Archive for the ‘Guitars’ Category

Want to Be Good? You Gotta WORK!

I’ve skied for over four decades now. And in my younger days, I did a bit of racing. I’ve loved watching and following ski racing since I was young boy, even before I knew how to ski. There was always something almost mystical about how these men and women can schuss down a hill carrying lots of speed and completely under control.

The amount of training that takes is immense. I know. I tried to do it, but I didn’t have the funds nor the sponsorship to go very far. I don’t know how I would’ve done, but I also knew that to get to the highest echelons of the sport, money makes the world go ’round. But my failed attempt didn’t mean I lost my passion for the sport of competitive ski racing.

Having followed the sport for most of my life, I’ve had the opportunity to see the occasional phenom pop up in both the men’s and women’s disciplines. Men like Franz Klammer and Ingemar Stenmark; women like Lindsay Vonn and Lara Gut. And as of late, Mikaela Shiffrin (pictured above), whom in her early twenties is destined to break and set new records in the sport.

But as of late, she has been struggling; but to be clear, it means she’s not getting first place. She’s still placing in the top three. But even still, there’s a noticeable drop in her confidence on the snow. To the average viewer, they may not notice a change in her skiing, but to an experienced eye, there’s a tentativeness that I’ve rarely seen in Shiffrin in the last couple of seasons.

And in a pre-race interview, Mikaela admitted that she was struggling and that it will take some work. Paraphrasing what she told the interviewer, she mentioned that her success has been less about her talent and much more the product of being prepared and hard work. The races where she has not won as of late were at venues where she didn’t have much time to train. And after hearing that interview, I immediately thought of my own journey as a guitar player and performer and this became the gist of this latest entry.

I’ve now been playing guitar literally for fifty years. And looking back on where I was when I started and where I am now is the product of work. Lots of work. Though born musical and raised in a musical family, and while I have a strong sense of what works musically and what doesn’t, that knowing has been much more the result of literally tens of thousands of hours of work and practice.

What Mikaela Shiffrin said in her interview resonated with me because, at least for me, hard work is the only way I know to get better. I’ve known some prodigies that just pick stuff up. But even they practice and practice and practice to get their technique as close to perfection as possible. The point here is that some people have an easier time getting to particular level of skill, but no one can avoid having to work to get there.

For me, I love the struggle of having to work for it. When I was younger, I didn’t have the financial means to get the kind of gear that I have now. My guitars were kind of crappy and by their very nature, they made me work to get good sounds out of them.

And I know it sounds a bit screwy, but I used to have this inherent fear that people would think I was horrible at playing (I still have that fear, but it’s a lot less now than when I was younger), so I would practice for hours on end to make sure I was totally prepared when it came time to perform.

A couple of weeks ago, the pastor of my church and I were having a conversation, and at one point, he complimented me for the job I was doing at our church services and my musical work with the teens in leading their praise and worship sessions. Then he remarked at how I made it seem so effortless.

I thanked him and said that obviously, I’m spiritually inspired. But I also emphasized that what most people don’t know is that I’ve practiced for several hours by myself leading up to the events I perform with the church. I also added that to me, it’s important to struggle. It’s important to work through every possible scenario that I can so I can be as prepared as possible.

If you’re motivated to being better – at anything – struggling is a good thing because it drives you to get better. I remember struggling through learning to play a major scale from any point on the fret board – a key component to playing modes (though just knowing a major scale is just part of the picture). I shared that I struggled with my crappy gear, but that just made me learn how to be so much more expressive.

Failure is struggle. Hopefully, we take those failures and learn from them. And as long as we don’t let our failures discourage us, we trudge on and do better the next time we’re faced with circumstances or situations that made us fail.

And yes, there are those who seemingly have an innate ability to pick things up. But make no bones about it. Even they have to work, even they have struggle because their talent will only take them so far. And yes, that level of so far might be a long way, but if they want to be better than that level, they’ve got to work at it.

