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Archive for November, 2018

Of Wine and Gear

I’ve mentioned this in the past but one of the passions in my life is wine. To me, there is nothing like the taste of a gorgeous wine; a wine that fits perfectly with the venue, the food, the atmosphere. As I was contemplating this, as I am wont to do, I began thinking of parallels between my experience of wine and my experience with gear. Amazingly enough, there are some great parallels.

Fine Wine and Fine Gear

My appreciation of wine centers specifically around fine wine; that is, wine that is meant to be appreciated for its quality, sophistication, and complexity. But like guitar gear, fine doesn’t necessarily equate to being expensive. In general, yes, you get what you pay for, but some of the finest wines I’ve ever had cost less than $25.00.

The same goes for guitar gear. Take, for instance, the very popular EHX Soul Food overdrive pedal. Built as a Klon Centaur replica, this sub-$80 pedal is my go-to overdrive. Some people say it’s nothing like the Klon, but I had never played a Klon, so I didn’t know any better when I got it. All I did know was that it was a great pedal and it has stayed on my board ever since. And the fact that I paid under $70 when I got it; well, that was vindication of my stance that you don’t have to pay a lot for great sound.

Getting Better with Age

The great thing about fine wine is that in general, and as long as you store it well, fine wine will get better with age. The tannins smooth out, the flavors balance, and overall, it gains complexity. The same goes with guitars. My 1990 Simon and Patrick PRO, now almost 30 years old, is really coming into its own. The wood has had all this time to set and dry out and acclimate to my particular area, and it sounds absolutely amazing.

Same thing with my R8 Les Paul, whom I call “Amber.” It was built in 2003, and as of late, I’ve noticed a definite change in how she sounds and how she plays and even feels. I believe it has a lot to do with the aging of the wood. I had a similar experience with how a Les Paul sounds with aged wood with my former “Ox,” which was a ’59 Replica.

Though built in 2008, it was constructed with very old wood, and an earmark of that was that it resonated incredibly – you could feel the vibrations in the body and neck. I spoke with the luthier about it and as he was the manager of instrument wood at a wood company, he hand-picked all the wood that went into the guitar. That guitar could sing! I don’t feel bad for selling it, but I do have fond memories of how it sounded.

Going back to my R8, one of the things I noticed was when I was playing her through my trusty Aracom VR22 recently. This is a combination that I’ve used for years. When I turned up the gain on the amp, I noticed some high-end frequency elements in my tone that weren’t there before.

My bandmate looked at me with a puzzled expression and asked if I was playing a new guitar. I told him that it was my same Les Paul that I’ve been playing for years, and he remarked that it sounded so much richer than he remembered. I replied that the wood must have aged to the point where I’m now experiencing its tonal beauty. 

A Visceral Experience

When I drink a truly fine wine, it’s not only my olfactory and taste senses that get activated. The experience is truly visceral in that the wine sparks memories that in turn translate to feelings that can be felt through my entire body. The same thing happens when I’m playing and I get in the zone. I feel that I become one with my guitar. Every note, every chord resonates throughout my entire body. I become hyper-aware of my surroundings and with whom I’m playing.

Wine Is Meant to Be Drunk; Gear Is Meant to Be Played

I’m not a wine collector. I usually have no more than 30 bottles of wine in my possession at any time. Right now, I’ve got 12 in my wine cooler. If I want to get some expensive wines, I’ll usually go to an auction – either online or in-person – and get the wine(s) that I like. Then eventually, I’ll drink them; usually within a month of purchase. 

I’m the same with guitars. To me, they’re meant to be played, and the reason I went from 25 guitars down to 6 is that I just don’t like things sitting and collecting dust. I did the buy-and-sell-for-a-higher-price thing for a while, but that was just laborious. I’m a player, and I don’t have time to do the research that’s necessary to be an astute gear investor. So I use all my gear. When it wears out or breaks or I retire it, I get a replacement or perhaps move onto something else.

