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fender_fa135ce

Fender FA 135 CE Concert Acoustic-Electric Guitar

Summary: Part of the Fender Classic Design series, this lower-end model is a real surprise; especially in the sound department. Nice, low action, and a great feel. If you’re looking for a starter guitar or getting your child his or her very first guitar, you can’t go wrong with the FA 135 CE.

Pros: Some reviews have questioned the build quality of this guitar, but I’m very impressed with how solid this guitar is built. The guitar stays in tune and playing it is so, so easy. And for a smaller concert size guitar, this has a very rich sound; it’s quite unexpected.

Cons: The only nit that I have – and it’s really just a nit – is that the tuners are bit fast for my tastes. Fine tuning is a little challenging at first, but it’s easy to get used to.

Price: $179 street

Features:

  • Laminated bass wood sides and back
  • Laminated spruce top with X-bracing reinforcement
  • Nato wood neck
  • Rosewood fretboard
  • Compensated rosewood saddle
  • Single cutaway
  • Fishman Ion-T Preamp with built-in tuner

Tone Bone Rating: 4.75 ~ For what it is, I can’t help but give this guitar a great rating. Fender really surprised me with this guitar!

My 12-year-old son has been taking Ukelele lessons for a couple of years, and after he finished his last lesson, he came out and told me that he wanted to start playing guitar. His teacher, Michael, had accompanied him out of the lesson room and told me that he was ready. And since his birthday was coming up, I thought I’d get him a new one, as opposed to fixing up one of my old ones. My thought is that just like my dad did for me, I’d give my son a brand new guitar for his first one.

So today I went to Guitar Center and spent a couple of hours in their acoustic room evaluating all sorts of acoustic guitars. I didn’t want to spend over $200 for this guitar, but luckily, as a big-box retailer, Guitar Center has a pretty wide selection of “value” guitars. I tried guitars from Mitchell, a used “Little Martin,” several Yamaha guitars, and even a Gretsch.

The Little Martin was impressive and solidly built and was at a great price of $189, but it wouldn’t be available until Wednesday due to some city ordinance about a waiting period for used guitars. I needed a guitar today. So I sat in the acoustic room, and my gaze fell upon the Fender. I immediately thought to myself that it looked really nice. But, the thought also occurred that it was a Fender acoustic, and my previous experiences with those haven’t been all that good.

But in spite of my preconceptions, I decided to give it a try and was immediately surprised by the tone of the guitar. For a smaller-body guitar, I wasn’t expecting much sound-wise. But this had a sweet, gorgeous, rich tone. It completely took me by surprise. Then I started playing it, and thought, This couldn’t be a Fender acoustic! It sounds and plays way too nice – especially at $179!

Folks, this guitar is a sleeper, and it reminds me of the experience I had with my Squier Classic Vibe Tele. Great sound, great playability at a SUPER-affordable price!

Fit and Finish

The build quality of this guitar is awesome, just like my CV Tele. There are no uneven paint lines, and all the seams are clean and straight. The neck is straight, and the action is set up low, though it does raise just a little bit in the higher registers; but it’s not so bad that it’s not playable. This is a great guitar for fingerstyle playing, but even strummed, there’s no buzz. But more importantly, the setup is perfect for a beginning guitarist like my little boy.

Playability

Quite frankly, the main criterium for choosing a guitar for my son was playability. I could live with a guitar that had only okay sound just as long as it was easy to play. The frets are medium wire. Not great for bending and vibrato, but hey! This is a beginner’s guitar, so that’s not a big issue. The spacing is great between the frets as this is a shorter-scale guitar. For a seasoned player, this guitar plays with ease. For a beginner and a young player at that, the short scale will help them build up confidence.

How It Sounds

For a low-priced guitar, the FA 135 CE is amazingly articulate. As expected, it has a bit brighter voice as compared to a larger body guitar. But it has some nice sustain, and the spruce soundboard resonates with a surprisingly rich tone. Projection is great with this guitar due to the X-bracing under the top to provide stability and to help with projection. What also surprised me about this guitar is that it’s louder than I expected.

Tone-wise, as for me, I prefer a brighter-sounding guitar. While I liked the Little Martin, doing an A/B with that vs. the FA 135, it was as if a blanket was put over the Martin. The sound was much warmer and a bit too subdued for my tastes. That guitar projected very loud, but it would get lost in the mix when played with other guitars. This shouldn’t happen with the FA 135 CE.

Quick Demo

Here’s a quick demo I recorded just before posting this review. Sorry for the sound quality – and background noises – as this was recorded using my MacBook’s built in microphone, my new puppy was being a little playful across the room… 🙂

Preamp Test

As mentioned above, the guitar comes equipped with a Fishman Ion-T preamp. It’s a pretty simple preamp, so I thought I would give it a whirl. It’s not a bad preamp as preamps go, but it’s nothing special. In fact, its output is only okay. In order to record, I had to peg the guitar’s volume and add a lot of gain on my audio interface. Not a big deal. What was important to me was if I could get a good enough guitar signal to use the guitar in a song.

I have to say that I was pretty impressed with the result. I didn’t have to tweak the EQ at all. Of course, I did some production processing, but that was the point of the exercise, which was to see if I could get a good, mixable acoustic guitar sound from a plugged in guitar.

Overall Impression

I love this guitar! Who cares if it was manufactured in China. I have to commend Fender for finding an overseas manufacturer that does a great job at building guitars. The build, play and sound quality of this guitar have far exceeded my expectations. I think this is a guitar that my son will enjoy for years to come!

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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!