Even at 58 years old, I play every day. For me, there’s always something to learn. Lately, I’ve been learning phrasing over “Blue in Green” by Miles Davis (er… Bill Evans?). No, I’m not trying to become a jazz player. Honestly, I don’t even like most jazz. But there’s something about the album “Kind of Blue” and especially “Blue in Green” that has always resonated with me.

In that particular song, there seems to be this Dorian-Mixolydian thing going on, so I’ve been experimenting with different phrases. It has been incredibly challenging because as much as I know the fret board, playing modally reaches to the outer extents of my abilities. But to me, that’s the beauty of the whole process.

It’s a struggle. But in the few weeks that I’ve been messing around with it, I’ve feel as if I’ve started to get a better awareness of how to link my phrases together. They’re not very fast – that’s not my intent – but they’re starting to flow together, and more importantly, it has forced me to play out of my comfort zone and do string jumps or play half steps where I would’ve never even thought to do that. And I’m not even done yet!

Two of my sons have picked up the guitar and they’re both getting pretty good. They ask me a lot of questions on technique and such, but most of the time, I just tell them they have to work through their issues or problems. Being digital natives, they want instant results. But I explained to them that the ONLY way I know of to master a technique is to work through it; practice it over and over again until you’ve got it down.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers,” he states that it takes approximately 10,000 hours to master anything. 10,000 hours! In the book, he describes the experiences of various famous people such as Bill Gates and all the things they did and do to develop their skills and reach the pinnacle of their experience and expertise. The gist of the book is that expertise comes from a very large investment of time and effort, much more so than pure talent.

So if you really want to get good at something, you gotta work at it!

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I was on a forum recently where a longtime professional musician reached out to the community as he was looking to get a new guitar after decades of playing. He asked a question I’ve heard many times: What’s the difference between a $500 guitar and a $5000? In other words, why is the $5000 guitar considered better? And he admitted he had no clue about woods or pickup specs.

But he did back all his questions with his experience as a player, and that he has been playing professionally – live and in the studio – for over 20 years with the same guitar and amp. And not just part-time. That was how he made his living.

Most people who responded were very helpful, but one snarky person jumped all over his shit about not knowing about guitars. In reply, I said something to the effect that while the rest of us spent time and money chasing the tone unicorn, the original poster obviously found his tone with the gear he had and didn’t feel a need to look any further. The fact that he had made a successful career out of that original gear is a testament to that.

And that got me thinking that as we all see the world through the lens of our own experience, it’s very easy to try to apply our lens to others’ experiences. And in the case of the person jumping on the original poster, that’s a perfect example of that.

With gear sluts like us, we absolutely obsess over the minutiae of our gear. But there’s a whole sector of people, like the original poster, whose only concern is that it sounds and plays good.

It’s like my wife with wine. She has a very binary sense of wine: She either likes it or she doesn’t. Me? I’m a bit of a connoisseur. I love discovering the nuances. But the uncanny thing is that my wife actually great taste in wine. The wines she likes are what I’d rate in the 90+ range. In other words, she knows what’s good, but she doesn’t fuss over the details.

So if you’re one of those people, it’s not a big deal. If it works for you, that’s all that matters!

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Ever since I started using Impulse Response patches for recording my tube amps for recordings, my recording setup for guitar has become incredibly simple. But it could be SO much simpler. The way I record my tube amps now is that I run my amp into my Aracom Amps DRX150 Attenuator that has an unbalanced Line Out, then run the attenuator into a DI to reduce the noise and convert the signal, and then run the DI into my audio interface.

It works. I still get a little bit of noise, but it’s manageable. BUT it could be SO much simpler!

Yes, I have considered something like the Suhr Reactive Load box and others on the market. But they all have more features than what I need and/or they’re pricey. For instance the basic Suhr Reactive Load is $349. That’s actually not a bad price, but I’m thinking the actual components shouldn’t cost that much. But to be fair, I’m not an expert in electronics take that with a grain of salt.

