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Archive for the ‘Strat’ Category

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article entitled, “Where DOES TONE Really Reside?” where I discussed the equipment vs. fingers religious debate that seems to rage on the forums now and again. I meant to follow up on that article much earlier, but well, life happens and it’s easy to get sidetracked, so here’s my follow-up:

Tone is NOTHING without music.

Music gives tone a context. Here’s a good test of this statement:

  1. Set your rig up to your sweet spot; that is, where you think it just sings to you, no matter what you play.
  2. Start plucking out random notes, not trying to be musical at all. Could be some dissonant scale of some sort, or just randomly plucked notes. Do some bends and such. Ugly, right?
  3. Now, without changing your settings, make music with that tone. You could comp some chords, or do some melodic lead.

For example, here’s a clip I quickly recorded that demonstrates the steps. In the clip, I’m playing my Strat through a Hardwire reverb, into a Reason Bambino on the Normal channel, at just the edge of breakup. The tone that this produces is silky smooth, but responds to attack and volume increases with just bit of grind. I’ve been using this setting quite a bit lately. It creates a very three-dimensional sound.

The first part – thankfully – is very short, and is just random plucking of notes. Without touching anything on my guitar or amp, in the second part, I do a little chord comping and create some music.

The point to that little exercise is that in both parts, the tone I’m producing – at least to my ears – is gorgeous. But flat-out tone with no context well… it just plain sucks!

So put everything together, where does tone reside? As I stated in the first article, it’s in both your gear and your fingers, but ultimately, you have to give it context, and that’s applying that tone to music. But keep in mind that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. What is considered “great tone” is a purely subjective thing.

Cheers!

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I admit it: I’m an incurable GEAR SLUT! I jones for vintage and vintage style gear, as the music I play leans toward the blues and classic rock. And to satisfy that never-ending craving, I pore over the Internet and various magazines in search of all sorts of gear; hence, the existence of GuitarGear.org where I share with you, dear reader, the things that I come across.

Now in my search for gear, I occasionally buy things. They tend to be vintage-style modern gear because I just don’t have the money to buy real vintage gear; and that usually means I gravitate towards boutique gear; but not just any boutique gear. Remember, I don’t usually have all that much money to afford the real high-end stuff, so I spend a lot of my scouring my information resources to find boutique gear that I can afford. That’s what gravitated me towards Aracom Amps.

When I saw the price of a VRX series amp, my jaw dropped! Here was a hand-wired, vintage-style tube amp for $895!!! When I finally hooked up with Jeff Aragaki (founder of Aracom), and got a chance to play the VRX18, he shared that one of the ways he was able to keep the cost down was by using a solid-state sag simulating rectifier circuit. When I heard the words “solid-state,” the purist in me started reeling a bit. But then that amp sounded so freakin’ good that I didn’t give a flying you-know-what about the rectifier!

And that’s the point of this article. When you’re looking for and buying gear, don’t let yourself be swayed by an instrument’s or equipment’s pedigree or “all-tubeness” or lack thereof. LISTEN to the fuckin’ thing, and see if it turns you on! If it sounds good, and it works for YOU, then that’s all that matters, in my not so humble opinion on the subject. πŸ™‚ If I had let the purist in me take over, I would’ve never ended up with my VRX22! And for the record, I’ve listened to many, many, many amps, with and without tube rectifiers, and the circuit that Jeff Aragaki employs in the VRX series simulates the sag of a rectifier tube so well, I can’t tell the difference. And if there is one, it’s probably so minute that it doesn’t matter anyway. I’ll put that amp up against any other boutique amp in the same wattage range, and it’ll sound just as good, if not better. And I paid less than half the price of a similarly configured amp!

Give the following clip a listen. I’m playing my Strat plugged straight into the clean channel of the VRX22. In some sections you could swear that the amp has a reverb, but that’s the solid-state rectifier simulating the sag of a tube rectifier. Also, this is the raw recording of the amp: No EQ, no filtering. The master volume was flat out, with the gain control around midway. My mic was about about 10″ away pointed directly at the center of the speaker cone.

I originally recorded that clip with my Prestige Heritage Elite. But that guitar has so much inherent sustain, it would’ve been cheating. πŸ™‚ A Strat on the other hand doesn’t have that much sustain, so it brings out the sustaining quality of the amp much better. The result is just amazing.

And as to the tube vs. solid state rectifier issue, at least in the Aracom VRX series, it doesn’t make one whit of difference, especially when you’re playing live at gig levels. When I’m gigging, I almost never use reverb unless it’s a song where I can really isolate my guitar. Sag gives the effect of reverb, but at loud gig levels, you’ll never hear it.

Another great example of buying what sounds good to you is my friend Vinni Smith of V-Picks. That dude is one of the best guitarists I’ve ever known, and he gigs all the time! You know what he plays through? A freakin’ Roland Cube 30 cranked all the way up and miked into the PA. When he told me that, I almost flipped. Here was a true pro guitarist,Β  playing through a $200 amp!

