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Archive for the ‘Guitars’ Category

Five years ago, I walked into a guitar shop in Waikiki, near the Alamoana Mall. Browsing through the shop, I saw that they had an HK Audio Elements PA system setup. I asked one of the guys that worked if I could check it out and he said, just get a guitar off the wall. My eyes were immediately drawn to the Gibson acoustics and I asked if I could pull a J-45 off the rack. I had recently gotten into Passenger and Mike plays a J-45. The guy came over and took it off since it was one of those that required “sales assistance.” Once he handed it to me, I plugged the guitar into the PA and was immediately transported to my happy place; that creative zone full of musical possibilities.

A couple of hours later, I resolved much like Wayne in Wayne’s World: You Will Be Mine!

Today that resolution came to pass. I just received a 2019 J-45 Avant Garde Walnut Burst. It is SO cool that I’m close to speechless, so I’ll just share some photos I took before I even tuned it up and played it.

When I finally did play it, I was again transported to my happy place. Though in the five years that I first played a J-45, I ordered this walnut version without ever playing one. I had just listened to recordings and watched videos with good quality sound, and merely had an idea of how it would sound. This definitely was a gut call, but I really felt in my heart of hearts that it would be a great choice. I wasn’t wrong.

Initial Impressions

After just playing it for about a half hour, here are my initial impressions:

  1. First off, the guitar is absolutely gorgeous. The grain of the walnut is purely amazing. When I first looked at the back, I had to check myself. I haven’t seen a guitar back that looked like this except for a friend’s sapele acoustic (though sapele’s lines are more even). The striations on this walnut back and sides are incredible! It looks like a piece of frickin’ furniture!
  2. The neck is perfect. At 24.75″ scale, it plays like a Les Paul neck, but it has a modern taper to it, so it plays even easier.
  3. As for the action, it’s low without any buzz. It’s perfect!
  4. The tuners are nice and snug and very smooth, making tuning a breeze.
  5. As far as the sound is concerned, what it produces is the archetype of acoustic guitar sound for me. It has nice, round, well-behaved lows, and crisp mids and highs. While not bright at all, there’s a high-end overtone sparkle that really makes itself apparent when strumming.

I can confidently say that though I’ve only spent a little time with the guitar, it is everything I’ve ever wanted in an acoustic.

Some Quick Sound Samples

Fingerstyle

This guitar sustains notes like nobody’s business! I’m looking forward to playing it regularly because it really needs a while to settle in. But right out of the box. Wow!

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It’s a Gibson J-45 Avant Garde Walnut Burst and it’s also the first brand-new guitar I’ve purchased in a few years. It arrives tomorrow, and I can barely contain the giddy feeling I have in anticipation of unboxing it and playing it the first time.

For me, the J-45 is the acoustic I’ve wanted for a long, long time. I fell in love with one in Hawaii while visiting my daughter a few years ago, and the memory of playing that wonderful guitar left an indelible mark.

After I completed the purchase, I was a little surprised that I bought this guitar without that old feeling of GAS. In fact, my purchase was the result of literally months of research, playing various J-45’s. The one I got was actually at the lower end of the price range for J-45’s, but that wasn’t a driver. Since it’s made of walnut rather than rosewood or mahogany, the price was significantly less for the same features.

I actually did some careful planning on this purchase. I knew that I was going to spend in the $2k range. I wanted a dreadnought with a cutaway. But specifically, I wanted a J-45 body shape with a cutaway. All it took was time.

That’s not how it has been in the past with my guitar purchases. I’d see something, and I’d just buy it. Admittedly, at the time, I didn’t have multiple college tuitions to pay so it was a lot easier. But all these years later, I’ve had to take a much more measured approach to major gear purchases.

Admittedly, once I make a major purchase, it’s a little anti-climactic because I would have spent a lot of time researching leading up to the purchase. But that sense goes away quickly when I realize that I’m finally getting what I spent so much time getting educated.

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To Each Their Own

Even before I received my trusty Simon & Patrick PRO as a gift from a friend, I’ve been looking to get a Gibson J-45 acoustic. Ever since I played one in Hawaii a few years ago, that guitar has been at the top of my list as my next guitar (I also want to get another Les Paul, but that’s another story).

Unfortunately, my financial obligations (read: college tuitions) have made it such that I’ve had to defer that purchase. Truth be told, my S&P PRO has been a great interim guitar while I’ve been deferring getting the J-45. But I’ve recently been able to free up some funds, and it’s time to get the J-45.

So, as is my custom, I started doing research on the best pricing, etc.. Damn Gibson! (I say this tongue in cheek) Give them credit for trying to address different players’ needs, but just as with the Les Paul, they’ve got several models of the J-45, forcing me to do even more research than what I originally anticipated.

