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Posts Tagged ‘guitar gear’

4.75 Tone Bones - Almost perfect but not quite

polarity_j3

Polarity J3

Summary: Made out of one of the hardest woods in nature, the Polarity J3 pick produces a warm, but also “spanky” tone that is perfect for leads.

Pros: I’m a big fan of natural materials for plectrums, and the J3 doesn’t disappoint with its feel in the hand. Natural materials also tend to not squeak when striking a vibrating string. As far as sound is concerned, I dig the sound that this pick produces – A LOT!

Cons: My only concern with this pick is its lifetime. I took the picture I supplied to the left after playing with the pick for about an hour on various guitars, strumming and playing solos. If you click on it, you can see where some of the Carnuba wax has already started wearing away, so I’m not sure just how long the pick will last. However, I’ll have a better idea after I gig with it this coming weekend and will post a follow-up article. NOTE: This is a fairly small nit because I only put a few hours of playing on it, and note that the only wear was the wax coating. The wood itself didn’t have any wear on it.

Price: $29.00 ea

Specs:

  • 1.3 millimeters thick
  • 7/8″ wide X 1″ long
  • Handmade
  • Magnetic

Tone Bone Rating: 4.75 – If I didn’t have the initial concern that this pick might have a short lifetime, I’d give the pick a 5 Tone Bones as it plays and feels and most importantly, sounds great.

As with most gear I write about, how good it feels, plays, and sounds is a matter of personal preference. That also affects what I’d be willing to pay for gear as well. So based upon my initial experience with the Polarity J3 pick, though the pick is on the pricey side, I’d make an investment in it just the same. It plays and feels and sounds fantastic. Is it something I’d use for general use? Probably not, simply because despite the wood being extremely hard, it’s still wood, and will most probably wear at a quicker rate than harder materials. I certainly wouldn’t use it for rhythm playing with a Strat that has vintage-style pickups with the poles that protrude. I nicked several Red Bear picks on my Strats, so I never play a Strat with a Red Bear pick.

But for leads? This is a great pick for that. Here’s a little ditty I put together last night to demonstrate how it sounds (I used my Slash L Katie May through a Fender Twin AmpliTube model):

I already have the perfect application for it. As of late, at my solo gigs, I’ve been making a lot of use of my looper to create live tracks that I can improv over. The “backing tracks” are usually recorded finger-style or using a variation on a clawhammer technique, and most of the time, I just hold my pick in my hand. This is a perfect pick to use for that application, and it’ll get a lot of use; especially this Friday and Saturday. So I’m looking forward to playing with it!

I love a number of things about this pick.

  • Being a rigid pick, it has a relatively fast attack, as compared to standard flexible picks. Even for strumming the quick response helps to stay in time.
  • The pointy tip produces a nice, bright tone, but the wood helps balance that out with some warmth in the mid-range.
  • Amazingly enough, I was expecting to have a bit of friction because of the wood. But it’s so hard that it slides over the strings quite easily, but the awesome thing is that it’s just soft enough so you don’t get that ugly squeak when you’re hitting a vibrating string, as you often get with hard plastic picks.
  • I was a little dubious about its size when I first got it, but after playing with it for just a few minutes, it’s extremely comfortable to hold plus, there’s a lot to be said about holding natural and natural-feeling material.

Will it last?

That’s really the big question, isn’t it? Despite being made of a hardwood, it’s still wood, and wood is somewhat delicate. Only time will tell if it holds up. As I mentioned above, I was a little concerned about the wax coating wearing so quickly after just a little bit of time playing the pick, but the wood was absolutely intact, so my feeling is that as long as I keep the scope of how I use it fairly narrow, this pick should hold up for a long time.

Overall Impression

I’m diggin’ this pick, and will use it this coming weekend at three gigs, so I will get a really good idea about its durability. But as it stands now, I’ve put in a few hours of playing with the pick on acoustic and electric guitars, and even used it with my bass. This is not a pick that I’d use for strumming; not that I’m concerned that it’ll break, but because of its size and shape, it just seems to be made for doing solos.

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Australian Bulloak Pick

When I first heard about these, I was admittedly rather incredulous about the prospect of a wooden pick. But after going to the Polarity Sound page, and checking out their offerings, I’m extremely intrigued. I’ve played with all sorts of picks made with different materials from milk-protein polymer to acrylic to high-velocity plastic to ceramic, etc. Can’t say that I’ve played anything made from wood, so this pick really makes me wonder.

They currently make a single style of pick that is similar in size to a Dunlop Jazz 3 – they call it the J3. And at first blush, you might think, “Ho-hum, just another pick,” but there are two things that distinguish this pick from others:

  1. The picks are made of extremely hard wood; either Lignum Vitae or Australian Bulloak
  2. The picks are magnetic. Yup, magnetic. They even come with a magnet that you can put on the inside of your guitar body, so you can place the pick when you’re not using it.

From what I could tell from the video, the picks produce a nice, chime-y, bright tone. I thought it would be a bit warmer, but given the hardness of the wood, it’s not too surprising. In any case, I’ll hopefully get one of these in for review, and I’ll let you know what I think of it, plus a bit more technical stuff in detail.

A question in my mind is: Just how durable are these picks? I’ll have to flesh that out once I play one, but chances are with the hardness of these woods, they’ll probably hold up for a long time and so long as you care for them properly. I imagine they’d be similar in durability to Red Bear picks (made from milk protein polymer).

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SONY DSC
Aracom PLX100

Summary: Based upon the PLX amp “platform” that Jeff Aragaki has created for creating customer-specific amps, this 100-watt beast is actually 3 classic Marshall amps in 1: Plexi 100 SuperLead (JMP), Plexi PA, and JCM800 (high gain).