I’m less this way about pedals. Truth be told, I tend to hoard them. 🙂 But less from a collection standpoint, but being much more pragmatic in that when I want a particular sound, I have it available. For instance, I was recently working on a song that required a delay. I thought that my Mad Professor Deep Blue Delay would work, but I just couldn’t dial in the delay sound I had in my head. I even tried my MXR Carbon Copy, but it too was an analog delay. I realized that I probably needed a digital delay. So I broke out my Vox Time Machine and voila, I set the timing and got the sound I wanted. There have been times when I put The Time Machine up for sale. I never got any offers and I’m glad I’ve held onto it. 

Just Because Everyone Else Likes It, Doesn’t Mean You Will Like It

There’s a storied and extremely expensive wine brand called Screaming Eagle. A bottle of the current, first-flight release is around $900. Second-flight bottles are less expensive at $400-$600. It’s a good wine and people rave about it. In fact, it has evolved into a cult wine of sorts. I’ve had it. It’s good. But I could get the same experience with a far less expensive wine.

Case in point: A few years ago, I went to a silent wine auction. I had been a fan of Beaulieu Vineyards Gorges Latour Private Reserve for years. On auction was a single bottle of 1981 vintage. Very few had bid on it because it was placed next to a three-year vertical of another wildly popular wine brand called Silver Oak. There were lots of bids on that. So I placed my bid on the paper, then when someone came along to bid, I just outbid them. In the end, I won the bottle for $96. You couldn’t find it for less than $500.

That wine was PERFECT in every way. Very well-balanced, and even being that old, still retained this beautiful acidity that made the wine feel “alive.” Compared to the Screaming Eagle I tasted, it simply blew it away. I have to admit that I kind of fell for the hype of “Screagle” from wine lovers and forums. I really thought when I had the opportunity to taste it, it would change my life. And the fact that though excellent, and well-deserving of its ratings, that it didn’t completely wow me, well, I just shrugged my shoulders and said, “Okay, it’s good, so what’s all the hype about?”

If you read any gear forums, after awhile you’ll begin to see patterns of people’s reactions to gear. Take the Dumble amp for instance. So many people have raved about it over the year. Boutique amp manufacturers have reversed engineered it and/or gotten a hold of circuit diagrams. I’ve played one. It definitely has a certain mojo about it, but it doesn’t do enough for me for me to even consider getting one even if I had $40k-$100k to spend on one.

So the point to all this is just because a lot of people rave about something, or there might be a lot of hype around the industry, do your best to ignore the noise, and find out for yourself.

Your Mileage May (And Probably Will) Vary

I suppose this is a bit of a corollary of the previous section, but the main point of this section is this: Only YOU will know if something works for you. For instance, most of my wine-loving friends are cabernet sauvignon drinkers. Don’t get me wrong, I love a great cab now and then. But I prefer the subtlety and nuance of a great Burgundy or Pinot Noir. 

There have been so many times people have said, “Dude! You have to try this cab from so-and-so.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come away disappointed. It’s not that the wine is bad. And if I was rating the wine, I’d probably rate the wines in line with the experts. But as I mentioned, wine is very experiential to me. And I don’t get the same kind of experience as often from a cabernet as I do with a great pinot. 

The same goes for gear. I have a budding young guitarist who plays with me in my church band. He reads my blog so he trusts my knowledge about gear. He has asked me on occasion what kind of gear he should get, and I answer the same thing: “Find the gear that appeals to YOU.”

I also realized that he was still trying to find his sound, so I’m very judicious about my gear advice. I just tell him to spend a lot of time playing amps and pedals and guitars. Eventually, he’ll find what works. He finally decided on a PRS amp – great choice. He has a collection of pedals already and has asked me about types of pedals he should have. I again just tell him to play a bunch of stuff. I can’t tell him what will work for him and him alone.

Look, I’m not saying don’t buy gear. But having spent lots of time and money buying gear, I’ve learned to trust my own ears…

It’s funny how one train of thought can lead you down pathways you didn’t know existed. To be honest, I’ve thought about this parallel between wine and gear before, but it was only now that I could put it into words. Maybe it’s because at the time I thought it, I hadn’t found my sound, and I was still very attached to the gear I was buying. Who knows? In any case, it was fun thinking about the relationship. 

