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The choice between the two is not as easy as you might think.

Tweaker – Someone who dives deep into the minutiae of the gear they have and learn every feature and nuance. The more features, the better.

Player – Someone who learns just enough about their gear to play it effectively. Learning nuances is through osmosis over time. Typically, they don’t like too many features in a product.

Let me say this: Neither is better than the other. In fact, over time, both types of people will arrive at roughly the same knowledge of their gear, though admittedly, for straight-up players, that may take years.

And there are no absolutes, no one is absolutely a Player or absolutely a Tweaker. And yes, most people have traits of both simultaneously, but I’ve found in my interactions with thousands of folks over the years that most folks are predominantly one over the other.

In any case, what inspired me to write this post is that I’m in a bit of a quandary right now: Do I get a Strymon Iridium or a Line 6 HX Stomp?

Though I’m probably much more of a Player rather than a Tweaker, one would think that with the limited features of the Iridium, I’d lean heavily towards that unit. But if you’ve read this blog with any regularity, versatility is a key component to many of my buying decisions.

The HX Stomp has so much versatility that there are very few amps and cab combinations – not to mention effect chains – that I couldn’t assemble, however virtually. This is definitely something worth considering because depending on the style of music I’m playing or recording, I could get the exact amp/cab combo that I need with the HX Stomp. It’s a tweaker’s wet dream!

On the other hand, the Iridium has just three amp models and three cab IRs per amp. Far less tweaking (though you can load your own IRs), BUT the amps represent the archetypes on which almost all amps are based. It doesn’t have effects, so if you want effects, you put existing effects in front of it, so no having to learn to tweak virtual effects as in the HX Stomp. For a straight-up Player, it’s very much like just setting up an amp; very plug and play and away we go!

As far as the physical footprint is concerned, with the HX Stomp, once I’ve got it set up, it’s all I’d really need to bring with me or plug into my audio interface as opposed to the Iridium where I’d have to hook up my pedalboard (the Iridium would sit on the board), which takes up real estate – and in a gigging situation, is a MUCH heavier option.

So you see how this could be conflicting?

For a Tweaker, you’d think that they’d immediately jump on the HX Stomp; most probably would, but I’ve also spoken with some guys whom I know who just love twiddling knobs and such who’d rather have the Iridium. And it’s vice-versa with some Players I’ve met and spoken with who look at the HX stomp as a BIG collection of amps and cabs.

So what does it boil down to? To be completely honest, I just don’t know at this point. At least for me, I’m going to have to audition these units. While I really dig all the features in the HX Stomp – including the looper – how much I gravitate towards it will be highly dependent on how easy it is to configure without a computer.

As for the Iridium, since it has a very limited set of features, that means that its sound quality and dynamics have to be absolutely stellar. And from what I’ve been able to surmise, it’s sound quality is pretty spot on. For me, I’m not so much interested in the AC30 sound, but I really like the Deluxe Reverb sounds I’ve heard.

Why Even Consider a Modeler?

I have a bunch of amps, mostly tube amps. I still gig with them, but in my home “studio,” I’ve got limited space. Not only that, even if I record in my man-cave (read: garage) where I don’t have an isolation booth or box, I pick up ambient noises, be they mechanical sounds or just the general activity of my family; not to mention that with the exception of my Katana Artist, I can’t record any other of my amps silently. So a modeler is a great solution to be able to not only eliminate ambient noises, it allows me to record in complete silence. A clean signal is a good signal.

Modeling technology has gotten so good over the years that frankly, it’s just hard to ignore. I’ve never been a purist, preferring instead to look at various types of gear merely as tools. If they get the job done – and especially if they do it well – then that’s pretty much all that matters to me. And with modelers like the Line 6 or Kemper or AxeFX gear and now the Iridium, I love what they bring to the table!

As a performer, I’ve always viewed myself as a singer who played guitar or piano to provide accompaniment for my voice. My voice has gotten me lots of gigs from my longtime, local solo act to singing in an international choir and even some narration. And I’ve been performing with my voice since I was a young boy – almost 50 years now.

About 20 years ago, I kind of came to an impasse with singing. I was starting to sing a lot more musical theater and even some select opera pieces. And though I could kind of fake it, I knew that I was straining my vocal chords. I’d get done singing an aria or big theatrical piece and my voice would be hoarse!

