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Archive for the ‘Red Bear Trading’ Category

Every once in awhile, I contribute blog entries to JemSite, the largest Ibanez gear site with over 750,000 members. It’s an old board. With this installment, I talk about the virtues of using a high-end pick. Check out the article!

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I recently started a friendship with Vinni Smith at V-Picks – what a cool dude! Not only does he make great picks, but that man can make an axe sing! Anyway, I was e-mailing him this evening about how his “The Snake” pickup has changed my life, and it got me to thinking about specific pieces of gear that have had a drastic effect on how I approach the guitar. I’ll share them here in kind of a loose chronology:

1. The Kyser Capo

Yeah, lots of people call ’em “cheaters,” but screw ’em. I couldn’t play lots of songs without one. But the Kyser capo in particular really changed my approach, especially after I saw James Taylor playing with one. For years, I used a standard nylon strap type of capo that just basically stayed in place. But then I saw JT playing with a Kyser. I always wondered how he did his mid-song key changes. I used to think he just changed his hand position and played barre chords. But I’ll be damned if he didn’t just slide the capo up, then just played open chords in another key. That was it! I was sold.

2. Ovation Celebrity Deluxe

After my beloved “Betsy” (a Yamaha FG-335 acoustic) broke in a terrible fall, I immediately went in search of a new guitar. I played all sorts in this used gear store and came across this gorgeous sunset burst Ovation. I wasn’t much of an Ovation fan – thought they were really tinny sounding. But when I played this one, it had a much deeper sound than the Ovations I’d played up to that point, and it was a shallow body, no less. When I plugged it into an amp, it sounded even better! That guitar got me into amplified sound. So of course, in addition to buying the guitar, I also got a small Roland 25 Watt practice amp. What a life changer that was.

3. Fender Hot Rod Deluxe

This was my very first tube amp, and an amp that I still use because of how good it sounds… er… I’ve had some modifications done to it, but nevertheless, being my first tube amp, it exposed me to a whole new world of tonal possibilities. Up to that point, I’d played only solid state amps from a Roland JC-12o to a Line 6 Flextone III to a Roland Cube 60 (which I still have – it’s an awesome amp). The Hot Rod showed me the wonders and beauty of tube amp distortion which is nothing like what you get with solid state amps.

4. Ibanez Tube Screamer

There are overdrive boxes, and there are overdrive boxes. But the Tube Screamer is THE classic overdrive box, and the oldest pedal on my board. I’ve of course fallen in love with other OD’s like the Creation Audio Labs Holy Fire, but the Tube Screamer had a real huge effect on how I looked at tone and established what pleases me the most with respect to breakup. It’s a great pedal (though I’m really psyched about testing the Tone Freak Effects Abunai 2).

5. Blizzard Pearl Fender 60th Diamond Anniversary Stratocaster

I love that classic, vintage sound, and this guitar delivered it from the moment I played it. Yeah, it’s made in Mexico, it cost me less than $400 new, but I chose it over Strats five times its price. Why? Because it kicked the shit out of the other guitars. It was THE guitar that convinced me that it’s not the price you pay but the tone you produce that matters. Since I’ve gotten her, I play “Pearl” every day. She’s the first guitar I go to when working on a new song. What a wonderful instrument.

6. Saint Guitar Company “Baby Blue” Benchmark

This isn’t my guitar, and I no longer have it in my studio, but this was the very first guitar that was made to my personal specifications. There is nothing like playing a guitar that’s made to order. The experience is surreal, and started me down this path of playing a custom guitar. Adam’s going to be building me one in the next few months – I’m keeping that one. 🙂

7. Reason Amps SM25 Combo

Even though I love my Hot Rod, the SM25 marks a time when I’ve gotten super-serious about my tone. I’d played a bunch of amps, but this amp showed me that sometimes you do have to pay to get stellar tone – and it’s worth every penny. Lots of manufacturers have created amps that run their channels in series, but I haven’t come across one amp yet that does it as well as Obeid Kahn and Anthony Bonadio. They’ve come up with an amp, cab, and speaker combo that’s like nothing I’ve played before – and I’ve played some awesome amps.