So don’t be taken in by pedigree. Buy what sounds good to you, and what you can make sound good. After all, 90% of your tone is in your hands.

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Over the weekend, and after a few years of owning it, I finally replaced the original speaker on my Hot Rod Deluxe with an Eminence Red Coat “The Governor.” I had already replaced the original tubes and had some other mods done to the amp to smooth out the drive channel, but there was always something missing, and that turned out to be the speaker. What a difference that has made! I feel like my Hot Rod is now no longer a Padawan but a true Jedi. πŸ™‚

The Hot Rod was my very first tube amp, and when I bought it, I just loved the sound, but as time wore on and as I played some really great amps, my love for the amp faded, and while I’d use it for some applications, it just didn’t have a sound that I considered to be first class. With the new speaker, it is now – in my opinion – a first class sounding amp. The cleans are gorgeous and the overdrive tone is nice and open, but well-defined, with no flabby bottom end. I’m in love again! Now with my Aracom VRX22, I’ve got two great amps!

Here’s a clip I put together while playing around this evening that demonstrates how gorgeous the clean tones are:

I used my Strat for the rhythm part – amazingly in the middle pickup, which I’m really starting to love – and did the simple solo with my Prestige Guitars Heritage Elite with both pickups with about 60/40 mix of bridge and neck, respectively. The reverb you hear in the solo is the spring reverb in the Hot Rod. I have to say that Fender does reverb right. πŸ™‚

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Yeah, yeah, I know… My last few posts have pretty much centered around this amp, but hey! I just can’t contain my excitement about how good it sounds! This afternoon, I brought it to my weekly church gig to try it out in a live situation. I already loved it in my little home studio, but you just don’t get to really know what am amp can do until you play it live.

Today was one of the first days that I didn’t use my pedal board all that much. In fact, I only used my chorus on one soft song, and then only used my booster at the very end of last song to throw the gain over the top to finish off the service. Other than that, I just played the amp straight. Most of the songs I played were through Channel 1, and with my Strat, the VRX22 delivered gorgeous, bell-like tones that seemed to hang in the air, with so much presence that you could almost touch them – it doesn’t even have presence knob to up the mids and highs! Switching over to Channel 2 for a couple of numbers, I was rewarded with layers of open and complex overdrive that were so very smooth; none of that phasing in and out that you often get with lesser amps at high gain. It stayed nice and even. And the sustain and touch sensitivity at high gain was just to die for – all on a Strat, no less!

When I slammed the front-end with my booster pedal, I was in compression heaven! But luckily the 6V6’s don’t compress so much that they make the amp lose volume. The compression is noticeable, but the gain tone stays fairly open. It tightens up, but not too tight.

I’ve tested several Aracom amps, and they’re all very sweet sounding. But the higher wattage amps need tons of volume before they really start sounding good. The VRX22 is so versatile. With a 1 X 12 cabinet, it can be used with ease in small to medium-sized venues, like clubs and small halls. For larger venues, a bigger cab will get you the volume you need. On top of that, both the amp and cabinet are pretty light in weight, making lugging to and from a gig real easy!

All in all, I’m just tickled to death with this amp! You gotta check this amp out at the Aracom site!

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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. πŸ™‚

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, πŸ™‚ 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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Saint Guitar Company Goldtop Benchmark

Saint Guitar Company Goldtop Benchmark

You ever pick up a guitar and just can’t seem to put it down? For the past few years, that has been “Pearl” my Blizzard Pearl Strat. I just love the way she sings, and she sings oh so sweetly. But ever since I got “Goldie,” a Saint Guitars Goldtop Benchmark to test out, I just can’t seem to put her down. It’s tough because ever since she arrived, I’ve been splitting my time between the two… Wish I had the problem with women when I was single. πŸ™‚ <sigh> Oh well…

“Goldie” is a very special guitar, with a mahogany body, maple top, and solid rosewood neck. I know, I’ve already reviewed her, but she’s absolutely the perfect guitar – at least to me. The tone from the woods are so balanced and warm that when you play her, you have to just close your eyes and let her take you for a ride. And her neck… ah, her neck! What a thing of grace and beauty. The open-pore finish of the rosewood is so wonderful to the touch, you just want to run your hands up and down the fretboard and feel the sensuousness of her gentle curves. I know, I’m sounding kind of weird, but it’s the best I can come up with to draw a metaphor of how it feels to play this guitar!

Tonight, after I returned home from a quiet date for a cup of tea with the love of my life for Valentine’s Day, I retired to my studio to play around with Goldie. I was just noodling when I played a phrase that just begged to be laid down. So I figured out the chord progression that would go with the phrase, and here’s what I came up with:

Goldie has a bright, big voice, and true to all Saint guitars that I’ve had the priviledge to play, she has an even, dynamic range in all strings, up and down the fretboard. Unlike other guitars where you pluck the top two strings, and you get a loss in volume, forcing you to dig in when you play those strings, especially about the 12th fret, not so with any Saint guitar – it’s uncanny, and a mark of the care Adam Hernandez has put into his designs to ensure his guitars are resonant in any frequency!

