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ampendage2I’ve sung the praises of my 1958 Fender Champ in the past, and as I use it regularly, my opinion of the amp hasn’t changed. The Champ has been on several recordings of famous artists through the years, and it’s no small wonder why: With a Champ, it really is WYSIWYG as far as sound is concerned. But consider this: The downfall of a WYSIWYG device is that it exposes all your mistakes as well. That can be a little unsettling.

With my bigger amps where I invariably use a pedal board, I can hide a bit behind effects. But with a little bare-bones amp like the Champ, there’s no running; there’s nowhere I can hide. If I mess up, oh, I know it.

But I force myself to use this amp at band practice because playing it makes me so much more disciplined in my playing. It’s not that I limit myself and stop exploring. What it actually makes me do is get the most out each note that I play. It makes me slow down my thinking and it forces me to feel my strings and see if I can push notes; makes me hold bends and wiggle them a bit more to see if I can eek out more expression when I play.

Mind you, I’m no Vai or Satch. My band plays classic rock, so it’s mostly 3-chord songs. And while it’s easy to fall into a minor pentatonic for leads, I try to get outside the box as much as I can. It may not be fast, but with an amp like the Champ, I can’t afford to go too fast. Even with a tube rectifier, there’s little sag, so the sustain I put into my notes is the sustain I get. Ultimately, when I play through my actual gigging amp – either an Aracom VRX22 or DV Mark Little 40 – the time I spend developing dynamics with the Champ pay off.

I had a similar experience with an old Ovation that I had. I played that one at literally thousands of gigs. The action got a little high, and the frets were worn down, and I almost had to fight with it, but I worked that guitar to eek out every bit of tone that I could. Having played that for years, once I moved to a much better acoustic or switching over to electric, I felt that I was so much more expressive on my guitars because of that years-long experience of working my notes.

And though I don’t play fast, I found that playing through such a plain amp has helped me develop my speed. With this amp, it’s all about clean headroom. It won’t break up unless I totally crank it, and even at just 5 Watts, it can be loud. Plus being as old as it is, I don’t want to push it too much. So I play it clean. With respect to developing speed, this amp forces me to make sure that my hands are in sync. When I first started using it for practice, I realized that I had developed some bad habits and my hands were not in sync and that I had to slow down my solos – a lot. After practicing with the Champ for awhile, I found that I could speed up a bit more as my hands got more in sync.

The point to all this is that if you have some gear that makes you work for it, use it to develop your expression and dynamics. You might even have to fight with it at times. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Besides music and golf, another passion I have – though nowhere near the level of the former – is wine. I’m not a collector, but I keep a modest amount of great bottles in my small wine cooler. But apart from the wine itself, I love keeping up to date with what’s going on in the wine industry, so I’ve subscribed to some magazines: Both physical and digital. In particular, I have a subscription to “Wine Spectator” which, to me, is the standard in wine industry coverage.

A couple of days ago, as I was perusing the through the latest issue of Wine Spectator, I ran across a column in which the author shared how he was cleaning up his office and ran across his tax forms going back over twenty years, and looked at his itemized deductions; especially those expenses related to wine, and that led to a short discussion on what kinds of wines he had purchased for both work and personal consumption. But one thing the author said really struck home with me.

Near the end of the article he said that had he not spent all the money he had on wine, he’d probably be much better off financially today. But had he not made those purchases, he would have missed out on everything that he had learned over the years. That one statement got me thinking about the guitar gear that I’ve purchased over the years, and how, at least for me, much of it reflects my personal journey in both music and the gear that I use.

In that respect, when I look back on all the money I’ve spent on gear, which literally runs into the tens of thousands, I could’ve invested that money and, like the author, be much better off financially. Instead, I made an investment myself and my passion for making music. Had I not purchased all that gear (I’ve sold off most of it, by the way), I don’t think I would have grown nearly as much I have as a musician.

