Archive for the ‘Guitars’ Category

Get A Freakin’ Amp Stand!

I realize that I’m becoming one of those grouchy old men, but you can never accuse me of being an oldster. Though I look fondly back to the old days of rock and roll, and though I really don’t dig the new pop music, I don’t sit there pining away for a return to the old.

But I have to admit that I’ve become increasingly annoyed at some obvious things that I observe on a regular basis. Actually, let me rephrase that. My annoyance hasn’t increased at all. But I’ve definitely become more direct about my feedback. I think it happens to all older people. We’ve been around the block several times and we lose our patience when people just don’t get it.

I admit that I do my best to try to check myself. After all, you attract more bees with honey, but there are just some things, some things that I just won’t hesitate to snap at.

One of those things comes from several guitarists I’ve played with over the years who complain they can’t hear their amps, even in a quiet setting, so they crank up their volume and step all over the rest the band. My usual retort is the title of this post: “Then get a freakin’ amp stand,” or “Lean the amp back so the speaker’s pointing at you.”

Sheesh! I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone complain they can’t hear themselves. Sometimes yes, it is due to having their volume being low. But most of the time, it’s just due to bad positioning. What… you set up next to the drums? Then move your damn amp! You brought your vintage Fender Champ with the 6″ speaker to the gig? Well, there’s not much I can do for you there… But you could put it on a music stand and we’ll mic it up so you can be heard in the house.

Even with a small amp, there are always solutions. So I guess I’m ranting about the complainers and I’ll say what I say to my teams at work: Work the problem, people! There’s always a solution.

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This evening, I was watching “The Big Interview with Dan Rather” (one my latest favorite shows) and none other than Paul Stanley was the guest. I have to admit that I have always admired KISS, not just for their music which I’ve loved since I was a teen, but for their business acumen in creating a brand that has persisted for over 40 years.

I’ve seen interviews with or specials about the band in the past and they were your typical mix of short clips and questions and discussion that really only scratched the surface. But with Dan Rather, the interviews get deep. Dan asks pointed questions and he has this way of getting people comfortable enough to open up and spill their guts. It’s rather amazing, and I love watching the show.

In one particular segment, Dan commented that many people would consider Paul Stanley to be lucky. But Paul replied with something VERY profound:

The harder you work, the luckier you get.

Whoa! Mind blown! Not because it was some revelation, but because it is something by which I live every day of my life! To have heard that from Paul Stanley is an incredible affirmation.

Just recently, I was speaking with a fairly junior software engineer about the things I’ve done and been involved with over the course of my career. At one point, he remarked that I was lucky to be able to do all I’ve done. But I immediately responded that it wasn’t luck. I worked hard to develop my talent and skills to where I created opportunities to do those things.

And the same thing goes with playing guitar – or just about anything in life – the harder you work, the more opportunities open up.

But let’s be clear: Hard work doesn’t mean toiling and grinding; though admittedly, it can seem like that at times. Hard work is the willingness to make an investment in time to develop your craft. Hard work is putting yourself out there. Hard work involves being open to opportunities that might even seem beneath you. It’s all part of the learning experience. It’s what creates luck.

I did a weekly, two-night gig at a local restaurant for almost 18 years up until the restaurant closed down recently. My fellow musician friends would say I was lucky to have that gig. I was grateful for sure, but they also knew that if I wasn’t gigging, I was playing at home for at least an hour every single day. I was putting in the time.

I also play and lead music for one of the services at my church. People have remarked in the past at how it all seems to be easy for me. What they don’t realize is that I spend most of the day leading up to rehearsal going over all the music and coming up with all the arrangements and writing songs when appropriate. Again, it’s an investment in time. It’s effortless because by the time I get to the church, I’ve got everything down cold.

You see, I’m firm believer in making my own luck. When I decide to pursue something, I don’t even give it a second thought about putting in the time it will take to get me to where I’d like to be. And even when I achieve a goal, I keep on developing my skills to get to the next plateau and so on and so forth. And in the process, better and better opportunities present themselves.

Especially for you young folks, if you want to become a professional musician or a rock star. Go for it! There’s nothing holding you back, and though others will say it’s impossible, just keep at it. They can’t make your luck for you. You make your own luck!

