Archive for the ‘Guitars’ Category

James Taylor: Unsung Hero?

I’ve tended to focus on electric guitar in this blog over the years as it started out as a diary for my move into tube amps. But truth be told, I play acoustic guitar at least 75% of the gigs I play. And through the years, James Taylor has been a major influence on how I approach acoustic guitar playing.

I’ve written about JT in the past, but last night, I watched an episode of Austin City Limits with JT as the guest artist and I was reminded of why he has been such an influence over my playing. For instance, if you watch the video above, listen closely to the guitar playing. There’s A LOT going on!

Which brings me to the title of this article. I think many people – even my contemporaries – view JT as a great songwriter. And I believe that his incredible songwriting has always overshadowed his guitar playing. But his technique is absolutely incredible. Last night, as I watched Austin City Limits, I was literally transfixed by how JT played and approached his instrument. It wasn’t just what he played, but what he didn’t play that I found so amazing. And that’s mark of a true master; that is, a master is one who can express their message in a just a few notes that others may take many more to accomplish.

There’s an economy to JT’s playing that I think very few have mastered. I’ve seen it with jazz musicians like Miles Davis, but very few guitarists. To me, JT is that rare guitarist that can say so much with just a minimum amount of notes. 

Could be I’m way off with respect to JT being an unsung hero, but to me, he’s once of the best guitarists in the history of the instrument.

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A friend of mine forwarded me an article published in the Wall Street Journal this morning, stating that “Gibson Brands” filed for Chapter 11 as it’s Gibson Innovations division, which operates under the Philips moniker, seeks protection to reorganize “in the face of $500 Million in debt.” The company at large is set to default on some of its debt as soon as July and is actively liquidating its consumer electronics businesses. Sheesh!

According to the article, KKR, a private equity company, will take over Gibson. Hopefully KKR will install leadership that will continue to build up the musical instrument business. Amazingly, it was that side of the house that was cashflow positive, with sales up 11% over the same time last year.

We guitarists have seen the improvement over the last few years; especially since the failed attempt at the robot guitar. Gibson learned from that and went back to its classic, roots styling and configurations, and also created a mid-range level line to fill in sales for people who didn’t want the cheap-o stuff but didn’t want to shell out for the high-end guitars. It was a smart move, and they realized good financial results. Hopefully, by shedding the consumer electronics arm and re-focusing their energies on their core competency, they’ll realize success again.

But all that said, the article did state that all these proceedings shouldn’t affect consumers. That’s a good thing. And it makes sense as the musical instrument business is profitable. So don’t expect them to close their doors. 🙂

Personally, following the saga of Gibson over the years has been amusing at best and head-scratching at worse. I’m a Les Paul guy, so I surely don’t want to see them struggle. But I have to say they’ve made some pretty stupid moves in the past that have hurt the company and affected their customers. The acquisition by CBS was a huge stumble, but luckily Slash came to the rescue – even though he played a custom copy, but it looked like a Les Paul. The whole advanced materials and robot tuners were a joke (IMO). And for a while, build quality suffered immensely. But what I’ve been seen over the last few years is a seeming return to much higher build quality standards.

Hopefully, KKR can get it right this time…

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I’ve now been gigging and recording with this mic for a couple of weeks straight and I just couldn’t be happier. I have to admit that it has taken me a little while to work out positioning in front of the capsule, as I’ve spent years practically swallowing other mics just to get a good sound. But with this mic, it requires a bit of space; about an inch for regular singing, and if I need to really lay into a vocal, I’ve got to be about eight to twelve inches away.

Also, while the mic is great for lower volume singing, where I find it really shines is when I’m in a band situation where I’m singing with a full voice. And in a band situation, the rear noise rejection is second to none, and this helps quite a bit with mitigating feedback, as I can position my mic near monitors and not worry about feedback.

