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Archive for the ‘style’ Category

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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Stuck in a Rut

…but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel… At least I hope so. 🙂

For the past few weeks, I’ve been in kind of a rut with writing music. I’ve got eight songs for my new record, which I recorded pretty regularly over the course of about three months. And it wasn’t just eight songs I wrote. I wrote and recorded about 20 other songs before deciding on the ones that made the final cut. The process was incredible! A song would come to me, I’d grab my guitar or sit at the piano, and in a relatively short amount of time, I’d have a song. Then I’d spark up my DAW, and record a raw piece to make sure I captured it. No sweat.

But as soon as Christmas season hit, it seems that the stress of getting stuff done at work before taking a vacaction, then Christmas itself just sucked the creative juices out of me. Okay, I’ve written some jam tracks and recorded some short snippets of songs, but to date, I really haven’t gotten the inspiration to write a full song. But in spite of that, I’m feeling really positive as there is a bright side to this lack of creative energy.

As you know, I’ve lately been driven to be more academic about what I’m playing; partly because I want to be able to effectively teach what I’m learning, but also because I just want to be a better player. So in lieu of writing music, I’ve been working on my improv skills, and I’ve been really happy with the progress I’ve been making! All this practice is just making me a better player, and that is inspiring in and of itself!

For instance, as many may know, one of my regular gigs is to play at church. Before any naysayers start ripping me about playing at church, understand this: Do a worship service of ANY kind poses particular challenges. For instance, you can’t just rock out all your songs or pick music that is always up-tempo. Worship services need to take people through an emotion journey with respect to the music. Typically, the beginning and the ending songs are pretty upbeat, while the middle songs are much more subdued or, if you do have a more upbeat song, you don’t go all out and rock. The idea is that the music is not the focus, the worship experience is, and the music you play needs to enhance that. Furthermore, because it’s in a church, you can’t play at real loud volumes the entire time. As I mentioned above, you can get away with it at the beginning and the end, but even in those spots, you can’t really play at club or concert levels.

Sounds a bit constraining, doesn’t it? I’ve been gigging for years, and each type of venue poses its own particular limitations. The trick is to work around those limitations so that you can be as expressive as you can be.

All that said, considering the constraints, last night’s service was awesome! To add to our normal volume constraints though, I was missing both a drummer and a bassist, and all we had were two other guitarists besides me, one of which just started playing with us that day. So it was particularly challenging because being the most experienced guitarist put holding down the rhythm to the songs on me. But that was the cool thing. All the work I’ve been doing on my technique has allowed me to so much more than just strumming chords, adding little runs or double adorning some chords with arpeggios or arpeggiated double-stops. This is stuff that I couldn’t do six months ago! And despite not really being able to do any leads, it didn’t matter, I felt totally inspired!

So yes, there is a bright side to this rut. At least I can still play… 🙂

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saint_msgr_brown

Imagine, if you will, that guitar to the left, in a glossy, goldtop finish. That will be the guitar that Adam Hernandez of Saint Guitars will be building for me. It was by no means an easy decision to make. As a tester for Saint Guitars, and ostensibly a rep for Saint Guitars (I’ve been careful about keeping that separate from this site – though news about it will be out within the next few weeks), I love every single guitar I’ve gotten my hands on. I dig Adam’s approach to guitar-building, and of course, I simply love his designs.

But despite the relationship, I was a little wary of actually purchasing one. Why? There are lots of factors, which I’m going to share here. But first, the juicy back story…

As some of you may know, I’m a huge fan of G & L Guitars, especially the Comanche line. Yngwie Malmsteen calls the Strat a perfect guitar, but I believe the Comanche improves on it even further, especially with its Z-coil pickups that still offer that gorgeous single-coil feel, but with much more output.

For the last few months, I had been saving my pennies to purchase a Comanche from my local G & L dealer. I’ve been skrimping and scraping every extra buck I could because I just had to have one. It’s an incredible guitar that just speaks to my soul. And about a month ago, I had enough to get my beloved guitar. Then Adam contacted me via e-mail a few days before I was all set to buy the guitar and said he wanted to construct a guitar for me based upon this “dream” goldtop I had described to him a month before that when he asked me what I think would be my dream guitar.