Features

  • Three channels (Plexi SuperLead, Plexi PA, JCM800)
  • “Bite” Switch (mild mid boost)
  • Master Volume Control with Bypass Switch
  • Presence, Treble, Middle, B ass Tone Controls
  • Solid State/Tube Rectifier Simulation Switch
  • Channel Disable Switch
  • Bias Test Points with user accessible bias pot
  • Handwired turret board construction
  • “M” style large box head cabinet

Price: ~$2900

Tone Bone Score: 5.0 ~ Talk about high-gain versatility. This is no gimmick. Each different channel has voicing that you’d expect out of that particular model. The SuperLead is classic, bright Plexi, while the JCM800 has a darker, much more aggressive tone, and the SuperPA is all about clean headroom. While the amp in an of itself is special; the PLX platform is what make all this possible. If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it to the grave: Jeff Aragaki is genius!

About three years ago, Jeff Aragaki and I were talking about a new amp design. I told him that I would love to have a high-gain amp either in a 50 or 100 Watt version, but gave me the flexibility to voice it in various ways to fit the particular sound I wanted. We affectionately called this a “FlexPlex” because for me in particular, I wanted that Plexi sound, but wanted to be able to tweak it. Jeff actually built it, and I saw the prototype for it a couple of weeks ago.

But in the process of building the FlexPlex, you might say he “stumbled” upon a completely new way to build his amps; and that was basing his builds upon a platform. This wasn’t trivial, and no, I’m not just bandying about some buzzword. The platform that Jeff discovered has allowed him to create all sorts of different amps; starting with a common construct. I’m not sure about all the details, but the proof is in the pudding. Here Jeff’s words that describe this particular amp:

“The ARACOM PLX100 amplifier is a platform that allows us to build customer specific amplifiers with the features and specifications they desire.   For this custom build, our customer wanted a 100 watt amplifier with the vintage Marshall Super PA look.   The Super PA head cabinet has a “wide mouth” front panel opening, allowing access to four separate P.A. channels.    The model designation for this custom ARACOM amplifier is” Super H.T”.,  H.T. representing the initials of our customer.  However, instead of having 4 identical channels like a standard Super PA amplifier, the Super H.T. has 3 different channels, allowing for a highly versatile amplifier. 

“The JMP channel offers clean and overdriven tones as expected with a Plexi SuperLead amplifier.  It has two separate Bright switches that allow the channel to go from a Plexi Normal (Dark) channel tone to Plexi Bright channel tone, or something in between.   The Super PA channel provides slightly less gain than the JMP channel, with a fuller bass response.   The JCM channel is the high gain channel, designated for overdriven/distorted tones.   The JCM’s Bright switch allows for the standard JCM800 bright tone or a slightly darker tone.   The Master Volume control with a true bypass switch, allows for cranked up tone at lower volume levels.   The rear panel Bias Test points, allows for quick and easy tube biasing.”

Fit and Finish

It sure looks like a Marshall… 🙂 But in all seriousness, it’s an Aracom Amp, and that means quality. Jeff doesn’t skimp on components, and he takes a lot of pride in making sure everything that leaves his shop looks absolutely professional, and the PLX100 is no exception. The tolex is perfect, and all the knobs are snug and turn smoothly. And since this amp was going overseas, you can bet that Jeff made sure that everything was sturdy to eliminate or severely reduce the risk of breakage.

Ease of Use

I normally don’t have this section in my reviews, but I thought it necessary in this case. While I absolutely love the amp, with all the switches and the push-pull knobs, I have to admit that I’d have to take a lot of time getting familiar with it. I don’t call that really a negative mark on the amp. For goodness’ sake! How else do you pack in all those features? But despite that, the knob and switch layout is pretty clear. It would take me awhile to find the sweet spot in each channel for all the guitars I’d play through it. But that’s the beauty of discovery and experimentation, wouldn’t you say?

How It Sounds

This amp sounds amazing! Jeff explained each channel as I would have, so I’ll just reiterate and say that his descriptions of each channel reflect my own experience with it. When I was in his shop testing the amp, we must’ve played around with it for at least an hour as he twiddled knobs and flipped switches to demonstrate the amazing number of voices that could come from this amp. The permutations of settings make this amp able to tackle practically any style of music. Oh! We did all the testing through a huge 4 X 12 at gig volumes, so it was LOUD! 🙂 I played a Les Paul, a Gene Baker prototype (it was a hybrid that is VERY cool), and a Strat through the amp, and each guitar sounded killer through it. My favorite channel by far was the SuperLead channel, which had lots of gain on tap, but wasn’t at all over the top. Next was the JCM channel – especially its dark mode which produced thumping overdrive. I wasn’t too wild about the SuperPA with a Les Paul, but with single coils, that channel was absolutely SWEET! It would be a perfect channel to use with overdrive pedals because of its clean headroom.

Overall Impression

What strikes me the most about the PLX100 is that you literally have three amps in one. If you had all three, you’d probably be close to $10,000. That this amp is only $2900 is pretty amazing to me. But that’s Jeff. He doesn’t make a huge profit on the gear he builds – that’s a personal choice. He just wants to build great amps. This is like my friend Perry Riggs of Slash L Guitars. He makes absolutely awesome guitars but sells them at a price-point that’s rather incredible. Both of these gentlemen are true artisans of their trade, and I’m glad there are folks like this.

With respect to the PLX100, I sure wish I played in venues where I really open up an amp like this and really do it justice. For my particular uses, this is way too much amp. But if I ever get the chance to regularly play large venues, you can bet that I’ll be calling Jeff Aragaki to build me an amp on the PLX100 platform. Or… maybe he has a 50 Watt version. 🙂

For more information, visit the Aracom PLX100 product page!

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5 Tone Bones - Gear has stellar performance, value, and quality. This is definitely top of the class, best of breed, and it's a no-brainer to add this to your gear lineup!

DualRox

Aracom DRX Power Attenuator

Summary: Truly an evolution of the attenuator, Jeff Aragaki has once again upped the ante with the DRX attenuator. This dual-level attenuator not only will tame your volume, but it will give you the ability to use two different volume levels; and with the optional foot switches, will give you flexibility not offered by any other attenuator on the market. Furthermore, the adjustable reactance allows you to tame your tone on top of controlling your volume.

