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Archive for the ‘inspiration’ Category

In my quest for gear to review, I literally spend hours each week poring over the Internet and trade rags, looking for cool, new stuff, and I get especially excited when I come across familiar gear that’s expressed in completely new ways, such as the Quantum Drive from Acoustic Imaginearing that uses quantum tunneling to provide distortion. But a couple of weeks ago, I ran across a brand-new guitar company up in Washington called “Woody B Internal Combustion Guitars,” that is doing something so totally unique it has the potential of completely changing how we as guitarists approach tone. I don’t say this lightly. What Woody has invented is nothing short of amazing, and I am extremely excited to have run across this new guitar.

What makes these guitars so revolutionary is Woody’s invention: The Internal Combustion Drive System. This consists of a speaker transducer and special baffles and tone ports that direct added resonance to the strings and body. Essentially, the Drive System is a resonance chamber that builds up the guitar signal (with the help of a pre-conditioner that I’ll get into later) before it goes out to your main amp. According to Woody, whom I had the pleasure of speaking with for quite awhile yesterday, this is a guitar where you can feel your tone resonating throughout the guitar’s body.

So how does it work? Here’s a diagram. I’ll discuss it below:

internalcombustion

That signal is returned via a special plug that Woody provides that I assume returns the “conditioned” signal as a line-level output (though with a Cube, you should be able to use the Recording Out). The signal then passes into the Drive System, where it’s run through the speaker transducer and allowed to resonated withing the chamber. The signal is buffered, then sent out to your main stage amp.The way it works in principle is actually quite simple. You first send your output to a pre-conditioning unit. This could be a low-wattage solid state amp, or even a valve amp. This is also where you add effects, so you could run this into your pedal board, then into the low wattage amp. The net result is that the guitar outputs more energy than was put in, providing for what Woody calls a much fatter, fuller tone than you would get from other guitars.

In addition, adding to the natural resonance are copper bars that run through the body to the neck, creating a direct coupling between the neck and the guitar. Very cool. Woody B also uses very high-grade woods with four to choose from: Swamp Ash, Alder, Mahogany, and African Black Limba (I dig the Black Limba, myself).

For those of you “in the know,” you might ask, “Moog already did something like this.” Yes and no. Yes, from the perspective that the Moog guitar uses a pre-conditioner. But no from the perspective that Woody has taken a completely different approach to the electronics in the Drive System. First of all, where the Moog has around 3000 parts to produce its sound, and I believe requires external power, the ICG Drive System has only twelve parts. Furthermore, the Drive System is completely passive, not requiring any external power source. Finally, the Moog guitar costs in the neighborhood of $6000, whereas you can get into an Internal Combustion Guitar for as low as $1700. Woody is really trying to keep the price below or as close to $2000 so his guitars are attainable by a wider audience.

Here are some videos that Woody has put together:

Folks, this stuff is so awesome! I can’t wait to try one out! For more information, go to Woody B Internal Combustion Guitars.

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5 Tone Bones - Gear has stellar performance, value, and quality. This is definitely top of the class, best of breed, and it's a no-brainer to add this to your gear lineup!

Tone Freak Effects Abunai 2

Tone Freak Effects Abunai 2 Overdrive Pedal

Summary: In Japanese, “abunai” means dangerous, and this pedal’s overdrive tones are indeed dangerous – at least to your other overdrive pedals. With three switchable clipping configurations, you can dial in a myriad of overdrive characteristics that’ll suit any situation, be it live or in the studio.

Pros: The magic’s in the three-way clipping configuration switch. Super simple to use, and very easy to dial in the kind of overdrive character you want.

Cons: None

Price: $199 (through dealers – check out the Tone Freak Effect Contact Page)

Specs:

  • Controls: Drive, Tone, Level
  • 3 clipping configurations
  • True Bypass
  • Neutrik jacks
  • Teflon coated, silver stranded wire
  • Mil-spec PCB
  • Metal film resistors
  • Metal film capacitors
  • Hand assembled

Tone Bone Score: 5.0 – As I shared with Dereck Tabata (maker of Tone Freak pedals), with the amount of gear that I run across, I’m rarely blown away by pedals. But I was completely blown away by the Abunai 2. Step aside Tube Screamer, there’s a new sherriff in town.