Now you might think I just up and dropped all my plans to get a Comanche. I didn’t. I’ve been very drawn to the Comanche for a long time, but as I’ve shared, I also love Saint guitars. In fact, though I received the e-mail early in the morning, I sat on it for the whole day, and didn’t reply until late that night. In short, I was seriously conflicted, and for several good reasons, which is why I’m sharing this experience. And perhaps by sharing this experience, I can shed some light on helping you make your own choice in whether or not to go with a custom-made boutique guitar.

Most people who come to GuitarGear.org have a serious and virtually incurable case of GAS. Several have custom guitars – a few even have a few Saint guitars to their name. So there is no doubt that what you ultimately get is high-quality, and tailored to your specific tonal requirements. But the conflict in my mind was something entirely different than cost, quality, build, tone, etc.. I know what Saint Guitars sound like, and they’re some of the most gorgeous-sound guitars I’ve ever played; cost would be an issue, but if I made the decision, I’d make it happen; rather, it was dealing with the “known” versus the “unknown.”

So, to boutique or not to boutique? That is the question I posed as the title of this article. If it wasn’t cost or quality or tone that was the issue, what do I mean by the “known” versus the “unknown.” I’m going to bullet-point the known issues first:

  • First off, the Comanche was a known quantity to me. I have played several over the last couple of years, and while each is slightly different – after all you’re dealing with wood which is by no means uniform from instrument to instrument – they’ve all generally fallen within the same range of playability and tone.
  • And because I’ve spent a lot of time playing that model of guitar, I knew how I’d fit it into my stable and what it could do for my tone, and how I’d use it in my compositions and performances.
  • The Z-coil pickup is what I believe to be Leo Fender’s finest achievement. Even though Leo was known for creating the Strat, what a lot of people don’t know is that he didn’t play guitar – at all. He didn’t even tune them until late in life! He was all about the pickup, and he built the Strat around his pickup invention. So there’s a bit of history behind the Comanche.

So what about the “unknowns?”

  • Being that a custom-made is a unique creation, I don’t have a precedent from which to follow. There aren’t any previous guitars made with the EXACT specs my guitar would have. In other words, I don’t have any similar models from which to reference.
  • I suppose there are reasonable facsimiles, and since I’ve had the fortune to test Saint guitars, I know how well they’re made, but the guitar I have in mind isn’t made of walnut, which is Adam’s choice of wood. It’s a solid mahogany body with a maple neck – similar to a Charvelle I played a few days ago – very nice playing guitar.
  • Also, with a custom guitar, what I found was that I really had to think and on top of that do research on tone woods and pickups and hardware. That’s something that I wouldn’t have to do with a Comanche. I’ve just had to play a bunch to find the one that I like. That kind of leads back to the first point that there are no previous guitars with my exact specs from which to reference.

But despite all that, I’m still going to have Adam build me my guitar. The uniqueness certainly plays into it, but I’ve been playing long enough now that I have a good idea of how a guitar sounds with a particular type of tone wood, so tone is not quite as unknown as I might have originally thought. But I think the thing that probably was the scariest thing for me was having to specify the different pieces. In other words, all the effort I’d have to put into getting the guitar created. And even though it’s a bit of a moving target, here are the specs I so far:

Finish: Glossy Goldtop

Body: Double-cut Mahogany
Neck: Maple
Fretboard: Ebony
Headstock: Maple

Hardware: Gotoh wraparound bridge, Gotoh 510 tuners (locking)

Pickups (still kind of deciding): Either Seymour Duncan ’59 in neck, Alnico Pro II bridge or 2 ’59’s or 2 Alnico Pro II’s. Both coil-tapped.

Let me know what you think!

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New Year's ResolutionI normally don’t make New Year’s resolutions. Haven’t done it in years. I’ve always felt there was something innately dishonest about making resolutions like “I’m going to be a better person,” or “I’m going to do something nice for someone everyday.” Not that those aren’t noble pursuits, but in a lot of cases, they demand an enormous amount of self-discipline, self-sacrifice and changes in normal behavior that most of us can’t persevere. We’re good for a few days or maybe a couple of weeks, but something will happen and it all goes to pot.

