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Up until about 20 years ago, I was primarily an acoustic guitar player. I had some second-hand electric guitars that my younger brother gave me, but I didn’t have an amp. To remedy this, I’d borrow my brother’s JC-120 if he wasn’t gigging.

That amp was an absolute BEAST! And what I mean by that was that it was huge – and heavy. As you can see in the picture above, the amp has casters. That’s the modern version. Back in the ’80s, you had to install your own, which luckily, my brother had installed. In modern trim, the amp weighs in at a hefty 63 lbs. But I recall the original was heavier, like 75 lbs – my brother likened it to hauling around a Fender Twin.

But in that heft was the ultimate in clean headroom. With its dual 12″ speakers, that amp could absolutely sing and sing LOUD. You never used its distortion – talk about playing a musical chainsaw – but you could put pedals in front it. It was the perfect pedal platform.

And then, of course, there was the built-in chorus. That effect alone gave the amp its distinctive character. I always had it on when I used that amp; never fully wet, but just enough to tell me that it’s there. Combined with the stereo speakers, the chorus gave the amp’s sound depth.

And all this in a solid-state amp!

I look fondly back on those years in the ’80s and early ’90s when I used that amp the most. I was nowhere near as discerning about gear then as I am now. But I also didn’t have the financial means back then either to afford being discerning. But even today, I think the JC-120 is one of those standout, classic amps that’s right up there with the venerable Fender Twin or the Marshall Plexi.

Being solid-state, it gets nowhere near the love that its tube amp cousins get. But it’s no accident why players like Albert King, Andy Summers, and even Satch played a JC-120. Great is great.

The Name Game

I know that some folks think naming your guitars is stupid. But I’ve always named my guitars. It helps me connect with them and even subliminally affects how I play them.

For instance, I had a ’59 Les Paul copy that I called “Ox.” Ox was a workhorse of a guitar. Though I never abuse my instruments, I admit, that at least while I had him, I played him hard. On the other hand, “Amber,” my ’58 Les Paul Historic Reissue is an intoxicatingly beautiful and strong woman who demands respect. You can’t force her to do anything. You let her do her thing and she’ll reward you with sounds you’ve never heard.

I know… it’s a little weird. But by personifying my guitars, I connect with them. I feel as if they have a soul and that soul comes alive when I play them.

And it’s not always easy to come up with names for my guitars. I’ve had a hell of a time coming up with a name for my new Taylor T5z. When I got it, I felt a definite female presence, so I knew I’d name her a female name. But every time I tried to give her a name, it just didn’t stick.

Then last night I had a dream that I was playing her at a club. Someone came up to me and asked me what I call my guitar. I remember looking at her and the variegations of the mahogany grain reminded me of a tiger, and immediately the words “Tiger Lily” came to mind. But as soon as they did, an image of my mother flashed in my brain. Her name was “Lilia.” So that’s now the name of my T5z – “Lily” for short.

I’m not making that up. The name came to me in a frickin’ dream! And the more I thought about the name, the more it fit. My mom was a beautiful woman and kind and gentle. In the months before she passed away, I would travel to her house a couple of hours away and spend a couple of days a week with her.

We didn’t talk about much. But when we did, we reminisced on all sorts of things while I was growing up. We laughed. We cried. We got closure on things that were swept under the rug. And through it all, I came to truly understand and appreciate the incredible woman my mom was.

I saw the struggles she went through throughout her life; raising her brothers and sisters during the Japanese occupation of the Phillippines; raising a family (though my dad worked, his salary paid for the mortgage and food, while my mom’s work as a seamstress enabled all us kids to go to college). And in the twilight of her life, dealing with a weak heart. She was fighter with the focus and strength of a tiger.

So to call my T5z “Lilia” is a tribute to that great woman. That guitar is a way for me to remember her spirit.

After the tragedy of frying my pedals last week, I needed to set up my board with backups. So I went into my “cold storage” cabinet to see what I had. I just needed three pedals: A reverb, a delay, and a chorus. The only decent reverb I had was an old BOSS RV-5. For delay, I pulled my MXR Carbon Copy. And for chorus, I had to dig deep and I found my old Homebrew Electronics THC (Three Hounds Chorus).

