up at church, but regardless, it sounded great!

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Overdrive Creates Distortion

Overdrive is the process of overloading a device and the end result – what you hear – is distortion. Here are the fundamental ways distortion is created.

distortion (3)

As I like to put it: overdrive is a verb, distortion is a noun.

As you can see above, there are different ways to overdrive. But in the end, all overdrive methods produce a distorted signal. Yes, each kind of distortion sounds different, but that is all dependent on where the distortion is occurring. As the illustration above shows, distortion could be only happening in the amp (booster pedal or guitar volume). It could be happening in the pedal (overdrive and distortion). It could be happening in both pedal and amp.

A Quick Word on Tube Amps with Respect to Distortion

I have to make a bit of a clarification on where the distortion happens when it comes to tube amps. For those with tube amps, some come with a master volume, while others do not, and the distortion characteristics are different depending on the type of tube amp.

With amps that don’t have a master volume, typically the full power of the preamp section goes directly to the power amp; they interact with each other directly. At high enough gain what you’ll typically get is a combination of power tube distortion and preamp distortion. This produces a fairly warm, overdriven sound. As a result, getting just moderate amounts of break-up can make your ears bleed. It’s VERY loud.

For amps with a master volume, as it was explained to me, the master volume acts as a floodgate, controlling the amount of power that will go from the preamp into the power section. In this case, distortion will come primarily from the preamp tubes. This kind of distortion tends to be a bit more “fizzy,” square-wave kind of distortion. The advantage here is that you can control your output volume much better, but unless you open up the master volume, you won’t get that power tube distortion.

And one more note with respect to master volume: Some amps, no matter how much you turn up the master volume will never saturate the power tubes. I’ve heard that Mesa amps are set up this way. Almost all the distortion comes from the preamp. That’s not a bad thing. Mesa amps always sound BIG.

What About Speaker Distortion?

Just like overloading a device (tube, etc.), a speaker can also distort if the power thrown at it is greater than its capacity to play cleanly. I didn’t originally include this in the figure above because usually, the focus of overdriving and distortion tends to be on what you put in front of the amp and at the amp itself.

With speaker distortion, the speaker goes “out of round” and produces a distorted sound. Usually, it takes A LOT of power to make this happen – read: it’s loud. And with some speakers, it may not sound very good, as speakers are not all made the same.

Speaker distortion tends to be harsh, so that sound alone may not be at all pleasing to the ears. However, it is generally accepted that as an added dimension to an already distorted signal, it can provide some real magic.

With the speakers I use (Jensen Jet Falcon and Jensen Jet Electric Lightning), the speaker distortion presents itself as a high-frequency component to my sound. It’s barely perceptible, but I know it’s happening because I don’t hear it at lower volumes. I measured the output volume threshold when this happens, and my amp has to be producing at least 95dB of volume before it comes on. But when it does, WOW! It adds yet another dimension to my tone.

And as I mentioned above, not all speakers are equally built. Size, sensitivity, and even the cabinet can affect how and if a speaker will distort. So you will have to play around with different speaker configurations.

This is just some starter information. How you achieve the distortion you want to hear takes a lot of experimentation. But that’s where it gets fun! But buyer beware: There’s a literal, monetary cost to experimentation, so as I always say, take your time and evaluate as much as you can yourself without paying for it. For sure, gather opinions, but avoid getting something purely on someone else’s recommendation. In other words, verify, verify, verify…

 

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I was talking to a sales guy in a shop and got into that age-old debate about overdrive vs. distortion and what they sound like. I’m not a mean person, so before he started flailing wildly, opining on how each sounds and the differences between soft clipping and square-wave distortion, I had to stop him, and just said, “Listen, I get it.”

I guess he felt a need to push his point, and my only reply was a question: “Do you understand that overdrive is a verb and distortion is a noun?” I just let the question hang in the air and waited for the expected response, “What do you mean?” which he finally asked after a bit of a stunned silence. My answer was simply, “Distortion is the end-product of the process of overdriving a device like a pedal or an amp, which is why I call overdrive a verb and distortion a noun.”

That led into a discussion on pedals. I explained that in the end, the goal of all “drive” pedals is to produce a form of distortion as the result of overdriving the input of a device to cause it to clip. The higher the gain, the higher the clipping. And different devices produce different kinds of gain. He nodded in agreement and then I went on to explain the following:

  • Boosters overdrive the front-end (preamp) of the amp, causing the preamp to saturate and clip, so what you get is distortion coming entirely from the amp.
  • Overdrive pedals have internal soft-clipping sections but also have booster functionality so you get a combination of distortion from both pedal and amp.
  • Distortion pedals clip entirely within the pedals themselves, though many provide some gain boost. But typically are used against a high clean-headroom setup because the purpose is to let the pedal produce a consistent distortion sound irrespective of the amp’s volume.

We went on to discuss how each sounds, but I won’t bore you with that. Instead, I’ll break down what we discussed.