I have to admit that it scared me a bit. So I asked a close friend of mine if she knew of anyone local to me that was a voice coach/teacher that specialized in operatic and musical theater styles and she directed me to a close friend of hers named Kay.

One of the first things I established with Kay was that I actually wasn’t interested in being an opera or Broadway singer. What I wanted to learn was to sing correctly so I could sing the occasional opera piece with the proper mechanical technique. Kay was a little perplexed by my request because all of her students had aspirations to be opera or Broadway singers.

I explained to her that to me at least, learning how to sing opera would bring me back to the source of all singing technique; especially with respect to breathing and projecting. I figured if I could effectively sing an opera tune, I could sing anything. Long story short, I took about half a dozen classes from Kay – we treated our sessions like a master class – and I learned valuable lessons in vocal mechanics. As a result, I could literally do 6-hour gigs (with breaks, of course) and still have more in the tank to sing.


So you might be wondering: What does this have to do with guitar?

I spent all that time above talking about how I’m a singer first. That remains true to this day, but as you know from this blog, I have a passion for playing guitar. And in the last 20 years, I’ve taken on more and more lead guitar duties. I never sought to do this. I kind of fell into it.

But lately, I’ve been feeling as if I’m just playing a variation of the same thing for all my solos, and it’s frustrating. So I’ve decided to go back to the source and take some lessons; specifically, take jazz guitar lessons, and not just any kind of jazz, but a study of old jazz standards.

I realize that a lot of that is going to be a review of chord theory, which is actually pretty exciting to me. But more important than that, I want to learn chord comping and instead of just playing note scales, actually play chord scales. It requires a bit different way of thinking, but that appeals to me because long ago when I was taking piano lessons, rather than teach me standard scale theory, my teacher focused on chord theory.

The teacher whom I am hoping still gives lessons is Carol Kaye. She’s a legendary bassist, but she’s also an accomplished guitarist. Ms. Kaye has a resume of touring and session work that most people can only dream of. Most notably, she was the sole female member of the famed “Wrecking Crew,” responsible for creating HUGE hits of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. (And by the way, that whole “Wrecking Crew” name, according to Carol Kaye, was made up by Hal Blaine) The bass line for the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations, well, that was all her. Freakin’ amazing!

What inspired me to seek her out was this video of an interview she gave in 2013 (it’s over an hour long, but SO worth it):

The way she talked about her approach to music completely jibed with what I’ve been aspiring to achieve for years. I’m hoping she will accept me as a student!

Summary: True to form, here’s another quality pedal board from Vangoa. Roughly half the depth of its bigger brother the 20″ x 12″ board, this is a convenient board that can carry up to 7 pedals in a staggered setup (see image below and how I’ve set up 4 pedals – 3 can easily be staggered above).

Pros: Like the other boards I’ve reviewed by Vangoa, the build quality of this board is unquestionably high. No cracks in the joints; everything is straight as an arrow. The included cable ties, VelcroTM, and patch cables are a nice added touch.

Cons: Functionally, I have no issues with the board at all, though as with the other boards I reviewed, the dimensions are just a little weird. And as with the other boards the bag material seems a little thin. But that said, it’s not a problem as long as you take care and not throw the bag around or overload it.

Features:

  • Aluminum allow construction
  • 1 Roll Self-adhesive Hook&Loop
  • Carrying bag with inner pocket to hold extra cords and such.
  • 3 Nylon Cable Ties
  • 3 35cm Plastic Cable Ties
  • 6 9.7cm Plastic Cable Ties
  • 5 Self-adhesive Cable Mount Base Holders

Price: $59.95 at Amazon.com (no, this is not an affiliate link)

The quality of this board is clear. But at least for me, the size is perfect for my acoustic rig as I can fit a larger vocal processor/looper on it and still have plenty of room for modulation pedals, which was always my issue with the old Nano board.

Vangoa is one of numerous Chinese companies selling their wares on the market today. And they’re a testament to just how good Chinese manufacturing quality has become. I’ve tested and reviewed two of their other boards and have not been at all disappointed. In fact, their big pedal board is now my “big show” pedal board when I’m doing larger venues and need a bit more variety with my effects – especially overdrives and distortion, and need some space for a wah wah pedal.