One of the features that I wanted was a cutaway model, so that narrowed it down a bit. I did some searches and came across several forum discussions; one in particular that gave me a laugh. In that discussion, someone had asked what others thought of the J-45 cutaway. 99% of the responses were on the level of “heresy” or “sacrilege.” The puritanical response was what made me laugh.

One person even claimed that most people who get a J-45 probably won’t play above the 7th fret except for using a capo, so why have a cutaway? I was amazed at how many people agreed with this. While that claim might be true given the overall population of guitar players, almost every demo I’ve seen have demonstrators regularly playing above the 7th fret. Yes, it was a stupid claim.

For me though, ever since I started focusing on reggae and reggae-inspired music, I make regular trips to the high frets; furthermore, playing lead guitar, having a cutaway gives me much easier access to the high frets, and makes fretting above the 12th fret so much easier. But even before my reggae bent, I’ve mostly used cutaway acoustics precisely for high fret access.

So, to each their own. Buy what you need and buy what pleases you. If you want the pure, traditional stuff, no problem. If you want more modern features, go for it.

For those who are curious, I’ve decided to go with a J-45 Avant Garde Walnut Burst. Sacrilege indeed! A thinner body cutaway made of sustainable wood. 🙂

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Several months ago, I got a bit frustrated with the sound of my custom Slash L Apache “Katie May” (shown to the left). To me, the bridge pickup, while it sounded fine, didn’t seem to have the volume of the neck pickup, and it also sounded a bit thin and reedy.

So I raised the pickup to be closer to the strings, thinking that it would give me more volume. It didn’t really improve the situation. And that’s what I get for making adjustments and pulling the solutions out of my ass!

But still, I persisted to play around with the pickup heights, not really understanding what I was doing until I felt I dialed it in with the amp I was playing at the time, which was a DV Mark Little 40. Then I got my BOSS Katana 50 and got an absolutely rude awakening. That was yesterday.

I hadn’t played Katie May in awhile, so I decided to pack her up for my weekly church gig, along with my Katana. I figured that I had made the tweaks to the pickups so she’d sound just fine. Man! Was I wrong! Once I had everything set up, my tone sounded like SHIT! I spent most of the time during rehearsal and even during service tweaking my EQ. In the end, I had to pump up the bass and really roll off the treble and mids to get a useable sound. Pissed me off!

Granted, Katie May has a naturally bright sound. The neck-through design combined with the mahogany strip sandwiched by hard rock maple is bright; like Telecaster bright. That’s okay. I expect that. Plus the Lollar Imperials generate a fairly strong magnetic field, so putting them closer only brightened up the sound because of the Gauss effect (basically, the stronger the magnetic field, the brighter the sound).

As far as Gauss is concerned, I only found that out by doing a little research this morning. So I lowered the pickups back to where they were first installed. Luckily, I had put pencil mark on each side of the pickup those many months ago. And the guitar got its voice back.

Okay… so silly me for messing around with my gear in a completely brainless way, and being way too cute for my own good! Lesson learned.

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Letting Go

I was listening to a radio talk show and the guest mentioned Toni Morrison, the great African-American novelist and Princeton professor. I’ve known of Dr. Morrison for years, as she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in the early ’90’s, but I needed to refresh my memory, so I googled her name and came across this wonderful quote:

You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down!

Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize Winner for Literature 1993

What a GREAT quote! Gear slut that I am, when I read the quote, I immediately thought of playing guitar and my own journey with this instrument these past 50 years. And looking back, I realized that my most accelerated growth periods came from giving up my shit; that is, letting go of my preconceptions and old habits to allow me to explore new and different approaches to playing.

For instance, a few years ago I really got into playing reggae. At first blush, reggae’s predominant “um-chuk um-chuk” rhythm seemed so easy. And I figured that since I had be playing guitar so long, I could easily make the transition; after all, how hard could it be? But what I realized was that the “um-chuk” was merely a rhythmic foundation that belied a musical and melodic complexity that requires immense study to master. And singing and performing reggae can be incredibly difficult because many of the melody lines are sung against the beat. This forced me to overcome my rock-and-roll, four-on-the-floor approach to guitar. Once I let go my notions and approach to playing music was I able to play reggae with any sense of proficiency.

As you can tell, this article isn’t an instructional “how-to” article, but if you want to improve your playing or expand your musical palate, you have to let go of your preconceptions. We’re human. Humans love habit. But whether it’s a habit of action or thinking, with habit, we run the risk of letting habit metastasize throughout our entire being and fixing us into set ways, ultimately limiting our ability to grow and expand. To improve – in anything, not just guitar – we have to break free of our fixed notions.

Especially if you visit online guitar discussion forums, you’ll encounter and interact with many people who are fixed in their thinking. Look at the tube amp vs. solid state amp debate, for instance; or the preponderance of jazz and metal heads spouting all their shit about modes and major scales and dismissing any other forms of music. I was “that guy” with tube amps. But when I first played my BOSS Katana 50, all those old notions were completely obliterated! It’s now my main gigging amp.