One rainy friday night several months ago, I was sitting in an Armadillo Willy’s eating my dinner and surfing the web, while waiting for my son’s hockey practice at the rink across the parking lot to end. I was doing what Internet geeks like myself occasionally do: Search for available domain names, and reserve them, just in case I want to build a site or point them to this blog. In this case, I did a google search on “tone freak.” The first listing was for Tone Freak Effects; an effects manufacturer I had not even heard of at that point.

Being the gear slut that I am, I just had to mosey on over to the Tone Freak site, and check out what they had to offer. And much to my extreme pleasure, they had a bunch of overdrive pedals, my favorite kind of effect! I immediately reached over to my laptop bag and pulled out my ear buds so I could listen to clips. The first set of clips I listened to were recorded with the Abunai 2. From the very first clip, I felt that this pedal was something special. It wasn’t a Tube Screamer tone – it was something altogether different. It had a much “ballsier” sound than a Tube Screamer, but seemed to clip very similarly – at least in the middle position.

Well I got one in for review just yesterday, and from the moment I hooked it up to my board and started noodling, I was in love!!! And by 2am this morning, I was spent, which accounts for why I’m doing a review of the Abunai 2 the very next day. I just couldn’t stop playing (though after the first hour I did stop to take a break and write a First Impressions article)! So today I’m a bit fuzzy and a little worse for wear, but grinning from ear-to-ear because I just spent the previous evening in absolute overdrive bliss! I know some gear is good when it can consume my attention for hours on end. This is the perfect overdrive pedal!

Features and Ease-of-Use

The features are listed in the summary section above, but the most special feature of this pedal is the three-way mini-toggle set between the drive and volume knobs. This controls the variable clipping section which gives you symmetrical, asymmetrical, and no clipping to open up lots of different overdrive tones. As far as ease-of-use is concerned, this pedal’s easy to use. Select the clipping configuration you want, adjust level, gain, and tone, and you’re off to the races!

Interestingly enough, I wanted to get some background information on the pedal before I received it, so I had a nice conversation with Rob at Tone Merchants about the Abunai 2. He indicated that I’d have to spend a lot of time dialing in just the right overdrive tone I wanted, but once I got it, I’d be totally happy. Call me lucky, but I set everything in the middle position to start with, spent maybe 20 seconds twiddling the knobs, and found a sweet spot. I suppose it also all depends on how discerning or nit-picky you are… I’ll just call it luck for my experience. 🙂

How It Sounds

Many words come to mind with respect to how the Abunai 2 sounds: Killer, Inspirational, Ballsy, F-in’ Incredible! All of the above. To date, this is the best-sounding overdrive pedal I’ve ever played, and I’ve played a lot. You know how taken I was with the OCD, but even that lost out to the Holy Fire, which is yet another killer overdrive/distortion that will never leave my board – actually I shouldn’t say “never” because that’s exactly what I said about my Tube Screamer. It’s not transparent – at least not nearly as transparent as the Holy Fire – but the tone it produces is so damn sweet, who the hell cares about transparency? But that said, the tone of your amp doesn’t really change a lot. It just takes on a slightly different character, and that difference is simply wonderful

No matter what toggle position you go with, the Abunai 2 serves up lots of sustain that gives the resultant tone a very 3-dimensional quality. It’s in your face, but at the same time it’s very spacious – even when it’s simulating tube compression!

In case  you missed the previous article where I described how each position sounds, let me rehash it here. Note that I’m not going to try to identify which position refers to symmetrical, asymmetrical or no-clipping; only what it sounds like to my ears.

Middle

The middle position sounds much like a classic overdrive tone. It’s an open type of distortion tone with a nice grind that’s never harsh. This could be the closest you get to a Tube Screamer tone, but it’s significantly different from that tone. This is a great toggle position for playing dirty rhythm parts.

Left

To my ears, this position sounds much like the tone you get as your power tubes start to saturate. You get a bit more voltage sag, resulting in more sustain and compression, but the overdrive tone still remains fairly open. And like an amp whose power tubes are starting to saturate, you get a slight volume drop. So far, this has been my favorite toggle position for leads.