Pros: The Aracom attenuation technology is the most transparent that I’ve tested – and I’ve tested and used several over the years. Nothing comes close. But the dual-level attenuation (normal and boost modes) blows away the competition in my book. Then add variable reactance to the mix, and there’s nothing that can even touch what this attenuator can do.

Cons: Is a little on the pricey side, but the capabilities are worth it to me. I’m having one built.

Price: Starts at $850.00 direct

Features:

  • Dual-level attenuation
  • True bypass, minimum attenuation, variable (which goes all the way to load)
  • 5-position Variable Dynamic Control – varies the reactance between the attenuator and speaker, acting like a high-cut filter.
  • 3 optional foot switches (boost only, boost + channel switch, boost + A/B)
  • Weighs only 7 lbs.
  • Line out with level control
  • Will handle 4, 8 and 16 ohm

Tone Bone Rating: 5.00 ~ A few years ago, when Jeff first showed me his prototype attenuator mounted on a pine board, I never thought that

Jeff Aragaki is a genius. I knew it from the first moment I met him. I started out by first being blown away by his “more Marshall than Marshall” amps and now the proud owner of three of them to witnessing his attenuator technology go from a project box, demonstrating to me a way to throttle output volume that was unlike anything at the time (and still no one has been able to duplicate what he has done), to now three iterations of attenuators (Pro, DAG, and now the DRX). The DRX is by far his most incredible riff on his unique attenuation technology. And no, if you think you know how it works, you’d be wrong. I’m no expert, but I’m familiar with the basics of traditional attenuation (read: everyone else’s attenuators), and the Aracom technology is like nothing on the market.

As I mentioned above, the DRX (short for DualRox) attenuator takes that technology to a new level by offering two modes of operation: Normal and Boost; at least if you’re just using boost mode (Type A foot switch). It opens up more possibilities with the Type B and Type C foot switches which provide the capability to switch channels (Type B), or use an A/B (Type C), perfect for two-channel amps that don’t have channel switching. These features alone had me completely sold on the unit, and I had only originally tested it with the Type A foot switch! My test unit which Jeff lent to me for review included the Type B boost and channel switch (which I’ll demonstrate in a clip below). But irrespective of the type of switching, being able to boost my volume under attenuation just blew me away!!! Here’s a clip that demonstrates only switching between normal and boost modes:

From a performance standpoint however, having both the dual attenuation levels, plus the ability to switch channels is absolutely HUGE! For instance, I can go from clean to full-on overdrive with the click of the foot switch; much like engaging an overdrive pedal. But there’s no pedal involved. Without an attenuator, going from clean to dirty on the amp usually involves a huge jump in volume. But with the dual-level attenuation, I can set my cranked up volume to just a bit over the clean volume. Again, this is just having an overdrive pedal, but this time, it’s only my amp, so I don’t have to worry about dialing in another device’s EQ to get the right tone. Check this clip out:

I used my Aracom VRX22 for that, which is another Plexi clone but with 6V6 tubes. This amp is notable for its haunting clean tone, and monster overdrive, which comes from 1950’s NOS 6V6’s that I have biased a little hot. I also had it customized with channel switching, so it fit the bill for testing out the Type B foot switch. I just can’t wait to gig with this come Sunday! It’s gonna be fun!

But it doesn’t stop there. In addition to the dual modes is a feature that no one else has, and that’s the Variable Dynamic Control. While it acts essentially as a subtle high-cut filter, it’s not an EQ. Instead, it changes the reactance between the attenuator and speaker. Fully right is full reactance, and as you move left to the leftmost position (there are 5 positions), the reactance is reduced, producing the effect of rolling off the highs. But it’s very subtle, and you can really only tell a difference between the most extreme settings. This is an incredible feature in that it allows you to dial in your tone; especially your cranked tone. For instance, my Aracom VRX18 (18-watt Plexi clone) produces lots of highs when cranked. They’re not entirely undesirable, but they do get piercing, especially at gig levels. So by slightly reducing the reactance between the attenuator and speaker, I can get rid of the super-super highs while retaining my fundamental tone. In a word: Killer. Here’s a clip that demonstrates the Variable Dynamic Control:

As I said, it’s subtle. The fundamental tone doesn’t change much, but going from extreme to extreme, you can tell when the highs roll off a bit.

For those who are familiar with the previous Aracom attenuators, one feature that set them apart was the ability to mix and match amps and cabs with different impedance settings. For instance, you could match an 8 ohm amp output with a 4 ohm cab. But that came at the price of a huge transformer that made those units weight 18 lbs. The DRX requires that both amp and cab impedance settings match. But that’s not really a loss at least for me because all my amplifiers have multiple output impedance jacks, so it’s really not a big deal. And for what I get in return from the DRX, that loss of flexibility is not a very high price to pay.

Overall Impression

When I first tested the prototype of this unit a couple of years ago, I actually thought that Jeff had changed the circuit technology. But in fact, he didn’t, which is a good thing because when you have this unit, you’re assured of getting the most advanced attenuation technology on the planet. Yeah, I’m raving about it because for the past few years, this technology has afforded me the flexibility to play in ANY venue, large and small, indoor or outdoor, and not ever have to sacrifice my tone; something I can’t say of other attenuators I’ve used and tested. I can crank up my amp as much as I need, confident that my tone hasn’t changed, but never having to worry about pissing someone off about my volume.

But on top of that, with the ability to have two levels of attenuation, plus the ability to dial in my highs, I couldn’t be happier, and I can hardly wait for Jeff to finish constructing my unit.

And yeah, as I mentioned above, it’s a bit on the pricey side. But how much is great tone worth? I’ve spent countless hours and thousands upon thousands of dollars on guitars, amps and pedals over the years – especially the last few years – and with each one, I justified my expense. The DRX is a tool that will let me ensure that I keep the tone that I’ve worked so hard to achieve. It may not make sense for the solo bedroom player, but for working musicians like myself, the DRX is an investment in my tone that I’m willing to make.