Do different types of distortion sound different?

Of course, they do. A pure amp distortion is a distortion produced in the amp itself. That has a sound all its own, and different amps sound differently overdriven. Booster pedals are designed to create amp distortion.

The soft-clipping of an overdrive pedal is considered kind of an “open” and “airy” type of distortion, more gritty than smooth with lots of room for dynamics depending on the instrument’s gain and player attack; that is, the amount of distortion produced varies based on gain and attack.

A hard-clipping device like a distortion pedal produces a more compressed, consistent, low dynamic sound; that is, irrespective of a note being played or its volume, the internal gain of the device is set so high that whatever is played will be amplified into clipping beyond the device’s saturation point. Distortion is not as affected by gain or attack as it is with an overdrive or booster pedal. As an aside, fuzz pedals are ultra-high-gain. These produce that square wave distortion: super-compressed, with lots of sustain (think “American Woman” by the Guess Who).

Circling back to amp distortion, in general, vintage and vintage-style amps distort with soft-clipping as they have few gain stages and in a lot of cases, at least for vintage tube amps, by default, their tubes are biased on the cooler side. Modern, high-gain amps have more gain stages which can produce hard-clipping distortion.

I know I’m covering ground I’ve crossed in the past. But even today, the debate continues, so I think it’s worth it to dust off the discussion now and then.

Here’s a quick reference to help understand how overdrive creates distortion:

Click on the image to go to the reference article

 

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Summary: The BeatBuddy revolutionized practice and even solo performance by providing great backing beats with its default set of beats. But with the Premium Library SD Card 2019, entire songs and even more beats extend the usability of this already incredible drum machine in a box.

Pros: Lots of beats – probably more than you’ll ever need! Contains beats of full-length songs from a bunch of artists and genres. For songwriters like myself, all the extra beats provide a great canvas for song ideas. I LOVE the new, extra drum kits included in this set! The defaults are fine, but some kits like the Phil Collins-inspired sets provide a nice change to the original sets.

Cons: My only nit is also what’s so great about this library: There are A LOT of beats. 🙂 But as with all libraries, you’re going to cherry-pick what you’ll use. The challenge with this will be in a live setting having to go through the menus. Before I use this live, I will have to create a cheat sheet so I can get to the beats I need quickly.

4.75 Tone Bones - Almost perfect but not quiteTone Bone Score: 4.75 This library makes the BeatBuddy incredibly useful to me now for both practice and finally, for my solo gigs. With the full-length cover songs in the Premium Library, which luckily for me include many songs I do in my solo gigs, I’m looking forward to using this regularly on my board!

Street Price: $199.00

When David Packouz, the inventor of the BeatBuddy, first approached me with his idea for the BeatBuddy, I jumped at the chance to review the unit upon its release. For years, I had to use my recording software like Logic or GarageBand to provide backing drum beats for practice and writing. And for practice, it was a pain in the ass.

So when I got the BeatBuddy, I literally was overcome with joy, as I could take one of my amps, lock myself in a room… well… my man-cave, and practice and write, free from a computer. It was great! But I felt that while incredibly useful, the default loops were a bit basic. Though fairly high quality in sound, there was only so much I could do. So to be completely honest, while I had plans to gig with the BeatBuddy, it remained a trusty companion in my home studio.

But I that’s changed now with the Premium Library because, as I mentioned, many of the full-length songs included on the card are songs I play in my solo gigs. I practiced with a few of them like Sting’s “It’s Probably Me,” which is done according to his version that he recorded with Eric Clapton. This is the version I play in my gigs, though I add some of the major-7th and flat-5 chords he uses on his album (sorry forgot which one). In that version, it starts out with a simple beat with a soft rim shot. Perfect lead-in to the next section (there are 7). I also explored the Elton John and Billy Joel banks and the Popular Cover songs (though I’ve only gotten through the 3rd volume – there are 11 volumes included with 10 songs each).

Not everything I do is covered, but let me tell you why I’m so excited about having all these full-length songs: I’m too freakin’ lazy to use the BeatBuddy Manager to construct full song sets on my own! 🙂 I have a day job, and I gig on the weekends and some nights during the week. I’ve tried using the software a few times to construct songs, but I just don’t have enough time to sit and edit for hours at a time. But if someone did it for me, damn! So yeah, I’m REALLY diggin’ having these full-length songs at my disposal!

But on top of that – and I haven’t even explored all the different beats – the extended set beats are much more complex than the default sets. Myself, I like complex rhythms; and no, not weird time signatures, but rhythms that have lots to offer because it allows me to attack my guitar in different ways and inspires me to explore. But when the beats are basic, it’s difficult to get inspired. It’s a whole new ball game with this the Premium Library!