8. Creation Audio Labs Mk.4.23 Clean Boost

I used to think clean boosts were just to help punch a solo through the mix. I didn’t know that they could be used to slam the pre-amps of a tube amp to produce super-overdrive in an amp that no distortion or overdrive pedal can give you. But this one’s very special in that it adds no tonal artifacts of its own – it’s uncanny. What it does is boost the natural sound of your guitar, and when slamming the front-end of amp, gives you the true overdriven tone of your amp. This is a piece of gear that I cannot do without any longer, and it now has a permanent place on my board.

9. Red Bear Picks

I never thought I’d buy a handmade pick, nor pay $20 for one no less. But Red Bear Trading TortisTM picks truly changed my life. I now use Red Bears exclusively for playing acoustic guitar. They sound great with electric as well – I’ll get to that below when I talk about V-Picks – but no pick I’ve ever played has made my Ovation sound so good. These picks look and feel like natural tortoise shell, but they’re made from a polymer of milk protein. No matter, they’re awesome picks!

10. Aracom Amps RoxBox 22 Watt (soon to be released)

This diminutive amp oozes 6V6 goodness. It’s still kind of in the prototype phase so I can’t really write too much about it, but I think my friend Jeff Aragaki has hit a real sweet spot with this amp. Get this: It’s hand-wired, though it uses a solid state rectifier, and it costs less than $1000! The profound thing about this is you can indeed get boutique caliber gear at a great price. But for me personally, this amp is the very first boutique amp I’m buying. Oh, I’ll eventually get the Reason SM25 to run in parallel with this one, 🙂 but this amp is special because it’s the first boutique amp I will ever have owned.

11. V-Picks “The Snake”

As I mentioned above, I’ve befriended Vinni Smith, and I just dig the dude! He knows so much about guitar, and we’ve shared a lot of the same experiences, and love the same kind of music (his favorite guitar solo is the lead break in the middel of Frampton’s Do You Feel Like We Do – my favorite as well). When we first met, Vinni sent me a large sample of his picks, which I compared head-to-head with my Red Bear picks. Of course, I love my Red Bear Classic B-style Heavy, but when I played the comparable V-Picks Standard on my electric guitars, I just couldn’t believe this sound and action I was getting! So I decided to use my Red Bears for acoustic – as I said, nothing sounds better than a Red Bear on acoustic. But for electric, it was going to be V-Picks all the way. Then during a conversation we were having a couple of weeks ago, Vinni told me he’d send me his Snake picks. These are a whopping 4.1 mm thick, with a different bevel than his others. Since I’ve gotten them, I’m never going to use anything on electric guitar than the Snake! I use the rounded for a smoother, fatter tone, and use the pointy for bright attack tones – especially when I’m doing stuff on the bridge pickup! These two picks have totally changed my approach to playing electric. Thick picks in general did that, but these are the thickest I’ve played, and they absolutely ROCK THE HOUSE!

12. May 30, 2010 – I know, a bit late on the uptake here with this one, but life-changing nonetheless, and that is my Aracom Power Rox PRX150-Pro attenuator. This is the first attenuator that I’ve used that truly stays transparent down to bedroom levels. It is the only attenuator that accurately gives me my cranked up tone at low volume levels, and it is absolutely wonderful! I know there are others out there, but knowing that they’re modeled after existing attenuator designs that I know don’t sound very good at low volume levels, it was a no-brainer for me to choose this one. As Doug Doppler said to me in a recent visit to his home, “This thing has saved my ears!” Even Joe Satriani uses one of these units and loves it! That’s how good it is!

Okay, that’s it for me… Anyone care to share what gear has changed their lives?

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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!

V-Picks Medium Rounded and Medium Pointed Picks

V-Picks Medium Rounded and Medium Pointed Picks

V-Picks Medium Rounded and Medium Pointed Picks

Summary: Super-fast, super-responsive plectrums that will take your guitar playing to another level!

Pros: Whether you play with pointy or rounded corners, these picks will give you more technical accuracy, and sweeter tone than you can imagine!

Cons: None.

Price: $4.00 ea

Specs:

  • Hand-ground and hand-buffed
  • Various thicknesses available

Tone Bone Rating: 5.0 – Like Red Bear picks, once you play with picks like these, you’ll never go back to your old picks.

