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Posts Tagged ‘Guitars’

I have to admit that I haven’t been too impressed with Fender’s offerings for quite awhile. I have three Strats and a Tele, but I haven’t seen anything coming out of Fender that got me really excited; that is, until now.

When I checked my email this morning, I saw one from Fender entitled, “Alternate Reality | The Powercaster.” At first, I rolled my eyes, but when I went to read the email, I was immediately intrigued by the body shape. I thought that it looked like a Jazzmaster or Jaguar. Then on closer inspection of the picture, I saw that it has a P90 in the neck and a humbucker in the bridge. The very first thing that came to my mind was: Rock Machine. So I decided to take a closer look.

So I went to the Powercaster product page. Maybe I shouldn’t have because now I want one of these!

Before I go on, here are the basic specs:

  • Alder body
  • Roasted maple neck (wood is roasted to remove all moisture)
  • Pau ferro fingerboard
  • Synthetic bone nut
  • 24.75″ scale length
  • 9.5″ neck radius
  • Modern “C” neck shape
  • Adjusto-matic bridge with hardtail
  • Comes in 3-color Sunburst, Surf Green and White Opal (it’s like a translucent grey)
  • Made in Mexico
  • Street price (so far): $899.00

One of the first things I noticed was the scale length and neck radius. Look familiar? It should because those are Les Paul neck specs. When I saw the scale length, I started salivating because the feel would be like a Les Paul. And being a Les Paul guy, I imagined that I would be right at home with this guitar.

After reviewing the Powercaster site, I went to the forums and gear blogs to see what others thought. The reviews were mixed. One person didn’t like the Tune-O-Matic style bridge (I actually would’ve preferred a more modern bridge like a Gotoh 510). Another didn’t like the thought that Powercaster didn’t have a “Fender” sound based on demos he saw. Another didn’t like the Gibson scale length.

Others like me, love the features. But the person who didn’t like the scale length also brought up a couple of valid points. First, they didn’t quite know who the target consumer of this guitar would be. He also pointed out that considering the price and where it’s made, the price point sits just below American-made prices. These are very valid points that I’m sure will need to be sussed out a bit more.

Personally, I think that this guitar is aimed at someone like me who doesn’t have a dogmatic perspective of brands; for instance, if something is branded Fender, then it has to have a Fender sound – whatever that is. I tend to judge gear based on their own merits, and I LOVE that P90/Humbucker combination! I also love that roasted maple neck because dry wood is very resonant. And as far as the price is concerned, while it’s about $150 more than other MIM guitars, I don’t think it’s really all that out of line.

Of course, while I’m excited by the features and possibilities this guitar has on offer, I need to get my hands on one and play it. But it sure shows a LOT of promise!

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The other day, I had about an hour to kill while I waited for my daughter to finish her appointment, and being near one of my favorite guitar shops (Guitar Showcase in San Jose, CA), I decided to swing by…

Being a Les Paul guy, I of course went to where they hung the LP historic models, and salivated over a gorgeous tea burst R8 (the burst was lighter than my own, and it had a subtle, but fantastic flame maple top). I picked it up, picked at it a bit, and smiled. What a guitar!

But then I thought about what I really “needed” – that’s a relative term, by the way – and thought that I’ve been after a bit heavier of an acoustic sound that bordered more along the lines of an electric; something that I could bring to my solo acoustic gigs in addition to my acoustic for those songs where I do a lot of chord comping (which I’ve been doing a lot of lately without really thinking about it).

So I asked myself, “Dawg, what about a Gretsch?” But I sold my last Gretsch, which was a thin body, 5120 Electromatic. Great guitar, but I just wasn’t playing it because it just didn’t have enough oomph for my solo gigs. Frankly, while I loved the guitar, it still sounded really electric, and would only work in my solo gigs at specific times.

So I figured that perhaps a thicker body Gretsch would give me a fuller tone. Now they had other hollow bodied guitars there, but for hollow bodies, I’ve always gravitated towards Gretsch. There’s a certain magic in the tone. So, perusing the Gretsch rack, I saw this orange guitar with dice knobs. I immediately knew that it was a Brian Setzer model.

Before I go on, one thing that kept me from getting a fuller sized Gretsch in the past was the weight. I almost sprung for a Country Gentleman a few years back, but it was heavier than my Les Paul, and I didn’t want a lot of weight; especially with my solo gigs. But all that changed when I picked up 6120SSLVO. It was amazingly light – apparently under 8 lbs. – and that put a smile on my face. I knew then that I had to take it out for a spin. So I asked the salesman for a strap and a cord, then hooked up to a PRS combo set to clean.

From the first chord I played, I thought to myself that I could do an entire solo gig with this guitar alone! It played like butter (the guys in the shop must’ve set it up). The neck was absolutely perfect, and the action was nice and low but not so low that there was a sting buzz.