I took that pedal from my board a couple of years ago because the nut that held the Speed pot got stripped, preventing me from making adjustments because the pot was completely loose. At the time it happened, I didn’t have the patience to fix it, but as they say, necessity breeds invention, and I needed a chorus, so I bit the bullet, took off the backplate and jimmied a temporary fix that would keep the pot in place.

With the temporary fix made, and a little cleanup, I needed to test the pedal to see if it was still operating properly. So I plugged it in, connected my guitar, and voila! It still worked! And from the moment I strummed my first chord, I remembered why I loved this so much and why I performed well over a thousand gigs with this pedal on my board.

What sets this particular chorus apart is that its sound is FAT. Even at its most subtle settings, it creates a thick, rich and warm tone that can smooth out harsh trebles. I used to love using it with my Squier Classic Vibe Telecaster to help fatten its sound. I’d turn the Depth and Speed down and set the Width to about 10am. What I’d get is just a touch of chorus but the sound would be so much more beefy.

That sound check got me real excited to use it with my Taylor T5z yesterday at church. And it did not disappoint! And combining it with the Carbon Copy to do clean leads was almost a religious experience; or, perhaps I should say it really enhanced my religious experience since I was playing at church. 🙂

Yesterday, we did a song by Jared Anderson called “Amazed.” It’s a quiet, prayerful song with lots of room to do solo lines. My particular arrangement promotes using a fairly ambient tone. So I set the Carbon Copy to maximum delay with a small regen and about 70% mix. Then I added the THC. All I can say is WOW! With my daughter singing the lead, I was able to lay back and do short filler lines underneath her and in between phrases in the melody.

Honestly, I probably could’ve pulled it off just using delay, but the THC added that extra fatness and wet chorus tone that just took it over the top. And it wasn’t as if I had cranked up the depth of the chorus. I had it on very modest settings – not so much that it takes over, but just enough that y ou know it’s there.

And you know you’re playing a truly great pedal when without it, it feels as if something is missing. I forgot that it had that kind of effect on me. It was a very nice reunion!

Here are some clips I recorded for it that demonstrate how nice it is:

The first clip is an A/B where I’m strumming a chord dry, then engaging the THC. In this clip, the chorus is set to super-subtle to demonstrate how it fattens up the tone.

The next clip is also an A/B with the THC still pretty subtle but with slightly increased depth.

Remember I mentioned how great it sounds with a delay? This next clip demonstrates the settings I used at church the other day.

The THC can also create a Leslie-like tone by cranking the Depth and Width knobs. It’s a pretty cool sound that I’ve used for some cool Blues-Rock stuff in the past. You don’t get that pulse like you would with a vibe pedal, but it’s a cool sound nonetheless.

Finally, for years, I used the THC as the primary chorus for my acoustic rig, just adding a very subtle backdrop to my tone. The THC has a subtle effect that is akin to a flanger but without a heavy pulse – that pulse is there, but you have to be looking for it. Combine that with a delay and/or reverb, and the result is a real dreamy sound.

In this final clip, I play a progression on my Gibson J-45 starting with just a subtle THC added in. Then I activate my delay and play the same progression and layer in a solo over that using a large room reverb.

To be clear, I don’t have the THC on all the time. Chorus is that kind of effect that is best used with a light touch. And with the THC being a bit dark, I’ve tended to use it with sad or more dreamy songs. For instance, here’s how it sounds with Clapton’s Tears In Heaven:

Mind you, with my J-45, I’m going direct into my DAW, so you don’t quite get the rolling effect of the sound when it’s going through a PA.

Being an optimist, I always look for the silver lining. What I did to my board last week was truly tragic. Lesson learned to use the right damn power cord. But out of the ashes rose a phoenix called the Three Hounds Chorus. I’m really jazzed to have that in my chain again!

BTW, you can still find used versions of this pedal online for far less than what I originally paid for mine, which was around $250-$275 if I recall. They’re now more than half the cost. I think I saw one on Reverb for around $100.