When Vangoa sent me this mini pedal to review, this time, they also sent me aluminum alloy ingots, which were about a centimeter wide and almost a meter in length. I asked Jack, their sales manager what they were about, and he replied that he wanted to share the actual raw material from which the boards were made. Admittedly, it was a little humorous to me. But it did tell me that he was pretty serious about the product and wanted to prove that it wasn’t made of some other type of material.

Not that it would’ve mattered because when I first took out the board, I thought it was – as my Aussie mates say – “the duck’s nuts.” Quite simply, the board is well-made. As I mentioned above, there are not cracked joints and it’s just… well… sturdy.

A HUGE thing for me with the Vangoa boards is their use of rubber feet that not only prevent slippage, but more importantly, elevate the board above the floor to avoid potential spillage; something that I have personally had to deal with when playing in clubs when some idiot decides to dance in front of me with a beer, or stupid me, knocking over a water cup (which I don’t do any more).

Fit and Finish

I’ve already mentioned how the board itself is great, so no need to belabor the point. But it also comes with a nice carrying case. The material is good enough, and though it’s not made of high-velocity nylon, it works pretty well. And most importantly, it’s padded. But as with any thin nylon, you’ll have to be careful with it because over time, it eventually will wear out. Also, you never ever want to overload a bag like this. It will tear.

The extra accessories that that bag comes with are a very nice touch. This has what has always impressed me with the Vangoa bags. They add a bunch of stuff that you will need. For instance, the plastic cable ties are awesome. I already had a bunch of them in my workbench, but having some extras to tote to a gig? You never know when you’ll need ’em.

Waiting for the Lock-down to End

I haven’t gigged with the board yet because as with the rest of California, I’m in shelter-in-place lock-down for a few weeks, so no church, no clubs, blah, blah, blah. But once the lock-down is lifted I will be using this board as my acoustic/clean rig. I like the depth of the board because I can fit larger pedals on it such as a vocal processor/looper and still have plenty of room for modulation effects.

At least in this case, size really does matter. And this is important, especially with a solo act where consolidation is huge. One of the issues I had with the my old Nano board was that I could only fit four pedals on it. Period. If I put a vocal processor on it, like a TC Helicon VoiceLive unit, forget it. I had room for one extra pedal. So I always had to transport it separately. That also meant that once at a venue, I had to set it up separately. But with the Vangoa Mini board, I can fit a vocal processor on the board (I’m looking for a new one) and still put all four of my modulation pedals on it.

Overall Impression

Yeah, pedal boards are fairly pedestrian accessories, but when they’re well-designed their inclusion into a rig should be seamless and transparent. This Ghostfire Mini is great!

Click here for more information on Ghostfire board.

I’ve skied for over four decades now. And in my younger days, I did a bit of racing. I’ve loved watching and following ski racing since I was young boy, even before I knew how to ski. There was always something almost mystical about how these men and women can schuss down a hill carrying lots of speed and completely under control.

The amount of training that takes is immense. I know. I tried to do it, but I didn’t have the funds nor the sponsorship to go very far. I don’t know how I would’ve done, but I also knew that to get to the highest echelons of the sport, money makes the world go ’round. But my failed attempt didn’t mean I lost my passion for the sport of competitive ski racing.

Having followed the sport for most of my life, I’ve had the opportunity to see the occasional phenom pop up in both the men’s and women’s disciplines. Men like Franz Klammer and Ingemar Stenmark; women like Lindsay Vonn and Lara Gut. And as of late, Mikaela Shiffrin (pictured above), whom in her early twenties is destined to break and set new records in the sport.

But as of late, she has been struggling; but to be clear, it means she’s not getting first place. She’s still placing in the top three. But even still, there’s a noticeable drop in her confidence on the snow. To the average viewer, they may not notice a change in her skiing, but to an experienced eye, there’s a tentativeness that I’ve rarely seen in Shiffrin in the last couple of seasons.

And in a pre-race interview, Mikaela admitted that she was struggling and that it will take some work. Paraphrasing what she told the interviewer, she mentioned that her success has been less about her talent and much more the product of being prepared and hard work. The races where she has not won as of late were at venues where she didn’t have much time to train. And after hearing that interview, I immediately thought of my own journey as a guitar player and performer and this became the gist of this latest entry.