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The other day, I had a plumber come to the house to replace several worn-out fixtures and replace some corroded pipes that were close to busting. Matt, the plumber, and his helper Cody replaced two bath and shower assemblies, and kitchen and bathroom faucets. Cody even had to crawl under the house to cut the pipes and do the valve replacement on the guest bathroom tub. They did all this work in about 3 hours time. 

Then this morning, I was reading an article in Wine Spectator written by a chef who was recounting a previous article he had written about making filled candy bars. What he said he failed to mention in the original article, which also happened to be the crux of his new article, was that it was important to have the right tools for the job. He stated that the right tools make the job so much easier.

That got me thinking about the recent plumbing work done in my home. My wife asked me if I could change the stuff out and I said yes I could, but my argument for hiring a plumber was two-fold: 1) Plumbers are experts at what they do, so they’ll be able to do the installs without having to read the instructions which I always have to have beside me and; 2) They have the right tools to make the job fast. I normally have to improvise a bit with the tools I have. I can accomplish most jobs for sure – though I have to admit that I just won’t do toilets other than changing an old float or chain – but my set of tools are for much more generic work.

That thought process got me thinking about all the gear I have, especially the 50+ (I think I’m probably being a little conservative in this number) pedals I have. There are some pedals I use all the time: They’re just part of my sound. But depending on the gig, I add others. For instance, my standard overdrive is an EHX Soul Food. But if I’m playing out with a band doing classic and country rock songs, I will invariably add two more overdrives to my board: A Paul Cochrane Timmy and an Ibanez TS-808 Tube Screamer. I will use either the Soul Food or the Timmy as base overdrives, then use the Tube Screamer to get a bit more upper-midrange bite.

I will also use a different amp than my normal BOSS Katana 50. While I love that amp for most venues, if I’m doing a mixed set of music, I will use something a bit more versatile; namely, my DV Mark Little 40 with its incredibly responsive EQ that will allow me to get either Fender or Marshall sounds. 

The point to this is that at least for gear, I have a fairly big tool box. Admittedly, I originally built this tool box in search of my sound. But now that I’ve found my sound, I have this wonderful set of tools that can color my sound in different ways. 

I think many gear sluts come to this point eventually. They figure out that they sound like themselves and then they use different gear to affect their sound as opposed to discover it. Changing out pedals and amps or even guitars could also be likened to choosing the right outfit. For instance, for a black tie event, you need to wear a tuxedo. Period. For a more casual event, a tuxedo would be completely out of place.

The same goes for gear. If you’re playing classic rock, you don’t bring gear that’s optimized for thrash or hard core metal. You’d sound funny no matter your virtuosity. 

So don’t feel bad if you’ve amassed a ton of gear and don’t use it all at once. Just think about your tool box. Sooner or later, you’ll need one of those pieces that’s currently collecting dust in your garage. 🙂

ROCK ON!

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Like many other guitarists out there, I’ve spent countless hours and tens of thousands of dollars in my quest for “Tone,” that magical, elusive unicorn that guitarists seem to get so close to but can never touch, as it bounds away at the slightest disturbance, drawing the unwary deeper and deeper into the gear forest. “Maybe this will work to catch the unicorn,” says the intrepid tone-seeker, “and maybe this will work, and this, and this and this…” Get the picture?

Finding Your Sound

We’ve all chased the unicorn, tweaking our rig here and there, thinking that we’ll experience this parting-of-the-skies, mystical event where our tone is revealed to us. And while the metaphor of the unicorn and its associated mysticism is certainly appropriate, the discovery of our sound tends to be so much more mundane.

So then, what really is finding your sound?

Finding your sound is simply the realization that no matter what you play, you sound like you. Sure, different gear will give you different sounds. But fundamentally, the music you make will be all you. For some, like me, that realization takes years. For others, they get it a lot quicker. And then there are others where it never comes.

And as much as I like his overall sound, The Edge from U2 seems like a classic example of never really finding your tone. Word has it that his touring board has 250 pedals or something like that, and to get just the right delay, he runs hundreds of feet of cable. Don’t get me wrong, I have no judgement either way. But it was a telling thing to hear him talk about it in “It Might Get Loud” where he said something to the effect that it was difficult for him to fathom not getting his sound from pedals, whereas Jimmy Page and Jack White were minimalists with respect to their gear.