And the sound? Wow! At first I was a bit concerned that the tone was controlled via a simple three-way switch. But I realized as I played that I didn’t need an analog sweep knob to set the tone. The three positions worked just fine, and I could get a brighter tone simply by switching pickups. Strumming the guitar with just the neck pickup produced a deep, gorgeous, natural, woody ringing tone that I felt was perfect for many of the folk-rock numbers that I do. And for the more contemporary tunes where I do a lot of chord comping, I could easily flip a couple of switches and twiddle the pickup balance in the middle selector to get that classic hollow body tone. Simply wonderful.

As for playability, I’ve seen online that there were concerns about the 9.5″ radius nut and the bridge saddles set up for 12″, which would make the outside strings a bit higher than the middle strings. Frankly, I had no idea about this issue when I played the guitar, and quite honestly, I didn’t notice any string height issues when I was playing. At least for me, there was no noticeable impediment for me to work my way up and down the fretboard.

To say I’ve got GAS is an understatement. I’ve been trying to figure out what I have to sell to get this guitar; certainly none of my Les Pauls. I probably should hold on to at least one Strat. Or… maybe I’ll just suffer the GAS and save my pennies until I have enough to buy it. But it’s definitely my next target.

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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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imperialI just put down “Katie May,” the wonderful guitar I just reviewed from Perry Riggs’ Slash L Guitars. From the first time I plugged her in up to now, one of the most striking things about the guitar that I shared with Perry was the incredible tone and dynamics from the Lollar Imperials he installed. Having played Les Pauls for years, one thing I’ve become accustomed to is the “bloom” from the pickups when sustaining a note.

It’s hard to characterize exactly what “bloom” is and unfortunately it’s difficult so record. But when a pickup “blooms” I hear and feel it as a subtle change in character of the note being played. The overtones and harmonics seem to take over, creating a sweet-sounding tail-end to the note. With a Les Paul, the overall experience of the note is a distinctive “honk.” It was a very pleasant surprise to hear the Lollars do that.

Apparently, the Imperials are PAF-style pickups, and from what I’ve been able to gather from other sources, many people have found them to be great replacements to the BurstBuckers in their Les Pauls. After my experience with them, I’d tend to agree with that. But we’re talking about Katie May, and in Katie May – excuse the cliche – they’re a match made in heaven!

One thing that is notably different in the Imperials compared to BurstBuckers is the smooth top-end. There’s just enough high-end sparkle to provide a great balance to the tight low-end these pickups produce, but it’s not ice-pick sharp. I wouldn’t call them warm which, especially with a Les Paul, often translates to a muddy tone in the neck. The Imperials, on the other hand, whether in neck or bridge are extremely balanced. Of course, the neck pickup is warmer than the bridge pickup; that’s to be expected. But it’s not muddy as this clip illustrates:

For more clips, check out the review of Katie May.

This is a simple riff but what I wanted to demonstrate with it is that while there is a definite emphasis on the low-end, it isn’t so much that it muddies the tone. When I hit the lower strings, you can hear the notes clearly.

Another incredible thing about the Imperials is their incredibly wide dynamic range and sensitivity. For instance, I can set an amp at the edge of breakup, set the volume on the guitar at about halfway, and easily roll overdrive up and down, setting it to exactly the amount that I need. Could be the pots that Perry has used. Volume changes are very even throughout the entire sweep of the pot. Irrespective of that though, the pickups respond beautifully.

Having been around gear a long time, there seems to be a lot focus on tone woods when talking about guitars. Make no mistake about it, tone woods are important, but pickups are a huge factor in tone and I find that they’re often overlooked. I liken them to tires on a car. You have to have the right tires for the car. If you don’t, not only will they look funny, they’ll affect the performance. You wouldn’t put passenger tires on a Ferrari, would you? Or you wouldn’t waste money on Z-rated tires for your Nissan Versa (maybe a “ricer” would – worst I saw was a whale tail on a Corolla – but that’s an entirely different topic). So it is with pickups. You can have an absolutely gorgeous guitar that sounds like crap due to the pickups. I got lucky with my R8 which has BurstBuckers. I love ’em in that guitar, but I’ve played some LPs that sound horrid with the same pickups! The point to this is if you have a match between guitar and pickups, your world will be right. With Katie Mae, because of how she plays, I could sit with her all day long and never get tired of how she feels. Add to that the awesome sound of the Lollar Imperials, and all is right in the world!

 

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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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This morning, I was taking stock of gear that I hadn’t played in a awhile, and saw my little ’58 Fender Champ sitting on my workbench. I hadn’t played it for several months. So I hooked it up, and started playing. Now mind you, I’ve had some serious work done on it. I had to have the leaky caps replaced, and I had the amp set up with an A/B switch so I could bypass the stock, internal speaker and use a different speaker cabinet if I wanted. Plus, my good buddy, Jeff Aragaki lent me a custom tweed cabinet that he built that houses a Weber 10″ Alnico speaker.