Right

This position simulates fully saturated power tubes adding tons of compression, tons of sustain, and the expected drop in volume as a result -it’s spongy. I compensated for this by adding some clean boost to get the volume back to unity gain. But despite that, notes are clear, and the dynamics are still incredible.

Here’s a sound clip I recorded at around 1am this morning. I played both parts using my Prestige Heritage Elite. For the rhythm part, I set the toggle in the middle position, rolled off the drive to about 10 am, set the gain to unity, and placed the tone dead-center. I had both my ‘buckers engaged for this part. For the lead, I used the left toggle position, upped volume to about 2pm, set the Tone wide open, and set the Drive to about 1pm. The lead was played through my bridge pickup.

I tracked the rhythm part in a single take, and then loop recorded the lead so I could just jam. I’m not sure what iteration the loop was in when I finally stopped. All I know was that it was about 2am, and I took the last “take” and exported the clip to an MP3.

Overall Impressions

As I mentioned above, my head’s fuzzy, I’m a little worse for wear, plus my fingertips hurt from playing so long last night. But what the hell! I was in complete tonal bliss! The Abunai 2 is an absolute dream come true in overdrive tone! This is a pedal that you just have to check out if you’re in the market!

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Steve Ray Vaughn
Ahhh… the venerable SRV in a classic guitarists pose. I used to think that was just something rock stars did for publicity shots, and that the poses were contrived. But then as I’ve delved more and more deeply into improvisation, I’ve realized it’s not contrived at all. That kind of pose or expression is all part of what can be called “gettin’ in the zone.” The Zen masters call the “the zone” the state of satori, where thought and action are one; where your consciousness is at a height where whatever enters your mind you do. From the perspective of playing guitar, the awareness of what your body is actually doing is lost. Your focus is entirely on expressing the music you’re playing.

For instance, have you ever been playing one day and just get into the groove of a song, close your eyes, and just let your fingers do the talking? You’re completely aware of the song, but that’s pretty much all you’re aware of; and when you play, it’s pure expression. I had recently had this experience. I was playing on top of a simple chord progression in D, and the song came to a part where I had a rather long lead break. A few years ago, I would’ve been terrified to do play such a long solo, but I’ve really started to get comfortable with my playing to handle something like this. Luckily for me, it was not a fast song. 🙂 But in any case, after the first few bars, I got into this groove where I didn’t worry about technique nor worry about how I was playing a phrase. I just played. It was pure expression.

After the gig, a few people came up to me and said that when I was playing, I had this look of pure rapture on my face. I replied, “Really? I thought I was just playing. Gawd, I hope I didn’t look like a poser weenie…” One of the folks was a guitarist and told me that it was genuine. He said, “Dude, you were in your own world.” I just chuckled because I was totally unaware of my posture or body language. I was completely focused on playing. I was really in the zone.

I think a lot of my latest inspiration is that I now have gear that gives me the tone that I’ve been after for awhile, and while I realize that 90% of your tone comes from your hands, having gear that facilitates your playing just adds to your inspiration. For me, I’m playing what I believe to be the absolutely perfect amp in my Aracom VRX22. The cleans are absolutely spectacular on any guitar I play with it, and that clean channel is the most pedal-friendly channel I’ve ever played. The drive channel on that just sings and sustains beautifully. I know, I know… I rave about this amp a lot, but I’ve searched high and low for an amp like this, and now that I’ve found it, it’s like I’ve died and gone to heaven!

I’d be interested in hearing your “in the zone” experiences. Feel free to share ’em!

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Wow! Goldie’s, my Saint Guitars Goldtop Messenger is really starting to take shape. In this next set of photos, Adam has cut and shaped the general profile for the Goldtop’s neck, and the neck is ready for final shaping. As the pictures progress, the neck curve is really becoming evident. As far as the neck profile is concerned, the radius at the nut is 12″. Adam typically uses a wide profile, but as my fingers are kind of short, playing up high on the neck can be difficult. So to compensate, Adam will gradually tapered the neck curve to be a flatter C near the body than at the nut. By the way, the wood here is rock maple.