For more information, go to the Aracom DRX product page!

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rocknstompn

Rockn Stompn Power Supply
Summary: Nothing like clean power. But there’s also a lot to be said about getting your power on in the right sequence.Pros: Great power conditioning, plus the ability to properly activate your rig in the right power-on sequence.Cons: A little pricey.

Price: $379.00 Street

Features:

  • Fully customizable power-on interval setup
  • 1935 Joules of surge protection
  • Power conditioning ensures your rig always gets optimal power.
  • Convenient foot switch for power-on.

Tone Bone Rating: 4.75 ~ You might be thinking that it’s just a power strip. But this isn’t your ordinary power strip. The surge protection and power conditioning alone are worth it.

Kimball, the maker of the RocknStompn power supply, contacted me recently, wanting to send me his power supply for review. As is my normal routine when contacted out of the blue, I do a bit of research to find out about the product. So I went to the Rockn Stompn web site to see what was what with this power supply. Admittedly, when I saw the price of the unit, I got extremely curious. What could make this so pricey? So I emailed Kimball back, and said I’d review the unit.

It arrived a few days later, and I immediately plugged it in, plugged my amp and pedal board in, turned my amp on, then switched on the unit. As advertised, the power to the plugs went on sequentially with amp coming on last. That’s actually a VERY cool feature as it ensures that you always power on your rig in the proper sequence.

But the thing that I found was much more important than the sequencing was the power conditioning. I have a few pedals – one in particular – that are extremely sensitive to the power supply I plug into. If the power is “dirty” these pedals make a lot of noise. But with the Rockn Stompn, I get clean power, and even my most finicky pedal, my ToneCandy Spring Fever, was absolutely quiet. That pedal has frustrated me since day one when I got it, and for the first time since I’ve owned it, it is dead quiet.

I first tried the power supply in my studio, and it worked just fine. But you know me, the real test for any gear is at a gig, so I brought it to my church gig last weekend. My church is an interesting place in that we have pretty good audio equipment, but the power can be a little dirty. But with the Rockn Stompn powering my rig, I had zero noise. My VHT Special 6 can also be a bit finicky with power, and it too was dead quiet.

After the gig, I asked myself, would I actually spend this kind of money on just a power supply? After using it, yeah, I would definitely save up to get one of these units. Not only does it give me clean power, but the surge protection is worth it as well. Protecting my gear is ultra-important to me, and for as much as I gig year round, having that protection gives me a lot of peace of mind. Plus, once you have everything hooked up, all you need to do is hit the foot switch, and your rig will power on – in the right sequence. The foot switch is VERY convenient.

Notice that I didn’t mention anything about tone; neither does the company. But with continuous clean power, and a clean signal, one thing that I did notice in an A/B test was that my tone seemed a little clearer. I’m not saying that this will improve your tone, but it’ll definitely help with cleaning it up; especially if you’ve been running through dirty power. You know me, I’m highly suspicious of the snake oil that’s out there. But the Rockn Stompn isn’t sold with claims that it’ll improve your tone. But it sure does give you clean power, and that could have a good effect on tone.

I highly recommend that you check this out. It comes with a lifetime warranty, so the risk is minimal; you won’t be over a log if it stops working. I know one thing’s for sure as far as I’m concerned: This unit will be like an American Express card; I won’t be leaving home without it!

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HOF_REVERB

TC Electronic Hall of Fame Reverb

Summary: This is a super-versatile reverb that gives you tons of flexibility with reverb tones, whether you want to add a little “grease” or slather on the ‘verb thick and soupy.

Pros: 10 presets plus it’s TonePrint enabled to give you virtually limitless reverb sounds.

Cons: Can sound a bit monotonous between presets – very spring-reverby – but adjusting the decay and level fixes that easily.

Price: $149.00 Street

Features:

  • TonePrint Enabled
  • Short/Long Pre-delay toggle
  • 10 reverb types
  • Stereo in & out
  • True Bypass
  • Analog-Dry-Through
  • Decay, Tone and Level controls
  • Easy battery access
  • Small footprint
  • High-quality components
  • Road-ready design

Tone Bone Rating: 4.75 ~ Once I sat down with the pedal for a few hours in my studio, I fell in love with it! This is is a great reverb pedal that can provide lots of different reverb options if you’re willing to explore its capabilities. Believe me, it’s totally worth it!

I’ve been using my ToneCandy Spring Reverb for my solo acoustic gigs for the past couple of years. Hands down, there is no better spring reverb simulator pedal on the market. But one drawback of the pedal is that it is extremely sensitive to the power supply used with it. If it doesn’t like it, it’s noisy. Up until recently, I didn’t have a problem with its finicky behavior, as I had a power supply that worked just fine with it. But a couple of months ago, the OneSpot power supply that I was using with my acoustic board went on the fritz, and for some reason, the Spring Fever doesn’t like the new one, and the pedal would produce a very low-level, high-pitched buzz. I could filter it out a little bit with EQ and signal padding on my Fishman SoloAmp, but plugged into the restaurant’s board, the sound was noticeable.

Frustrated by that, I remembered that I had the Hall of Fame reverb in my box of toys. I had gotten it months ago from TC Electronic for review, and though I had written a “First Impressions” article on the Hall of Fame, I hadn’t gotten around to doing a formal review of the pedal. So the other day before my gig, I pulled it out, hooked it up and started tweaking knobs to really see what it could do. After about a half-hour of playing around with it, I was kicking myself for not putting it on my board sooner. Back in August of last year when I first got the pedal, I actually gigged with it a few times; both in my solo acoustic gig and my church band. But I had only used the “Hall” and “Spring” settings, which I did find to be superb. But my formal test revealed a certain character of the pedal that I hadn’t noticed before. It really took setting it up in my studio to discover its subtleties.