As far as how it sounds, the tone is just a tad scooped, and the midrange mid-point seems to be on the higher side. But I love that because it picks up higher frequency characteristics. It also means that with this mic, I can punch through a mix. I have to admit that it was a little unsettling at first because that little higher frequency bump makes my vocals sound so clear. That’s not to say the lows aren’t there. They absolutely are. But compared to an SM-58 or even an e835, the richness of the sound is so much better.

Other than how good it sounds, the mic is very well-built. I see no problem with it enduring the rigors of regular gigging. As far as recording is concerned, it works fantastic! But I think I’m still going to save my pennies to get the PR-35 for recording. I’ve gigged with that mic in the past, and the sound quality is even better than the PR-22. However, it is not nearly as durable as it is coated with a silicon layer, and according to the sound guy who provided me with the mic, with a lot of use, the silicon wears off.

Circling back to the PR-22, this to me is the perfect all-around stage mic.

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I just read this excellent article on SonicScoop on the importance pre-production work and how many artists/bands haven’t done their homework prior to going into the studio or finding a producer. Then the author finishes up with two approaches to cutting an album: The “insane” way and the “smart” way. Of course, he advocates for the smart way, but more importantly, the underlying message of the post is simply this: Before you even think about going into the studio, know what you want to accomplish and also rehearse, play shows, rehearse, play shows, and repeat.

The point is to hone your skills at playing your music. Especially if you’re in a band, make sure the parts that each member plays are completely worked out. What you don’t want to do is spend studio time (read: MONEY) figuring stuff out. You want to know what you’re going to do going in; know how you’re going to sound. If you have any doubts, just don’t do it.

I’ve been wanting to cut another album after having done it myself over a decade ago. Friends have encouraged me to do this. But I’ve actually been reluctant because this time, I want to use different musicians other than myself. In order for me to do this, I need to get the musicians I ask to learn my music, and before we all head into the studio, I want everyone to practice together – a lot. Make sure the bass is playing where I want them. Make sure the drums are funky enough, etc.

And even before I go into the studio, I’ve got to find a studio and engineer that I can work with and who “gets” my music. I went back into the studio a few years ago and worked with an engineer who kept on making “suggestions” that were almost always contrary to the vision I had for my songs. That got annoying pretty quickly, and I had to shut him down pretty hard by telling him I knew what I wanted and I didn’t want his suggestions unless they had to do with the mix and production.

Then, as a drummer, he would “volunteer” his drumming on my songs as I recorded the drums in my demos with MIDI hits and loops.  Moreover, he just didn’t get the style I was after. Luckily, I didn’t have to pay for his work unless I used his drum tracks, and his drumming was just not that inspiring, so I never used them except for clicks.

But it just wasn’t the engineer. I also wasn’t fully prepared. I hadn’t done all the pre-production work. For instance, my songs were brand new, and I hadn’t performed them enough to really figure out how I wanted them recorded. I also didn’t go into the studio with enough material. That’s a huge mistake. You need to have enough to throw away. Even if you’re just doing an EP, which was what I was intending to do, you should have more material than what would fit on the album. Oh well… live and learn…

The point to all this is that before you go into the studio, there’s so much that you have to do to be prepared. Your performance needs to be a foregone conclusion long before you get into a sound booth, and you need to have lots of material. Nothing beats preparations. It’ll save you time and money in the long run. For those of us on a budget, that’s critical.

Here’s the link to the article again. I highly recommend you read it!

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Nothing’s Ever Perfect…

When we find gear the works and get us totally inspired, it’s so easy to overlook the little quirks in our gear that, in other circumstances, might be a bit annoying. Such is the case with my magnificent Seymour Duncan SA-6 Mag Mic. I’ve raved and raved about how it sounds,  and though I knew that there would be a potential annoyance regarding the battery, I ignored it because it sounds so damn good.

What’s the issue? Actually a couple of things. First, the instructions say to mount the velcro strip at the base of the neck. That’s actually not too big of a deal, BUT if you put don’t make sure that the entire strip on the battery pack is making contact with the mounting strip, a simple jostle will make the battery pack come loose… which is a perfect segue into the more serious annoyance.