Peterson StroboClip HDTM High Definition Clip-On Strobe Tuner

Summary: Peterson is the pioneer in strobe tuning and this new version of the highly-acclaimed StroboClip is a huge improvement over the original StroboClip which, in my opinion, just couldn’t be beaten. But add to that a larger, high-definition, and a high-contrast screen, then throw in a high degree of accuracy, then add Peterson’s unrivaled “Sweeteners,” what’s not to like?

Pros: I said pretty much everything in the summary. This thing just works and it’s accurate – very accurate. But it’s really the Sweeteners that have always sealed the deal for me.

Cons: None for me as I used the original for a long time (until some a-hole stole it at a gig), but using a strobe tuner will take a newbie a bit of time to get used to. But that shouldn’t discourage anyone.

Price: $59.99 street

Features:

  • 0.1 cent accuracy
  • 50+ Sweeteners for different kinds of instruments – thank goodness the guitar ones are first. 🙂
  • Comparatively larger, HD, backlit LCD readout.
  • Tuning Range: C0 to B6 (very wide)
  • Concert Pitch Range 390-490Hz

Tone Bone Rating: 5.00 ~ After my original StroboClip got stolen last year, I went with a cheap Snark tuner. It did the job okay, but there was always something special about the sound of a guitar tuned with my StroboClip. It just sounded better. And with this updated, upgraded version, I’m a very happy camper!

 

What could be so special about a tuner?

Believe me, not all tuners are made the same. An accurately tuned guitar can make the difference between sounding just okay and sounding incredible. So it stands to reason that the more accurate your tuning, the better you’ll sound. So tuner manufacturers have strived to get as accurate as possible, getting into the tenths of a cent (or even the hundredths of a cent). The StroboClip is super-accurate at 0.1 cent, which is pretty incredible. And that’s great – you might be thinking that at this point, there might be a “but” in there… Yes, there is…

As James Taylor puts it, because of how guitars are constructed, and how the strings vibrate, the actual sound that they produce when plucked is not actually in tune if you tune the strings to their exact tuning. According to JT, strings will ring a little sharp, so he actually tunes each string down a few cents per string – not evenly – as each different string requires a different adjustment.

And this is where Peterson tuners have always stood out. They’ve gone to great lengths studying the actual sounds that come off a stringed instrument and have come up with special tuning algorithms for different types of instruments that they call “Sweeteners.” A Peterson rep shared with me that for their acoustic Sweetener, JT’s tuning influenced their algorithm. Hey! If it’s good enough for JT…

In any case, the Sweeteners are extremely subtle, but the first time I used a sweetener for a recording, I noticed that my guitar just sounded better. The difference is like wearing a nicely shined pair of shoes. People don’t necessarily know that you’ve shined your shoes, but they notice that you look a bit sharper. That’s the best analogy I can come up with for Peterson’s Sweeteners.

I noticed it especially with recording my acoustic guitar. With standard, equivalent tuning, it sounded okay but tuned with the ACU (acoustic) Sweetener, it just seemed to ring so much better. That said, you have to get used to the sound because up close, it might sound a little off. But when I listened to the recording, wow! It was truly a revelation.

Fit and Finish

All Peterson products are built rock-solid. And even though they’ve gone with a plastic body, it doesn’t feel at all cheap.

The kicker for me is the comparatively large screen to other tuners. Damn! That thing is readable! And with the higher number of pixels, the readout is super smooth. And for my aging eyes, I love it!

The clip’s springs are pretty tight, but not so much that you can’t squeeze the clip open, and combined with the silicon pads will ensure that the clip stays put on your headstock.

Ease of Use Tuning with a Strobe Tuner

It has three buttons. The middle turns on the unit and acts as the menu selector. The + and – buttons scroll through choices. Doesn’t get much easier than this.

Tuning with a Strobe Tuner

I have to admit that the first time I used a strobe tuner, it was a little weird. I was so used to seeing a needle sweep over a gauge. With a strobe tuner, what you get is a checkerboard pattern that sweeps left and right to indicate the sharpness or flatness of your string. If it moves clockwise, the string is sharp and vice-versa if the string is flat. When the string is in tune, the checkerboard stops moving. The bigger screen really helps.

But there is a bit of a trick to tuning. You have to get used to moving in much smaller increments than what you might be used to. Also, the tuner is so sensitive that once you make an adjustment, you have to remove your hand from the tuning knob because the slightest pressure will affect the tuning. But believe me, once you get used to tuning this way, it’ll become second-nature.

One feature that I didn’t mention is the Drop/Capo setting. If you drop your tuning or use a capo, you can get into the Drop/Capo mode, set the number of semitones you’re going up or down, and then tune accordingly. That’s a really powerful feature, and as I often use a capo, knowing that my strings are all in tune with the right compensations for each string is comforting.

Overall Impression

You can probably tell based on the rating I gave and the review, I love this tuner! I know that Peterson’s marketing push is for the HD screen, but to me, this tuner has always been about the underlying technology. It’s second to none. But I do have to say that the larger screen is simply awesome!

At $59.99, it’s not a cheap tuner, especially compared to something like a Snark 2 that you can get for under $25 (I got mine for $21 on sale). And you know me, I’m not one to say that just because you pay more for something, it’s better. But in this case, it’s totally worth the extra money.

You might be wondering why I might be so excited about this. After all, it’s only a tuner. But once you tune with a Peterson tuner and hear the difference in your sound, you’ll become a believer.

What About Other Strobe Tuners?