Fit and Finish

What can I say? TC gear is always rock-solid and gig ready, and the Hall of Fame is no exception. The footswitch is solid, and provides nice tactile feedback when activating or deactivating the pedal. The knobs sweep smoothly and the pots have good resistance. I do not like loose-feeling pots, it feels cheap. But that’s certainly not the case with the Hall of Fame reverb.

I dig the low-profile, small footprint enclosure. And while the pedal is light in weight, it just feel solid and well-constructed. Again, this is a trait of TC Electronic gear.

How It Sounds

I don’t do surf or real ambient stuff very often, so typically I like to use a reverb to add a little grease or provide a little expansiveness, and the Hall of Fame Reverb does this swimmingly well. I recorded some clips below. All clips were recorded with my Slash L Katie May plugged into the Hall of Fame, which in turn was plugged straight into my VHT Special 6 with a Jensen Jet Electric Lightning (even for a 10″ speaker, it produces a nice bottom end).

The first clip starts out with a dry, then moves from Room to Hall to Church. Level and Decay are both set at noon. This was a test to see how the reverb provides what I call “distance;” that is, just as in real life, as you move to a larger and larger room, the guitar moves further away, and the sound bouncing off the walls provides depth.

The next three clips are my favorites that I used in my last three gigs:

AMB – Level 100% Wet, Decay 3pm

This is by far my favorite setting for acoustic guitar plugged directly into a PA. As the name implies, “AMB” stands for ambient, and it is meant to simulate room ambiance, but not actual reverberation off the walls of a room. As such, it’s a very subtle reverb with an extremely quick decay. It adds just a touch of grease to smooth out the signal. Combined with my Yamaha APX900’s ART pre-amp system, I get a very natural sound. And unless I’m playing a song that requires a bigger room sound, the pedal is set to AMB for 95% of the songs I play.

Room – Level 10am, Decay 1pm

This next one is great with a chorus pedal set to real warm, then used for slower, finger-picked songs

Church – Level 2pm, Decay 10am

When I first started playing around with this setting, I didn’t like it much. I’ve never been much into cathedral settings. But slathering on the wetness level while shortening the decay, makes for a very useful super-ambient sound that I actually used for a few songs over the past few days. It works real well.

Overall Impression

This is definitely a keeper. I love that it is true bypass, so switching it on and off doesn’t produce an audible a signal pop. And owing to its pedigree, this is a great pedal that can easily find a home any board. Of course, as sort of a Swiss Army Knife type of reverb, it could never substitute a real spring or plate reverb or something like a ToneCandy SpringFever. But to add a bit of grease and providing different reverb sounds, the Hall of Fame reverb performs wonderfully and it does it at a price that’s very affordable, and that’s always a good thing!

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5 Tone Bones - Gear has stellar performance, value, and quality. This is definitely top of the class, best of breed, and it's a no-brainer to add this to your gear lineup!

Slash L Guitars
Summary: Yet another custom beauty from Perry Riggs, owner, and luthier of Slash L Guitars. This amazing through-neck guitar is not only aesthetically gorgeous, it’s capable of some incredible tones!

Pros: Lightweight (Perry lists at 8 lbs, but it feels even lighter). There’s a lot to be said about the through neck design. Tone comes from the neck and this laminated mahogany and maple neck creates both a jangly and lush tone, with sustain that’s on par with a Les Paul. I’m in heaven!

Cons: None. Absolutely none.Price: Call

Features:

  • Body: Quilted Soft Maple over Ribbon Sapele Mahogany
  • Neck: Grain-matched Flamed Hard Maple and Mahogany / Wide, Shallow “C” profile
  • Fretboard: Bound Honduran Rosewood / 24 frets – very nice
  • Nut: 1 11/16″ Bleached Bone Nut
  • Gotoh 510 hardware (my favorite – a wraparound bridge, and super-accurate tuners)
  • Lollar Imperial Pickups
  • Master Volume, Master Tone
  • 3-way pickup selector

Tone Bone Rating: Wow! Starting off the year with two 5.0 reviews! What can I say? I got pretty lucky! 🙂 Perry Riggs is a guy who loves building guitars, and the workmanship and tone of his excellent instruments never cease to amaze me!

What comes out of Texas? Great barbecue beef (especially brisket), a fantastic music scene in Austin, and Slash L Guitars out of Richmond. Perry Riggs discovered my blog a couple of years ago and asked if I’d like to review one of his guitars. He was a luthier whom I had never heard of, and after having a nice phone conversation, I agreed to review “Lana.” If I was impressed by Lana, I am even more impressed with Katie May. It’s clear that in the couple of years since I reviewed Lana, Perry has honed his craft even more. Katie May is an incredibly expressive and sophisticated-sounding guitar, and I’ll just say it now: If I had the money on hand, I’d keep this guitar, and make it my numero uno! That’s how good this guitar is!

Fit and Finish

When you purchase a custom guitar, you’re not purchasing something that you’ll resell. After all, a custom guitar is a pretty personal thing. Perry usually builds on commission, but then he occasionally builds some for inventory, like Lana and Katie May. I have to say that Katie May feels as if she was made just for me. 🙂 The neck is absolutely perfect, and dynamics and feel are EXACTLY how I like them.

The finish and workmanship that went into this guitar make it look like a piece of furniture! Everything about this guitar just screams organic. There’s a certain understated quality to this guitar that’s hard to describe, but it just looks “natural,” as if everything that should be on the guitar is on the guitar. There’s nothing extra, and there’s nothing missing. Check out some pictures:

The pictures don’t do the guitar justice. I wish I had more time to do a photo shoot of the guitar, but unfortunately, the demands of work precluded me from doing so. The quilted maple top is absolutely insane. I love how Perry used a simple stain then glossed it over with lacquer. I know, I’m really a burst kind of guy, but I’d use this on stage any day!