Every time I see pictures of the progress of this guitar, I start to salivate in anticipation.

For more information on Saint Guitars, go to the Saint Guitar Company web site!

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audrey_hypnosis

I recently read a press release on Harmony Central where this company, Hypnobusters, has just released a self-hypnosis audio to improve your guitar playing. I snickered at first because when the word “hypnosis” is mentioned, my gut reaction is, “Yeah, right… just some more of that New Age crap…” But then again, over the years, I’ve developed meditation techniques to help focus and quiet my consciousness to develop and extend my “chi” (for those martial artists out there), and even so far as performing self-healing. In a way, those meditation techniques are a form of self-hypnosis. And if I’ve used self-hypnosis to accomplish different things, why not apply it to guitar playing?

The mind is a very powerful tool. And if you have the ability to quiet your consciousness, and filter out the hustle and bustle of your waking mind, you’ll find that you can much more clearly analyze different subjects or help steer yourself towards accomplishing many things. It’s not hocus-pocus. It’s pure focus.

For instance, have you ever been playing guitar at a gig or in the studio, and you close your eyes because you’re so in tune with the song that what you’re doing is just pure expression? While you’re in that “groove,” nothing else exists. It’s just you and your axe reverberating with the song. That, my friends, is a form of self-hypnosis. That’s happened to me many times in my studio, and when I listen to the printed track, I’m sometimes in total disbelief that I actually played what I played! I’m not really all that good of a soloist, so I suppose any clean take is a good take. 🙂

In any case, I went to the HypnoBusters site, and found their guitar improvement page. The audio session only costs $9.95, so I said, “What the hell? I’ll give it a whirl. Besides, I could use a little mind quieting time.” And really, that’s what it’s all about – quieting your mind, and allowing yourself to explore the limits of your playing. I’ve often found that the limits of my skills on guitar aren’t merely technical – there is definitely that – but also because my conscious mind often tells me “You can’t do that.” It’s like an inherent fear. But as I break through those boundaries, I find that my actual limits are much further than what my conscious mind tells me.

I’ll give this audio a try, and report back. I’m not sure that it’ll make me a better player – that’s purely up to me. But one thing I know about things like this: They help you give yourself the permission to improve.

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PMS

What’s the difference between a terrorist and a woman with PMS? You can negotiate with a terrorist. 🙂

Joking aside, I’m actually serious that PMS can be a good thing, especially for the guitar-playing husband. Let me share my story…

My wife gets PMS – BADLY. It comes on suddenly, sneaking up from behind, and whacking me smack in the back of the head before I have any time to react. One day I’m Super Man and can do no wrong. The next day I’m the Antichrist and everything that’s wrong in her world is all my fault.

Sound familiar?

I used to fight back all the time, and we’d get into these huge shouting matches, usually with me leaving in a huff, calling my best friend, then going down to the local watering hole so both of us could complain about our PMS-ing wives while burying our anger in a cocktail or four (honestly, we have a two-drink maximum because we usually have to work the next day).

But I’ve learned a new tactic: That is simply to not put any energy into fighting back against something I can’t control – and neither can my wonderful wife. Instead, I play the guitar. As in the second line of the graphic, I “Move out of the way.” I will also do some simple maintenance things around the house like scrubbing the kitchen floors (it’s actually a big job) before she has time to complain that I’m not doing anything. Once I’m done with my little chore, I then retreat to my garage/studio to play and let out the pent-up stress by practicing or writing music.

A lot of my best stuff has come from pining away, pondering why I’m going through my private hell at the hands of the woman I love, who doesn’t realize how ragingly bitchy she’s being. In fact, my latest instrumental, “Running from the Future” was written when I just got my feelings trampled, “hiding out” and sipping a shot of fine scotch in my studio. The ultimate thought that triggered the song had nothing to do with how I was feeling about my wife, but that melancholy surely helped me through the writing process. Funny enough, some of the feedback I’ve gotten is that the song is really uplifting. I guess that was my response to how shitty I was feeling. I needed something to pick me up!