I’ve now been playing guitar literally for fifty years. And looking back on where I was when I started and where I am now is the product of work. Lots of work. Though born musical and raised in a musical family, and while I have a strong sense of what works musically and what doesn’t, that knowing has been much more the result of literally tens of thousands of hours of work and practice.

What Mikaela Shiffrin said in her interview resonated with me because, at least for me, hard work is the only way I know to get better. I’ve known some prodigies that just pick stuff up. But even they practice and practice and practice to get their technique as close to perfection as possible. The point here is that some people have an easier time getting to particular level of skill, but no one can avoid having to work to get there.

For me, I love the struggle of having to work for it. When I was younger, I didn’t have the financial means to get the kind of gear that I have now. My guitars were kind of crappy and by their very nature, they made me work to get good sounds out of them.

And I know it sounds a bit screwy, but I used to have this inherent fear that people would think I was horrible at playing (I still have that fear, but it’s a lot less now than when I was younger), so I would practice for hours on end to make sure I was totally prepared when it came time to perform.

A couple of weeks ago, the pastor of my church and I were having a conversation, and at one point, he complimented me for the job I was doing at our church services and my musical work with the teens in leading their praise and worship sessions. Then he remarked at how I made it seem so effortless.

I thanked him and said that obviously, I’m spiritually inspired. But I also emphasized that what most people don’t know is that I’ve practiced for several hours by myself leading up to the events I perform with the church. I also added that to me, it’s important to struggle. It’s important to work through every possible scenario that I can so I can be as prepared as possible.

If you’re motivated to being better – at anything – struggling is a good thing because it drives you to get better. I remember struggling through learning to play a major scale from any point on the fret board – a key component to playing modes (though just knowing a major scale is just part of the picture). I shared that I struggled with my crappy gear, but that just made me learn how to be so much more expressive.

Failure is struggle. Hopefully, we take those failures and learn from them. And as long as we don’t let our failures discourage us, we trudge on and do better the next time we’re faced with circumstances or situations that made us fail.

And yes, there are those who seemingly have an innate ability to pick things up. But make no bones about it. Even they have to work, even they have struggle because their talent will only take them so far. And yes, that level of so far might be a long way, but if they want to be better than that level, they’ve got to work at it.

Even at 58 years old, I play every day. For me, there’s always something to learn. Lately, I’ve been learning phrasing over “Blue in Green” by Miles Davis (er… Bill Evans?). No, I’m not trying to become a jazz player. Honestly, I don’t even like most jazz. But there’s something about the album “Kind of Blue” and especially “Blue in Green” that has always resonated with me.

In that particular song, there seems to be this Dorian-Mixolydian thing going on, so I’ve been experimenting with different phrases. It has been incredibly challenging because as much as I know the fret board, playing modally reaches to the outer extents of my abilities. But to me, that’s the beauty of the whole process.

It’s a struggle. But in the few weeks that I’ve been messing around with it, I’ve feel as if I’ve started to get a better awareness of how to link my phrases together. They’re not very fast – that’s not my intent – but they’re starting to flow together, and more importantly, it has forced me to play out of my comfort zone and do string jumps or play half steps where I would’ve never even thought to do that. And I’m not even done yet!

Two of my sons have picked up the guitar and they’re both getting pretty good. They ask me a lot of questions on technique and such, but most of the time, I just tell them they have to work through their issues or problems. Being digital natives, they want instant results. But I explained to them that the ONLY way I know of to master a technique is to work through it; practice it over and over again until you’ve got it down.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers,” he states that it takes approximately 10,000 hours to master anything. 10,000 hours! In the book, he describes the experiences of various famous people such as Bill Gates and all the things they did and do to develop their skills and reach the pinnacle of their experience and expertise. The gist of the book is that expertise comes from a very large investment of time and effort, much more so than pure talent.

So if you really want to get good at something, you gotta work at it!

I was on a forum recently where a longtime professional musician reached out to the community as he was looking to get a new guitar after decades of playing. He asked a question I’ve heard many times: What’s the difference between a $500 guitar and a $5000? In other words, why is the $5000 guitar considered better? And he admitted he had no clue about woods or pickup specs.

But he did back all his questions with his experience as a player, and that he has been playing professionally – live and in the studio – for over 20 years with the same guitar and amp. And not just part-time. That was how he made his living.