How It Sounds

The Lollar Imperials are absolutely incredible. They’re the perfect set for this guitar. Even though they’re just standard wound, they have a gain range that super-wide, and when dimed, they produce an absolutely velvety-smooth overdrive tone. When I gigged with the guitar over the weekend, when it came to leads,  I just closed my eyes and soaked up the wonderful tone of this guitar! Here are some clips (all recorded with an Aracom VRX18 in the drive channel cranked. The Lollars clean up fantastically!):

  • Middle-clean / Dead or Alive (Bon Jovi)

With this clip, I wanted to capture that simultaneous lushness and jangle that the guitar can produce. It’s best when in the middle position. When I gigged this weekend, I used the neck pickup with delay and spring reverb for a haunting, fingerstyle tone.

  • Neck-dirty

With that clip, I wanted to demonstrate the punch of the neck pickup, from which the guitar gets is super-lush, deep tones.

  • Bridge-dirty

This clip was all about “fun.” I used that song to demonstrate the “spank” of the neck pickup. It can create some searing lead tones, but with the volume backed off, will provide lots of snap.

  • Bridge clean and dirty

Remember I mentioned the spank of the bridge pickup? That’s most evident when playing a funky, clean riff. Combine that with an incredibly smooth and refined lead tone, and you’ve got a guitar that can create all sorts of tones!

By the way, my total rig for these demo clips was the guitar plugged directly into the Aracom VRX18 into an Aracom PRX150-Pro then out to my custom Aracom 1 X 12 cabinet with a Jensen Jet Falcon 12″ speaker. Amazingly enough, all clips were recorded at normal conversation levels. The PRX150 never ceases to amaze me! In any case, I miked the cabinet with a Sennheiser e609 instrument mic fed into a Presonus TUBEPre and into my audio interface. Everything was recorded using Logic on my Mac with no EQ or effects added, so what you hear is the raw guitar sound. I didn’t want to muddy the waters by running it through any effects.

Playability

Normally, it takes me awhile to get used to a guitar; especially a custom guitar. But Katie May was playable right out of the box. For me, the neck is absolutely perfect. It’s super-fast and the medium-jumbo frets just do not get in the way. They’re deep enough to provide some room for vibrato, but they’re low enough where they allow you to move around very easily. In fact, when I record the lead for the last clip, I actually had to take several takes because I kept on going too fast! That’s saying a lot for me because I’m not really a fast player.

Overall Impression

The rating says it all. Great looks? Check. Great sound? Check. Great playability? Check. This is a guitar that I would add to my collection any day, and I’m going to be jealous of the person who ends up with her. Kudos to Perry Riggs for creating such a masterpiece of a guitar! And by the way, Perry, if you’re reading this, I now hate you for torturing me with this guitar. I’m a horse, and Katie May is the carrot that’s dangled in front of me. 🙂

The rating says it all. Great looks? Check. Great sound? Check. Great playability? Check. This is a guitar that I would add to my collection any day, and I’m going to be jealous of the person who ends up with her. Kudos to Perry Riggs for creating such a masterpiece of a guitar! And by the way Perry, if you’re reading this, I now hate you for torturing me with this guitar. I’m a horse, and Katie May is the carrot that’s dangled in front of me. 🙂

The rating says it all. Great looks? Check. Great sound? Check. Great playability? Check. This is a guitar that I would add to my collection any day, and I’m going to be jealous of the person who ends up with her. Kudos to Perry Riggs for creating such a masterpiece of a guitar! And by the way Perry, if you’re reading this, I now hate you for torturing me with this guitar. I’m a horse, and Katie May is the carrot that’s dangled in front of me. 🙂

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5 Tone Bones - Gear has stellar performance, value, and quality. This is definitely top of the class, best of breed, and it's a no-brainer to add this to your gear lineup!

 DSC_0344

Circus Freak Tattooed Lady Overdrive
Summary: Whether you’re looking for a reactive overdrive or an amp-in-a-box, this pedal delivers! Combine that with great tone, and at least for me, there’s nothing to dislike about this pedal.

Pros: Superb dynamic response, with lots of volume and gain on tap.

Cons: None.

Price: $149.00 Street

Features:

  • Volume and Gain controls (volume has lots of output gain)
  • Independent Active Bass and Treble EQ controls
  • Amp-like dynamic response
  • Incredibly touch sensitive
  • Voice Toggle (up = flat response, down = slight treble boost for thicker-sounding guitars)
  • True Bypass
  • Can take up to 18v input power

Tone Bone Rating: 5.0 ~ I don’t give these out lightly; especially to brand-new gear manufacturers, but after playing with this pedal for past few weeks, I just can’t find anything NOT to like. I’ve thrown it in front of four different amps used it with three different guitars, and love its tone with every combination!

I’ll admit it. I find chicks with tattoos incredibly sexy. Not too fond of “tramp stamps” but tats on the rest of the body are a turn-on for me. So I suppose I had a predisposition for liking the Tattooed Lady Overdrive by Circus Freak Music. 🙂 But truth be told, I certainly did have an underlying excitement prior to receiving the pedal for review after having an introductory conversation with its creators back in mid-December. I felt that for the first time in a long time, a new player to the guitar gear market “got it,” bringing not only great technology but solid business acumen to the table. The guys at Reason Amps certainly got it when they came to market, and my very good friend, Jeff Aragaki with Aracom Amps gets it for sure. Lots of boutique guys are nice guys who make gear as a hobby and go into business after building up a local following, but lots of time, they get kind of lost in the background noise of all the outfits that come to market each year.

tl_bottomSo what sets Circus Freak apart from other pedal manufacturers? Frankly, they have a vision which ties their current lineup of products with their future ones. For instance, it’s one thing to say you’re eschewing the typical Hammond box for a custom box. Lots of folks do this. But it’s obvious that the customizations aren’t just to be different. They’re functional. For instance, the bottom of the custom box (shown at right) has been purpose-built for mounting on some sort of rail system – there’s definitely a pedal board on tap, even though they haven’t released one yet!

Who’s to say if a business will be successful or not. People have to like and buy your products. But having been a poster-child for startup companies in my career as a software engineer, I can tell you that having a unifying vision and executing on that vision – while not necessarily guarantees to success – certainly provide a foundation for success, and that’s what excites me about Circus Freak Music.