All that said, PMS has been a great thing. My wife leaves me alone when I do the chores, and I can be free to play guitar. Hmmm…. looks like the kitchen counters need clearing. 🙂

Care to share your PMS Protection Plan? 🙂

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Aracom Amps VRX22 - First in the series

Aracom Amps VRX22 - First in the series

You ever play some gear that from the moment you start playing, you feel like you’ve died and gone to tone heaven? In the last few years, and especially in the last couple since I started writing this blog, I’ve literally played hundreds of different types of gear, covering the spectrum of all things guitar, from guitars to effects to amps. I don’t have enough time to write about all the things I’ve played, but to keep my content fresh, and to satisfy my overwhelming curiosity about different types of gear, I’m constantly trying stuff out.

And in all that time, and through all that gear, I’ve only had some gear totally slay me once: That was when I played the very first prototype of the Aracom VRX22. The back story is pretty cool, so I’ll share it with you…

Several months back, Jeff Aragaki contacted me on my blog asking if he could buy ad space. I replied that I didn’t want to commercialize my site, but if he’d be willing to send me an amp to review I’d put his logo on my “The Dawg Digs” area if I really loved his product. Fortunately for both him and me, he only lives about 40 minutes away, so he delivered what was once called the “RoxBox,” an 18 Watt, EL84-based amp. I had this thing about EL84-based amps for awhile, and was really excited to try a non-brand-name amp; not to mention that I was entirely intrigued by the fact that that hand-wired head cost only $895! That evaluation turned into testing and reviewing several of Jeff’s amps over the next few months from heads to combos with different configurations. Talk about feeling lucky to have so much gear to play with!

Jeff and I have become fast friends. We’re contemporaries not only from our obsession with vintage gear (or any kind of gear for that matter), but we’re almost the same age, and are both local boys from the Silicon Valley. Jeff’s a great guy, and someone I really enjoy spending time with; plus he’s super smart, and I like to be around smart people. 🙂

Anyway, a couple of months ago, Jeff called me up and said, “Hey Brendan, I’ve been working on an experiment with the RoxBox, and popped a couple of 6V6’s in the amp to see what it would sound like.”

“Oh?” I replied, “That sounds quite interesting. I dig 6V6’s a lot. They have a sweet, open distortion when they’re saturated.”

“Yeah, they do,” said Jeff, “Anyway, I was wondering if you’d like to test it out.”

I immediately replied, “Need you ask? Bring it on over!”

A couple of days later, Jeff brought the amp over to the messy garage I call my home studio. We plugged it in, I hooked up my Strat, and Jeff switched on the amp. I took one test strum in the clean channel, stopped and asked, “What did you do? This f-in thing sounds incredible! Let me play a few licks…”

Jeff didn’t say anything. He just smiled, and let me play for awhile. After a few minutes he said, “Okay, try out channel 2, so you can hear the overdrive,” at which point he plugged me into the second channel, then cranked the volume.

The amp literally sang with this beautifully smooth overdrive tone, chock full of overtones and harmonics. The tone was on the bright side, similar to the Reason SM25 that I was testing, but was rich and thick, and ballsy. I just closed my eyes and smiled, luxuriating in pure tonal heaven!

When I came out of my trance, I looked at Jeff and said, “Dude, I think you’re onto something really special here. You know I’ve played tons of different amps, but this one’s special. It’s the best-sounding amp I’ve played of yours to date; and ranks very high on my overall list. Are you thinking of putting it into production?”

“Maybe. I wanted to get your feedback. I still have some stuff to do on it, but I’m really liking the tone of this amp,” Jeff replied.

“Yeah… You’ve just piqued my curiosity.”

Fast-forward a week and I get another call from Jeff. “Hey Brendan! I worked out the power handling of the amp. The one you tested wasn’t outputting at the full 22 Watts, so I made some adjustments and now it’s running at full power. To me, it sounds even better. Anyway, I’m going away on a business trip for a couple of weeks, and I’ll leave it with you to test.”

So Jeff dropped it off a couple of days later, and test it I did. I took it to gigs, recorded some clips with it, and fell in love with it even more. Jeff was right, the power handling adjustments he made turned that amp into a pure tone machine.