The only one I can think of is the Turbo Tuner with an amazing .02 cent accuracy; yes, you read that right. But as I said before, while extreme accuracy is great, what makes the Peterson technology stand out to me are the Sweeteners. They really make a difference. And at some point, I’m wondering if our ears can actually hear the difference between 0.1 and .02 cent. I’m not so sure. It’s almost like a tube amp. The more gain you throw at a tube, the less effect it’ll have on volume. But to each their own. If extreme accuracy is your thing, that’s awesome. And that’s the beauty of having so many choices out in gear land. There’s bound to be something to please any taste.

For me, that taste is the Peterson Sweeteners!

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4.75 Tone Bones - Almost perfect but not quite

bohemian-guitars-21787167

Bohemian Guitars BOHO Series Motor Oil

Summary: Inexpensive but incredibly playable and most importantly, very nice sounding, the BOHO Motor Oil really took me by surprise. Yeah, it seems a bit gimmicky, but these guitars are inspired by the founder’s South African roots where people put instruments together from whatever they could find.

Pros: Super-easy and comfortable to play. Pickups are voiced such that there’s a clear distinction between the positions. Very response to volume knob variation.

Cons: These are nits at most: The tuners need to be tightened a bit, as the strings can go out of tune fairly easy. Tone knob almost acts like a volume knob, but it’s serviceable.

Price: $299.00 Direct

Features:

  • Model: Motor Oil!
  • Body: Recycled metal hollow body w/ removable back panel. Basswood frame for increased amplification and structural integrity
  • Neck Wood: Maple
  • Neck type: Bohemian Through-Body
  • Fretboard: Rosewood
  • Headstock: Red
  • Finish: Golden Glaze
  • Frets: 21
  • Nut Width: 1 3/4″
  • Width at 12th Fret: 2 1/8″
  • Width at 21st Fret: 2 3/8″
  • Neck Thickness: 7/8″
  • Scale Length: 25 1/2″
  • Hardware: Chrome
  • Tuners: 3R 3L screw in w/ removable keys
  • Bridge/Tailpiece: Tune-o-Matic
  • Pickups: Humbucker, Humbucker
  • Electronics: Volume, Tone
  • Switch: 3-way toggle
  • Self-standing: This model has a built in stand made from recycled rubber.
  • Inspired by South Africa. Designed in Atlanta. Produced in China.

Tone Bone Rating: 4.75 ~ The best word to describe this guitar is FUN. It plays as fun as it looks!

I’ll admit it right out of the gate: I really tried NOT to like this guitar. The moment I took it out of the box, my first reaction was literally, “Oh shit! HAHAHAHAHA!” and I chuckled about it for several minutes. In fact, I let the guitar stand in my living room for a few days before I even decided to play it because I didn’t think this was a very “serious” guitar. I imagined myself in a clown suit playing it. But since I asked for the review unit, my sense of obligation overcame my initial amused disdain for it. So I took it to my man-cave, plugged it into my amp, tuned up the guitar, then started to play. And play. And play.

A couple of hours passed by with me just tooling with the guitar, and I finally had to stop when my wife opened the kitchen door glaring at me because I hadn’t gotten to my honey-do projects for the day.

Did I really lose track of time? I asked myself, That ONLY happens when I’m getting lost in the sound and what I’m playing is pleasing to me. When something gets me in the “zone,” it’s special, and all my initial thoughts and bias about its appearance completely disappeared.

When I put the BOHO down, I resolved to do a sound test with it as soon as I could. I had a gig that night, so I couldn’t get to it until the next day, but I looked forward to playing that guitar throughout my gig.

Even still, this guitar reeks of “gimmick” when you look at it. But how it plays and sounds completely overshadows any gimmickry that its appearance may imply. It totally took me by surprise, and I have to say that hands-down I love it! And the fact that it’s made in China is actually a good thing. Chinese guitar construction has come a long, long way over the years, and labor is still cheap, which means these guitars are affordable, so you shouldn’t let price-bias get in your way.

Fit and Finish

I could see nothing wrong with the guitar’s appearance. Other people have reported dents in the past, but my review unit had none. Note that those reports were from earlier models, and I don’t think they had the bracing that the new models have that make them tougher. The only nit I really had was that bending the first string at around the 12th or 13th fret while really digging in would fret out the string. But I attributed that more to a setup problem, and it’s quite possible that the bridge settled a bit during shipping. Raising the bridge a millimeter or two would solve that issue. It certainly wasn’t a neck angle issue. Everything appeared to line up just fine.

As far as overall construction is concerned, amazingly enough, the guitar’s pretty solid-feeling. I was thinking that it might be a bit flimsy; after all, its body is a freakin’ gas can! But the internal bracing provides plenty of structural integrity, so fragility isn’t an issue at all.

But other than my little nit, the guitar actually looks pretty cool, and over time, as I played it, it grew on me. That had more to do with how it plays and sounds than its appearance.

Playability

Amazingly enough, moving around the neck is smooth as silk. I love that it has a rosewood fret board because it provides a tactile feel that makes it feel familiar (most of my many guitars have rosewood fret boards). I personally prefer fatter fret wire, but that’s just personal preference, and doesn’t take away from how well the guitar feels and plays. And surprisingly enough, even with my belly, the guitar’s very comfortable to play despite the obviously fatter body from the can.

