Archive for January, 2019

As a Les Paul aficionado, and the proud owner of a ’58 Reissue, I like to keep up with the Les Paul product line roll-outs each year. The flagship for 2019 is the Les Paul Standard HP. Just to put it out there, I have mixed emotions about this particular model.

Gibson has again added a bunch of gadgetry to the guitar, and we all know the face-palms that were made with the Robot tuners. Talk about polarizing! My buddy loved his robot tuners, and that Les Paul is his #1. I was on the other end of the spectrum. I freakin’ hated that feature. And though I knew it worked and worked well as I had a chance to test it, I just thought it was a bit gimmicky. To me, a Les Paul just sells itself based on its history and the tradition behind it.

I realize that that’s probably a bit naive of me. But I’m by no means a Luddite. I embrace improvements and enhancements. What I don’t like are gimmicks.

So when I saw all the features of the new product line, they gave me a bit of pause. Four push-pull knobs and a five-position DIP switch in the control cabinet seemed like a bit of overkill. On top of that, Gibson was boasting about the over 500-thousand possible combinations you could have with the settings. So I didn’t think too highly about the product line. But to clarify, not nearly as bad as this fellow in the following video:

I get what he’s saying and while I can see his point, I don’t think it’s all that bad.

First, I love being able to coil tap my humbuckers. I have that feature in “Katie May,” my Slash L guitar, and it’s awesome. Furthermore, unlike the dude in the video, I love the colors. That Seafoam burst is KILLER! And I’m okay with the weight relief. I know what it’s like to lug around an 11- to 12-pound chunk of wood on stage and it’s not comfortable in the slightest; even with a 4″-wide strap.

I think where I draw the line on this model is the DIP switch bank in the control cavity. Putting myself in a buyer’s shoes, would I want it? I’m just not sure.

Here’s a rundown of the operation of the push-pull and DIP switches:

DIP 1: Neck pickup can be split (true single) or tapped (P-90 type tone)
DIP 2: Bridge pickup can be split (true single) or tapped (P-90 type tone)
DIP 3: Neck pickup treble bleed circuit (On or off)
DIP 4: Bridge pickup treble bleed circuit (On or off)
DIP 5: Transient suppression circuit (Spike control) for recording

Neck Volume: Pull for Split or tap (depending on DIP 1)
Bridge Volume: Pull for Split or tap (depending on DIP 2)
Neck tone: Pull for neck pickup phase reversal
Bridge Tone: Pull for Full bypass (Bridge only in humbucking mode with disabled controls) 

When I see this, the geek in me says, “Yowee! Look at all I can do.” But then the more practical side of me says, “Damn! Imagine wanting to set my single coil sound true-single-coil or to P-90 in the middle of a gig. Not going to happen.”

But on the other hand, I absolutely DIG the neck tone push-pull pot! To be able to put my neck pickup in-phase or out-of-phase is LIT (as my 13-year-old likes to say). My own Les Paul has its pickups wired permanently out-of-phase, but it sure would be nice to have the ability to put them in-phase at the pull of a knob.

So this isn’t really a rant against the guitar. If I had one, I’d play it, that’s for sure. I’m just not sure that all this compels me to get one. But to be completely honest, it’ll have to get in line. I’m dead-set on getting a Gretsch Nashville Brian Setzer signature model next. 🙂

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I’ve encountered many guitarists over the year who announce that they’ve completed their board or rig or whatever saying things like, “My board’s finished! I can die in peace,” or “Finally completed my rig.”

But experience has shown, both through my own personal experience and through years of observation, that the states of finished and complete are transient. In other words, it just takes a matter of time before things get changed up – again. Generically, people have called this GAS. Yes, it can be that, but GAS also implies a somewhat compulsiveness in varying degrees.

For most people, GAS is picking up a pedal here and a pedal there, or occasionally a guitar. But GAS can get pretty ugly where people go way beyond their means to purchase gear. Admittedly, I was riding a razor’s edge of going beyond my means. It’s not pretty and in the end, I sold off at least 80% of the equipment I bought (yeah, it was a lot).