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For over a decade, my main acoustic amp has been an original California Blonde; no, not the v2, but the original. I got it used from a good buddy, and it has been on stage in several hundred gigs to this point. And even though my Katana 50 serves very well as an acoustic guitar amp, there’s just nothing like the depth of sound that comes out of the behemoth that is the California Blonde.

They’re not made any longer, having a final production year of 2006, and SWR got scooped up by Fender to expand its product line offerings. But these were special amps. Inspired by the WorkingPro 12 bass amp, which acoustic guitarists were finding useful to amplify their guitars, the California Blonde was – and still is for me, at least – an amp that could create super-rich tones, and at 120 Watts, pump out the volume.

It’s a heavy-ass amp at 50 lbs. and I use a handcart or small rolling platform to transport it. But the sound, oh the sound, that the amp produces to me, at least, is unparalleled. Yes, there are some great amps out there like the HK Audio Elements and SoundCaddy. But you’re talking 5-6 times the price – at least! Not an easy expenditure. You can get a used Cali Blonde II for under $400 if you look carefully.

The wonderful thing about this amp is the semi-parametric EQ section that allows you to get the perfect EQ balance. In the tone circuit is also a built-in Aural Enhancer that acts much like presence knob. Plus, it has a side-chain effects loop on top of that! It also has an XLR direct out to plug the amp into a board, which is exactly what I do.

To me, this is an archetype acoustic amp. If you look at the picture, it really doesn’t have that many bells and whistles. The bottom row of knobs are for the second channel. I sometimes use this for solo acoustic gigs (though I use my Fishman SA220 SoloAmp for the most part). It is so plug and play!

All that said, despite the fact that it’s almost 20 years old, I don’t see myself getting another acoustic amp for quite a while. The only time I’ll consider one is when this one breaks. And even then, I’ll probably take it to my amp tech and see if it’s unrecoverable. Yeah, the labor may cost more than the amp’s monetary value, but if the repair gets it back to 100%, I don’t have much reason to switch another.

Admittedly though, I think I’m getting close to that point. The reverb no longer works, and it sometimes makes a funny noise when it’s powering on. But I’m still using it. The effects loop still works great, and there are no problems with the DI.

Speaking of which, the DI signal on the Blonde is actually super, super clean. On top of that, unlike other amps’ DI’s I’ve used, it doesn’t hammer the board. I used to use these great Genz-Benz amps and their DI’s were super-hot, and since it was tied into the Master Volume, it was difficult to get a good balance between stage and FOH volume. I had to turn the master down so low that with a full band, I just had to hope and pray that I sounded okay in the mix because I couldn’t hear myself on stage. 🙂

So yeah… My amp ain’t broke just yet. I’m not in any rush to replace it.

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There’s a certain mystique about the Les Paul that seems to pervade the market that intimidates people. I look back on the time before I purchased a Les Paul and I was definitely intimidated; having these “I’m-not-worthy” moments when thinking about getting one. But I know I’m not alone in this.

This morning, I was searching the Internet for a Les Paul Supreme. It’s no longer made, but if I’m going to get another Les Paul, that one is going to be it. I played a few back when Gibson was still producing them, and I want that guitar (visions of Wayne’s World…)

I had actually amassed 10 electric guitars before I finally got my Les Paul, so intimidated by the whole Gibson brand. I even got a couple of Les Paul knockoffs and even an ES-335 before I finally got my true-blue 1958 Gibson Les Paul Historic Re-Issue.

And when I finally plugged it in and started playing, the skies opened, a bright light pierced the heavens, and a loud voice proclaimed….

I’ve been trying to tell you all this time… It’s just a guitar…

Well, not just a guitar. For me, the Les Paul represented and still represents the archetype of electric guitar sound. It’s the sound I’ve always heard in my head. Nowadays, if I consider something to be an archetype, I just get it – or at least save up until I can get it. But frankly, it took me getting over my intimidation of the Les Paul to get to that point.