How It Sounds

Okay, so this is where the rubber hits the road, and where, most importantly, the guitar impacted me the most. Once I got past the guitar’s appearance, it was its voice that really struck me. While the folks at Bohemian Guitars tout this as the “rock” model, and it certainly has a great voicing for rock, I actually loved its voicing clean or just slightly dirty. For comparison, the voicing has elements of a later model Les Paul with sort of deep voice, but also has the “woody” elements of a semi-hollow body like a 335. It’s a cool voice. I would’ve liked to have a better EQ response with the tone knob because changes in the tone knob affected volume, but I found a good spot that worked for all three pickups and kept it there.

The first three clips you’ll hear are the same phrase played through each of the pickup positions, starting with neck pickup and moving to the bridge. With the first two, I just made up stuff off the top of my head, but with the third clip, I used the main riff from Oasis’ Wonderwall. No matter what I’m playing, the one thing I always look for is note separation, especially when played dirty. I didn’t play any lead lines because frankly, 97% of the time I’m playing rhythm. So it’s important to get a sense of how well the guitar articulates. The amp I used for this was my trusty Aracom VRX18 with EL84’s, played in the drive channel. The amp was set to the very edge of breakup so I could get it to overdrive with volume knob changes and attack.

All clips were recorded raw with the exception of the last clip where I added some hall reverb.

Clean, all three pickups

Dirty, all three pickups

Edge of breakup, all three pickups

Jazzy Blues w/reverb, middle pickup

Admittedly, the clean and edgy tones were the ones that got me to lose myself for those couple of hours when I first played the guitar. And to be completely honest, I love the sound this guitar produces clean and at the edge of breakup best. This probably has to do with my Les Paul bias with respect to a “rock” sound. It’s not that I don’t like the overdriven sound of the guitar, it’s just that I have a preference for the sound I want to produce when playing with overdrive.

Overall Impression

Once I got over my initial doubts about the guitar, I discovered a very nice-playing and nice-sounding guitar under the covers. And at $299, this an incredibly approachable guitar that won’t break the bank in the process. Would I gig with it? To be honest, I’m not sure. But I have no doubts with its solid construction that it would be able to stand the rigors of gigs. But for its gorgeous clean tones, I’d certainly use it in the studio, especially for the new reggae-style tunes I’m working on.

And truth be told, its appearance has actually grown on me. I still don’t know if I’d gig with it regularly, but that has nothing to do with how it looks. With a gigging guitar, I typically look for versatility. I’d have to bring it to band rehearsal to see how it would perform. But other than that, I love this guitar. For what it is, it’s the ultimate in “cool.”

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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!

Hughes & Kettner TubeMeister 18 Head

Summary: This amp is truly a tone chameleon, capable of delivering vintage to modern tones in one 18 Watt package. I daresay that it is pretty much the most versatile amp I’ve ever owned; not only from a tone standpoint, but also from a power standpoint. 18 Watts too loud in your space? Bring it down to 5W or 1W or even 0W! The on-board RedBox DI is absolutely killer, and provides for truly silent recording, which is a huge for late-night recording when the kids are asleep (or roommates, etc.).  Super-responsive EQ makes for tons of tone shaping possibilities.

Pros:Where do I begin? This amp has it all for me; especially in the recording department.

Cons: This is a very minor nit, but even with a Strat, the lead channel can really compress at high gain settings.

Price: $599 Street ($50 for the optional footswitch)

Features:

  • Channels: Clean, Lead + Lead Boost
  • Power Soak: 5W, 1W, Silent
  • Preamp: 2 X 12AX7
  • Power Amp: 2 X EL84
  • Effects Loop (Serial)
  • Speaker Output: 8 & 16 Ohm (will automatically detect – no switch)
  • Tube Safety Control (TSC) – keeps power tubes biased properly for optimal performance.
  • Padded, protective cover included
  • Optional channel switching footswitch.

Tone Bone Rating: 5.00 ~ I have to admit, I really lucked out with this amp. I bought it used from a good buddy who had only gigged with it once, and to be honest, didn’t know too much about it. But after I researched it, what originally attracted me to the amp was the on-board RedBox DI. But after playing with it for several hours since I picked it up, I simply love all the tones I can get from this amp – and I’ve only played one guitar through it! It’s a winner!

I’m such a gear slut. When I got this amp, my buddy, who’s also a fellow gear slut chuckled and said, “As if you need another amp…” I also laughed, and almost got buyer’s remorse. BUT what I didn’t have was an amp that had an on-board DI. But the RedBox is a special DI in that it has speaker simulation, which means you’re going to get the reactance of an amp connected to a speaker. It’s one thing to DI into a DAW, but it sounds like an amp plugged directly into a speaker. Add speaker simulation and there’s something special that happens when you add reactance into the mix. You get the dynamics you expect when plugged into a cabinet.

Fit and Finish

This amp is built like a tank. I’m sure H&K had the gigging musician in mind when they built the amp because it’s very solid. The only nit I’d have with respect to it’s physical appearance is that the level dots on the knobs can be a bit difficult to see from certain angles because of the chrome finish. It’s a small nit, and when I gig with the amp, I’ll probably either paint dark lines or stick some thin pieces of colored tape to the top of the knobs so I know where I’m setting things.

Also, when switched on, that blue LED glow is pretty cool. To be honest, I don’t really care about how the thing looks and focus much more on the sounds it can produce. But hey! If it sounds good and looks great in the process, I’m not going to complain.

How It Sounds

To start off, whether plugged into a cab or outputting directly from the DI into an audio interface, this amp is dead quiet when idle, except at high gain settings where the power amp will hum just a tiny bit. But that humming also has a lot to do with my Strat’s single coils. Haven’t tried it with any of my Les Pauls just yet, and I’m anticipating that they’d be quieter. But any amp fully cranked is going to make some noise.