But from a more reasonable perspective, one of the reasons you’ll never be finished tweaking your rig is simply time. Assuming you’re constantly trying to improve and occasionally branching out to try different genres and styles of music, chances are very good that there will be a concomitant shift in your gear needs.

For instance, when I really started getting into reggae over the last few years, I stopped using a lot of my dirt pedals. I used to have at least three on my board to stack and/or give different overdrive colors. I now only keep one – if that – and many times just have modulation pedals. I also set my amps up differently. It’s now all about maximum clean headroom.

Though I have lots of gear and can swap out a bunch of stuff, who knows? Maybe I’ll make another 90-degree turn in my musical journey and get some more new gear.

The point to this is that as we evolve our skills and interests, what we might think suffices for us now could be totally different in the future.

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I was on a forum the other day where someone had just gotten a Katana 50 and were singing its praises. Most comments were supportive, but one person said, “It’s paid shilling is what it is.” It’s easy to see why people might think the praise is over the top or, that the praise this amp line is getting is due to the manufacturer paying people to post positive comments about it. It’s not a stretch to believe that. We’ve all seen that happen in the past with lots of different items other than guitar gear.

I can see how it may look on the outside to those who haven’t played the amp, or even to those who didn’t really like it for some reason or another. This is a US$219.00 amplifier. It’s CHEAP! Something this cheap shouldn’t be this good. In a world where we’ve been lead to believe that more expensive something is it must be better, the Katana is an anomaly and the epitome of antithesis to that belief.

But instead of arguing about how good it is based on my experience, why don’t we look at it from a different perspective:

  • Roland (BOSS’ parent company) has had years developing and perfecting its solid state and digital technology, so research costs that smaller and newer manufacturers would have to incur to get to this level of quality have already been paid.
  • Roland has been making solid state and digital amps a LONG time, so they know how to mass-produces these things at a low cost.
  • Finally, Roland’s production capacity kicks in economies of scale. Materials and labor costs are spread out, again, lowering cost.

The net result is that Roland passes on these savings to consumers, and we get the double benefit of being able to take advantage of their expertise along with not having to pay much for it.

To be clear, even as a big supporter of this product line, I’m not saying that this is the best amp I’ve ever had. But for what I get for the price I paid for it, it certainly has the largest value proposition relative to my other amplifiers and quite frankly, I can use it with a lot more diverse musical styles than my tube amps.

Think of the Katana like the Yamaha studio piano. The Yamaha studio piano is said to be the most-used piano on recordings across several genres of music. Why? Because its sound is considered to be “neutral.” What that means is that the recorded sound can be shaped and equalized to fit just about any recording. The drawback is that – according to several pianists I know – is that the sound isn’t all that lively, nor distinctive. But the advantage is that it sits very well in a mix.

The Katana’s sound is much like that. It doesn’t have that mid-range hump that I love in my Marshall clones, and it doesn’t have the jangly cleans of a Fender. But with pedals an EQ, I can get close – damn close. But I don’t believe the amp was meant to cop a particular style of amp. It really does have a sound all its own that sits somewhere in the middle; and for many people, it’s a sound that pleases them.

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BOSS Katana 50 Gig Report

I’ve made no secret that I play music at church; specifically a Catholic church. I’ve got a full band and we indeed rock it up; well, within reason because after all, we do have to play within the context of the Mass plus, we just can’t go all-out with the volume and melt people’s ears off.

But a few times a year, I get to go on youth retreats. There, volume is NOT an issue, so I can usually play a much higher volumes than at church, but normally, it’s just me on acoustic guitar with several teen singers. I can only rock so much playing by myself…

But this past weekend, it was different. On this retreat, I had an entire band playing with me: Two guitars (incl. myself), a bass, keys, and drums. So I brought the full rig for the weekend, which included my California Blonde for acoustic, acoustic guitar, my Les Paul with a Strat as a backup, and of course, my BOSS Katana 50.