For me, the gear I’ve purchased – and sold – are a direct reflection of where I’ve been on my personal musical journey. I’ve seriously gone through a lot of gear. Just looking back over my rig configuration five years ago, and compare it to what it is today. I just smile at how I’ve arrived at my current place.

GuitarGear.org itself is a marker. In fact, tomorrow, February 14, 2017, will mark GuitarGear.org’s 10th anniversary. I started it as an online diary of moving into the tube amp world, and to put my thoughts down on what I was feeling and the philosophies I’d develop. Yet it morphed into something so much more than that. Yes, I still share my thoughts as I am now, but who knew I’d do reviews and in the process connect with so many different people!

This has been a great journey, and here’s to another 10 years!

A couple of days ago, I wrote an article about how James Taylor tunes his guitars, utilizing the “cents” on the tuner to compensate for the shape of an acoustic guitar, and how the bass notes ring sharper than their tuning, and also to compensate for a capo pulling the strings sharp. Here’s the video for a refresher:

At the end of the article, I said I’d try it out and I’ll be damned if it didn’t sound good both with and without a capo!

My test of a tuning is always to play a root E chord after I tune my guitar. Usually, I get to the exact tuning, then end up tuning strings a little down because the E chord just doesn’t sound right. So I suppose I’ve been doing this by feel all these years. But now I have a fool-proof, sure-fire, and most importantly, a measurable way of tuning that I can repeat.

If you don’t want to watch the whole video, here’s the tuning (high to low):

E -3
B -6
G -4
D -8
A -10
E -12

Values are in negative cents. For my guitar, a full -12 cents on the low E sounds slightly off, so I end up using -10 to -11 (I know, it’s a tiny amount, but I can hear it). But I set the rest of the strings as directed.

As they say, it’s the little things in life… I’m nothing short of amazed at how this small adjustment makes a world of difference.

eric_rachmany…the more I appreciate his virtuosity with the guitar. “This guy” happens to be Eric Rachmany of Rebelution, and he’s absolutely amazing.

If you’re familiar with Rebelution, you know that they’re a reggae band out of Isla Vista, CA. And you might think, “It’s reggae – all um-chuck, um-chuck. How hard could it be?”

Admittedly, most reggae is like that. But Eric, like so many other modern reggae guitarists, are completely changing this. The rhythmic foundation is still “um-chuck.” But Eric plays rhythm lines over the rhythmic foundation. And the kicker is that he DOES THIS WHILE SINGING!!!

Check out one of my favorite Rebelution tunes, called “Closer I Get.” It’s a perfect example of Eric’s virtuosity.

Look, I can play all those lines that he plays with relative ease. The base 1-4-5 pattern in Fm is a standard minor blues, and his minor pentatonic pattern is pretty straightforward. I can play it all. But to be able to sing over it is an entirely different matter. Also, bear in mind that that’s just one song. He does this with most of their songs.

I do about 5 or 6 Rebelution covers in my solo gigs, and the only thing I can say is this: Thank goodness I have a looper. 🙂 After 46 years of playing, I’m a pretty decent guitarist, and while I can sing over some rhythm lines, what makes this and other songs particularly difficult to sing over is that the melody lines are often syncopated and attack or play off the beat. I can play lead lines when the melodies are on the beat, no problem. But this is pretty hard. That said, it has inspired me to practice and master being able to sing over rhythm lines like this.

The video doesn’t necessarily show his virtuosity on the guitar. It shows quite a bit. You’d have to see Rebelution live to really “get” what I’m talking about. His phrasing and timing are impeccable. And while he sticks primarily to a pentatonic root with his solos, his expression with passing notes and bends belie the simplicity of the scale. The point is that when he plays, he really makes music, and communicates his message. And that’s what it’s about for me.

As I’ve shared with younger guitarists whom I’ve mentored over the years: You don’t need tricks. You don’t need gimmicks. All you need is a message. Just let your fingers do the talking. Then I go on explaining: If a dive bomb will get the message across, go for it; the same thing goes for tapping. You could do all the tricks in the world, and show off your technique, but if you don’t pull all that stuff together to actually say something, then your solo is the equivalent of a garbled mess. Besides, an effective solo is as much as what you don’t play as it is what you play. Think about it.