Now to be completely honest, none of the clips I’m supplying here are with the amp hooked up to a cabinet and me miking the cab. My focus was on using the DI to capture my guitar sounds to see if I could get a usable recording that I could then tweak in production. Circling back a little with the DI, one thing that having a speaker simulation is that you get the subtle overtones and dynamics in the signal that you wouldn’t get with a direct signal. It’s typically a little dead when using a regular DI with no speaker simulation, thus no reactance. Truth be told, it’s not perfect, and it doesn’t sound nearly as good as the amp plugged into a cabinet. But it’s close. Real close, and though it doesn’t sound as good as a speaker moving air, it doesn’t suck tone. Dynamics are all retained. My thought behind getting this amp was to get a usable signal that I could then process in Logic and add the texturing there. So without further ado, let’s take a look (BTW, for these clips, I used my Strat plugged directly into the amp, with an XLR going direct to my MBox 2):

Raw signal, clean

My first test was to record a simple clean clip raw to see how it sounded. This clip has absolutely no plug-ins employed in neither the guitar tracks nor the output track.

When I finished the “rhythm” track for this, I immediately smiled. Not only did I have a usable signal, it sounded like my amp was plugged into a cabinet because the dynamics that I was expecting were all there, but with the added plus of no ambient room noise.

Clean, slightly processed

Since I had a usable signal, I wanted to fatten it up a bit and add some reverb to give the sound more space. Here’s the same clip as above, but slight processed (Note: I didn’t do any EQ on the either track).

After doing just those simple tweaks, I knew I had a winner with respect to a recording amp.

Dirty

I wasn’t going to originally include this clip because if there’s one nit I had with the amp while recording this last night, was that at real cranked up settings, the signal compresses – a lot. I guess I’m used to using vintage-style amps that never get that far. But with this amp, I have to be careful about cranking the amp too high. It’s a little hard to hear in the clip itself, but while playing, I noticed a reduction in note separation. But granted, I had the Master wide open, and the gain knob at 3pm. I’ve learned to set the Gain to around 10am, and I still get plenty of sustain, but much less compression.

Sustain test

Finally, I wanted to experience that noted H & K tube sag, and see how well the amp would sustain my guitar signal. In a nutshell, it sustains incredibly well.

The most impressive thing about this clip was at the end where the amp is picking up the overtones of the guitar. OMG! I couldn’t believe that when I was playing last night!

Final Impression

I don’t know what it is, but I’m running across a lot of game-changers for me. While I love my vintage-style amps, and will continue to gig with them, I have a feeling that I’ll be getting a of mileage from the TubeMeister 18. As a bonus, check out this video review from Guitar World. Paul’s a killer player, and he really brings out the gorgeous tones the TubeMeister 18 can produce. There are actually two videos, and the second video where he starts playing the lead channel, had me swooning over the gorgeous overdrive this amp can produce.

 

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In Blue Handmade Guitar Straps

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!No, this isn’t a formal review like the ones I normally do, but let’s get the rating out of the way: I’m giving this strap 5 Tone Bones! Check out the strap I got here…

Since GuitarGear.org has gained widespread popularity in the guitar community, I occasionally get contacted to review all sorts of gear and accessories. But because I’m a busy software engineer by trade, I have to turn down most of the review requests, or accept review material if it isn’t too complicated; that is, it won’t take too long to review. But then again, sometimes something catches my eye, piques my curiosity, and I have to see it to believe it.

When I got contacted by the publicist for In Blue Handmade, Inc., who said they make a line of guitar straps and composer journals, I was intrigued. But when I went to their site and saw the absolutely gorgeous, handmade leather straps, I knew I had to take more than a gander at them. So I accepted the review invitation.

The package was waiting for me when I came home from work this evening. I excitedly opened the package, and was immediately greeted with the heady scent of fresh leather. It’s an aroma that – ever since my childhood – spoke of quality and durability, and more importantly, something handmade. I guess that came from all the trips my parents used to take us on throughout the Pacific Northwest, where we’d visit replica frontier towns like Columbia, CA that invariably had a shop of handmade leather goods. That smell has always evoked a sense of security. To me, something made of pure leather was going to last.

When I pulled the strap out of the shipping bag, I just smiled. My wife noticed me admiring the beautiful strap, and said, “Wow! That’s pretty good workmanship! It’s gorgeous!” My silent thought was… NO SHIT!

The leather is thick, so thick, that it’ll take a bit of time to break in. But that’s part of the allure of natural leather. It ain’t soft when it’s new, but when it’s broken in, there’s nothing like the feel of it. I’ll help the process a bit with some neatsfoot oil to help replenish the oils lost in the tanning and drying process. That should help a bit. Imagine that! Using neatsfoot oil on a strap. But it’s the kind of care that you have to take with natural leather goods. They’ll last that much longer!

But, of course the real test was to try it on a guitar, so I attached it to my trust acoustic. DAMN! It felt SO good on my shoulder. The strap is essentially in three pieces. Two skinny pieces act as a belt (yes, there’s a brass buckle, by the way), and the belt runs through a thicker padding piece, with the center “belt loop” adorned with a hand-stamped design of “bat man” (well… that’s what I got).