As luck would have it, I only played acoustic maybe 10% of the time. The rest of the time was on my Les Paul cranking out rockin’ praise and worship music. And truth be told, this was my first full volume test of the Katana 50. And if I had any doubts about how it would perform at concert stage volume, they were completely laid to rest this weekend.

I already knew that the amp was loud. But as experience has shown, playing an amp in a controlled environment (in this case my living room) isn’t the same as playing it on stage where you have to compete with other instruments.

Unlike other venues I’ve played, I didn’t have the amp on stage with me because space was limited. Since the stage was only a foot and a half off the ground, I had everyone put their amps in the walkway at the back of the stage and tilt them against the wall. This would direct the speakers up so we could hear ourselves. That actually turned out to be a great idea because it allowed us to keep our stage volume under control so our sound guy could reinforce us through the mains.

And with the Katana 50, sound projection was not an issue at all. I could hear myself clearly, or if the band was playing all out, I could still isolate my sound. The Katana 50 kicked ass!

I originally purchased the amp as a high clean headroom platform that I could put my own pedals in front of. The built-in effects are incredible and quite honestly, the overdrive sound is pretty spectacular. But I have some great overdrive pedals that I haven’t put to much use lately and for this gig,

I decided to bring my Tone Freak Abunai 2 overdrive. This pedal has always been super-special to me and I have always loved its three different clipping sections. For me, the symmetrical clipping provides a very amp-like response and has the most gain and compression of the different clipping sections. This was the kind of thing I needed to run against a clean platform. The cool thing was that I could just set my amp’s base volume, then do fine adjustments at my guitar or on the Abunai 2 when I was playing dirty.

The Katana 50 took to the Abunai 2 as if they were made for each other. When I first switched it on and started playing a solo, the other guitarist in the band looked over at me and just shook his head laughing, then yelled out, “That sounds SOOOO good!” The thing about the Abunai 2 in the symmetrical clipping setting is that the distortion is pretty high-gain and simulates playing through a full stack. But at the same time, you get incredible note separation. It’s incredibly musical.

And to have an amp that provided that platform well, that was just kick-ass! Being just a 1 X 12 cabinet, it’s amazing how BIG the amp sounds when it’s pushing air. It’s hard to actually describe it in words but the effect is absolutely dramatic.

As far as clean tones are concerned the only thing I can say is, “Wow!” I dialed in just a bit of reverb from my TC Electronic Hall of Fame, then added some light analog delay texture with my Mad Professor Deep Blue Delay. When we were playing songs that demanded clean, clear tones, the Katana 50 delivered that in spades! Again, so very very inspiring.

Once we finished our first set Friday night, I just turned to the band with a shit-eating grin on my face. Not only had these kids done a great job – for which I gave them TONS of kudos – I also said that my tone was just spot-on. I was SO inspired by the sounds that were coming from the Katana 50!

Saturday was filled with several short sets of praise and worship and one really long, two-hour set in the night to cap off the day. Not once on Saturday did the amp let me down. Once I had it dialed in on Friday, I didn’t touch it except to add a bit more Master Volume because once our drummer got his confidence, he also got much louder – which is a good thing because I kept on having to remind him to play louder on Friday (imagine telling a drummer to play louder). 🙂

But the piece de resistance was yesterday morning’s final praise and worship set. For that set, I set the master much higher because we needed to be loud to finish up the retreat; plus with all the kids dancing and jumping, and singing along at the top of their lungs, I knew we’d have to cut through the crowd.

It turned out that even that setting wasn’t loud enough. 🙂 So after the first song of the set, I instructed the other guitarist to up his volume a bit (he was always pretty loud, but even he couldn’t cut through a screaming crowd) and I went back and cranked the Master to about 2pm, which is pretty freakin’ loud.

On the second song, I ripped into a quick intro solo by myself, then counted out the song. OH. MY. GOODNESS! 🙂 Talk about moving some serious air! That just got the band amped up and we finished up the set totally spent!

So no doubt, I LOVE THIS AMP! And imagine that its street price is only US$219.00!!! F-in’ A!