In lieu of lofty resolutions, I’ve instead set concrete goals that in order to achieve, require changes in behavior and changes in thinking. I’ll share some of these goals here:

  • I will continue on my five-year plan of getting on the road and touring. I’m just starting my third year in the plan, and it’s going pretty well. I’ve release an album, and am working on my second one; a few of the songs of which I’ve entered into an international songwriters competition. I don’t expect to win, but the feedback that I get will be invaluable. Furthermore, going on the road will require that I get in shape, so I have been eating better and getting exercise in anticipation of going back on stage. I love to eat, so this has been a tough thing for me, but I’ve lost 25 lbs so far, so I’m well on my way.
  • I will study more music theory; especially scalar modes. I already started doing this a few months ago, but really want to master it in the coming year. First, because I want my improvisation to be better, and with an understanding of the intervalic nature of music, I’ll be able to move around the fretboard much easier. I don’t want to necessarily learn patterns that I chain together, I want to get to the point where I can jam in any key, and be confident that the next note I hit works well harmonically and musically with what I’m improvising. Also, mastering scales and modes will make me a better teacher. Don’t get me wrong, I have a very firm intellectual understanding of music theory, and can actually cold read charts, but in actual execution, I feel I’m lacking, so my aim is to meld the two.
  • I will have a custom amplifier built for me. I’m currently working with Jeff Aragaki of Aracom Amps to build me an amp around his RoxBox 18 Watt design. I’m “going off the reservation” with this one because I want a different speaker than what he offers, a bigger cabinet and a reverb tank, plus a built-in resistive attenuator for low volume applications. If you haven’t checked out the RoxBox, I suggest you do. It’s a great 18 Watt design that’s also a great value stock.
  • I will purchase a Reason amp. Not sure which will come first: Having Jeff finally construct my amp, or purchasing a Reason. I love the SM25 I have right now, but since I’m a StackMode freak, I’m also leaning towards the SM40 head. We’ll see.
  • I will have Adam Hernandez at Saint Gutiars build me a guitar. I’m so grateful to be able to test Adam’s guitars. We’ve already talked about what I might like in a guitar, but I really want one of my own.
  • As far as GuitarGear.org is concerned, I will rebuild the site to make it a lot easier to find things. I’ve already started doing this, but I really need to rethink the design of the site. I will probably go to a three-column layout so I can get more things “above the line” that is, the part of a page that you first see when a web page loads. Right now, the site is a bit narrow, so lots of things fall below the line that I’d like people to see; especially the companies I personally endorse.

Okay, that’s it for me. Anyone willing to share?

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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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Red Bear Style B Heavy with Speed Bevel

Red Bear Style B Heavy with Speed Bevel

Does a pick really make a difference? For years, I’ve read about guitarists using custom picks made from tortoise shell or other special materials, seen all the ads from handmade pick manufacturers, and eschewed even the thought of getting one of them because I just couldn’t justify spending up to $40 for a freakin’ guitar pick! For instance, when I’d see an ad for one of these, I’d ask myself, Who in their right f’-in mind would get one of these? It’s just a gimmick – it’s all bull! It don’t make a damn bit of difference.

I couldn’t be more wrong. Playing with a great, handmade pick makes a difference; a HUGE difference in how you play and how you sound.

For the last 30 years, I’ve been using medium Dunlop Tortex picks – the orange ones. They’re cheap, and they get the job done. They’re strewn all over my studio, in my pockets, in my laundry – all over the place. And I don’t care if they break, scratch or if I lose them. They’re replaceable and of little consequence. Not any longer. Once I started playing with a Red Bear pick, I’m never going back to cheap picks unless it’s absolutely necessary (for instance, if I happen to break a good pick and need to get another).

So what’s the story? A good friend of mine was so very kind, and gave me a gift certificate for Christmas to a great guitar store in Palo Alto, CA called Gryphon Stringed Instruments. It’s a shop that specializes in acoustic guitars, but has all sorts of stuff, like parts. It just so happened that I needed to replace the pickup selector switch on my Epiphone Explorer, and as luck would have it, Gryphon had the switch in stock – what better way to spend at least part of my gift certificate?!! So I drove down to Gryphon, got the switch, then started looking at other stuff to spend on my gift certificate.