Most people who responded were very helpful, but one snarky person jumped all over his shit about not knowing about guitars. In reply, I said something to the effect that while the rest of us spent time and money chasing the tone unicorn, the original poster obviously found his tone with the gear he had and didn’t feel a need to look any further. The fact that he had made a successful career out of that original gear is a testament to that.

And that got me thinking that as we all see the world through the lens of our own experience, it’s very easy to try to apply our lens to others’ experiences. And in the case of the person jumping on the original poster, that’s a perfect example of that.

With gear sluts like us, we absolutely obsess over the minutiae of our gear. But there’s a whole sector of people, like the original poster, whose only concern is that it sounds and plays good.

It’s like my wife with wine. She has a very binary sense of wine: She either likes it or she doesn’t. Me? I’m a bit of a connoisseur. I love discovering the nuances. But the uncanny thing is that my wife actually great taste in wine. The wines she likes are what I’d rate in the 90+ range. In other words, she knows what’s good, but she doesn’t fuss over the details.

So if you’re one of those people, it’s not a big deal. If it works for you, that’s all that matters!

Ever since I started using Impulse Response patches for recording my tube amps for recordings, my recording setup for guitar has become incredibly simple. But it could be SO much simpler. The way I record my tube amps now is that I run my amp into my Aracom Amps DRX150 Attenuator that has an unbalanced Line Out, then run the attenuator into a DI to reduce the noise and convert the signal, and then run the DI into my audio interface.

It works. I still get a little bit of noise, but it’s manageable. BUT it could be SO much simpler!

Yes, I have considered something like the Suhr Reactive Load box and others on the market. But they all have more features than what I need and/or they’re pricey. For instance the basic Suhr Reactive Load is $349. That’s actually not a bad price, but I’m thinking the actual components shouldn’t cost that much. But to be fair, I’m not an expert in electronics take that with a grain of salt.

On the other hand, the Radial Engineering JDX 48 Reactor looked very promising. But it has speaker emulation built into it that I don’t think can be bypassed. I just want my raw amp signal to go into my interface and then apply an IR to it.

As I was ruminating on this, I called my good friend and amp-builder Jeff Aragaki of Aracom Amps and asked him how difficult it would be, and these are the features I thought would be great to have:

  • Be able to take 8 or 16 ohm amp output (or make it switchable)
  • Transformer to handle the load
  • A single, balanced output DI to go into my audio interface
  • Line level knob to adjust the amount of output signal from the unit.

I don’t need attenuation, though I suppose the line level knob would kind of act like that. And maybe there may have to be some attenuation to bleed off some of the power. Who knows? Also, I don’t need speaker cab simulation. Many of the unit have that and that kind of defeats the purpose sending my amp signal direct to my audio interface.

All in all, the net-net of this is to reduce clutter. One cable from my amp to the load box, then an XLR straight to my audio interface.

Usually I wait to do a gig report after I’ve done a review of the pedal, but I used it yesterday at my church gig and had to talk about it.

First of all, it was as if my Mad Professor Deep Blue Delay had never gotten fried! All that smooth, dark analog delay goodness that I had become so accustomed to with my DBD was there with the DM-2w!

And the best thing about it was that it was SO easy to dial it in. Normally, I take a few days to get used to new gear of any kind because all gear has its own quirks. But I was able to get it set up at home on Saturday and even recorded with it that I felt confident enough with it to bring it to my gig.

The DM-2w is not without its quirks; for example, setting the Echo knob past 2pm gets into an infinite loop. But I’d never go that high and kept it around 9:30.

With the Intensity set just short of noon and Delay set at about 2pm and Echo around 9:30, I got this gorgeous, spacious, and ambient tone that worked incredibly well for the songs that I played fingerstyle and claw hammer.

When I used it for songs that I was strumming, I set it to Standard mode and got a subtle slap-back going on. It created an almost 12-string guitar effect that combined with some subtle chorus really filled the spaces in my playing. And being Super Bowl Sunday, I was the ONLY musician yesterday, so having that extra dimension helped a lot!

At this point, I can’t be happier with the DM-2w. It’s simply a great pedal. And with the 800ms of delay time, there are lots of possibilities with this pedal. I’m SO glad I got it!