I am very aware of the doubters of this amp. One person on reddit called all the praise people were giving “paid shilling.” With all the buzz about the amp, it’s not a stretch that some might think this. But this amp really is that good! Every time I play it, I find another nuance that makes me love the amp even more!

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Get Rid of Gear

Did I just say that? A gear slut saying to get rid of gear?

Okay, I have to admit that the title was mostly meant to be an attention-getter. BUT… There really is a serious side to this, and no, it has nothing to do with evaluating an emotional response to gear. What the subject of this post revolves around is this simple question that I’d like you to ask yourself:

How much am I hiding behind my gear?

To answer that question, try this:

  1. Pick a song or solo that you know very well – the more complicated, the better.
  2. Make sure you’re plugged in and have all the effects you normally use to play it.
  3. Play the piece. It’ll probably be the same, familiar thing you know so well.
  4. Now, turn off all your pedals, set your amp’s reverb to 0, set up the amp for maximum clean headroom such that no matter how hard you attack or turn up the guitar volume, it will not break up.
  5. Replay the song/solo in its entirety.

How did it sound?

Chances are good that you may say something similar to “Ouch! That wasn’t very good.” <or in my case, my reaction was filled with muttered expletives> It can be a humiliating and sobering experience to hear yourself play without effects.

I discovered this “humiliation” when I first got my 1958 Fender Champ, a 5 Watt, single-knob amp with a 6″ speaker. I was all set to do a review and provide sound samples, and when I sat down to record the amp, I sounded like shit! 🙂 I switched guitars and still sounded horrible. It was then that I realized that it wasn’t the guitars that sounded bad, it was me. And it also made me realize that I had been hiding behind my overdrives and reverbs and delays – for a long time.

So I delayed providing sound clips for a long time until I did a little woodshedding to work on my technique. It would be months before I felt comfortable playing that amp.

But there were several positives that came out of that process:

  1. I learned to be so much more expressive with just my fingers. With nothing to hide behind, everything had to come through me, just me.
  2. Using a totally clean amp helped me find my own, authentic sound; that base tone that no matter what guitar or amp I play, I sound like myself.
  3. The few months that I spent on my technique got me into this mode – and this is the crux of the article – where I felt that I just didn’t need certain pedals – especially overdrives. I could rely on the amp for that.
  4. I also came to the realization that what pedals I would use going forward would be accents to my sound as opposed to defining my sound.

At first, I reduced my pedal board to just modulation pedals; specifically, chorus, delay, and reverb. If I needed overdrive, I’d just overdrive my amp. But after awhile, I started back some overdrive pedals, simply because I like the sound of my favorite pedals like my Tone Freak Abunai 2 or EHX Soul Food. I’ll occasionally have a wah in the chain (though now that I’m playing a lot of reggae, it’s more often than not). But for the most part, I went from having a 12-pedal board to usually just using a PedalTrain Nano.

I will say that your mileage may vary. But if you’re like me, you may very well find that you just don’t need a bunch of pedals to get your sound.

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I was reading a thread in a forum today entitled, “Help on choosing a high-end guitar.” I was going to reply that the guitar chooses the player, but someone beat me to it. After a chuckle, I recalled the scene from the very first Harry Potter movie where Harry went to Olivander’s to get his magic wand. The scene’s below…

I’ve always had this sneaking feeling as if all the guitars I ever purchased or got as gifts chose me. I didn’t choose them. Take my R8 Les Paul. Though I had purchased it used off eBay, when I saw the pictures and read the description, I felt as if the guitar called out to me over the Internet and said, “I’m yours.” And though several people were bidding on the guitar at the same time, I just knew that I’d win the auction. I implicitly knew that that guitar was going to be mine. It’s now my #1 electric and I will never part with it.

A similar thing happened when I got my Squier Classic Vibe Telecaster. I went to a local shop (Gelb Music in Redwood City, CA), saw that on the rack, and the moment I plugged it into an amp. I knew it would be mine.