As they say, bad things tend to happen in threes, and last Sunday was exactly one of those days:

  1. First, I misplaced my passport and was freaking out about that because I’m leaving on a business trip to India in a couple of weeks. I have since found it, but damn!
  2. I got to church and burned out about $1000 worth of pedals by using the wrong power supply with them. Ouch!
  3. I guess I got so flustered with the first two things, that I forgot to turn up the volume on the mains on the PA! So all people could hear during our service was the sound coming from our monitors and my amp! And I was wondering why they weren’t participating as lively as they normally would – DUH!!!! Aiiiiiiyeeeee!!!

Needless to say, I was not in a very good space on Sunday. And to put icing on the cake, the battery on my T5z went dead in the middle of a Praise and Worship session with the youth ministry later that evening!

And guess what? The man who constantly preaches having spares of everything didn’t bring a spare battery! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! Luckily, I was able to borrow a rechargeable 9V that’s used for the priests’ lapel mics. Whew!

I’m laughing at myself now. But it wasn’t funny at the time. It feels like that scene in “The Internship” with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson where they went to Stanford University to find Dr. Xavier, only be punched in the nuts! Later in the movie, the team watched X-Men, and Vince Vaughn said, “Well, it wasn’t funny at the time…”

One would think that with all the gear I have, I’d have the sense to check the electricity ratings on a power supply. But NOOOOOOOO! I just saw 9V and didn’t check the amperage. Little did I know that the frickin’ thing put out 1000 mA. I just burned out FOUR F^&KING PEDALS! What a MORON!

I can’t be pissed because it was just plain lack of awareness AND being rushed to get to my gig. Luckily I have backups for everything except for my T-Rex Quint Machine. That one stung because it’s an expensive pedal. But I have to admit that I’m particularly bummed about my hand-wired Mad Professor Deep Blue Delay.

I’m sitting here just shaking my head. As I said, I’m not pissed, but I am a little heartbroken. The Deep Blue Delay has been a part of my sound for a long time, and I’m going to have to replace it. Honestly, I could use my MXR Carbon Copy, but that Deep Blue Delay was special. It’s the one pedal that was absolutely essential to be on all my boards. It is incredibly subtle and warm whereas the Carbon Copy, while good, isn’t nearly as subtle, though it’s great for a slapback sound.

But even the PCB version of the DBD – which is excellent and sounds like the hand-wired – is $195 new. Yikes! There are some good prices for used DBDs on Reverb.com, so I’ll probably go the used route for a replacement.

As for the Quint Machine… damn… that’s gonna be a stretch to replace. It’s a fantastic pedal, but damn…

Well, I’m gonna pour myself some bourbon and chill…

Position Is Everything

Nope, even though I’m displaying an amp to the left, this post isn’t going to be about describing gear. It’s about a subject not too many people talk about, but often just assume everyone knows. And that subject is about positioning your amp, and where you are in relationship to it when you play.

Why is this important? Simply because how an amp sounds up close and at a distance are oftentimes worlds apart. I don’t know how many times I set up my gear based on being up close to my amp, only to hear it sound like shit off-stage and through the PA.

That creamy overdrive that sounds so luscious when I’m 3 feet away can sound like mush in the audience area. Or cleans that I think are too harsh up close actually sound fantastic off-stage.

The reason for this is because as the sound waves travel from the speaker they interact with the air molecules and bounce around and through them. Plus, there’s also a bit of a Doppler effect going on. Since sound travels at constant rate of speed, it reaches the player faster because of his/her proximity to the amp and just a little slower getting to the audience. That small difference in time can have an impact on tone.

Case in point: Before I did last year’s youth retreat for my church, I had set up my Katana 50 and pedal board at home, so I wouldn’t have to worry about dialing it in at the venue. Once at the venue, because the stage was a bit small, I had everyone put their amps offstage on the back line, and just had everyone lean their amps back against the wall so the speakers could angle up. In that configuration, I was about 15 feet away from my amp.

Once we did sound check and we got our volumes worked out, I found that all the time I had spent dialing in my sound at home was completely wasted! My tone was absolute shit! It was way too warm. I was not cutting through the mix at all! So I added treble on both the amp and all my pedals, which took a considerable amount of time while we warmed up for our first set. Talk about a high blood pressure moment! Luckily I got it mostly dialed in by the time the teens arrived, then made some minor adjustments over the next day, and all was well.