But I digress… let’s talk about the pedal, shall we?

Fit and Finish

DSC_0338Part of the vision that Shannon and AJ of Circus Freak shared with me was that they wanted their products to be likened to sideshow performers of old. One thing about sideshow performers is that they’re memorable, so it was important to the guys to create a visual package that people wouldn’t easily forget. Not only is the enclosure unique, as I mentioned above, but each pedal comes in a velvet bag, and boxed with a  box that has some incredible graphics! These guys put a lot of thought into their image, and their execution reflects the depth of thought. Of course, time will only tell how that will work for them, but they certainly have made a great start!

How It Sounds

As they say, “the proof is in the pudding,” and as far as performance is concerned, the Tattooed Lady provides the proof of operation and tone that back up their packaging. For the first couple of weeks that I had the pedal, I had it hooked up to my little VHT Special 6 combo. That amp has lots of clean headroom, so I really got a feel for how the pedal stood on its own. As an “amp-in-a-box,” I was totally blown away! I set the pedal to unity volume, which is just past 9am on the volume knob, and set the gain to about 3pm. At that setting, I could control the breakup of the pedal purely through attack and guitar volume changes.

The distortion that the pedal produces is nice and open. There’s a very slight compression, but it never gets squishy, even when I have my guitar volume all dimed. That’s very amp-like in nature! Because of time constraints (I’ve got lots of gear that I’m reviewing right now), I only have a single clip, but it’s a clip that really captures the dynamic range of the pedal. I first start out playing a simple  arpeggio chord progression with the pedal disengaged, and my Les Paul volumes both at under halfway. I then switch on the pedal. One thing you’ll notice is a sudden increase in definition with just a touch of volume increase. At this point, the guitar’s set the same way, and I’m still picking pretty lightly. Then I get into strummed chords and crack my bridge volume to play a Townshend-like chord progression. What totally amazes me is that even with fully-strummed chords, the note separation is maintained! Finally, I back down the volume back to where it was, and the tone completely cleans up.

Here’s the clip:

What turns me on about the open distortion this pedal produces is that it’s UGLY – in a good way. It’s got that edgy, snarling-dog quality to it, and with the church music I write and play, that provides a contrast to the much softer message in my songs. 🙂 I love the juxtaposition!

Mind you, this pedal is also very loud, and though I did test it to slam my pre-amp to break it up, and it does a fantastic job with that, I’ve relegated that duty to my trusty Timmy which I use as my transparent overdrive/booster. To me at least, where the Tattooed Lady totally shines is as an amp in a box. YMMV, of course… And don’t mistake my use of it as a pure distortion pedal. That’s a completely different animal and is square-wave. There’s a big difference between that and a soft-clipping device like an overdrive.

Overall Impression

I’m not returning this pedal. Sure, I’ll pay for it, but I’m not returning it – ever. How’s that for an overall impression? I’ve been looking for an amp-in-a-box overdrive for a long time, and this is the first pedal in that long line of pedals that completely fits my tastes. Sure, there are others out there like the Caitlinbread Dirty Little Secret or the GeekMacDaddy British Ball Breaker, but those are specifically full-strack Marshall-esque type pedals. I’ve been looking for an overdrive that was brand-agnostic. Honestly, I don’t know if it was ever meant to be used like this considering all the volume on tap, but that’s how I’m going to be using it – so there! 🙂

ROCK ON!

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tl_pedal_bagtl_boxWhen I first made contact with Circus Freak Effects in mid-December, I came away from the meeting with the feeling that these guys mean business. It wasn’t enough just to create great pedals, the whole presentation was important from the enclosure all the way to the packaging, then to top it off, the pricing had to be such that the products would be accessible to a wide range of players.

Having been in various startups over the course of my career as a software engineer, this approach is something that has always reverberated with me. In the last few years, I’ve been in one successful startup and am currently in one that I believe will also be quite successful. With either of those companies, it hasn’t just been about the technology, but the whole package. The overshadowing philosophy is simple: Not only does our product have to be good, it has to look good and be priced competitively as well.

The guys at Circus Freak get that. When I opened the shipping box yesterday and remove wrapping from the Tatooed Lady box, I was blown away by the quality of the packaging. Sliding the cover off the box revealed a velvet-like bag that contained the pedal itself. Taking the pedal out of the bag, I was greeted by an enclosure the likes of which I’d never seen before. This wasn’t your typical Hammond pedal enclosure. This was a fully custom enclosure with a bottom that is obviously meant for something other than just sitting on a standard pedal board (in fact, Circus Freak is working on a board for mounting their pedals). tl_bottomFinally, included in the box was a small Ziploc bag with rubber strips for the bottom and a special Allen wrench-like tool for opening the enclosure (all Circus Freak effects will be tweakable). The point to all this is that the attention to detail that has gone in to every aspect of delivering a product to the customer is evident. Circus Freak means business, and they’re not going to settle on being a pedal company that looks as if it’s run in the garage of one of the guys’ houses. Here’s the kicker: The Tatooed Lady Overdrive is only $149! The packaging alone implies a much higher value, but to have it at that low price point makes it immediately attractive!

But of course, we’re talking about an effect pedal so not only does it have to deliver on appearance, it has to sound good as well. On that front, all I can say is, “WOW!”

That kind of reaction doesn’t happen to me very often. It’s actually unusual that I dig a pedal’s tone when I have everything set to 12 o’clock, but I totally dug this tone. For me, the first thing that I look for in an overdrive pedal is that my sound should “feel” bigger; that it’s my same tone, just more of it, and not necessarily volume. That’s what the Tatooed Lady does; it gives you more of your tone. But that “bigger” feeling is also attributed to what’s obviously a bit of compression being added to the signal. In some overdrives, the compression isn’t quite as evident. But with this pedal, it’s pretty obvious. But that is not at all a bad thing as my fundamental tone doesn’t change with the pedal.