Which brings me to the question I posed in the title…

At least for me, one of the intimidating factors was that everyone whom I considered to be my guitar heroes growing up either currently or at some point in their careers, played a Les Paul. This included artists such as Peter Frampton, Davey Johnstone, Peter Green, Eric Clapton, and Pete Townshend. And being that I hadn’t adopted the electric guitar until later in life, my internal comparison to those guitar greats gave me quite a bit of pause.

Another reason was that the admission price to a Les Paul Standard was pretty steep; and like many, because of that, I spent a lot of time getting other, more affordable guitars. I know… If I had been patient, I could have foregone two or three of those other guitars and gotten my LP. That inability to just be able to buy a Les Paul outright also got me into the camp of “Hey! The LTD Les Paul, Epiphone Les Paul (and others) are just as good as a Gibson Les Paul.”

“Good” is subjective, and while I played some very good (in my opinion) non-Gibson Les Pauls, the plain fact of the matter is there is some inexplicable “mojo” about a real Gibson Les Paul. Maybe it’s me falling for the marketing; who knows? But from my perspective, there’s just nothing like a real Les Paul that gives it a bit of an exclusivity factor. It was admittedly a bit intimidating.

Finally, at the time I was really contemplating getting a Les Paul, there was this craze in the collector’s market for ’59 Les Pauls, with some

But once I got my Les Paul and played it for several hours, I called my good buddy and amp builder Jeff Aragaki of Aracom Amps who is a Les Paul aficionado and collector, and said, “Damn! Why did I wait so long to get a Les Paul?!! All that time being intimidated by this guitar and now, finally playing it, this is the sound I’ve been wanting! Shit!”

Jeff just laughed. He knew then as I know now that despite all the hype that the Les Paul is still just a guitar.

So… if you want a Les Paul, and it has a sound that you like, just get it. Don’t be intimidated; don’t think that you have to be at a certain level to play it. In the end, it’s a guitar.

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Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s there was a little memory chip design firm called Micron located in downtown Los Altos, CA. At the time, I don’t think they had a foundry of their own – they just created memory designs and sold them to manufacturers. Not a bad business model; kind of like Levi-Strauss during the gold rush of 1849.

But what was notable about them was that I remember reading an annual financial report from Micron that reported earnings in the hundreds of millions. Well, guess where the bulk of that came from? That right, litigation.

What was really irritating about them at the time was that Micron was suing people left and right, and it made them look like the focus of their business was litigation. Oh, they had some smart people coming up with memory chip designs. But as soon as they were patented, BOOM! Sue everyone on the planet for patent infringement. The trade rags would have frequent stories of “Micron sues X over patent infringement…” Talk about frequent eye-rolling!

By now, many of you have probably heard of the Gibson vs. Armadillo lawsuit. In the lawsuit, Gibson is claiming trademark infringement over the Explorer, Flying V, ES body shapes, and the Hummingbird and Moderne trademarks. I won’t go into a deep-dive, but if you want to familiarize yourself with the main points, here’s an excellent article.

The response to this lawsuit on the forums is that it is ruining the brand. And lots of people are starting threads asking things like, “What should Gibson do to rebuild its brand in light of the lawsuit?” My reaction: All the chatter and bloviating is just a waste of time. Wah-wah-wah. I can’t believe all the “analysis” I saw on the boards.

But in spite of that, it does make me raise my eyebrows questioning the logic behind pursuing the lawsuit which, by the way, was initiated by the previous CEO last year, then renewed by the new one. This can only mean that it was driven by the board of directors. Hmmm….

In any case, think about this: A couple of months ago, Gibson spent a lot of effort re-aligning its product lines and making it very clear what each product line represented; a move that was applauded across the industry – and me included – as something that was much-needed to reduce buyer confusion.

Gibson came out with lines such as the “Avant Garde” (now “Moderne”) to represent alternative materials in their acoustic guitar lineup. I have a J-45 Avant Garde, and what appealed to me was the construction with alternative materials. They also placed the various Les Pauls into specific swim lanes; something that really helped and something I had wished for for a long time.

So when I heard about the lawsuit, it made me wonder:

Gibson, you just spent so much time and effort re-aligning your product lines and gaining a lot of good will capital. I realize you have your reasons, but considering the struggles you’ve had in recent years, why would you subject yourself to negativity so early in the game of rebuilding the brand?