Okay, I’m sold. V-Picks are absolutely awesome! Yeah, I’m a Red Bear lover, but I love these equally, but for kind of different reasons and applications. For acoustic, my Red Bears absolutely rule. I couldn’t wait to get home to do yet another comparison test, and for flatpicking and strumming on an acoustic, my Red Bears (Style B Medium and Heavy), completely did it for me. They produce rich and warm tones, and chime like I’ve never heard from my guitar. They really are a strummer’s dream come true. But for all-around electric playing, V-Picks, especially the medium sized pointed and rounded picks, just make my heart sing! Not that the Red Bears sound bad on electric- they don’t. But there’s something about the brighter tones the V-Picks produce compared to the natural, warm tone of the Red Bears, that sound much more pleasing to me on electric guitar. Of course, this all boils down to personal preference as I mentioned in my previous article from earlier today.

So what’s the big deal? It’s all in the sound, baby! And to demonstrate, I created a sound sample. In the sample, I play a scale in E major starting on the 3rd string on the 9th fret. The first clip is with the Dunlop Tortex Medium (Orange), to provide a reference point. The second clip is played with the V-Picks Medium Rounded, and the third clip is played with V-Picks Medium Pointed.

If you listen carefully, the difference in how the clips sound is subtle, but important. With the Tortex, there is actually a very slight delay between when a string is struck and when sound is produced. It kind of screwed me up when I moved to the medium rounded, but the thing to notice there is that the tone is thicker and much more well-rounded. In the third clip, I moved to the pointed pick. I got the same bright tone that the Tortex produced, but the tone is much smoother and more refined and defined.

Another huge difference in playing the three scales was that with the Tortex, I didn’t feel like I had much control. Even though I stayed on tempo (I had a metronome set at 120bps that I was playing to), I no longer felt confident with that pick. On the other hand, with the V-Picks picks, I felt like I was in total control, and in fact, felt like I could go A LOT faster!

I could write more, but why? The sound bite says it all! And no, I didn’t purposely play bad with the Tortex. In fact, if anything, I tried to be as accurate as possible with the Tortex so I could give a fair representation. I was even a bit sloppy with the second clip, using the medium rounded, but the tone was so much smoother than the Tortex, despite my technical mistakes.

My days of buying bags of cheap-ass picks are over, folks! With my V-Picks and Red Bears, I’m now in tonal heaven! I can’t say enough about these picks, folks! You gotta go out and try them!

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Red Bear Trading Style B Heavy Pick

v_pick_medium_rounded1

As many may know, after 35+ years of playing, I switched from my favorite picks, medium Dunlop Tortex, to Red Bear picks. Since then, my playing has really taken on a different dimension. I feel a lot more confident with my playing as these thick, natural feeling picks have made me much more accurate, and really bring out the tone of my guitars. It’s truly amazing!

But over the past weekend, my friend Adam Hernandez of Saint Guitar Company, called me up and told me about his friend Vinni Smith, creator of the V-Pick, another high-end pick. In our conversation, he shared that he had told Vinni about my site, and told him to contact me to see if I’d review his picks.

I had heard of V-Picks from people on the various forums I either lurk or participate in, and I was very curious about them, and wondered how they’d compare to my beloved Red Bears. So I beat Vinni to the punch, and contact him, at which point he said he’d send me a few to check out.

I finally got them yesterday. I guess Vinni’s idea of “sending a few” is much different than mine. I was thinking he’d send maybe three or four; instead, he sent me pretty much the spectrum of the picks he makes! What a guy!

Anyway, I was too tired to test them out last night, so I decided to try a few out at a church service I did this morning. I also took my Red Bears to do a head-to-head comparison. Just as expected, these picks had the same effect on me that the Red Bears have. When you’re playing effortlessly, and the strings chime like they’ve never chimed before, it evokes a visceral, almost primitive feeling that takes you to another dimension. That’s what playing with a great pick does for me, at least.