For my initial audition, I plugged the pedal straight into my VHT Special 6. I was in my living room, so I didn’t really need much volume. But the VHT also has a lot of clean headroom on top of using a 10″ Jensen Jet Electric Lightning which gives the amp a lot of bottom end; making it sound A LOT bigger than its 6 Watts would suggest. The clean headroom would let me test the pedal’s drive on its own, and not rely on amp breakup. After playing around with it like that, this pedal could easily stand on its own as a clipping device!

In the time that I spent with it this morning, I found that I loved using the pedal purely as a breakup device. I set the volume at just past unity, cranked up the Gain knob on the pedal almost all the way, then set the Bass and Treble knobs to about 11 am and 1 pm respectively. At that setting, I could get this gorgeous, searing, but open overdrive with my guitar volume dimed, but I could also back off the volume on my guitar and the pedal would “calm down.” The dynamics are incredible, though I would fall short of calling them tube-amp-like dynamics. Suffice it to say that the pedal is very responsive to attack and volume knob adjustments.

The pedal also has some awesome sustain. I was absolutely digging playing long notes because the sustain of the pedal ensured that I’d get lots of overtones and subtle harmonics. Playing those long sustained notes what driving my little dog nuts as she started to howl whenever I played a high, bent note. 🙂

In my initial conversation with the Circus Freak guys, one thing that they kept on telling me was that they wanted to make sure that their pedals had LOTS of volume. They weren’t kidding. This pedal has lots of volume on tap, so whether you want to use the pedal as a standalone clipping device at unity volume, or use it as a booster to slam the front end of your amp, you have that choice. With the volume that this pedal is capable of, you can really get your pre-amp saturated quickly.

On a final note, I was very impressed with how quiet the pedal was when engaged; no line noise whatsoever, which made me think right away that I will probably be using this pedal for recording in my upcoming session.

Initial verdict? I love everything about this pedal so far: The way it looks and the way it sounds. I’ll be using it at my church gig this afternoon, so I’ll be writing up a gig report on it later. I’m so excited to try this out in a real live situation!

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5 Tone Bones - Gear has stellar performance, value, and quality. This is definitely top of the class, best of breed, and it's a no-brainer to add this to your gear lineup!

Wegen "The Fatone"

Click to enlarge

Wegen’s Picks – The Fatone (Fat Tone)

Summary: This is now my new favorite pick! I had misplaced my Wegen GP 250 and wanted to get another GP 250. The store that I bought the last one at was out of GP 250’s so I dug in the Wegen pick box and found this beauty! The grip is awesome!

Pros: Beefy (5mm) pick that is amazingly accurate despite its thickness. Despite its thickness, this is tonally versatile pick!

Cons: Though it doesn’t take anything away from the rating, my only nit about my pick is that it’s black. Black gets lost easily on a dark stage. But Wegen makes them in white, so I’ll probably order a few of the white ones.

Price: $15.00 ea

Specs:

  • 5 millimeters thick
  • Hand-made
  • Perfect bevel that makes your strings really ring!
  • Don’t know the material, but it’s a VERY hard plastic that does not scratch. You will never need to buff or resharpen Wegen picks!

Tone Bone Rating: 5.0 ~ Though I still love my V-Picks Snake (pointed), this pick is now my primary. It’s the perfect pick!

I’ve been searching for the perfect fat pick for a long time; or perhaps I should say that I’ve been looking for a pick that I could use for both acoustic and electric, but I never could. So I used a V-Picks Snake for electric and a Wegen GP 250 and a Red Bear Gypsy Jazz for acoustic. But all that changed when I got the Wegen “The Fatone.”

Admittedly, I discovered this pick not because I was looking to add to my collection of picks, but because I lost my GP 250, which had served me well for the last couple of years. I simply wanted to replace it. Unfortunately – or fortunately – the shop that I bought my GP 250 at was all out of them. So I looked through the case to see if I could find an alternate. That alternate was the Fatone. I knew from the first moment I held it that I was onto something with that pick. Then when I strummed it on a guitar in the shop, I was completely sold! Playing it at my solo acoustic gig an hour after that sealed the deal for me. I’ll be hard-pressed to use another pick.

This is a FAT pick at 5mm. But the inset, thumb-side grip, combined with the beveled tip make this pick feel so much thinner. It’s truly a joy to play.

What is it about fat picks for me? Well, having used them for a few years now, the most significant effect they’ve had on my playing besides tone is how they make my right hand relax. The way that works is that in order to make the pick glide over the strings effectively you have to hold the pick a lot looser in your fingers. That looser grip affects the whole hand. Granted, it took a little while to get used to, but once I was comfortable with a fat pick, going back to my old nylon picks seemed absolutely foreign to me. But relaxation made my playing much more fluid, and I was actually able to play a lot faster because my hand was so relaxed. In any case, I’m hooked on fat picks, and I’ll never go back to conventional picks.

Now I know that I normally do a “How It Sounds” section, but I’m actually on the road right now, writing while my son is driving the car (I’m taking him to college). But also, I don’t know how useful that section would be in this case. All I can say is that the fat pick produces a big sound, but in the case of the Fatone, because of the nice pointy bevel, it produces a nice, bright ring in addition to the deeper tone. It’s a bit hard to describe. It “feels” so much more full than other picks. For instance, though I love the sound my V-Picks Snake makes, it’s definitely a lot more mid-rangy than the Fatone.

One thing that is significant about the Wegen pick material is that it has a texture that feels softer than tortoise, but it’s actually a VERY hard material. The cool thing is that it’s a lot more damp on the strings than either acrylic or tortoise (or natural material). But it doesn’t produce a damper sound. It’s a feel thing. 🙂 In any case, I’m hooked on this pick. Also, tonally, this is a VERY versatile pick. By simply changing the angle and depth of attack, I can get thick, warm tones to nice bright tones. That’s extremely cool!

Overall Impression

As I mentioned above, I now have a new favorite pick. Not sure what else I can say about it. I won’t be getting rid of this one any time soon!

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