On the other hand, the Radial Engineering JDX 48 Reactor looked very promising. But it has speaker emulation built into it that I don’t think can be bypassed. I just want my raw amp signal to go into my interface and then apply an IR to it.

As I was ruminating on this, I called my good friend and amp-builder Jeff Aragaki of Aracom Amps and asked him how difficult it would be, and these are the features I thought would be great to have:

  • Be able to take 8 or 16 ohm amp output (or make it switchable)
  • Transformer to handle the load
  • A single, balanced output DI to go into my audio interface
  • Line level knob to adjust the amount of output signal from the unit.

I don’t need attenuation, though I suppose the line level knob would kind of act like that. And maybe there may have to be some attenuation to bleed off some of the power. Who knows? Also, I don’t need speaker cab simulation. Many of the unit have that and that kind of defeats the purpose sending my amp signal direct to my audio interface.

All in all, the net-net of this is to reduce clutter. One cable from my amp to the load box, then an XLR straight to my audio interface.

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Usually I wait to do a gig report after I’ve done a review of the pedal, but I used it yesterday at my church gig and had to talk about it.

First of all, it was as if my Mad Professor Deep Blue Delay had never gotten fried! All that smooth, dark analog delay goodness that I had become so accustomed to with my DBD was there with the DM-2w!

And the best thing about it was that it was SO easy to dial it in. Normally, I take a few days to get used to new gear of any kind because all gear has its own quirks. But I was able to get it set up at home on Saturday and even recorded with it that I felt confident enough with it to bring it to my gig.

The DM-2w is not without its quirks; for example, setting the Echo knob past 2pm gets into an infinite loop. But I’d never go that high and kept it around 9:30.

With the Intensity set just short of noon and Delay set at about 2pm and Echo around 9:30, I got this gorgeous, spacious, and ambient tone that worked incredibly well for the songs that I played fingerstyle and claw hammer.

When I used it for songs that I was strumming, I set it to Standard mode and got a subtle slap-back going on. It created an almost 12-string guitar effect that combined with some subtle chorus really filled the spaces in my playing. And being Super Bowl Sunday, I was the ONLY musician yesterday, so having that extra dimension helped a lot!

At this point, I can’t be happier with the DM-2w. It’s simply a great pedal. And with the 800ms of delay time, there are lots of possibilities with this pedal. I’m SO glad I got it!

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After I burned out my pedal board a couple of weeks ago, which included my beloved Mad Professor Deep Blue Delay, I immediately went on a search for a new analog delay pedal.

Yeah, I had my trusty MXR Carbon Copy but after using for it a couple of weeks, I remembered why I made it a backup. It’s not that it’s a bad pedal, but I’ve always had difficulty getting it set up with a sound and a response I like.

What I loved about my Deep Blue Delay was that – as Mad Professor put it – it was built to work well with distortion. I could put it in front of my preamp or my effects loop and it would rock. I knew that with my new analog delay, that was an absolute requirement

Enter the BOSS DM-2w.

Truth be told, I had never even played the pedal before I got it, but thanks to several demos on the Web, I had a feeling it was going to work well. What impressed me was that like my old DBD, the delay didn’t engage immediately; something I started calling staying out of the way of my sound. It allows the note to be plucked first, then the delay engages seemingly in the background. It was one of the first things I noticed when watching videos.

So a few days ago, I ordered one on Amazon, but it never arrived. So I got a refund and went to one of my local shops who had one in stock and brought it home.

I’ve been playing with it for the past couple of hours and all I have to say is this: I’m in Analog Delay Heaven!

The DM-2w does everything my DBD does and more. It has two modes: Standard and Custom. In Standard mode, the maximum amount of delay is 300ms and the tone is a little dark. It’s very good for slap-back delay. The Custom mode has a very nice 800ms maximum delay time, and it’s less dark. I won’t say brighter because it’s still a little dark.

But most importantly, one of the things that endeared me to the Deep Blue Delay was how smooth its sound was and the DM-2w is silky smooth. So along with it staying out of the way, for it to produce such a smooth sound, well, like I said, I’m in Heaven.