So considering how V-Picks also evoke the same type of emotions in me as my Red Bears, how do I rate them? Well, of course, I have to give them a 5 Tone Bones score. But if you were ask me which are better, I’m going to be completely non-committal and say that it really boils down to personal preference. To me, they both kick ass! But let me take some time to share some of my insights on how they stack up against each other:

Feel

With respect to feel in my hand, both Red Bear and V-Picks feel great. But the big difference for me is that the Red Bears feel – for lack of a better word – natural. They really do feel like natural tortoise shell. Please don’t read this as a negative with respect to a V-Pick. It also feels great. It’s just different.

Tone

For this test, I chose a similarly sized and pointed V-Pick to compare against a Red Bear Style B Heavy pick. With strumming, both picks produced gorgeous, warm and ringing tone. But I could detect a bit more highs out of the V-Pick, which made the tone sound just a tad bit more lively, while a strum with the Red Bear was much more balanced. Both tones were fantastic, though, so no clear winner in this department. However, I did also test out a couple of the really pointy V-Picks that Vinni sent to me, and whoa! These sounded awesome for picking individual strings. They also produced a very bright, almost jangly tone during strumming. Since I didn’t have anything equivalent with a Red Bear, I couldn’t make a comparison, though I imagine the response would be similar.

But here’s a very interesting thing that I found myself inadvertently doing during my little gig this morning. Depending upon the song, I’d use a different pick to elicit different sounds from my acoustic. When I wanted a really bright sound, I’d use the V-Picks pointy. When I wanted a warm, rich strum, I’d use the Red Bear. Something in the middle, I’d use a rounded V-Pick. I don’t know how practical that is with a full band, but it sure worked for me working solo, where it was just me and my acoustic.

And the winner is…

Neither or Both. Er… There is no winner. For me what it boils down to is personal preference. Both picks are awesome-sounding. And based upon my experience this morning, I’m going to start buying both kinds because of the different shades of tones I can get out each. I’ve read some lively discussions comparing these, but frankly, most of the people who contributed to these discussions had played only one kind of either. I’ve had the fortune to play a few styles of both, which explains while I’m very non-committal about declaring a clear winner; because from my point of view, there simply isn’t one with respect to feel and tone.

So I’m going to endorse both picks because they’re both great. But if you’re after advice on which to choose, then choose one based on how it feels. I love the feel of the Red Bear, maybe a tad bit better than the V-Pick. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a better pick, which is why I recommend you play both kinds and make a decision on what feels best for you. I will add that Red Bear doesn’t have a super pointy pick, so if you’re after something like that, then V-Picks is what you’re looking for!

Notice I didn’t mention anything about price. If it boiled down to that, then V-Picks wins hands-down. Most V-Picks cost $4.00, while Red Bears cost $20.00. But be aware that Red Bear picks are rough-cut, then hand shaped, so there’s lot of labor that goes into them, plus you’re dealing with a polymer made from a natural source. On the other hand, V-Picks are molded, then buffed, so the labor is a lot less.

CORRECTION: (2/11/09 )Vinni contacted me about how he makes his picks. Actually only a few are molded, the rest are cut and hand ground. So my bad…

Personally, price of the picks is one topic on this blog where I’ll say that is less important a factor in the decision-making process, which kind of goes against the grain of what GuitarGear.org is all about. The reason I’m de-emphasizing price is because on the grand scale of things, once you’ve spent a few grand on guitars and amps, whether you spend $4 or $20 on a pick is pretty inconsequential. So the decision should rest on how the pick feels and sounds to you.

Finally…

The one thing that V-Picks does have over Red Bear picks, is that because the picks are made from acrylic, Vinni can offer a much greater range of thicknesses with his picks. For instance, he can go all the way down to .5mm. I have one of these and while it flexes like my Dunlop Tortex, it still beats the shit out of it. On the other hand, because of the material, Red Bear picks start at 1.0 mm. But I do have to say that I don’t know for sure if there is a lower limit. It could be there is, but perhaps there’s just not demand for picks thinner than a millimeter. Be that as it may, with either V-Picks are Red Bear, you have a variety of styles to choose from.