So what I learned from that experience was that I now flat-line everything before I go to a venue. I don’t bother tweaking beforehand because I know that the room will dictate what I need to do.

If I’m familiar with the venue, I now always tweak while standing at a distance so I can get close to what I need for the venue, then just make minor adjustments once I’m there.

This past weekend, we went back to the same venue for this year’s retreat. But because I was so busy leading up to the retreat, I didn’t get a chance to tweak my gear. I just loaded up my car and drove to the retreat center. Thank goodness I didn’t spend any time dialing in my sound beforehand.

The retreat center completely changed their sound system! Instead of the 21″ ceiling-mounted mains and huge subs they had before, they replaced them with what amounted to a DJ PA, and not a very good one. The rich tones that I absolutely dug last year were supplanted by speakers that produced WAY too much midrange. Luckily I had a great FOH guy to work with, and we spent about an hour getting everyone dialed in.

And through it all, I spent a lot of time going back and forth between the stage and my amp. This time, I had a smaller group, so I had the amps placed to either side of the stage, pointing in. With my Katana Artist, I ran a TRS cable directly into an XLR port and had my bassist do the same from his amp. We were just going to get enough volume on stage to hear ourselves, and let the FOH guy deal with the balance and EQ. But just to make sure the audience was getting a good sound, I went back and forth from my amp to the floor.

It really did sound A LOT different up close. I actually thought I sounded too warm. But because of the PA’s mid-range hump, that warmness created a zero-sum game. Plus, I had our FOH guy scoop the mids a bit to help things along.

So you see, what you hear up close can be worlds apart from what your audience hears…

I just finished my morning set of a three-day weekend youth retreat. Except for one set where I used my Gibson J-45 because I thought something had gone wrong with the T5z, I used the T5z for all the other sets throughout the weekend.

To give you a bit of context, this is an annual retreat for my parish’ youth ministry. It’s an incredible retreat that is planned by the teen leaders themselves and music is a core component of it. We don’t do long sets at a time – usually about 15-30 minutes each set, depending on the activities; except for Saturday night where we play for three hours straight (with 15-20 minute breaks, so it’s not bad).

And though we don’t play long sets, there are lots: 4 on Friday, 5-7 on Saturday (sometimes we need some filler – this year we did 6), and 2 on Sunday, though the first set is a free-for-all warm-up set where we do pop and classic rock songs while the participants socialize and write “love lines” which are little notes to different people.

It’s an exhausting retreat. I write the theme song every year and plan out all the sets with the teen leaders leading up to the event to get lighting and lyrics hammered out, so it’s a lot of work even beforehand; not to mention the audio setup as my band configuration changes from year to year. But it is one of the most rewarding things I do as a musician and praise & worship leader and I look forward to this retreat every year.

This year, I was excitedly anticipating putting the T5z through its paces because I knew that this would be the ultimate test of the guitar as I would use it as both an electric and an acoustic. And now that I’ve finished the retreat and have had time to chillax, I’m smiling just thinking about the T5z. After this gig, it’ll probably become my #1.

But let’s make no bones about it: It’s an electric guitar. Yes, even Taylor places it in its electric guitar lineup. But after I heard Eric Rachmany playing it, and having now experienced it myself, the acoustic tone from the acoustic setting on the guitar has had me all conflicted since I got it.

But don’t take my word for it, here are some clips I recorded this morning, running the T5z directly into my audio interface. I didn’t touch EQ at all. After you listen to the clips, you’ll understand why I’m a bit conflicted.

Now you can see why I’m a bit conflict as to what the T5z is. The flat sound is great. It sounds like a raw, plugged-in acoustic guitar. But when I add reverb and room ambience, it sounds like a mic’d acoustic! At least to me, Taylor hit the ball out of the park with this.

Now, considering the title of this article, let’s not mistake this particular post and equate it to my original review of the T5 back in 2007. Back then, the acoustic sound was only okay. And the electric sound was… well… not very pleasing to me, and I ended up kind of bashing the guitar. But it’s a whole new ballgame for me with the T5z. The acoustic tone – which you heard in the clips – is very acoustic.