I know, I know… it’s JUST a strap. But it’s SO F-IN’ cool! Who doesn’t like cool? If you say you don’t, you’re a frickin’ liar. This strap exudes cool. Okay, it ain’t cheap at $75. But hell! We spend thousands on gear and don’t bat an eye. On a relative scale, $75 is a small price to pay to look this good. 🙂

In my best Leo Getz imitation… Okay, okay… You REALLY need to take a look at these straps! Here are some VERY cool things to consider:

  • All straps are hand cut, hand dyed, and printed by hand.
  • There are over 3000 images available to choose from… (I just found this out…)
  • In Blue can do custom text and images as well, as well different dyes (personally, I prefer the natural dye).
  • The design is absolutely cool… 🙂 Had to throw that in…

For more information, check out In Blue Handmade, Inc.’s web site!

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4.75 Tone Bones - Almost perfect but not quite

play_electric

TC-Helicon Play Electric

Summary: Sporting the fantastic TC Helicon vocal engine and upgraded guitar pedal effects, including several TonePrint patches – Corona Chorus, Hall of Fame Reverb, Flashback Delay – plus a very nice compressor. Play Electric adds amp emulation from its big brother, the Voicelive 3, and with the right tweaks, it’s entirely possible to plug this right into a PA and leave the amp at home.

Cons: The only little nit that I have is that the loop length is extremely short – around 15 seconds. That’s enough to capture a few bars to solo over, but there are times when you want to loop an entire verse or chorus. For that, you’ll have to use another looper. A bit of a bummer, but not enough to dismiss the power behind this unit.

Price: $349.00 Street

Features (from web site):

  • Professional Vocal Effects and Tone with natural sounding Vocal Harmonies guided by your guitar  and/or Room Sense which captures the ambient sound and can be used with piano.
  • Guitar FX styles from TC Electronic’s award-winning range of TonePrint pedals
  • Powerful amp emulations from VoiceLive 3 with a dedicated guitar output
  • User-friendly design with per-preset Vocal and Guitar FX combinations for easy performance control

Tone Bone Rating: 4.75 ~ If it weren’t for the short loop length, I’d be giving this unit a 5. I got a Switch-3 switch box to control the looping, and if you’re going to use the looper, this is a must-have.

I’ve had this unit a few months, but actually didn’t start using it until a couple of weeks ago when I had holiday gigs at various venues where space was at a premium, and lugging my pedal board along with my PA was impractical. I wish I had started using it sooner… the on-board modulation effects combined with amp simulation provide a super-rich tone; equivalent to the quality of tone that I’ve come to expect. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

The first holiday gig I had was for the staff party at an assisted living facility. To get to the place I was to play, I’d have to park my car in a loading zone then carry my stuff through a couple of halls. Now normally, my load out would take two trips, but this wasn’t really an option. Conceivably, I could take my entire rig (pedalboard, gig bag, cord bag, and SoloAmp PA) in one trip, but the stuff is a bit unwieldy, and I’ve dropped my pedal board, actually ruining a couple of pedals once. So a single trip was in order.

While I was trying to figure out how to configure my rig, I remembered that I had the Play Electric unit that had everything that I needed on board. So the morning of the gig, I did a quick tweak of the guitar settings (setting them to global so they’d be the same for every vocal patch, which is a godsend of a feature, by the way), packed up my cord bag with the cords I needed plus the Play Electric, and set off to my gig.

I didn’t use the looping feature at that gig because after seeing another dude play with a VoiceLive 2 and the Switch-3 switching unit, I knew that was the way to go, and besides, I didn’t have the Switch-3 yet. But that was okay. It was only a two-hour gig, and I could do all my songs – even the ones where I normally loop – without a looper.

Setup was an absolutely breeze. I had the VoiceLive 2, so setting up wasn’t anything new. Once I was all set up, I remembered the RoomSense feature, which is an on-board mic that picks up the ambient sound in a room, and can be used to harmonize for instruments that don’t plug in; like a piano for instance…. The facility where I played had a beautiful Kawai baby grand, so I upped the sensitivity of the RoomSense mic, and tested it out. OMG!!!!! I wish I had used that with my VoiceLive 2 when I had it. I could’ve been doing harmony while playing piano all this time! Oh well… lesson learned, and where there was a piano at my holiday gigs, which was everywhere except for two places, I used the RoomSense to harmonize while playing piano.

Note that since the unit uses the same vocal processing algorithms found in all the high-end TC Helicon vocal processors, I won’t be covering harmony here, just the guitar stuff.

Packed with Features

I thought the VoiceLive 2 had tons of stuff packed into it, but the Play Electric has so much more. Here are the amp models that are offered in the unit:

Clean Brit, Cali Clean, UK Clean, Deep Clean, Bright Switch, Warm, Little Thing, Chicken Picker, Brit OD, AC Crunch, Chunky Brit, Lil Champion, Chime Drive, 2×12 Combo, 4×12 Crunch, Swamptone, Nasaltone, Brown, Scooped, Metallic, TC Electronic Dark Matter Pedal, OD Pedal, Dark OD Pedal, Distortion Pedal, Acoustic (Flat), Acoustic (Shaped/BodyRez)

On top of that, you have full EQ control in the unit to adjust the EQ settings for what every guitar you’re playing. One nice feature of the EQ is that you can “move” the midpoint frequency of the mids. This is something that you typically find on good PA boards, but I can see the sense in including a feature like that with the Play Electric. You could move it higher for a naturally warm-sounding guitar, or lower to take the edge off a bright guitar, then adjust the high, mid and low around the midpoint. Very cool feature.

On top of that, the same algorithms that power the TonePrint pedals are also in the unit. I use two of the pedals on my electric board: the Corona Chorus and Hall of Fame reverb. These are mainstays on my pedal board, and to have those pedals in the Play Electric is awesome. The delay and compression models are also quite nice. I totally dig the compressor, and even though it’s fairly simplistic, it’s adjustable enough to achieve a very rich tone.