At best, this is laughable. At worst, it’s damaging, at least image-wise.

Look, I have been and I am still a Gibson fan and I’ll be a Gibson fan for the rest of my life. But I seem to do a lot of head-shaking about their business antics. Time for the board to get its head out of its collective ass.

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I’m like many of my guitar compatriots and hang out on gear forums. I’m not nearly as active as I used to be, but I still enjoy reading and occasionally responding to forum posts.

One thing that I’ve seen a lot in the forums of goes something like this:

Please help me choose a guitar. I have a $500 budget.

Now look, I’m not one to ever put anyone down. That’s for cretins who have nothing better to do. But I will say this: Replying to requests like this is a time sink. Why? Simply because if you answer with your own suggestion, someone else will invariably debate you.

Then another person will swoop in with, “If you spend a couple of hundred dollars more, you could get this.”

By the time all the discussion simmers down, the original poster’s head will probably have fallen off from all the twisting!

Okay, I have to admit that I made the mistake of making a similar request a long time ago. I have since learned my lesson. And if you’re tempted to do the same, all I can say is: Don’t do it! 🙂

A better solution is to get your ass down to a local guitar shop like Guitar Center and play a shitload of guitars in your price range. Don’t worry, they’ll have many. You should be able to make the decision on your own!

The problem with making a request like this on the forums is that no one knows what style you play. No one knows a whit about your experience, and no one knows what your ideal sound is no matter how much you try to qualify what you’re after.

Also, beware of those who offer advice on gear selections. For all you know, they could just be some wanker who’s giving you advice based on advice they’re passing on from someone else. I’ve seen a lot of that shit, especially when people hype gear like the Klon pedal or Dumble amp clones.

So really, you don’t need help buying a guitar. No one is more knowledgeable about what you need than you. Just take the time to familiarize yourself and you’ll be golden! And as a reader said, get what inspires you!

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Back in 2013, I wrote an article based on this idea of being mindful and in the “NOW.” And while I still practice quieting down before a gig and getting centered, I’ve moved beyond the whole living-in-the-now stuff. Or perhaps after all these years, my idea of “NOW” is more refined.

I think the problem with my original argument was that it centered around simply being open and aware of what I’m doing and where I am. Those are certainly important things. But I’ve learned that true mindfulness is nowhere near as passive as simple awareness. True mindfulness is awareness of the connections around me in the process of doing something and being cognizant of the interactions that take place because of my actions or my reactions to actions taken outside of me. In that, mindfulness is dynamic.

In the recent past, I’ve been writing articles that have orbited this subject like using your mix knob. These have covered different aspects of being mindful when you’re playing. Everything that you play and how you play it and what you put in your signal has effect on whom you play with and even your audience.

If we accept that Newton’s Third Law – for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction – then mindfulness is our direct observation of Newton’s Third Law in action!

When we’re mindful, not only are we aware of our environment, we are also aware of – and take responsibility – for our interactions within that environment. In a band setting, that can make or break the sound of the band.

I’ve seen – and even played in – bands that weren’t very tight. In other words, one or two or maybe even the whole band was doing their own thing. And while they may be right on tempo, everything put together just sounded like mush. And perhaps more importantly, you could easily detect how at odds they were with each other as their energy was kind of “dark.”

On the flip side, I’ve been in bands where everyone just clicks. In particular, in my previous church band, my former bassist Derek was a model of mindfulness when we played. I’ve always contended that it’s the bassist that holds down the tempo, not the drummer, and Derek had a way of being that glue for the band that affected how each of us played. In particular, we could always just play off each other and the result was always amazing (it did help that he was – and still is – a kick-ass bassist).

I think one of the reasons I’ve trimmed down my rig so much in the past few years is because for the stuff I’ve been playing, I’ve been particularly mindful of my sound in relation to whom I play with and what we’re playing. I’ve gone from slathering on effects fairly thick to being as subtle as possible, so as not to disturb the fragile balance of the band’s sound. I’ll pour on a sound when needed, but only if it won’t upset the balance.

And who knows, maybe in the future I’ll be in another band that requires heavy use of effects, but for now, my mindfulness informs me that less is definitely more.

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