When Jeff got back from his trip, we met for lunch, so I could give the amp back, and give him feedback. He asked, “So how did you like the amp?”

I replied, “Uh… the word is love. I’ll keep on testing your other amps, but this is the amp I want to buy. Everything about it is perfect. The clean channel has oodles of clean headroom, and the sag you’ve built into the simulator makes it sound like the amp has a reverb. The drive channel is like nothing I’ve played before. Quite simply, Jeff, this is the perfect amp!”

Jeff just chuckled, and said a very understated, “Glad you like it.”

Since then, I’ve purchased the amp – I got the very first in the series! And while I realize that my excitement about this amp is purely subjective, other people who’ve played this amp – WAY, WAY better guitar players than me – have been just as blown away by its tone. The other day, Jeff asked me to meet him over at Gelb Music in Redwood City to show Jordan, the guitar department manager, my VRX22 (Gelb carries Aracom Amps on consignment – for now 🙂 ). I just chuckled when he plugged a guitar into the drive channel, cranked it up, and let it rip. He didn’t play more than 30 seconds before he said, “This amp rocks! It’s real ballsy and has tons of harmonics. Wow!”

Jordan had to help customers on the floor, so he gave the guitar over to another customer named Chris with whom Jeff and I had been chatting while waiting for Jordan. Chris sat down, and started to rip it up! He played with this hybrid picking technique that was just amazing to observe, and he made the VRX22 absolutely sing! I knew it sounded good, but in the hands of a truly gifted player like Chris, it was other-worldly!

Jordan returned a few minutes later to listen to Chris play. Mind you, it was loud. Chris was plugged into a 65 Amps 2 X12 cabinet and had the amp cranked. Jordan turned to me, and with a quizzical look on his face asked, “This is YOUR amp?”

I just laughed because I knew what he was thinking – he was hoping that it was an inventory amp so he could buy it himself. I said, “Yup. You thinking about getting one for yourself?”

Jordan just smiled and nodded his affirmative. We finally had to turn down the amp, and Jeff and I had to go, and as we were leaving, Jordan asked Jeff, “So what’s the turnaround time for when we order?”

Jeff said, “Between two to four weeks.”

“Cool. That’s just about right. Hey! Thanks for bringing the amp over, guys! Man that thing has f$ckin balls…” with a huge grin on his face, “That’s all we ask…” and he laughed.

I laughed with him. Jordan is a real bad-ass player himself, and when he has this type of reaction, I know he thinks it’s special. I told Jeff he better build two: One for the store, and one for Jordan.

Folks, I realize you might think I’m full of it when I say that the VRX22 is the perfect amp. But Jeff is really onto something with this amp. I’d put it head to head against a Dr. Z MAZ or a Buddha any day. I actually played a Dr. MAZ the other day. It’s a great amp. But guess what? The VRX22 is only $895 for the head! That’s almost half of what other hand-wired, boutique amps cost! Yeah, it doesn’t have a tube rectifier – the VRX22 is designed with a solid state rectifier for extra punch and it has a sag circuit to provide the vintage vibe. And in case you’re concerned that a solid-state rectifier means lower quality, I just have one thing to say: So what? Lots of vintage amps such as classic Marshall Plexi’s and many Fender amps use solid-state rectifiers. Besides, it’s the tone that matters, and compared to the MAZ, which is really nice, expressive amp, the VRX22 has a much bigger sound.

Fantastic sound for an unbelievable price? SOLD!

Disclaimer: I want to make it absolutely clear. Jeff doesn’t pay me to do reviews or pay me to give nothing but positive feedback. He calls me up to say he’s got some gear for me to test, and I test it, then write a review. To date, I haven’t received any bad gear from him, so I haven’t given his gear a less than stellar review. You might think this from the rave reviews I’m giving the VRX22, but just to alleviate any concerns about me having an affiliation with Jeff other than being a friend, remember that I clearly stated that I bought the amp. What I’m sharing is my excitement. And showing it to the folks at Gelb? That was purely a favor. I simply had the fortune of being able to play with the prototypes. It is truly a magical amp!

Click here for more information on the VRX22 and other excellent Aracom amps!

Share your slayer experience!

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