How It Sounds

Sorry, I don’t have any sound clips to share at this time, but after using it several times, I can confidently say that both the vocal and guitar tones are awesome. But as with anything, it takes spending a bit of time dialing in the settings. Luckily this is not at all difficult with the Play Electric. The brightly lit LCD screen is super-easy to read, and frankly, you can adjust practically everything without having to refer to the manual (though admittedly, I had to refer to the manual to adjust amp EQ settings).

As far as guitar tone is concerned, though I probably should’ve tested this with an electric guitar, the plain fact of the matter is that I would use this almost exclusively in my acoustic gigs (I’m actually in between bands right now). And for that, this unit produces incredible sound; so incredible, in fact, that I will be leaving my pedal board at home going forward. Here’s a little more discussion on the pedal models:

Though the unit includes TonePrint models, it’s not exclusively limited to those. Each model includes several other non-TonePrint models that you can use (I believe these are the same found on the VoiceLive 2), which have been traditionally pretty high-quality. Personally, I didn’t use them when I had the VoiceLive 2 because I had dedicated pedals that were much better than the on-board models. But with the TonePrint models, as these are my pedals of choice for modulation effects (specifically, chorus and reverb), using them is another no-brainer.

Corona Chorus

This is not nearly as adjustable as the standalone pedal; actually none of the models are, but it’s very easy to dial in the right level and speed to get a subtle (which I prefer) to a super-wet, drippy chorus tone.

Hall of Fame Reverb

When I got this pedal a couple of years back, it soon became my go-to reverb. The spring reverb is magnificent, but it’s the plate and hall reverbs where this pedal shines. I use the hall reverb to add a subtle expanse to my guitar tone without it sounding like I’m in a simulated all. It’s just a touch to “grease” as Doug Doppler says.

Delay

I don’t know if the Flashback model is used here, but the delay is quite nice on this unit. Again, I use it very subtly to provide just a touch of slapback, with a low mix level.

Compressor

This is actually my favorite “pedal” in the unit. There are five presets available that provide either more attack, sustain, pop or pump, and you can adjust the amount and makeup gain as necessary. I use the Subtle Sustain setting, and it works great with my acoustic.

Looping

As I mentioned, my only nit about the Play Electric is the short loop length, but after playing through several of the songs I play with looping, I found that for the most part, I can live with the short loop length because the sound that the Play Electric produces completely meets my needs; moreover, the prospect of carrying one less bag makes using this an absolute no-brainer.

Wrapping It Up

Getting to the point, I dig Play Electric. I wish it had longer looping, but to get that, plus a finer control over the guitar and vocal settings, I’d have to go to the VoiceLive 3 which is more than twice the price of this unit. Could it be worth it? Possibly… probably… but it’s not expense that I can make right now (especially since I’m saving up for a Gretsch Brian Setzer) 🙂 But for what the Play Electric provides besides looping, it’s a unit that will serve me well for a long time.

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I played acoustic guitar almost exclusively for almost 30 years before made the switch to electric. Honestly though, I didn’t really make a “switch.” I added electric guitar as a regular tool in my inventory of tone. What drove me to add electric was the style of music that I was starting to explore at the time; plus, my church worship group was turning into a regular band, and though the contemporary Christian music we were playing worked fine with acoustic, frankly, many of them just sounded better with electric.

At that time, I actually did have a couple of electric guitars. But they were guitars that my little brother had lent to me, and they were in various states of disrepair, or when I could get them working, I wasn’t really playing music that needed an electric. And the only amp that I had was a 25 Watt Roland solid state amp that worked pretty well, but I also knew at the time, that I would have to get something with a bit more oomph (but that’s another story). In any case, suffice it to say that prevailing circumstances drove me towards the purchase of a new electric guitar, and thus began a journey into the wilderness of “TONE” that hasn’t stopped, even to this day.

Looking back on my experience, I thought I’d share some insights on what I’ve learned over the years. No, I won’t be telling you anything about a specific brand of guitar that you should purchase; rather, I’m going to simply provide some practical points you should consider when purchasing your first electric guitar.

1. You first have to come to terms with the fact that this will probably not be your last electric guitar.

Budgets notwithstanding, most people I know who have electric guitars almost invariably have more than one. There might be several reasons for this, but different brands and different guitar/amp configurations produce different sounds. For some, one is all they want or need. But for the majority of folks I know, once they got one, they eventually purchased another, then another, then another. I have my theories as to why this happens, but it certainly does happen.

2. You’ll never sound like Eddie Van Halen.

Or anyone else for that matter. You’ll sound like YOU. You can get pretty close to your idol, but understand that just because you get the same equipment as your favorite artist is not a guarantee that you’ll sound like them. Besides, being a copy cat is boring.

3. You can’t just buy an electric guitar. You will need an amp.

The most important point I can make with respect to an amp is that – budget notwithstanding – buy an amp that will fill the space that you will most like play. If it’s on stage, then you’ll need a bit of horsepower; especially if you won’t be miking the amp. But if you’re going to mostly play in your living space, a smaller amp will suffice.

As far as solid state vs. tubes are concerned… That’s a tough one. My personal inclination would be to go with a solid state amp like a Roland Cube or a hybrid like Line 6 DT series amp that runs on tubes but has modeling. These will get you “flavors” of the major tube amps, and that’s the important thing to note about tube amps. Each different major line: Fender, Marshall, Vox, and Mesa have specific tonal characteristics, and you need to test each individual kind to find which one you like. With a good modeling amp such as the ones I mentioned, you can get a feel for what you like before you lay out the cash to buy a traditional tube amp. Truth be told, I gigged with my Roland Cube 60 for a few years, even though I had already purchased Fender Hot Rod (which, I will say is a great tube amp to start out with).