After getting it all hooked up (I ran the amp into a 1 X 12 with a Jensen Jet Falcon speaker), one thing struck me right away after playing my Strat through it. To me, this is THE classic Tweed sound. But it is also the perfect platform to record completely raw signal, then tweak, which has been done in lots of studios over the years, as a Champ was used to record all sorts of rock and roll.

Take, for instance the following recording:

This was recorded straight into my computer with no EQ, no nothin’ attached. It’s a clean, dry signal that simply captures the tone of my Strat. But apply some reverb and delay effects, some compression, EQ, and that plain signal becomes something else entirely. Here’s the same track, but this time, I’ve textured it with reverb, delay, compression and EQ.

Had the compression make-up gain a little high, so there’s a tiny bit of clipping, but what I was able to get was a super-rich and full sound.

Even dirtied up, the Champ is simply a great platform. Here’s a raw clip of the Champ completely cranked up:

Again, this is simply a fantastic platform from which to shape the guitar sound. So, in this next clip (which again is the same track, but tweaked) I added some compression, reverb, a tiny bit of stereo delay and beefed up the lows with some Fat EQ:

It’s no surprise to me why so many studios have these Champs in their amp lineups.

As for gigging this bad boy, I always run it through speakers that have a good bottom-end response. What results is a nice, scooped tone – VERY American tone-wise.

Anyway, if you can find one of these, get it. Or you can get the ’57 Champ re-issue, which lots of players love. Me, I got mine for $700 (that’s the actual picture of the amp above), and spent roughly $200 on getting the caps replaced and putting in some NOS tubes. Still comes out under the price of the ’57 reissue.

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…We know it’s good for us, but we don’t enjoy the taste.

That’s a corollary on a saying my cousin shared on Facebook: Truth is a bully we all pretend to like. It got me thinking about some feedback I gave to a young singer/songwriter this weekend on her playing, which was not very good. I first didn’t say it directly and simply said, “That’s a great song you’ve written. If you have a chart, I could accompany you, so you could focus on your singing and not have to think about the accompaniment.”

“I play just fine,” she said.

I replied, “Well… truth be told, some customers last week did mention that while they liked the song, they felt the piano playing was a bit choppy.” (That’s actually the truth; as a few asked me why I didn’t accompany her).

“To you, maybe,” she shortly replied, “I’m not here to be the brilliant musician.”

I said, “Look, you’re reading me completely wrong. I want to make you and your song look absolutely the best, and frankly, your playing is choppy, and you’d have a much better appeal if you had backup that’ll make you shine.”

She wasn’t having any of it. There was a bit more in the exchange that I’d rather not dive into, but I was really taken aback by the arrogance and total lack of humility. I do know one thing, having been performing for over 40 years, she’s in for some serious smack-down. I’ve encountered many performers like that over the years that operate off their own hubris. They get their bubble popped and it’s like their world comes crashing down around them.

Hell! I even operated like that years ago, thinking my own music was something special; only to get feedback from a pro that lyrically, it was cliche, and a lot of my musical phrasing was something that had been done hundreds of time over – in other words, it wasn’t very original. Yikes! I was crushed.

But as Sylvester Stallone said in the movie, Rocky Balboa, “It ain’t about how hard you hit, but about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward…” And that’s kind of the crux of this entry, dear readers.

We all tout wanting to be honest and receive honesty in return. But honesty is like taking cold medicine. Rarely do we enjoy the taste. But in the end, we actually do feel better. After having experienced that crushing review of my music, I just happened to watch Rocky Balboa and that saying shook me to the core, and I realized that a little humility goes a long, long way. It’s good to believe in ourselves and our abilities, but don’t let that belief turn into hubris. Besides, with humility, we give ourselves room to grow and get better.

After I got that feedback, it actually took me awhile to do some soul-searching – a couple of years, in fact. But I jumped on the horse again, so to say, and started writing again. This time ’round, I went at it with no particular goal in mind; just let the music and lyrics flow. Don’t have expectations of where I think my music should be. It it goes nowhere, that’s okay. But most importantly, really listen to the feedback. So as opposed to parading my music in front of friends and family first, none of my newest songs go out without a professional review from producers in the music industry who critique the songs on their structure, lyrics, and melody. As a result, I think I’ve become a much better writer.

It’s not that I’m following a formula that they prescribe. The reviewer I use the most stresses originality, and absolutely nails me on being cliche. But they are keen on flow and making sure my lyrics make sense. All in all, it has been a great growing experience.

Who knows where my music will go? I’ll be heading into the studio in the next couple of months to start recording and then I’ll get my album out. We’ll see where it goes from there…

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