Having a great amp to bring out the best in a guitar doesn’t hurt either. The amp I used is a soon-to-be-released prototype Aracom Amp, based upon the RoxBox 18 Watt, but with different tubes, and slightly different power handling. Sorry, I can’t be more descriptive at Jeff Aragaki’s request. You can be assured that once Jeff gives me the go-ahead, I’ll be writing a review of it, and it will be good. πŸ™‚ This amp in particular is very pedal friendly, and I used a Tube Screamer to give me some grit on the lead, plus my new Hardwire Reverb.

In any case, I just wanted to share my excitement about this guitar. It simpy kicks ass, and paired with a dynamite amp, I’ve got a winning combination on my hands!!!

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Creation Audio Labs Holy Fire Overdrive/Distortion Pedal

Fulltone OCD Drive Pedal

What do you do when you have two kick-ass overdrive/distortion pedals and don’t know which one to choose because both pedals bring so much to the table? The obvious answer is to use both. But my problem in choosing is exacerbated by limited pedal real estate, so I have to make a choice.

Actually, the choice wasn’t too hard to make once I started playing with the Creation Audio Labs Holy Fire. While I love the OCD, the Holy Fire wins hands-down for its versatility and total transparency. While the OCD is somewhat transparent, it can get kind of muddy and a little choppy at high drive settings, whereas the Holy Fire’s distortion section reacts a lot like a power tube at high gain settings producing a compressed effect that just rocks the house!

I still love the sound that the OCD produces. It really brings out harmonics and overtones, and set in a “sweet spot” produces a nice sparkly distortion that really sounds great. But as of late I’ve been gravitating towards retaining the natural sound of my guitar and amp, so the added artifacts that the OCD adds aren’t really what I want right now.

On the other hand, the overdrive on the Holy Fire is totally unique, and nothing like I’ve ever witnessed in all my tests of overdrive pedals (and believe me, I’ve tested a lot). The overdrive has what Creation Audio Labs calls a “wave shaping” circuit that evenly distorts the entire bandwidth of the incoming signal as opposed to creating a mid-range hump, or scooping the EQ. It really is completely even. You don’t lose any lows or highs, which is common in overdrive pedals. And the circuit reacts to both volume and pick attack, providing more wave shaping as you hit the front-end of the pedal harder. Simply put, you retain all the natural tone of your guitar! It’s insane! And it’s so special, Creation Audio Labs is trying to patent it!

I gigged with the Holy Fire for the first time this evening at my weekly Church gig. Make no mistake, this may be a church service, but we regularly hit above 100db in our sets, so there is plenty of room to let our amps breath, and take advantage of the higher gain settings on our equipment. Tonight, I made sure to pick music that would allow me to use the Holy Fire throughout my set. Talk about being inspired! I used it with my Strat and a Reason SM25 amp. What a combo! I set the gain to just above unity with the clean channel (about 10am), the overdrive at about 2pm, and distortion at about 3pm (so the distortion section would compress – it does this at around 2pm). The breakup was so smooth and delicious, I wanted to keep it on all the time! Unfortunately, I couldn’t do that with some songs, but where I had the entire band playing all out, the Holy Fire just made my heart sing!

The Holy Fire also plays well with other pedals. My mainstay overdrive pedal is my trusty green machine, an Ibanez TS-808 Tube Screamer. That’s one pedal that will NEVER leave my board! But here’s the cool thing: Running the Tube Screamer in front of the Holy First was like nothing I’ve heard before. I did this with my OCD as well, essentially getting a combined tonal effect that the TS and OCD produce. But the Holy Fire maintained the tone the Tube Screamer produces! On the other hand, it smoothed out and thickened the distortion. The result was the expected mid-range hump from the Tube Screamer, but with super-creamy distortion, plus the TS tone, that was like candy to my ears. No extra coloration that I came to expect by running my TS into the OCD. It was like playing a fatter Tube Screamer!

Believe me, despite playing in a worship service, the way I was feeling with both those pedals running together made it seem I like I was flying with the angels! I’m not exaggerating! There is absolutely nothing compared to the feeling you get when you’re playing with wonderful tone. It inspires and emboldens you, and you take your playing to places you didn’t think possible.

That was the feeling I got when I first started playing with the OCD, and frankly, I didn’t think it could get much better. But the Holy Fire has changed everything.

On top of that, I was using another Creation Audio Labs pedal, the Mk.4.23 clean boost, yet another amazing product from those electronics wizards. I used the booster to give me just a slight gain boost for when I was doing solos, or was in the refrain section of a song when I needed just a bit more volume. It too is a totally transparent boost, adding ZERO artifacts to your signal, so all the time I spent dialing in my settings wouldn’t be lost when the Mk.4.23 was engaged.

I swear, I must sound like a twitterpated, googly-eyed schoolgirl! πŸ™‚ But it’s been a long time that I’ve felt truly inspired, like everything was totally right with my world of tone. I’ve finally (at least for now), found total balance in my tone. The circle is complete…

At least until I get a bad case of GAS!!!

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