What about boutique amps? Well, truth be told, most boutique amps are modeled after vintage models of most major brands. Victoria amps based upon traditional Fender designs. Aracom (which I play) are based upon vintage Marshall designs. Two Rock and Ceriatone are built upon mystical Dumble amp specs (these were originally Fender, if I remember). In many cases, the boutique amps correct certain design flaws and inefficiencies in the original specs, or perhaps outright copies, but they maintain the basic tonal characteristics of the designs upon which they’re based. So you still have to play several before you make a decision. So a modeling amp will buy you time to discover what characteristics appeal to you.

4. Buy what sounds good to YOU

Lots of folks you talk to about recommendations for guitars will make lots of recommendations on what to buy. The prevailing advice I hear is to get a Strat first. That’s not necessarily a bad idea. Strats are great guitars. Hell! I have three, and I also started out with a Strat based upon a recommendation from a friend. At the time, it was a great choice because I was playing almost all clean. But if I had to do it all over again, knowing what I know now, I don’t think I’d start with a Strat. I’d probably start with a Les Paul or some other humbucker-equipped guitar. I just prefer the fatter tone of humbuckers – always have. Irrespective of that, I would take a lot more time in making my choice to discover what’s appealing to me. Sure, I’d welcome the advice of others, but I’d ultimate make a decision based upon my own investigations.

5. Good tone can be achieved at any price…

Or, worded more directly. Just because you pay a higher price doesn’t guarantee that it sounds good. I’ve played lots of different guitars; some that reach into the 5-figures in cost. But that doesn’t mean the high-priced stuff sounded good to me. In fact, I have a few guitars that I paid well under $1000 that are absolute tone monsters! Case in point: My Squier Classic Vibe Telecaster that I got for $250 brand new on sale. It’s a total rocker, and one of my favorite guitars to play and gig. It has a pine body and maple neck. The prevailing wisdom would be that it shouldn’t sound that good that cheap. But it’s one of the truly great guitars in my collection. And hell, if I ever mess it up, it won’t be difficult to replace.

On the flip side, I have other guitars, like my Les Pauls, that you just can’t get cheaply. From that perspective, for that tone, I’d be willing to pay the higher price.

The point to this is that good tone is good tone. Sometimes you have to pay a high price for it, sometimes you don’t. But know this: High price doesn’t equate to good tone.

6. What about pedals?

Most likely you’ll probably want to get some pedals after you’ve purchased your guitar and amp. But if this is your first one, don’t get roped into buying pedals – yet. That said, with a modeling amp like the Line 6 or Roland Cube, you can use the on-board effects to buy yourself some time to play with pedals. But in spite of that, choosing pedals is a touchy subject because there are literally THOUSANDS of pedals out there. Again, I’m not going to recommend specific brands (though a good starter brand is BOSS), but I will recommend that you start with modulation effects first such as reverb, delay, and perhaps chorus or vibe.

Overdrive and distortion pedals are really tough to decide upon because there are tons of them out there, each providing different characteristics. And especially with overdrive pedals, you have to play lots of them. Personally, because I’ve found my fundamental tone, I tend to go with transparent overdrives like my Timmy and my new love the EHX Soul Food. But it’ll take a bit of time to find what you really like.

7. Ignore the jargon and don’t drink the Kool-Aid

This kind of points back to item 4 above about getting what sounds good to you. But it’s easy to get hot and bothered by a good sales pitch, especially if the salesperson puts on a great demonstration. Remember, you can only sound like you, so my advice when you’re testing out a guitar at a shop is to find a place to plug in and play, and forget about the demo. For all you know, the neck might not feel very good in your hands or once you start playing, the tone isn’t quite what you were expecting.

This advice extends to online demos as well. You can use the online demos as a means to get a tonal “feel” for the guitar, but in the end you will not know how a guitar performs – or any gear for that matter – until you play it yourself.

8. Build materials… er… wood

I was going to avoid talking about this, but lots of people will talk about it when you discuss guitars that I thought I should at least make some mention of it. Many people you speak to about woods will sometimes try to make you think that the woods make all the difference in the world with respect to tone. But several recent studies on this subject indicate that the type of wood has no effect whatsoever on tone, only on decay.

Personally, I’m not sure what side of the fence I fall on as each of my guitars sound different, and while my Les Pauls sound completely different from each other, they have a fairly distinct “Les Paul” tone. Same goes for all of my Strats; they all sound like Strats to me. Is this due to the wood? I don’t know. But what I do know is that I only buy what I like to play and what I like to hear, and my decision really doesn’t have much to do with woods.

For instance, when I got “Katie May” from Perry Riggs at Slash L Guitars for review, I knew wouldn’t be returning it. It felt and sounded like it was made for me! I didn’t find out what it was made of until I was ready to write a review of her, and by that time, it didn’t matter if it was made of mahogany and hard-rock maple with a rosewood fretboard. It just played and sounded incredible.

As for that research, here’s an interesting video explaining the physics behind tone:

I probably could’ve just said, “Look, if you want to get an electric guitar, go and play a bunch and figure out what you like.” But I wanted to discuss some of the “edge cases” associated with buying a guitar that could contribute to you possibly making a choice you regret later that you could avoid if you were aware of some of the gotchas.

ROCK ON!

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