Another thing you might consider is durability. V-Picks are acrylic, and that is a VERY hard material. It’s tough to scratch, and from what I could tell, these picks will not wear down very quickly. Red Bear picks on the other hand, do wear down, and as they are made from a natural material, need some special care. You occasionally have to rebuff them. But frankly, it’s something I’d expect from a more expensive pick made from natural material. But if you don’t want to fuss with that kind of stuff, then V-Picks is the answer.

As a special treat, I found a video of Vinni Smith giving a lesson on YouTube. This dude is a BAD-ASS guitar player! Rock on, Vinni!

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Red Bear Trading Style B Heavy Pick

Red Bear Trading Style B Heavy Pick

Red Bear Trading Style B Heavy Pick

Summary: Thick, meaty hand-made pick from Red Bear Trading. You might think a pick doesn’t really matter until you play one of these picks. They’re totally awesome!

Pros: Thick and tactile, this heavy pick gives you instance response as soon as you strike a string. Chords seem to ring out better. Don’t be fooled by the thickness – the beveling makes this pick glide across the strings!

Cons: None

Price: $20

Okay, I admit it, I am now a true believer in hand-made picks! I wrote a review about Red Bear picks a few weeks ago. In the article I asked, “Does a pick really make that much of a difference?” After nearly a month playing with a Style B Medium, and now a Style B Heavy, I can undeniably say that it makes all the difference in the world! In this short span of time, I’ve become a better player, and while I attribute that to quite a bit of practice, I have to attribute a lot of my recent improvements in both tone and attack to the pick I’ve been using. I don’t say this lightly: These picks have totally changed my life with respect to my guitar playing!

When you first hold one of these picks, your first reaction is: Damn! This thing is thick! And while its smooth texture kind of sticks to your skin, it absolutely glides over your strings. And because of its thickness, it produces sound much faster than conventional nylon picks that need to be before they make a sound. The sound the picks produce is also much more crisp.

For instance, playing my Ovation acoustic/electric, I’ve never heard it ring the way it rings – and it’s because of the pick. I’ve had that guitar for over 15 years now, and it quite frankly has never sounded this good! It always sounded awesome to me because of its thick tone. But when I strum it with one of these picks, it now has a gorgeous chime! F-in’ A!

At first blush, you might think that paying $20 for a pick is just way too much. But how much would you pay for good tone? We guitarists spend literally thousands on guitars and amps and racks and pedals and other accessories every year! But most of us tend to play them with inferior plectrums, never knowing what we’re missing by making a relatively small investment compared to the vast sums we spend on other gear. Sure, our standard picks are cheap, and it’s okay to lose them, but there is absolutely NOTHING that compares to the tone you can produce with a hand-made pick. And once you play with a great pick, you’ll never go back to the cheapo picks again.

To be honest and fair, Red Bear is not the only one who makes handmade picks. But Dave is the only plectrum maker who uses TortisTM, a polymer made from animal protein that looks and feels EXACTLY like tortoise shell. Dave has mastered cutting and shaping of the material, something no one else who has tried to work with it has been able to do.

What’s so special about this material? If you speak with people who have played with tortoise shell picks, they’ll tell you about how good it feels to play with one. But by the same token, to play with tortoise shell means that a sea turtle had to be sacrificed to create the pick. On the other hand, Tortis feels like real tortoise shell. In fact, when Dave first sent out his first prototypes, people told him he was full of shit when he said the picks weren’t tortoise shell! That’s how natural these feel!

As I mentioned in the previous article, Dweezil Zappa swears by these! And for good reason. The sound they produce, and how they make your playing much more precise is an absolute inspiration! For more info, and to order them, go to Red Bear Trading!

If you live in the SF Bay Area, and especially near Palo Alto, you can also get them at Gryphon Stringed Instruments.

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Red Bear Trading CompanyRunning a blog like mine is always rewarding; not just because of all the gear I get to play with but because of the incredible people I get to meet. Among them is Dave Skowron, maker of Red Bear picks and co-owner (with his wife) of Red Bear Trading company. If you read the previous article I posted today, you’d know I’m truly excited about these picks! They look and feel great, and if you didn’t know any better, you’d swear they’re natural tortoise shell. In fact, when Dave made his first prototypes for some friends in Nashville, they all said he was full of it when he told them they were made from a polymer made of animal protein that looks and feels just like tortoise shell. I’ve never had a tortoise shell pick, but I have felt antique stuff made of natural tortoise shell, and this stuff is close – damn close!