I got a few packs of strings for both electric and acoustic, and started looking at picks. It then occurred to me that they might have handmade picks. So I asked the fellow behind the counter if they had any, and he said they carried Red Bear picks. Then I asked the operative question, “I’ve read about handmade picks in the guitar rags, but like most people, don’t see what’s so special about them. So what’s so special?” He simply replied, “Once you play with a great pick, you won’t want to play with the cheap ones any longer. It’s hard to explain. They feel so much better, and you just play better with a great pick.”

Folks, that wasn’t a selling job. The look on the guy’s face said it all. But still, I was a bit incredulous, and he must’ve seen the look of disbelief on my face, so he said, “You’re welcome to try one out on any of our guitars. You’ll see the difference.” So I picked out a shape and bevel that I liked, grabbed mid-range Martin off the rack, sat down on a stool, and went through an instant transformation to complete and utter bliss! The pick felt so great in my fingers, and it glided smoothly over the strings. The sound that was produced was so milky smooth, I couldn’t believe my ears!

I thought it had a lot to do with the guitar – it was a nice one. But, being the good guitar gear tester and gear freakomaniac, I always have picks in my pocket, so I did an A/B test. With my standard Tortex, the guitar still sounded good, but not nearly as good with the Red Bear striking its strings. It was uncanny, to say the least! I was dumbfounded, and completely awestruck that a pick – a pick, for God’s sake – could make a guitar sound so good! I must’ve been grinning when I returned to the counter because the guy just said, “See what I mean?” I replied, “Oh yeah… I knew this was something special when strummed with the pick the first time. And doing those lead riffs was effortless.” The sales guy just grinned…

Needless to say, I had to have one, so I bought two, at $20 apiece. It was so well worth it! I had a gig last night and was able to use my new Red Bear, and was in heaven ALL NIGHT LONG! I was so enamored with how my acoustic sounded, that I played as many songs as I could with the pick, and played with the pick on songs I’d normally fingerpick.

So let me attempt to describe what it’s like to play with a great pick. First of all, it just feels great. It doesn’t slip. Next, handmade picks are thick. They don’t flex at all, but they glide over the strings so easily that it makes it easy to play – almost too easy. And because of their thickness, they force you to hold them lightly, and the expression you can get in your playing dynamics by holding the pick looser or tighter is nothing short of amazing. A great pick also makes the strings ring much better.

But the most important thing is that all those things together make it inspiring to play, bringing you into that other-worldly state of pure expression. It’s amazing that a pick can do that, but I’m now a believer. I won’t be going back to cheap picks – EVER.

Check out the Red Bear site for more information!

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playing inspiredIn last month’s issue of Guitar Player, Steve Cropper was spotlighted. Cropper was a great session guitarist for Stax records who wrote and played with the likes Otis Redding, and was arguably one of the great guitarists responsible for establishing the 60’s era soul sound. In the interview, he was asked what advice he’d give to aspiring rhythm guitarists. His reply was both amusing and incredibly insightful (I’m paraphrasing): “Pick the prettiest girl in the front row, look right at her, and play to her.”

On the surface, that may sound a little chauvinistic, but there’s an incredible amount of truth in that. As performers is to, well, perform. No matter how we perform, it’s always an outward facing activity. And from my standpoint, there’s nothing better at inspiring me to create on the than when I’m playing for someone, and shape my playing to describe what emotions are stirred by the thought of the person for whom I’m playing.

Mind you, it’s not a sexual thing. It’s about playing against the images that crop up when you look at someone. For instance, the restaurant that I play at every week is a nice, family-oriented restaurant. During my set, parents will bring their children to where I’m playing, to show their kids the “music man.” Seeing the smiles and faces full of wonderment is really inspiring to me, especially as I’m a father myself (of eight kids!), and I almost always change the way I’m playing when kids come to see me play. I’ll even do special kids songs just for them at times, and let them strum my guitar.

The point to all this is that when you’re playing inspired, you draw your audience in. As a performer, there’s nothing worse to me than being mechanical. The music comes out dry and worse yet, seemingly contrived. And people pick up on that. But play inspired, and you take your audience on your emotional journey.

So take Steve Cropper’s advice, and find someone in your audience who’ll inspire you. I guarantee you’ll like the results!

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