For me, the realization came one afternoon several years ago. I was gassing real bad. I already had 25 guitars, and I wanted to get a Gretsch Brian Setzer arch top. So I went to a local shop, plugged it in, played it through a nice PRS amp and thought to myself after awhile, Shit! Doesn’t sound all that much different from my clean Les Paul.

Of course, the sound of a Gretsch is totally different from a Les Paul. But how I was making music with the Gretsch was no different from what I did with a Les Paul. So I put the Gretsch down, took an R8 off the shelf, plugged it in, then played what I was playing on the Gretsch. 

This guy was in the shop tooling around as I was and had gone into an adjacent room to try out other guitars. He peaked his head around the corner when I switched to the Les Paul, and simply said with a knowing look, “Yeah man, that’s you.” 

I smiled and replied, “You know, I guess no matter what I’m playing, I sound like me.” He nodded, sat down next to me, picked up the Gretsch and we just jammed for a while; not trying to show each other up – his technical acuity was much more advanced than my own. But we traded solos over a bunch of different progressions, and just enjoyed ourselves. 

And while we were jamming, I came to the realization that I had found my tone. I always thought that it would be like finding the Holy Grail; that I toiled long and hard and came to the end of my journey. But in reality, it wasn’t some monumental discovery. It was a matter-of-fact reply to a random dude with whom I just happened to jam.

Truth be told though, driving home (sans the Gretsch Brian Setzer), when I finally did think about it, I was kind of blown away. And I asked myself: Now what?

I used to think about what it would be like to find my sound. Considering I had made huge expenditures of both time and money acquiring gear, I thought I’d be like a boat cast adrift without oars.

But what really happened was reality sunk in. I realized that there was so much gear that I just didn’t need, so I started selling off a bunch of stuff. I went from 25 guitars and pared it down to four electrics and two acoustics. And honestly, I only use three of my electrics with any regularity: ’58 Les Paul Reissue (“Amber”), Slash L “Apache” (“Katie May”), and my trusty MIM 60th Diamond Anniversary Strat (“Pearl”). My main acoustic is my 1990 Simon and Patrick PRO. I still have my Yamaha APX900, but I let my kids use it for practice and recording. 

As for amps, I only sold off a couple. I love my tube amps, so they’ll probably stay in my stable. But I sold off several of my smaller tube amps and solid state amps.  

And I actually lost my taste for writing this blog for a while. I created this blog as a diary for all the gear I’d get. But I figured that I had all the gear that I needed and was selling off a bunch, so I didn’t really feel the need to keep writing. Sure, I’d get stuff here and there, and I’d review them, but the drive I had to keep the blog current was kind of lost. So admittedly, up until recently, I’ve been taking a break.

As for what I was playing for gigs, I also reduced the number of pedals I use. I have this gorgeous board made of scrap cabinet wood. It has room for 12 standard pedals and an expression pedal. I now use just 4 pedals at any one time (make that 5 now that the T-Rex Quint Machine will always be on my board). I used to stack overdrives, but I now just use my EHX Soul Food. It gives me what I need. 

So not only have I trimmed my stable of gear, I seriously trimmed my performance rig. Now, that said, I didn’t sell any of my pedals because there are times when I get in the mood to get a cool sound, and all I have to do is go in one of my pedal drawers and pull the pedal I need. Also, I may start gigging out with a band again, and for that, I’ll need a few more than what I’m currently using. Or maybe not. But it’s nice to have the flexibility.

And yeah, I’ve gotten some pretty cool things since I found my sound. But my approach to gear has completely changed. I’m no longer experimenting with different gear to discover my sound. So instead of looking at gear to help me find my sound, I now look at gear to help me explore different things I can do with my sound; or, in the case of the BOSS Katana 50 that I just got, making it easier on me to play my sound. 

All in all, getting gear is now a much more measured affair for me: Instead of the thousands of dollars I used to spend on gear, it’s now in the low hundreds. And last year, with the exception of a pickup for my Simon and Patrick, I didn’t make any major purchases last year, and NONE the couple of years before.