But whatever it’s made of, who cares? These picks are special. You wouldn’t think a guitar pick could make a difference in how you’d sound and play, but you’d be wrong. I know I was because I’m now a convert. But I’m also not any big name, so let me drop one: Dweezil Zappa swears by these picks! He shared a story with Dave about how he spent seven days a week for a year and a half woodshedding to learn his father’s songs in preparation for the “Zappa Plays Zappa” tour. He related to Dave that if he’d had been using Red Bear picks, he would’ve learned them in a few months. The point is that these picks not only make you sound better, they make you play better. I can personally attest to that! Whether you play acoustic or electric or both, you can’t go wrong with one of these picks. In fact, you can use the same pick for both types of guitars! I do.

In my excitement about Dave’s picks, I gave him a call to interview him. Funny thing, I really didn’t have to ask many questions, as Dave is a garralous and talkative guy, who’s got no problem speaking his mind. It was a real joy speaking with him. Here’s a transcript (a lot of it paraphrased) of my conversation with him:

So Dave, what’s your story? How did you get started with making picks?

I was a programmer by trade, specializing in Oracle DBA stuff, but I was also really into playing guitar. One thing led to another and I started building guitar. I made a couple, then started getting into building parts for guitar. I was hanging out on the Vintage Guitar forum before it closed, and met a bunch of other guys who were into building guitars. When that forum closed down, I started the 13th Fret web site. One of the guys that hung out there was a luthier who was looking for some tortoise shell-like material for making pick guards, and he came up with a compound that looked just like it, and he made some picks from it. The problem was that it worked great as a material pick guard, but horribly sucked as pick material. So he searched and found a company that made tortoise shell-like material that was great for picks, but horrible for pick guards, and asked if I could shape some.

It took a long time to refine my technique, but I was able to get some good results. So I sent some out to some friends I knew in Nashville for them to give them a try. They called back asking for more, and telling me I was full of shit that these picks weren’t made out of tortoise shell. I swore to ’em that they were made of a polymer made from animal protein. But the end result is Red Bear Trading Company.

How’d you come up with the name?

My dog’s name is Bear, and he has red hair, so “Red Bear.” [And here, I was thinking it was some Native American relationship!]

Without giving away your secret sauce, how are your picks constructed?

I get sheets of the material and use special laser cutters to cut the shapes, then use some precision sanding to get them to size and polish them up.

Sounds pretty involved.

Yeah. The stuff’s not easy to work with, which is why we charge the price we charge. In fact, some guy complained that the picks were way too expensive, so I sent him some of the material and told him to go ahead and try to fashion picks out of it, then tell me how much I should charge. <chuckle> He never did get any picks made…

[That really cracked me up!]

Did you have any idea that your picks would be such a hit, and that you’d get such a glowing endorsement from someone like Dweezil Zappa?

I never even thought we’d get that kind of response! It has been awesome! When we first started, as a bluegrass guy, I was really focused on the acoustic guitar flatpickers. I didn’t even think about the electric guitar community. But they found their way into that community. Mostly, it was the Nashville guys. These were players who were awesome guitarists in their own right, but they played for big names, so when you’d drop their name, people would say, “Who’s that?” I’d have to say that he played in so-and-so’s band. Then the light would go off, and they’d know who I was talking about. But when one of my picks found its way into Dweezil’s hands, and then he called me to get some more (which I didn’t believe at first when my wife said he was on the line), I knew we had made it. We’re so thankful to have his endorsement. He mentions our picks all the time. It is very cool.

——-

Very cool indeed. Our conversation actually went on for a long time. But I thought I’d just include the best parts. Like I said, it was a joy to speak with Dave. He’s the kind of guy that you could shoot the breeze with all day and talk about pretty much anything. He’s immediately personable and warm, and isn’t afraid of cussing when necessary – in other words, he’s real people.

This kind of stuff – the relationships I get to form with folks out there is what makes me keep on going with this blog! Cheers!

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