This is not to say that we all become centrist in our thinking. There is absolutely nothing wrong with passion for something. But if we want to expand our experience, as Toni Morrison says, if we want to fly, we have to give up the shit that weighs us down!

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Lessons I’ve Learned

I’ve been playing guitar for almost 50 years and have been performing publicly for over 40 years. In that time, I’ve learned some valuable lessons that I thought I’d share.

There’s always someone who’s better

This is the ego check I give myself to ensure that I never get complacent and always stay humble. It’s not that I spend time comparing my skills to other guitarists’ skills, but if I found that if I let my ego get in the way, I stop learning. Simple as that.

You will never sound like the original artist

And that’s a good thing. The sound of your voice and the sound of your instrument come from YOU. I get that in some cases you want to at least get an approximation of the original artist’s performance for context’s sake. But your sound is yours. And especially with guitar, your hands are different, your strings are different, your gear is different. So own it!

Learn to get the most out of what you have first

Having gone the route of buying tons and tons of gear and eventually selling off 90% of it (though I’ve kept most of my pedals because I still like them), only to realize that I had everything I needed in the first place, I’ve learned to take a much more measured approach to gear. I now spend countless hours trying to discover different ways to eke out all the different sounds I can get with what I have. If there’s a sound that I just can’t get, then and only then do I look to new gear. By doing this, I discovered sounds I never thought possible with my existing gear, and all it took was learning techniques to achieve those sounds.

I give this advice a lot, especially to young players. For instance, one of the kids in my church band has been buying up gear at an alarming rate. He has the means, and most of the time, I’d just say que sera, sera. But this kid has the potential to be a GREAT guitarist one day, so I was honest and told him to take the time to discover the sounds he can get from his current set of gear before he moves on.

Never play in an altered state of mind

I was in a cover band a couple of years ago and we did a gig where I got drunk off my ass on half a bottle of bourbon. I thought I was ripping it until I heard the recording at our next rehearsal. I was SO embarrassed. My bandmates laughed and were very gracious, but I sounded like a hack! I vowed then and there that I’d never perform in an altered state of mind again.

And even if I don’t play drunk, I spend about 15 minutes before a performance getting myself emotionally centered. Extreme emotions can affect your performance in a bad way, especially negative emotions like anger.

Your gear is what YOU make of it

This is related to the section above about getting familiar with your gear. But this takes a different tack: Don’t ever be embarrassed by what you have. You will encounter several gear snobs – especially on the gear forums – in your life who will tell you to get such and such guitar, or as soon as you get a new guitar, swap out the pickups, etcetera, etcetera. Just remember that “truth” is purely subjective. We all look through the lens of our own experience and while it’s not wrong to listen to what other people volunteer, it’s their truth, and in the end, you’re the one who has to play your gear and more importantly, you’re the one who made the investment in the first place. Free advice costs nothing for the giver so be careful on the value you place on it.

So just remember this: If what you have inspires you to make music, then that’s all that matters! Anyone who tells you different is just a frickin’ wanker!

If it sounds good, it is good!

Yeah, I’m copping Duke Ellington, and I’ve written entire articles around this phrase, but it’s important so I’ll keep on repeating it. This phrase especially applies to the tube vs. digital/solid-state amp debate but can be applied to just about anything such as boutique pedals vs. mainstream pedals. Doesn’t matter. If it sounds good to you, and like I mentioned above, if it inspires you to make music, then that’s all that matters.

Especially with the tube solid state vs. digital/solid-state amp debate, bear in mind that some guitar greats such as Joe Satriani and Buddy Guy have used solid state amps. You’re not going to tell them their tone sucks. So please, don’t get pulled into that kind of thinking. Keep an open heart and mind, and you’ll open yourself up to a big, wide world great gear!

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At noon today, I received an email from Preston Thompson Guitars. I always look forward to these emails because they usually contain news on their latest builds or cool stuff they’re working on. Plus, having met Preston Thompson at his shop in Sisters, Oregon a couple of years ago, I have always fondly remembered the time my youngest son and I spent in the shop learning about the guitars he and his team had built.

But this email was sad; announcing that he had passed away on April 11th. While I only met him in passing, and even though we didn’t have a long conversation, what I took with me when I left his shop was this sense of awe of the instruments that were being built in his shop.

I had the privilege to play one of his “Shipwreck” Brazilian rosewood guitars that was slated to go out to a customer. Based on the 1937 Herringbone Dreadnought, the deep lows and crisp highs, combined with an enormous projection was just about the most amazing acoustic tone I had ever heard. I couldn’t afford the $10k he was asking for it, but to be able to just play one of those fine instruments was simply inspirational.

They even had a custom-made ukelele for my son to pluck at, and we had a little father-son jam in the shop! Needless to say, we both left with big smiles on our faces.

Preson Thompson’s legacy will live on through his family and the wonderful team working at his shop. I wish them all the best!

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