I’ll probably do a full review on the pedal once I’ve played and gigged with it. Stay tuned.

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Up until about 20 years ago, I was primarily an acoustic guitar player. I had some second-hand electric guitars that my younger brother gave me, but I didn’t have an amp. To remedy this, I’d borrow my brother’s JC-120 if he wasn’t gigging.

That amp was an absolute BEAST! And what I mean by that was that it was huge – and heavy. As you can see in the picture above, the amp has casters. That’s the modern version. Back in the ’80s, you had to install your own, which luckily, my brother had installed. In modern trim, the amp weighs in at a hefty 63 lbs. But I recall the original was heavier, like 75 lbs – my brother likened it to hauling around a Fender Twin.

But in that heft was the ultimate in clean headroom. With its dual 12″ speakers, that amp could absolutely sing and sing LOUD. You never used its distortion – talk about playing a musical chainsaw – but you could put pedals in front it. It was the perfect pedal platform.

And then, of course, there was the built-in chorus. That effect alone gave the amp its distinctive character. I always had it on when I used that amp; never fully wet, but just enough to tell me that it’s there. Combined with the stereo speakers, the chorus gave the amp’s sound depth.

And all this in a solid-state amp!

I look fondly back on those years in the ’80s and early ’90s when I used that amp the most. I was nowhere near as discerning about gear then as I am now. But I also didn’t have the financial means back then either to afford being discerning. But even today, I think the JC-120 is one of those standout, classic amps that’s right up there with the venerable Fender Twin or the Marshall Plexi.

Being solid-state, it gets nowhere near the love that its tube amp cousins get. But it’s no accident why players like Albert King, Andy Summers, and even Satch played a JC-120. Great is great.

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The Name Game

I know that some folks think naming your guitars is stupid. But I’ve always named my guitars. It helps me connect with them and even subliminally affects how I play them.

For instance, I had a ’59 Les Paul copy that I called “Ox.” Ox was a workhorse of a guitar. Though I never abuse my instruments, I admit, that at least while I had him, I played him hard. On the other hand, “Amber,” my ’58 Les Paul Historic Reissue is an intoxicatingly beautiful and strong woman who demands respect. You can’t force her to do anything. You let her do her thing and she’ll reward you with sounds you’ve never heard.

I know… it’s a little weird. But by personifying my guitars, I connect with them. I feel as if they have a soul and that soul comes alive when I play them.

And it’s not always easy to come up with names for my guitars. I’ve had a hell of a time coming up with a name for my new Taylor T5z. When I got it, I felt a definite female presence, so I knew I’d name her a female name. But every time I tried to give her a name, it just didn’t stick.

Then last night I had a dream that I was playing her at a club. Someone came up to me and asked me what I call my guitar. I remember looking at her and the variegations of the mahogany grain reminded me of a tiger, and immediately the words “Tiger Lily” came to mind. But as soon as they did, an image of my mother flashed in my brain. Her name was “Lilia.” So that’s now the name of my T5z – “Lily” for short.

I’m not making that up. The name came to me in a frickin’ dream! And the more I thought about the name, the more it fit. My mom was a beautiful woman and kind and gentle. In the months before she passed away, I would travel to her house a couple of hours away and spend a couple of days a week with her.

We didn’t talk about much. But when we did, we reminisced on all sorts of things while I was growing up. We laughed. We cried. We got closure on things that were swept under the rug. And through it all, I came to truly understand and appreciate the incredible woman my mom was.

I saw the struggles she went through throughout her life; raising her brothers and sisters during the Japanese occupation of the Phillippines; raising a family (though my dad worked, his salary paid for the mortgage and food, while my mom’s work as a seamstress enabled all us kids to go to college). And in the twilight of her life, dealing with a weak heart. She was fighter with the focus and strength of a tiger.

So to call my T5z “Lilia” is a tribute to that great woman. That guitar is a way for me to remember her spirit.

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