Then even though I’m not really all that into Jazz, I do like particular artists, so I’d tell them to go on YouTube and listen to Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Talk about communicating a message. In particular, I tell them to listen to Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green.” There’s a certain sparseness in how Miles plays that song.

By the way, listening to Miles Davis wasn’t my idea. I actually got that several years ago from an elderly black gentleman named Patrick that I met at the restaurant I’ve worked at for 16 years running. He was an old jazz player who had played with some big names in his heyday, and amazingly enough, he used to enjoy coming in to hear me play. During breaks, I’d go and talk to him, and one time I shared that I wanted to better at improv. He just told me this: “Go listen to Miles Davis. That man can do more with one note than a lotta guys can do with a hundred.” I listened and was transformed.

After awhile, I realized that despite the fact that I couldn’t shred or play super-complicated lines, I could use what I could play just so long as I communicated my message.

Circling back to Eric Rachmany, the guy doesn’t do any tricks at all. There are some places where he might sweep pick, but that’s not really a trick. That just takes practice. Eric is someone who’s always in the pocket, and what he plays always makes sense. To me, that’s the sign of a great musician.

So kudos to you, Eric! Keep bringing the good vibes!

Here’s an extra treat: Miles Davis playing Blue in Green…

Sorry, it’s not live, but this song takes me away.

Aracom Dual Rox DRX Attenuator

Aracom Dual Rox DRX Attenuator

For me, an attenuator was a key component in my live signal chain for many years. As I was playing live mostly in a church setting, in order to get my amp to “growl” levels, I had no other choice but to use output attenuation to control my volume. And for this, I used several attenuators such as the Dr. Z AirBrake, then moved onto a couple of different models from Aracom (which, to me, is the gold standard in transparency). I currently own the Aracom DRX, and I love it. With its dual levels of attenuation, it gives me the ability to use my two-channel amp and set different attenuation levels for it. Very cool.

But since I broke up the church band and joined a classic rock cover band, I haven’t used the DRX – at all. The reason is that most of the songs that my band plays don’t require a lot of distortion; and not that my church stuff did, but output volume is so much less of an issue now than it was with my church band as we play venues where a higher volume is expected.

Plus, once I got the EHX Soul Food overdrive pedal, a lot of things changed for me; when I need overdrive, I just click that pedal on, and I’ve got that great, creamy-smooth overdrive sound that the Soul Food produces. I still set my amp up at the edge of break-up, but most of my distortion comes from my pre-amp tubes – and it’s not that much, as I get the overdrive I need from my pedal. I just don’t have a pressing need to push my power tubes into saturation. That might change, but I’m pretty satisfied with my sound right now.

All that said, I still use the attenuator in my home studio. I couldn’t record my tube amps without one. But even in that case, I’m actually recording at a bit higher of a volume than I have in the past because I’ve realized that there’s a lot to be said when a speaker is pushing air. I use a Sennheiser e609 to close-mic my cab, then I set a ribbon mic about 3 feet away to capture the sound at a distance. With my particular setup, close-miking doesn’t capture the rich tones that issue from my cab. What I’ve found in a live situation is that my speaker produces some wonderful lows that don’t seem to get captured close-in. And that seems to only happen when I play the amp at higher than bedroom levels.

So… To attenuator or not to attenuate? Well… I guess my answer is: It depends…

 

If you go to a gear board like The Gear Page and search on tuners, you’ll see a lot of talk about a tuner’s “cents.” A “cent” is hundredth of a 1/2 note. People like to talk about “cents” to compare the accuracy of the tuners that they use. In general, if a tuner is within 1 – 2 cents accurate, it’s not a bad tuner. Some, like the Peterson strobe tuners, are even more accurate, as in 10ths of a cent. All penis size comparisons aside (this happens on the boards a lot: “My tuner is more accurate that yours” kind of bullshit, I was amazed to see a video of James Taylor explaining how he tunes his acoustic guitars, and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen “cents” used in this way.