Even if you mount the battery pack squarely on the mounting velcro strip, a quick jarring of the guitar could potentially make the battery pop out of its holder. I had a gig last night, and my guitar case was inadvertently knocked over. Mind you, it wasn’t a full fall to the floor. The case tipped over from where I leaned it on a railing, and landed in a corner of the railing. All told, it was about a foot that it slid, then came to rest. I didn’t think too much about it because my guitar was in the case and I knew it would be safe.

But when I picked it up and plugged it into my rig, I got no sound out of it. At first, I thought it was my rig, but when I moved around, I heard the battery sliding around the inside of my guitar. So I removed the pickup, loosened my strings, reached inside, removed the battery holster, re-inserted the battery, re-mounted the holster, tuned up, plugged in and voila! I was in business.

But what concerned me at the time was looking forward, because when I’m performing on-stage or at church, the battery might pop out in the middle of a performance. I’m the kind of musician that gets kind of carried away when playing, and I jump around.

To mitigate this, and since I have another gig tonight, I wrapped a small piece of duct tape around the holster to hold the battery in place. I wouldn’t have had to do this if the holster’s edges wrapped around the battery a bit more. Plus, if the bottom edge of the holster that holds the battery in place was just a millimeter higher, it shouldn’t pop out so easily. Mind you, this isn’t enough to make me reconsider using the pickup. The sound just kicks ass.

But this is an example of how we gear sluts can easily overlook obvious design flaws…

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Since I haven’t written on this blog very often for the last couple of years, I haven’t shared much about where I’ve been playing. Well, after about a 2 1/2 year hiatus from playing music in church, I decided to go back to doing a weekly church gig again. But this time, it’s at another church, and I’m happier than ever. It’s like making a fresh start, and that’s a GREAT thing.

So it was with a bit of nervous anticipation bringing my new acoustic-electric setup to church yesterday. It sounded fine at my restaurant gig, plugged into a board. But the real test was going be using it in the church where I’d plug it into my SWR Calfornia Blonde, then out to the board. With this setup, I run it through a small board that has Chorus, Delay, and Reverb, then into the amp, then out to the board. My big concern was maintaining the natural character of the guitar. Some guitars when plugged into an amp, sound a bit funky.

But all my concerns were laid to rest from the very first strum. I had the same visceral reaction I had on Friday, but it was even more intense this time because I was right next to the amp. The sound was absolutely sweet! Even my bandmates just smiled and said how good the guitar sounded, and one commented that he could tell how well-seasoned the wood was as the guitar just resonated. I have to say that with the guitar being almost 30 years old, it has a very special character due to its age. It reminds me of how my very first Yamaha FG-335’s wood aged so nicely. Before it had its accident and its neck snapped off the body, it had developed a gorgeous, woody tone.

The tone of my S&P PRO is deep, but with shimmery highs. But that wood not only projects the sound incredibly, it resonates. I can actually feel the vibration in the body – even with finger-picked notes. It’s pretty incredible.

Then to have it amplified with a great pickup like the MagMic, well, it’s a match made in and for Heaven. I’m the type of musician that needs to feel what I’m playing. It’s the emotion that comes from my guitar that inspires me. When I don’t feel I sound that good, it’s hard to get inspired. But when I’m playing something whose sound shoots to the core of my being, I become one with the sound. It’s hard to explain… And that was exactly what happened yesterday. I was completely lost in the sound of my guitar. 🙂

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Wow… That’s usually first – and only – thing I can say when having a visceral reaction to an experience. And a visceral experience was exactly what happened when I finally got my guitar set up for last night’s gig. After I played the first song, I had to pause for several seconds soaking in the tones that the combination of my Simon & Patrick PRO guitar and the Duncan MagMic produced. I already had a good idea of the dynamics of the pickup and how well it worked with my guitar, having had a few days before my gig to record with it. But until I actually gigged with it, I really didn’t know how it would perform in a live situation; especially in a room with a 25-30-foot vaulted ceiling.