Like I mentioned above, finding my sound wasn’t a major event. But the effect of finding my sound was pretty huge. As an amusing aside, my wife was pretty happy that she was able to reclaim some major garage space. 🙂

ROCK ON!

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Summary: The T-Rex Quint Machine gives you four voices to work with simultaneously: Your dry signal, octave up, octave down, and a fifth (think “Yes'” “Owner of a Lonely Heart”). You can dial in the amount of the fifth, octave up and octave down to get just the balance you want, then adjust the mix to balance with your dry signal. If you’re looking for a straight-forward octave pedal, this is definitely one to consider. Pros: The ability to set the levels independently makes this a very versatile pedal. You can get some awesome 12-string simulation, all the way to organ sounds. This pedal is super-easy to use and very easy to find your sweet spot. Lows are awesome on this pedal. Very bass-like. Cons: No real big cons, though I thought it would be a bit more transparent. Highs sound a little “synthy,” but only at real high levels.
Tone Bone Score: For what this pedal does, I love it. I researched octave pedals for awhile before pulling the trigger on this unit, and at least for me, it has the right mix of capability, simplicity, and of course, great tone to keep me happy. It’ll be staying on my board. Street Price: $189.00   I went to see Phil Collins awhile back, and playing with him – since their Genesis days – was the great guitarist Daryl Steurmer. During the show, there were parts that he was playing that had this wonderful 12-string effect as well as fifths. My wife asked me how he got that sound, and I said that he probably had a pedal. He also had some wonderful synth sounds, but those came from an actual synthesizer that he had hooked up to his custom Godin DS-1 guitars that are equipped with 13-pin synth jacks. But for the 12-string effect, that got me very curious as to what he was using. So the day after the show, I looked up his rig, which you can see here. Daryl plays with three different boards, depending on the gig, but on two of his boards, he has the T-Rex Quint Machine. Armed with knowledge, I started poking around the Web and to my surprise, I didn’t really find much information out there; at least relative to other kinds of pedals. Octave pedals aren’t for everyone, and they’re certainly not nearly as common as overdrives or even other modulation pedals. So to not see as much information out there about the Quint Machine is understandable. But the one thing I did get from my research was that those who reviewed it loved it. As for me, I have to be honest. I thought that the fifth was a bit gimmicky, thinking I’d never use it. But I actually love it. When used subtly, it adds a tonal depth to what you’re playing. You know it’s there, but it’s faint enough such that it almost sounds like an overtone. When adding just a touch of the fifth when played with a delay, the resultant tone is absolutely dreamy. Go figure. I didn’t think I’d use it, and it’s absolutely awesome!

Fit and Finish

As with all Scandinavian products I’ve purchased, The T-Rex Quint Machine has a very solid build. The knob sweeps are tight, but smooth. The jacks are solid. No complaints at all about the build quality of this puppy.

How It Sounds

Okay… so yeah, I gave it 5 tone bones. It sounds awesome. BUT it took me about an hour playing around with it before I felt comfortable with where I set the levels. Some people complained that it sounded too “synthy,” and it does if you crank the volumes and set the mix level high. When you do that, it’s pretty synthy and organ-like. Also, when playing fingerstyle I had to learn to be careful not to drone bass notes while switching chords as the pedal would bend the bass note. But I also had the mix set a bit high. What I found with this pedal is that moderation is the key to success with it. You have to find the right balance point between voice volume and mix. Especially if you want to get that 12-string guitar effect, you have to keep the volume set so you can just hear the highs, then set the mix just right. But as far as capabilities are concerned, check out this video from Andy at ProGuitarShops:

Always On?

So I gigged with the pedal today; just a few hours after I got it, and it stayed on the entire time! Depending on the song I was playing, I’d just adjust levels. But most of the time, I just had the highs dialed in at about 10-11 am, and the mix at about 2pm. That gave me a very subtle 12-string effect without sounding overpowering. Again, moderation is the key with this. I know there are lots of different options out there. The EHX Pitch Fork is a great alternative. So is the TC Electronic Sub ‘N Up, which also gives you a LOT of tweaking options and Tone Prints. But for me, the beauty of the Quint Machine lies in its simplicity. I just wanted a high-quality, straight-forward octave solution, and the T-Rex Quint Machine provides that in spades!

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