And the electric tone, well, there’s no mistaking that it’s an electric guitar, but in the electric guitar settings, I can get a variety of tones out of it from Tele to Semi-Hollow Body tones. It’s such a FUN guitar to play.

But this is where I get a bit conflicted, especially when I play in acoustic mode. I consciously know that the T5z is an electric guitar. It feels like an electric, it plays like an electric, and though I’m playing 11s for a beefier string feel, the short scale length lets me bend notes like an electric. The jumbo frets force me to fret super-light, just like on an electric guitar.

But when I hear the acoustic sound coming out of my amp, my subconscious mind puts me into an acoustic-guitar-playing mode. In that mode, especially when I’m strumming, I can get a bit violent with my playing, something I picked up from studying Michael Hedges’ technique 40 years ago. That causes a few problems; mainly knocking my guitar out of tune. I’ve had to make a conscious adjustment to back off my percussive style and just let the guitar do the work.

So to be perfectly honest, I’m still getting used to playing the T5z. But despite that, the sound it produces is SO incredible that I’m looking forward to putting in the hours to discover what sounds the guitar can produce.

…not matter what you do.

I’m spending this weekend up at Camp Hammer in the Santa Cruz Mountains to lead praise & worship for my church’s annual Youth Retreat. This is a great venue tucked in the middle of the woods, just south of Big Basin, sitting in a clearing carved out of a dense forest of Coast Redwoods, the tallest trees in the world. This is the second year that my church has used this facility for the annual retreat and I love it here.

Last year, what was incredibly impressive was the sound system in the worship space. They had two big, ceiling-mounted mains with big subs in a 75′ X 40′ space. Lots of power – perhaps more than needed – to get the band’s sound out. Plus they had two big monitor wedges at the front of the stage so hearing ourselves was not at all an issue.

This year though, they changed the sound system. Now they have two 15″ active speakers mounted above smaller subs. To put it in perspective, you’d see a setup like this for wedding reception. It’s not bad, but it certainly lacks the depth and richness from the big mains we worked with last year.

Which brings me to the crux of the article…

Like most gear nuts, I’m obsessive about my sound. I’ve got lots of gear because I’m obsessive and have wanted to catch that unicorn we call tone. And from my amp, my tone pleases me.

But going direct out of my Katana Artist into the PA? Well… Let’s just say that I don’t know if I can fix it. And no, it’s not the Katana. I’ve got it dialed in to provide a very rich signal, and at church and recording, it sounds very close to its projected tone. What is getting produced in the PA is a very tinny tone, that combined with the reverb of the room makes my guitar sound like a Tele with some slapback delay.

My FOH guy and I have been working since yesterday afternoon to get it dialed in and save the settings on the board. We’ve rolled off the highs and added some bottom-end and that helped a bit, and we backed off the mid-range, but it’s such a fine adjustment with the mid-range, that if we get below a certain threshold point, it’s like a blanket has been thrown over the mains.

We tweaked for well over an hour yesterday during warm-up and sound check and did some more tweaks early this morning before our sunrise Mass. But to no avail. Even our vocals are sounding a little harsh. I brought good mics to this venue: Heil and Sennheiser mics. Even they sound horrible.

But here’s the thing: Despite the fact that I’m disappointed in the sound, there’s not much I can do about it. Period. I’ll try a couple of more things when we do our next set before lunch, but I’m just going to put up with what the PA can give me. My amp tone is as expected: It’s full and rich.

Besides, as long as my sound quality – or lack thereof – doesn’t hinder my ability to get the teens rocking with me, it’s all good. After all, I’m here to serve them, not my obsession with sound.

I realized that I hadn’t written a new year’s greeting in a LONG time; we’re talking years. So I thought it would be a good idea to wish everyone a good and prosperous coming year, not necessarily filled with money and new gear – though those are always good – but abundance of joy and fun and family or whatever truly fulfills you.

As far as gear is concerned, this was a good year for gear for me. I went from not really getting anything new for several years, to scoring some great gear.

Around mid-year, I decided to finally fix up my Godin Artist ST. This made me a little nervous because I had never had a guitar with a Floyd Rose on it. And I’m not really a tremolo guy in the first place, so I did a bit of work to lock it down. I think I did a pretty good job, but I was more happy that I didn’t break the damn thing!