I know all this sounds a little kooky, but I truly feel something elemental, spiritual is at play with my guitars. All the ones I’ve kept; they speak to me when I play them. I don’t fight with these guitars. When I play them they’re an extension of who I am.

All the ones I’ve sold – and there have been many – they spoke to me at some level, but I didn’t bond with them as tightly as the ones still in my possession.

I don’t know… Maybe I’m completely off my rocker. But with my guitars, definitely the wand has chosen the wizard.

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And the answer is… whatever you f-in’ want to use! <woof>

I’ve been on a roll lately with my snarky commentaries probably because after a very long hiatus, I started lurking and participating in guitar forums. 99.9% of the time, it’s quite enjoyable, but there’s always that minuscule amount where I run across utter nonsense. The good thing is that these particular situations: 1) Give me a good laugh and; 2) Provide me with material about which to write.

There must’ve been something in the atmosphere around the globe yesterday because I ran across several comments in different threads where people were telling others that certain guitars were meant for certain types of music. The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was this reply to a kid who wanted to choose between an ES-335, Les Paul Jr., and a ’57 Goldtop:

“If you play punk shouldn’t you opt for a telecaster? The 335 is a jazzy-bluesy dream, the goldtop and the lpj for classic rock / prog … maybe a gibson would entice you into something different”

I was reading this while I was having lunch at my desk in the office, and laughed out loud at this one, causing my office mates to give me queer, inquisitive looks. I just joked and said I just read something funny.

But the thing is… While that comment and comments like it are amusing to me, they’re also quite sad. Sad because the people behind them have drunk some kind of Kool-aid that’s lead them to believe that certain kinds of guitars should only be played with certain kinds of music.

That’s not to say that there is no such thing as a convention or iconic guitars for specific styles. For instance, think of jazz guitar, and you’ll probably think of an archtop hollow body. Think of punk, and the Les Paul Jr. comes to mind. Folk? A dreadnaught.

But let’s be clear: There is NO “right” guitar for a particular type of music. Despite that, people seem to continue to limit themselves; even those who probably shouldn’t be communicating that kind of limitation.

For instance, a few years ago, I was in a big box retail store that rhymes with “guitar center” 🙂 looking at some Les Pauls. The sales guy approached me asked if I needed help, and I declined at first, but then I saw a gorgeous Tobacco Burst high up on the wall that I wanted to play, so I asked the young man if he could bring it down.

He was quite gracious and retrieved the guitar and once he handed it over, I suppose he thought that that would be a good opening for him to start a sales conversation by asking me a leading question.

“So what kind of music do you play?” he asked.

I replied, “All sorts. But my latest musical endeavor is sort of a jazzy reggae.”

He lifted his eyebrows and said, “I’ve heard of Les Pauls being used for reggae, but jazz? Hmmm….”

When I heard that, I almost choked, but not being a vicious person by nature, I restrained myself from replying with a flip remark. But despite that, I guess I couldn’t completely hide my look of incredulity because the dude got obviously irate with my reaction. So I said, “Uh yeah… Maybe you didn’t know this, but the actual Les Paul who invented this guitar was a jazz player. So it has a long history of being played in jazz.”

I really didn’t mean to deflate the guy’s ego, but he moved on to another person… oh well…

But that wasn’t an isolated incident as the comments I ran across yesterday demonstrate. But case in point, several players over the years have bucked the conventions. Back in the ’70s, Ted Nugent played a Gibson Byrdland archtop guitar. I once saw a video of the aikido master, Steven Segal, who is also a blues guitar player, playing on a space-age-looking guitar that seemed more suited to KISS. Tommy Shaw of Styx plays a beautiful ES-335 (among many others) and he absolutely ROCKS it!

All that said, I always keep going back to this same advice: Get the gear that helps you make music. It can be cheap. It can be expensive. It can be any brand you want. It just doesn’t matter so long as it inspires you to create.

And lastly, while the opinions and perspectives of others can be useful, you don’t need ANYONE’s approval on what kind of gear you play.

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