It was not without its challenges. The sound system at the restaurant I work with is total shit. The board is going on the fritz and I wasn’t sure I was even going to be able to play last night! But the gig gods were smiling upon me and just when I was about to pack it in and go home, I tweaked something on the board and it started working. Whew!

When I got my nerves settled with a few deep breaths and a long drink of water, I started my first song: “You’ve Got a Friend.” I felt that it would be a good song to start with because with any JT song (I know, it was written by Carole King), the fingerpicking patterns are sophisticated as JT plays a bass line in addition to a hybrid claw-hammer technique. I’m not nearly as adept at it as he is, but I tend to do the same. So with that song, I knew that I’d get the full presentation what the guitar/pickup combination had on offer.

Having moved to a dreadnought from an OM, I was concerned that the bass would be a bit boomy. It was not. It was certainly deep as I expected from a big-body guitar, but not at all over-powering. Another thing I was concerned about was not losing the shimmery highs my guitar naturally produces. But here’s where the MagMic really performs. The condenser mic is tuned to focus on mid-highs to highs. In fact, I had to roll off the condenser level a bit to subdue the highs. The sweet spot that I discovered leading up to the gig was setting the condenser level about 90%. This setting translated incredibly well to a live situation.

Another thing that had me wondering about the MagMic was the lack of an EQ. I’ve had the luxury of an onboard EQ in all my acoustic-electric guitars up to this point. But I found that with the higher-end, third-party pickups that none of them have that feature, as they’re designed to pick up the natural tone of your guitar; which kind of says you better have a good-sounding guitar in the first place before you install one of these babies… But as I mentioned above about the condenser mic’s focus on the high-mids and highs, adjusting its level is much like adjusting a treble knob. But it’s no problem in any case, as instead of setting EQ on my guitar, I can just set it on the amp.

With respect to the guitar itself, besides the larger size, I’ve had to contend with the absence of a cutaway, which makes playing notes above the 12th fret a little challenging. But it’s not undoable. I just make adjustments and play on a different part of the neck. The neck width is also much wider than my Yamaha, but this is also not a bad thing as it forces me to put my left hand and arm in the proper playing position. I certainly can’t be lazy with my posture with this guitar. 🙂

The other thing about the guitar is that it is naturally loud. It was built to project volume from the soundboard. So I definitely had to find the right balance between volume level and attack. Plus, the MagMic picks up pretty much everything with the guitar. In contrast, my Yamaha APX900 and its electronics are very mid-range focused. But with my S&P PRO, the audio content is so much more complex and robust. Combined with the MagMic’s sensitivity, it forced me to be very aware of how I was playing to the point where I felt some of the songs I played were a bit mechanical, or I was concentrating so much on the guitar that I’d mess up some words. 🙂 I’m confident that once I get everything dialed in I’ll be able to relax a lot more.

I do have to say that I love playing a dreadnought. My very first “real” acoustic guitar was an old Yamaha FG-335 dreadnought. When I moved to smaller body guitars, I missed the full sound. And now that I back to a big body guitar, I’m loving it! But the S&P PRO takes the sound to a completely new level. To think that it sat in a shed for 15 years prior to me getting it – and to sound this good still – is incredible to me.

I did a minor setup on the guitar when I got it to straighten out a slight bow in the neck. But after last night’s gig, I’m probably going to have the action lowered a couple of millimeters. It’s not that it’s super high, but it’s higher than I like and playing a 4-hour gig, it takes a toll on the fingers. I suppose I could go with lighter gauge strings (I’m playing 12-54), but I’m not sure I want to sacrifice the resonance I get with the thicker strings just to make it easier to play. Oh well, there’s always a tradeoff somewhere. 🙂

Okay… so very first gig complete, and it was a total success! I absolutely LOVE the MagMic.

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