Next up came my beloved Gibson J-45 Avant Garde Walnut Burst. For me, this was a dream come true guitar. I’ve wanted a J-45 for a long time and that this guitar was constructed of sustainable materials yet has all that J-45 mojo that I fell in love with year ago… Wow! I’ve been loving it!

Next came my BOSS Katana Artist back in August. After I gave my Katana 50 to my youngest son for his birthday, I needed a new, versatile amp that I could use for performance and silent recording (though I still use IRs with my tube amps).

The Katana Artist is the first amp I’ve had that I could use with both acoustic and electric guitar. It has a big sound and the Waza Craft speaker and bigger cabinet make the tone so deep and smooth.

For me versatility is of utmost importance. Not just because I’m being cheap but because I play so many styles of music I need to have gear that is flexible enough to play those styles. Sure, in the past, I’ve had different rigs for different kinds of gigs, but I’m also at that point in my life where I just want grab and go. I don’t really spend a lot of time any longer obsessing over every subtle nuance of every single component in my rig.

To that end, when I recently rediscovered the Taylor T5 and saw the T5z in action, I knew that I had to evaluate it. My thought was that if it worked as advertised, I’d have flexibility in both my amp and my guitar. It did not disappoint, so I got it just a couple of weeks ago and haven’t had a smidgen of buyer’s remorse.

In other notable gear news, I went completely digital with my sheet music. I had already started doing that for my solo acoustic gigs with my old iPad, but when I replaced that with my Surface Pro, I decided to do all my gigs digitally. It has been a real boon for my church gig, and has made sharing music with my other band members so very easy. It’s also a lot greener as I don’t print many copies any longer.

Even for Christmas Eve Mass where I’d print out several stacks of paper to distribute to participants, this time, I notified everyone to either print out their own copy or download the PDF and use a tablet. My daughters did just that, and it made it so easy for them.

Amazingly enough, I only purchased one pedal this year and that was my T-Rex Quint Machine which is an octave up/down and perfect fifth generator. I love that little pedal and use it to give me a 12-string sound when I need it, or lay down bass lines for looping. Pretty cool stuff!

And finally, after years of great use, I had to replace my trusty Fishman SA220 SoloAmp that I’ve been playing through for years after it started making some funny noises and started buzzing. I think I played over 1000 gigs with it, lugging it all over Northern California!

I replaced it with the incredible JBL Eon One. Talk about having close to a hi-fi sound in a PA. I’ve gigged with it several times since I’ve had it, and while I’m not gigging with it, I play my Spotify lists through it at home. It was great for the holiday get-togethers we had this Christmas season.

Yeah, this year has been a great year for gear. I don’t anticipate any more major purchase in the near future – sheesh! I’m not broke, but I’m pretty satisfied as far as gear is concerned!

ROCK ON!

Let me qualify before I go on: I actually don’t care if a guitar is handmade or if the wood is carved by a machine. All I care about is that the guitar plays and sounds good. I’m not going to advocate one over the other.

The other day, I was on an online forum where there was this HUGE debate about handmade guitars vs. CNC. The handmade proponents all talked about “soul” and “mojo,” while the CNC proponents talked about consistency and speed.

The reason I call this a “dumb” debate is that many people think that a CNC is just a set-it-and-forget-it appliance. You press a button and out pops a finished guitar. It’s a tool. And make no bones about it, despite parts being cut by a computer-controlled machine with a CNC, the finish and assembly of pretty much all high-end guitars are done by hand.

Personally, as I mentioned at the top of this entry, I don’t care. If a guitar sounds good and plays good, then it is good – at least to me.

I know, I’ll probably piss some people off – especially the ones who swear by getting nothing but handmade guitars. Hey man, if that’s what does it for you, then go for it! For me at least, I’m much more utilitarian with my approach to gear. I’ve got to be able to gig with it and record with it. A guitar’s soul is how I connect with it.

It can be a cheapo guitar like my original Yamaha FG-335 or my $200 Squier Classic Vibe Tele. If I can make music with it, my thought is simply this: Lemme play it.