Check out the video:

I have to admit that I’ve spent years hitting the exact center of the gauge when tuning my guitar. But what JT explains is something I’ve never seen before explained, BUT to be fair to myself, I have experienced this sort of “off” tuning with my Peterson StroboClip before I broke it. 😦

Peterson has what are called “sweeteners” built into all their tuners, which is why if you use a Peterson tuner, you need to pick the instrument you’re tuning. These, I believe, are similar in effect to what JT is talking about in that because of the construction and shape of different stringed instruments, you have to make compensations for each different string so that they “play” correctly.

When I first started using a Peterson StroboClip, I felt that after I tuned, my individual strings sounded just a little off. But when I actually played, the sound was so much better. My chords sounded so much more in harmony. I think this is the key to what JT talks about in the video.

I haven’t tried this yet as I’m writing this during a break at work, but I’m going to have a recording session tonight and will try it out.

Thanks JT! Even after all these years, I’m still learning stuff from you!

Repeat after me: A Capo is just a tool… A Capo is just a tool…

Over the years, a few people have approached me personally or online and have said that they considered a capo to be a “cheater,” simultaneously proffering a backhanded insult at the same time. The first time it happened, I laughed it off, and just said that it’s just a tool that I use to play the music in a key that I can sing certain songs that were originally written too high or too low for my voice. The second time it happened was after I finished playing “Something in the Way She Moves” by James Taylor, which is in the key of C, but JT capos on the third fret and plays an A shape.

I normally don’t lash out at people at my gigs; it’s just bad for business. But the facetious look and condescending tone the guy used really irritated me, even though he said he really loved that song. Then he made the mistake of telling me he was a guitar player. I said, “Cool. Now watch carefully…” Then I played the opening riff of the song for him, and asked, “You get that? Here, I’ll do it one more time,” and I played it for him one more time.

After that, I muted my guitar signal to the PA, unplugged from my pedal board, removed my capo, unstrapped my guitar, then handed the guitar to him saying, “Okay ‘Mr. Guitar Player,’ that song is in the key of C. I want you to play the opening riff that I showed you without a capo. You say the capo is a cheater. I want to see you play that without ‘cheating.’ Also, don’t forget the bass notes which are integral to everything JT plays.”

Of course, the guy balked at my challenge. But, not being mean-spirited, I decided instead to be conciliatory, so I said, “A capo is merely a tool to help me move the key to an appropriate place and allow me to play open chords in that key. I could use barre chords, but I wouldn’t get the ring that using a capo gives me. Furthermore, James Taylor used a capo in most of his songs. By your tone, you implied that players who use them are somehow lesser players. Considering that JT is a multi-millionaire and is known for his virtuosity on the guitar, would you think he’s a lesser player? Of course not. For him, it’s merely a tool.”

And speaking of making millions, do you think Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones actually gives a shit that someone calls the capo a “cheater?” Here’s a great video of the Stones doing Jumping Jack Flash at Hyde Park:

OMG! He’s using a capo!

Sorry, I know I’m being rather pissy about this, but my irritation about this got triggered from another person commenting to me (accompanied by what I thought was a smirk), “I didn’t know you have to play that with a capo. I never use one.” I just smiled and shook my head. Luckily, I realized in time that he probably had been flailing around with the song (it was another JT song: You’ve Got A Friend). So instead, I told him to go search for “James Taylor tutorials” online where JT shows people how to play his most popular and loved songs.

Whew! I almost bit the kid’s head off, and I’m glad I caught myself. But it did trigger a rather bad memory.

I know, I’ve talked about this subject before, but it bugs me because, to me, the lowly capo has always just been a tool and nothing more than a tool to get the sound that I want. And I supposed I get irked that some people just don’t see the painfully obvious. I’ve never been one to suffer fools.

Okay… rant over… Back to smiles. 🙂