Some might balk at what might appear to be a steep price to pay for the library. But having gone through the process of constructing songs with the BeatBuddy Manager software, for someone like me who doesn’t have a lot of time to tweak, this library is a godsend. And sure, you might be thinking that it’s just an SD Card, but how much have we gear sluts spent on little items? If you’re like me, you’ll get a lot of mileage from this particular “little” item!

Prior to writing this review, I spent the previous 3 hours exploring the library. I didn’t expect to spend much time with it, but I kept on discovering new things. And when I looked up, I couldn’t believe how much time had passed! So like I said, I’m going to enjoy using my BeatBuddy at gigs, and the Premium Library has now made that possible!

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What’s YOUR Message?

Back in the mid-70’s (gawd, I’m dating myself), Eddie Van Halen redefined how players approached playing the guitar. His tapping techniques and blindingly-fast fingerwork, not to mention his natural showmanship combined with a dynamic frontman, and a HUGE sound completely transformed rock and roll.

But with EVH, at least for me, it wasn’t necessarily his technique and style that specifically appealed to me. Sure, I was completely awed by what he could do with his guitar. But even at the young age of 14 when I first heard Van Halen, what I felt truly set him apart was what was behind what he played. I always felt that with each solo, EVH had something to say; that there was some underlying message he was trying to communicate at the time.

Contrast that to the hair metal players that followed in his footsteps. I can’t name a single one except for Mick Mars from Motley Crue, and Brad Gillis and Jeff Watson of Night Ranger. Okay, I admit it: I wasn’t a fan of glam rock – at all. It sounded all the same to me. I figured if I heard one, I’d heard them all.

I wasn’t particularly a fan of the Crue back in the day either, and frankly, most of their songs just didn’t appeal to me. But Mick Mars wasn’t a pattern player, and I always felt he played stuff outside the very limiting box of glam rock. As for the other two, I dug Night Ranger as a band, and though they toed the glam rock line, their music was beyond it; but despite that, Brad and Tom’s playing just blew me away. They took all that flashy technique and said something with it. And even though Jeff Watson’s two-handed arpeggio technique could technically be called just a trick, what he could actually do with that was simply amazing; and again, I felt he had something to say.

Then there’s Glen Campbell. I don’t think anyone will argue with me that Mr. Campbell was perhaps one of the most influential guitarists – ever. I know, big claim. But as part of LA’s Wrecking Crew session group, Glen Campbell literally helped define the rock and roll sound. Back in the early days of the recording industry, groups weren’t writing their own songs, and god forbid they played on their own albums. It was up to musicians like Glen Campbell. And he was special… Check this out:

Every bit of phrasing in that solo just fits. And tell me Mark Knopfler wasn’t influenced by that. Whether directly or indirectly, some of that phrasing could easily translate to the great Mark Knopfler, also one of my all-time favorites.

I could keep going on about great guitarists, but they all have one thing in common. They all have something to say when they play. For me, I’ve always admitted that I’m not a fast player. Never have been, and I probably never will be. But I learned early on when learning how to solo that what’s behind what I’m playing is almost more important than what I’m playing.

Frank Zappa said this back in 1984 in an interview on MTV with respect to improvising: “I have a basic mechanical knowledge of [the] operation of the instrument, and I got an imagination. And when the time comes up in the song to play a solo, it’s me against the laws of nature. I don’t know what I’m gonna play, I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I know roughly how long I have to do it and it’s a game where you have a piece of time and you get to decorate it. And depending on how intuitive the rhythm section is that’s backing you up, you can do things that are literally impossible to imagine sitting here.”

I heard that many years ago, and it has stuck with me since. I’m a “mood” player. My moods affect my solos. I don’t know if I have a particular message in mind when I’m playing, but what I try to do is communicate the mood I’m in at the time I play. I never know what my solo is going to be but I do know that I want to say something about how I’m feeling. Although I will admit that if I’m pissed, my solos are shit. 🙂

I think it was an interview with Freddie King who said, “Playing guitar is like having a conversation with someone. You gotta ask yourself, ‘What are you trying to say?'” And I think that’s root of my problem with all the glam rock shit back in the day is the same problem I have with so much of the pop music out there now. It’s an exercise of “Look at me and all the tricks I can do!” or in the case of pop, just meaningless filler. I didn’t feel a connection with the music. It wasn’t talking to me.

And speaking of talking to me, though I’m not really a big jazz aficionado (I know what I like), I’ve always been in total awe of Miles Davis and his minimalistic approach. That man could say so many things in one or two notes that might take someone else 100 notes to accomplish. Check this out (I’ve set the video position to my favorite song on the album “Blue in Green” – it’s at about 19:00 if the video doesn’t start there):

That song is mesmerizing to me. Miles plays it with a muted trumpet. And he doesn’t play much at all. But what he does play speaks a thousand things to me. He totally proves the point that you don’t need to say much to say a lot. 🙂

And as far as gear is concerned, no amount of gear is going to overcome an empty message. You might sound good, but if you don’t have anything to say (I’ll let you draw your own conclusions)…

What’s YOUR message?

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